Don't Forget Your Gloves

We're sure that you've already heard plenty about how MLB teams have been placing an increased emphasis on defense of late.  This is due in part to a revolution in defensive evaluation: as more and more batted ball data emerges, defensive statistics have become increasingly useful and accurate, and teams have been able to reap the benefits.  The Rays became the poster child for this movement after they essentially reversed their record from a last-place 66-96 to a pennant-winning 97-65.  While this was not due entirely to defense, one of the major changes that ownership brought about was to place the emphasis on defense that saw them rise from a third-worst -6.5 UZR/150 in 2007 to 2nd-best 11.0 in 2008 (it also seems worth mentioning that the only team better was the Phillies, at 14.8, and we all know how that ended).   

That said, let's take a look at who's shown the biggest improvements on defense this season.  We're going to use FanGraphs' UZR/150 as our quick and dirty stat, though we admit that it has its flaws, as does any defensive metric.  In any event, who's pulled a Tampa this season?  

UZR Change 08-09

One general note: it's interesting that so many of the teams that were near the bottom of the pack in '08 showed the greatest improvements in '09.  There's two ways to look at this development.  Optimistically, you could say that the front offices of these teams are smart, recognized that they could stand to improve on defense, then took steps to correct the problem.  Or, we guess you could just point out that since they started low, they had nowhere to go but up.  To which we say: you a dark, dark person.  

In any event, the top of the list isn't very surprising.  Detroit, Seattle, and Texas are three teams that everyone knew was making a newfound commitment to defense.  The Tigers brought in Adam Everett and haven't had to suffer Carlos Guillen and Miguel Cabrera's defensive stylings.  Franklin Gutierrez, Endy Chavez, and Ichiro make up the best defensive outfield in the game, and Adrian Beltre is no slouch.  Even the Rangers have talked all season about making a commitment to defense, perhaps best evidenced by their willingness to rush glove wizard SS Elvis Andrus to the bigs at the tender age of 20.  But we'd never have guessed about the Reds and Pirates.  What happened there?

In Cincinnati, they've got an outfield that is similar to the Mariners' group in terms of defensive excellence.  Among guys with 300 innings, Drew Stubbs, Willy Taveras, Jay Bruce, and Laynce Nix have been flat out excellent.  They've only got three guys posting negative ratings, and Edwin Encarnacion's -17.2 is now Toronto's problem.  Plus, Joey Votto (-1.3 at 1st base) and Adam Rosales (-0.9 at 3rd) are hardly huge liabilities.  This is an overall solid group that, if they could hit and/or pitch, would be great.

There's a different story out in the Burgh, though.  Their two best defenders, Nyjer Morgan (+24.1) (!) and Jack Wilson (+17) are gone, and they've got serious defensive holes with 2B Delwyn Young, SS Ronny Cedeno, and RF Garrett Jones.  This is a case where you see the leftover contributions of the dearly departed having an unfairly positive effect on the team as a whole.  

So after that negative note, let's take a look at the bottom part of this chart.  The Mets really stand out, as they've gone from pretty good to abysmal.  However, even we can't hold them fully responsible for this drastic defensive decline; after all, as has been the case with every other facet of their season, the amount of injuries they've suffered has greatly affected their ability to play with their desired alignments.  It's not their fault, for example, that Anderson Hernandez and Alex Cora have played a lot of shortstop.  But some of their guys really are just outright bad defenders (see: Wright, David; Sheffield, Gary; Castillo, Luis; Francoeur, Jeff (ha!)).  So this ranking is not entirely undeserved.

The Phillies have regressed quite a bit, but it can be hard to maintain the level of excellence that they established last season.  For what it's worth, the entire roster of regulars (300+ innings) is basically solid but unspectacular at defense; Chase Utley leads the club with a +8.7 mark, and Shane Victorino is the only subzero straggler, with a -3.8 rating.  

For people that are searching for reasons as to why the Cubs have disappointed this year, one to point to could be their defensive shortcomings.  Milton Bradley was pretty bad in the outfield - we know, Milton, we're singling you out and there's a negative atmosphere in this blog, but you're a DH in the NL - but not nearly as bad as Alfonso Soriano, who's been one of the worst left fielders in the game.  Jake Fox has seen too much time at third base, but Aramis Ramirez is no great shakes with the glove himself, and Mike Fontenot hasn't contributed much in the way of...well, anything, really, but he's been really bad at defense.  Guy's got a great baseball card, though. 

So what do we take away from all of this?  Well, improving defense isn't guaranteed to make you a contender, but it's an effective, affordable way to upgrade your club.  Or at least it was affordable; as it becomes a more valued, quantifiable skill, teams are going to pay more for premium defenders.  It's the Moneyball concept: teams could win on the cheap by identifying inefficiencies in the player market and exploiting them.  For a few years, that inefficiency was OBP; of late, it's defense.  But as teams start paying and playing guys like Adam Everett, Elvis Andrus, Endy Chavez and Adam Dunn (still paying attention?) who are offensive zeros but save enough runs to be valuable, it's going to be time to find another inefficiency.  Our prediction?   Soon you'll be hearing about how the Rays/Rangers/Other Upstart Team have been great because all their hitters are otherworldly bunters.  That'll be a fun couple of seasons.


Why Your Team Will Blow it in the Playoffs: Los Angeles Angels

Well, it appears that just about all the playoff spots are decided. Per the excellent coolstandings.com, no team among the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Rockies have a great shot of making the playoffs barring a miraculous late season run.

