Thursday, September 13, 2012
The Chaotic Race to the MLB Postseason
By Jonah Keri
The Cardinals and Dodgers are doing everything in their power to throw their seasons away.
St. Louis just got swept in San Diego for the first time in years, with six losses in their past seven games (all to teams that were below .500 at the time) and 11 of their past 15. The Dodgers just got swept by the sub-.500 Diamondbacks. They've lost six of their past seven games, 14 of their past 21. Since the Trade That Changed Everything Forever™, they're 6-11; Adrian Gonzalez is hitting .229/.286/.357 as a Dodger.
The sample-size gods will be (justifiably) angered by those stats, but here's the bottom line: Five teams now sit within three games of the second wild-card slot, six teams within four games.
Fortunately for the Cards and Dodgers, the competition isn't exactly fierce. The Pirates have lost 14 of their past 18 games. The Phillies and Brewers are riding big hot streaks to get back in the race, but they're both deeply flawed teams, and making up three games while climbing over three teams in a span of 19 games is really tough to do; the comebacks last September by the Cardinals and Rays are still regarded as miraculous for a reason. It's entirely possible that St. Louis or L.A. could limp to the finish line and still sneak into the postseason.
Which got me wondering: What's the track record for teams that stumble into the playoffs? Are they less likely to find success once they get in? We put Elias Sports Bureau on the case. Here are the 10 playoff teams of the wild-card era who played the worst in September and October regular-season games, and their results in the postseason.
Not bad, actually. You've got three World Series winners, and three pennant winners that lost in the World Series. And that's from a field that includes five wild-card teams and three teams that won fewer than 90 games. The odds get longer with the additional one-game wild-card playoff, of course. Still, get in the dance and you've got a chance.
The Cardinals aren't doing themselves any favors with their in-game tactics. Top of the ninth, Cardinals trail 3-2. Allen Craig leads off with a double. Mike Matheny puts Adron Chambers in to pinch-run for Craig. You've taken one of your hitters out of the game, but one run is huge in this situation, so there's some logic to it; the speedier Chambers is more likely to score from second on a single than Craig would be. The next batter was Yadier Molina. The Cardinals catcher ranks fourth in the National League with a .315 batting average, making him one of the most likely players in the game to drive in the run. So naturally, Molina squares around to bunt instead. The rest of the inning ended as poorly as you would imagine. After Chambers advanced to third on the bunt, David Freese failed to cash him, grounding out to third. Then, after a Carlos Beltran walk, pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker grounded out to end the game. Cardinals lose.
After the game, Matheny acknowledged to reporters that Molina had bunted on his own, adding that he felt it was "smrt baseball" errr "smart baseball." There's no way Matheny is going to throw one of his best players under the bus in that situation. But let's get something straight — there's no way this can be considered smart baseball. Not with Molina at the plate, not when the Cardinals could have benefited from scoring more than one run, not with the very real chance that Molina could have tried to hand the opposition a gift out and failed. If the Cardinals skipper truly believes Molina made a wise choice, he might want to rethink his late-game strategies. If he's just backing Molina to be diplomatic and doesn't actually think it was a smart play, there's a way this could have been avoided: Talk to Molina before he gets to the on-deck circle and go through scenarios with him, or even pull him back from the on-deck circle before he steps to the plate, to remind him that swinging away would be the best strategy for that situation.
The Cardinals weren't alone in making strategic blunders that helped cost them a very close, very important game. Hell, Yadier wasn't even the only Molina involved in a critical play. The Rays had Jose Molina due up in the sixth inning, with two outs, the score tied, and the bases loaded. Of the 281 players with as many plate appearances as Molina this season, only eight have been worse offensively than Jose and his .257 Weighted On-Base Average. Thanks to September callups, Joe Maddon had a bench full of superior alternatives to hit in that spot, with two other catchers available to step in defensively. Instead, the Rays manager left the worst hitter on the team in the game, and got an inning-ending groundout for his trouble.
The next inning, the Rays put a runner on second with two outs. Righty-swinging Ben Francisco was due to bat against Orioles reliever Darren O'Day. A sidearmer who absolutely annihilates right-handed hitters (career OPS allowed to righties: .593), O'Day presented a matchup nightmare for Francisco. The Rays had multiple left-handed bats waiting on the bench, including Luke Scott and Sam Fuld. The O's did have left-handed relievers standing by had Maddon tried to gain a platoon edge. Of course if someone like Brian Matusz had entered the game, the Rays could have then countered with a right-handed pinch-hitter. Suffice it to say, Maddon had a bunch of options, just about all of them better than doing nothing. He did nothing. Francisco struck out.
There were other little frustrations, such as Fuld replacing Francisco defensively right after that strikeout, Scott pinch-hitting for Molina two innings too late, and Maddon using Kyle Farnsworth instead of lights-out closer Fernando Rodney in a tied ninth inning, which cost the Rays the game. (Though one could certainly argue that while saving Rodney for later isn't the best idea in general, saving him specifically for J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters might've made some sense). The Rays' anemic offense probably deserves most of the blame for again failing to score enough runs. The front office deserves plenty of blame for seeing that lack of offense and coming up with nothing better than Ryan Roberts at the deadline; in the five seasons since the Rays became contenders, they've acquired just two major-league players at the non-waiver deadline, Roberts and the immortal Chad Qualls. But you have to make do with what you have. The Rays failed to execute, their manager failed to make the best decisions, and just like that they're three games out in the AL East, and the wild-card hunt.
