If there's one aspect of baseball that should cause cries of unfairness — beyond vast gaps in market and revenue size, frequent umpire error, and Mike Trout being this good this soon — it's the schedule.
Unbalanced schedules might make sense if the only way into the playoffs was to win your own division. But with baseball adopting wild cards nearly two decades ago, then adding more this year, you've got teams like the Jays competing for postseason spots with teams like the Angels, while playing far more games against beastly competition.
And then there's interleague play. Dating back to 2005, American League teams have dominated their NL counterparts with a 1,121-895 record, good for a .556 winning percentage. Only two NL teams (the Cardinals and Rockies) own interleague records over .500 in that eight-year span. Baseball's ham-handed efforts to create regional and "natural" rivalries have been particularly punitive to a handful of clubs: The Marlins were 31-26 on the season as of June 7; they ended Sunday's games at 34-38, thanks to an abysmal 5-13 interleague record, with all but three of those games against tough AL East opponents.
In a perfect world, baseball would eliminate divisions, then either expand to 32 teams and 165 games (with 11 games against every intraleague opponent) or keep the existing 30 teams and have everyone play everyone else 11 times for a 154-game schedule, while trying to figure out the enormous headache of scheduling without interleague play. But fairness has never been at the top of MLB's priority list. Tossing as many Yankees–Red Sox games as possible on TV, giving the Dodgers the competitive advantages needed to fetch $2.15 billion in the biggest franchise sale in sports history these are money-generating events for an industry that strives for big profits, as any sane industry should. Just know that when the season ends — or when we tabulate these rankings every week — each team's record doesn't quite tell the whole story.
The preceding has been a public service message for the Ethical Treatment of a Few Teams. It's Week 12 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
The Yankees' pitching-led rise hit a detour Wednesday as Phil Hughes got strafed for four homers against the Braves. The home run struggles for right-handers Hughes (tops in MLB with 19 homers in 78⅓ innings) and Ivan Nova (15 homers in 91 innings) would seem to be the result of Yankee Stadium's notoriously reachable right-field porch. But Nova shows fairly similar home and road home-run splits this year, and lefty hitters own a home run-per-fly ball rate just 0.7 percent higher than righty hitters do at Yankee Stadium, dating back to 2009 (hat-tip FanGraphs). So this might simply be a case of Hughes having a uniquely horrible stretch at home: 13 home runs allowed in 38⅔ innings, with a HR/FB rate of 19.7 percent and an overall HR/FB rate that's twice as high against righty hitters as it is against lefties. So really, maybe there's not much going on here beyond Hughes throwing too many meatballs, period. Raul Ibanez, who was hitting .278/.336/.582 on May 20 but just .210/.253/.346 since, would love a few of those.
Like the Yankees, the Rangers have rebounded well after a rough patch for their starting rotation. With Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, and would-be replacement starter Alexi Ogando all on the disabled list, others have filled the void. Matt Harrison tossed five shutout innings against the Rockies Sunday,1 giving him six wins in a row with a 1.29 ERA and just one home run allowed in his last seven starts. Meanwhile, Roy Oswalt threw 6⅔ innings of one-run ball against the Rockies Friday, striking out six batters and walking just one in his first start of the season. That's what makes the Rangers so scary: They have more depth than perhaps any other team, plus the will and the means to get more, as they did with Oswalt. If regular playing time for Yorvit Torrealba doesn't work while Mitch Moreland sits at least four to six weeks with a bad hamstring, expect Texas to find an elegant solution there, too.
Rough week for the Dodgers, who dropped five of six against the two AL-based California teams. The offense continues to be the problem, with the Matt Kemp–less squad scoring just two runs in three games while getting swept in Oakland. A few starters' stats:
• James Loney: .248/.316/.338
• Juan Uribe: .225/.271/.315
• Leadoff (!!!) hitter Dee Gordon: .228/.274/.280
And that's not counting players like Juan Rivera (.265/.293/.368), who've played semi-regularly, and terribly, as reserves.
