Tag Archives: All-Star Game

World Series preview: Houston Astros vs. Los Angeles Dodgers — Another title drought ends

For the second straight season, we have a World Series consisting of two teams who have not won a championship in decades, with one team that has never won the Fall Classic. The Houston Astros, who are representing the American League after shutting out the New York Yankees 4-0 in Game 7 of the ALCS, have never won the World Series since entering the league in 1962 (as the Colts .45’s). This is just their second World Series appearance, having been swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005. On the National League side the Los Angeles Dodgers are playing in their 20th World Series, but it’s their first since 1988 when they won their sixth title. They advanced to the World Series with a 11-1 win over the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of the NLCS.

Both teams finished the regular season with two of the three best records in MLB during the regular season. The Astros won 101 games, which was the third-highest total in the league, three behind the Dodgers’ MLB-best 104 wins. This is the first time since 1970 (and eighth time overall) that two teams that won more than 100 games during the season are meeting in the World Series. For the first time, the team with the better record has home-field advantage, giving the Dodgers Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at home. If the old rule — the winning league in the All-Star Game gets home-field advantage — was still in effect, the Astros would have home-field thanks to the AL’s win in July.

Games 1 and 2 are at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday with first pitch scheduled for 8:09pm. After a travel day Thursday, the series moves to Minute Maid Park in Houston for Games 3-5 set for Friday through Sunday. First pitch for Games 3 and 4 is at 8:09pm, with Game 5 (if necessary) set to begin at 8:16pm. If the series goes beyond five games, Games 6 and 7 are back in Los Angeles on October 31 and November 1, respectively. First pitch of Game 6 would be 8:09pm with Game 7 getting underway at 8:10pm, if it’s played. All games are on Fox in the U.S., and all times are Eastern.

How did they get here?

After winning the AL West by 21 games, the Astros began their postseason run by beating the AL East champion Boston Red Sox, 3-1, in an ALDS before beating the East’s second-best team, the Yankees, in an ALCS that went the distance, with the home team winning all seven games. The Dodgers ended the regular season as NL West champions, winning the division by 11 games, then swept the division-rival Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-game NLDS. They then beat the defending World Series champion Cubs, 4-1, in a NLCS that was a rematch of last year’s series. Through their first two series of the postseason, the Dodgers have played just one game over the minimum.

Pitching

Some of the game’s best pitchers are in this series, with two of them scheduled to kick off the series on Tuesday. The Astros send 14-game winner Dallas Keuchel to the mound in Game 1 to face potential NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who went 18-4 during the season. Game 2’s pitching matchup has Justin Verlander — who has been stellar since the Astros acquired him from the Detroit Tigers on August 31 — going up against Rich Hill for the Dodgers. The teams haven’t announced their starters yet beyond that, but the Astros are expected to go with Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. for their other two starters, with the Dodgers expected to use Yu Darvish, who they acquired at the July 31 trade deadline, and Alex Wood.

I give the Astros a slight advantage in starting pitching. Kershaw may be the best pitcher of the bunch — though Verlander’s 9-0 record and 1.23 ERA (including the postseason) since joining the Astros may have something to say about that — but I think the Astros have the better rottion overall. Verlander and Keuchel are a strong 1-2 at the top and the way McCullers pitched in the ALCS makes it seem like he’s healthy and has his stuff back, making him a better No. 3 in my mind than what the Dodgers have. Morton could be an X-factor. If he can have another start like he had in Game 7 against the Yankees, he would be a solid No. 4 for the Astros.

There’s no question the Dodgers have the advantage in the bullpen. During the season, they had the fourth-best ERA in the majors at 3.38, while the Astros ranked 17th with a 4.27 ERA. The difference is even more distinct in the postseason, with the Dodgers bullpen leading the pack with a 0.94 ERA. The Astros’ 5.03 ERA out of the bullpen ranks seventh out of the 10 postseason teams. Having RP Kenley Jansen in the closer role at the end of the game should give the Dodgers more confidence he’ll be able to close out games than the Astros have in their closer, RP Ken Giles.

Offense

The Astros had the best offense in the majors during the regular season. Among the offensive categories in which they led MLB were hits (1,581), doubles (346), RBI (854), average (.282), OBP (.346), slugging percentage (.478), OPS (.823), OPS+ (127) and strikeouts (1,087). They were also second to the Yankees in home runs. 2B Jose Altuve, who I think should win the AL MVP award, led the majors in hits for the fourth straight year and batting average for the third straight season. He also had 24 home runs, which tied his career high. Overall, the Astros had 11 players with double-digit home runs. OF George Springer led the team with 34, and SS Carlos Correa and utilityman Marwin Gonzalez — who led the team with 90 RBI — also had more than 20 home runs. The offense did go through a bit of a slump in the ALCS, including OF Josh Reddick going hitless until Game 7, but they scored 11 runs in the final two games of the season and it appears as though they are back to how they were during the regular season. In 11 games this postseason, the Astros are hitting .247 with 12 home runs.

