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Monday, September 27, 2010

Narrative Likability Factor & The Philadelphia Phillies

As I write, the Phillies and Roy Halladay have taken a commanding lead over the Nationals and are now about a dozen outs from clinching their fourth consecutive NL East title.  The Phillies were clearly the NL favorites heading into the 2010 season and, sporting the best record in the league following another scorching September, there seems little cause for that to change.  The Phillies have won the last two NL pennants, as well as the World Series in 2008.  The lineup featuring Rollins, Utley, Howard, Werth, and Victorino is as familiar to fans across the nation as those in Boston and New York.  So, it's probably time for somebody else to get a chance, right?  "Likable narratives" don't generally feature dynasties like this.   However, there are still a few reasons to get behind the Phightin' Phils:

  •  A Little Piece of History:  If the Phillies represent the NL for the third consecutive season, they will be the first three-peat NL Champs since 1944 (Cardinals).  It's kind of an odd little piece of trivia, but the National League has not featured many true "dynasty"-type ballclubs, with the ability to go the distance year after year after year.  Even the Big Red Machine of the '70s couldn't manage three in a row, nor could the Bob Gibson's Cardinals or the We Are Family Pirates. No NL team in the integration era has done it, so it would be a pretty major accomplishment.
  • Injury Sminjury:  Most of the time, when a team that is expected to contend fails to do so, the explanation is a rash of ill-timed injuries.  In just this season, that excuse has been pervasively applied to the Red Sox, Rockies, Cubs, and Mets.  But arguably no team was more flea-bitten this year than the Phils.  Only two players in their starting lineup, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez, will manage to make over 150 starts, while their All-Star middle infielders, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, have each been severely limited (less than 120 games apiece).  Through it all, the Phillies have not allowed themselves to play like an accursed team and they are going to end up posting their best record since 1993.
  • Polly, Ribby, & The Wizard of Oz: Placido Polanco, Raul Ibanez, and Roy Oswalt are all long-time major-league veterans who have played in several postseasons and at least one World Series, but haven't yet taken home the ultimate hardware.  The big draw of Philadelphia, for each of them, was the realistic opportunity to chase rings.  These are, by all accounts, gentlemen, each with underdog qualities - Polanco is a scrappy, undersized utility-man, Ibanez was a late-bloomer, Oswalt is short - and they are difficult to root against.
  • Doc Halladay:  Now, let me give you your monthly dose of Halladay hysteria.  He's definitely the best active pitcher who has never participated in a postseason game.  He's one of the greatest of all time.  He came to Philadelphia last winter confronted with the utmost of expectations.  With the vaunted Philadelphia offense, he was expected to win 20+ games.  Without the designated hitter, he was expected to throw 250+ innings and have an ERA under 2.50.  And, with his long history of playing in the AL East, he was expected to be Philadelphia's best weapon against the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays in the World Series.  Well, he just threw a complete-game shutout to clinch the NL East.  In the process, he picked up his 21st win, his 251st inning, and brought his ERA to 2.43.  In the 64 years since baseball was integrated, there have been only 47 seasons of that quality.  So, those were some pretty high expectations.  Now, he's going after the biggest of all.
Much as I love Doc, I don't think I can root for a reigning champ; that is, unless they come up against the other reigning champ, which is obviously where the Vegas money is being laid.  So, the Phils get a little boost for being the most likely dragonslayer.

Narrative Likability Factor: C+

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Narrative Likability Factor" & The Texas Rangers

If it hasn't been apparent in my treatments of the Twins and the Yankees, let me be clear, Narrative Likability Factor does not portend to statistical objectivity.  If you've been following this blog throughout the season, than you're probably already aware, I'm not impartial at all when it comes to the 2010 Rangers. I've never been a Texas fan before, and I may never be again, but this particular combination of players, coaches, and front office administrators won me over instantaneously, and they will hold my rooting interest for as long as they can stay alive this October.  This is my attempt to convince you that you, too, should throw in your lot with the most soulful team in baseball:

  • Performance Impairing Drugs:  Just weeks before the season began, the Rangers had to deal with reports that their manager, Ron Washington, had tested positive for cocaine the previous year.  Washington volunteered to resign, but Jon Daniels, Nolan Ryan, and the rest of the Ranger brass stood behind their skipper and appeared thoroughly nonplussed when asked to comment on the reports.  The underlying message was clear: so long as it didn't affect his ability to do his job, what Ron Washington does on his own time is his business.  This team has improved its record every year since Washington took the reigns and are now headed for their first postseason appearance in over a decade.
  • The Painted Man:  Washington is, of course, not the only Ranger to have a very public struggle with drug abuse.  Josh Hamilton nearly lost his career to his addiction.  The '99 #1 pick washed out of professional baseball from 2003 until 2006.  He struggled to make his way back, his every supposed relapse the subject of national speculation, and, with a body ravaged by years of systematic poisoning, he's struggled to stay on the field.  When healthy, however, he has proven himself to be among the superlative talents in the game.  And for somebody with such gifts to have been humbled as Hamilton has, makes him all that much easier to root for.  The Hamilton story may be somewhat old news now, as the climax may still be his performance at the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, but we can be certain that will change if he can lead the Rangers to their first ever World Series.
  • They Could Really Use Those Postseason Gates:  The Rangers entered into this season on the verge of bankruptcy and, after a prolonged court battle, were finally put up for auction just over a month ago.  The good news has been that Nolan Ryan, the team president since 2008 and now minority owner, has been a consistent presence throughout, but it seems safe to say that the Rangers would be the first MLB franchise to go bust and life a trophy in the same season.
  • Big Daddy:  Vladimir Guerrero is one of the five best players of his generation and is almost certainly headed for the Hall of Fame.  But like recent Hall of Fame inductee, Andre Dawson, Vlad has spent much of his thirties hampered by knee and back injuries which likely result from years of playing on the rockhard Astroturf in Montreal.  Vladdy was the driving force in the Angels lineup from '04-'07, winning an MVP, leading his team to the playoffs three times, and hitting .327 with an average of 33 HR and 119 RBI every season.  But, in '08 and '09, his production fell off slightly as he was limited by injuries and often forced into the DH role.  The Angels allowed Vlad to walk away this past offseason, to their divisional rival no less, for less money than they gave Hideki Matsui, about half the money they gave Bobby Abreu, and less than a third of what they're paying Torii Hunter.  Guerrero responded by once again hitting like an MVP candidate, with a .301 average, 28 HR, and 111 RBI.  He's headed to the playoffs, his former team is staying home.
  • AAAA: Nelson Cruz was traded three times before his 25th birthday.  When he still hadn't become a major-league regular at age 28, many scouts believed he was one of those "AAAA players," able to dominate throughout the minors, but unable to hack it in the Show.  Over the last two seasons, however, Cruz has turned into one of the most awesome power-hitters in the American League.  He has struggled to remain healthy, but when he's in the Rangers lineup he's been good for a .544 SLG, while also hitting at a solid clip (.282) and stealing bases (36 in 44 attempts).
  • The Maddux-Ryan Effect: For most of the last decade, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has been considered one of the most homer-friendly environs in the major leagues and, as a result, the Rangers have struggled to attract free agent pitchers and have consistently compiled some of the worst team ERAs in professional baseball history.  That is, until recently.  Since Nolan Ryan joined the front office and Mike Maddux became the Rangers pitching coach, the Rangers have, like the Rockies before them, refused to see their ballpark as a crutch.  Much has been made of the Ryan's very public statements about starting pitcher endurance, but that has been only one minor aspect of the Texas pitching revolution.  Yes, this season the Rangers have three pitchers with 190+ innings for the first time since 1998.  They are also throwing more strikes and inducing more groundballs, thus leading to more quality innings.  The biggest piece of the Maddux-Ryan plan, however, may be conditioning pitchers who are without ego.  The new Ranger Ace, Cliff Lee, is one of the most unflappable, workaday superstars in the game, in part because the game humbled him in spectacular fashion back in 2007, when, after averaging 15 wins and 200 innings for three straight seasons, he found himself mired in such a slump that the Indians optioned him back to the minor leagues and then left him off their postseason roster.  Colby Lewis is a former first-round pick who struggled so mightily in the majors that he spent the last two years pitching in the Japan League.  These are pitchers who've faced adversity before, and they don't flinch when a flyball that would be caught just about anywhere else lands in the sixteenth row of the Arlington bleachers.
  • They're Due:  There are thirty MLB franchises.  Only three of them have never been to the World Series, and of those three - Seattle, Texas, & Washington - the Rangers are the oldest, having joined the league in 1961.  Worse yet, the Rangers are the only MLB franchise that has never even advanced as far as their League Championship Series.  They were eliminated in the ALDS in all three postseason appearances ('96, '98, '99).  Sure, teams like the Cubs and Indians have waited longer than the Rangers for a championship, but at least they've got a few dingy old depression-era banners to hang in their rafters.  Texas got nothing.  Nada.  So they're due.  
Foremost because of that final point, the Rangers are loaded with underdog credentials.  They have the lowest payroll of any of the AL playoff teams and the only NL contender that's beneath them is the Padres.  They will probably have the weakest record of any of the AL playoff teams and they're coming out of arguably the weakest division, so they have been largely an afterthought in most of the mainstream media discussions of potential ALCS matchups.  Washington is the only one of the playoff-bound managers in the AL who has no previous postseason experience (Bud Black is the only such manager in the NL).  With the exception of Lee (and Rich Harden, in the unlikely event he makes the roster), the Rangers don't have a single starting pitcher who's experienced the postseason, and Darren Oliver is the only such player in their bullpen.  All this, combined with nagging injuries, especially to Hamilton, Cruz, and Ian Kinsler, could combine to make the Texas squad a bit tight and easy pickings for one of the AL East juggernauts (probably the Rays).  Or, they could be a team of destiny and the first first-time champions since the Angels in 2002.  

