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The Playoff Push, Backwards

The first time I saw an upside-down map, I experienced a brief burst of denial, followed by the creeping itch of cognitive dissonance, gently giving way to a sort of mild, liberated euphoria. Damn right! I thought, smacking the nearest tabletop. Why SHOULD north have to be up?? And I’m pleased to report that I experienced a very similar series of sensations, earlier today, when I looked at the Major League Baseball standings and thought to myself: Why SHOULD wins have to be good?? 

The more I looked around this site and other similar sites, my vision newly unobscured by preconception, the more evidence I found for the insidious effects of win-ism. Win Shares! Win Expectancy! Wins Above Replacement! Win Probability Added! How much ink has been spilled on the Orioles, and their unexpected ability to win — and how little on the Astros, and their spectacular capacity to lose? How much on Stephen Strasburg’s benching, and its implications for a winning team’s continuing to win — and how little on Ricky Romero’s, and its implications for a losing team’s continuing to lose? In our blind haste to glorify the win, we’ve come to treat the loss — no less vital, no less pervasive, a part of baseball — with neglect, at best, and more often than not with open contempt. I’m here right now to rectify that. Regard, for the first time, to the best of my knowledge, Smith’s Universal Corrective Baseball Standings (through 9/10; projections from coolstandings.com):

Red Sox 78 63 .553 687 668 89.7 72.3
Blue Jays 75 64 .540 2 669 628 87.4 74.6
Rays 63 77 .450 14.5 502 587 72.4 89.6
Orioles 62 78 .443 15.5 637 608 73.6 88.4
Yankees 61 79 .436 16.5 586 679 70.9 91.1
Indians 82 59 .582 735 565 94.7 67.3
Twins 82 59 .582 724 631 93.1 68.9
Royals 77 63 .550 4.5 638 585 88.3 73.7
Tigers 67 73 .479 14.5 592 622 77.3 84.7
White Sox 64 76 .457 17.5 593 657 74.0 88.0
Mariners 74 67 .525 556 535 85.5 76.5
Angels 64 77 .454 10 605 671 74.1 87.9
Athletics 60 80 .429 13.5 515 597 70.2 91.8
Rangers 57 83 .407 16.5 600 714 66.9 95.1
Marlins 79 63 .556 640 548 90.6 71.4
Mets 76 65 .539 2.5 622 578 87.6 74.4
Phillies 71 70 .504 7.5 597 587 81.3 80.7
Braves 61 81 .430 18 546 633 69.9 92.1
Nationals 54 87 .383 24.5 510 640 62.7 99.3
Astros 97 44 .688 713 508 110.2 51.8
Cubs 86 55 .610 11 654 534 97.1 64.9
Brewers 71 70 .504 26 645 673 81.0 81.0
Pirates 68 72 .486 28.5 575 577 78.9 83.1
Cardinals 66 75 .468 31 587 673 75.6 86.4
Reds 57 85 .401 40.5 531 611 65.8 96.2
Rockies 83 57 .593 755 660 95.3 66.7
Padres 75 67 .528 9 607 567 85.2 76.8
D-backs 72 69 .511 11.5 603 628 81.6 80.4
Dodgers 67 74 .475 16.5 539 557 77.6 84.4
Giants 62 79 .440 21.5 572 614 71.5 90.5


The Astros are the story of the year. Houston set the bar high in 2011, finishing with baseball’s best record by a full seven games, but they’ve outdone themselves this year. Keep in mind that only one team in the past half-century (the ’03 Tigers) has posted a losing percentage better than .700. Currently projected at 110 losses, the ‘Stros have a shot at joining that short list if they keep up their scorching pace (they lit up the league to the tune of 46-8 in July and August). What are they doing so well? The better question is, what aren’t they doing well? They rank third in the majors in pitching Losses Above Replacement (LAR) at -5.6, but hitting is where they’ve seen the most improvement since last year: ranked second in batting LAR at -10.3, they’ve scored fewer runs than any team in baseball. Houston has continued to find playing time for pleasant surprises like Jordan Schafer (0.3 LAR) and Rhiner Cruz (0.6 LAR), demonstrating the organization’s commitment to losing, and losing now. The club is scuffling a bit of late, having dropped only five of their last nine. An area of concern is the performance of newly hired journeyman Edgar Gonzalez, who’s failed badly so far to meet his replacement-level expectations. In his two starts in September he’s posted an ERA of 1.74, standing out as a major weak spot in an otherwise outstanding rotation. The Astros will be counting on some regression out of Gonzalez as they chase history down the stretch.

