The no. 1 team stays the same. After that it's a mess. Hot-starting surprise teams have cooled off. Big-name teams are finally starting to win. Weird run differentials, huge gulfs in schedule strength, and head-to-head battles throw everything off. This week, teams two through 16 are nearly interchangeable, one short streak or key injury away from flipping several spots in either direction.
The best we can do is hop in the BABIPmobile and try to make sense of it all. It's Week 9 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
We pointy-headed types don't talk much about errors and fielding percentage these days, given that a defense's ability to get to balls (which is better measured by Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, Fielding Runs Above Average, and other advanced metrics) tends to have a bigger impact on games. But the Rangers have allowed 27 unearned runs since May 1, more than all but four other teams have given up all season. Related: Texas is also 15-16 since May 1.
The bigger question is: Should the Rangers be concerned that butterfingers could wreck a very promising season? I'll go with no. Despite their barrage of unearned runs allowed, the Rangers rank just 17th in the majors in errors; making a few errors in costly spots and having one's pitchers throw gas on the fire will get you that kind of discrepancy. And assuming we're still bigger believers in advanced defensive metrics (flawed though they may be) over old-school stats, those numbers still bode very well for the Rangers.
Oh, we're not done playing the error card. Jason Collette of DRaysBay has the goods on a Rays team that's tied for third in unearned runs allowed this season, and the damage those miscues have caused. Most recently, scrap-heap pickup Drew Sutton's throwing error Saturday allowed the winning run for the Orioles. The throwaway was a stark reminder that the Rays sorely miss Evan Longoria, even as they nurse a one-game lead in baseball's toughest division.
The whole week was a reminder of their Longoria-lessness, really, starting with Chris Sale punching out 15 Rays in a Memorial Day loss, extending through the rest of a White Sox three-game sweep, and culminating in Sutton Sadness over the weekend. With Longoria and Desmond Jennings still on the shelf, the Rays have been playing with 2.7 competent major league bats and the 1899 Cleveland Spiders versus left-handers. Deezy himself assured the Twittersphere he'll be back on Tuesday — not a moment too soon with a big series against the Yankees nigh and CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte both slated to start.
They've won 23 games since May 1, tied with the season-long totals of the Royals, A's, Astros, and Rockies, and more than the Cubs, Padres, or Twins. The Marlins' recent hot play included five out of six last week, with a sweep over the Nats that helped lead to a virtual three-way tie in the NL East. We covered the Giancarlo Stanton Experience and its implications for the Marlins last week. But how about Carlos Zambrano? Pitching with the flu Sunday, he struck out seven and allowed just one run and six base runners in 7⅔ innings against the Phillies. Oh, and he blasted a monster, opposite-field home run, too, reaffirming his bona fides as one of baseball's best-hitting pitchers.1
The Marlins-Cubs Carlos Zambrano–Chris Volstad trade hasn't been as lopsided as the superficial stats would have you believe (Zambrano 4-3, 2.81 ERA vs. Volstad 0-6, 7.41 ERA). Still, Zambrano's also been significantly better by advanced metrics (3.91 xFIP vs. Volstad's 4.59) while throwing nearly twice as many innings. Easily one of last offseason's five best moves, at least if you're a Marlins fan.
Only the A's have hit worse than the Yankees' .222 batting average with runners in scoring position this year. This is, in a way, a good thing. Teams don't typically perform significantly better or worse in clutch situations than otherwise over the course of a season, meaning this bad luck should presumably fade away after a while. What's left is a Yankees team that's still loaded with top talent and is now even getting contributions from its whipping boys. We've already covered Mark Teixeira, so how about these guys?
Alex Rodriguez's last 12 games: .327/.370/.592
Phil Hughes's Sunday: 9 IP, 1 R, 4 H, 3 BB, 8 K, 123rd (final) pitch was a 93 mph fastball
Both the well-past-his-prime A-Rod and Most Maddening Pitcher (Non–Francisco Liriano Division), Hughes can be safely classified as supporting players in the Yankees' ensemble cast. If they start complementing the Grandersons, Canos, and Sabathias with these kinds of contributions, it might not be long before the Yankees jump to the top of the AL East. Hell, it could happen by Thursday.
Mike Morse returns from the disabled list, and all of a sudden you've got a Nationals roster that's starting to fill out just as they stumble through a 1-4 week. With Bryce Harper absolutely killing it (.288/.380/.542) plus Morse and Ryan Zimmerman back and healthy, the Nats are starting to field a major league-caliber lineup that can keep the team's killer starting pitchers company, if not compete with them. If would-be utility player Steve Lombardozzi somehow continues his hot hitting (.300/.372/.400), all bets are off.
