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World Series Preview: Red Sox and Cardinals

Much is made of how baseball in October can often be a crapshoot. The differences between the remaining teams, at this point in the season, are so small that nearly any outcome is reasonably possible. And yet, it would be hard to argue that when the dust settled, the best team from the American League and the best team from the National League are still playing. It’s a battle of baseball’s elite, with two great teams looking to exploit any minor advantage they can find. Let’s look at some of the areas that might make a difference in the final series of the season.

Cardinals X Factor: Allen Craig

No National League team needs the DH more than the Cardinals, as Craig’s foot injury has reportedly healed enough for him to hit but not really do anything else. Luckily for St. Louis, they’ll get a position to let Craig do exactly that in their road games, and adding him back into the line-up could be a huge boost for the Cardinals offense.

Craig might not have the stature of some of baseball’s more well known sluggers, but over the last three years, Craig ranks 15th in baseball with a 140 wRC+, meaning his offensive production is 40% better than the league average hitter. It’s difficult for a guy who racks up as many RBIs as Craig does to be underrated, but because he’s a first baseman who specializes in singles and doubles, he tends to get overlooked when discussing the game’s impact bats. But, when healthy, he absolutely has been one.

But the health remains a huge question mark. The Red Sox just exploited a beaten down Miguel Cabrera in the ALCS, and while Craig might be healthy enough to swing the bat, it is possible that Boston will find a way to attack him in a part of the zone that he can’t cover as well at less than 100%. Craig’s production is a wild card, and his ability to hit at something approximating full strength might be a deciding factor in the outcome.

Red Sox X factor: Xander Bogaerts

John Farrell inserted Bogaerts into the starting line-up for the final two games of the ALCS, and given how he performed, it’s basically impossible to see him returning to the bench for the World Series. The 21-year-old is a physically gifted hitter, but he’s been astonishingly patient at the plate so far in the post-season, drawing five walks in just 11 plate appearances. Bogaerts has actually walked more times in the postseason than Dustin Pedroia, even though he’s only started those two games in the first two rounds.

Bogaerts approach at the plate is extraordinary for a 21 year old, so Cardinals pitchers won’t be able to attack him out of the zone as they would be able to with most inexperienced rookies. While Will Middlebrooks possesses more power at the moment, Bogaerts gives the line-up more depth and another hitter who can run up a starter’s pitch count. And as he showed with his big double when he finally did get something to hit from Max Scherzer, he’s not just a walk machine, as he can hit too. The World Series may end being remembered as the coming out party for Boston’s next superstar.

Cardinals key reliever: Kevin Seigrist

The Red Sox feasted on the Tigers bullpen to advance through the ALCS, but they’re about to see something from St. Louis that Detroit didn’t have: a lefty who sits near 100 mph. Seigrist threw hard in the regular season, averaging 95.3 mph during all his regular season outings, but the last month or so, he’s taken it to another level; his fastball has averaged 97.7 mph so far in the playoffs. The only reliever in baseball who threw that hard during the regular season was Aroldis Chapman.

Interestingly enough, however, the huge uptick in velocity hasn’t let to more strikeouts, as he’s only struck out one of the 12 batters he’s faced in the postseason after striking out a third of the batters he faced in the regular season. Usually, increases in velocity also lead to increases in strikeouts, but Seigrist’s strikeout rate began to tail off as his velocity rose in September, and that has now carried over into October as well.

It’s possible that the extra velocity is straightening out his fastball, making it actually easier to hit than it was when he was sitting at 95. He hasn’t struggled so far in the playoffs, and having a lefty who throws 98 is a nice problem to have to figure out, but the Cardinals might want to consider whether or not the extra velocity is actually helping Seigrist, because they’re going to need him to go after Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz in big situations.

Red Sox key reliever: Junichi Tazawa

While Koji Uehara has been shutting down opponents in the 9th (and occasionally the 8th) inning, Tazawa has been nearly as important to the team’s playoff run in 2013. Between the first two rounds of the postseason, Tazawa has appeared in eight of the 10 game the Red Sox have played, and barring an early blowout, he’s a good bet to pitch in every game of the World Series.

The Red Sox middle relief is the shakiest part of their team, and with Uehara showing he can pitch multiple innings, the Red Sox will have the ability to bring Tazawa in in the sixth or seventh inning to help bridge the gap between the starter and the dominating closer. John Farrell has used Tazawa as more of a situational reliever in the early rounds, but Tazawa was an effective pitcher against left-handers this year too, and may be asked to take on a bigger role in the World Series.