We've talked about the Dodgers' likely foray into the trade market before the July 31 deadline. But let's salute those who've kept the team atop the NL West all season, particularly Chris Capuano. We've told the veteran lefty's story before: two-time Tommy John survivor turned near-elite pitcher as he approaches his 34th birthday (2.60 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 8.1 K/9 IP, 16 strikeouts, 1 walk, 2 runs allowed over 15 innings in his last two starts). But the Dodgers' bang for their buck has been astonishing: Capuano's owed just $10 million combined in 2012 and 2013. You can count the 2011-12 offseason contracts that compare with Capuano's on one hand. Maybe just a finger or two.
So much for the Chien-Ming Wang experiment. The Taiwanese righty posted a 6.62 ERA and an 11:14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his four starts with the Nats, going no more than 5⅓ innings in any of those starts. It's a testament to the strength of Washington's vastly improved roster than the Nationals could demote a reasonably effective Ross Detwiler to the bullpen and screw around with Wang in the rotation in the first place, for no other reason than they were paying for Wang to take up roster space. He'll slide into a long relief role, eliminating one of the few weaknesses this team had.
A much trickier problem: Figuring out what to do with Ryan Zimmerman, who's been absolutely awful (.223/.289/.308) as he tries to overcome a bad right shoulder. Zimmer rapped two hits Sunday after getting a cortisone shot, his first multi-hit game in two weeks. At least the Red Sox had the option of trading their ailing third baseman, knowing a power-hitting prospect like Will Middlebrooks was ready to take over. Unless Zimmerman's shoulder shows major structural damage that knocks him out for an extended period (not a desirable outcome either), the Nats might just have to work around having one of their best players struggle to stay above replacement level for the foreseeable future.
No team had more starting pitching depth coming into this season than the Rays. That depth has saved their injury-riddled roster lately. Jeremy Hellickson joined Evan Longoria and the long list of other players riding the DL, clearing the way for Chris Archer's major league debut. Archer didn't disappoint, running into some early trouble against the Nats in his big league debut (mostly the defense's fault), then settling down to fire six innings of three-hit ball, with seven strikeouts and one walk, as well as no hits allowed in his final 5⅓ innings of work. That gave Archer 48 strikeouts against just 28 hits and 14 walks over his last 36 innings, covering four minor starts and his first outing in the big leagues. Last week, Archer, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore combined to strike out 23 batters, walk six, and allow just three runs in 18 innings. (Cobb's eight-run, eight-inning complete game Monday wasn't as pretty, though it was the first such start for any pitcher in 14 years.) The three young guns take the mound against the Royals this week, making Cobb (24), Archer (23), and Moore (23) the youngest Tampa Bay trio of starters in a series since Andy Sonnanstine, Scott Kazmir, and Edwin Jackson faced Boston nearly five years ago.
No team other than the Yankees has played better than the Angels over the past 30 games, with the Halos rebounding from a terrible start to go 22-8. That the Angels went nearly that entire time with nothing from Jered Weaver underscores the strength of this roster, and how legitimate the team's playoff chances are after some early panicking over Albert Pujols's slump and other issues. Weaver shut out the Giants with six innings of two-hit ball in his first start back, reclaiming his spot atop a strong rotation that has everyone clicking lately — except for, oddly, Dan Haren.
It's time to stop treating Jason Hammel's hot start as a small sample size–produced aberration. The heisted former Rockie has crossed several statistical thresholds that suggest he's achieved a higher, sustainable level of performance, including a career-high strikeout rate of 8.7 K/9 IP and a career-best
walk groundball rate of 53.1 percent. On a more basic level, Hammel has blazed through all 14 of his starts this season without once allowing more than four earned runs. Justin Verlander, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, and most other elite pitchers can't make that claim. The bottom of Baltimore's rotation remains shaky, and the outfield in particular is a mess, with Nolan Reimold's back injury likely now a season-ender and Nick Markakis still weeks from returning. But the O's no longer need to fret over finding a no. 1 starter. Hammel is it — for the price of Jeremy Guthrie (6.34 ERA), no less.
