Second-Half Storylines: NL Edition

The All-Star Game is over and it’s time to turn our attention to the second half of the season. All of the teams still in contention face questions as games get underway on Friday. We will take a look at those questions in two posts. Today, we’ll discuss what to look for in the National League when play resumes. On Thursday, we’ll address the American League.

The NL East is a four-team race. The Nationals are the leader in the clubhouse at the break, with a four-game lead over the Braves (five in the loss column) and a four-and-a-half-game lead over the Mets (six in the loss column). The Marlins are nine back with the Phillies in last place fourteen games behind the Nats. For the Marlins, that is a lot of ground to make up, but the NL East teams will play a lot of games against each other just after the All-Star Break. That could solidify the Nationals’ lead or tighten the race even further.

The Braves and Mets are essentially tied with the Giants and the Cardinals for the two wild card spots, just behind the Reds, who trail the Pirates by a game in the Central. The Diamondbacks, Marlins and Brewers sit three-and-a-half, four-and-a-half, and five-and-a-half back, respectively.

In April, the Nationals were winning with superb pitching from the rotation and the bullpen. The offense was just enough. But with the addition of Bryce Harper, the return of Michael Morse and the unexpectedly good production from Ian Desmond, the Nationals runs scored per game jumped from 3.4 in April to 4.5 in June. The pitching, in turn, has weakened a bit, with runs allowed per game going from 2.7 in April to 3.7 in May and June.

The big issue for the Nationals in the second half when and how to shut down Stephen Strasburg. General manager Mike Rizzo has said that Strasburg will be limited to 160 to 170 innings this season. If he stays in his rotation slot and pitches at the same pace, Strasburg will top out in early September, just as the stretch run begins. He’s been a huge part of the rotation’s success and replacing him will not be easy. The Nationals will also welcome Jayson Werth back to the team, likely some time in August. Werth’s production, or lack of it, following wrist surgery will change the dynamic in the team’s improved offense.

The Braves entered the season with what looked like a surplus of very good starting pitching, but that strength has turned into a weakness. Brandon Beachy was quietly leading the league in variety of pitching stats when suffered an elbow injury and had Tommy John surgery. Tim Hudson has pitched well but the rest of the rotation has underperformed expectations. Ben Sheets is trying for a comeback with the Braves and will start on Sunday. The rotation remains a work in progress. Same, too, for the bullpen which is showing signs of overuse. Eric O’Flaherty has dealt with elbow soreness and Jonny Venters is now on the disabled list with an impingement in his left elbow.

In the field, shortstop continues to be the big question mark for the Braves. They started the season with Tyler Pastornicky but when that wasn’t working, called up uber prospect Andrelton Simmons in June. In 33 games, Simmons posted a .296/.336/.452 line and played spectacular defense. Then he broke his pinkie finger sliding head first into a base. He’s expected to be out at least four weeks. It’s unclear if the Braves will call-up Pastornicky or go with veteran Jack Wilson.

The Mets exceeded all expectations in the first half, but face some tough questions as the second half gets underway. Four-fifths of the rotation has been very good, led by R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee. But Gee is now on the disabled list after doctors discovered a blood cot in his shoulder. His prognosis is uncertain. Chris Young, making yet another comeback, has filled the fifth starter spot since June and pitched pretty well. With Gee out, Young’s health and performance become even more crucial for the Mets. There are also questions about the Mets’ bullpen which has been inconsistent, particularly closer Frank Francisco.

On offense, the story has been the resurgence of David Wright but Wright’s phenomenal year won’t be enough. The Mets have a lefty-heavy lineup and have not performed well against left-handed pitching, with a team line of .246/.312/.372. They’ll need to turn that around, or trade for a right-handed bat, in order to stay in the thick of it down the stretch.

Where the Mets have defied expectations, the Marlins have significantly underperformed theirs. Well, at least in April and June, when the Marlins won total of 16 games and lost 32. In May, they were 21-8.  Closer Heath Bell‘s problems are well known, but that only accounts for a small part of the Marlins’ overall inconsistency. Mark Buehrle is the only starter with an ERA- under 100, although Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez, in addition to Buehrle, have better than league-average FIPs. That bodes well for better performance in the second half.