Key Matchup: David Ortiz vs Randy Choate

Evan at age-38, Choate is still humming along as the epitome of the cliched left-handed specialist. Choate appeared in 64 games this year but only threw 35 innings, because he frequently is called upon to pitch to the opponents best left-handed hitter and then is promptly removed when he gets that guy out. In his five postseason outings this year, Choate has thrown a grand total of 20 pitches.

But you’re likely going to see Choate in every close game this series, and he’s going to be used to try and neutralize David Ortiz. The complicating factor is that, during the three games in St. Louis, Ortiz is likely to have to serve as a pinch-hitter, as the DH will not be in play in the National League park. So, Mike Matheny is going to have to anticipate when John Farrell will use Ortiz as a pinch-hitter, and get Choate warm in anticipation of that match-up. The key for Farrell might be using Ortiz in early critical situations so that Matheny hasn’t gotten Choate up in time, giving him a chance to swing the bat against a right-handed starting pitcher. For the Red Sox, success will be avoiding this match-up, and keeping Ortiz away from Choate whenever possible.

Cardinals key bench player: Shane Robinson

Jon Jay has been pretty miserable in the postseason, not hitting or fielding his position well, and Matheny turned to Robinson to make a surprise start in Game 6 of the NLCS; he rewarded his manager’s confidence with two hits the day after hitting a pinch-hit home run. With a few days off to get reset, Jay should be back in the line-up for the series opener, but if he continues to falter, don’t be too shocked if Matheny goes back to Robinson at some point in this series. He’s not a big bat by any means, but he’s a better defender than Jay, and might prove useful for the Cardinals in this series.

Red Sox key bench player: Quinton Berry

As we noted during the ALCS preview, Berry has never been thrown out attempting a steal in his Major League career, and he’s a real weapon as a pinch runner for the Red Sox. However, the Cardinals have a guy behind the plate who just shuts down the running game entirely, and replacing a big hitter like Ortiz or Napoli for the right to try and steal off the game’s best defensive catcher might not be an appealing trade-off for Boston. However, even with Molina behind the plate, Berry’s ability to put a stolen base on the table makes him a fascinating option, and if the Red Sox put him in the game, the drama of Berry-versus-Molina should be a lot of fun to watch.

Key stat: STL pitchers in NLCS: 1.77 BB/9

The Red Sox offense is notorious for taking pitches and drawing walks, but the Cardinals pitching staff just doesn’t issue them. Between them, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha have combined to walk five batters in their six postseason starts, and the Cardinals entire pitching staff just pounded the zone against the Dodgers, forcing their hitters to swing the bats if they wanted to put runs on the board. The Red Sox did a good job of mixing up their approach and getting more aggressive against Detroit when it was clear that their work-the-count approach wasn’t working, and they might need to just scrap it all together against St. Louis, at least until their pitchers stop pounding the zone on every pitch.

Modest proposal: The Red Sox should go back to Daniel Nava as their left fielder.

Citing his energy and some gut feelings, John Farrell essentially ended his left field platoon in the ALCS, giving Jonny Gomes regular starts against right-handed pitchers, even though he’s been used mostly against left-handers during the regular season. This promotion for Gomes meant that usual starter Daniel Nava was moved into a reserve role, and he’s now only hit 14 times in the postseason despite. This follows a regular season performance in which Nava hit .303/.385/.445, and hit .322/.411/.484 against right-handed pitching.

The move worked, in that the Red Sox won the series against the Tigers, but with the World Series title on the line, it’s time to put away the hunches and put the best team they can on the field. And the Red Sox best team against right-handed pitching — the only kind of starters the Cardinals have — includes Nava, not Gomes, in left field. Gomes can’t even claim the hot hand advantage, as he’s hit just .200/.259/.280 in the postseason, not a huge surprise considering he’s being asked to face elite right-handed pitchers, a role he’s just not made for. Gomes might be an intense personality whose energy sparks his teammates, but he can yell from the dugouts steps and inspire his teammates by encouraging them between innings.

Nava is a better player than Gomes, and he was the team’s regular left fielder this year for a reason. It’s time for him to get a shot to prove that he can help them win a World Series too.


ALCS Preview: Red Sox and Tigers

The Cinderellas are dead, and so the ALCS will be a battle of two high payroll perennial contenders, but that doesn’t mean that this series isn’t interesting. It’s pitching versus hitting, old school versus new school, big name stars versus a balanced roster. What will be the key factors in this battle? Let’s examine.

Tigers’ X factor: Miguel Cabrera

It’s a little weird to call the best hitter on the planet an X factor, but the reality is that no one really knows what Cabrera is right now. Hobbled by a body that is betraying him, Cabrera has been an immobile singles hitter for most of the last six weeks, as his home run in Game 5 of the ALDS was only his second since the beginning of September.