The Dodgers didn’t have nearly as potent of an offense during the regular season, finishing outside of the top 10 in home runs and in the bottom third of the majors with a .249 average. Rookie 1B Cody Bellinger led them with 39 home runs, with OF Yasiel Puig behind him at 28. Their power was more top-heavy, with eight guys hitting at least 10 home runs and six of them at 21 or more. 3B Justin Turner led the team with a .322 average and 1B Chris Taylor was at .288 during the season; Turner and Taylor each hit 21 regular-season home runs. In the postseason, the Dodgers are hitting .273 with 13 home runs in eight games.

Now that it appears the Astros are out of their slump they were in at the start of the ALCS, I think they have the offensive advantage.

Defense

Although the Astros made some nice plays in the ALCS, the Dodgers are a better defensive team statistically. During the regular season, the Dodgers made 88 errors compared to 99 for the Astros. In the postseason, the Dodgers’ two errors are half of the four committed by the Astros.

Managers

A.J. Hinch, the 2015 AL Manager of the Year, is in his third season managing the Astros and fifth season overall as a manager. The 2016 NL Manager of the Year Dave Roberts is in his third season as a major-league manager, second with the Dodgers. Both are managing in their first World Series.

Prediction

I expect this to be a close series. One concern for the Dodgers is SS Corey Seager, who was left off of the NLCS roster as he dealt with a back injury. He is expected to be on the World Series roster and ready to play in Game 1 on Tuesday, but you have to wonder if he is at full health. I think the Astros have the advantage in starting pitching — assuming McCullers can pitch as well as he did in the ALCS — and on offense, where there’s no easy spot in the lineup for opposing pitchers to face. I’m going against the “pitching beats offense in the postseason” adage and the Dodgers having home-field advantage, but I think the Astros offense will be able to put runs on the board against Dodger pitching and will fulfill the prophecy predicted by Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter in 2014.

Astros in seven.

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MLB Weekly: Midseason analysis, All-Star Game preview

Looking Back

The MLB Weekly takes a look at what teams are underperforming and overperforming at the all-star break and previews the All-Star Game.

With the all-star break upon up this week, we’ve reached the unofficial halfway point of the 2017 MLB season, even though all 30 teams have played more than half of their 162 games. So this is a good time to take a look at what the standings look like and see what teams appear to be contenders for playoff spots and which teams seem to be just playing out the string for the remainder of the regular season.

The Astros and Dodgers hold the best records in the American and National leagues, respectively. The Astros have a seemingly insurmountable lead in the AL West, 15.5 games ahead of the second-place Rangers entering Sunday. I picked the Astros to win the division  in my preseason preview but didn’t expect them to perform this well. I thought they would win around 90 games, but they’re already at 59 wins with 74 games remaining. If they just go 32-42 the rest of the way, they’ll surpass that 90-win prediction. And they’re doing it all with their ace Dallas Keuchel on the disabled list for the past month. He is expected back shortly after the break and, if healthy, can provide a major boost to a team that is already one of the best squads in the majors. The Astros are for real and barring any major injuries the rest of the way should be able to play deep into October.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, hold a 6.5-game lead over the Diamondbacks in the NL West. They have come on strong in recent weeks as the D-backs and Rockies have faltered after fast starts. The play of rookie OF Cody Bellinger has helped propel the Dodgers to the top of the division. He has hit a team-best 25 home runs in 69 games since being brought up from the minors. Meanwhile 3B Justin Turner is hitting .375 on the season. In addition to getting strong pitching from perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers are getting a surprisingly good performance out of SP Alex Wood this season. He is having a career year with a 10-0 record and a 1.67 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 80.2 innings. While there is more competition in the National League than the American League, the Dodgers look like they have the type of offense and pitching and could set them up for a long playoff run.

Perhaps the most surprising division is the NL Central, where the defending World Series champion Cubs are a game under .500 and 4.5 games behind the division-leading Brewers, who won 34 fewer games than the Cubs last season. 1B Eric Thames is having a breakout season, with 23 home runs so far. On the mound, the Brewers aren’t getting particularly strong pitching out of their rotation, but closer Corey Knebel has posted a 1.76 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 41 innings while recording 13 saves. For the Cubs, they are getting disappointing seasons from guys like 3B Kris Bryant and 1B Anthony Rizzo who were among the key pieces that led to ending the team’s infamous championship drought in 2016. And the disappointments extend to the starting rotation, with SPs Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta sporting ERAs of 3.94 and 4.35, respectively. The Cubs clearly aren’t a 108-win team like they were last season, but they’re also better than being around a .500 team so you can expect them to improve their record in the second half of the season. The question is will they be able to make up the deficit the Brewers have opened up. And the Cardinals are also lurking, currently just a game back of the Cubs. If the Brewers don’t add a starting pitcher before the trade deadline, I think they can be caught in the second half, especially if the Cubs get their act together.