He might have better raw stuff than any other closer in the game, but Aroldis Chapman suddenly looks mortal. The Cuban lefty, who struck out 52 batters and yielded zero earned runs and just 16 base runners in his first 29 innings pitched this year, has blown three of his past five save opportunities, with an 11.37 ERA and three homers allowed in his past seven outings. Sunday's damage came on a go-ahead two-run homer by Josh Willingham into the upper deck at Great American Ballpark. A brief slump won't deter Dusty Baker from sticking with Chapman at the end of games, of course. The Reds skipper will have more complicated decisions to make, like what to do with his third basemen: Scott Rolen is back, and Todd Frazier needs to play (maybe in left field?). One encouraging sign: Mat Latos shrugging off a seven-run meltdown against the Indians to strike out a career-high 13 batters in Monday's complete-game win over Milwaukee.
Buster Posey is heating up. The Giants catcher has reached base safely in 19 of his past 20 games. Facing the A's over the weekend, he homered in two straight games, including this laser at the Coliseum on Sunday. You had to be at least a little concerned following Posey's season-ending ankle injury in 2011. But with a line of .295/.358/.479, Posey's very near his Rookie of the Year–winning pace of 2010. We'd have more to say about Posey, but why not let Vin Scully do it instead?
There's so much we can say about Kevin Youkilis's impact with the Red Sox. For some choice Youkilis takes, check out Grantland's Michael Schur, as well as Joe Posnanski, Red Sox Beacon's Patrick Sullivan, and the crew at Baseball Think Factory. And of course, if for some reason you haven't seen Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke fall in love with Youkilis on live TV, you should remedy that situation immediately.
As to the particulars of Youk's trade to the White Sox, it may well be that Boston sold low on a good player. Of course it's more complicated than that. We shouldn't overreact to whatever off-field discord may or may not exist on this team, but Adrian Gonzalez playing first and defending AL Player of the Week Will Middlebrooks playing third was Boston's best alignment, and leaving Youkilis to rot on the bench threatened to cause tensions to rise. Brent Lillibridge should make for a useful super-utility player and Zach Stewart is a long-shot prospect at this point, joining his fourth organization. But the thing that seems to get missed is Youkilis's own current value. He's hitting just .233/.314/.373, he's limited defensively by ongoing back problems that could knock him out of the lineup again at some point, and even in a best-case scenario, the guy the Red Sox had from 2008 through 2010 was never coming back. That Boston built what might be the best offense in baseball even without Youkilis's normal production (or Adrian Gonzalez's, or Dustin Pedroia's, without Jacoby Ellsbury for most of the year and Carl Crawford all year) is a minor miracle, and a testament to the waves of hitting talent that this team keeps producing. Youk got his well-deserved curtain call on his way out of town, and the Red Sox are back in the thick of the race.
Four wins in a row with 38 runs scored over that stretch, the Cardinals are getting healthy and finding their stride. Jon Jay's return from the DL leaves Lance Berkman as the only regular on the shelf, but no one is complaining about Allen Craig (.311/.386/.581) getting everyday playing time at first base. That leaves the Chris Carpenter–and–Jaime Garcia–less rotation as the obvious area of need. Given how aggressive John Mozeliak has been in the past when faced with holes at the deadline (see last year's acquisitions of Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski, and Octavio Dotel), it seems likely that St. Louis will be active next month. A Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke rental would be a difference-maker, but smaller deals will likely be available, too, many of them constituting upgrades over hittable rookie Joe Kelly at the back of the rotation.
Way past his prime or not, it's hard to imagine Youkilis won't be a sizable upgrade at third over on-base sieve Brent Morel or converted second baseman Orlando Hudson on his last legs (.170/.284/.274 this season). A once loaded starting rotation has sprung holes, with John Danks's shoulder knocking him out for at least a few more weeks, and Philip Humber posting a 7.47 ERA over 10 starts following his April 21 perfect game before landing on the DL with a strained elbow. If Youkilis can provide an offensive upgrade alongside Paul Konerko (.418 wOBA), Adam Dunn (.379 wOBA), & Co., that could be one effective way to overcome a leaky staff.