On offense started the season quite slowly, posting a .290 team wOBA in April. That jumped to .320 in May but fell back to near April levels in June. With the addition of Justin Ruggiano in center field and Carlos Lee at first, the offense was just starting to click when Giancarlo Stanton went down with a sore knee, requiring surgery. That’s a big hit for the offense. If the Marlins can stay close in Stanton’s absence, then they can make things interesting down the stretch.

The NL Central looks much like the East, with three teams clustered near the top and a fourth, the Brewers, hanging around at eight games back. The surprise division leader at the break is the Pirates, with the Reds a game back and the Cardinals two-and-a-half off the lead.

What to make of the Pirates? My colleague Bradley Woodrum has been tracking the Bucs’ offense all season. He explained last week that the Pirates’ improved offensive output in June and early July had pushed them from the worst offense in the majors to the third-worst. Andrew McCutchen has been other-worldly for several weeks now and will regress from his .616 wOBA so far in July. But if he can sustain his .465 wOBA from May and June, it will go a long way toward keeping the Pirates afloat. Whether McCutchen’s supporting cast will build on their recent success at the plate is one of the big unknowns.

On the pitching side, James McDonald has been the star of the rotation, as my colleague Ben Duronio discussed yesterday, and A.J. Burnett has been surprisingly effective as well. But overall, the Pirates starters in the bottom half of the National League in K/BB (2.38) and sit just below average with a 101 FIP-. It’s the same story with the bullpen. With an offense that’s likely to regress, the pitching will have to improve for the Pirates to stay competitive in the second half.

The Reds, on the other hand, need the offense to catch up to its very good pitching. Johnny Cueto‘s performed well all season (not surprisingly), as has Bronson Arroyo (surprisingly). Mat Latos and Mike Leake have turned it up over the last month, leaving Homer Bailey as the weak link among the starting five. Still, the starters are tied for second in the league with a 3.25 B/KK. The bullpen’s been even better, led by Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall.

On offense, it’s been the Joey Votto show. Too often, however, Votto comes to the plate with the bases empty and leaves having not scored. So while he leads the NL in doubles with 35, those doubles aren’t always driving runs in. He also leads the NL in walks with 65 and intentional walks with 13, yet he’s only scored 50 runs. Votto’s supporting cast, particularly Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, will need to pick up the pace in the second half if the Reds are to win the Central.

The Cardinals have been hit hard by injuries to position players. Only Matt Holiday, Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal, Yadier Molina and David Freese have had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. And yet, the Cardinals lead the NL in runs scored, with 426.  The offense is not the problem.

Neither is the starting rotation. Yes, Chris Carpenter is out for the season, and Jaime Garcia is out until August with a shoulder injury. But the starters are, collectively, second in the NL with a 3.48 FIP and fifth with 2.82 K/BB.  The bullpen, however, is another story. Collectively, the Cardinals’ relievers are second-to-last in the NL in FIP, at 4.39 and 11th out of 16 teams in K/BB, at 2.24. Righty Victor Marte and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, in particular, have not been effective. The Cardinals will need to shore up the bullpen in the second half.

The Brewers are hanging by a thread and are expected to move into sell mode if they don’t improve their position in the next few weeks. Milwaukee has the ingredients for success, but haven’t been combined those ingredients in the right recipe so far this season. Injuries to starters Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson weakened the rotation. Injuries to Alex Gonzalez and Jonathan Lucroy weakened the lineup and the defense. And the bullpen has been erratic, particularly closer John Axford. The Brewers need a winning streak to kick off the second half, or they could be saying goodbye to Zack Greinke by the July 31 trade deadline.

And, finally, the NL West, where a three-team race is heating up among the Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks. Just a few weeks ago, Arizona looked to be out of it, and rumors starting circulating that the Snakes would consider trading Justin Upton. But the Dodgers and Giants limped into the All-Star Break, leaving the door open for Arizona.