Make it 10 out of 11 for baseball's hottest team, as the White Sox recovered from the end of their nine-game winning streak by immediately starting a new streak. Dayan Viciedo got the full treatment in last week's edition of Middle Relief, Chris Sale chucked a complete game Sunday to make it 23 strikeouts in his past two starts, and Paul Konerko might get a statue built in his honor if he keeps ths up. So let's mention a more subtle pair of contributors, A.J. Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers. The team's catching tandem is on pace to tally 33 homers, 27 doubles, and six triples this year.
Elias notes that Friday's starting lineup marked the first time in major league history that a team had started five sons of major leaguers. Very cool if you're a fan of quirky trivia. Less cool if you're a fan of the Dodgers, given the limited collective talents of Ivan De Jesus, Dee Gordon, Tony Gwynn Jr., Jerry Hairston Jr., and Scott Van Slyke. The Dodgers have been beating the odds all year with smoke, mirrors, and second-generation randoms (how about a 7-0 record when Adam Kennedy and his .213/.316/.275 line bat fifth). But with Matt Kemp's second DL stint expected to last at least a month and Ted Lilly, Mark Ellis, and a slew of minor contributors also on the shelf, the regression fairy is starting to wreak her vengeance. Her cousin the Luck Fairy might still be on the Dodgers' side, though: Just as the team sinks to its most shorthanded point of the season, four games against an even-more-injury-wracked Phillies team and three more against the woeful Mariners await.
Joey Votto 2012: .346/.476/.620 (18-for-30, .600), two homers, five doubles, four walks in his past nine games
Aroldis Chapman 2012: 28 IP, 1 R, 0 ER, 7 H, 9 BB, 50 K
On my list of best I'm-dropping-everything-to-watch-them hitter-pitcher duos in baseball, I've got:
1. Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg
2. Joey Votto and Aroldis Chapman
3. Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw
4. Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander
5. Josh Hamilton and Yu Darvish
6. Mike Trout and Ernesto Frieri
There's too much Johan Santana goodness to do this in any format other than bullet points, or we'll be here all month:
• Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in the Mets' 50-year history. You may have heard about it. Loved the Wall Street Journal writer Brian Costa's take.
• FanGraphs' Jack Moore delved into Santana's mastery of the changeup and that pitch's role in the no-no.
• Here's the celebration video, featuring a Mets fan joining the dogpile at 0:18, wearing jorts and a Gary Carter jersey.
• Here's left fielder Mike Baxter saving the no-no with an amazing catch in the seventh, selling out so hard that he busted his shoulder and is now on the DL for six weeks.
• Carlos Beltran hit a line drive in the sixth that should have been ruled fair for a hit but instead ended up foul. Given that hit was unlikely to change the outcome of the game (the Mets went on to win 8-0, though yes, they were only up 2-0 at the time), and given the magnitude of the event for Mets fans, I'm holstering the #RobotUmpsNow outrage this one time.
• Santana needed 134 pitches to get the no-no, raising questions about how the Mets will handle his next start. Terry Collins made the call, pushing his next start back one day. The bigger question is whether Santana's heavy workload Friday has any lasting effects: The lefty hadn't thrown a pitch in the majors since September 2010 prior to making it back this year. He's enjoying a Cy Young–caliber season and is one of the biggest reasons the Mets are improbably tied for first one-third of the way through the season.
In a vacuum, risking Santana's health for a fleeting event seems reckless. But honestly, who can say for sure what that pitch count will do to this particular pitcher in this situation? Santana rarely had to pitch from the stretch or deal with even a whiff of a rally. The Mets are closely monitoring him from here, and their fans got a moment they won't forget for years. There's some risk here, but that potentially small risk should also be weighed against the reward, one that goes beyond letting a pitcher keep throwing with an eight-run lead in the ninth.
A six-game losing streak, a Nick Markakis broken hamate bone and DL stint compounding Nolan Reimold's absence and leaving the outfield painfully thin, and now, the Veep Curse:
An episode of the HBO show Veep airs Sunday, May 27, with several Orioles past and present featured.
The next day, Tommy Hunter, one of three players with speaking roles in the episode, gets rocked for six runs on nine hits in three innings, earning himself a demotion to the minors.
The day after that, Veep-featured starter Jake Arrieta gives up seven runs and nine base runners in 4⅓ innings. In his following start, he walks four and cedes four runs in 4⅔ innings, throwing 42 balls to just 41 strikes in his outing.