Narrative Likability: A+   

R.I.P. 2010 Rockies?

Most obituaries for the Rockies season will probably lead with the fact that coming off a 13-2 stretch which helped them climb to within a game of the division lead, they dropped three in a row to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a last place team that is playing without their best hitter (Justin Upton) and has a decimated starting rotation (having lost Brandon Webb to injury and traded away Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson).

This is certainly a logical place to begin, however, I'm going to focus instead on the stretch in mid-July, just following the All-Star Break when the Rox dropped 11 of 13.  At that time, they had also just completed a hot stretch which had moved them to within a game of first place, but they proceeded to lose four straight series, not only to good teams like the Phillies and Reds, but also to bottom-feeders like the Marlins and Pirates.  We are reminded ad nauseum this time of year that "every game counts," and the Rockies will probably be haunted by that axiom this winter as much as any team.

When they were still hanging around .500 at the end of July, we were reminded again and again of the team's propensity for late-season heroics.  And, sure enough, when September began they reeled off a ten-game winning streak.  But, alas, that wasn't enough.  What really doomed the Rockies was not the D-Backs sweep or this past weekend's tough losses in a hard-fought series with the division-leading Giants.  What doomed the Rockies were those eight blown saves they posted in April and May while they were waiting for Huston Street to come off the D.L.   Also of crucial importance were those 15 starts that got handed to Greg Smith (6.23 ERA) and Esmil Rogers (6.47 ERA) while Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, and Jeff Francis were on the shelf.   We might also point out that losing streak in July corresponded with Troy Tulowitzki's rather serious wrist injury.

So, the Rockies, who many, including myself, favored to win the NL West this season, will not be returning to the postseason.  Still, there are some good things to take away from their 2010 campaign:

Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez may qualify as the two biggest breakout players in the National League.  CarGo threatened to make a run at the Triple Crown before Albert Pujols took a commanding lead in homers during the final month.  He'll get MVP consideration, but will likely lose some votes to his teammate, Tulowitzki, and be penalized by some voters for his drastic home/road splits.  Nevertheless, he became a star during his age 24 season and won't even be eligible for arbitration until 2012.

Jimenez, who the Rockies wisely signed to a long-term deal prior to the season, will also get considerable support during the awards voting.  Presumably, those that believe that Coors Field was too friendly to Gonzalez will be mighty impressed by Ubaldo's 9-1 record, 1.26 WHIP, and 3.23 ERA in the thin air.  He was even better on the road (10-6, 2.81 ERA, 1.12 WHIP).

Tulowitzki is still making a run at the all-time record for homers in the month of September.  He's currently two back of Babe Ruth and Albert Belle (17).  His spectacular hot stretch - 1070 OPS, 18 HR, 61 RBI in 54 games since returning - must be a major relief to the Colorado brass, as wrist injuries often leave hitters sapped of their power for several seasons after they are fully healed (i.e. Derrek Lee, David Ortiz).  Tulo's was mild by comparison and he is clearly no longer feeling any ill effects.

Colorado has also found a solid young starter to plug in behind Jimenez and De La Rosa.  Since being promoted to the rotation permanently at the beginning of August, Jhoulys Chacin has gone 4-2 with a 1.98 ERA in 50 IP.

This was probably the first year that Colorado fans truly expected their team to be contenders, so it can't help but be disappointing to see them falling short in September, especially to teams with considerable flaws like San Diego and Atlanta.  However, there are many competitive season left for this incarnation of the Rox.  I expect to see them playing postseason baseball again very soon.  

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Narrative Likability Factor" & The New York Yankees

A Yankee win this evening would bring their playoff magic number to 1.  With both Tampa Bay and Minnesota neck-and-neck in terms of overall record, the Bombers still need a good week to assure themselves home-field advantage, but it seems a foregone conclusion, at least, that they'll once again be part of the drama of October baseball.

Earlier this week I discussed the invention of Narrative Likability Factor, a metric for baseball humanists.  NLF definitely gives priority to players and teams which have overcome obstacles and adversity, have suffered from perpetual underdog syndrome, have long-suffering fan-bases, and are replete with soulful, underrated players and coaches.

It probably goes without saying that the franchise which won last year's World Series, owns more championships than any team in professional sports history, consistently boasts the largest payrolls and revenues in the league, and caters primarily to the most affluent citizens of the nation's largest city does not score particularly high on the Narrative Likability scale.  In truth, the Evil Empire acts something like an inverse curvebreaker.  Their presence in the playoffs helps to raise everybody else's score.  Even the Phillies, two-time reigning NL Champs boasting multiple MVP winners and Cy Young candidates, seem like pesky underdogs compared to the team that ousted them just under a year ago.

Still, it seems necessary to set this bar, no matter how low.  The following narratives will probably only be appealing to that unfortunately preponderant sociopathic strain in American culture known as Yankee fandom, but here goes:
  • The Boss Is Lost:  He is one of the great antiheroes of baseball history, but that doesn't necessarily make George Steinbrenner's career any less compelling.  We engorge ourselves on baseball villains as ravenously as on baseball's virtuous paragons.  In the event that - God Forbid! - the Yankees hoist another banner in 2010, there will undoubtedly be an entertaining postmodern perversity to the posthumous treatment of the curmudgeonly demagogue with "win-one-for-the-gipper" sentimentality.  His psychotic hellspawn - Hank and Hal - accept the trophy in his honor and blubber, through forced blood-tears, about their early years, hiding for weeks in tight, dark corners of the Steinbrenner mansion, quivering in response to the Boss' tendency towards filial cannibalism.  "We didn't know it then," Hank whinnies, "but he was just preparing us for the reality of the business world.  I will think of him most fondly every time we negotiate a new competitive-bargaining agreement."
  • El Capitan:  Derek Jeter has been so uncharacteristically bad this year, posting by far the lowest OPS (707) of his fifteen-year career, that even his most rabid apologists have questioned the wisdom of resigning him to the kind of outlandish contract ($15-$20 Million/year) that seemed a foregone conclusion when the season began.  Several New York columnists, finding it more and more difficult to defend Jeter's performance, which has gotten progressively worse over the course of the season, have already resorted to commending him on rising to the occasion in October.  Captain Clutch, we all assume, will be right back to his old exploits (980 career OPS in ALDS) when the playoffs begin.  If this premonition proves accurate, prepare yourself for a even greater chokeload of Jeter love from Joe Buck and the rest mainstream media in the ALCS and World Series.  Jeter's postseason prowess is the well-placed dimple which provokes a father to call his plain-jane daughter "beautiful."
  • Flipping the Script:  The Yankees biggest offseason acquisition, Javier Vazquez (10-9, 5.07 ERA) and Curtis Granderson (779 OPS), have had rather mediocre seasons, prompting the typical backlash from the coven of New York sportswriters who worship exclusively at the church of the trinity - Jeter, Rivera, Posada.  New guys suck, basically.  Granderson, who's been dogged by injuries much of the year, has quietly been very hot over the last month, with 8 HR, 22 RBI, and a 912 OPS.  Vazquez has continued to struggle, fueling the pervasive "can't hack it in New York" rants which began as soon as he was re-acquired.  Expect the tune to change if either or both of them step it up in October.  
  • Spend, Baby, Spend:  In the wake of the MLB Confidential leaks at Deadspin, which suggest that teams like the Marlins may be making nearly as much in pure profit as the Yankees by merely pocketing their revenue-sharing dollars (many of which come directly out of the Yankee coffers), the "buying championships" argument is thinner than ever.  If there was ever a reason to root for the Yankees, this is it.  They're annually asked to subsidize their rivals, but then have to listen all year long to bitching about their $250 Million payroll while slimy owners like Jeffrey Loria trade away their best talents the moment they become eligible for arbitration.  At least the Yankees profit-model, as ugly as it may be, especially in the era of Yankee Stadium III, involves putting a competitive product on the field.  You'll need a sizable trust fund if you want to catch an obstructed view of that field, but you'll never have to worry about them starting Emilio Bonafacio is center-field in September.
At the end of last season, after the Yankees made relatively easy work of Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, I was able to take solace in the fact that if the Yankees didn't win at least one championship every decade, we might lose our sense of evil in the world.  The offseason will be even darker this year if they manage to repeat.  

Narrative Likability Factor: F (uck the Yankees!)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Narrative Likability Factor: A Metric For Humanities Majors" & The Minnesota Twins

Any of you who have read this blog before are well aware that I have no problem being conversive in sabermetrics.  This is not a intended as an anti-SABR diatribe or parody.  All I intend to suggest is that at times, and especially in the romantic seasons (i. e. spring and fall), it is easy to become immersed in baseball humanism.  Baseball humanism is the perception that the game possesses a metanarrative, something akin to a parable, or a synechdoche of American history, which makes it more than just a mechanism for enabling gamblers.