The Dodgers kept their offense afloat for quite a while after losing Matt Kemp to a severe hamstring injury, but with additional injuries to Mark Ellis, Andre Ethier and, recently, Dee Gordon, the patchwork lineup could only take them so far. Kemp and Ethier are expected back just after the All-Star break, but it remains to be seen how long it takes them to produce at their pre-injury levels. The Dodgers are looking to upgrade offensively at either first base, third base, or both. A trade to acquire Carlos Lee fell apart a week before the break.

Los Angeles’ pitching has been good across the board, although the rotation — particularly Aaron Harang and Chris Capuanoseems headed for a fall. Nathan Eovaldi stepped in when Ted Lilly suffered a shoulder injury, and has been a decent fifth starter, but the Dodgers could use an upgrade. The bullpen is starting to show wear and tear after pitching very well in April and May. Lefty Scott Elbert and righty Josh Lindblom, in particular, were much less effective in the weeks leading to the All-Star break. Don’t be surprised to see the Dodgers add a bullpen arm before the deadline.

The Giants, too, could use help in the bullpen, although Brad Penny‘s recent arrival — after an unsuccessful few months in Japan — has stabilized the Giants’ long-relief needs. The much, much bigger pitching issue for San Francisco is what to do with Tim Lincecum, who has been one of the least effective starters in the National League so far this season. So far, the Giants seem prepared to keep Lincecum in the rotation, but if he doesn’t start to turn things around, all options will be on the table: skipping starts, disabled list, even a trip to Triple-A. The Giants’ pitching depth in the high minors is thin, so it’s unclear who would even take Lincecum’s place in the rotation. San Francisco should be looking to upgrade at shortstop and second base but are more likely to add a right-handed bench bat. But it all comes down to Lincecum. The Giants are 4-13 in his starts this year. What once was an automatic win for San Francisco with Lincecum on the mound has become an automatic loss. That won’t work to get the Giants back to the postseason.

Unlike the Giants, the Diamondbacks have tremendous pitching depth in their farm system, and they’ve already put that depth to use. With Daniel Hudson out for the season and Joe Saunders out until mid-July, Arizona called up uber pitching prospect Trevor Bauer. He’s off to a shaky start but has the tools to put together a good second half . Trevor Cahill and Ian Kennedy have both regressed from very good performances in 2011. Rookie Wade Miley has been a pleasant surprise, and was Arizona’s lone representative to the All-Star Game.

The offensive stars for Arizona have been Aaron Hill, Jason Kubel and Paul Goldschmidt. Justin Upton, Chris Young and Ryan Roberts — who had career years in 2011 and powered the Diamondbacks to the NL West title — have not provided similar production in 2012. Shortstop Stephen Drew is just now back from a severe ankle injury suffered in mid-2011 and hasn’t quite gotten his legs under him at the plate, so to speak. For the Diamondbacks to make a run, they’ll need to offense to kick into high gear across the board.

Today we’ve laid out the challenges facing the National League teams hoping to contend for a spot in the postseason. Tomorrow we’ll look at the contenders in the American League.




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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


34 Responses to “Second-Half Storylines: NL Edition”

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  1. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Correct my math:

    Through 17 starts Strasburg had a 3.1 WAR. A five-game Strasdrought would mean a loss of 0.9 WAR from otherwise. Based on John Lannan’s career numbers, five Lannan starts equal 0.2 WAR, meaning that Strasburg’s shutdown would mean about one extra loss for the Nationals – plus any havoc wreaked in the playoffs by losing your ace.

    I’m not totally sold on one extra loss being a big midseason storyline.

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    • Will says:

      You’re right. The bigger story for the Nationals is the return of Werth.

      The Nats OF has changed quite a bit since Werth was injured, but when he returns it will be something like Morse in LF, and Harper and Werth switching between CF and RF.

      However, in the meantime, the Nats OF production from everyone else has been really awful. Excluding Harper, Morse and Werth, the Nats OF has been worth only 0.2 WAR total through over 750 plate appearances.

      Over August and September, Werth should be worth about 1.2 WAR (assuming he maintains his below average 2012 numbers), whereas the other players would be essentially replacement level. That 1+ WAR boost is just as important as Strasburg’s lost starts.

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      • #teamteddy says:

        I don’t understand how everyone is missing the point SO badly.