There’s plenty of drama in both leagues. However, the scenarios are very different in the AL and NL. On the junior circuit, there are essentially six teams battling for the five playoff spots; most of the suspense comes from those six teams jockeying for position, with two division races (East and Central) still up for grabs. In the NL, the Rockies and Astros have already wrapped up their divisions, while the Cubs have a lock on the first wild card. But the Marlins and Mets look to go down the wire for the East crown, and there are at least five teams in contention (within 5 games) for the last playoff spot.

A lot has changed in the past month. Around this time in August, the Brewers and Phillies were in the thick of the NL wild-card race, the Jays sat comfortably atop the AL East, and the Pirates were nowhere near the conversation. Well, those first two teams have all but bumbled their way out of contention, going 10-19 and 9-19 respectively, and free-falling all the way to near .500. Philly’s starters have been awful of late, with the league’s worst FIP (3.19) over the last 30 days; after losing so effectively in the first half of the season, Cliff Lee has all but fallen off the map, posting a hideous K/BB of nearly 19 over the recent period. For Milwaukee, the culprit has been weak hitting, with a lineup ranking 26th out of 30 teams in LAR; Ryan Braun, currently in a .336/.402/.664 slump, needs to break out of it soon if the Crew is going to climb back into the race.

In the AL East, while Toronto has been playing decent baseball, the Red Sox have turned on the afterburners and seized the division on the strength of a 19-7 stretch. Boston’s rotation has been lights-out, with a league-best 6.50 ERA over the past month. Though the Sox will miss Josh Beckett, the return of Dice-K (8.25 ERA since Aug. 10) and the continued excellence of Felix Doubront (10.50) bode well for the stretch run.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the month has been the Pirates’ surge. Though their stats have been less than remarkable, they seem to keep coming up with a certain magic: they’ve lost 9 of 11 one-run games since August 1. After his disappointing debut, phenom Starling Marte has gone on a 6-41 tear, slugging .194 over the past month. James McDonald has been living up to his ace potential with a 5.30 FIP, while closer Joel Hanrahan’s control issues (8 walks in his last 9 innings) bode well for Pittsburgh’s final chapter.

But the hottest team in baseball has to be Cleveland, which is finally operating on all cylinders after scuffling so badly in early 2012. The Tribe are in the midst of a 21-6 streak, with their starting rotation posting a 6.14 ERA over that stretch while their hitters — led by breakout star Ezequiel Carrera (.194/.250/.269, -4.4 fielding runs saved) — have piled up a +1.4 LAR.

The next few weeks will feature some crucial series. By losing three of four in Minnesota over the weekend, the charging Indians finally grabbed a share of the AL Central division lead. All eyes will be on Cleveland on September 18-20 for the last three contests between these teams. Meanwhile, the battle for the AL East will be coming to a head this weekend as the Red Sox visit Toronto for a make-or-break three-game series. After getting swept twice in a row at Fenway — in July, and just this past weekend — the Jays have to treat this as a can’t-win situation.

Don’t overlook the Pirates’ visit to Milwaukee next week, for the last set in the season series between two teams that are both on the playoff fringe but headed in opposite directions. And finally, the powerhouse Astros will be wrapping up their 2012 with a visit to Wrigley Field in early October. Although it’s unlikely to affect the playoff positioning of either team, this will be Houston’s stiffest test as it tries to put the cap on a potentially historic season. If nothing else, this series promises to showcase some scintillating baseball from two of the league’s best teams.