Nine out of 10 teams at .500 or better. Nine out of 10 teams with more runs scored than allowed. Veteran stars and electrifying rookies. You can't call it East Coast bias if AL and NL East teams are categorically better.
Hitch a ride on the Acela and make the rest of the country hate you. It's Week 7 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
Versus Kansas City, versus Oakland, and at Houston and somehow we get the Rangers' second losing week of the season. Still, trying to poke holes in this Rangers team is pretty close to a futile exercise. Here's one surprising stat: Texas ranks just 17th in baserunning runs created, after leading the majors in that category by a huge margin last year with 23.8 BsR. Even there, you get the sense this is mostly small sample size noise; between Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, and several other speedy and effective base runners, odds are Texas ends the season near the top of the league once again.
No team owns a tougher interleague schedule than the Braves. Atlanta travels to Tampa Bay, New York, and Boston, and hosts Baltimore, Toronto, and New York again. By contrast, the Phillies and Marlins play exactly zero games against the Yankees,1 while teams in the NL Central and West who might end up competing against Atlanta for the wild card get interleague slates loaded with cupcake opponents. Unbalanced schedules already cause all kinds of mayhem in baseball: Several Jays teams over the past decade have been good enough to win other divisions, while relatively weak teams from the Central and West divisions have sneaked into the playoffs in recent years. It hardly seems fair to add more schedule variance to the mix in the form of interleague play. Fair or not, great teams find a way to overcome such obstacles. The Braves rolled into Tropicana Field and took two out of three from a tough Rays club, allowing just eight runs in the three-game series. With Tim Hudson back and dominating (three runs allowed in his past three starts, covering 21 2/3 innings), Atlanta's now getting top-flight pitching to match the National League's second-best offense.
There is no logical reason for the Dodgers to own the best record in baseball. Yes, they've gotten massive production out of Matt Kemp. The starting rotation has been excellent, with Clayton Kershaw leading a surprisingly deep staff. And a few quality players are having career years, chief among them Andre Ethier.
Still, the Dodgers have more than their share of problems: After destroying the league for the first few weeks of the season, Kemp hit the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Mark Ellis came down with compartment syndrome, had surgery, and will be out at least six weeks, with doctors saying he might've been a few hours from losing his left leg had they not noticed the severity of his condition in time. Replacement-level players manned third base and left field, until Juan Uribe and Juan Rivera hit the DL themselves — Uribe's third-base replacement Jerry Hairston, too. Their leadoff man (Dee Gordon) has been one of the worst everyday players in baseball, hitting .200/.244/.255 and raising talk that he might get sent down to Triple-A. Their first baseman (James Loney) remains one of the least productive first basemen in the game, slugging just .367.
So what's going on? Simply put, everything else that could possibly go right for them has gone right. A.J. Ellis, solid on-base guy, underrated player, and Crash Davis figure, has gone bananas, ranking among the best hitters in the league at the season's quarter pole. Bobby Abreu, let go for nothing by a last-place Angels team, is suddenly hitting like he's 10 years younger. When a second-tier prospect like Scott Van Slyke belts a pinch-hit, three-run, game-winning blast on a 3-0 count as his first major league home run, you know luck's on your side.
If there's no reason for all this good fortune, there's also no good reason to expect it to continue. But in a woefully weak division, the 15 games over .500 the Dodgers have already banked loom awfully large. Whether it's a Pablo Sandoval–less Giants team trying to make up a seven-game deficit or any other flawed division rival trying to rebound from further back, the rest of the NL West faces long odds, whether or not the Dodgers eventually turn into pumpkins.
Nine road wins in a row. Whatever becomes of this incredible start to the season for the upstart Orioles, racking up nine consecutive road wins, seven of them against capable Yankees, Red Sox, and Nationals clubs, will likely stand out as Baltimore's signature achievement. Other memorable O's moments: Jim Johnson owning MLB's longest active save streak with 22 in a row; Adam Jones emerging as the second-most valuable player in the American League; also, Jones dropping knowledge on UZR and wOBA; Luis Ayala (?!) pitching well enough to earn glowing praise from Rany Jazayerli.