Certainly, at its worst, baseball humanism inspires crass nostalgia, old-fogeyism, and self-righteousness.  It is the undercurrent of belligerent steroid conspiracy theories, short-sighted assertions that baseball's "Golden Age" happened prior to integration, basically the entire body of Murray Chass' forgettable canon, and the abundant moralizing of other half-wit sportswriters.  Being a good baseball humanist does not, as Chass believes, mean you hate statistics and stubbornly believe that the abject coincidences of your own experience are necessarily equivalent to "truth."  Bill James and Rob Neyer, two of the most notorious voices of sabermetrics, are both apparent baseball humanists.  The power of baseball humanism (like all humanisms, for that matter) is in our hope that the game, governed by a fairly knowable system of laws, conventions, and politics, is analogous to everything else, that broiling, festering knot of opaque inconsistency and unfathomable immensity we call life.

Some of the heroes of baseball humanism are obvious: Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Curt Flood.  The powerful social implications of their careers are inestimable.  Likewise, there are antiheroes - Ty Cobb, Pete Rose, Jose Canseco - whose stories, though not to be emulated, are equally compelling.  One of the reasons we adore sport is that the lives of such athletes unfold in front of us as though they were the protagonists of a serialized fiction.  And we have great patience for every variation within the genre.  We are equally amused by the heroic ascensions of Horatio Alger (i.e. Hank Greenberg) and the absurdist tragedies of Franz Kafka (i.e. Milton Bradley).  Omniscience is limited, obviously, but not as much as proponents of privacy would expect.  Thus, we are guided along by an anonymous author whose incredible skill is his ability to write as eloquently as Michael Lewis and Buzz Bissinger, when the occasion demands, but also as amateurishly as Gene Wojciechowski and Mark Fainura-Wada, when his aims are satirical.  It's a dexterity not even John Dos Passos could equal.

One of the great joys of the postseason is joining narratives in media res.  For those players who advance deep into October, especially, a major episode is being written, one which, when we reflect on their "story," will likely help to guide our interpretation. (Clemente's story is soulful, regardless, but is made so much sweeter by his performance in the 1971 postseason.  Similar claims can be made for Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Brooks Robinson, etc.)  In this season's postseason primer, I preview each team based not on their talent, but on their dramatic potential.  What narratological traits have guided them so far, what kind of stories could be yielded by a deep run in October.  Let's begin with a look at the narrative potential of the first team to officially punch their postseason ticket, the Minnesota Twins.

  • Retribution Songs (Verse 1): In order to reach the World Series, the Twins will need to upset at least one and likely both of the AL East juggernauts.  New York upended Minnesota with relative ease in the ALDS a year ago, so that sting is relatively fresh for several Twinks, but the personal scars run deeper for Carl Pavano.  Pavano spent four years in the Bronx as part of the largest contract of his career ($40 Million).  During that time he managed to make only 26 starts and compiled a 5.00 ERA.  Through a combination of flukish injuries, off-the-field antics, and clubhouse scuffles, he became one of the most ridiculed figures in New York sports and a major scapegoat for the Yankees inability to get past the Division Series from '05-'08.  Last year, Pavano pitched an outstanding game (7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 K) against his former team in Minnesota, but the Yankees still won, finishing off their sweep.  This year, Pavano will likely get the chance to pitch in Yankee Stadium, in front of fans who unmercifully booed him for most of his tenure in New York.  Beating the Yankees is always sweet, but for Carl Pavano it would be even sweeter.
  • Retribution Songs (Verse 2): If the Twins matchup with Tampa Bay in either the ALDS or the ALCS, their lead singer will be Delmon Young.  The Devil Rays made Young the #1 draft pick in 2003 and in 2007, at the age of 21, he played all 162 games and finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year balloting.  As reward, he was traded to the cold Northwest for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.  The following season, the team exorcized the "Devil" from their name and went to the World Series.  The underlying narrative was quite simple.  The entitled, bat-tossing Young had been the bad egg amongst a group of outstanding prospects, including Josh Hamilton, B. J. Upton, and Elijah Dukes.  For two seasons Young floundered for the Twins, struggling to even hold onto a starting role, while Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett were key players for the Rays.  This year, however, in the parlance of our times, the "script has been flipped."  Young was on the Final Vote ballot for the All-Star game.  He leads his team in doubles (42) and RBI (105), and he just turned 25 last week, while Bartlett is in danger of losing his starting position to Reid Brignac and Garza has posted the worst ERA of his career (4.01, not that bad).  If Young can help the Twins eliminate the Rays, it would be a cold, raw plate of revenge.  This is the window of opportunity for the Rays team as it is currently constructed, featuring many of Young's longtime compadres.  Next year, Tampa will lose many key players, slash their payroll, and begin the rebuilding process.  They'd like to do so on the back of their first championship.  Standing in their way is their former top prospect.
  • Overcoming Adversity: If Justin Morneau cannot recover from his concussion in time for the playoffs, the Twins will take the field without two of their three highest-paid and most popular players.  Minnesota lost long-time closer, Joe Nathan, before the season even began and Morneau, who was an MVP candidate in the first half, hasn't played since the All-Star Break.  Nevertheless, the Twins are in the running for the best record in baseball, fueling Ron Gardenhire's candidacy for Manager of the Year.  
  • Dome Sweet Dome?:  This is the Twins first year in a new waterfront stadium, Target Field, which is, by all reports I've gathered, a lovely place to see a ballgame.  Moreover, its opening inspired Twins management to raise their payroll by $30 Million and resign the face of the franchise, Joe Mauer.  Nevertheless, there is still a small but vocal minority who believe the Twins sacrificed a franchise icon and one of the keys to their prolonged success by leaving the florescent glare of the Metrodome, and they can back their arguments up with a pretty potent home-field advantage demonstrated over many seasons.  Bringing home the first Twins championship since 1991 would be the most effective way of putting a sock in the naysayers.  
  • Sweet Ole' Jim:  The Twins DH, Jim Thome, is high on the list of greatest players who have never won a World Series.  He hasn't even been to a World Series since 1997, and, at 40, he's not got a lot of chances left.  By all accounts, Thome is an all-around nice guy and a superb teammate.  He's also put the team on his Paul Bunyan shoulders for much of the second-half, following Justin Morneau's concussion, so he's more than just a familiar face.  In terms of "win one for the gipper"-type sentimentality, Thome is pretty easy to get behind.  

As with just about any team, you can point to several other soulful players - Orlando Hudson, Francisco Liriano, J. J. Hardy, Matt Capps - who have something to prove in the bright lights of the postseason.  The likely pairing of the Twins with the Yankees makes them feel like a natural underdog.  However, we should point out that they will have the third highest payroll of any team in this year's playoffs (regardless of how it all plays out in the NL).  And, frankly, does MLB need anymore fuel for their "if you build it, they will come" mantra?  Especially since, by "they," MLB means "the affluent."  New York and St. Louis both won championships in the opening season at their gaudy new stadiums, each within the last five years.  It's kind of a tired premise.  Still, of all the teams battling for a playoff bid, only the Reds (1990) and Rangers (19-never) have gone longer without representing their league in the World Series.

Narrative Likability Factor: B+

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Who should be the Twins starter in ALDS Game 1?

With another White Sox loss (7 in a row, geesh) and another Twins victory last night, Minnesota's magic number is 2, meaning they will almost certainly be the first team to clinch, perhaps as soon as tonight. The question will then be, how eagerly will Gardenhire pursue home-field advantage?  The Twins are neck-and-neck with the Yankees and Rays at this point, so they'll have to play dominant ball over the next two weeks in order to come out with the top record, especially since following the New York series, Tampa will be getting rich on Seattle, Baltimore, and Kansas City.  

Gardy's already announced that he's going with a six-man rotation for the next couple turns, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Twins can't win a lot of those games, facing teams like Cleveland, Detroit, and Kansas City.  It would, however, probably require him to continue to lean heavily on relievers like Jesse Crain and Matt Capps, while playing Joe Mauer and Jime Thome almost everyday, and my inclination is that all those guys could use some rest.

I know Gardy isn't exactly a stats guys, but when it comes to setting a playoff rotation, it's hard to ignore these:

Scott Baker - Home: 8-3, 3.98 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, Away: 4-6, 5.24 ERA, 1.34 WHIP
Nick Blackburn - Home: 6-3, 4.04 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, Away: 3-7, 6.99 ERA, 1.70 WHIP
Brian DuensingHome: 6-1, 1.59 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, Away: 4-1, 2.86 ERA, 1.22 WHIP
Francisco Liriano - Home: 7-4, 2.83 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, Away: 7-4, 4.19 ERA, 1.38 WHIP
Carl Pavano - Home: 8-4, 3.90 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, Away: 9-7, 3.38 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
Kevin Slowey - Home: 8-4, 3.67 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, Away: 5-2, 4.91 ERA, 1.36 WHIP

What this suggests to me is that home-field advantage makes a big difference to the Twins, not necessarily in whether or not they can win a five-game series, but in terms of which pitchers give them the best opportunity for doing so.  Frankly, there's no way I give Blackburn a start away from Target Field, regardless of his recent hot streak.  I also make sure that Pavano is starting at least one of my road games, two if that's possible.  If all other factors are moot, here's how I think you'd set it up:

w/ Home Field:
Liriano (H), Duensing (H), Pavano (R), Slowey (R), Liriano (H)

w/o Home Field:
Pavano (R), Liriano (R), Duensing (H), Blackburn (H), Pavano (R)

The other thing Gardy should take into account is the fact that Yankee Stadium is tailored to left-handed hitters, so left-handed pitchers usually fair better there, thus perhaps tempting him to go against Liriano and Duensing's home/road splits.  Undoubtedly, he's waiting to see who his opponent is before setting the rotation.  The Yankees have a .625 W% against RHP this year, compared to .574 against LHP. Tampa is the exact opposite: .561 v. RHP, .667 v. LHP.  So, basically, the argument for Pavano over Liriano to get two starts makes much more sense if the Twins are starting the series in Tampa Bay, rather than in New York or in Minnesota.  