Now, this lack of drama is no fun at all in September, and it's nigh-unacceptable in the playoffs. So rather than just let things play out like they will, which is to say "predictably," we're going to try to throw a wrench into the hopes and dreams of fans of each of the aforementioned playoff probables. Because none of them are the Braves*. AND SO: onward with the hating. Up next: the behaloed Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

*Believe you us, we fully realize that the Braves - and the Twins! - are only two games back at this point.  But, in the superstitious spirit of baseball, you can be sure we're not changing that intro unless one of those teams wrests control of a playoff spot away from the Rockies and/or Tigers.

Biggest Strength: The lineup.  This group scores a healthy 5.49 runs per game,  2nd most in MLB.  Kendry Morales would be a stealthy MVP candidate in any other year, with a hefty .303/.352/.565 line, and Torii Hunter finds himself rejuvenated this year to the tune of .297/.363/.507.  Catcher Mike Napoli* has posted a fine .832 OPS, and Bobby Abreu isn't far behind, with a .828 mark to go with what must be new legs that have allowed him to steal 29 bases at a 78% success rate.  

*Napoli, to us, is another confounding decision re playing time that the Angels have made.  For years, he and Jeff Mathis essentially had equal playing time, despite the fact that Napoli quickly proved himself a far, far more effective bat.  And,  of course, their glut of outfielders meant that the Angels had to find time at DH for some of those guys, further limiting one of their better young hitters.  But then, they have a history of doing such things.  Off the top of our head, we've got: Kendrick, Howie (play him while he's healthy, guys!); Izturis, Maicer (better than Erick Aybar, yet reduced to shared playing time); and Wood, Brandon (outlandishly good in the minors, never given a real chance to prove himself in the bigs).

The real strength of this unit, though, is not their big bats - it's their overall depth.  They don't have a lot of guys who seem particularly scary at the plate, but they are all effective.  Their .346 wOBA well outstrips the league average of .329, and their team batting average (don't yell at us!) is a tied-for-the-league-lead .285.  No one boasts a .400 OBP, but the team OBP is the 2nd highest in the league, and they only have three players clocking in under the league average of .333 - and of that three, Juan Rivera misses by .002 points, and Robb Quinlan just barely makes the 100 PA minimum (102).  Basically, it's hard to find such a balanced lineup among playoff contenders anywhere outside of New York.  

But wait a minute!

Sure, they can score...but they can't really prevent runs that well.  They allow 4.75 runs per game, which is 20th in MLB.  This is the lowest rank in either runs scored or runs allowed that any team in postseason contention (including the Braves and Twins) has posted.  And the reason is not too hard to find: beyond John Lackey, Jered Weaver, and maybe Kevin Jepsen and Darren Oliver, there simply have not been many good pitching performances this year.  The team ranks 12th in MLB in UZR, so defense isn't a real problem, but a 4.52 FIP that ranks 23rd in the league certainly is.  Among the starters, Lackey and Weaver both come in under 4.00 in FIP, but that's offset by the fact that Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders are both over 5.00.  Further, only Weaver ranks among the top 50 in SNLVAR.  And the problem extends past the rotation; they rank among the MLB's bottom 10 in K/9, HR/9, and WHIP.  Three of their relievers are allowing a full HR/9 or more; Sean Sullivan "boasts" a rather astounding 2.22 per 9.  Also, for what this is worth, the team's net WXRL is 9.02, or less than the combined work of Michael Wuertz and David Aardsma* alone.  

*Yes, we realize we're being somewhat mean-spirited here; both Wuertz and Aardsma are having fine seasons, and each possesses one of the best pitches in the game.  Wuertz's slider is absurdly unhittable (~50% whiff rate) and Aardsma has finally managed to control his overpowering (25.8% whiff rate) fastball.  But still.  

So, to recap: team can hit + team can't pitch = team will blow it (probably in remarkable fashion) in the playoffs.  Simple as that, folks.  For our money, the interesting thing about the Angels' postseason will be how they make the Red Sox look like the Big Red Machine in the first round of what is certain to be an inglorious October showing.  


Why Your Team Will Blow it in the Playoffs: Los Angeles Dodgers

Well, it appears that just about all the playoff spots are decided. Per the excellent coolstandings.com, no team among the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Rockies have a great shot of making the playoffs barring a miraculous late season run.

Now, this lack of drama is no fun at all in September, and it's nigh-unacceptable in the playoffs. So rather than just let things play out like they will, which is to say "predictably," we're going to try to throw a wrench into the hopes and dreams of fans of each of the aforementioned playoff probables. Because none of them are the Braves. AND SO: onward with the hating. Up next: the Dodgers.

The Dodgers have been the runaway favorite in the NL West all year long.  And with good reason: they had performed so well last year, especially after adding Manny Ramirez, and it didn't look like there was any team in the division that could hang with them.  The team got off to a roaring start, and continued playing dominant ball even after Ramirez was suspended 50 games for steroid use.  They've played fairly mediocre ball for most of the second half, but a recent surge shows that their enormous run differential was for real.  

Biggest Strength: The outfield.  It's an odd choice, since they're only allowing 3.74 runs/game, best in MLB.  But looking at their pitching...beyond Clayton Kershaw and maybe Jonathan Broxton, none of it seems super studly.  So let's look at the outfield, where they boast three superstar-level producers: Manny Ramirez, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp.  Ethier's .885 OPS is the lowest of the trio, yet he leads the team in dongers with 31.  Kemp could go 30-30 this season; he's already got 34 steals and is just four homers away from achieving the feat.  And, of course, you've got MannyBManny in left.  Stripping away all of the hyperbole about his being able to hit the ball where he wants to, when he wants to, you're still left with a damn good player.  Of course, that sort of goes without saying, but still: a .298/.422/.551 line and a team-best .405 wOBA impresses even further.  He lags his outfield counterparts in counting stats because of the 50 missed games, but he's every bit as dangerous as he was last season.  Together, these three make up a dominant core of the lineup that can put up enough runs by themselves to win a game.

