It’s the final month of the season, unbelievably. After all the waiting and complaining and small-sampling-sizing and dog-daying, we are in the final push toward to the playoffs. There is still much to be decided with less than 30 games on the schedule. So, uh, where do we stand?
- The National League Central is bananas – the NL Central might have been the weak sister division for the better part of [consults parchments] forever but in 2013 it is the best baseball has to offer. The Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates (!) will go right down to the wire. Even though the second Wild Card spot might sap some urgency from the pennant drive, the play-in game is horrific enough to consider that winning the division remains the sole focus.
The Pirates took two of three from the Cardinals over the weekend, finishing the three game set deadlocked atop the division. St. Louis now take their “line drives and anonymous fireballers” routine to Cincinnati for four games this week. Mat Latos of the Reds rolled over the Cardinals in the first game of this series with a dominant complete game performance, only striking out two batters but ensuring his union brothers in the bullpen had off work for Labor Day.
The Pirates beat the Brewers Monday so they move in front of the division by a game over the Cards, with Cincy sitting 2.5 behind St. Louis. Got it? Got it.
- The NL Wildcard is all but spoken for – The Reds might trail their division by 3.5 games but the Nationals fell on Monday night (this time to the Phillies) while the only other team with a wild card shout, the Diamondbacks, also fell at home. The Snakes are now seven games back, the Phillies one back in the loss column of AZ. It’s all over by the crying – three NL Central teams will make the playoffs in 2013. Drink THAT in.
- Nobody wants to win the AL Wildcard – for a long while it seemed like the Rays were nicely situated as the first wild card team, with the A’s attempting to hold off Cleveland and the Yankees. The Orioles were in the mix, too, but their 2012 magic appeared exhausted.
And then the Rays couldn’t hit. And the A’s couldn’t lose. And the Yankees looked old again. Now the A’s and Rangers are tied atop the AL West, two ahead of Tampa Bay in the loss column. Cleveland and Baltimore keep hanging around while the Yankees stand on the outside looking in.
As last season showed, winning the division can pay dividends two-fold. The A’s avoided the uncertainty of the play-in game as well as the letdown of gagging away their free pass to the post-season. The Rangers limped into Baltimore and never seemed likely to challenge the upstart Orioles, who were anything but happy to be there last October. Might the same fate await the loser of the AL West sprint to the finish? Will the Rays figure it out before the trailers close? So many questions, 25-odd games to answer them.
- Boston is still doing it (quietly) – they just keep chugging along. Not even injury to starter or reliever or infielder or outfielder or trade or ineffectiveness can slow the Sox. The team that has already tried 26 different pitchers (11 starters) and 28 different position players still leads the Toughest Division In Sports by 5.5 games. It feels much more than five games but that’s their edge. The Red Sox – home and cooled. Amazingly. Depth counts too!
Game Chart of the Weekend
The Washington Nationals did not begin the season with playoff aspirations. They began this season with WORLD SERIES aspirations. Their public goal, collectively, was to win the World Series. After shutting down Stephen Strasbrug, the Nationals front office duly noted that it wasn’t a one year fluke by the Potomac River. They planned on competing for multiple World Series titles in the coming years, thus opting to sit their best pitcher during the playoffs wasn’t such a big deal.
The Nats added a closer and a center fielder and took another run at the post-season after being ushered out in dramatic fashion by the Cardinals last October. Sadly, reality and the baseballing gods prevented a repeat of last year’s coronation. The Nats, the odds-on favorite to win the National League, needed the late-inning comeback you see above away from being swept by the Mets in a weekend series.
The Nationals will tell anyone who’ll listen that they’re still in the race. That they’re still playing important games in September. But they’re wrong. Teams in playoff races don’t fend off sweeps by the Mets with spirited comebacks. They’re wrong and now they’re eating their young, as the “why isn’t Bryce Harper hustling?” questions started swirling on the weekend. After a rare moment of truth from acting manager Randy Knorr (in which he describes a growing unease with Harper’s hustle levels in the clubhouse), it was all chalked up to a bum knee for Harper.
It isn’t fair to call ANY 20-year old a disappointment in the big leagues. No 20-year old rightfully belongs in the big leagues, quite frankly. He’s battled injury and irrelevance as the Nats struggle but his numbers are still impressive – his OPS hovers below the .900 mark, his wRC+ places him in the top ten among all hitters with 400 plate appearances. He has 19 home runs and a season with more than three Wins Above Replacement. That is very impressive, in fact.
But he’s still Bryce Harper so none of it is good enough. The Nats aren’t good enough so all the Bryce Harper headaches refuse to go away. It isn’t Harper’s fault the Nats aren’t good enough in 2013 but Harper will end up the story. It seems like Bryce Harper will always end up the story, doesn’t it?
Second Basemen Hit Second
Friday night, I was in attendance as the upstart Kansas City Royals brought their “.500 or bust” armada of sub-excellence to Toronto to take on the Blue Jays. Playing second base for the Royals this night was Emilio Bonifacio, recently traded from Toronto to KC. Despite displaying, in no uncertain terms, that he cannot hit even a little bit, Royals manager Ned Yost slotted Bonifacio into the number 2 spot in his batting order.
Likewise for Jays manager John Gibbons, who inserted young Jays second baseman Ryan Goins second in HIS batting order. Both these skippers are not exactly by the (old, dog-eared) book when it comes to the their batting order construction, as Yost usually hits the powerful and patient Alex Gordon leadoff while Gibbons experimented with slugger Jose Bautista in the second spot this year, before the season got away from the Jays and Gibby couldn’t be bothered fighting a losing battle against traditional thinking. Two second basemen, both hitting second because second basemen hit second.
