The 2014 Royals postseason run is a good illustration of how fast baseball has changed. The last time that an AL Central team came out of nowhere to sweep the ALCS and go to the World Series was 2006.
The Royals weren't nearly as bad last year as the Tigers had been before 2006, but they're both big surprises. In 2006, the Tigers had the #1 team ERA in baseball at 3.84, and had 6.23 K/9 (ranked 23rd). The 2014 Royals ranked 12th in team ERA at 3.51, and had a K/9 of 7.25 (ranked 24th).
How would the 2006 Tigers have ranked in 2014? Their team ERA of 3.84 would have been ranked 21st. Their K/9 of 6.23 would have been ranked 30th. In 2006, the Tigers had a somewhat dominant bullpen, with a Batting Average Against of .242, which was ranked #2 in baseball. In 2014, that would have been tied for 19th. The 2014 Royals had a BAA in their bullpen of .235, which was good enough for 11th in 2014, but would have been ranked #1 in 2006.
Yes, 2006 was a while back, but it isn't ancient history. The only remaining player on the Tigers from the 2006 Tigers is Justin Verlander, but they're still on a run started by that team (although it might be petering out). What were considered good pitching stats in 2006 would be considered mediocre at best today, and sometimes downright awful.
The Royals also ranked 14th in runs scored this year (651), which would have ranked dead last in 2006. The game has changed and the Royals are a great indication of how quickly it has happened.
Since the last time that a road team won game 7 on the road in the World Series in 1979, teams have been terrible without home field advantage. The National League has been particularly bad, especially teams that did well during the regular season. Since 1979, the NL is 3-15 when they don't have home field advantage.
NL without home field since 1982
92 wins and under (3-4): W ('03, 06, 08) L ('83, 89, 05, 07)
93+ wins (0-11): ('85, 87, 91, 93, 96, 98, 00, 02, 04, 09, 13)
It is obvious why not having home field advantage could be a problem, especially if the series goes 7 games (road teams are 0-9 in Game 7 since 1979). It is less obvious why teams that had better regular season records would struggle. It is possible there is something in the psyche of a real underdog (like the '03 Marlins and '06 Cardinals) that would help them in the postseason. Whatever it is, the trend is clear.
Since 1997, no NL team has won the World Series with more than 94 regular season wins while no AL team except 1 (2000 Yankees) has had fewer than 96. It might be somewhat irrational, but it has been happening for a long time now. NL teams with 93+ wins struggle in particular against AL teams with more than 96+ wins, going 0-7 in the process.
Obviously, this is going to be broken at some point. Considering how often teams win Game 5 on the road in the LDS (Tigers did it three years in a row), it is only a matter of time before a road team wins Game 7 of the World Series on the road again.
Let's say for the sake of argument that this is all somewhat predictive. What would it mean this year? Well, it would mean that the 96-win Orioles would have some serious wind at their back if they were to face the 94-win Dodgers or 96-win Nationals. Now, the Orioles might want to avoid facing the Cardinals or Giants for other reasons (like these two teams combining to win 3 of the last 4 World Series), but this might not hurt.
AL Winners: # of regular season wins (99, 98, 99, 96, 103, 97) - Avg: 98.6
NL Winners: # of regular season wins (92, 91, 83, 92, 92, 90, 94) - Avg: 90.5
Since 2001, every AL team to win the World Series has won at least 96 games and no NL team has won more than 94. It sounds kind of simplistic, but I write this post on 9/23/2013 predicting that the Red Sox were the favorites based on this set of data. At some point, it is going to be broken, but it might not be for a while.
As of right now, the Orioles (95-63) and the Angels (98-61) are the only AL teams that could finish with at least 96 wins (although the Orioles need to win at least 1 more game). The last 4 AL Winners (2005 White Sox, 2007 Red Sox, 2009 Yankees, 2013 Red Sox) were all at least tied for the best record in the AL.
The previous winners were Wild Cards (2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox), but it is significantly more difficult for a Wild Card winner in 2014 because of the Wild Card game. The team with the best record in the league has an even bigger advantage now because they get to play the winner of the Wild Card game in the first round of the playoffs.
In the NL, only the Nationals (92-64) could finish with more than 94 wins, although that's not a given. The Wild Card teams (likely Pittsburgh and San Francisco) might not even reach 90 wins. The sweet spot for NL teams to win the World Series seems to be in the 90-92 win range. The Dodgers (90-68) and Cardinals (88-70) might be in the only NL playoff teams in the 90-92 range.
If history follows form this year, the only teams that would win the World Series would likely be the Angels, Dodgers or Cardinals. I'm making some assumptions here, so we'll have to check back after the games are finished Sunday. I'm assuming that the Nationals finish with 95+ wins, the Cardinals win the division and the Angels finish with a better record than the Orioles.