Brandon Beachy very quickly deteriorated from elbow discomfort to Tommy John surgery, leaving the Braves potentially short-staffed. Of course that assumes Jair Jurrjens remains the command-less arsonist who hurt Atlanta's rotation early in the season, and not the beast who dominated on Friday. If he can even come close to sustaining performances like his first start back from Triple-A, in which Jurrjens threw 7⅔ innings of one-run ball against a stacked lineup, everything changes. Jurrjens's flaccid and falling strikeout rates (he fanned just 4.7 batters per 9 innings even against inferior Triple-A competition after his early-season demotion) don't bode well for that happening.
With R.A. Dickey's scoreless streak ending at 44⅔ innings, the new Mets run to watch is David Wright's far more modest 15-game hitting streak. Wright owes much of his spectacular season (.360/.455/.565) to his sky-high and unsustainable .401 batting average on balls in play. But he's also showing a better batting eye than at any other point in his career (14.7 percent walk rate and a 13 percent strikeout rate), while playing his usual solid defense, running the bases well, and hitting for power (a modest eight homers in 69 games, but also a gaudy 24 doubles). You don't hear anything anymore about a possible Wright deadline deal, what with the star third baseman's revival, his suddenly very affordable-looking $16 million club option next year, and the Mets' own surprising, contending season. Ike Davis's long, long, long-overdue revival (three homers in his past six games, after just five in his previous 64) offers hope for further improvement.
A four-game winning streak for last year's NL West champs, with big contributions from seemingly everyone on the roster:
• Miguel Montero leading the league with a 52 percent caught stealing rate, after topping the NL with a 40 percent rate last year
• Aaron Hill hitting for the cycle
• Wade Miley making it four straight starts in which he has allowed just one run, posting a 28-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those 30⅔ innings and lowering his season ERA from 2.72 to 2.19.
Reinforcements are on the way, too. Stephen Drew's due back Wednesday after missing the entire season with a severe ankle injury. And in meme-silencing news, Joe Saunders's DL trip means Trevor Bauer has been freed, setting him up for his major league debut Thursday. Both moves come with qualifiers: Kirk Gibson was noncommittal about how often Drew would play coming off his long absence, leaving open the possibility that he might be a part-time player for the next little while. And Bauer, a phenom and also one of the quirkiest pitching prospects around, struggled some at Triple-A Reno, walking 20 batters in 42 innings there before getting the call. Still, at the very least the D-backs add some depth to an already talented roster. If Justin Upton's recent outburst (8-for-14 with two homers and nine runs knocked in over his past four games) is for real and his injured thumb's finally healed, Arizona could be primed for a run at first place in the near future.
Andrew McCutchen in June: .358/.418/.654, 12 extra-base hits, and 20 RBIs in 21 games. The rest of the Pirates' offense might be iffy to terrible. But teams have succeeded with an MVP candidate, great pitching, and little else before. Playing in either the worst or second-worst division in baseball can't hurt.
Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus are out of their minds right now. Bautista hit just five homers in his first 115 at-bats this season, which, combined with a sub-Mendoza line batting average, led a few skeptics to wonder if this might be the year Bautista's out-of-nowhere act fizzles out. Nope. Joey Bats has 21 homers in his past 50 games, after hitting just three in all of April. Meanwhile, Rasmus has boosted his season line to .268/.327/.502, with eight homers and 23 RBIs this month alone. Which is great, but we've officially reached Threat Level Midnight on Toronto's pitching staff. Henderson Alvarez left Monday's start with elbow soreness, making him the fourth Jays starter to leave a game early due to an injury in the past two weeks. Toronto went so far as to sign 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, then assign him to Triple-A Las Vegas. Terrific offense, great resilience in baseball's toughest division, but the Jays' decimated rotation forces a downgrade.
The Indians' week, in moving picture form:
Jim Wolf's a big Carlos Santana fan
Jack Hannahan is super focused
Asdrubal Cabrera walks it off
Good news: Drew Smyly comes off the DL Tuesday to start against the Rangers, putting Detroit's starting rotation back at full strength for the first time since May 28.
