By Matt Straub
I greatly enjoy defense in sports. I’m looking forward to the Jets’ season because I want to see how well they can gel and make opposing offenses look silly in a sport which has become too reliant on offense. It’s fun for the fantasy player, but not for someone who doesn’t want to watch a 35-28 game every week. I’m not saying we should abolish the forward pass, but defenses should have a chance to shine.
I feel the same way about baseball. Two of the best games I’ve seen in a while were low-scoring Mets games. First, against the Dodgers when they went against Zack Greinke and ended his scoreless streak, and again Friday, when they played an all-timer, a 2-1, 12-inning masterpiece on what was hysterically dubbed by Gary Cohen as “Wilmer Flores appreciation night.”
I’ll watch any baseball game, but give me Matt Harvey, or any of the Mets’ young guns, against any of the Washington aces and I’m especially interested. The games are shorter and more interesting because every play matters. Back in the height of the 10-9 era, as we’ll politely call it, you knew no lead was safe, making the gaining of a lead less meaningful. In a game where one run could be the difference, every time a runner gets into scoring position becomes important.
As hitters come up to the plate looking like regular human beings again, pitching has become more important. This is evidenced by looking at the standings. Four of the six division leaders entering Friday have allowed the fewest runs of any team in their division. A fifth, the Angels, are eight runs behind the first-place Astros, an incredibly small difference over 110 games.
Throw in defense, which is the only thing keeping my MLB The Show Red Sox from leading the division, and preventing runs has become as important as scoring them.
The one division leader who bucks the trend is the New York Yankees. Their pitching is solid (when healthy) and their offense is good, but each facet of the game has been timely. Despite not leading the division in either stat, the Yankees are in the top five in baseball in run differential, which is how many more runs you’ve scored than allowed. You don’t need to be a sabermatrician to realize scoring more runs than you give up is the key to winning games.
But while the Yankees are in good shape, they do need to keep things going heading into the playoffs, which won’t be easy. With Michael Pineda out a month, the Yankees need Luis Severino to be a solid, consistent starter. The Blue Jays have loaded up on talent and won’t allow the Yankees to have many holes, and certainly not in their rotation. Seeing CC Sabathia turn back the clock against the Red Sox was huge for the Yankees and for their former ace’s confidence as well. On a team full of big names, Severino and Sabathia, arguably their fourth and fifth starters, could be the key to rest of the season in the Bronx.
The starters aren’t the only pitchers who matter, however. The New York Mets have taken over first place in the NL East, but won’t win it unless they figure out their bullpen. They brought in Tyler Clippard, who will help, but the rest of the pen is a mess. Bobby Parnell has been awful, as has Jeurys Familia since the All-Star break. Jenrry Mejia was suspended for 162 games for testing positive for steroids just weeks after coming off his last drug suspension. Jerry Blevins’ attempt to come back from an arm injury was derailed this week when he fell and broke his arm again, and Eric O’Flaherty got hammered immediately upon joining the team. Yes, the Mets have a ton of great, relatively young pitching, but if those starters don’t go nine innings, Mets fans will sweat out the late innings of a lot of big games down the stretch of the year.
Red Sox fans don’t have to sweat anymore because the season is long over. What they can do, however, is watch some young pitching try and take over. Eduardo Rodriguez, when he can avoid tipping his pitches by dipping his head position, as has been often dissected, has shown lots of promise. Boston is trying out some other young arms in the rotation as they try and figure out who they can keep and just how much shopping they’ll have to do again this winter to rebuild the rotation.
What Boston has done well is try to identify some more relievers who might help next year. Both Jean Machi and Ryan Cook have had good years in the past, and if they can work out their issues, Boston could once again have the kind of bullpen which helped get them a title in 2013. If Boston’s season has taught teams anything, it’s this: you can have all the hitters you want, but if you don’t have the pitching you’re in trouble.
Come the postseason, I’ve always believed good hitting can beat good pitching. Getting there, however, requires depth in the rotation and in the bullpen. Just look at the division leaders.