None of those things might turn out to be true. What we do know is that the Tigers, A's and Royals will be going against recent history if they win the World series.
The question coming into this year was whether offensive numbers would continue to stagnate or would actually get significantly worse. This shows that hitting has actually gotten much worse from just one year ago. My assumption going into 2015 is that the OPS numbers will be pretty close to 2014, but we'll have to wait and see.
I'm sure that the league would like to see some more runs scored, but I don't know what could be done. A combination of factors, including steroid testing, advanced shifts and bullpens full of overpowering arms, mean that hitters will continue to be overmatched for years to come. The only question is how bad it will get. It's very difficult to predict the long term, but I think next year will look a lot like this year.
The strikeout-to-walk ratio was remarkably consistent from 2000 to 2009, being right around 2.00 every year. Since 2010, it has risen slightly more than .1 every year on average. If that continues, it could reach 3.00 by 2018.
Of course, it could stop rising or even reverse itself, but there is no reason to think it will in the next few years. With steroids out of the game and speciality relievers becoming more dominant, it looks like it will a tough couple of years for hitters.
We have enough data by now about 2014 to say that strikeouts trends are continuing as they have for the past few years. The enormous jump in relievers' strikeouts from 2011 to 2012 is holding steady and strikeouts among starters is increasing. This probably can't continue forever before there is an adjustment back towards the hitters, but it looks like it will continue like this for a while.
Toronto and Detroit are both currently ranked among the bottom 5 teams in baseball in relievers' ERA. Going back over the last ten years, the only teams that finished the season in the bottom 5 and made the playoffs were the 2005 Red Sox and the 2011 Rangers.
The '05 Red Sox were #1 in run scored and won the wild card before being swept in the 1st round by the White Sox. The 2011 Rangers came within 1 pitch of winning the World Series, but that seems like an aberration. They also finished 7th in starters' ERA and 3rd in runs scored.
The Blue Jays and Tigers both play in (as of right now) mediocre divisions and have the ability to score plenty of runs (ranked 2nd and 3rd in OPS). They have the 10th and 11th best ERA in their starting rotation, and Detroit (at least in theory) should have one of the best starting rotations in baseball. Being ranked near the bottom in relievers' ERA isn't something that can't be overcome, but it is a major hurdle.
The Tigers are always a threat to catch fire because of their starting pitching, but that usually doesn't last more than a series. The Blue Jays probably can't count on being able to outscore everyone in October. Absent significant improvement, however, I have a hard time seeing the Blue Jays or Tigers winning the World Series with their current bullpens.
# of teams with 7.5+ K/9 in May
After a monster April for strikeouts (7.93 K/9 in April 2014 vs. 7.68 in April of 2013), strikeouts have leveled off and are identical to May of 2013 (7.54). The number of teams, though, that are maintaining a high rate is still going up. The strikeout numbers might not shoot up as much as they have the last few years, but they are still mind-blowing when compared to just a few years ago.
It is still early in the season, but the increase in the number of at bats it takes to hit a home run is very noticeable. Not only is the overall rate up, but the numbers are worse in May than in April. Since last June, 3 of the 4 complete months have been above 40 and May appears to be heading that way too. If this is the new normal, it will be be a significant shift that will have a major impact on the way the game is played.
Date on which Albert Pujols hit 8th HR of season
2004: May 3
2005: May 9
2006: April 16
2007: May 25
2008: May 13
2009: April 30
2010: May 14
2011: May 23
2012: May 29
2013: May 23
2014: April 22
He's hitting HR again, but his average hasn't rebounded yet (.274 vs. .321 career). It doesn't seem outlandish, though, that he could hit around .300 this year. It seems unlikely that he's going to hit .330, but not that he might hit 40 HR again. He also could finish with relatively low walk and strikeout totals for a power hitter. Are there are historical precedents for this? Yes, several great hitters from the past had similar seasons in their mid-30's.
Of these 3, Aaron is the only one that continued to be productive for years afterward. Mays did win the MVP in 1965, but began to decline almost immediately afterward. After 1966, he never again hit over.300 or 30 HR again. Greenberg retired after another productive season in 1947. Aaron continued having excellent seasons until he was nearly 40.
Historical comparisons are imperfect because times have changed. None of those players was able to take advantage of being a DH, which Pujols almost certainly will for plenty of years. Being a DH has helped David Ortiz continue to hit well into his 30's, in addition to players like Paul Molitor and Edgar Martinez.
Pujols has maintained that he is "too young" to become a DH full-time. I'm sure people in the Angels organization are wondering if he would be hitting better if he were a full-time DH. If he sustains an injury playing the field this year, the talk about him becoming a DH will only intensify.
They would probably be happy at this point with an average around .300 if he would hit 40 HR, although that would be below what I'm sure they were expecting when they signed him to that monster contract. If he's healthy, he's young enough to have a bounce back, although it will probably never get back to where it was from 2001-2009.