Bad news: Four days after coming off the DL, Alex Avila sits with more knee soreness.
Confusing news: Avila's replacement, 32-year-old veteran Gerald Laird, is hitting a career-best .303 (with a .339 wOBA that's second-best since his rookie-year cup of coffee), thanks to a tiny 8.1 percent strikeout rate that's less than half his career mark.
Your June MLB runs scored leaders? The Oakland A's, with 118 runs for the month. Those runs have been well-placed, too, fueling a 14-9 June record for the team. Yoenis Cespedes's walkoff homer Thursday fueled Oakland's sweep of the Dodgers. Then on Sunday, playing in his third major league game, rookie catcher Derek Norris added a walkoff of his own, a three-run shot with two outs and two strikes that brought the A's from one run down to victory in one swing. The homer (likely) moved incumbent backstop Kurt Suzuki one step closer to being traded as he struggles and moves closer to potential free agency after next season, triggered what was (probably) the best on-camera kamikaze celebration ever with a rare shaving cream pie/water dousing/Gatorade bath combo, and (definitely) sent your humble narrator home with a great memory from his first trip to the Coliseum since the publication of Moneyball.
It's easy to get lost in the shuffle of the PED era when you're a slugging first baseman (and DH), whether or not you've ever skirted baseball's nebulous and for many years nearly nonexistent rules about performance-enhancing drugs. Jim Thome will be one of the few who won't be shoved aside by the relentless march of time. Not when he's seventh all-time in home runs. Not when he hits more walkoff homers than anyone in history, passing all-timers Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, and Frank Robinson for the record. And not when he becomes the greatest character in baseball's Internet history. When Jonathan Papelbon offered $5,000 to anyone who could smack a walkoff hit and take him off the hook for an ugly blown save, was there any doubt that anyone other than 'ol Jim Jam would pull it off?
Per ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, only two teams have used just five starting pitchers this season. Getting that kind of durability from your rotation would seem a near-guarantor of success, given what it says about the consistency of your pitching and its presumed ability to make things easy for your bullpen and avoid having to dip into the minors to use underripe prospects as unwitting piñatas. The Reds, who got yelled at for not promoting Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, have parlayed their (mostly) steady starting pitching into first place in the NL Central. The Marlins, on the other hand, sit last in the NL East. For that, we can partially thank Miami's second-worst bullpen ERA in baseball, a dubious mark achieved despite each of the team's starters averaging at least six innings per start. Heath Bell's 6.59 ERA and perpetual one-blown-save-from-an-Ozzie-meltdown status is Exhibit 4,826 in the case of People vs. Overpaid Closers.
The Brewers aren't blowing $27 million on their own closer, the esteemed Canadian and mustache aficionado John Axford. And Axford still ranks among the top strikeout-chucking relievers in the game, with a 12.4 K/9 IP rate. But he's also been lit up lately, blowing three of his past six save chances, with nine runs and 13 base runners allowed in his past seven appearances. Knowing what we know about managers and closer usage, I'd spec on Francisco Rodriguez for a few save chances in deeper leagues.
Tommy John surgery for Felipe Paulino, who follows dynamic lefty Danny Duffy to the operating table. In fact, Grantland colleague Rany Jazayerli notes that one-third of the pitchers expected to be on the Royals' Opening Day roster back in February have had or will have TJ, and we're only in June. Between those setbacks and Eric Hosmer's BABIP-fueled nightmare of a season (.218/.284/.374, .218 batting average on balls in play), those optimistic Royals preseason predictions from a few circles seem like ancient history now.
USS Mariner/FanGraphs maestro Dave Cameron wrote a thoughtful piece on how the M's should handle Ichiro from this point forward. The future Hall of Famer was hitting just .255/.282/.363 a week ago. With Seattle's outfield growing increasingly crowded thanks to Franklin Gutierrez's return from injury, Cameron suggested the M's use Ichiro as a platoon player against righties only, and consider trading him at the deadline. Of course Ichiro has hit in all six games since, including a four-hit barrage last Tuesday and an overall line for the week of .462/.483/.538. This likely makes the right fielder a more attractive trade chip, if Ichiro-loyal ownership would see fit to let him go.