The AL Central is essentially a three-team race, with three games separating the first-place Indians from the Twins and Royals. Of those three, I think the Indians are by far the best team and will likely hang out to win the division. The Twins were outperforming everyone’s expectations early in the season, but I think they’re going to fall further behind the Indians. And I don’t think the Royals have enough to keep up with the Indians through September. I don’t think the Indians have a good enough team to return to the World Series, though.

The Nationals hold an 8.5-game lead over the Braves in the NL East and, barring a major collapse, they should easily win the division. They’re similar to the Dodgers in that they have a couple of big hitters and OF Bryce Harper and 2B Daniel Murphy and good starting pitching with SPs Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, but their Achilles heel is the bullpen. The ineptitude of the Nats’ relievers has been well-documented this season and if they don’t make a trade for a good closer, the bullpen could prevent them from going far in the postseason. If they had a top-end closer, they would probably be my pick to make it to the World Series in the National League, but with the bullpen as it stands now that’s not the case.

The Red Sox lead the AL East with the Yankees and Rays 3.5 games and 4.5 games behind them, respectively. The Yankees have been falling in the standings over the last couple of weeks while the Red Sox are rolling. Yankees OF Aaron Judge is a star, but I don’t think the Yankees have enough pitching to catch the Red Sox. No Yankee starter has a sub-3.50 ERA and RP Dellin Betances has not looked good in recent appearances. If the Yankees don’t trade for a starting pitcher who can slot into the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the rotation, they’ll be out of the race in the division. And I don’t think the Rays are for real. They’ll likely fall back in the standings over the coming weeks. I expect the Red Sox to ultimately win the division.

As for the wild cards, I think the Yankees and Royals are the frontrunners in the American League, while both National League wild cards will almost surely come out of the West. With the Dodgers looking like favorites to win that division, I think the Diamondbacks and Rockies get the wild cards. All the other contenders in the NL are too far back and have too much ground they would have to make up.

The Week Ahead

Stanton HRD

After Sunday’s action, there are no regular-season games until Friday after the all-star break ends. Before then, there’s the Home Run Derby on Monday and the All-Star Game on Tuesday so let’s break down those exhibitions.

They’re using a bracket format for the derby, with defending champion Marlins OF Giancarlo Stanton as the top seed in his home ballpark. He’ll face Yankees C Gary Sanchez in the first round. Other first-round matchups include Royals 3B Mike Moustakas taking on Twins 3B Miguel Sano, Bellinger against Rockies OF Charlie Blackmon, and Judge facing Marlins 1B Justin Bour. I expect Stanton, Sano, Bellinger and Judge to get past the first round.

That would set up semifinal matchups of Stanton against Sano and Bellinger versus Judge. I would give Stanton and Judge the advantage in those matches, giving us the finals that most people want to see — No. 1 seed Stanton versus No. 2 seed Judge. Both of those guys can hit the ball out of the park, but I think Judge would end up winning.

As for the All-Star Game itself, I think the American League has the better starting lineup as far as position players go, with the likes of Judge and Astros 2B Jose Altuve and OF George Springer, but I give the edge in pitching to the National League. With Kershaw, Scherzer and Strasburg leading the starting pitchers on the roster and two of the season’s best closers in Rockies RP Greg Holland and Dodgers RP Kenley Jansen, that pitching staff will be hard to beat. Good pitching typically beats good hitting, so I’ll take the NL to win the game.

And looking ahead to next weekend, the top series to look forward to when MLB resumes regular-season games on Friday are the Orioles hosting the Cubs in a battle of teams looking to stay alive in their divisions, the Yankees visiting the Red Sox in an important AL East battle.

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My updated MLB All-Star Game ballot at the end of May

We’ve reached the end of May, which is sometimes considered the first checkpoint of the Major League Baseball season, as it is now about a third over. It has also been nearly a month since the league opened up balloting for this year’s All-Star Game. When the ballot was released, I posted my way-too-early selections for the all-star teams, but as we now have another few weeks of stats to look at, it’s time to take a second look at who should play in Miami on July 11.

Some of my selections have changed since last time, and for those positions I have noted in parentheses who I originally picked at those positions. Now, here are my picks for the American League and National League all-star teams. All stats are through Tuesday and don’t include Wednesday’s games.

