Tennyson famously wrote that, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But as summer draws to a close now that Labor Day is behind us, what do we think about?
The answer is two things: Baseball playoffs and the start of the NFL season.
As a lifelong fan of both the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles, these are heady days indeed. The Phillies have spent most of the season holding the best record in baseball and the Eagles have been many prognosticators’ “it” team for the upcoming season. I can tell you as a Philadelphia fan, the idea of – the expectation of – success doesn’t rest easily.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way. The Eagles. For what seems like the first time in 5 or 6 years, the Eagles enter the season without a quarterback controversy. Mike Vick’s back with a fat new contract and hopes to lead the Green to the Promised Land. The Birdz have added a number of new free agents, including shut-down corner Nnamdi Asomugha and so the feeling is that the offense will be potent (like last year) but the defense will be stronger (it was a bit porous at times last season). On the other hand, you could also say that they have an entire offensive line and linebacking corps that has never played together and had a shortened pre-season to prepare.
In the best scenario, everyone gels and they ride to a 12-win season and duke it out with the Packers for the NFC spot in the Superbowl. Of course, you could perhaps more easily imagine the offensive line not being ready, leading to a Vick-season-ending injury, which leads to season-long squabbling and limping in at 7-9. In reality, even with the overhaul, I think this will be another good, but not quite good enough Andy Reid team that will win a somewhat down year in the NFC East and bow out by getting out-coached somewhere right before or during the NFC Championship Game.
Okay, the hard one. The Phillies. Coming into this season, the Phillies resigned ace pitcher Cliff Lee to create the most formidable starting pitching staff in the Major Leagues. Expectations were sky high. Then people started getting hurt even before the season started. Chase Utley – out for 2+ months, Brad Lidge – out for half a season, Jose Contreras – out for the whole season, Roy Oswalt – out for half a season, Jimmy Rollins – on the DL 4 times this season, et cetera. All of a sudden, the line-up wasn’t dangerous enough and the bullpen seemed like it would be the team’s Achilles Heel.
What happened? Nothing. The subs in both the line-up and on the mound have performed better than expected and the Phillies have plowed through the National League at a brutal 0.650 winning percentage – on pace for an astonishing 105 wins.
So, what’s to worry about? Well, the truth is that the best team doesn’t always win the World Series. In fact, you can see that since expanding to the wild-card format, the best team most often doesn’t win the World Series. This great graphic from Flip Flop Fly Ball indicates that only in three cases since 1995 did the team with the best record prevail.
In 2008, the Phillies got hot in September, squeaked into the playoffs on the last weekend of the season thanks to the Mets collapse, and rode it all the way to the title. Conversely last year, the Phillies had the best record in baseball (97 wins) and were Series favorites, but ran into the San Francisco Giants buzzsaw who followed the Phils’ 2008 formula (substitute collapsing Padres for Mets) all the way to their own title.
So, barring major injuries or an epic collapse, the Phils will likely enter this postseason as favorites again. Hopefully, they will find a way to get just a little bit hotter as September turns into October.