OR DO THEY?
As of Friday, 16 second baseman have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. They all listed below (by wRC+) with their total PAs taken in the second spot and most common order spot. (all stats through Friday, August 30)
- Matt Carpenter, 143 wRC+, 67, leadoff
- Robinson Cano, 138 wRC+, 182, third
- Jason Kipnis, 132 wRC+, 223, third
- Chase Utley, 125 wRC+, 144, third
- Ben Zobrist, 118 wRC+, 157, third
- Dustin Pedroia, 116 wRC+, 0, third
- Howie Kendrick, 116 wRC+, 4, sixth (!)
- Marco Scutaro, 111 wRC+, 430, second
- Neil Walker, 111 wRC+, 195, second
- Ian Kinsler, 107 wRC+, 0, leadoff
- Brian Dozier, 100 wRC+, 44, leadoff
- Daniel Murphy, 97 wRC+, 446, second
- Dan Uggla, 96 wRC+, 12, fifth
- Brandon Phillips, 92 wRC+, 11, cleanup (!!!)
- Jose Altuve, 77 wRC+, 257, second
- Darwin Barney, 56 wRC+, 25, eighth
Observations: it seems like the worse a hitter your second baseman becomes, the more likely he is to hit second. This mostly seems like a tacit admission that the guy straight up cannot hit but possesses the nebulous skills of “bat control” or “bunting ability” commonly attributed to players who can do little else. If a second baseman isn’t good enough to hit in a “run producer” spot in the order but has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, then they hit in more slugger-friendly lineup spots.
Once we lower the plate appearance bar from “qualified” to merely “lots”, we allow hitters like Omar Infante, Mark Ellis, and Nick Franklin into our sample. Their most common batting order spots respectively: ninth, second, and second. Of course!
There are obvious mitigating factors in this calculus. Teams with a surplus of better hitters are more likely to force more “marginal” hitters down the lineup. Then there is Brandon Phillips, recently installed as the Reds number two hitter amid much fanfare and profanity. Phillips seems like the case of a manager loving the idea of alternating left/right which helps put less qualified hitters into more important lineup spots.
But, by and large, second baseman hit second. A strange default that managers resort to with players who are much better fits towards the very bottom of the batting order. But why mess with tradition, you know?
What the What?
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
What the What – the sequel!
That just ain’t fair.
What Year Is It Again?
The Walking Fish
Mike Trout had another typically strong month of August. He put up another two Wins Above Replacement, posted a .337/.500/.590 line in the process. He reached safely in 50% of his plate appearances for a month. Being a great hitter is one way to put up that kind of gaudy OBP, but walking is another.
Trout lead the American League qualified batters in walk rate in August, drawing a free pass in 22.7% of his trips to the plate. Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, and Ike Davis all walked in more than 20% of their August PAs. They drew 25, 28, 27, and 24 walks respectively in August. Each of those four men drew more walks in a month than the following players have in the 2013 season. (As of Sunday)
There are a lot of good players on this list. Will Venable broke out in a serious way and Trout’s teammate Howie Kendrick owns a fine 2013 season. Drawing walks isn’t the be all and end all of offensive production…but it sure seems like an easy way to get on base to me.
Chris Carter of the Houston Astros has 59 strikeouts since the All Star break (37 games). That is more than 22 qualified hitters can claim for all of 2013. Many slap-hitting middle infielders on this list but also two of the best hitters in baseball: Edwin Encarnacion and Buster Posey.
SOMEWHAT RELATED TO THE FIRST POINT
For as good as patient as Mike Trout is, the man “protecting” him in the Angels batting order just seems to get worse. Josh Hamilton sucks now and Jayson Stark of ESPN has some theories why – or at least how.
The Fall of McCarthyism
The Arizona Diamondbacks took a bit of a flyer on Brandon McCarthy this past off-season. A solid starter with injury problems, it is only a matter of “how many” starts he misses, not “will he” hit the DL.
As expected, Brandon McCarthy got hurt in 2013. Unexpectedly, he actually struggled when he did toe the slab. He looks like the same guy, in terms of his rate stats, but the results just followed the big cerebral righty.
On Monday afternoon, McCarthy turned in the quintessential “McCarthy 2.0″ start – no walks, tons of ground balls, incredible pitch efficency. McCarthy allowed four runs in a complete game loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. McCarthy threw just 93 pitches in recording 27 outs, facing only 33 batters. A ninth inning home run sullied his final line some. It was a great outing but the worst kind of result.
Baseball’s most eloquent tweeter took to his social media platform to expound on his disappointment.
— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) September 2, 2013
The Rays are Dedicated To The Cause
The cause of “being as Rays-ey as possible”. You can see the situation from the bug in the top corner of this screen cap – runners on the corner with nobody out in the late innings, down by a handful of runs. The Rays don’t want to give up any more runs because, against the Angels bullpen, no game is ever really over. So they bring the infield in, trying to cut down any runs at the plate.
But Josh Hamilton is up. The spray charts suggest you shift against Josh Hamilton. So, when you’re the Rays, you do both. Shift and pull the infield in.
Safety first! The best part of the Rays deploying this daring defense?
Josh Hamilton struck out almost immediately. Sometimes the best defense is cold, dead hand of reality.
— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) September 2, 2013
Butter would be proud of the shifting Rays. Butter should be proud of Butter because Butter forever.