With four or maybe five of the divisions sewn up, you can be forgiven for thinking that there is not much left to get excited about until the postseason starts. When real, meaningful baseball takes centre stage.
The tightest AL division race pits the Minnesota Twins against the Cleveland Indians. With only 20 games remaining, surely Minnesota’s 5½ game lead is sufficient.
The two AL Central rivals play each other in a series starting on 13 September in Ohio. A sweep by the Indians will change the complex of the division going into the final couple weeks of the regular season.
My attention, however, will be focused on the series taking place 100km away across Lake Erie, where the Detroit Tigers host the Baltimore Orioles.
Without argument, 2019 has been a dreadful season for both teams. The Tigers are the game’s lowest scorers and possibly the worst MLB team this century. Their run differential is -273.
Using Fangraphs’ wins above replacement, the Tigers rank last with -1.8 WAR this season. Only three teams have produced -1.0 fWAR campaigns since 2000. And all three were the Detroit Tigers.
Detroit avoids much of the negative publicity about tanking, thanks – in part – to the Orioles record-breaking season. In 2016 and 2017, the Cincinnati Reds set the record for the most home runs allowed. Thankfully for the Ohio faithful, the Orioles have eclipsed that record. They are already 14 homers ahead with three weeks of the season remaining.
The Yankees destroyed the Orioles this season in unflinchingly ruthless fashion. New York finished 17-2 with 16 consecutive victories and hit 61 home runs to secure the record for the most against one team in a single season.
Who do you think of when I say “Hancock”?
Will Smith’s character in the eponymous film?
Tony, the legendary comedy star of “that’s very nearly an armful” fame?
Perhaps, Matt, our Health Secretary/Tory-leadership wannabe?
Or even John, the attention-seeker whose flamboyant signature dominated the US Declaration of Independence to such an extent that his name is now US slang?
Ask the same question to the front office staff in Detroit or Baltimore, and they will reply in unison “Emerson.”
Right-handed pitcher Emerson Hancock is the consensus number one player in the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft. He will be the prize secured by either the Tigers or Orioles for ending the season as the worst team in baseball; possibly the worst team of the century.
By all accounts, the 2020 draft class is stacked with talent, so even the second pick will net a potential superstar, but only Hancock lets fans dream of a top of the rotation, future Cy Young Award-winning ace.
“If Hancock were eligible as a sophomore this June, he would have been the first pitcher selected” MLB’s Jim Callis suggested. The 20-year-old will have another year of development under his belt when he gets drafted.
Both teams picked a hitter in this year’s draft. With the first overall pick, the Orioles took the clear number one prospect Adley Rutschman. The switch-hitting catcher draws comparisons with Buster Posey and Joe Mauer; a franchise-changing player.
The Tigers took high school outfielder Riley Greene with the fifth pick. High risk and high reward, but probably the most polished bat in the draft.
With Casey Mize, the top pick in 2018, and Matt Manning, the Tigers have the start of an elite rotation in their minors. You can almost picture the return to the glory days of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and David Price in 2014.
Although they won the division in 2014, the Tigers lost out to the Orioles in the ALDS. They will not want to lose out to them again.
Unlike the Tigers, the Orioles do not have any of the game’s top-10 pitching prospects sitting in their Minor League system.
Grayson Rodriguez, the best arm in the organisation, is described as “If it all clicks, he could become a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.” The incentive for the Orioles to get the number one pick could not be greater.
Which brings us back to the four-game series between the two teams on 13-16 September. How hard do both teams try to win? The Tigers are on a two-game winning streak and the Orioles on a two-game losing streak, so currently only three games separate them.
Does the front office pressurise the manager to make changes to the lineup card? Do key players need a convenient rest? Are less experienced relievers brought into the game in high leverage situations?
The players will give 100%. Too many of them are playing for their future. Many of them don’t even know where their future will be.
Will we even be able to tell if games are being thrown? Given their propensity to allow homers, it could be difficult to prove whether Orioles pitchers are simply grooving pitches for Tigers’ hitters to launch into the stands.
There are too many questions in this article for me. What do you think will happen? Let the guys know on Twitter @BatFlips_Nerds.