Hall of Famer Jim Palmer was the other pitcher with speaking lines in the episode. Hey Jim, hang on to those undies.
Brian McCann took a foul ball off the knee Saturday, sending the Braves catcher sprawling and knocking him out of the lineup the next day. McCann had previously missed nearly a week's worth of games with the dreaded flulike symptoms. He'd been joined by backup catcher David Ross and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones on the shelf. You had to figure some good luck would eventually be in order.
It was. After missing four games with vision problems, Freddie Freeman returned to the lineup rocking special glasses. In his first at-bat back, he crushed a home run over the center-field wall, prompting his teammates to make goggles gestures around their eyes as he crossed home plate. The Braves will need a lot more of that from Freeman and Dan Uggla on the right side of the infield given what's happened on the other side: Chipper's absence forcing all manner of Juan Francisco praying and Martin Prado shifting, and Tyler Pastornicky playing so poorly at short that the Braves finally relented and called up good-glove, no-bat prospect Andrelton Simmons to start in his stead.
After starting the season at 12-19, the Red Sox have since gone 16-7. It's a remarkable turnaround given Boston's litany of injuries. We've talked about the massive changes the Red Sox have introduced to keep their outfield productive. With Dustin Pedroia out the past six games and wearing a thumb brace, Boston's at least pondering some radical infield moves, too: Rookie Will Middlebrooks has taken grounders at shortstop, while Kevin Youkilis has donned a second baseman's glove for some practice reps at that position. Though Red Sox management denies it, the Internet's been abuzz with rumors that Youkilis might be dealt in his walk year, especially with Middlebrooks flexing power at third.
Screw that. If Pedroia's injury persists, we must get Youkilis at second, followed by him putting on an unlikely defensive clinic with Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke in attendance.
Still the best run differential in the National League, but a five-game losing streak has dropped the Cardinals to .500 and third place in the NL Central. Injuries to multiple position players have hurt the Cards, but the starting rotation is now starting to spring leaks, too. Though Adam Wainwright has finally started flashing his ace form of old (Friday's rough outing during the Johan Santana no-no aside), Jaime Garcia is now battling elbow discomfort, Lance Lynn is finally showing signs of mortality after an unreal start to the season, and Jake Westbrook has surrendered 24 runs and 40 hits in his past five starts, covering 25 innings. The logical replacement for any of these fellows migh've been Shelby Miller, the 21-year-old righty considered one of the top pitching prospects on the planet heading into this season. But Miller has struggled badly in Triple-A, giving up 10 homers and 87 base runners in 52⅓ innings (though with an impressive strikeout rate of 10 per nine innings). Given there's still no timetable on Chris Carpenter's return from a nerve problem in his shoulder, which has kept him out all year, the Cardinals might have to explore the trade market if they need starting pitching help later this season.
Edwin Encarnacion blasted his 17th homer of the season on May 30, compared to just one homer on that date in 2011. The Ballad of Encarnacion has stirred the passions of Jays fans and fantasy owners alike. But the Baltimore Orioles aren't impressed, attributing Toronto's power production at least in part to The Man in White. If that conspiracy sounds familiar, it should: Last year the Jays got accused of planting a fan in the bleachers wearing a white T-shirt who'd relay signs to Toronto hitters. The Score's Dustin Parkes laid out a cogent, thoughtful breakdown of the Man in White theory. Which is fine, as far as that goes. But when it comes to rebutting a charge based mostly on conjecture and sour grapes, a little snark is also in order.
"He reminds me of Tony Gwynn."
— Giants manager Bruce Bochy on Melky Cabrera after a 51-hit month of May
There are all kinds of reasons to be skeptical of Bochy's comments, not the least of which is that whole thing about Gwynn being one of the best hitters of all time, and Cabrera being a career .282/.336/.409 hitter on his fourth team in four years. Cabrera's also riding a sky-high .413 batting average on balls in play, which has fueled his league-leading .373 overall batting average. BABIP is a stat subject to the vagaries of opposing defenses, luck, and other factors beyond a hitter's control, with league average hovering between .290 and .300, leading you to figure Cabrera's day of reckoning is coming soon.
There's more going on here, though. Hitters do have some degree of control over their BABIP numbers; Gwynn was a true master of bat control whose lowest single-season BABIP was .310. A dive into Cabrera's numbers shows him hitting more line drives than ever before, while also raising his contact rates to elite levels. He's also still just 27 years old, his early-career failures clouding critics' judgment of his performance without considering that he'd just turned 21 when he made his big league debut.