The Rays have sent 10 players to the DL so far this season, including their leadoff man, closer, a starting pitcher, and their best all-around player. They've made 31 roster moves. It didn't look like anyone would rival Boston's losses of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Andrew Bailey, and eight other players, but the Rays are giving them a run. The two most recent injuries, to left fielder Desmond Jennings and Jeff Niemann, leave very different marks. Niemann's out at least two months after fracturing his fibula. But the Rays' amazing starting pitching depth should more than make up for the loss, with call-up Alex Cobb delivering a seven-inning, two-run gem in which he retired the last 10 batters he faced. Jennings might be back as soon as early next week, but that's still a more painful loss: The Rays sorely lack impact right-handed bats with Jennings joining Evan Longoria on the DL, and they're not exactly loaded against right-handed pitching anymore, either, with Sean Rodriguez, Will Rhymes, Elliot Johnson, and Jose Molina manning the bottom four spots in the lineup. Like the Dodgers, the Rays continue to find a way to win despite a badly weakened roster. Ben Zobrist being the league's most valuable .217 hitter, Jose Molina framing half the league, and Jeremy Hellickson continuing to defy the BABIP gods by making it 37 out of 41 career starts with three earned runs allowed or less have helped a lot.
The Rays also win another category: This Week in Sabermetric Progress. On Sunday's broadcast, injured Rays outfielder and jack of all trades Sam Fuld broke down several key sabermetric terms and concepts, including Wins Above Replacement and Ultimate Zone Rating. The broadcast also featured lineups that included OPS instead of batting average and starting pitcher lines that included Fielding Independent Pitching and Batting Average on Balls In Play.
Seriously, we might have to have an injury-off to decide which team (or at least which non-Boston team) has been hit hardest this year. In the past week, the Cardinals lost starting center fielder Jon Jay to the DL, scorchingly hot slugger Allen Craig to the DL (for the second time this year), and Lance Berkman to a torn ACL, a move that will likely cost him the rest of the season. Throw in a season-long injury to erstwhile staff ace Chris Carpenter plus setbacks for a few other key players and you have a decimated roster. Or at least you would, if the Cards didn't seem to scrounge up capable replacements each and every year. The latest is Matt Adams, a behemoth 23rd-round draft pick who made good by mashing minor league pitching at a .318/.366/.558 rate. Despite their tremendous year-to-date run differential (which suggests a much better record than the Cardinals' actual 22-19 mark), St. Louis will need contributions from the likes of Adams and fellow fill-in Matt Carpenter, not to mention continued health from rarely healthy stars like Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal if they're to pocket more wins and hold off the improving Reds. Not doing horrifically self-destructive things such as intentionally walking James Loney (hitting .233/.310/.336 at the time) to load the bases and face A.J. Ellis (.330/.462/.500 at the time) with the game on the line would certainly help.
Brett Lawrie gets suspended for four games after blowing a gasket and chucking a helmet that happened to bounce up and hit an umpire. Adam Lind goes from apparent bargain to sub-Mendoza-hitting, Triple-A-demoted, no-problem-ushering-him-through-outright-waivers guy in a span of two years. And yet the Jays enjoy a solid 4-3 week, with Brandon Morrow becoming the first pitcher this season to reach two shutouts, Jose Bautista hitting bombs again, and J.P. Arencibia breaking out of a season-long slump by racking up four homers and 10 RBIs in a three-day span. Among AL teams, only Texas owns a better run differential than the Jays, who rank third in both runs scored and runs allowed in the junior circuit. In other words, this is a good team. Maybe even a very good one.
A 2-5 week, some of it stemming from bad luck, some of it from deeper, more concerning problems. On the luck side: An entire bullpen worth of relievers on the DL, a 28-inning drought in which the Yankees went 0-for-22 with runners in scoring position, and a wave of cooties that's struck down everyone from 2012 Disappointment Cover Boy Mark Teixeira to Curtis Granderson and several non-DL relievers. The bigger concern is Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod's slugging .399, his worst mark since his cup-of-coffee debut as a 19-year-old. He has only three extra-base hits in his past 76 at-bats. According to Inside Edge, 19 percent of the balls Rodriguez hit in 2010 went 330 feet or farther, versus just 13 percent this year.