As Jeff Sullivan noted, the Tigers primarily pounded Cabrera on the outer half of the zone for most of the series, and his home run came on a mistake inside. The Red Sox surely noticed that the pound-him-away plan worked, and are likely to continue until Cabrera shows he can drive the ball the other way like he is capable of.

Beyond just his questionable offensive skills, Cabrera remains a liability at third base, and at some point, Jacoby Ellsbury or Shane Victorino might decide to start bunting in his direction to see if he can adequately play the position. The A’s didn’t have guys who were particularly good at bunting, but the Red Sox have a couple who could use Cabrera’s injuries to get on base regularly, and if his health doesn’t improve, Leyland may still be forced to choose between Cabrera’s less threatening bat in the line-up and taking away free bunt hits from the Red Sox hitters.

Red Sox X factor: Shane Victorino

The Red Sox offense is built around David Ortiz, but over the last couple of months, Victorino has been the reason that this team was a run scoring juggernaut. After giving up switch hitting and batting exclusively as a right-hander, he became a different hitter, pounding right-handed pitching in a way he never had before. For the season, he hit .274/.319/.389 against RHPs as a lefty, but he hit .300/.386/.510 against RHPs as an RHB. And he’s going to see a steady diet of RHPs in this series.

The Tigers rotation is entirely right-handed, and their bullpen pieces lean heavily towards the right side as well. Traditionally, this would have been a problem for Victorino, but he’s mastered the art of getting hit on inside fastballs by right-handed pitching, and his swing has more power from the right side than the left, so he’s both gotten on base and hit for power against righties of late. If Victorino keeps hitting this well from the right side against right-handers, the Red Sox line-up will become basically unstoppable.

Tigers key reliever: Drew Smyly

The Tigers ALDS pitching staff consistent of nine right-handers and two lefties, and of those two lefties, one of them is starter turned long reliever Jose Alvarez. In effect, Smyly was the only left-handed pitcher on the team for the first round, and he’s the only one likely to get called upon to get David Ortiz out in a critical situation.

Ortiz is basically Miguel Cabrera against right-handed pitching, as he hit .339/.440/.652 against RHPs this year. Against lefties, he’s more Omar Infante, as his .260/.315/.418 line shows. Ortiz is going to love facing all the Tigers right-handers, but in late and close situations, he should be fed a steady diet of Drew Smyly, who held left-handed hitters to a .187/.225/.246 line this season. Smyly doesn’t have to be used only as a situational lefty, so they can bring him in to go after Jacoby Ellsbury and let him stick around through Ortiz, and he should probably pitch in every close game this series.

Red Sox key reliever: Ryan Dempster

If the Red Sox have a weakness, it’s probably the bridge innings between when the starters exit and when Koji Uehara enters, which is one of the reasons they acquired Jake Peavy at the trade deadline. Not only did Peavy boost their rotation, but he allowed them to shift Dempster back to the bullpen to strengthen their relief core.

While he’s been exclusively a starter since 2008, Dempster was a pretty good reliever with the Cubs from 2004-2007, and a move back into that role for October will give John Farrell another option to get multiple innings from a reliever who doesn’t have to specialize. Dempster’s fastball/splitter combination plays up in relief, and even as he had his struggles this year, he was much better against opponents the first time facing them. In his first PA against a batter this season, he had 66 strikeouts against 20 walks, but the second time through, that fell to 43/32. In a relief role, only facing batters one team each, Dempster could be a real weapon for the Red Sox again.

Key matchup: Prince Fielder versus Craig Breslow

Primarily, these left-on-left match-ups are fairly straight forward. Team brings in funky sidearming lefty specialist to exploit big slugging left-handed power hitter who is vulnerable to sliders low and away, and specialist throws nothing but sliders to big slugging power hitter. Rinse and repeat. This match-up, though, will probably not be much like that at all.

There’s no question that Prince Fielder is not a premium offensive player against left-handed pitching, as he’s hit just .267/.347/.457 against southpaws in his career. And Breslow, being the Red Sox primary left-handed reliever, will likely be called on to face Fielder during this series. But Breslow is not your traditional left-handed specialist, and in his career, he’s actually been equally effective against right-handed batters (.289 wOBA against) as lefties (.285 wOBA against).

Breslow is a lefty reliever, but not really a lefty specialist. With Cabrera hobbled, Fielder is going to have to pick up some of the slack, and he’s going to get the benefit of facing a mostly right-handed pitching staff without a true dominant left-on-left reliever in the bullpen. Breslow isn’t a bad option against Fielder, but as far as facing ace lefty relievers go, this is a pretty good match-up for Fielder and the Tigers.