But the winner of the award for the evening's best bungle goes to the Pirates. With one out in the sixth and the score tied, Alex Presley tripled, giving Pittsburgh a golden opportunity to take the lead. The next batter was Clint Barmes, one of the worst hitters in baseball. If the Pirates weren't going to pinch-hit, trying a squeeze play made some sense. To make a squeeze work, you need at least a little element of surprise. So what did manager Clint Hurdle and the Buccos do? They had third-base coach Nick Leyva walk up to Presley and whisper at him in such an obvious way that he might as well have hired a skywriter to let the Reds know a squeeze was coming. Dusty Baker and bench coach Chris Speier called a pitchout (which nearly backfired when Homer Bailey slipped and threw the pitch low), but Ryan Hanigan still caught the ball and tagged Presley out, after Barmes got nothing but air.
Maybe it's just that we're in September, in the middle of pennant races. But it sure seems like managers make the most egregious mistakes when the stakes are highest (it's a subject I'll try to explore further when time permits). For one night at least, three of them did.
Finally, a few notes on those teams that actually won Wednesday, improving their playoff chances.
• The A's won their 12th road game in a row, closing in on their all-time franchise record of 14 straight road wins. The winning pitcher was A.J. Griffin, who's been nothing short of a revelation, even on a team that's excelled at run prevention all year long. Griffin's eight innings of shutout ball Wednesday hiked his record to 6-0 for the year, with a 1.94 ERA, 2.98 FIP, and a strikeout-to-walk rate near 5-to-1. What makes Griffin's performance all the more impressive is that he has just 65 major-league innings under his belt.
In fact, I was lucky enough to attend Griffin's big-league debut, the first time I had seen a game in Oakland in years. On a hot Sunday June afternoon, in a packed Coliseum, Griffin tossed six innings of two-run ball against the Giants, keeping his team in the game and giving them a chance to win. For the first eight innings, Oakland managed just a single run off Matt Cain and Jeremy Affeldt. Then Giants closer Santiago Casilla entered the game. He was wild, eventually putting two men on for Derek Norris. Like Griffin, Norris was just a baby by major-league standards, playing in just his fifth major-league game. Though known for having good power, he had yet to go deep in the Show, and Casilla's blazing fastball didn't seem like a likely target for launching his first homer. The burly catcher worked the count to 3-2, fouled off a pitch off Buster Posey's mitt to stay alive then connected.
The A's were 34-38, in third place and 10 games out of first before Norris's big swing launched the ball into the left-field bleachers for a game-winning home run. They're 48-22 since. Maybe the only bad thing you can say about the Orioles' Cinderella run this year is that it's obscured Oakland's incredible roll, one built on a cast of rookies and mostly anonymous players. Thanks to Peter Gammons for this stat: The A's are now at 40 wins and 16 saves by rookies. The 1952 Dodgers had 51 rookie wins, 15 by Joe Black in relief. For Griffin, it's been near-constant success from day one. For Norris, it's been a sub-Mendoza season lacking in highlights, save for one really, really big one.
• On July 17, the O's were 46-44, in third place and 10 games out in their own division. They've gone 34-18 since, lopping all 10 games off that deficit and now sitting in a first-place tie with a Yankees team that looked uncatchable for a long time. The standard knock against the Orioles has been their run differential, which sits at -21 for the season, even with the team now 18 games above .500. Baltimore's 26-7 record in one-run games has played a huge role in that divergence, with the O's 9-1 in such games since that mid-July point.
Still, let's give some credit to Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter for the moves they've made, with the GM adding new talent where possible and the manager figuring out how best to leverage what he has. Miguel Gonzalez and Zach Britton might not scare anyone when it comes to contenders' lists of potential playoff starters, but they've been a far sight better than Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Tommy Hunter were in the rotation. Bumping Matusz from the rotation has helped fortify an already strong bullpen, too; he's struck out 10 batters, walked just one, and held opponents to a .447 OPS in his nine appearance since getting sent to the pen. The biggest upgrade has been at third base, with Manny Machado. His early-August callup produced an outburst of offense for a couple games, followed by mellower numbers, adding up to a .272/.282/.474 line in 117 plate appearances. But the reason Machado is on the roster is for his defense, which figured to be an upgrade over the abominable Wilson Betemit, even if Machado lost a couple of limbs and played with Boog Powell strapped to his back. His D has been better than advertised, especially given he's playing away from his natural shortstop position. Machado's heads-up, precocious fake-throw in the ninth inning of Wednesday night's game led to a huge throwout of Rich Thompson at third, setting up Baltimore's winning rally a few minutes later, adding to the 20-year-old phenom's growing legend.
Granted, play the season out 100 more times, and it's doubtful you'd see this many Orioles wins, or many Nate McLouth walk-off hits, let alone McLouth actually figuring things out with the Orioles and putting up solid numbers. But that's the kind of season it's been in Baltimore — part skill, part luck, and yes, a healthy dose of Orioles Magic. Who knew that this would be baseball's iconic mid-September image?
• The Phillies swept the Marlins Wednesday. They've reeled off seven wins in a row and now sit just three games back in the chase for the second wild-card spot. The Brewers completed their sweep of an excellent Braves team. They've won nine straight home games, one off their franchise record, and are also just three games out of the wild-card hunt. Frankly, we're still trying to process both teams' unlikely charge, and all that's happened for them to get to this point. More on both tomorrow.