Michael R. Stevens
Baseball Review 2016, Part 2
Editor's Note: This is the second installment of Michael R. Stevens' annual baseball extravaganza. Part 1, posted on Monday, reviewed three recent books that fans shouldn't miss—including an account of the infamous "pine tar game" of 1983 between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees.
My not-so-strategic delays with this spring training/opening day review have taken us almost six weeks into the season, a fair but fragile sampling. A number of things are certainly clear by this point: the Cubs are for real, maybe even better, and that despite the loss of Kyle Schwarber's Gehrig-like presence with the ACL tear. Bryce Harper is finally living up to his hype—wait a minute, he's still one of the youngest players in the league! Chris Sale can pitch, and his stuff is nasty enough to at least provoke a glance over the shoulder at Gibson's 1.12 ERA mark. A Chi-Town series with irresistible force meeting unhittable object? Wait, not so fast, Stevens! Will the Sox outrun the Royals in the AL Central? Will Baltimore run away with the AL East, buoyed by Manny Machado's charismatic swagger? Will the Mariners keep it up out west, sustaining their surprising start? Should the Cubs and Nats already start sharpening swords for a clash in the NLCS? And why can't I care about the NL West—wait, I just got a D'Backs ballcap at a garage sale for free—is it an augury?!
How to sort out all these imponderables? I can answer that with a single number: 1983. Yes, the pine tar incident is our talisman to understand where this present season is heading, and so I have dredged up the opening-day rosters from that fabled (or not-so-fabled) season now 33 years past, to use as palimpsest for predicting.
Let's start in the NL East, where the Nationals began in torrid fashion, with Bryce Harper offering an apocalyptic week of homeruns (including pinch hit shots) to buoy up the boys, though they've staggered a bit lately. I've always liked Dusty Baker as a skipper, so the Nats should stay solid, and the one-two punch of Max Scherzer (joining the 20 Strikeouts in Nine Innings Club) and Stephen Strasburg is formidable, but their solid #3 starter, Jordan Zimmerman, is now excelling on the Tigers, and the pressure of expectations can impinge. Still, when I look back at 1983, hope springs in lively fashion from the north country, as the Nationals' antecedent, the Montreal Expos, fielded a powerful lineup of perennial stars, with Gary Carter catching, Al Oliver playing the one-bag, and an outfield of prowess: Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, and the later icon of Japanese baseball, Warren Cromartie. All but Cromartie played in the '83 All-Star game, and ace Steve Rogers pitched in it—the die is cast, the Nationals are formidable and Montreal is not forgotten (rumor has it that, along with Mexico City, the jewel of Quebec is at the top of MLB's list for expansion). The Mets are solid again this season after a surprise World Series run, with a stirring rotation that includes Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard, and the savage bat of Yoenis Cespesdes. Once again, '83 looms large—we already know that Gary Carter, cog of the '86 world champs, was still with the Expos, but it's also clear that Daryl Strawberry hadn't yet been called up, since the big sluggers were the quixotic Dave Kingman and the fading George Foster. Sure, Tom Seaver started on opening day, but his battery mate was Ron Hodges, who had 12 extra base hits in 110 games. As it turns out, Seaver had a respectable 3.55 ERA, and still went 9-14. Sorry to my brothers-in-law on Long Island, but the Mets fade this year by August. The Phillies of 2016 are confounding expectations so far despite being a band of relative unknowns anchored by the now veteran Ryan Howard. On the mound, Vincent Velasquez and Aaron Nota have shined—could they be the John Denny and Steve Carlton one-two punch from '83? But something's disconcerting here—together Denny and Carlton totaled 25 losses, and the opening day lineup appears a bit like the re-heated Big Red Machine, with Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose all on the other side of the hill. I don't like the implications—I say the '83 effect has the Phillies stumbling in August. The Miami Marlins are hanging in there, though their sparkplug Dee Gordon is now suspended for PED's (was someone mentioning how much the game has changed?), and they didn't exist even in antecedent form pre-1995, so we need to let them go. Forgive me, beloved Don Mattingly, but what are you doing with the tropical color-scheme on your uni? The Atlanta Braves are off to a nightmarish start (they just won their second game at home in 18 tries), their current roster seems filled with players on their second or third or fourth time around (A.J. Pierzynski, Kelly Johnson, Nick Markakis)—and 1983 has an aging Chris Chambliss at first base and the bearded wonder Glenn Hubbard at second, a thin line of appeal. The great but dull MVP Dale Murphy did go .302/36/121 (what the heck, he also scored 131 runs and stole 30 bases!), but it won't be enough—this team will lose 95 games.