At the end of the day, however, while I think these stats should be taken into account when deciding whether to go with Blackburn over Slowey or Baker, I want my best pitcher taking the hill for two starts in a short series, no matter what the splits say.  And the best pitcher on the Twins is Liriano, and it's not really close:

Liriano - 14-8, 3.44 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 9.38 K/9, 2.75 BB/9, 0.25 HR/9, 2.44 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), 6.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement)

Pavano - 17-11, 3.60 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 4.80 K/9, 1.54 BB/9, 0.90 HR/9, 3.92 FIP, 3.2 WAR

Let me break this down a little.  The Yankees and Rays rank 3rd and 5th in the AL in homers this season.  Both teams, but especially the Yankees, score a high percentage of their runs off the long ball.  Pavano is three times more likely to give up homers.  Pavano has also been a little lucky this season in terms of batting average on balls in play (BABIP).  Generally, when hitters manage to put the ball in play, it drops for a hit around 30% of the time.  Pavano has been are 28%, while Liriano has been around 34%.  Neither is an incredible outlier, but this explains to some extent why the FIP statistic theorizes that over a prolonged period of time, if Pavano and Liriano pitched under the same exact circumstance, Pavano's ERA would be a little higher than it is (3.92), while Liriano's would be a full run lower than it is.

But what really strikes me here is the Wins Above Replacement gap, with Liriano being three wins more valuable than Pavano.  WAR takes into account things like the quality of competition, the places the pitcher made his specific starts, etc.  Basically, what WAR is telling us is that although Liriano has been a bit unlucky in terms of wins and ERA, he's about twice as valuable a pitcher as Pavano.  This, I think you'll agree, is backed up by watching them pitch.  While Liriano has suffered from injury and inconsistency over the course of his career, he has frequently shown the ability to be a dominant "Ace," as he has been doing throughout this year.  Pavano, despite an excellent performance in 2010, has never really been that kind of pitcher.  Maybe he was in 2004 with the Marlins (18-8, 3.00 ERA), but the 34-year-old version is considerably changed with long intervening track record of mediocrity.

Obviously, it would be great to see Pavano dominate the Yankees in New York, wreaking vengeance for years of ridicule and abuse.  However, this story is all the more powerful if it unfolds in game two or game three, especially if the Twins already have a series lead.  

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: H2H Championship Week(s)

Most fantasy analysis is directed at "roto" leagues.  The "rotisserie" format is credited with being the original version of fantasy baseball, invented at a restaurant bearing that name in the 1970s.  All the major expert leagues - LABR, Tout Wars, etc. - still abide those rules.  The truth is, however, there has been a significant shift towards a wider variety of styles in recent years, especially towards H2H leagues.  The advantage of H2H play is that you are rarely undone by a poor stretch early in the season or an untimely spat of injuries.  Active managers adjust and find ways to squeak into the playoffs, where anything can happen, just like in the real thing.  In one of my most competitive leagues last season, I began the year by going 0-8.  In a competitive roto league, that abysmal April probably would've killed any title dreams, but because it was a H2H league, a couple deft maneuvers led to a strong finish and in October I walked away with the prize money.  Because something like this tends to happen relatively frequently, owners stay much more active in H2H leagues.  They can hold out hope for a season-saving hot streak until at least August.

The drawback of H2H leagues (if you choose to see it that way) is that the championship rides on your performance over a very abbreviated period of time.  Usually the playoffs last no longer than six weeks, more often four, with the final two teams facing off during the last two weeks of the season (a.k.a. starting tomorrow).  So, while you may have led your league in every statistical category in 2010, you can still be runner-up if things don't go your way down the stretch.  To add to your frustration, there is the fact that many franchises will be limiting the play of their superstars and/or testing out inexperienced call-ups during this stretch, reeking havoc on your lineup.  Basically, the landscape for the Championship round is completely different from everything you've done thusfar.

This year (assuming I survive the Tigers/White Sox game unscathed) through a minor miracle, I am playing in the Championship round in five H2H leagues.  Three of those leagues are "weekly," so the lineups are locked when games begin on Monday.  Here are some of the things I'm thinking about this evening:

1.) No Tomorrow

With everything riding on two weeks worth of production, you can't leave any holes in your lineup.  It will be great if Jimmy Rollins and Josh Hamilton make their returns for the final few days of the season.  If you have room to stash them on your bench, do so.  But if not, in the words of Prince, "letitgo".  In all likelihood, guys like Mike Aviles, Jhonny Peralta, J. J. Hardy, and Jed Lowrie are going to do a lot more for you than J-Roll, as much as I hate to admit it.  Even in keeper leagues, though you're probably not going to drop a Rollins or a Hamilton, you should take a long hard look at your team, consider who your potential 2011 keepers could be, and make everybody else expendable.  Don't get attached.  Don't get sentimental.  Dustin Pedroia will survive being cut from your World Series roster.

2.) Pennant Race Pitchers

One of the most frustrating parts of the H2H playoffs is that you don't get to set your rotation.  Obviously, if I had my way, Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Cliff Lee, and Ian Kennedy would all get at least three starts in the next fourteen days.  But, plainly, that's not going to happen.  Halladay will no doubt be shutdown as soon as the Phillies clinch.  Same for Lee in Texas.  Kennedy could be limited due to the fact he's already about 25 innings past his previous career-high and Arizona is playing mostly meaningless baseball.  You need to analyze your staff very carefully and prepare to make some unusual decisions.

Jairr Jurrjens has not been very good this year, but Atlanta doesn't have anybody preferable waiting in the wings, so it looks like Jurrjens will start three of their remaining twelve games, as the Braves attempt to squeeze into the postseason.  Sure, he might lose all three, but nine times out of ten a three-start pitcher is going to be better than a one-start pitcher, no matter who they are.  Comb the waiver wire for guys who still have something to play for, either because they're in a dogfight for a playoff berth or because they're trying to prove something going forward.  Jake Westbrook is going to be a free agent come Novermber.  Every quality start he registers for the Cardinals is likely to put money in his pocket.  John Lannan was so bad early in the season he got sent back to AAA.  He's been pitching gangbusters since his return and will be headed to arbitration this offseason.  He'll want to have a strong evidence that he's still Washington's Ace.  It's also worth thinking about guys like John Ely and Jeff Samardzija, who are trying to get into the mix for next season's rotation.

3.) Watch The Scoreboard

This is a facet of the "no tomorrow" approach, but if you play in a "category" league (as opposed to a points league), pay close attention to where your strengths and weaknesses lie, especially as you get close to the end of the first week.  If you're down by ten homers, but ahead by two stolen bases, it may be time to drop Adam Dunn, Jay Bruce, and Mark Reynolds in favor of Michael Brantley, Jose Tabata, and Emilio Bonafacio.  Also, don't overdo it with the pitching.  If you have a solid lead in wins and strikeouts, and a slight edge in ERA and WHIP, don't rush to pick up Chris Capuano or Jeanmar Gomez just because your strategy is to stream starters.  You've got the lead.  If your opponent makes a little run, then you can resort to desperate measures, but don't post a 10.60 ERA on Tuesday night only to realize you would've swept the pitching categories if you'd just had the good sense to leave your damn staff alone.

4.) Play Defense

So, it's Thursday of the second week of the Championship and you've got a modest lead in strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP.  The next evening Bud Norris is going to be pitching against the Cubs.  Now, you don't want Norris because he's liable to give up seven earned in three innings, but you also don't want your opponent to pick him up, because he's equally liable to strike out eleven Cubbies in seven innings.  There's no harm in stashing him on your bench.  First come, first serve.

5.) Not Every Season Ends On Sunday

Over the next two weeks, many players will be shut down.  Players whose teams were long ago eliminated might be prepping for elective surgeries.  Young pitchers might reach their innings limits.  At the very least, several starting pitchers will make their final starts on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.  Once their season is over, they are of no use to you.  Drop the starter, pick up a middle reliever who can get you a handful of strikeouts and maybe a few innings of solid ERA and WHIP (if those are things you still need).

Finally, have fun.  There's no guarantee you'll have the opportunity to play this particular aspect of the game every year.  Get into it.  Watch the Pirates play the Astros, so that you can see how your James McDonald pick worked out.  Talk some shit on the message-board.  Check the box scores under the table during a staff meeting.  Bore your wife and girlfriend with braggadocio about your amazing Justin Masterson prediction.  That's why we do this, after all.  Isn't it?        

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The SPH 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey (a.k.a. More Bad News For Mets Fans)

Due to my hectic summer, I haven't made an S.S.S. update for several months, but with one of the game's most prominent pitchers, Johan Santana, going under the knife, I thought it was probably an appropriate time to renew our discussion.  (To track how this all began, you can go here.)

I'm going to start with the good news.