Then there's the supposed contract-year effect. Cabrera's a free agent at year's end, so of course he's going to hit a ton, the theory goes; just look at what Adrian Beltre did in his 2004 walk year. A study in the book Baseball Between the Numbers showed that there is in fact a contract-year effect — but it's just a small one, with an expected bump in performance of about 3 percent, even after adjusting for variables such as age (players typically reach free agency-eligible status by their mid- to late 20s, which is also when most players tend to peak). Researcher Phil Birnbaum recently added more insight to the contract-year discussion.
Bottom line? Cabrera's likely benefited from some luck, but he's also seen some real improvement in his base skills over time, which is now driving his breakout season. The Giants are grateful either way: Baseball's second-lowest-scoring team last year has moved up to 22nd in runs scored this year. Baby steps.
Raise your hand if you thought Mike Scioscia, one of the most old-school managers in the game (Google "Mike Scioscia," "Jeff Mathis," and "beliefs about defensive runs saved per game by catchers"), would be the first manager this season to platoon closers based on specific matchups rather than nebulous gut feelings. The Angels have Ernesto Frieri working the ninth against righty-heavy alignments, while Scott Downs tends to get save chances against lefty hitters.
Frieri's addition in a trade with the Padres has, along with big offensive production from Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo and improvement from Albert Pujols after a terrible start, helped fuel the Angels' climb back into contention. How dominant (and unique) has Frieri been in his performance and his approach? Per ESPN Stats and Info:
Since May 5
Travis Hafner's knee injury knocked the Indians' DH out of the lineup for the next four to six weeks. In his stead, the Indians are hoping for production from Matt LaPorta. The 27-year-old would-be slugger was the prize of 2008's CC Sabathia trade with Milwaukee. But LaPorta stalled from there, failing to hit enough to keep a job as an everyday starter in the majors. Coming off a 1.007 OPS at Triple-A, the hope is that LaPorta finally hits in Cleveland, especially with a clean shot at playing time. Getting Carlos Santana back from a concussion-driven DL stint could also offer a big lift for a team that's been outscored by 25 runs in its past nine games (much of that the result of lousy pitching, but still).
At last, Charlie Manuel used Jonathan Papelbon the way any dominant relief pitcher should be used: with the game truly on the line, rather than, say, up three with the bases empty and three outs to go. The Phillies will need to search for more chances to find situational success: With Roy Halladay hitting the DL for the next six to eight weeks and the return dates of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley still very much up in the air, Manuel seizing opportunities to squeeze an extra run or prevent an extra run in key spots could make a big difference for Philly's playoff chances in a tight NL East.
The good news: Prince Fielder is on fire; Miguel Cabrera's showing signs of his usual dominance; and Omir Santos's walk-off hit Saturday helped reaffirm his legendary status.
The bad news: Jose Valverde continues to be awful, leading to the valid question of whether Valverde's 49-for-49 streak is legitimate; Doug Fister's back on the DL for a second time this season; and rotation replacement Casey Crosby got shelled for six runs in 3S innings in his first major league start. The Tigers' Vegas Over/Under this season was 93.5 wins; they're on pace to win 75.
MLB's amateur draft goes off later today, with the Pirates in the news because they're changing the path for one of their top 2010 selections. Pitcher Stetson Allie was an excellent high school hitter who became a pitcher as a senior and dominated in that role, raising his stock as a pitching prospect. But as Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein notes, Allie could never adjust to pitching in professional ball, leaving that realm having thrown 26T innings and surrendered 37 walks, 10 hit-by-pitches, and 10 wild pitches. It's a Reverse John Van Benschoten for a team that needs elite hitting prospects more than it does top pitching prospects at this point.
One of the biggest reasons for the D-backs' struggles this season? A power outage. Arizona ranked ninth in the majors in homers last year and just 19th so far this season despite playing in one of the league's friendliest parks for home runs. Justin Upton's bad thumb has helped restrict him to a 15-home run pace, well off career norms. Ryan Roberts and Miguel Montero combined for 37 homers last year; they're on pace for just 15 combined in 2012.
After 31 tries, the Brewers finally swept the Dodgers for the first time in franchise history. Defending NL MVP Ryan Braun helped make that happen, launching a homer and drawing five walks in the first three games of the series before sitting out the fourth. But he saw just four at-bats in the team's final four games of the week as he nursed a hip injury. Braun's hitting .308/.393/.600 this season, numbers that could thrust him into the discussion for a second straight MVP if voters didn't reward and penalize players based on which teammates the GM happened to plop down next to each candidate.