But wait a minute!

We know that we mentioned that the Dodgers have been the best in baseball at preventing runs.  And we want to emphasize the brilliance of young Clayton Kershaw, who's struggled a bit with his command (~5 BB/9), but has been K'ing almost 10 per nine.  He's the staff ace, and he heads a solid group of hurlers mainly composed of Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Randy Wolf.  And as for the bullpen,  Jonathan Broxton has been an overpowering force this season, striking out 13.5 per nine, while boasting a a K:BB ratio of over 4.  

You might ask, then, why is their pitching going to be their downfall?  Well, it's similar to the Yankees' situation: you have a lot of quality guys, but not a lot in the way of people about whom you feel totally, indubitably confident in their ability to win a game for you every time out.  So, like we did with the Bronx Bombers, let's go pitcher by pitcher here and see what's what.

LHP Clayton Kershaw: We love the 21 year old.  We think he's got the ability to be a dominant pitcher, and he's shown that quality frequently this season.  But on the other hand...he's 21.  He's already thrown nearly 60 innings more than last season, and the club has demonstrated concern over his workload as the season winds down.  His control has gotten worse - from 4.3 to 4.9 BB/9. He's succeeded by missing bats, and we have to wonder if he can keep doing that when he's not facing the NL West and his innings have been piling up.

RHP Chad Billingsley: Billingsley has been something of a disappointment this season.  After fantastic turns in the last two seasons, he's seen his ERA rise over 4 and his strikeouts decrease by nearly 30 despite only 10 fewer innings to this point.  He's also been dealing with the injury bug of late, having most recently been seen coming out of the bullpen to get some innings in.  We're not saying that a return to the ace form he's demonstrated in the past is out of the question, but an ERA+ that's dropped from 135 to 103 is cause for concern.

LHP Randy Wolf: Wolf has been shockingly good this year.  This has been the best year of his career, and it's not particularly close. He's been getting it done this year by limiting walks - he's a full walk/9 below his career average and his WHIP is a career-best 1.09.  He's also posted a career best in ERA+ at 129, and is allowing only 7.5 hits/9, again a full hit below his average.  Furthermore, he's tossed 200 innings for the first time since 2003.  That right there is both a good sign and a red flag (Red sign?  Good flag?).  On one hand, he's shown that he can be durable for a full season, and be effective in so doing.  On the other, you have the same issue as you do with Kershaw: having established this huge jump in innings from seasons past, can he keep pitching as effectively as he has with his arm wearing down?  Looking at his health history, it's hard to say yes.  

RHP Hiroki Kuroda: Kuroda's back from an ugly looking liner off the head, which is bittersweet for us.  We're glad he's ok, but we're not glad that Charlie Haeger no longer has a rotation spot.  Woe is him.  In any event, when he's been healthy this year, he's been pretty excellent.  He's a control master, with a K:BB near 5, and an FIP of 3.26.  He's stranded just 66% of baserunners, well below the ~75% league average, so he'll likely see that number improve. Yet he's still a 114 OPS+, which is great for the back end of your rotation, but not the sort of number that suggests a capacity to dominate.  In any event, as with Wolf, at this point in his career, we just don't know if you can count on him for major innings.  He's not thrown many pitches this season, since he's been hurt, but even in the shortened format of the playoffs, we doubt his ability to go deep into games and provide the bullpen with any sort of rest.  And given the overall fragile nature of this rotation, it looks like they're going to be leaning on that bullpen quite a bit.

So since that's the case, the bullpen bears a quick examination as well.  Broxton, as mentioned, has been excellent.  But, as closer, he sees limited opportunities.  To wit, Ramon Troncoso and Jeff Weaver (!) have thrown more innings for the Dodgers this season. Troncoso's been very good though, with a WXRL over 3, and in the top 100, you'll also find James McDonald and, of course, Jeff Weaver (!!).  So the bullpen should be a strength of this team, what with having four capable arms ready to handle the late innings.  And yet...it's a bullpen.  With the small number of innings that they'll throw in the postseason, anything could happen.  And, yes, we're grasping at straws here.  The truth of the matter is that this is a stacked team that could very easily play into November...you know, if their pitching doesn't implode, as it easily could.  And, yes, that's a big 'if,' Dodgers fans.  One that will invariably cause them to blow it in the playoffs.


The Importance of Being Bobby

Bobby Cox is set to retire after next season.

And that depresses us.  Despite the repeated failings at bullpen management, which usually irks us beyond all good reason, we find ourselves forever defending the guy.  He's the one concession we make to the idea that amorphous, intangible qualities can make a team better.  And it's easy to see why; he's done so many good things for the team.  Players have always seemed to love him, and it's a sentiment he's always returned.  Headcases (e.g. Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew) and franchise soldiers (e.g. Chipper Jones and John Smoltz*) alike have have found a comfortable clubhouse under Bobby's eye.  He won all those division titles, oversaw a remarkable worst-to-first turn in the beginning of his second stint as Braves' manager, and brought home a World Series title**.  He stayed with the organization for 25 years in a climate when managers and players alike were moved around like so many fungible chess pieces (though, really, he was hired thrice and fired twice).  He became a franchise icon, and a symbol of the Old Baseball Man throughout the league.  Fiercely loyal to his players, he never publicly called them out for poor performance; all such grievances were handled in-house, dedication to the team that netted him three Manager of the Year awards.  Bobby was a players' manager, a man of the people, who nevertheless established himself as the head of the team.