Tigers key bench player: Andy Dirks

The Tigers left fielder for much of the season, Dirks has been unseated by Jhonny Peralta (and, weirdly, Don Kelly) in the playoffs, and only got three at-bats against the A’s in the first round. Dirks, though, is easily the Tigers best defensive left fielder, especially for the games in Fenway Park, where The Green Monster comes into play. While the Tigers aren’t a team known for their defensive skills, punting experience in left field during the games in Boston seems like a big risk, and letting Dirks handle those games is probably the best plan. Despite getting displaced in the first round, Dirks could be a big key for the Tigers in the ALCS.

Red Sox key bench player: Quinton Berry

The Sox aren’t going to need to platoon or pinch hit much in this series, since the Tigers are all right-handers all the time, so you’re probably going to see few substitutions from John Farrell. However, he will need to pinch run occasionally, and that’s why Berry is on the Red Sox roster. Including the postseason, Berry is 27 for 27 in stealing bases in the big leagues, so while he’s not as fast as Billy Hamilton, he is a similar kind of weapon off the bench. With the Red Sox starters not exactly being the speediest group in the game, look for Berry to get a few chances to run in this series, and given his track record, he’s probably going to be safe.

Key stat: Red Sox .325 wOBA allowed against right-handed hitters

The Red Sox have a bunch of good right-handed pitching, so it doesn’t seem like this should be a weakness for them, but they actually ranked tied for 24th in holding down opponents RHBs this season. And the Tigers have some pretty good right-handed hitting.

Some of this weakness will be neutralized by leaving lefties like Felix Doubront, Matt Thornton, and Franklin Morales off the roster or using them sparingly against the Tigers, but even the Red Sox right-handers had some problems against right-handed hitting this year. John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, and Brandon Workman were all better against southpaws this year, and although reverse platoon splits are usually just small sample size, these guys are not traditional right-handed pitchers who dominate right-handed hitters. Toss in two starts from Jon Lester, and this could be a nice series of match-ups for Torii Hunter, Omar Infante, and Austin Jackson.

Modest proposal: The Tigers should bench Jose Iglesias.

The Tigers acquired Iglesias from the Red Sox to patch the hole created by Jhonny Peralta’s suspension, but Peralta is no longer suspended and is the team’s best option at shortstop. They got him into the line-up by using him in left field in the first round, but the defensive downgrade in having Peralta running around the outfield — especially behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, two fly ball pitchers — is larger than the upgrade they get by having Iglesias man shortstop instead. The Tigers are a better team with Peralta at short and Dirks in left field than they are with Iglesias at short and Peralta in left. Dirks’ bat is significantly better than Iglesias, Peralta can play short better than he can left. Iglesias can still be inserted for defensive purposes, but their best line-up doesn’t include him in it.


Red Sox and Rays: The Keys

The Red Sox and Rays have already matched up 19 times this year; the Red Sox went 12-7 in those contests. These two teams know each other, and there won’t be any secrets when the division series between them kicks off on Friday. So, what factors are going to determine whether the Rays can the turn the tide on their AL East rival and advance to the ALCS? Let’s take a look.

Rays X-Factor: Jose Molina

The Red Sox offense is notoriously patient, and no team in baseball swung at fewer pitches in 2013 than Boston did. Guys like Daniel Nava, Stephen Drew, and Jonny Gomes go up there looking to take pitches early to get into fastball counts, and this approach bleeds through the entire line-up.

Molina is the guy who could help the Rays exploit those tendencies. He is perhaps the game’s most notorious pitch framer, using a complete lack of movement behind the plate to convince umpires that pitches off the plate were actually in the zone. He’s gotten so good at this that getting rung up on a pitch off the plate is now occasionally referred to as “getting Molina’d”.

If Molina can turn a few early balls into strikes, the patient Red Sox hitters might find themselves regularly down 0-1 or 1-2 instead of being in good hitters accounts, and that makes things a whole different ballgame.

Red Sox X-Factor: Mike Napoli

With Matt Moore and David Price set to pitch the first two games of the series, and Moore likely slotted in for a Game 5 start if it gets that far, Boston’s going to see a bunch of left-handed pitching in this series. With David Ortiz likely to be somewhat neutralized, Napoli is going to be the team’s primary power hitter, and they’ll need his lefty mashing ways to advance in this series.