American League

1B Yonder Alonso, A’s (Miguel Cabrera): I switched from the Tigers’ Cabrera, who’s not having a typical season that we have come to expect from him, to Alonso because the 30-year-old is having a career year. He is hitting nearly .300 and has already surpassed his career home-run total, crossing over into double-digits for the first time.
2B Jose Altuve, Astros (Jonathan Schoop): I gave the Orioles’ Schoop the nod early on because Altuve got off to a relatively slow start, but he has since put some distance between the two of them in batting average, hitting more than 40 points better than Schoop. It was a close call between Altuve and the Yankees’ Starlin Castro, but Altuve gets the nod because I think he’s more likely to keep it up as the season goes on.
SS Carlos Correa, Astros (Francisco Lindor): Yet another switch here. You can’t go wrong with either Correa or the Indians’ Lindor, but again it’s the batting average difference that gives Correa the edge to me. He’s well above .300, compared to Lindor being around .275. Lindor has a slight edge in home runs, but it’s not enough to make up the difference in average.
3B Miguel Sano, Twins: I’m sticking with Sano here. He is having, by far, the best season at the position, hitting close to .300 with 12 home runs for a team that is outperforming most people’s expectations.
C Salvador Perez, Royals: Offensive expectations are lower at catcher than other positions, and Perez is having a good season at the plate, with one of the higher batting averages at the positions and leading the group in home runs.
DH Corey Dickerson, Rays (Nelson Cruz): The Mariners’ Cruz is having a good season, but Dickerson’s average is significantly higher in more at-bats than Cruz has had this season. Dickerson’s average is bound to come down closer to his .288 career number, but he’s hitting now so I’ll give him the credit for what he’s done.
OF Aaron Judge, Yankees; George Springer, Astros; Mike Trout, Angels (Khris Davis): Springer replaces Davis, of the A’s, because Davis’ batting average is too low to continue getting my vote. He has 16 home runs but is hitting just .226. I’ll take Springer’s .265 with 13 home runs over that. Judge is continuing the torrid pace of his rookie season, hitting well over .300 with 17 home runs. Trout was having another good season until he broke his thumb sliding into second base over the weekend. He’s on the DL for the first time in his career and will be out six to eight weeks, which means he won’t be able to play in the game. I’ll keep him on my ballot anyway since he deserves it — to this point — but that’ll likely change next time I make my picks.

al-allstars2

My second ballot for the American League all-star team.

National League

1B Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: Zimmerman is continuing to rake while the Brewers’ Eric Thames‘ power production has tailed off. Zimmerman is having a great season, and he is definitely deserving of the vote here.
2B Daniel Murphy, Nationals: I’m sticking with Zimmerman’s teammate here because he’s hitting .326 and leading the league in home runs among second basemen. He’s the top choice here.
SS Zack Cozart, Reds (Corey Seager): There’s no standout here, but I switched away from the Dodgers’ Seager because Cozart is having the better overall season at the plate. They have the same number of home runs, but Cozart’s average is much higher than Seager’s.
3B Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks: Lamb continues to have the best season among NL third basemen, leading the group with 14 home runs and batting .283, which is among the best averages at the position.
C Buster Posey, Giants (Jett Bandy): I went away from the unexpected candidate in the Brewers’ Bandy to the perennial all-star contender in Posey because the latter is having a better season. Its close in home runs, but Posey has the definite edge in batting average.
DH With no DH in the National League, fans don’t get to vote for one.
OF Charlie Blackmon, Rockies; Bryce Harper, Nationals; Marcell Ozuna, Marlins (Matt Kemp): Ozuna slots into the spot where I had the Braves’ Kemp on my original ballot. While Kemp is keeping his numbers up better than I expected, Ozuna’s extra power gives him the edge in my opinion. Harper is an obvious choice, hitting .328 with 15 home runs, and Blackmon is having one of the best offensive seasons in the NL, regardless of position.

nl-allstars2

My second ballot for the National League all-star team.

Starting pitchers are not on the ballot and are chosen by the all-star managers, but I’m sticking with the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel in the AL and switching from Gio Gonzalez to Nationals teammate Max Scherzer in the NL.

Stay tuned for more ballot updates as the season progresses.

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MLB Weekly: Nationals continue to roll, more pitchers head to the DL

Looking Back

The Nationals continue to roll with the best record in the majors while the Rangers and Indians put big-name starters on the DL in this week’s MLB Weekly.

The Nationals got bad news last week, with OF Adam Eaton suffering a season-ending injury, but that hasn’t put an end to their winning ways. Entering Sunday they have the best record in Major League Baseball at 21-9; they’re 7-3 in their last 10, and their four-game win streak is tied for the longest active streak in the majors. They’ve opened up a 6.5-game lead in the NL East.

They’re winning despite having one of the worst bullpens in the majors, with their 5.32 bullpen ERA ranking as the fifth-worst in the majors and opponents hitting at a .266 clip against their relievers. The Nationals’ 4 blown saves put them near the middle of the league. The bullpen’s 10 saves have been split between five pitchers, which isn’t a good sign. RPs Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley are tied for the team lead with 3 saves apiece despite holding a 9.00 ERA and a 5.40 ERA, respectively (Kelley was placed on the 10-day disabled list this week).

On the other side of the spectrum, the hitting has been fantastic. The Nats’ offense ranks first in the majors in batting average, OPS, hits, doubles and RBI, while their 48 home runs place them second, behind the Brewers. Individually, 1B Ryan Zimmerman is leading the team with a .435 average and MLB-leading 13 home runs, and OF Bryce Harper — who has sat out the last couple of games with a groin problem — is hitting .376 with 9 home runs. Even their worst-hitting regular, OF Jayson Werth, is at a .264 average with 3 home runs in his first 26 games of the season.