*Part of the reason Bobby's leaving, it's been reported, is that he was/is furious over GM Frank Wren's handling of the Smoltz situation this offseason.  And so were we.  We've touched on it before, but...you can't shell out a couple million bucks to keep a still-effective franchise icon around?  We know the rotation's fantastic.  We know that it's the one thing that's been keeping us in "contention.  But is it really so hard to find innings for a guy like Smoltz?  It's not like they'd have been counting on him.  Ugh.

** The trophy for which is called the Commissioner's Trophy, and really needs a better name.  And probably a new design as well, but let's start with the easy things.  Some thoughts, most of which are at least partly serious: the Landis Trophy (1st baseball commish; though we'd then have to rename the MVP Award), the Steinbrenner Trophy (love him or hate him, he's an icon as an owner), the McCarthy Trophy or the Stengel Trophy (both managers have the record for most Series victories), or the Veeck Trophy (what better publicity stunt?).

And yet...there is the discomforting side of Bobby.  The side that you remember when opposing fans' jeers remind you of his domestic battery charge.  The side that shows itself in his on-field tantrums that, you suspect, are not entirely disparate from the aforementioned domestic violence issue.  Is it, you wonder, a deep-seated anger issue that has reared its head more than just that one night in 1995?  Are we seeing very personal problems made very public on the field, for the 160th time?  

And so but then, as is the way in sports, all of those doubts about a man's character are washed away through celebration of the sporting deity: wins.  And Bobby's got plenty on his side his 2,408 are the fourth-most of all time, and he's won 54% of the time throughout his 24 year career.  That's 2,408 reasons why we can feel comfortable enough with him to call him simply 'Bobby;" 2,408 reasons why we think there must be some demented sort of rhyme and/or reason to his bizarre bullpen handling; 2,408 reasons why we'll be enormously sad to see him go.

Perhaps part of this sadness comes from the fact that Braves fans are accustomed to consistency; season after season after season ended with a division title, a trip to the playoffs, and, yes, there was often crushing disappointment at the end. But regardless, Bobby was there, at one moment adroitly guiding the team and another raging out onto the field on creaky knees to make a scene.  This comforted us.  Almost like Cubs fans, we clung to the Wait Til Next Year mantra, because we always knew there would be hope the next year.  And not the blind optimism bred of spring time, but of legitimate, we-can-do-it-this-time hope. Hope that, in large part, existed because of Bobby.  So now, as the Braves languish in the Wild Card race, we'll turn once more, and for the last time, to the hope inherent in that number 6.  And we'll try not to remember that it's a hope once constant, now eminently impermanent.  


Why Your Team Will Blow it in the Playoffs: Boston Red Sox

Well, it appears that just about all the playoff spots are decided. Per the excellent coolstandings.com, no team among the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Rockies have a great shot of making the playoffs - barring a miraculous late season run, or the Rangers gelling together despite injuries and sneaking into the playoffs.

Now, this lack of drama is no fun at all in September, and it's nigh-unacceptable in the playoffs. So rather than just let things play out like they will, which is to say "predictably," we're going to try to throw a wrench into the hopes and dreams of fans of each of the aforementioned playoff probables. Because none of them are the Braves. AND SO: onward with the hating. Up next: the Red Sawx.

Biggest Strength: The bullpen.  While it's true that they've got four players in the top 100 in WAR - Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, J.D. Drew, and Jason Bay, only Youkilis and Pedroia make the top 35.  Victor Martinez has been a nice addition to the lineup, posting a .399 wOBA, and Jon Lester and Josh Beckett both give them a good chance of winning when they take the mound.  But the 'pen has been solid, despite a ninth-inning comeback from the Angels last night.  Jonathan Papelbon, despite the newfound wildness he's displayed this year, is second in the league in WXRL, with a hefty 5.70 mark.  Among other significant relievers - i.e. those who've thrown more than 40 innings - none have a negative WXRL mark, which is excellent.  A deep bullpen means that they can handle the occasional disastrous start, and don't have to worry too much about one guy shouldering too much of the load.  Billy Wagner has seemed like his old self, striking out 14.73 per 9, and Daniel Bard's 100-mph gas has led to almost 12 K/9.  Hideki Okajima has been effective despite a 1.3+ WHIP, particularly against lefties, whom he's held to a .558 OPS.  It's not a dominant unit, but it's effective from top to bottom, which is something not many other teams can boast.

But Wait a Minute!

The rest of the team really seems lacking.  That seems a broad statement, and for that we apologize, but...we don't really know how else to put it.  Let's take a look at the lineup: It remains KCSD's official stance that David Ortiz is done as an effective beisbol-er, Ellsbury still needs to work on plate discipline, Nick Green has turned into a pumpkin, and the best bench option is a guy with a rare disease who's hitting .255/.313/.453.  Ok, so it's unfair of us to pick on Rocco Baldelli for having the mitochondrial disorder.  But he isn't performing up to the expectations he set for himself after a pretty studly rookie year. 

We'd like to talk about Jason Varitek in a special paragraph here.  He had a nice first month of the season, and was actually slugging above .500 with double-digit homers at one point.  Now?  He's hitting .212/.317/.400.  Last year, when many people thought he was finished as an effective catcher, he was at .220/.313/.359.  So besides a fluky first month, he's been every bit as poor as he was last year.  Which is to say: he's an utter liability at the plate.  And not to infer too much from two days, but he's allowed crucial passed balls in each of the last two games against AL West-leading Los Angeles.  So it doesn't seem unfair to say that he's, well, not so useful behind the plate either.