The 2010 poster-child for shoulder rehabilitation has to be Ted Lilly.  Lilly was back on a major-league mound approximately seven months after having his "frayed labrum" repaired and before long he was again among the most dependent, durable, and underrated pitchers in the National League.  His record for 2010 is just 8-11, due in large part to playing on a pair of teams (Cubs & Dodgers) which seem to be coming apart at the seems.  Lilly's overall numbers are solid (3.83 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 141 K, 172 IP) and very similar to what he posted immediately preceding the operation (3.10 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 151 K, 177 IP).  Lilly may be showing a little fatigue.  He began his tenure with the Dodgers by winning his first five starts, but is 0-3 with a 7.47 ERA in his last four.  One could speculate that this is a result of a diminished strength-building routine following the surgery last offseason, but it could also merely be the result of natural tendency towards indifference bred of being a veteran on a team that no longer has a shot at the postseason.  This rough stretch aside, however, Lilly has done plenty to prove that the injury should not effect his bargaining position when he hits the free agent market this winter.

There have also been positive developments from Jeremy Bonderman.  Bonderman missed well over a year following his surgery, in part because he re-injured the shoulder trying to make too quick a return.   A note of caution to Santana and the Mets: Bonderman's injury was not unlike that which Johan recently suffered and, in general, there is a tendency toward re-injury following these surgeries.  Bonderman struggled getting back into sync following his long layoff, posting a 6.97 ERA in April, but has steadily improved over the course of the season.  Since May 1, he's 7-8 with a 4.75 ERA.  That's still a far cry from the pitcher who helped the Tigers get to the World Series a few years back, but there have been glimpses of that former glory.  Last week he shut down the White Sox for eight innings, allowing only three hits and striking out eight.  Perhaps this is a flash of what we can expect from a fully recovered Bonderman in 2011?  If not, he has still proven himself to be capable of being a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater.

Freddy Garcia played a similar role for the White Sox this season, his first full year since having his labrum repaired way back in 2007.  Garcia posted a strong record, 11-6, for the ChiSox, but with modest overall numbers (4.88 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 83 K, 144 IP) before being shut down earlier this month due to an unrelated back injury.  It's apparent that, at 36, Garcia will never be the Ace he was earlier in his career, but he did manage sixteen quality starts (62%) in 2010.  You might be surprised to find that's more than All-Stars like Johnny Cueto, Yovani Gallardo, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes.

Nagging injuries were a prevalent issue for our survey participants, perhaps no surprise considering the long period spent away from the game following their operations.  Not only could it effect their endurance, but also potentially their mechanics.  Reports out of Colorado this preseason suggested that Jeff Francis was having to completely relearn his delivery.  Francis continued to feel "tightness" in his pitching shoulder even after his return in mid-May, which forced him back to the D.L. after about half a season of work.  In his 17 starts he has been, much like Bonderman and Garcia, respectable but unspectacular (4-5, 4.61 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 61 K, 96 IP).  He's mixed in a couple of gems (for instance, seven innings of three-hit ball against Florida in July), but also failed to get past the third inning on two occasions.  The Rockies are expecting him to take over Aaron Cook's spot in the rotation for the next two weeks.  We'll see whether he can rise to the occasion following a month of rest.

Sadly, considering how modest these results are, that's the end of the "good" news.  Of the eight players we began tracking at the beginning of the season, only these four managed to make it back to the mound in 2010.  The Mariners were cautiously optimistic that Erik Bedard would be ready by the All-Star Break, but he also fell victim to the urgency of his rehab and ended up having a "setback" which resulted in yet another surgery, this time to remove a bone spur.  As yet, there's still no timetable for his return.  The same can be said of Brandon Webb and Chien-Ming Wang, two other former All-Stars who may never fully recover from their injuries.  Webb is tentatively hoping to make a couple of relief appearances before the end of the season, but the D-Backs have been slow to confirm that report.  Having now missed almost two full seasons, it is impossible to predict what the former Cy Young winner will look like if he is indeed ready for Opening Day in 2011.  The future of Wang, the former Yankee Ace, is even more uncertain.  Same for Dustin McGowan, the promising young Blue Jays starter, who also had an additional surgery in June and is unlikely to be ready in time for Opening Day 2011.

All told, that's a pretty dismal picture of Johan's prospects.  Of these eight pitchers, seven of them missed a season or more rehabbing after surgery.  Of the four who have made it back to the mound, only one has come anywhere near his previous level of effectiveness.  While Santana isn't dealing with major labrum or rotator cuff repairs, the "torn capsule" is the same thing which Bonderman and Wang were treated for, and both missed well over a season.  It would be wise, based on this track record, if the Mets reconsidered their intentions of trying to have him ready in the first half of 2011.  That seems fairly far-fetched.  And, as we saw with several of these cases, the urgency to return can actually prolong and exacerbate the injury, even to the point to requiring additional surgery.  I would not expect Santana to be ready before August of next year.  Even then it is unlikely he will immediately pitch like an Ace.  Unfortunately, he may never again look like the perennial Cy Young candidate we've come to expect.

Friday, September 17, 2010

R.I.P. 2010 White Sox

Way back in March, I very tentatively predicted the White Sox to win a tight AL Central race.  As it turned out, I wasn't terribly far off, but in early June I was feeling pretty silly.  At the start of play on June 9th, the Sox were 9.5 games back, trailing both the Twins and Tigers and 9 games under .500.  They looked a lot like their crosstown rivals - old legs, slow bats, and tired arms - and Ozzie's preseason promise, that they would return to the style that led to their championship in 2005, seemed like mere posturing.  But Ozzie kept telling the naysayers, "There's a lot of season left."

From the middle of June all the way to the All-Star Break, the White Sox became, to everybody's great surprise, the best team in baseball.  First they had a modest four-game winning streak, their first of the year. Than they reeled off eleven in a row.  Than, only a week later, nine more.  All told, from the 9th of June to the 15th of July they went 25-5 and they took over first place, where they remained for more than a month.

However, with the exception of a seven-game winning streak earlier in the month, the wheels have completely come off down the stretch.  The Sox have played pretty much .500 ball for the last six weeks and you can't make up ground on a good team like the Twins playing .500 ball.  And you especially can't keep losing to that team, as the Sox have done all year long, capped off by a three-game sweep at the Cell this week.  All told, Chicago went 5-14 this season against their division rival, easily their lowest winning percentage against any team.

Although they aren't heading back to the postseason, I think Ozzie, Ken Williams, and the rest of the franchise can be very pleased with their performance in 2010.  They will certainly finish with a winning record, and may approach 90 wins.  "Ozzie-ball," loosely characterized as the emphasis on durable starting pitching, aggressive baserunning, and swinging for the fences, has had the predicted Renaissance.  Juan Pierre currently leads the major leagues with 55 steals, Alex Rios is 10th with 33, and   Omar Vizquel, Alexei Ramirez, and Andruw Jones will all finish in the double digits.  Paul Konerko has had a resurgent, MVP-caliber season, hitting .322 with 36 HR and 104 RBI.  Rios, Ramirez, Jones, and Carlos Quentin have also chipped in considerably in the power department.  The Sox accomplished a relatively rare feat, finished in the top five in the AL in both homers (4th) and steals (3rd).

Perhaps more important than anything they do on offense, however, is the fact that the ChiSox staff consistently pitches deep into games.  The front three of Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd, though not among the league leaders in wins or ERA, having all been solid workhorses.  None have missed starts and all are on pace for 200+ innings.  The ability of this rotation to keep their team in games is evidenced by the fact they are fourth in the AL in relief wins, even though they twelfth in the league in relief innings.

Ken Williams once again proved himself to be one of the most creative, competitive, and effective GMs in the game.  Last season he gambled on Alex Rios, taking the outfielder's massive contract off waivers from Toronto.  Rios played horribly for the Sox down the stretch during '09, but this year he has been among their biggest contributors and, at 29, he future once again looks pretty bright.  Pierre, Vizquel, and Jones were added for a combined salary under $5 Million and all have played key roles.  The White Sox would not have hung around the race for this long without them.  A similar claim could be made for the cheap veteran pitchers Williams brought onboard last season, but who really paid off this year, J. J. Putz and Freddy Garcia.  As the pennant race neared, Williams was aggressive, as usual, netting Edwin Jackson, who has been outstanding since his arrival (3-1, 2.94 ERA) and Manny Ramirez, who hasn't been able to rekindle the September magic his brought with him to L.A. in 2008.

Sure, Williams wasn't perfect.  Mark Teahen and Mark Kotsay were marked busts.  As was Jake Peavy. But, as is common with Williams, he hedges his bets well enough that the franchise will not be sabotaged heading forward, even though the current roster is fairly expensive and fairly old.  The Sox have almost a $105 Million payroll this season, but only $75 Million committed next year.

As such, it will be a busy offseason for Kenny.  The Sox have a solid core to build around.  The rotation is set (Buehrle, Danks, Floyd, Jackson, Peavy [hopefully]).  Rios, Quentin, Ramirez, and Gordon Beckham give the lineup a solid young foundation.  Bobby Jenks, Chris Sale, and Matt Thornton will continue to pitch the late innings.  There are, however, three big decisions:

1.)  Paul Konerko will be a free agent.  The White Sox longest tenured player will probably finish in the top five in MVP voting this season, for the first time in his career.  Such production was a steal at $12 Million for 2010.  Konerko is, however, 35-years-old.  He's never been particularly good in the field and the footraces between him and Jim Thome are the stuff of South Side legends.  How much can the White Sox commit to the "face of the franchise" when he is coming off what will almost surely be the best year of his career.  Maybe the Yankee's can pay Jeter for "what he's meant to the franchise," as many are predicting they will, but with less than half as much payroll, the Sox don't have such a luxury.