The good news: Eight shutout innings for Andy Pettitte in his most recent start against the Reds, and Cory Wade making the Yankees look better than their poorer rivals at a game typically dominated by lower-revenue clubs: mining the scrap heap for hidden gold.
Some week for Stephen Strasburg. First he gets roughed up by (of all teams) the Padres, with Davey Johnson blaming the lousy outing on Hot Stuff ointment migrating down near Strasburg's, ummm Washington Monument. Then in his next start he goes back-to-back with Jesus Flores, belting the first home run of his career and the first back-to-back jacks by a catcher and pitcher in three years, raising his batting line to .375/.412/.750 for the year in the process. But that, too, ends on a down note, when Strasburg is pulled from the game after tossing just five innings and 90 pitches due to biceps tightness. Nats fans can only hold their breath that (another!) team racked by injuries won't have to deal with losing their young ace for any length of time. In the meantime, a GIF of Bryce Harper's first major league home run trot, at 17.07 seconds the second-fastest time in the majors this year, makes for a swell distraction.
Gaby Sanchez, an All-Star last year, gets sent down to Triple-A. Chris Coghlan, 2009 NL Rookie of the Year turned bust, gets called up to replace him. Logan Morrison, a 23-home run hitter last year, gets reduced to platoon duty and hitting for little to no power due to a bad knee. And Emilio Bonifacio, a base-stealing machine and moderately valuable utilityman turned center fielder, hits the DL with a sprained thumb. Oh, and then there's this.
So why the top-10 ranking? The two sweetest words in the English language: "De-Fault." The ranks of solid teams after the top nine get very thin, and possibly nonexistent. That, and Hanley Ramirez is long overdue to start hitting, sitting on a career-low .232 batting average and career-low .302 on-base percentage.
Derek Lowe produced baseball's first zero-strikeout shutout in 10 years, inducing 22 ground balls and ceding just six hits to whitewash the Twins. As rare as that particular feat might be, Lowe's season-long success without the benefit of strikeouts is starting to border on historic. Lowe now sits at 6-2 with a 2.15 ERA. This despite striking out only 15 batters (and walking 18) over nine starts, covering 58 2/3 innings — a strikeout rate of 2.3 per 9 innings. Lowe's ground-ball rate sits at 67.4 percent, the highest mark in the career of this generation's biggest worm-killer. His strand rate has been fortunate at 82.8 percent (league average is typically in the low 70s), as has his home run-to-fly ball rate (just 4.7 percent), so we should expect some regression. Still, Lowe excels in several underrated facets of the game: He induces a ton of double plays, which isn't fully reflected in numerous advanced stats (including BABIP). And with 15 seasons and 2,674 1/3 innings pitched on his ledger, he's never been on the disabled list. Even if and when regression comes, the Indians did well to get Lowe for essentially nothing, as the Braves tossed him and agreed to pay most of his salary.
#FreeAroldis has taken a turn for the worse. If you're a roto owner with Aroldis Chapman on your squad, or you're Aroldis's agent, you have to love the Reds moving him from setup duty to closer. But in making the switch, the Reds have all but assured they'll get fewer innings from their dynamic lefty, and fewer higher-leverage innings, too; Chapman frequently threw up to two innings per appearance as a setup man, often squelching would-be rallies or generally holding the other team at bay during the seventh and eighth innings of close games. Chapman was already this season's most dominant reliever in a setup role. If he kills it as a closer, Dusty Baker and the Reds might become even more reluctant to give him a shot at starting.
It's all more than a little maddening. Virtually any good starter will find success in a less demanding relief role. And the Reds even went to the trouble of stretching Chapman out this spring, anticipating a possible move to the rotation. Meanwhile, Mike Leake sports a 6.21 ERA and 5.04 FIP as the Reds' fifth starter. Chapman's talents were already being wasted in a setup role. Now they'll be even more wasted, with the Cuban Missile denied a chance to throw three times as many innings as a starter. We don't know that Chapman would be able to harness his devastating stuff while throwing six, seven, and eight innings at a time as a big league starter. But it sure would be nice to find out, especially on a team with legitimate playoff aspirations.