        Shutting down Strasburg at 160 innings will, if you literally interpret WAR, cost the Nationals one or two regular season wins. Maybe that matters- it is much more likely that it does not. According to BP the Nationals have a 76% chance of making the playoffs. I like their odds.

        What matters is the PLAYOFFS. When you have to win at least 3 of every 5 games, having Strasburg for one of two of those games is huge. Wins and losses are binary; WAR is not the right way to measure the significance of having Strasburg on the mound in game four of the LCS as opposed to, say, Edwin Jackson.

        tl;dr: Effect on regular season: minimal. Effect on playoffs: acutely significant.

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    • WSC says:

      You don’t think that the most talented pitcher, IMHO, being benched on a first place team during the stretch run isn’t a big story? WAR about it all you want, Strasburg is a huge part of the Nats’ recipe for success.

      He should be skipped enough times over the next two months to be there for his rotation spot when it matters most.

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      • Pig.Pen says:

        Good point, they should start skipping Strasburg’s starts so he’s available in September because wins in September are in fact worth more than wins in July and August. Not to mention, tinkering with his routine should help him be more effective and I’m sure it will be no problem to use someone else to start his games with rosters not expanding until well after that’s been done.*

        *Maybe someone can explain to me who will start these games where Strasburg is skipped.

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      • David says:

        Pig.Pen, actually there should have been a more concrete plan put in place at the beginning of the season. Whether that was making him the 5th starter and skipping him now and again, or shutting him down for a month in midseason, or moving him to the bullpen for a while to simply reduce the innings total … I don’t know which would have been best.

        But having done nothing, the Nats have only the choices of ending the season without him or blowing through their stated innings limits. Neither is ideal.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Pigpen, I haven’t seen their schedule but in prior seasons there have been a lot more intra-division games in September. So yeah, games in September (against the Mets, Braves, etc) do mean more than games in July/August against teams they’re not contending with.

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      • Pig.Pen says:

        “I haven’t seen their schedule but in prior seasons there have been a lot more intra-division games in September. So yeah, games in September (against the Mets, Braves, etc) do mean more than games in July/August against teams they’re not contending with.”

        Actually, the Nats will play most of their intra-division games in July and August, so saving Strasburg for September would mean more starts against the Cardinals, Dodgers, Brewers and Cubs.

        As for making Strasburg the 5th starter to start the year and skipping him a bunch, still doesn’t answer the question who would have started in his place? and/or how skipping him would have affected his routine.

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      • David says:

        Pig.Pen it would have affected his routine in that not all throws are equal. High stress innings are worse than easy breezy 1-2-3s. Bullpen sessions are even less. There’s no gutting through the last few outs when you’re not in an actual game. If he skips a start now and again he’s throwing a bullpen session to stay fresh and it’s going to put a lot less stress on his arm.

        As to someone taking his place? Sure it’s a bit of a wash in the long run, but psychologically speaking it’s easier for everyone if he misses one start a month than it is to wake up in the last weeks of a pennant race without one of the best pitchers in MLB.

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      • JCA says:

        The Nats have two off days from 8/28 to the end of the season. Figure the 5th starter can probably be skipped twice over that stretch, maybe a 3d time if they lock up the division or wild card early. Over the 32 games in 34 days, the replacement starter (a healthy CMW, Gorzellany out of the pen, Lannan or their best minor leaguer) would get 3 – 4 starts, while the other make-up starts would be divided among Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Jackson, and Detwiler (or CMW, whoever is going best at the time). The lift from Werth and Storen lengthening the bullpen probably is more than the cost of replacing Strasburg in the regular season.

        What’ll drive everyone nuts is not pitching in the playoffs, if it comes to that.

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    • batpig says:

      I’ll take “misapplication of WAR” for $800, Alex!

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    • Pinstripe Wizard says:

      Whether or not the math works out to prove you correct, I wouldn’t think the Nationals would be just as fine with Lannan starting five games in place of Strasburg. One win might not make a difference at the end of the season, but it’s got to affect the team’s confidence. If and when the Nats shut him down, they are pretty much forfeiting the season for the long term. Not necessarily a bad thing from an organizational standpoint, but as a fan or a player, I probably wouldn’t be too happy with it.