Boston’s offense was the best in baseball against right-handers this year, posting a 122 wRC+, but the team isn’t likely to see many right-handed pitchers if their right-handed bats like Napoli can’t do some damage. It’s not just that he needs to create runs, but he needs to help force bullpen maneuvers that bring right-handers in to face the rest of the line-up. The longer Moore, Price, and Jake McGee are on the hill, the better Tampa’s chances of winning. Napoli needs to be the one to make sure they don’t stick around too long.

Rays Key Reliever: Alex Torres

As noted, the Red Sox line-up is notably weaker against left-handed relievers, and Torres is the kind of pitcher who Maddon can trust to pitch multiple innings to maintain that advantage on days when the team starts a right-handed pitcher. Torres gave the Rays a brilliant season, pitching well against both lefties and righties, so he doesn’t have to be used situationally. If Joe Maddon needs to get David Ortiz out in the 5th inning, he can turn to Torres and still trust him to get the ball through the 6th or even 7th inning, as he faced 10 or more batters in a game five times throughout the season.

Red Sox Key Reliever: Brandon Workman

Workman may be an inexperienced rookie who posted a 4.97 ERA in his time in the majors, but expect John Farrell to ask him to get some important outs in this series, and don’t be surprised if he turns in some dominant performances. His ERA masks how well he threw, but his 26% strikeout rate could be a taste of things to come. Without having to worry about pacing himself in starts, Workman can dial his fastball up to 96 and attack hitters with power stuff, and he may very well end up doing for Boston this year what Trevor Rosenthal did for the Cardinals last year.

Key Match-Up: Jon Lester vs Evan Longoria

With Lester slated to pitch Games 1 and 5 (if necessary) for the Red Sox, there’s going to be a lot riding on his left arm. Unfortunately for Lester, the Rays best hitter is right-handed, and Lester is significantly weaker against opposite handed hitters. Delmon Young, Wil Myers, and Desmond Jennings can be beaten even by lefties, but Lester’s going to have to figure out how to keep Longoria from driving the ball. In their career, they’ve met 63 times and Longoria has eight extra base hits.

Rays Key Bench Player: Matt Joyce

With the acquisition of David DeJesus, Joyce’s playing time has taken a bit of a hit, and he was out of the line-up in both of the team’s elimination game victories. Joyce, however, is an above average hitter who can really hit right-handed pitching, and should be an effective pinch-hitter for Joe Maddon. The key will be to pick spots where John Farrell isn’t going to counter with a lefty, because Joyce is about as good at hitting southpaws as I am.

Red Sox Key Bench Player: Xander Bogaerts

Farrell has made it clear that he’s willing to consider pinch-hitting Bogaerts for Stephen Drew against tough left-handers if the situation is deemed necessary. Bogaerts turned 21 on October 1st and has all of 50 big league plate appearances, but there’s a strong likelihood that he’s going to be sent up to the plate to try and get a big hit in a key situation. Pinch-hitting is hard for anyone, and Bogaerts has started nearly every game he’s played growing up, but the talent is there for him to grab the big stage and announce his presence as the Red Sox next great star.

Key Stat: Rays team wRC+ of 108

Everyone always thinks of Tampa Bay as a pitching-and-defense team that scratches and claws out enough runs to win, but this isn’t that kind of team. This team can hit, and their offensive production overall was 5th best in baseball, once you factor in their home park. Their attack is more to throw nine quality hitters at you than to scare with a few elite bats surrounded by glaring holes, but their approach is equally effective. Don’t underestimate this team’s ability to score runs.

Modest Proposal: The Red Sox should bunt a lot.

The Rays are baseball’s most notorious shifters, moving guys even within the same at-bat based on what the count is and where they expect a batted ball to go on that specific pitch. They routinely take Evan Longoria away from third base and put him on the right side of the infield against a left-handed hitter, and teams rarely make them pay for this alignment by bunting the ball toward the abandoned position. Without facing a penalty for their actions, the Rays just keep shifting.

The Red Sox should make them pay when they leave a huge patch of grass unprotected, and with several days to prepare for this possibility, let’s see if they worked on pushing the ball down the third base line so they can take the free base being offered.


Why the AL Teams Won’t Win It All

The regular season was supposed to be over today, but thanks to the Rangers and Rays, there are still six American League teams standing. Each of the six has a path to a November parade. Each team has hope, and the beauty of the postseason is that anyone who got here has a real chance to win.

However, almost all of them will fail. Despite their strength, there can only be one champion. Today, with hoping rising in different cities, we look at the achilles heel for each team and note that, if they fail, this significant flaw may very well be the reason why.