Lots of good tidings for a team that's been searching for positive signs all year:
• The starting rotation looks much better lately, led by Josh Beckett, who recovered from I'llDoWhatIWantOnMyDayOffGate to sling 14 2/3 innings of one-run ball over his past two starts. Even Clay Buchholz, who'd struggled so badly that some observers began to wonder if he might lose his starting job, recovered to throw five solid innings against the Rays.
• Even after going 0-for-4 Sunday, Daniel Nava sports a .313/.477/.531 line in 44 plate appearances since his recent call-up.
• Jarrod Saltalamacchia smashed a three-run homer off Cliff Lee in pacing Sunday's win over Philly. Salty's now slugging .583 for the season, while Red Sox catchers combined lead the AL in both slugging and OPS.
• David Ortiz is doing it all, from laying down bunt singles and otherwise beating the constant shifts deployed against him, to looking downright passable playing first base in interleague play at least for one day.
• Scott Atchison, one of the great stories in baseball merely by dint of being up and pitching in the big leagues, has been dominant as the rubber-armed guy in the Sox bullpen, with a 1.13 ERA, 2.51 FIP and a 57.1 percent groundball rate.
Good news: We can now officially call it — Jonathan Sanchez for Melky Cabrera was a colossal steal. Yeah, Melky isn't going to maintain that .353/.396/.497 pace. But he can settle in as a useful everyday player at the very least, something we almost certainly won't be able to say about Sanchez, whose trips to the DL are a pleasant distraction from the walkmaggedons that are his rare starts.
Bad news: Tim Lincecum got knocked out early from Sunday's start after he covered the plate on a wild pitch and Colin Cowgill slid into his face. While Lincecum's strikeout rate remains near career peak levels at over 10 per nine innings, he's also getting strafed when batters make contact, sporting a line drive rate near 25 percent. The hope is that those strikeouts win out, Lincecum gets some better luck (strand rate's below 60 percent), and the results follow. For now, he's made just one quality start in nine outings; not the most cutting-edge measure of start quality, perhaps, but indicative of Lincecum's inability to prevent runs nor roll up innings like he used to.
Robin Ventura never managed at any level before taking the White Sox job this offseason. So it's perhaps not surprising to see him shift young lefty Chris Sale from starter to closer and back in a span of a week, or to get into situations multiple times this season where he ends up with lousy matchups for his relievers because he didn't think ahead well enough. Meanwhile, South Side Sox has an interesting piece on Ventura's slow hook. These nuances take time to learn, of course. But the White Sox own one of the best collections of pitching talent in the game, Adam Dunn's back to hitting like an MVP (even if he'll never field like one), and the AL Central might be more up for grabs than any other division. Here's hoping Ventura's learning curve accelerates, possibly with the help of esteemed pitching coach Don Cooper.
Justin Verlander seems to throw one-hitters every other day, so let's talk about a factor playing a much bigger role in the Tigers' year-to-date record: The horrible failure of their supporting cast. It's been unbelievably awful. Ryan Raburn has been arguably the worst hitter in baseball, at .144/.213/.216. Ramon Santiago's at .184/.254/.250. Brennan Boesch is hitting .239 with a .271 OBP. Alex Avila hit a 42-hopper through a drawn-in infield Sunday, cashing the eventual winning run and snapping a 4-for-40 slump; he's hitting .221 with a .299 OBP. One silver lining: Max Scherzer, whose 15 strikeouts in seven innings Sunday made him just the second AL pitcher ever to accomplish that feat. Whatever mechanical tweak Scherzer made after his horrendous start, it seems to be working.
Phillies offense in April: .247/.293/.347, .292 BABIP
Phillies offense in May: .288/.346/.448, .319 BABIP
Thank luck for Philly's stark May improvement. But save some hat tips for the team's far greater power and walk numbers. The eventual additions of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will further help the cause, giving the Phils a fighting chance to make it back to the postseason. That is, if Howard makes it back soon, makes it back at all, or even confirms he still exists. Phillies management has no interest in letting anyone know on any of those topics.