Here's another cold-start/hot-start team. The Royals went 3-14 to start the season, but have gone 20-15 since. A surefire way to keep that streak going: Activate Yuniesky Betancourt, then immediately install him as the lineup's no. 2 hitter. Because when you've got a .269/.293/.392 career hitter at your disposal, it's best to give him more at-bats than anyone but your leadoff man.
The Rockies reeled off a streak of five straight wins, but four of those came from a home sweep of a subpar Astros team. At least the offense is clicking: Carlos Gonzalez has absolutely raked lately, while Dexter Fowler is in the midst of a huge year, already setting a career high with eight home runs and racking up a gaudy line of .298/.400/.582. We still have two-thirds of the season to go, but Fowler could end up being one of the best "best shape of his life" stories the game has seen in years.
The no. 1 overall pick in Monday's draft awaits, with Stanford right-handed junior Mark Appel considered the favorite to go to Houston. It could take a few years for whomever the Astros pick to crack the big leagues, let alone become a front-line player. While they wait, the team's best player could be Jed Lowrie, carrying a .291/.371/.506 line and (mostly) avoiding the injury bug that sidetracked the first few years of his career. Meanwhile, Mark Melancon, the player the Astros dealt to get Lowrie last offseason, was at the center of the early-season Red Sox bullpen meltdown that crushed the start of Boston's season, posting an obscene 49.50 ERA in the two innings he lasted before getting sent down. First-year general managers Ben Cherington and Jeff Luhnow will make many more trades in their career. They might not make any more lopsided than their first significant one, the Lowrie-Melancon swap.
The Mariners called up Stephen Pryor from Triple-A, tapping the hard-throwing 2010 fifth-round draft pick who'd posted a 0.64 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 28 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Pryor's killer fastball makes him a strong future closer in many observers' eyes. But the righty threw a slider to red-hot White Sox slugger Dayan Viciedo instead in the eighth inning Saturday, resulting in a game-tying home run. If Pryor needs tips on how to better protect a lead in the future, he might turn to Hisashi Iwakuma. Anyone who can give up three runs in three innings and still get a save — in a 21-8 game — is clearly doing something special.
The A's got shut out three times in four days last week, with Francisco Liriano, Felipe Paulino, and Vin Mazzaro doing the damage. That ran Oakland's total to 11 shutouts against this season. As RotoWorld's Matthew Pouliot noted, no other team since 1918 was ever shut out as many as 11 times in its first 54 games of a season. The A's did get Yoenis Cespedes back from the DL, so there's some hope that they can avoid setting many more offensive futility records, even if he doesn't help them actually contend for the next couple years.
Five out of six against the slumping Indians and punchless A's and they're out of the cellar! Sure, it took a once-in-a-lifetime event like Francisco Liriano throwing six innings in a row without giving half the state a simultaneous heart attack, but if you're a Twins fan, you take it. Next up: Operation Trade Denard Span and Josh Willingham ASAFP While They're Still Hitting and Not Yet Horribly Injured.
Maybe it's just a thing with teams Theo Epstein's worked for, but the Cubs joined the Red Sox in having rumors spread about their strong desire to trade away at least one veteran. In the Cubs' case, the rumor was actually that everyone except Jeff Samardzija could be for sale, if the price is right. This could include Starlin Castro, who qualifies as a veteran in the loosest sense but is also just 22 years old and a career .305 hitter who'd make no sense to trade. Sure enough, Epstein and Jed Hoyer quickly quashed that speculation. Still, the mere exercise was an interesting one: If Castro continues along this path, how should the Cubs value a very young player with extraordinary hand-eye coordination to hit for a high average, moderate power potential, and a terribly erratic defensive game that might not allow him to stay at shortstop long-term? Whether it's a long-term contract or perhaps an eventual trade, someday the Cubs will assign Castro a hard value. Given he has few to no comps in the game quite like him, that could make for some fascinating debate.
We were all set to get excited over Yasmani Grandal, one of the main prizes from last offseason's Mat Latos trade who got called up Friday and figures to make the Padres at least somewhat interesting to watch. Too bad Grandal got sent down two days later, because goodness gracious, we must make room for Mark Kotsay!
In lieu of Grandal Goodness, please enjoy this video of Andy Parrino and Yonder Alonso pranking Cameron Maybin at a New York burger joint. It's well worth your time.
Elias tells us that Zambrano's homer was the 24th of his career, tying him with Bob Gibson for the second-most for pitchers during the expansion era, behind Earl Wilson, who hit 33.