Texas: Weak left-handed bats

What follows is a complete list of Rangers hitters who posted a wRC+ greater than 100 — meaning that they performed above the league average — against right-handed pitching this year:

Adrian Beltre, 134
Geovany Soto, 126
Nelson Cruz, 122

That’s it. That’s the whole list. It’s two right-handed hitters and the team’s backup catcher. Soto isn’t likely to play much against RHPs in the postseason, and his numbers were basically a fluke anyway, so the Rangers can essentially run out two above average hitters against righties, and that’s only if they lean heavily on a guy who spent the last two months sitting on the sidelines serving a PED suspension.

Their best left-handed hitter against righties this year? Leonys Martin, who posted a wRC+ of exactly 100 against RHPs. He’s followed by mediocrities like Mitch Moreland, A.J. Pierzynski, and David Murphy. Those are not hitters that are going to scare anyone into taking out their right-handed specialist relievers, so any team with a decent bullpen of power right-handers is going to be able to go right after the Rangers without much fear.

Given the expanded bullpen options each team has in October, that’s a real problem, and it’s one that could end up sending the Rangers home early.

Tampa Bay: The rotation isn’t actually very good.

The Rays have been a pitching development factory for years, constantly churning out quality young arms and providing enviable depth. Every year, it seems, the team is bursting at the seems with too many good starting pitchers. This year, though, their rotation has actually been a bit of a problem.

The Rays starters posted a 3.82 ERA this year, and after you adjust for league and park effects, that rates as almost exactly average among the 30 big league teams. By FIP, they’ve been even a little worse than that, and their ERA is propped up slightly by the fact that their defense helps save some runs from scoring.

They still have David Price, and Alex Cobb has emerged as a real weapon, but it gets a bit dicey after that. Matt Moore’s got a shiny ERA but he still walks everyone and his peripherals suggest not to expect a similar performance in the postseason. Jeremy Hellickson is the opposite, getting terrible results from his mediocre BB/K/HR numbers after a few years of being a guy who outperformed his FIP. Chris Archer might be the best bet of the trio, but even he’s more decent than good. Once the Rays get past Price and Cobb, things are going to start tilting in their opponent’s favor very quickly.

Cleveland: Chris Perez.

There isn’t a team still playing that should have less confidence in their closer than the Indians. Perez has never been an elite relief ace, always skating by racking up white-knuckle saves and looking like he was on the brink of disaster at any given moment. After a solid enough first half, the wheels have come off the last few months.

Since the All-Star break, opponents are hitting .287/.355/.595(!) against Perez, as he’s allowed a disastrous seven home runs in just 27 innings of pitching. For a pitcher who basically has made his name on inducing weak contact — his walk and strikeout rates have always just been okay — the recent string of dingers has brought anxiety to any ninth inning lead. Keeping hitters from hitting the ball hard has really been Perez’s primary strength, and if he’s not doing that, then he’s not the guy you want protecting a lead in October.

The good news for the Indians is that home run rate is particularly fickle, and this is the kind of problem that could magically disappear. But pretty much every other team left has a dominating shut down ace at the end of their bullpen, and the Indians have a guy who they hope won’t keep pitching as badly as he has for the last few months.

Oakland: Bartolo Colon’s magic act can’t last forever.

Bartolo Colon, at age 40, finished second in the American League in ERA. The only other time in his career he posted an ERA under 3.00 was in 2002, back when he threw in the mid-90s and could reach 100 at times. Now, he throws 89 mph fastballs on nearly every pitch, and while the results he got from that plan were incredible, there’s just no way this can keep going on forever.

Specifically, Colon can’t keep stranding runners like he has. Here are opponents performance against him, split out by the position of the baserunners:

Bases empty: .276/.300/.369
Men On: .238/.275/.370
RISP: .185/.217/.309

With no one on, Colon was good but not spectacular. With men on base, he was very good. With men in scoring position, he was Clayton Kershaw. Except, you know, he’s not Clayton Kershaw. The primary driver of the difference in performance in those situations is batting average on balls in play, which is often a better measure of defense and luck than pitching skill. Colon’s BABIPs by those same three states: .314, .263, and .212.

Colon is not going to keep holding good hitters to a .212 BABIP with men in scoring position. That’s just not a sustainable number, or anything even close to it. Some of those balls in play are going to start finding holes, and when they do, his ERA is going to spike. Colon isn’t a bad pitcher, per se, but he’s not a 2.65 ERA ace either. His performance in the regular season is one of the main reasons the A’s won their division, but they should not count on his regular season success carrying over into October.

Detroit: Miguel Cabrera’s body.

Miguel Cabrera, when healthy, is the best hitter on the planet. Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been healthy for several weeks now. Cabrera’s been dealing with abdominal soreness for most of September, and more recently, his knees have been acting up. And he doesn’t look like he’s getting better.