The starting pitching is doing all right, with a 3.63 ERA and 15-5 record through 30 games. Their 172 strikeouts are the sixth-most in the majors, and opponents are hitting .235 against the starters, the best mark in the National League and third-best in the majors. It is SP Gio Gonzalez leading the rotation, with a 1.64 ERA through six starts. SP Max Scherzer leads with the team with 51 strikeouts in 40.2 innings, and his 2.66 ERA ties him with SP Stephen Strasburg for the second-best ERA in the team’s rotation.

Elsewhere in MLB, the injuries keep piling up with this week’s injury report highlighted by a couple of big-name pitchers being placed on the DL by teams who had high hopes of making the playoffs before the season started. The longer-term of the two looks to be Rangers SP Cole Hamels, who is expected to miss at least eight weeks with a strained right oblique muscle. That timeframe means he is likely to be out until after the all-star break in mid-July. That is not a good sign for a team that is trying to win the AL West for the third straight year. Even before Hamels’ injury, the Rangers were not performing to the expectations people had for them. After Saturday’s action, they’re five games under .500 and seven games behind the Astros in the division.

The other notable starting pitcher who went on the 10-day disabled list this week was Indians SP Corey Kluber, who is dealing with a stiff lower back. His injury isn’t as serious as Hamels’, and the Indians will test him before Monday’s game with the Blue Jays before determining a timeline for his return. He’ll be eligible to return to the squad next weekend, although he may need more time than that to fully recover and come off the DL.

Updating previous injury news, Mets SP Noah Syndergaard won’t throw for at least six weeks as he recovers a from a partially torn lat muscle. Although the Mets haven’t given a timetable for how long he is expected to be out, a typical recovery for this type of injury lasts about three to six months, so he won’t take the mound for a while, and possibly not again this season. He’ll be placed on the 60-day DL soon.

Other players placed on the DL this week include Orioles RP Zach Britton (left forearm strain), who was activated off the DL earlier in the week, Marlins SPs Wei-Yin Chen (left arm fatigue) and Edinson Volquez (right thumb blister), Dodgers 1B Adrian Gonzalez (right elbow soreness), Mariners SP James Paxton (left forearm strain), Mets C Travis d’Arnaud (bruised right wrist), White Sox RP Nate Jones (right elbow inflammation), A’s RP Sean Doolittle (left shoulder strain) and Yankees 1B Greg Bird (right ankle bruise).

The Week Ahead

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The featured series for the first half of the week is actually a couple of two-game series back-to-back as the Nationals take on the Orioles in a battle of the Beltway. The teams begin in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday before heading to D.C. to complete the four-game set on Wednesday and Thursday. The Cubs head to Denver for three games against the Rockies starting Monday in a battle of division leaders. The White Sox and Twins look to keep pace in the competitive AL Central with their three-game series in Chicago starting Tuesday. Heading into next weekend, the top two teams in the American League meet in the Bronx when the AL East-leading Yankees host the Astros for a Thursday-Sunday series, with Sunday’s game featuring the jersey retirement of former Yankees SS Derek Jeter. The Angels host the Tigers for four beginning on Thursday, and the Rockies host the Dodgers in a four-game set as two of the NL West’s best do battle. The Indians host the Twins starting Friday in another key AL Central series, and in the NL Central longtime rivals meet in St. Louis when the Cubs come to town to play the Cardinals starting Friday.

The pitching performances to look for in the first half of the week include Orioles SP Kevin Gausman, who was controversially ejected in the second inning of his last start against the Red Sox, taking the mound Monday in the series opener with the Nationals, and Yankees SP Masahiro Tanaka goes for his fifth straight win against Reds SP Rookie Davis. Yankees SP CC Sabathia looks to return to how he was pitching in his first three starts of the season, not the last three, when he throws Tuesday against Reds SP Tim Adleman. Giants SP Jeff Samardzija opposes Mets SP Zack Wheeler at Citi Field that day, and a couple veterans meet in interleague play in Houston when SP Bartolo Colon leads the Braves against the Astros and SP Charlie Morton, who has pitched surprisingly well so far this season. Wednesday, Rays SP Chris Archer follows up  the 11-strikeout performance from his last start when he pitches against Royals SP Jason Hammel

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My 2nd annual way-too-early MLB All-Star Game ballot

We’re barely a month into the 2017 Major League Baseball season and the league, as it has done in recent years, has already released the ballot for July’s All-Star Game, allowing people to vote up to 35 times per day per email address, all so the league can boast about how many ballots are cast by the time voting ends in the summer. As I said last year, I’m not a fan of allowing this excessive voting, but it is what it is. At least MLB has fixed the other major issue I had with the game: the All-Star Game no longer determines which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. Per the new collective bargaining agreement, which was agreed to in the offseason, home-field advantage will now go to the World Series participant that has the better regular-season record — as it should be.