2.)  J. J. Putz will also be going on the free agent market.  After a disastrous year with the Mets, Putz regained his form in Chicago.  In all likelihood, he will be looking to get another opportunity to close, as he did with great success for the Mariners from '06-'08.  He is the only player in the Sox bullpen with closing experience, beside Bobby Jenks, the current closer, whose performance has declined dramatically over the last three seasons.  The rotund fireballer, Jenks, was once a fan-favorite in Chicago, as he got the last out in the 2005 World Series and had a record-setting streak of perfect innings a couple years later.  He needs only 28 more saves to become the franchise leader, passing Bobby Thigpen.  Don't be surprised, however, if Kenny Williams makes the unsentimental decision of trading (or even releasing) Jenks this offseason, rather than paying an expensive arbitration award for a relief pitcher whose ERA is 4.44.  That could free him up to negotiate with Putz.

3.)  Konerko and Jenks are obviously more talented, but no single player encompasses the soul of White Sox baseball during the Ozzie Guillen era quite like A. J. Pierzynski.  Pierzynski clearly gets off a little on being "the most hated player in the game" and his energy and doggedness are clearly contagious.  And, he is the picture of consistency: good defense, decent power, decent average, and, most importantly, utterly dependable, never making a trip to the D.L.  When the season began, it looked all but certain that it would be Pierzynki's last as a White Sox.  Chicago's top prospect, Tyler Flowers, was coming off a monstrous season at AA.  However, Flowers progress slowed dramatically at AAA, as his OPS dropped more than 200 points, and now one has to question whether he's ready to fill A. J.'s shoes in 2011.  

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Do Yankees Prefer Yankees?" or "Is purebreeding consensual?"

Completely baseless pronouncements are the lifeblood of ESPN commentary.  At times, I think ESPN purposely hires the most ignorant and asinine broadcasters and "journalists" in the industry explicitly because they realize that we love their network most in the moments when their "experts" reveal themselves as so vulgarly stupid and incompetent that it becomes impossible to suffer them in silence.  While watching television, seemingly unmolested, you suddenly scream invectives so blue they surprise even your wife.  Or, while taking a leisurely stroll along the beach, innocently listening to a podcast on your headphones, you're inspired to bark incomprehensible half-syllables like a Tourette's sufferer, frightening bikini-clad passers-by.

The brazen ineptitude of the ESPN's "talent" begat one of the best sports blogs to yet grace the internet, Fire Joe Morgan, which is now being reborn as part of Deadspin.  However, ESPN's greatest contribution has definitely been making sport fans more self-aware.  One is less likely to blurt out an over-ambitious and/or under-developed assumption after seeing a buddy ruin his flatscreen trying to hit John Kruk with his beer.

A pervasive and irrational fondness for the Yankees and Red Sox at ESPN is, of course, nothing new, but in recent weeks they've gone googoo-gaga all over again for the Bronx Bombers.  If you're a baseball junkie like me, you won't need any proof of this, but perhaps the most egregious example was Eric Karabell and Mark Simon pronouncing on Baseball Today their assurance that the Yankees would end up winning the AL East by six or more games.  I've come to expect such things from their self-aggrandizing doofus of a co-host, Seth Everett, but Karabell and especially Simon are usually more tactful and deliberate in their reasoning.  In this case, however, they offered nothing in the way of evidence to support this prediction.  So, I have to assume that it's based on "pedigree" alone.

Ah, yes, the Yankee pedigree.  I've always found the fondness for this phrase fascinating, considering the term quite literally implies a high incidence of incest.

So, let's test their hypothesis...

First of all, at no point this season have the Yankees led the Rays by more than four games.  That certainly doesn't mean it can't happen, but the landscape of the first 90% of the season would have to be radically altered.

As things stand, entering tonight's contest against Texas, the Yankees have a one-game lead over the Rays in the AL East.  Both the Yankees and the Rays have 21 games remaining.  We should point out, there was only one instance this season when the Yankees gained as many as five games on the Rays in so short a period of time, that was in late May and early June, during a stretch when the Rays went 7-10 while the Yanks went 12-5. 

At no point this season have the Rays played 21 games and done any worse than 8-13.  Assuming they won't do any worse than that down the stretch (I'll explain the safeness of this assumption momentarily), for the Yankees to gain five or more games over the Rays, they will need to win, at the very least, 12 more games.

The remaining schedule makes both sides of this postulate seem far-fetched.

New York has eighteen games left against winning teams, including seven against the Rays and six against the archrival Red Sox.  So far, on the season, the Yanks have gone 5-6 against Tampa and 7-5 against Boston.  They also have to travel to Toronto to play a Jays team who is actually leading them in their season series (7-8).  This is hardly an easy schedule.  In fact, even factoring in the lowly Orioles, who the Yankees have owned (11-4), New York has just a .566 winning percentage against these teams, barely enough to get to 12 wins in 21 games.

And, to make matters worst, they will spend most of the remaining schedule on the road, playing 14 of their remaining 21 away from the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium (for the season, New York has a .567 W% on the road, .662 at home).

The Rays, on the other hand, have 13 of their remaining contests in Tampa (.623 at home, .592 on road).  More importantly, the only winning team they play the rest of the way is the Yankees (as well as one remaining game in their current series with the Jays).  Even when the Rays had their worst 21-game stretch of the season, if featured opponents like Boston, Chicago, San Diego, Atlanta, and Texas.  Against the teams they will actually be playing down the stretch, the Rays are 27-15 (.643).  

Looking at these schedules, not only does it seem highly unlikely that the Yankees will gain significant ground over the Rays, it actually looks like it would be an impressive feat if they were able to hold off the Rays and maintain their loose hold on the division.  While the Yankees last ten games come against Boston (7) and Toronto (3), the Rays will be getting rich on three worst franchises in the American League: Seattle (3), Baltimore (3), and Kansas City (4).    

Fantastic Thoughts: Bossman Jr.'s Got His Groove Back?

There are perhaps no more tantalizing talents in major-league baseball than the Upton brothers.  They've got it all: the sweet, smooth swings which translate into awesome power, gliding, seemingly effortless speed, shoulder-mounted outfield canons, and Grade A boy-next-door handsomeness.  To the great frustration of fantasy owners who've been seduced by their "tools," however, neither Upton has yet posted anything resembling an MVP-caliber season.  Most of the milestones we associate with top-flight players - 30 HR, 100 RBI, 100 R, 900+ OPS - have not yet been reached by either of them, to our great dismay.

Justin Upton can, perhaps, be forgiven, since, at the ripe old age of 22, his "most similar batters" by age list (according to Baseball Reference) still includes guys like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Miguel Cabrera.  Already nearing the completion of his third full season in the majors, his maturing process is still light-years ahead of the average "top prospect."

His elder brother, however, though hardly past his prime at the age of 26, has logged more than four full seasons and suffered through consecutive years of declining production in 2008 and 2009.  When B. J. Upton was hitting just .226 with 8 HR and a 703 OPS on August 1, many were ready to declare him a one-dimensional player with a skill set somewhere between Juan Pierre and Willy Taveras.  Upton was again on pace to be among the league leaders in steals and remained one the best defensive centerfielders in the league, but his overall offensive production had reconciled him to the very bottom of the Rays lineup, and he was again looking a possible declines in most of the counting categories.  This was a far cry from the guy who mashed 7 HR and drove in 15 runs in just 11 games during Tampa Bay's 2008 run to the World Series or the guy who batted .300 with 26 HR and 82 RBI in just 129 games in 2007.

B. J. has been prone to streakiness throughout his career, so one cannot read too much into this limited sample size, but for the last six weeks, Upton has again been showing the skills which made him the #2 pick in the draft way back in 2002.  Since the beginning of August he's hit 9 HR, including four in his last five games, meaning that, with 17 HR on the season, this is his best power year since '07.  Over that span he's also hitting .273 with an 897 OPS, while continuing to run like crazy, with 11 steals in 12 attempts.

Unfortunately, his K/BB ratio is still a major source of concern.  B. J. is probably always going to be somewhat prone to the whiff, something common for a guy with some serious power, but over the first two seasons of his career, his K/BB rate was a respectable 1.78 and his OBP was excellent (.384).  In the last two years, he has struck out more, while walking substantially less, causing his K/BB ratio to rise to 2.53, while his OBP has fallen all the way to Jason Kendall territory (.319).  Even during his recent hot streak, Upton has not dramatically improved in this department, striking out 44 times in 37 games and walking only 16.  As such, I fear this production may not be representative of him "figuring things out" finally, as Delmon Young clearly has in 2010, but rather he might be benefitting from the fact that pitchers stopped respecting him.  When they are reminded of what he can do with balls in his wheelhouse (i.e. four homers in five days) they will go back to throwing everything off the plate and, unless he then demonstrates a newfound ability to lay off that junk, his power will go right back into remission.

Those who remember Minnesota's loss to the Yankees in last season's division series, will recall that New York's pitchers seemed to be able to retire Young on command.  He struck out five times in a dozen at-bats and left seven men on base in three games.  He certainly wasn't the only weak link in Minnesota's lineup, but he was the most glaring one, because unlike Nick Punto and Brendan Harris, he was supposed to be in there for his superior abilities at the plate (it certainly wasn't for his glovework).  This very public humiliation clearly stuck with Young and he came into camp this season not only in better shape, but with a more refined approach.

