I’ve always thought this, but I’ve never quite found the right way to put it. It happens across all sports, of course, not just in baseball. Teams on the East Coast are just better than the rest of the league.
12 of the last 16 World Series Champs. The three best teams in the majors. 4 of the top 5 payrolls in the league.
East Coast teams aren’t just better than the rest of the league, they are willing to go farther and spend more to win. So are these teams better because all of the money is on the East Coast? I wouldn’t say so, but it is a big factor.
The success of East Coast teams goes beyond baseball. In New England and along the Atlantic, everything is a business. People have worked hard going back centuries to the Puritans, and baseball is a way of life. As for the other side of the US, sports are more of a social event. Games are hardly ever sold out, and people go for the food and friends rather than the excitement of the game. The vibe of the city doesn’t ride on their team’s success as it does in the Northeast, and sports don’t seem to matter as much there.
Free Agents in all sports are showing. In the NBA, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, LeBron James, and Shaquille O’Neal all came east while no major free agent went to the West. The top three MLB free agents of 2009 (Matt Holliday, John Lackey, and Jason Bay) all stayed away from the west coast while two of them joined East Coast clubs. Even in football, Vince Wilfork and Jared Gaither stayed on the East Coast for a discount while Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby left the West Coast for their new homes.
The imbalance is clearly largest in Major League Baseball. Throughout the season, the top four teams have been the Rays, Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox while the Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Mariners floundered at the bottom of the league. The AL East was by far the best division in the league, but the NL and AL West produced six poor teams.
The signs are everywhere, and they aren’t going away for a while: the best teams are in the east. My playoff picks reflect this new shift of power, and the World Series will reflect it too.
Cincinnati Reds (3) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (1)
On paper, it’s nearly impossible to make a case that the Phillies shouldn’t be the prohibitive favorites to win the World Series. They have three aces, a deep and talented lineup, and a been-there-done-that mentality. With a perfect balance of youth and experience, power, speed, and pitching, this team is ready to go.
The Reds, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Often picked to finished third or worst in the Central, Cincy used its home ballpark to its advantage and slugged there way to their first playoff appearance in fifteen years. The Reds are new to the playoff atmosphere; only Bronson Arroyo, Ramon Hernandez, Orlando Cabrera, and Scott Rolen have played in the playoffs.
At first glance, the Phillies are going to be huge favorites in this series. They have better starters. They have better hitters. They have more experience. So in order for the Reds to overcome this Philly Phanatic-sized challenge, they need to make the Phillies play to their strengths.
What the Phillies have pitching-wise, the Reds don’t have. Philadelphia will outclass Cincy every game in terms of starting pitching; Edinson Volquez-Arroyo-Cueto won’t cut it against Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels. But if the Reds can jump on one of the starters early, they’ll quickly expose the Phillies’ weak underbelly: the ‘pen.
Brad Lidge is by far the worst closer in the playoffs, even when he’s on his A-game. As Philly fans can attest, no lead under five is safe with him, but they really don’t have any better options. Ryan Madsen thrives in his eighth inning role, but can’t hit the strike zone when he goes in for the ninth. Journeymen J.C. Romero and Danys Baez are replacement-level reliever who found a roster spot on the NL East champion’s roster.
Scoring early hasn’t been a problem for Cincinnati this year. The Reds led the National League in scoring by a nice margin, largely thanks to MVP candidate Joey Votto’s emergence as one of the top young first basemen in the game and Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce’s reemergence. Putting runs on the board early will put pressure on the Phillies and manager Charlie Manuel, known oftentimes to make quick, poor decisions. Also, any way to get Jose Contreras into the game earlier can only help.
Things won’t be that easy for the Reds, though. You can make a great case that although the Phillies scored less runs, their offense (when healthy) is much stronger. With three starters able to go eight or nine innings strong, you can’t expect the Reds to continue to score five and six points per game. In October, pitching wins, and Philadelphia has a distinct edge there.
I see Philly taking Games 1 and 2 at home behind the strong pitching of Halladay and Oswalt, but losing Game 3 after the Reds tear apart Cole Hamels (Philly had better hope it doesn’t mess with his psyche). With Halladay going on regular rest, I see the Phillies closing out the Reds on the road as they move on to NLCS.
I really wanted to pick the Reds in the first round, and I would have taken them over the Braves had they finished with a better record than San Francisco. But that’s not how things shook out, and Cincinnati will have to wait ’til next year and pray for better pitching.
Atlanta Braves (4) at San Francisco Giants (2)
If you’re not from the Bay Area or the ATL, this series will be a snoozer. The Giants play in a top-five pitcher friendly ballpark with little in the way of offense. Atlanta is solid all around, but will be missing All-Stars Chipper Jones and Martin Prado. So get ready everybody! Get psyched for Tommy Hanson! Aubrey Huff! And everybody’s favorite All-Star…..Omar Infante!
The name of the game for the Braves and Giants this year has been run prevention. Finishing fourth and second in the league respectively in runs, both teams have put an emphasis on pitching and defense this season. While they were able to pitch there way to many wins, neither offense has much to brag about. Rookie of the Year candidates Jason Heyward (my NL ROY pick) and Buster Posey were the two bright spots this year, but the rest of the teams are filled with aging vets, has-beens, and uninspiring stopgaps.
After Posey, the rest of the Giants lineup looks pretty dreadful. Freddy Sanchez, Jose Guillen, and Pat “The Bat” Burrell look awfully old and shouldn’t be major contributors on a playoff team. Kung Fu Panda is a fraction of his rookie self — but not in weight. If you want to gauge how poor their offense has been, just look to the fact that their top three hitters were Burrell, Huff, and a rookie.
Atlanta has been solid all year. Not fantastic. Not average. Just Solid. While they will miss Chipper and Martin Prado a lot, most of their offense came from other places. Super prospect Jason Heyward has become the Braves’ best hitter, and Brian McCann continues to quietly work hard to put up big numbers. Mid-season acquisitions Derrek Lee and Alex Gonzalez have been fairly good since they landed in Atlanta, but they aren’t game changers anymore.
The problem with Atlanta is that they have too many “eh” players. What do I mean? If you saw the graphic in the bottom corner of the screen that said “Coming up next: Eric Hinske, Rick Ankiel, Omar Infante” the only thing you could say is “eh.” They are uninspiring with little upside, but solid productivity. They won’t sell out games. They won’t draw viewers. But they do work and quietly do most of what they’re asked.
This series will be very low scoring, so ultimately it will come down to which pitchers can stay mistake free for the longest. Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, and Tim Hudson fit the safe-and-steady pitcher role who will only give up one to three runs over seven innings before handing the ball off to the bullpen. Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, and Jonathan Sanchez are just too inconsistent for my taste. Lincecum and Sanchez can both be lights out as they have demonstrated many times, but they are just as likely to blow up for five runs over three innings.
Consistency will end up winning this series, and consistency is on the Braves’ side. You just can’t depend on Zito, Burrell, Guillen, and the Giants bullpen and hope to go far in the playoffs. I don’t love the team the Braves are fielding, but they can play well night after night and shut you down once you get into the bullpen. At the end of the day, Atlanta has more talent and more motivation (Bobby Cox’s last season), and will ultimately take this series in 5.