      Besides, as stated in the article, the Nats are allowing an extra run a game now compared to the start of the season. I would assume that would increase even more if you trotted Lannan out there to replace Strasburg.

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  2. batpig says:

    I love it when the link parser f’s up and truncates a name. I had no idea there was even a player named “Johan Santa”.

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    • Joe says:

      you must be new here. Johan Santa is a fangraphs’ writer’s darling

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      • Ludwig von Koopa says:

        Ooooooh… he’s in the Royals system now! I’m glad he’s still in baseball, I was worried about him this winter when he had no 2011 stats.

        And even though his BABIP is unsustainable (and/or completely meaningless over 69 plate appearances in rookie ball) I am confident that he will be the opening day second baseman for the 2016 Royals.

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  3. Shane says:

    Are the Phillies so bad that they don’t get mentioned at all?

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  4. ilzilla says:

    Johan Santa always ruins the hyperlink to Johan Santana. We need to talk to that guy.

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  5. BX says:

    How has Cahill regressed?

    He’s put up essentially his 2011 performance, gotten the same percentage of ground balls, and actually has the best (albeit only by .01) K/BB ratio of his career. His HR rates are the same, in spite of a higher HR/FB and pitching in a homer-friendly park.

    He’s got a lower BABIP while getting the same results but besides that, I don’t see how he’s regressed at all, especially when factoring in that he’s in a more hitter friendly environment.

    He’s exactly as advertised.

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  6. bkgeneral says:

    2 full paragraphs about the Reds and no mention of how terrible Drew Stubbs is? I feel cheated!

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  7. CabreraDeath says:

    If you look at Ian Kennedy’s numbers, he’s actually been pretty much the same as he was last year, just a little unlucky (or not as lucky as he was last year). His K/BB ratio is virtually identical. He’s K’ing nearly the same amount of dudes, while walking slightly less. His strand rate, HR/FB, and BABIP are the only things that are very different. He’s stranding 7% less guys on base; his babip is`50 points higher this year; and, HR/9 is .27 higher than last year.

    I actually thought he was playing over his head last year, but his numbers seems to reinforce what he did. I expect him to have a solid second half.

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  8. Randy says:

    Institute a per game pitch count for Strasburg like the Rockies did for their rotation. Use Lannan in some spot starts and as a long reliever, as well as Gorzellany, who is serving as a reliever, but has been a starter before. This isn’t rocket science, and rosters expand in September.

    If they make the playoffs, then you have Gio, Zimm, and EJax as your top 3 starters and you only use Strasburg as a starter if you get to a critical game where you need a 4th starter or one of your top 3 goes out of the game extremely early.

    I have a feeling a clash is coming. Stras says nobody told him about a limit, yet Rizzo has stated there is a limit. Some communication isn’t happening in between, and I have a feeling it is Davey Johnson’s old school ways and that there will be a conflict as it gets late in the season and Rizzo tries to tell him how to handle his pitcher.

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    • David says:

      No, that’s wrong. If you make the playoffs Strasburg has to be in the #1 starter role. The question is how to get there with him still being (1) under his innings limit and (2) reasonably fresh.

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  9. B says:

    Losing Dee Gordon would be the very definition of addition by subtraction.

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  10. monkey business says:

    A possible Stras fix is to get trade $36,000 for Liriano (isn’t that what they got for Thome from the Indians?). He could be a good #2/3 starter if he was kept in the pen until SS is shut down (well #3/4 on the Nats).

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  11. beeviss says:

    So, basically, my Reds ought to be able to lock the Central up unless they start really, really sucking? The Bucs should fade, the only Cards not injured are their most fragile, and the Brewers, well,…

    Only one guy could screw this up. What to wish for? Dusty’s last dance or an NLC title and probable extension?

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  12. Bip says:

    With an offense that’s likely to regress, the pitching will have to improve for the Pirates to stay competitive in the second half.

    Regress from where to where? When speaking of regression, we generally use it when we expect teams to end up where the Pirates are now.

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