Is there any better example of a team managing by contract and not merit than Frank Francisco? Granted, it's only been 16 2/3 innings, Francisco owns a BABIP north of .400, and he's been a decent-to-pretty-good reliever in the past. Still, so many closers have lost their jobs early this season, and Francisco survives. This despite a walk rate over five, a live drive rate over 27 percent that tells you that BABIP isn't all bad luck by any means, and a strong tendency to put the ball in the air that leaves Francisco susceptible to extra-base hits. The rest of the Mets bullpen isn't that hot, either. Still, if Francisco didn't have a two-year, $12 million deal that runs through 2013, it's hard to imagine him getting any more save chances after his disastrous performance in the first seven weeks. It's gotten to the point where Mets fans and beat writers share incredulous reactions when Francisco puts two or three men on base (as he does seemingly every time out) but manages to squirm his way out of trouble. There are plenty of more important positions for the Mets to address if they hope to hang around in the NL East. But demoting Francisco to low-leverage work would seem the easiest fix to make.
Brandon McCarthy hit the 15-day DL with a right shoulder strain, bad news for Oakland's pitching staff. After an encouraging start to the season following the offseason trades of Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, A's pitchers have collectively stunk, their struggles only lightly masked by their home park's spacious dimensions. Oakland now sports the highest xFIP in baseball, with the second-worst strikeout rate. McCarthy had been the team's best starter this season. The other SP: Tommy Milone (4.09 xFIP), Bartolo Colon (4.14), Tyson Ross (4.49), Jarrod Parker (5.12). Not good.
Will firing hitting coach Mickey Hatcher make a difference in the Angels' fortunes this season? Other variables seem likely to make a difference. Simple regression toward the mean suggests that the team's various slumping players should start turning things around sometime soon; Albert Pujols hit homers on consecutive days last week against the White Sox, after hitting just one home run all year before that. Still, that doesn't mean a new hitting coach can't help. Read these takes by Jason Wojciechowski and Colin Wyers on the subject.
Then consider that the Angels might improve simply by suffering a few injuries: With resident sinkhole Vernon Wells and backup Ryan Langerhans likely headed to the DL, Peter Bourjos should finally see some regular playing time again. While he might need a while before his bat comes around, Bourjos should provide a big defensive upgrade. An outfield two-thirds manned by Bourjos and Mike Trout figures to get to a lot of fly balls (right fielder Mark Trumbo will presumably sit in a chaise longue with a cold beverage and watch the other guys do their thing).
Chris Young's back from the DL. Phenom Trevor Bauer got promoted to Triple-A, where he debuted by striking out 11 and allowing just one run in eight innings. Stephen Drew will also head to Triple-A soon to start his rehab assignment. The Diamondbacks, the team that won 94 games last year and ran away with the NL West crown, are assembling their forces. Though the Giants loom closest in the standings, if any team has a shot at catching the hot-starting Dodgers, I'd bet on Arizona.
A 2-for-44 stretch with runners in scoring position. Bouts of hideous defense. Four losses in a row, and six of seven. So what's the cure? A series at Coors Field, of course. The M's outscored the Rockies 20-7 in completing a three-game sweep, blasting five homers, five doubles, and four triples, and making Mariner hitters wonder: If we moved Safeco Field to Colorado, would anyone notice? Also, can we get the Rockies in our division?
ESPN fantasy guru Matthew Berry has embraced the concept of replacement level and applied it to roto baseball. In standard 10-team mixed leagues, he advocates keeping a select few starting pitchers on your roster, then streaming other starters aggressively, to maximize matchups and rack up as many wins and strikeouts as possible. He calls this concept "The Wandy Line," in reference to veteran Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez. In the past, Rodriguez has been the perfect break-even point for starters worth keeping in a league that shallow; with anyone worse than Wandy, you might as well just stream him rather than have him hog a roster spot for long. This season, Wandy's results have been too good to relegate him to Wandy Line status: a 2.24 ERA, with Rodriguez averaging nearly seven innings per start. Thing is, Wandy's early success is likely a mirage: He sports an unusually low .258 BABIP (career .298), an unusually low 5.4 percent HR/FB rate (career 10.8), and a strikeout rate of six per nine innings, Rodriguez's lowest mark since his rookie season.
Wandy has the rest of a $10 million salary this year, plus $13 million next year and a $2.5 million buyout left on his contract. With the Astros unlikely to contend this year or next, he's prime trade bait, especially given his impressive superficial numbers so far this year. If you own Wandy in your fantasy league, you should aggressively shop him, too. Regression's coming.