But what about the rotation?  We'll admit, there's some promise here.  We've long been a believer in Clay Buchholz, though it is admittedly troublesome that the organization doesn't seem to show the same faith in him that we do.  And his lack of control this year - nearly 4 BB/9, a WHIP of 1.37, and an FIP that's half a run higher than his actual, sub-4.00 ERA do not bode well.  Plus, after the way he's been jerked around and been consigned to AAA despite effective Major League performances (see: no-hitter), he's now going to be throwing crucial playoff innings?  Tim Wakefield has been dealing with a balky back all season, so his availability and effectiveness will be in question.  Daisuke Matsuzaka's been pretty disastrous all season - to wit, a 7.02 ERA - but his first start since he came back seems encouraging.  They really need him to be healthy and effective, but it's a major question as to whether he's capable of both of those things; to wit, he's long had control problems, and suffice his 4.61 BB/9 to say that he's not taken steps to curtail that issue.  And we don't know if we should even address Paul Byrd, as it's sort of a joke that he'd be starting games for a playoff team from the AL East at this point in his career.

If the Sox are going to win - and they won't, because, of course, they're going to blow it - they're going to need big performances from their studs.  Kevin Youkilis is their best weapon, and if he can't play well because of his back, we're not sure if the rest of the team can step it up to compensate.  They do have Beckett and Lester, who should be able to nab two or three games a series.  Unless, of course, Beckett keeps forgetting how to pitch like an effective Major Leaguer.  And there's a lot of other things that could go wrong - particularly if the bullpen, whose effectiveness has come despite bouts of wildness, implodes, and if that lineup can't keep up their 9th-in-MLB scoring pace.  Which we're not really sure how they do that anyway.  In any event, you can rest assured that the Red Sox will blow it one way or another.  


Why Your Team Will Blow it in the Playoffs: Philadelphia Phillies

Well, it appears that just about all the playoff spots are decided. Per the excellent coolstandings.com, no team among the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Rockies have a great shot of making the playoffs - barring a miraculous late season run, or the Rangers gelling together despite injuries and sneaking into the playoffs. 

Now, this lack of drama is no fun at all in September, and it's nigh-unacceptable in the playoffs. So rather than just let things play out like they will, which is to say "predictably," we're going to try to throw a wrench into the hopes and dreams of fans of each of the aforementioned playoff probables. Because none of them are the Braves. AND SO: onward with the hating. Up next: the WFC.

Biggest Strength: the middle of the order.  Chase Utley deserves to be at least mentioned in the MVP talk this year, even though Albert Pujols is the runaway winner.  He's played an excellent second base while mashing to the tune of a .296/.414/.542 line that's good for a .420 wOBA and making him already worth eight wins.  Jayson Werth has had a breakout year, slugging .519 and parking 33 HR - 2nd best on the team.  The leader in dongers, of course, is Ryan Howard, with 38.  His power production is actually down a little bit, but he's become a more balanced hitter, hitting .272/.350/.556 as compared to last year's .251/.339/.543.  Raul Ibanez, as everyone probably knows, hit something like 54 homers in the first half of the season and has come down a bit since, but he's still been good for a .382 wOBA, one point behind Howard. And Shane Victorino, the Flyin' Hawaiian, has added a potent bat (.300/.367/.460) to complement his excellent speed.  Those five have powered the Phillies to where they are right now.  

But Wait A Minute!

Didn't we forget someone, you might ask?  Well, no, we would tell you, because we're never wrong.  We would assume you're referring to former MVP Jimmy Rollins, and, well, he just hasn't been right all year.  He's going steal 30 bases, but he's actually cost the Phillies a run this year with his poor hitting, proving that while speed may never slump, it may suck.  Or something.  

Rollins' tough year isn't the only thing that's going to submarine the Phils, though.  Far from it!  For one thing, they don't have the lineup depth that, say, the Yankees do - after Utley, Werth, Howard, Ibanez, and Victorino, there aren't what you would call a lot of "quality" hitters on the roster.  Ben Francisco and Carlos Ruiz have hovered around an .800 OPS, but Francisco's only been around for 61 PAs, and Ruiz's contribution really only looks good because it comes from a thorougly mediocre group of guys - to wit, Eric Bruntlett, Matt Stairs, Chris Coste, John Mayberry, Greg Dobbs, and Paul Bako all have at least 85 PA. 

So if the Phils can't reliably outhit their opponent - admittedly a large logical leap considering the skill of their their five-man gauntlet - they're going to have to step it up in run prevention.  But can they?  Cliff Lee's a stud, and a recent rough patch (9+ ERA in his last couple starts, excluding last night) doesn't mean that he's in trouble, just that he had to regress from his utterly dominant first few starts as a Phillie.  So they've got themselves an ace.  After that, there's some quality to be had, but nothing overpowering.  Pedro Martinez has looked good since he joined the club* (5.67 K:BB, 3.65 FIP), but a high strand rate (86%) and a high age (38) hint at some regression.  Cole Hamels was great in last year's playoffs, but he's coming off of a career high in innnings (227), and has gone through some rough patches this year that have some wondering whether he's been focused enough on the season at hand.  Of course, that's the worst criticism we can find for the guy, since he's actually having essentially the same season as last year.  This surprised us, but it's true; check out the table.

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/16/2009.