Cabrera, despite playing through the pain most days, managed just two extra base hits in September, racking up one double and one home run. He slugged .333 for the month. Even when he hits the ball hard, he doesn’t seem to have enough speed to get to second unless the ball gets over the wall. He’s been reduced to a singles-and-walks guy, and that’s not the hitter that the Tigers need him to be in the playoffs.

Perhaps adrenaline will kick in, or Cabrera’s just been taking it easy with his team’s playoff chances all but assured. Maybe he’s going to get a second wind and remember how to pull an inside fastball. Lately, though, Miguel Cabrera has just looked, well, broken. He’s a big man, and bodies like his don’t tend to last forever.

The Tigers need to hope that Cabrera’s body is more bruised than broken, and that their franchise player can get back to being the dominant offensive force he can be when he’s healthy. Because without that guy in the middle of their line-up, they probably aren’t going very far.

Boston: Clay Buchholz is not actually back to 100%.

Here are Clay Buchholz’s 2013 strikeout rates, by month:

April: 27%
May: 25%
June: 18%
July/August: On DL
September: 17%

Before Buchholz got hurt, he was beastly, striking out one-fourth of the batters he faced and posting a 2.46 FIP. In his four September starts since coming off the DL, he struck out one-sixth of the batters he faced and posted a 3.88 FIP. His 1.88 ERA in those four starts since returning might make it seem like he didn’t miss a beat while spending a couple of months on the shelf, but he hasn’t pitched like the same guy who was destroying hitters in the first couple of months of the year.

The stuff backs up the reasons for concern. At his peak in May, Buchholz’s fastball was averaging 93-94; in his last start, he averaged 90 and topped out around 92. From the results, it looks like everything is just fine, but Buchholz is not throwing the same way he was early in the year.

Without Buchholz as an ace, the Red Sox rotation looks a little shaky. And there are real reasons to think that, given what we’ve seen of Buchholz recently, he’s not likely to pitch like an ace in the playoffs.


Is There Any Carry Over to a Big Finish?

The 2013 season will end for 20 of the 30 big league teams on Sunday, and a majority of those teams have been out of the playoff race for quite some time. For rebuilding clubs or teams whose seasons didn’t go as they planned, the last few months of the year have been about playing for pride. Managers will motivate their players to continue working hard by talking about ending the season on a high note, so that when everyone reports to spring training the following year, they feel good about how they finished strong the year before.

This year, there are three teams who are going to miss the playoffs but are certainly ending on a high note; the Angels, Royals, and Nationals. Each one came into the season with postseason aspirations but have fallen short of the mark due to a poor first half performance. Since the trade deadline, though, all three have taken off. Here are their records through the first four months of the season, and then their records down the stretch.

Team Win% through July 31 Win% since August 1
Washington 0.481 0.627
Anaheim 0.453 0.566
Kansas City 0.510 0.564

If these teams had played all season like they have over the last two months, the Nationals would have won the NL East and the Royals and Angels would be in serious wild card contention. For the final 60 games of the season, these teams have played like they belong in the postseason. But will it help them in 2014?

Recent history says no. Below are the teams that finished strong in each of the last three seasons after poor starts that kept them from playoff contention, only now, we’re also going to list their record in the following year.

Team Year Win% through July 31 Win% since August 1 Win% Next Year
Milwaukee 2012 0.456 0.610 0.453
Philadelphia 2012 0.447 0.593 0.453
San Diego 2012 0.419 0.561 0.472
Los Angeles 2011 0.449 0.630 0.531
Baltimore 2010 0.308 0.586 0.426
Houston 2010 0.427 0.542 0.346

Of the six teams that made dramatic improvements in the final two months of the season, five of them finished below .500 the next year. None of the six made the playoffs in the year following their strong push to the end the season. In fact, their overall average winning percentage in the following season (.447) was much closer to their early season struggles (.417) than their late season surge (.587).

Logically, we shouldn’t be that surprised by these results, given that the time period of poor play is twice as large as the period of time in which the teams played well. If a Major League club struggles for four months and then succeeds for two months, we should still place a larger emphasis on the four months because the sample is twice as large. As humans, we tend to place a very strong emphasis on recent performance, but the evidence does not suggest that we should abandon what we learned early in the year simply because these teams made a good impression to finish the year.

The Angels played poorly for four months because their pitching was atrocious and their two high paid sluggers were severe disappointments. Those problems have not just magically disappeared. Same for the Royals and their inability to score runs. The Nationals are probably the most likely of the three to contend next year without major improvements, but even they should not be simply counting on their end of season run as a sign of things to come. All of these teams need to improve in the off-season, and should not be tricked into thinking that 2014 will pick up where 2013 left off.