OK, they got one-hit by Justin Verlander and 15-strikeouted by Max Scherzer. But we try for optimism 'round these parts. So let's try this: James McDonald is emerging as one of the best pitchers in the game. The 27-year-old right-hander fired five no-hit innings at the Nats Thursday en route to an 11-strikeout performance. He's fanning almost exactly a batter an inning (a career-best) with just 2.9 walks per nine innings (also a career-best since becoming a starter). You can thank greatly increased use of his slider: McDonald's throwing sliders about four times more often this year than he did last season, and it's been his most valuable pitch. Not bad for a guy acquired for late-career Octavio Dotel two years ago.
This is what a split-personality week looks like: Sweep a two-game series at Texas behind Bruce Chen and Vin Mazzaro then lose four of five to the Orioles and D-backs. Find out that your best young big league starter, Danny Duffy, needs Tommy John surgery then promote your best hitting prospect, Wil Myers, and one of your best pitching prospects, Jake Odorizzi, to Triple-A. Then end it all with that timeless classic, Baseball in the Groin.
Zack Greinke 2011: 4.5 K/BB, 13.6 percent HR/FB rate, 2.98 FIP, 3.83 ERA,
Zack Greinke 2012: 4.9 K/BB, 3 percent HR/FB rate, 1.75 FIP, 2.70 ERA
Amazing what a little good luck will do for a pitcher. In related news, Zack Greinke is going to get paid this offseason. In a big way.
Orlando Hudson cut, Jason Bartlett to DL — presto, new middle infield. Newly acquired Alexi Amarista and former Padres starting shortstop Everth Cabrera couldn't hit the ball out of Petco Park if they combined the distance of their fly balls. But the men who'll replace Hudson and Bartlett could fare well hitting at Petco if given the chance to stick. That's because, as 619sports.net's Craig Elsten notes, both players possess the traits needed to play, as he affectionately calls it, "Commie Ball." The idea is to build a team full of speedy players who can get to balls on defense, then drive balls into gaps and run all day — rather than watching power hitters' value dry up as fly ball after fly ball dies on the warning track. Players like Cameron Maybin and Chase Headley already possess some of the traits needed for Commie Ball. But it would be interesting to see what might happen if the Padres attempt to field a lineup full of such players.
So maybe Christian Friedrich's first two dominant starts were the result of facing the anemic Giants and Padres in favorable pitcher's parks after all. That's what you'd gather after watching an unimpressive Seattle lineup whack Friedrich for eight runs in five innings Saturday. Let's not lay too much blame on a pitcher with three major league starts, though. Not when franchise player Troy Tulowitzki owns a .322 wOBA, the pitching staff lacks front-line talent, and the defense ranks among the worst in either league, capable of producing ugly plays such as this.
Who among us gets to retire on our own terms, bathed in one last moment of glory that recalls those days when we were still strongest, still at our best? Try as we might, a typical working stiff's career will often end like Willie Mays's final days with the Mets — only without ever experiencing a peak like Mays with the Giants, when we were the best in the world at what we did. Trying to craft a perfect legacy is a fool's errand; better to try your best for as long as you do what you do, then hang it up with as much dignity as you can muster.
Kerry Wood didn't achieve what everyone hoped for him when he struck out 20 batters in his fifth major league start, at age 20. But after dominating at the start, then suffering through a litany of major injuries, Wood reinvented himself as an effective reliever in the twilight of his career. On Friday, not feeling he could produce the way he liked anymore, Wood announced his retirement. A few hours later, he struck out Dayan Viciedo. He then got pulled from the game, leaving to a rousing ovation, a hug from his son, backslaps from teammates, and respectful applause and hat-tips from his opponents. A career that features moments of greatness, falls short of potential, but ends with one final signature moment, respect and admiration from your peers. The Kerry Wood career path sounds pretty damn good.
Win four in a row for the first time all season, then have your winning streak snapped in a 16-4 annihilation. Just the latest insult in a painful season for a team that was very good very recently. We'll have more on the Twins and their journey back to contention later this week. For now, watch this and enjoy a good smile.
The Marlins do play Boston and Tampa Bay twice each, Toronto and Cleveland once each, which — extending the pastry metaphor — isn't a cakewalk either.