His hit rate has gone up significantly, but that's partly due to a .343 BABIP.  That accounts for the increase in WHIP despite improved control, and his FIP of 3.77 is only five points higher than last year's.  So in reality, he's not as bad as he seems superficially, and he's not as good as he was in the playoffs.  Good enough guy to have as a number two starter, we suppose.  And the last spot will go to Joe Blanton, who's basically a league-average kind of guy.  He's learned how to strike guys out this year, posting  a career high 7.38 K/9 that easily bests his career total of 5.57.  The increase in strikeouts has come along with a large increase in the homers he gives up, though; his HR/9 of 1.51 is a tidy .5 greater than last year.  We'd say more, but, well, the talk of pitchers who give up lots of home runs reminds us of another Phillie that we're just chomping at the bit to write about.

*Did you know that in 1999, Pedro Martinez's banner year and arguably the greatest pitching season of all time, he had a .343 BABIP?  Jesus.  Let's revisit his line from that year.  

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/16/2009.

And he did that with batters getting absurdly LUCKY.  That sort of boggles the mind, no?

We hope you guessed that we're talking about the one, the only, Brad Lidge.  Which gives us a great excuse to use this picture again!

Teeeheeheeheeehee.  Sorry.  In any event, after Lidge blew his like 38th save this year, Charlie Manuel finally stopped running him out there and depriving us of much glorious schadenfreude.  Seriously, the guy's been historically awful; his -2.5 WXRL is the lowest of any pitcher EVER who got as many save opportunities as Lidge has this year.  Which is absurd considering that he's pitching for a division champion.  Fortunately for the Phils, Ryan Madson is there to...well, blow more saves.  Yay!  When you consider that Chan Ho Park leads this unit in WXRL at 1.996, you have to figure there's some reason for concern here.  If the pen keeps handing back leads, the offense and starters are going to have to compensate, and they're going to have little room for error.  When one or two of the big bats goes cold, when Joe Blanton starts serving up gopher balls and Pedro Martinez reverts to Mets form, when Eric Bruntlett fails to convert an unassisted triple play...the Phillies will blow it.



Why Your Team Will Blow it in the Playoffs: St. Louis Cardinals

Well, it appears that just about all the playoff spots are decided. Per the excellent coolstandings.com, no team among the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Rockies have a great shot of making the playoffs - barring a miraculous late season run, or the Rangers gelling together despite injuries and making good on their 36% chance of sneaking into the playoffs.

Now, this lack of drama is no fun at all in September, and it's nigh-unacceptable in the playoffs. So rather than just let things play out like they will, which is to say "predictably," we're going to try to throw a wrench into the hopes and dreams of fans of each of the aforementioned playoff probables. Because none of them are the Braves. AND SO: onward with the hating. Up next: the St. Louis Cardinals, the team with the only double-digit division lead.

Biggest Strength: Their stars.  Albert Pujols is, of course, the best player in the league, and he's been worth 8 wins by himself.  Matt Holliday, since coming over, has been hitting .378/.434/.701 with 12 dongers in 189 PA.  Chris Carpenter is the second-best NL pitcher behind Tim Lincecum, with a league-leading 2.16 ERA and a sparkling 4.30 K/BB ratio.  Adam Wainwright has been a horse, posting a 2.59 ERA over a league-leading 205 IP.  He's got a little less control than Carpenter, but better strikeout stuff, including one of the best curveballs in the game.  And John Smoltz has been great since coming over, with a neat 28.00 K/BB ratio (!) and a 0.91 WHIP.

But Wait a Minute!

How, exactly, is this team planning on scoring runs?  Pujols is otherworldly, Holliday's been mashing, and...well...look out for Jarrett Hoffpauir?  Julio Lugo?  Beyond the 3-4 in this lineup, no one can hit their way out of a wet paper bag.  And come on - there's no way Holliday can keep hitting at this pace.  That .378/.434/.701 line we mentioned earlier?  Compare that to a career .319/.388/.549 clip.  Want some more hatin?  Well, you knew this was coming.  On the road in his career, he's been hitting .283/.353/.456.  So there you see some Coors Field effects.  What we're saying is, as his season goes on, his line is going to regress to the mean level he's been demonstrating throughout his career. 

Of course, his career mean would still make him seem studly in comparison to some of the guys the Cards are running out there.  Ryan Ludwick (.804) is the only guy OPSing over .750, and the next closest is Skip Schumacker's .746.  Do you fear Yadier Molina, Julio Lugo, Mark DeRosa, Colby Rasmus, Brendan Ryan, Rick Ankiel, or Brian Barden?  Probably not, and you're not even a big league pitcher (probably).  They score a measly 4.58 runs per game, 18th in MLB - not exactly a championship caliber offense. 

No, this is going to be a team that relies on its pitching to get its wins.  And with a rotation of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright - a latter-day Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, for our money -, a surprisingly good Joel Pineiro (3.01 FIP, 1.11 WHIP) and a resurgent John Smoltz, they could do just that.  And as for the bullpen, they've had a spectacular year from Ryan Franklin (of all people), who's posted a 1.67 ERA and a 4.265 WXRL.  Trever Miller, Kyle McLellan, and Blake Hawksworth have proven capable as well, and they'll have the useful Kyle Lohse as a long man.  But can such a staff shut down the Dodgers, or even the Yankees should they get that far?  Well, at the very least it should make for a fun series.  


Why Your Team Will Blow it in the Playoffs: New York Yankees

Well, it appears that just about all the playoff spots are decided.  Per the excellent coolstandings.com, no team among the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Rockies have a great shot of making the playoffs - barring a miraculous late season run, or the Rangers gelling together despite injuries and making good on their 36% chance of sneaking into the playoffs.  

Now, this lack of drama is no fun at all in September, and it's nigh-unacceptable in the playoffs.  So rather than just let things play out like they will, which is to say "predictably," we're going to try to throw a wrench into the hopes and dreams of fans of each of the aforementioned playoff probables.  Because none of them are the Braves.  AND SO: onward with the hating.  First up: the New York Yankees, team with the best record in baseball and one of the easier teams to hate.  

