Dream Bracket pits legends vs. legends in Round 1

April 20th, 2020

We are dreaming of baseball here in the world’s longest rain delay. Thankfully, the MLB Dream Bracket presented by DraftKings arrives Monday to bring those dreams to virtual reality.

With all 30 MLB franchises -- as well as a Negro Leagues club and a team of current 25-and-under stars -- represented in the Out of the Park Sports simulation, there’s a ton of talent involved (including 185 Hall of Famers). And the cross-blend of every baseball generation means we’ll get to “see” a ton of enticing and entertaining matchups that would ordinarily be left to our individual imagination.

You can follow the results of the simulations on MLB.com, and MLB Network’s Twitch channel and MLB.com will livestream select matchups (with Jon Morosi and Scott Braun providing commentary). Fans can register on the DraftKings mobile app to compete in contests based on the simulations.

With the bracket pairings set, here are seven simulated showdowns I’m excited to see play out in the first round.

Randy Johnson (Mariners) vs. Babe Ruth (Yankees)

The Big Unit vs. the Big Fella (or the Great Bambino or the Sultan of Swat or the Big Bam or the Behemoth of Bust or ...). Whatever nickname you prefer, this is one of the most intimidating pitchers of all time facing the game’s most storied slugger. Gotta love it.

You have to wonder what the Babe would be thinking if he stepped into the box and suddenly a 6-foot-10, long-haired, fire-breathing monster were waiting for him on the mound. The tallest pitcher Ruth ever faced was a 6-foot-6 right-hander named Jim Weaver (and he had a very Babe-appropriate .714 slugging percentage against him in seven plate appearances). He never saw anything quite like Johnson. In his great career, Johnson limited lefties to a comical .199/.277/.292 slash, with just 25 home runs in 2,136 plate appearances. So the odds of even Ruth taking him deep don’t seem especially great.

Actually, there are reports that Ruth stood in the right-handed batter’s box a few times in August 1923. So perhaps he’d pull a Larry Walker here.

Tim Raines (Nationals) vs. Johnny Bench (Reds)

Yeah, it’s weird to see Nationals next to Raines’ name. Don’t put it past the Nats to go the distance yet again now that they’ve absorbed the likes of Raines, Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, etc.

But first, they’ve got to get through the Big Red Machine and Friends.

Though their careers did overlap between 1979 and 1983, Raines actually never played in a game in which Bench was the opposing catcher (Bench was primarily limited to the corner infield spots his last few years). So here’s a chance to see one of the all-time great basestealers (Raines is fifth all-time with 808 steals, and he was successful at an 84.7% clip) against one of the all-time best at controlling the running game (Bench had a 43.5% caught stealing rate).

Josh Gibson (Negro Leagues) vs. Bob Feller (Indians)

They were contemporaries ... and they weren’t. Gibson debuted with the Homestead Grays as an 18-year-old in 1930, Feller with the Indians as a 17-year-old in 1936. One of baseball’s ultimate and most angering unknowns is how Negro League legends like Gibson would have fared against Major League competition if only they had the opportunity.

We have scattered statistical evidence to suggest that the members of this simulation’s Negro League rosters (I could have picked any of the position players to highlight here) would have fared quite well. But mostly, we have to rely on the anecdotal evidence -- the stuff like Gibson being referred to as the “black Babe Ruth” or Monte Irvin declaring that Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, while tremendous players, “were no Josh Gibson.”

So here’s the preeminent power hitter of his realm facing the preeminent power pitcher of his. It’s not conclusive, of course, but it stokes our curiosity all the more.

Juan Soto (25-and-Unders) vs. Grover Cleveland Alexander (Phillies)

The honest truth is that, if this computer simulation acknowledged the evolution of athleticism and stuff (as opposed to just how players fared within their particular era), the 25-and-Under squad would stand a decent chance of destroying every other team in the bracket. Such is human progress, after all.

Regardless, the concept of old vs. new is always intriguing, and I could have highlighted any number of potential batter-pitcher matchups from this first-round foray to illustrate the point.

But here’s one that jumps off the page, what with Alexander in possession of an almost immaculate walk rate (1.65 per nine innings is the third-lowest of any pitcher in history with at least 3,000 innings, trailing only Cy Young and Christy Mathewson) and Soto in possession of an abnormally selective eye (since he came up in 2018, he’s among the top 10 in the Majors in terms of his percentage of swings outside the strike zone and in walk-to-strikeout ratio) for a player of his age (20).

Plus, I would love to see Ol’ Pete’s reaction to the “Soto Shuffle.” Don’t think he saw much of that in 1914.

Ted Williams (Red Sox) vs. Nolan Ryan (Rangers)

In this tournament, there are tons of tantalizing possibilities involving Ryan. He’s on three teams (Angels, Astros and Rangers) on one side of the bracket, which means there’s a not-insignificant chance he winds up opposing himself at some point.

But this first-round matchup is especially fun, because here’s the late-career vintage of Ryan running into the Splendid Splinter at his absolute best and brightest. Ryan, in his 40s, was still striking out north of 10 batters per nine in his three best years with Texas, but, as was characteristic in his career, he could still walk on the wild side (3.6 walks per nine). Williams, as you know, did a whole lot of walking and very little striking out (he had five seasons in which he had at least 100 more walks than strikeouts, which is just insane). But can he handle the heat of the Ryan Express?

By the way, this series also gives us the gift we didn’t know we needed: Cy Young vs. A-Rod.

Jackie Robinson (Dodgers) vs. Trevor Hoffman (Padres)

We don’t know how these games will play out, of course, but here’s a matchup worth hoping for with a game on the line in this scintillating SoCal series.

Per Baseball Reference’s Play Index (and excluding incomplete results), Jackie’s .341 batting average in what are defined as “close and late” situations is the highest of all-time by a wide margin (Mickey Mantle is next, at .323). So yes, you’d love to see him step in against the man with the second-most saves (601) in history with the Padres protecting a ninth-inning lead.

Then again, given that the Dodgers' starting staff consists of peak-level Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton, getting that lead sure won’t be easy for Tony Gwynn and the boys.

Ty Cobb (Tigers) vs. Mike Trout (Angels)

Yes, even in simulations, we can get swept up in sportswriter-driven narratives! The lack of a World Series ring is enough to keep either of these men up at night (well, Cobb had all that General Motors and Coca-Cola stock, so I guess he probably slept pretty comfortably).

Cobb appeared in three World Series (1907, 1908 and 1909) but hit a very un-Cobb-like .262 with a .668 OPS (it’s a good thing for him that sports talk radio and television talking heads were still several decades in the making). And Trout has appeared in just three postseason games, going 1-for-15 (though the one hit was a homer).

Here is a long-awaited opportunity for one of these stalwart center fielders to lead his team to glory, computer-fabricated though it may be.