Hitters the caliber of Young and Upton do not necessarily need to be walk machines like Adam Dunn.  Quite to the contrary, players like Miguel Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero, and Carlos Gonzalez have proven that the hyper-aggressive approach can work, if you've got the superior skills for it.  But, nobody can consistently hit balls well outside the strike zone.  When Young realized that, he didn't dramatically increase his walk rate.  This year he's walking 4.2% of the time, compared to 4.0% from '06-'09.  However, he did dramatically decrease his strikeout rate, down from 22.1% in '09 (and 18.8% on his career) to 12.7% in 2010.  Every time I see Delmon lay off a two-strike breaking ball in the dirt or a fastball at his eyes, I get a little amped about the possible rematch between the Yankees and Twins this October.  He could change the face of that series.

I certainly hope that Delmon Young's breakout season has proven that it's silly to declare top prospect "done" in his mid-twenties. B. J. Upton, I believe, will eventually return, at the very least, to the modicum of discipline he displayed in the early stages of his professional career.  However, he needs to keep producing for another couple months before I'm ready to believe he's finally figured that out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

R.I.P. 2010 Cardinals?

In one of the first crucial series of September, the Rockies pulled off a four-game sweep over the Reds, who were the top team in the NL when the week began.  Cincinnati's five-game losing streak could have breathed new life into the second-place Cardinals, had they managed to capitalize on their softer schedule, but they managed to lose two out of three against the Brewers, and with 23 games remaining, the Reds magic number is 19, lowest in the National League, and the Cardinals have slid to 5.5 games (and, perhaps more importantly, three teams) back in the Wild Card.

This is not an insurmountable margin, certainly, and the Redbirds got off to a good start in their weekend series against the Wild Card leaders, the Braves, who have also scuffled lately.  But with San Francisco and Colorado playing well, the race for playoff berths has become a jumbled one and it is difficult to see a scenario where at least three of the six NL clubs who are ahead of St. Louis go into the tank.  Also, sad as it is for me to say, it is hard for me to see this club as capable of mounting the late-season blitzkrieg necessary to overcome that margin.  On May 3rd the Cardinals beat the Phillies to move to 18-8 and secure there largest lead of the season, five games.  Since then, they are 55-57, a thoroughly mediocre team, and in recent weeks they've been even worst, winning only five of their last fifteen contests, including series losses to Pittsburgh, Washington, Houston, and Milwaukee.  When you can't beat those teams in September, it's time to throw in the towel and start talking about what went wrong.

In March I believed it would be the Brewers who won the NL Central.  In retrospect, it was one of my sillier predictions of the preseason.  I did contend, however, that the Reds "could become a version of the '08 Rays" and, most presciently, I was compelled to predict that St. Louis would suffer from their apparent lack of depth.  "Playing without a parachute at several positions" was perhaps the most succinct description of the Cardinals flaws.

What has happened has been, in fact, rather more egregious than I would have expected.  The Cardinals key quartet - Pujols, Holliday, Carpenter, Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia - are all in the running for their league's highest individual honors, yet even they could not carry the lead balloon which is the remainder of the St. Louis roster.  The front three in the Cardinals starting rotation have won 45 games.  Nobody else on the St. Louis roster has won more than six.  And, to the even greater humiliation of the remaining roster, that six-game winner is the Cardinals closer, Ryan Franklin.

On offense, St. Louis faces a similar problem.  In limited playing time, Jon Jay, Colby Rasmus, and David Freese have all been respectable, but the rest of the Cardinals roster is filled with players with sub-700 OPSs.  Second-baseman, Skip Schumaker (672 OPS), and catcher, Yadier Molina (655 OPS), have been disappointing, but not nearly so much as the rotating cast of career minor-leaguers, defensive replacements, and other team's crumbs who have manned the left side of the Cardinal infield.  Following a season-ending injury to Freese, the Cardinals handed third to veteran utility-man Felipe Lopez (638 OPS).  When he failed, they picked up Astros castaway Pedro Feliz (528).  The result: since May 30th, the Cardinals have gotten one, that's right, one lonely homer from the hot corner.  That actually looks fairly good compared to what they've gotten from Brendan Ryan (563 OPS), the St. Louis shortstop who holds the dubious honor of being the least productive player in the National League.  Out of the 91 players who have been handed 400+ plate appearance so far in 2010, he ranks dead last in Hits, OPS, OBP, and SLG.  He's 90th in batting average, 89th in RBI, and 87th in Runs and HR.

To sum things up, here's a look at the production the Cardinals get from 1B (a.k.a. Albert Pujols) compared to what they get combined from 3B & SS.

Albert Pujols: .311/.403/.590, 137 G, 522 AB, 99 R, 162 H, 36 HR, 102 RBI, 83 BB, 65 K
3B & SS: .241/.309/.334, 274 G, 1011 AB, 122 R, 246 H, 13 HR, 98 RBI, 91 BB, 189 K

In the second half things have gotten even worse for their offense. Since the All-Star Break, only Pujols and Holliday have more than 20 RBI.  Only Pujols and Holliday have hit more than 3 HR.  Only Pujols, Holliday, and Randy Winn have managed to keep their OPS above 780.  It's not hard to imagine how opposing managers might strategize.  Since the break, eleven of Prince Albert's sixteen homers are solo shots.  Seven of Holliday nine have come with either the bases empty or just Albert standing at first base.    Unsurprisingly, the rank first and second on the team in free passes.  Clearly, opposing teams are not pitching to the dynamic duo in situation where they can put a game out of reach.

Sadly, the Cardinals now face a scenario not unlike that which derailed the once-promising Cubs, just over a year ago.  Having won the division in '09, the Cards were heavily favored to win it again in 2010.  Most believed that this was a team designed to go deep in October.  At the Inside Pulse roundtable in March, I was the only one of six contributers who didn't pick them to win the division.  This was supposed to be "their year."  But their season was not derailed by particularly bad luck.  They did not have a rash of key injuries.  In the form of Jaime Garcia and Jon Jay, in fact, they even had a couple of pleasant surprises.

Basically, this team isn't good enough as it's currently constituted.  With a payroll approaching $95 Million, that's a problem.  John Mozeliak has some tough negotiations in his future.  At the end of the season, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan will once again be free agents.  They've had an amazing tenure in St. Louis, but in recent years have had some vocal disputes with the front office.  This offseason there will be openings in L.A., Chicago, and Atlanta, maybe elsewhere.  Could they be persuaded to take on a new challenge?

In truth, piloting the Dodgers may be less challenging than nursing this Cardinals roster.  If the Cardinals had gone to the World Series this year, as many expected, I think it is safe to say LaRussa and Pujols would have both taken extensions this offseason.  But the failure to qualify for the playoffs and the uncertainty regarding LaRussa's tenure may convince Albert that he needs to test the free agent market in the offseason of 2011.  For St. Louis fans, that's a nightmare akin to Lebron's exodus, and it would almost certainly precipitate the departure of Yadier Molina and Chris Carpenter when their contracts expire the following year.  The window is closing on this incarnation of Cardinals.  In an effort to pry it open for a few more years, Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt are going to need to be willing to resort to drastic measure this offseason.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Don't Anoint The "King" Too Quickly (A Derailed Postulate)

The SABR community gained a new posterboy for their assault on conventional stats this season in the form of Felix Hernandez.  Rob Neyer, Jason Rosenberg, and Jack Moore all took up the argument this week, following a start in which Hernandez threw eight shutout innings, but took another no-decision.  They argue that Hernandez is, literally, "King of the AL."  He leads the AL in innings, strikeouts, and QS%.  He's second in ERA and third in WHIP.  He's also third in Defensive Independent ERA, a new hot-button stat.  But somehow, despite indisputably being one of the top pitchers in the league, he's managed only 11 wins.

The reason for this is simple enough.  The Mariners are the lowest-scoring team in baseball, by a long shot (they've scored 32 fewer runs than the Pirates, 76 fewer runs than the next lowest AL franchise, the Orioles).  So, even though in 90% of his 30 starts Felix has allowed three or fewer runs and gone six or more innings, he's got ten losses and nine no-decisions.

Several pitchers have suffered from their lineup's futility in recent years.  Matt Cain and Zack Greinke come quickly to mind.  But if Hernandez concludes the season with more than 250 innings and an ERA under 2.50 (he's currently on pace to achieve both marks with ease), yet somehow finishes with fewer than 15 wins, it will be only the fifth time that has happened since integration in 1947 and the first time since 1993, when Jose Rijo went 14-9 with a 2.48 ERA and 257 IP for the Reds.  If Felix's ERA stays below 2.40, he will join Dave Roberts of the 1971 Padres in infamy.  Roberts posted a 2.10 ERA and 170 IP, but somehow managed a record of just 14-17.

Clearly what is happening to Hernandez is deeply unjust and he should obviously be considered among the premier pitchers in the AL, regardless of his record.  However, the tendency has been, in these diatribes on Felix's behalf, to diminish the statistics of C. C. Sabathia, the current MLB leader in wins, in an effort to elevate King Felix.  Here are their respective lines for 2010:

Felix Hernandez (Seattle): 11-10, 2.30 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 209 K, 60 BB, 219 IP, 3.25 xFIP, 5.9 WAR
C. C. Sabathia (New York): 19-5, 3.02 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 165 K, 65 BB, 203 IP, 3.85 xFIP, 3.9 WAR

As you can see, in every major statistical metric, excepting record, Hernandez is better than Sabathia, sometime by a long-shot.

What's absolutely certain is that their situations couldn't be more different.  Sabathia's team has the best record in baseball.  Hernandez's has the second-worst.  The Yankees have scored the most runs.  The Mariners have scored the least.  However, not everything works in Sabathia's favor.