Why They're Great: Offense

The Yankee offense is spectacularly talented.  Led by A-Rod, Jeter, and Teixeira, at least eight, and usually all nine, of their lineup regulars post above-average wOBA marks.  Jeter in any other year would have a great MVP candidacy, A-Rod is performing above expectations after hip surgery, and Teixeira has been a good middle of the order force.  But the players surrounding them have been meeting and/or exceeding expectations as well.  Johnny Damon's found the fountain of youth, Nick Swisher's broken out the slugging stick (though only four of his dongers this year have been at home; how bizarre eh?), Jorge Posada has rebounded from injury better than we expected, Robby Cano is flashing talent again, and Hideki Matsui's knees are allowing him to play well as a DH.  And they're also scoring 5.72 runs per game, which is the best mark in MLB.  This is a team without a real hole when they're at the plate; opposing pitchers beware.  

But Wait a Minute!

Do you really trust this team's pitching?  We mean, REALLY trust it? It's great that they brought in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, whether or not CC has been worth the record contract they gave him.  Both have been very helpful in getting them to where they are today.  And of course there's Mariano lurking in the back of the pen, having one of the best seasons of his career.  But let's look at the bigger picture here.  What exactly are the Yankees going to be working with this postseason?

SP CC Sabathia

SP A.J. Burnett

SP Andy Pettitte

SP ...Joba? Sergio Mitre? Not Sergio Mitre, right? They wouldn't do that...would they?

Now, before we continue, let's just say this: we put little stock in past playoff performances.  They are, to us, blown way out of proportion and seem to us - detached, coldhearted, and stat-minded as we are - to be more a function of small sample size than any special ability to bear down in clutch situations.  That said...here's CC in the playoffs.

3 Seasons (4 Series)7.92525.0332222242.20011.97.98.6
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/10/2009.

Well, that...um...speaks for itself.  Let's move on to noted headcase A.J. Burnett!  And, further, let's ignore that he's got exactly three (3) seasons of 200+ IP.  And that two (2) of those came in contract years.  And that, for what it's worth, he's never pitched in the postseason (we confess to being surprised at this point).  Let's now imagine that everything people say about pitching in the postseason is true, and, moreover, that pitching in New York in the postseason is as nerve-wracking and spine-tingling and testicle-testing as they say.  Is A.J. Burnett a guy you want running out there twice in a seven-game series?  We're not sayin'...we're just sayin'.

So how about Andy Pettitte?  He's got that veteran presence, that cool, calm demeanor that people love to talk about, right?  He's been there before, he's seen it all, he can bring a level head to the clubhouse, blah blah blah.  Here's the thing about Pettitte.  He's 37.  Over the last four years, he's pretty well established what he is at this point - a slightly above league average (105 ERA+, 1.41 WHIP) pitcher.  And you know what?  That's actually good enough when you've got a team that hits like the Yankees do.  And Pettitte's been super durable throughout his career, so who knows if the age will affect him.  So overall, Pettitte is actually in pretty good shape, but since this is the time for vitriol...he's old and doesn't have his best stuff anymore.  So there.

This fourth spot is where things get interesting.  We have to assume the Yanks'll start Joba there, but...honestly, would you feel comfortable betting so much as fifty cents on how they'll use him the next time he heads out to the mound?  The Joba Rules or whatever are absurd, and left Keith Law saying that Joba "looked like he didn't know if he was coming or going" out on the mound.  You expect a guy who's had his head toyed with by the Yankees for the last three years to be in good shape to pitch for them in the playoffs?  Or that he'll actually, yknow, be good?  It's worth mentioning a fact that gets lost in all the talk about the Joba Rules - he's posting the worst K/9, BB/9, HR/9, H/9, WHIP, and BAA rates of his career.  In fact, he's just not been very good at all this season.  A 4.45 ERA and 100 ERA+ aren't the stuff letters home are made of.  And what if they decide to turn his starts into the three-inning disappearing acts we've been seeing of late?  Does that mean Sergio Mitre will actually be taking the ball in high-leverage situations for multiple innings?  For a team that's spending $200 million on payroll?  We don't even need to pile on here...the guy's posting a 7.02 ERA.  That'll have to speak for itself.  

Oh, and the bullpen?  Rivera is beyond reproach.  Phil Hughes has been excellent, though we still think he should be a starter.  Alfredo Aceves has been good, posting a nifty 2.39 WXRL.  And Phil Coke has been a serviceable lefty.  But beyond those four guys, well, there's not a lot of talent here.  And depending on how scared they are of Rivera's injury problems, however minor they may be, he may be limited exclusively to one-inning duty.  Which means that you've now got three guys handling all the significant bullpen innings that are being left behind by a rotation that will be of questionable efficacy.  All we're saying is...we hope these guys are ready to try to hit their way into November.

Season in Haiku: Chicago White Sox

All hail Jake Peavy!

Wait, he can't pitch anymore.

Yay Alex Rios?

Season in Haiku: Chicago Cubs

Geo loves the pot

He should share with Cubby fans

'Cauae wait 'til next year.



On the Recent Spate of Bad GM'ing

This year, especially as compared to last year, we have seen an unusually large (we think) number of players changing uniforms, both before and after the July 31 deadline.  And, after the previous midnight, we've seen the end of the trades - but the deadline did not come and go quietly.