Even though I feel it’s too early to vote on all-stars in early May, since MLB is allowing people to do it already, I’ll make my preliminary choices for both the all-stars in both the American and National leagues, with updated ballots in the coming weeks — as the all-star picture becomes clearer — as we get closer to the game July 11 in Miami. And as MLB begins releasing the balloting results, I’ll critique how the fans are doing in making their choices.

American League

1B Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: He’s not leading the league in batting average or home runs, but he’s having one of the best all-around seasons at the plate among AL first basemen, so I’ll give Miggy the nod here.
2B Jonathan Schoop, Orioles: Schoop is hitting near .300 and is near the top of the league in home runs and RBI at the position and he’s on a team that has one of the best records in the majors.
SS Francisco Lindor, Indians: LIndor is performing well offensively at a position that lacks offensive output. He leads AL shortstops in homers and RBI, and he’s hitting above .300. Lindor is an easy choice here.
3B Miguel Sano, Twins: He’s finally hitting for average to go along with the power he has shown throughout his career. This was a toss-up between Sano and the Indians’ Jose Ramirez, but Sano has slightly better numbers so he gets my vote.
C Salvador Perez, Royals: Perez is having the best overall season at a position that isn’t traditionally strong offensively. He earns my vote behind the plate.
DH Nelson Cruz, Mariners: He’s having a great season offensively and none of the other options at DH really come close to his stats thus far in the season. An easy selection for me.
OF Khris Davis, A’s; Aaron Judge, Yankees; Mike Trout, Angels: Davis and Judge are two of the only players in the majors who has already reached the 10-homer plateau on the season. Davis’ average isn’t great but the home runs are enough to give him my vote, while Judge is hovering around the .300 mark as he is making a case to win the AL Rookie of the Year award. Trout, meanwhile, doesn’t have quite as many home runs as the other guys, but he’s hitting well over .300 and is having a typical Mike Trout season, which is usually good enough for an all-star selection.

2017al-1

My first American League all-star ballot of 2017

National League

1B Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: The veteran first baseman is among the league leaders in many offensive categories. Brewers 1B Eric Thames has obviously hit a lot of home runs thus far, as well, but I need to see more from him before completely buying into it. Zimmerman is the choice here.
2B Daniel Murphy, Nationals: Zimmerman’s teammate is continuing the strong offensive attack he’s been on since the 2015 postseason, when he was with the Mets. He gets my vote for NL second baseman.
SS Corey Seager, Dodgers: There is no real standout at the position, but Seager is the best of the bunch as he continues with another good season to follow-up his strong rookie campaign of a season ago.
3B Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks: The usual suspects, like Cubs 3B Kris Bryant and Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado, aren’t having their typical seasons, opening up this spot for someone else to take. I’ll go with Lamb here because he’s having the best overall season at the plate of the third basemen.
C Jett Bandy, Brewers: I suspect this pick may change as we get closer to the All-Star Game, but Bandy is hitting for average and has a few home runs so he’ll get my pick at the position not known for its offense.
DH With no DH in the National League, fans don’t get to vote for one.
OF Charlie Blackmon, Rockies; Bryce Harper, Nationals; Matt Kemp, Braves: Harper is having one of the best seasons of all major leaguers, harkening back to his MVP season of 2015. He’s the obvious choice here, with Blackmon the second option for me. I didn’t see any clear choices for the third spot, so I gave it to Kemp, who’s doing surprisingly well so far in 2017. Like with Bandy, Kemp may fall off my ballot as time goes on, but I’ll give it to him for now.

2017nl-1

My first National League all-star ballot of 2017

Starting pitchers are not on the ballot and are chosen by the all-star managers, but I’ll go with a make my choices, with Dallas Keuchel of the Astros in the AL and the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez in the NL.

I’ll be updating the ballot as the season continues so keep checking back in for updates.

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The 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame class: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez

Due to a rule change several years ago, a player only has 10 years on the writers’ ballot to be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame before having to wait to potentially get inducted by the veterans’ committee. Since this was LF Tim Raines’ final year on the ballot, it was a make-or-break election for him. With 86% of the 442 ballots cast — well over the 75% needed — Raines was finally elected in the Hall of Fame this year with 380 votes. Also voted in by the writers this week are 1B Jeff Bagwell — who led all candidates with 86.2% of the vote, with his 381 votes edging Raines by one — and C Ivan Rodriguez, who netted 76% (336 votes) in his first year of eligibility. P Trevor Hoffman and RF Vladimir Guerrero fell just short of election, with 74% and 71.7% respectively. With those numbers, both are virtual locks to be elected in 2018. For comparison, Bagwell garnered 71.6% of the vote last year before vaulting up nearly 15% this year and Raines had 69.8% in 2016.