Quirkiest Astros line for the month of June? Justin Maxwell: .231/.322/.558, team-leading five homers, 42.4 percent strikeout rate. The Dave Kingman Appreciation Society approves.
In May 2006, I asked Rockies assistant GM Bill Geivett about the possibility of using a four-man rotation, given the unique challenges of manning a pitching staff at mile-high elevation. Geivett's reply:
I've always been on the side of finding it difficult to execute, for sure. It's so different from what other teams do. How our pitchers grow up in the game, not even to mention the veteran players who have been on the five-man schedule — this is an idea that has stood for some time, from when they switched from four to five. It's a lot more complex in how you handle that, how you go about doing that. The first time you run into issues with it, are people going to want to go back? And then where do you go from there? There are all the normal problems with pitching to begin with. Then you've got new challenges on the field. Off the field there's dealing with agents, trying to sign pitchers to come play for you when they may not want to pitch in a different system. It'd be tough.
Then you get into the tandem starting pitching system (where four pairs of pitchers work on a four-day rotation) and now you have the problem of a guy who throws four shutout innings, then a guy comes in and gets knocked around in the 5th. The appearance of your statistics, the fans' reaction, players' reaction, agents' reaction, these things would be tough to manage. Both of these are certainly creative ideas, things that should be looked at and studied. But putting together a legitimate pitching staff with great balance in terms of starting pitchers getting relatively deep into the game, having a structured bullpen with roles, I think that's the way to go.
I study the game and have respect for everything that went on in the past. There's a reason why it went from four to five. As the game evolved, things started becoming a little different. I respect the things that have happened in the past that have turned the game into what it is.
So how's it going so far, after the Rockies went through with the plan against all these very reasonable objections? Turns out restricting starting pitchers who aren't very good to 75 pitches a start is a great way to ensure they (almost) never make it out of the fifth inning. That said, after a pair of seven-run whackings in Philly, the Rockies went 3-2, allowing four runs or fewer in four of those five games. As I wrote over at Rotowire in discussing Colorado's four-man plans, the teams best suited to pull off something like this are those whose rotations are already in the best shape, with four very good starters and one scrub (like the Nationals before they booted Chien-Ming Wang from the rotation). Of course no one ever messes with a good thing. We'll see if the Rockies' efforts, born out of little more than desperation, yield longer-term positive results.
There are certain players who entice you with spurts of great performance and impressive raw skill, then burn you the minute you start to trust them. They are, as ESPN's roto guru Matthew Berry likes to say, Fantasy Kryptonite. Here are Francisco Liriano's first 12 starts of 2012, broken down by halves:
First six starts: 0-5, 9.45 ERA, 6 HR allowed
Past six starts: 2-2, 2.41 ERA, 1 HR allowed
Between Liriano's nearly annual nightmares with command, his perpetual injury risk, and his clockwork tendencies to get rocked for nine runs the second you roster him, I'd look elsewhere unless you're desperate and a lottery ticket is your only hope.
Jason Marquis's seven starts this year with the Twins: 8.47 ERA, 1.063 opponents' OPS, 12 strikeouts, 14 walks, and 9 homers in 34 innings
Jason Marquis's four starts this year with the Padres: 2.05 ERA, .703 opponents' OPS, 26 strikeouts, 11 walks, and 2 homers in 26 1/3 innings
(Small sample size) proof that Petco Park is the hubba hubba of pitching-career resurrectors.
Anthony Rizzo finally makes his Cubs debut Tuesday, after hitting .345/.408/.702 with 23 homers in 69 games at Triple-A. Of course that's after Ryan Dempster got shuttled to the DL right before the Cubs were (likely) about to get something useful for him in a pre-deadline deal. Apparently no good news can go unpunished in Cubs land.
Harrison was lifted with left-hip soreness after those five innings, but isn't expected to miss his next start.