Rather, we see Jim Thome traded to the Dodgers and Jose Contreras traded to the Rockies.  And in case you didn't know, both Thome - a TTO HOF'er - and Contreras used to play for the Chicago White Sox.  As in, the team that earlier this season acquired the combined 11 years and $122 million in contracts that are RHP Jake Peavy and OF Alex Rios.  As in, a team that one would expect to be in the proverbial 'win-now' mode.  And yet, here they are, dumping off veteran pieces not one month later.  Let's take a look at why this is a particuarly bad move by Kenny Williams.

First, it's instructive to point out that trading for Peavy was about the biggest 'win-now' gamble Williams could make.  He traded away Aaron Poreda and Clayton Richard, his two best pitching prospects, and two other promising guys in order to bring aboard Peavy, who was still rehabbing a torn ankle ligament and wasn't even a sure bet to be able to pitch this season.  In that deal, Williams bet the farm on a risky proposition and lost.  Then, he decided to take on Alex Rios' contract as well; some analysts were bullish on the move, but Rios' .493 OPS - which is abysmal for a backup shortstop - as a White Sock is making those $60 million loom large.  So after losing the farm, Williams handed over the house as well. 

And now, to continue this tortured gambling/housing metaphor, Williams apparently has decided to hand out the furniture as well.  Let's begin with the more palatable of the two moves, sending away Jose Contreras.  Contreras has been pretty terrible this season, 'contributing' 114 IP with 121 H, 89 K, 45 BB and a 5.42 ERA, so his departure shouldn't hurt much.  But the guy they got in return, Brandon Hynick, doesn't look like he's going to offer much of an improvement, even in the future; he's got a career K/BB over 3, but low K numbers and pedestrian hit/HR rates don't bode well, especially if he's going to be pitching in the Cell.  So trading Contreras looks like an unremarkable salary dump...which would be understandable if, well, like we mentioned earlier, they hadn't taken on all that extra money in Rios and Peavy.  But whatever.  It's a minor quabble we take with that move.

On the other hand, the decision to dump Thome's salary is where we really have to take issue.  Let's start with the guy they got in return: one Justin Fuller, a .242/.338/.346 hitter in 4 minor league seasons.  And we wish we could tell you some shocking stat that might make you reconsider his future prospects, something that doesn't show up in his batting line, but...well, he doesn't make contact, doesn't walk, is 21-46 in stealing bases (so that's kind of like Thome, we guess), and he's currently posting a career-high .418 SLG with 4 HR.  This is a massive power surge for him, as he'd had only 1 other HR in his three previous seasons.  So, what you see is what you get.

Now consider what the Sox had in Thome.  He was posting a 120 OPS+ on the heels of a respectable enough .249/.372/.493 line, and can still handle righties (to the tune of a .261/.387/.510 line) and whose contract is going to be coming off the books after the season anyway.  And then, to make matters worse, the Sox actually gave the Dodgers some cash, too!  We didn't realize this until just now, and, frankly, we're stunned.  The Sox traded away one of their three or four best hitters, got in return a guy who can't hit, or run, and felt it necessary to throw in some money, as well.

Kenny Williams this is just...just terrible.  Why, this is almost Dayton Moore-esque!

Hey, speaking of Dayton Moore: how 'bout that extension through 2014! (like that segue?)

We're curious...what, exactly, has Moore done to deserve an extension?  He hasn't scouted particularly well, he's passed up on guys in the draft (Lincecum and Longoria, to name two) that are already big league stars, he's handed out silly free agent contracts, and he's made bad trades.  The team is no better now than when they brought him on; if it weren't for Zack Greinke, Gil Meche, and Billy Butler (and maybe Alex Gordon, depending on how optimistic you choose to be), there would be no real sign of progress at the Major League level.  Luke Hochevar might be something one day, and maybe Mike Moustakas and Kila Ka'aihue (what a name!) can offer some hope.  But Kansas City is a barren place, and someone's got to take responsibility.  Why not Moore, who came in preaching OBP (and then brought in guys like Mike Jacobs, Yuni Betancourt, and Jose Guillen) and good pitching (e.g. Kyle Farnsworth, Ramon Ramirez, Ron Mahay, Kyle Davies, Horacio Ramirez, Sidney Pons...ok, enough)?  

And when it comes to assigning blame for a team's poor performance to a GM, we immediately think back to J.P. Ricciardi, whose ineptitude bred an excellent Joe Posnanski column.  To recap, though the link really is worth clicking: Ricciardi has remained on the job through seven wholly mediocre seasons.  During these seven seasons, J.P. has signed Alex Rios (7/$70MM), Vernon Wells (7/$126) (!!), B.J. Ryan (5/$47), and Frank Thomas (2/$18) to silly deals.  Of those, Rios, Ryan, and Thomas were all waived.  Essentially, rather than continue to pay them to play baseball, they were bad enough that Ricciardi paid them to NOT play baseball.  Those are three HUGE swings and misses, to say nothing of the whiff on the Wells contract that is...well...we don't know if  'albatross' is even a sufficient description.  Oh, and speaking of guys he released: you, dear reader, may recognize the name Chris Carpenter.  Yeah, Ricciardi released him, too.  And traded Jayson Werth for Jason Frasor.  We just don't understand - other than by the mercy of complete collective apathy of ownership and fans - how a guy keeps his job after demonstrably failing like that, again and again.  Same goes for Dayton Moore.  We're not going to say that Kenny Williams shoud be fired, though; his moves this season are merely puzzling.  Which is a step up from the bleak outlook that the Toronto and Kansas City front offices are providing for their fans.

On the bright side, we guess: good on Ned Coletti for bringing in a lefty bench slugger for a song, and also acquiring a decent innings-eater in Jon Garland later that night.  Enjoy it, Ned: it's the only time we've publicly complimented you thusfar and it may be the last.


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