Jeff Bagwell spent his entire 15-year MLB career with the Astros after being traded to Houston in 1990 (for veteran P Larry Andersen) as a minor-leaguer while he was in the Red Sox organization. He earned National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1991 with a .294 batting average, 15 home runs and 82 RBI in 156 games. That marked the lowest full-season home-run total of his career as his power numbers increased throughout his time in the league, peaking at a career-high 47 home runs in 2000. He was voted NL MVP in the strike-shortened 1994 season, when he hit a career-best .368 with 39 home runs and a career-high 116 RBI in 400 at-bats over 110 games. His 116 RBI and 104 runs scored both led the National League that season. He was named to the NL All-Star team in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1999. Although he continued to put up decent home-run totals, his batting average started to decrease starting in 2001 as he started dealing with an arthritic right shoulder that eventually ended his career following the 2005 season.

Bagwell wasn’t just a power hitter — he could also steal bases, entering the 30-30 club in ’97, when he swiped a career-high 31 bases, and ’99. With 43 and 42 home runs, respectively, those years he actually was in even more rarified air in the 40-30 club. When his career ended, he had a .297 average and set Astros records with 449 home runs and 1,529 RBI in 2,150 regular-season games. He also had 202 steals and 1,401 walks by the time he called it a career. Before he hung up the cleats for good, though, he finally got to play in a World Series, playing in all four games of the Fall Classic when the White Sox swept the Astros.

Other honors Bagwell received during his career include a Gold Glove in ’94 and Silver Slugger awards in ’94, ’97 and ’99.

Tim Raines is most often associated with the Expos, with whom he spent the first 12 seasons of his career. He later spent five seasons with the White Sox, three with the Yankees and one in Oakland. After taking a year off in 2000, he returned in 2001, spending time with the Expos and Orioles (for four games) before joining the Marlins for his final season in 2002. He is known as a base-stealer, and for good reason; he is the most successful base-stealer — by percentage — in MLB history (min. 400 steals). He didn’t waste any time showing off his speed, notching 71 steals in his first full season of 1981, being caught just 11 times. He led the National League in steals for four straight seasons, from 1981-84, with a career-high 90 steals in 1983. He made the NL All-Star team in each of his first seven full seasons from 1981-87. His best offensive season came in 1986 when he led the NL with a .334 average and .413 OBP. The height of his power came the following year, when he swatted 18 home runs.

Raines earned a World Series ring in 1996, when he was part of the Yankees team that swept the Braves in the Fall Classic, the only time in his career that Raines made it to the World Series. He won a Silver Slugger award in 1986.

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is a rare catcher who excelled both at the plate and behind the plate. Rodriguez spent most of his 21-year career with the Rangers, also playing for the Marlins, Tigers, Yankees, Astros and Nationals for various lengths of time. Of the 2,543 games he played in his career, 2,427 were as a catcher — the most games behind the plate of any player in major-league history. His 14 all-star selections (1992-2001, 2004-07) and 13 Gold Gloves (1992-2001, 2004, 2006-07) also are the most all-time for the position.

Rodriguez was voted American League MVP in 1999, the best offensive season of his career when he hit .332 with 35 home runs, drove in 113 RBI and stole 25 bases. His 199 hits fell just shy of the 200-hit milestone. Defensively that season, he threw out 55% of potential base-stealers — that number topped the majors, one of nine seasons in which he led the majors in caught-stealing percentage. His best season in that category came in 2001, when he threw out 60% of runners who tried to steal a base against him. Back to the offense, he finished his career with 2,844 hits, which is the most in history for a major-leaguer who played at least 50% of his games as a catcher. HIs career batting average is .296, with 311 home runs and 1,332 RBI. He also stole 127 bases, which puts him near the top of the career list among catchers.

Rodriguez played in two World Series — winning it in 2003, his only season with the Marlins when they beat the Yankees in six games, and making it there again in 2006 with the Tigers, who lost to the Cardinals in five games. In addition to his MVP and 13 Gold Glove awards, Pudge won seven Silver Slugger awards (1994-99, 2004).

Also being inducted this year, who were voted in by the Today’s Game Era committee, are former team executive John Schuerholz and former commissioner and Brewers owner Bud Selig.

Percentages for other notable players on this year’s ballot include: DH Edgar Martinez, 58.6%; P Roger Clemens, 54.1%; LF Barry Bonds, 53.8%; P Mike Mussina, 51.8%; P Curt Schilling, 45.0%; OF Manny Ramirez, 23.8%

Players set to appear on the ballot for the first time in 2017 include P Chris Carpenter, OF Johnny Damon, P Livan Hernandez, CF Andruw Jones, 3B Chipper Jones, P Brad Lidge, OF Hideki Matsui, P Jamie Moyer, 3B Scott Rolen, P Johan Santana, 1B/DH Jim Thome and SS Omar Vizquel.

The 2017 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony is scheduled for July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

2016 World Series preview: Chicago Cubs vs. Cleveland Indians — A battle of the droughts

With the conclusion of the ALCS and NLCS, we have reached what may be the most anticipated World Series in quite some time with the Cleveland Indians, who haven’t won the World Series since 1948, taking on the Chicago Cubs, whose World Series-winning drought famously dates back more than a century to 1908, and their last World Series appearance taking place in 1945 — before the World Series was even televised.