Let's start with defense.  Both Hernandez and Sabathia rank in the top ten in the AL in inducing groundballs.  Felix at 52.9% and C. C. at 51.0%.  Yet, here's how their respective infielders rate in terms of getting to those grounders and converting them into outs (rankings based on players with 800+ innings):

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Guide To September Viewing (9/6-9/16)

For those of you utilizing or MLB Extra Innings, here are some series you might want to mark your calender for:

Monday, 9/6 - Thursday, 9/9: Cincinnati Reds @ Colorado Rockies

This four-game series began yesterday with a win for the Rockies, led by Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Gonzalez.  That win was Colorado's fourth in a row and brought them within 4.5 games of the Padres and 5 of the Wild Card leading Phillies.  It doesn't take a tremendous memory to recall the Rockies tendency towards September momentum.  Meanwhile, the central-leading Reds need to fight off complacency and assure they don't allow the Cardinals to climb back into the race.

Thursday, 9/9 - Sunday, 9/12: San Francisco Giants @ San Diego Padres

The Padres finally put an end to their prolonged losing streak on Monday against the Dodgers, but now hold only a game advantage over the Giants, who have won five of their last six.  Regardless of what transpires on Tuesday and Wednesday, the division lead will be on the line when these two teams face off at PETCO this weekend.  With the Padres young rotation starting to show its fatigue, it's difficult to argue that they have the advantage in any of the pitching matchups.  The climactic battle is undoubtedly the highlight, as Tim Lincecum faces Mat Latos on Sunday afternoon.

Monday, 9/13 - Wednesday, 9/15: San Diego Padres @ Colorado Rockies

Things don't get any easier for the Friars, as they begin a ten-game road trip by heading to Denver.  At 44-22, the Rockies boast the second-best home record in the NL (behind Atlanta).  To make matters worse (for San Diego, that is), the Rockies have won eleven of the first fifteen games in their season series, including a sweep in San Diego to begin the month, so they don't exactly head to the high altitude brimming with confidence.  It's not hard to imagine them leaving Colorado in third place.

Monday, 9/13 - Wednesday, 9/15: New York Yankees @ Tampa Bay Rays

Both teams seem safely on course for postseason berths, but with seven games left against each other, the division, and home-field advantage, are still on the line.  The series kicks off with stellar pitching battle between two Cy Young contenders, C. C. Sabathia and David Price.

Tuesday, 9/14 - Thursday, 9/16: Minnesota Twins @ Chicago White Sox

Assuming the Sox can maintain their winning ways, having strung together seven in a row going into tonight, this could be a battle for the last remaining AL playoff spot.  The Twins are saddled with injuries, but have still managed to win at an impressive clip, recently sweeping the Rangers.  They've dominated the season series up to this point, taking ten of fifteen, but far more will be riding on this series than any that came before it.

Monday, September 06, 2010

CarGo Chasing Triple Crown?

I was hardly alone on a island last March in recommending Carlos Gonzalez as a breakout candidate.  His performance down the stretch and in the 2009 postseason put him on the radar of even some casual baseball fans.  I was one of the few, however, who believed Gonzalez was capable of an MVP-type campaign immediately, at the age of 24, and, as such, I was willing to pay almost any price for him in fantasy leagues.

But as much of a man-crush as I have on Carlos Gonzalez, even I couldn't have predicted the tear that he's gone on in the second half of 2010.  On July 2nd, CarGo had an 0-for-5 against Tim Lincecum and the Giants which brought his average to a season-low of .294.  The next night he began a ten-game hitting streak which was just the beginning of a 50+ game stretch of incredible and potentially historical hotness.  In the past two months Cargo has hit 18 HR and driven in 47 runs, while batting .397 with a 1222 OPS.

At the All-Star Break and well into August, baseball pundits debated whether Joey Votto and/or Albert Pujols could make runs at the first Triple Crown since 1967 (the first in the NL since 1937).  But while King Albert and Joey V. both still rank in the top five in all three Triple Crown categories, it is Gonzalez who now has the best shot at that near-impossible accomplishment.  CarGo has more or less put the batting title out of reach, as he has a seventeen point lead over Votto (.322) and a thirty point lead on Pujols (.309).  Not only does he now look like a relatively safe bet to win the NL batting title, he has moved to within four homers of Pujols NL lead (35) and within one RBI of Votto's top mark (99).  Could Carlos Gonzalez really be the next player to anoint himself in one of baseball's most elite clubs, alongside the like of Frank Robinson and Ted Williams?

Even those (like myself) who saw the brightest of futures for CarGo, did not imagine he could have 40+ HR power.  His 162-game average in the minor leagues was just 22.  So, even with some physical growth and maturity, 30-35 HR power seemed like his upside (and still is, probably, in most seasons).  Clearly, we didn't give enough consideration to the Coors Field factor, which partially explains how the nimble, speedy outfielder has more homers since the All-Star Break than anyone not named Jose Bautista.  24 of CarGo's 31 bombs have come at home, where he also maintains an insane .391 average for the season.  The Humidor may have brought the Rockies park factor down to earth a little, but the ballpark is still a hitters paradise and seems perfectly tailored to CarGo's sweet left-handed swing.  His approach resembles to some extent that of the young Larry Walker, who, during one three-year stretch in Colorado, hit .369 with a 1141 OPS and averaged 44 HR and 124 RBI per 162 games.

It certainly helps CarGo's quest that the Rockies will play 16 of their remaining 26 games in Denver.  Nonetheless, he will need to have another huge month, maybe his biggest of the year, in order to close the gap on a Pujols, who has also been searing hot of late (.352, 12 HR in last 31 games).  With 16 games left against the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, and Cardinals, he'll have some of the league's best pitchers getting in his way.

Gonzalez's entry in the MVP race and potentially the history books is yet another reason to mark your calender for the showdown between the Rockies and Cardinals on the final weekend of the season (Sept. 30-Oct. 3).  Both teams are still very much alive in a Wild Card race, so a postseason entry could be on the line, while as an added bonus we could see the squaring off of two of the three contestants for the NL MVP, as well as two of the heavy favorites for the NL Cy Young (Ubaldo Jimenez & Adam Wainwright).  That's engagement baseball.  

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The State of The Hippeaux

As you've probably noted, the site has been on hiatus for most of the last two months, as I've been in the process of relocating to Long Beach, CA, as well as dealing with a particularly busy summer, personally and professionally.  This hiatus has no doubt resulted in the loss of a substantial portion of the loyal readership I've fostered over the last few years, and for that I'm certainly sorry.  However, this does give me an opportunity to perform a moderate redesign and refocus.  Although a continued hectic schedule will probably prevent me from maintaining the posting frequency which preceded this hiatus, I will be covering the pennant races and postseason in some detail, as well as the hot stove and fantasy preseason, as in the past.  Again, I apologize for the delay and thank all those who emailed me to voice their concern.  Now, a few observations on the time I missed...

I've been waiting all season for a freefall from the Braves and Padres, two teams who I doubted going into the season and saw cause for calling "flukish" throughout the first half.  As both are certainly headed for 85-90 win seasons, clearly I have cause to alter that estimation, however, we are finally seeing the chinks in their armor.

San Diego, clearly the most surprising franchise of the 2010 season, not long ago looked like the sure-fire NL West champs, but an eight-game losing streak has brought them back within three games of the Giants and they now face a particularly grueling schedule.  The Friars have only one series left against a losing franchise (four games against the Cubs at the end of September), while they have twelve games against the two teams closest on their heels (Giants & Rockies) and seven against other contenders (Reds & Cardinals).  Their vaunted young rotation, clearly the reason for their unexpected run this season, may also end up being the cause of their demise.  Clayton Richard and Mat Latos are already well beyond their career highs in innings and Wade LeBlanc will soon join them.  The wear and tear is starting to show.  The team's ERA has risen in every month to a high of 3.71 in August.  With a mediocre lineup, even after the infusion of Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick, the Padres cannot afford to give up four runs a game, especially against teams like the Giants, Cardinals, and Rockies.  Unfortunately for San Diego's faithful, I think the selling of postseason tickets may have been a little premature.

In Atlanta, the issue is not so much that the Braves are diving (they still won eighteen games in August), as that the two-time NL champion Phillies are finally healthy and appear to be starting their annual September streak.  They've won seven of their last eight, now sit just one game back of Atlanta, and are looking forward to a fairly soft September, as their only remaining games against contenders two series against the Braves.  If the Braves do get caught (and I think they inevitably will), they are still very much alive in the Wild Card.  A serious cause for concern, however, is the Braves 29-38 record on the road, which is where they will be spending most of the next month.

In the American League we may be seeing one of the most anticlimactic pennant races in recent memory, as Boston, despite being on pace for 92 wins, is now seven games back of Tampa Bay in the Wild Card, and Texas long ago wrapped up the AL West.  Our only hope for late-season drama comes in the Central, where the Manny-infused White Sox are four games back of the Twins.  With Justin Morneau still out indefinitely with concussion issues and Kevin Slowey also shelves, Minnesota does have some chinks in its armor.  Since the All-Star Break, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Denard Span all of OPSs well under 800.  J. J. Hardy has been in and out of the lineup.  On the other hand, Minnesota's front four - Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing, and Scott Baker - have combined to go 21-6 since the break, so modest run-scoring has usually been more than enough.  The three-game set in Chicago in the middle of September could prove crucial.

Here are my postseason seeding predictions:


Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Texas Rangers


San Francisco Giants vs. Cincinnati Reds
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Phillies