To the casual sports fan, it may seem like baseball’s regular season has ended. To the casual sports fan, the main storyline in baseball at the moment might appear to be the downfall of a disgraced former superstar and his impending suspension. After all, the important parts of the season, like games and pennant races, are over, right?
Well, casual sports fan, you’ve been duped. The sporting society has indeed turned its white-hot, always narrow-minded gaze upon a slew of negative stories. But, believe it or not, the league is actually still playing enthralling baseball games every night.
There are a handful of teams competing for division titles that were laughingstocks of Major League Baseball in years past. One of those teams hasn’t had a winning season in two decades, and yet that very team has the best record in the major leagues.
How have you not heard more about this supreme team? They have witnessed the evolution of a third baseman from a potential franchise player into league-leading home run hitter and the turning of an already rabid sports city on its head.
When you say it like that, producers across the country are salivating at the idea of covering this team at the top of the hour.
When you tell them the team is the Pittsburgh Pirates, they pick their jaws up off the floor and return to their 23rd straight day of covering a boat in a lake in Connecticut.
Connecticut doesn’t have a major league team, but there might just be a gun in the bottom of a lake there!
You shouldn’t pretend to understand the methods behind mass sports media’s increasing madness. Instead, you should buckle up and learn about three teams that are playing supremely entertaining baseball with fewer than 50 games remaining in the season.
The first team, as previously mentioned, is the Pirates. The Buccos, as they’re colloquially known in the Steel City, are in a fistfight for first place in the National League Central with the St. Louis Cardinals. Fans entered the season with their sights set on an 82-80 record because the team has not experienced a winning season since 1992, when the team played in a different division. Now, if the team finishes the season with 82 wins, fans will be unfathomably disappointed.
It doesn’t seem like that will be the case, though. Players up and down the roster have elevated their respective levels of play this season, but none more so than third baseman Pedro Alvarez. Once viewed as the future of the downtrodden franchise, “El Toro,” the second overall pick of 2008, has parked 27 home runs and 73 RBIs in 104 games so far this season.
His 27 home runs are the top in the National League, a distinction a Pirate hasn’t held at the end of the season since first baseman Willie Stargell back in 1973. That’s right, 40 years ago.
It’s a resurrection season at PNC Park.
Moving northwestward up the Rust Belt, the Cleveland Indians are playing inexplicably powerful baseball and have found a way to keep pace in the American League Central, resting only seven games behind the Detroit Tigers as of Aug. 8.
The Tigers, stacked with superstars like Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, have a plus-139 run differential. The Indians? Plus-47.
Their best offensive producer is second baseman Jason Kipnis, who leads the team in home runs, RBIs, runs, on-base plus slugging, and — naturally — batting average. Yet he doesn’t have a single leap-off-the-page statistic.
In the American League, Kipnis is 15th in batting average, tied for 28th in home runs, and tied for 10th in RBIs. He’s the Tribe’s best offensive player, and yet Cleveland is ranked fourth in MLB in runs scored this season.
Instead of world-beating stars, the Tribe has adopted the mantle of balance and consistency. The team has eight players who are on pace to finish the season with 100 or more hits, and while there isn’t a single 20-home run man in the lineup, they will more than likely roll into the last days of the season with eight 10-home run men.
All this offensive balance has left the Indians just a half game out of a wild-card spot in the postseason. And if they happen to reach the postseason, there won’t be fear of a drop in production from their best player because there are seven more players lined up behind Kipnis, ready to knock a few balls into play night in and night out.
And then there’s a thrilling team out west, sporting the best color combination in baseball and sitting above two teams with payrolls that more than double its own.
The Oakland Athletics are busy proving that last season was not a fluke.
After Barry Zito led the A’s to the American League Championship Series in 2006, Oakland was mired in a streak of losing campaigns, competing with the Seattle Mariners for the AL West basement. But last season, in their first full season under manager Bob Melvin, the A’s broke out their run of bad luck and pushed the Tigers to Game 5 in the American League Division Series.
This year, they have picked up right where they left off. In a fashion similar to the Indians, they don’t have a breakout offensive star or even one player who leads the team in a bunch of offensive stats.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson leads the team in RBIs in his first full season in the majors, while Home Run Derby champion and bat-flipping left fielder Yoenis Cespedes is tied with first baseman Brandon Moss for the home run lead on the team at 17.
It never hurts to have one of the best pitchers in the AL, either, but it’s not who you would expect. Forty-year-old Bartolo Colon has put together his best season since he won the AL Cy Young Award in 2005, piling up a 14-4 record and currently boasting the sixth-best ERA in the AL. He won’t win the Cy Young again this year — Detroit’s Max Scherzer is making sure of that — but according to the wins above replacement metric, Colon has been Oakland’s MVP this season. He ages well.
If you had never heard of a few of the players referenced in this article, it’s excusable. Alvarez, Kipnis and Donaldson don’t use steroids, don’t commit crimes, don’t break league rules, and don’t spend many rambunctious nights out on the town.
But these are the three teams you should watch if you enjoy watching sports instead of following court cases.
These three teams just play good baseball. It’s not flashy enough to lead off on SportsCenter, but it may just be effective enough to play into October.