Regardless of the lack of World Series success the teams have had in their respective histories, they both deserve to be in this year’s Fall Classic; the Cubs had a MLB-best 103 wins during the regular season, while the Indians’ 94 wins left them one victory behind the Rangers, giving them the second-best record in the American League. The Indians bulldozed their way through the American League playoffs, sweeping the Red Sox in the ALDS and beating the Blue Jays in the ALCS, losing just one game to win the series in five. The Cubs’ path to the World Series was a little more difficult; they needed four games to beat the Giants in the NLDS and the Dodgers took them to six games in the NLCS.

The American League won this year’s All-Star Game for the fourth straight season, giving the Indians home-field advantage in the World Series. As a result, Games 1 and 2 will be in Cleveland. Wrigley Field will host its first World Series game in 71 years on Friday when Game 3 takes place, with Games 4 and, if necessary, 5 following it over the weekend — assuming there are no weather issues that affect the schedule. If Games 6 and 7 are necessary, they are scheduled for Cleveland on Nov. 1 and 2, respectively. First pitch for all games, except Game 5 on Sunday, are scheduled for 8:08pm Eastern; first pitch Sunday is at 8:15pm Eastern. All games are on Fox in the U.S.

The Cubs have the advantage in the starting rotation, led by likely National League Cy Young winner SP Kyle Hendricks, who pitched 7.1 innings of 2-hit ball in Game 6 of the NLCS to clinch the pennant for the Cubs. During the regular season, Hendricks was 16-8 with a 2.13 ERA. SP Jon Lester also had a big season for the Cubs, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA. After a strong start to the season, SP Jake Arrieta was inconsistent in the second half en route to a 18-8 record and 3.10 ERA. If a fourth starter is needed in the series, the task would likely fall to veteran SP John Lackey, who is a two-time World Series champion, having won it with the 2002 Angels and 2013 Red Sox. Injuries have had an affect on the Indians’ rotation, with SPs Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar missing significant chunks of the season; Carrasco is out for the season, but Salazar has recently started throwing and could be added to the World Series roster. Leading the Tribe’s rotation is SP Corey Kluber, who led the team during the season with a 18-9 record to go with his 3.14 ERA. Behind him in the rotation are SP Josh Tomlin, who was 13-9 with a 4.40 ERA this season, and SP Trevor Bauer, who is confident he’ll be able to pitch in the World Series despite a well-publicized finger laceration caused by a recent drone accident. If Bauer can’t go, P Ryan Merritt may get his second start of the postseason; he went 4.1 scoreless innings in the Game 5 clincher.

While the Cubs have the better rotation, the bullpen advantage goes the other way, with the Indians. RP Andrew Miller, who was acquired from the Yankees in a midseason trade, was an X-factor in the ALCS and could be the same against the Cubs. He can come in in the middle of the game if needed or pitch later in the game to get the ball to closer Cody Allen with the lead intact. In six appearances in the postseason, Miller has struck out 21 batters in 11.2 innings while earning a win and a save and not allowing an earned run. Allen is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities this postseason. Like the Indians, the Cubs acquired a top-level reliever from the Yankees before the trade deadline, RP Aroldis Chapman, who saved 18 games for the Cubs during the regular season after the trade. His numbers in the postseason haven’t been great, however. Chapman has gone 8 innings, with 10 strikeouts and a 3.38 ERA. He is 1-0 and a has 3 saves in 5 opportunities. That’s not the way you want your closer to be pitching heading into the World Series.

Offense is another part of the game in which the Cubs have the edge.  OF Javier Baez has been leading the charge at the plate for the Cubs, with 13 hits in 38 at-bats, with 4 doubles, 1 home run and 2 steals. 3B Kris Bryant is right up there with Baez; he’s 13-for-39 with 5 doubles and 1 home run. 1B Anthony Rizzo and SS Addison Russell have underperformed in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Each of them is currently hitting under .200 so if they can get back to the offensive production the Cubs have come to expect from them, that would give the Cubs more of an offensive boost. For the Indians, SS Francisco Lindor is the sole regular hitting over .300; he has 10 hits in 31 at-bats, with 2 doubles and 2 home runs. Other key hitters, like 2B Jason Kipnis and 1B Mike Napoli have sub-.200 batting averages in the postseason. If they can’t get out of their slumps early in the series, don’t expect them to have much success against the Cubs’ stellar starting pitchers.

Neither team is lacking in the managerial department, with Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Indians skipper Terry Francona both considered among the best in the majors.

My preseason prediction for the World Series was the Blue Jays over the Cubs. Toronto fell just shy of making it, but the Cubs are in it. With the way the Cubs played all season and the strong starting pitching they’ve gotten in the postseason, I’m going to pick them to win their first World series title in 108 years. I think the series will go six games, which would mean the series would finish in Cleveland and the Cubs wouldn’t be able to celebrate the title at Wrigley.

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