Baseball just doesn’t work that way. Earl Weaver had it right when he said that momentum was the next day’s starting pitcher. A team’s ability to play well is minimally, if at all, impacted by their results the day before. By the time an entire winter has passed, and the team reconvenes for spring training, the impact of how a team finished the prior year is completely non-existent, at least in terms of predicting wins and losses for the next season.

It’s better to play well down the stretch than to fall apart entirely, but don’t read too much into late season performances. You are almost always better off looking at a team or players entire season rather than slicing it into arbitrarily smaller sections in order to spot a trend. All the games count, not just the most recent ones.


Who is Winning with Old Guys?

Last week, we looked at the teams that were getting the most production from their young players, noting that the Atlanta Braves are blowing away the field in contributions from players under the age of 25. Today, we’re going to do the reverse, looking at teams that are relying heavily on older players, and might have to start making plans for replacements in the near future.

These teams have gotten the most production out of players in their age-32 season, which means that they were 32 or order on July 1st. For reference, all listed player ages are as of that date, so players who turned 32 after July 1st are not counted in these groupings.

1. Boston Red Sox, +21 WAR

The Red Sox rebirth has been well chronicled, as they remade their team last off-season through a series of smart free agent signings. However, the plan also called for the team to lean heavily on older players, and no team in baseball has gotten as much production from guys headed towards the end of their careers as the boys in beantown.

Koji Uehara is 38. David Ortiz is 37. Ryan Dempster is 36. John Lackey is 34. Shane Victorino and Jake Peavy are 32. There is a significant part of the team’s roster that shouldn’t be counted on for long term production, and with players on the wrong side of 30, the end can occasionally come quickly. While Ortiz is unlikely to forget how to hit any time soon and Uehara looks better than he ever has, the team won’t be able to keep getting this level of production from these guys forever. Eventually, Father Time will catch up.

Of course, part of the reason the Red Sox were willing to acquire so many long-in-the-tooth veterans is that they have spent the past few years stockpiling young talent, so help is on the way. With top prospect Xander Bogaerts and young arms like Brandon Workman already contributing to the big league team, the Sox future seems to be in pretty good hands. But make no mistake, there is a changing of the guard coming. The Red Sox of a few years from now likely won’t look anything like the team that is headed for the postseason now.

2. New York Yankees, +14 WAR

While the Yankees haven’t received the same level of production from older players as Boston has, this is probably the scariest number for any team, because the Yankees don’t have a Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings. In fact, the +14 WAR they’ve gotten from older players represents more than half of their total team WAR on the year, so they’re actually getting carried by end-of-career players like Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera.

The changing of the guard that is going to happen in Boston is already happening in New York, but unfortunately for the Yankees, there doesn’t appear to be a new guard ready to replace the old ones. New York is going to have to keep pushing for production from the younger part of the old guy pool, hoping for more value next year from guys like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira.

Given the dearth of under-25 production, the Yankees probably need something closer to +20 to +25 WAR from their older core in order to contend next year. The Red Sox managed to pull it off this year, but the fact that no other team in baseball is even close to getting that kind of production from aging players probably tells you all you need to know about the likelihood of repeating that trick. The Yankees are still the Yankees, and they still have a lot of money, but this roster has some serious problems.

3. Texas Rangers, +13 WAR

You might not think of the Rangers as an old team, since they’ve been infusing young players like Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Elvis Andrus, and Leonys Martin into their core for the last few years. And they still have high hopes for Jurickson Profar, who spent a good chunk of the year in the big leagues at age 20. However, once you get past those few core players, it becomes pretty clear that the Rangers have been more reliant on aging players than you might first think.

Adrian Beltre is 34, and the team’s best player. His defense is showing some signs of erosion after 15 years of elite performance, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to keep up this level of performance forever. Joe Nathan, at age 38, had one of the best seasons of his career. A.J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz were both useful role players who are set for free agency, and Cruz’s absence was offset by the acquisition of the 32 year old Alex Rios.

The rotation is young, and Profar could be a big boost if they can find a spot for him, but this team is sneaky old, and is going to have to start replacing some productive players in the not too distant future.

4. Philadelphia Phillies, +11 WAR

Not a big surprise to see the Phillies here, as they have one of baseball’s oldest rosters after years of pushing for World Series titles. They’ve collected a large number of veterans over the years, many of them highly compensated, and that group simply wasn’t able to produce enough to offset the lack of young talent that has been flowing into the organization.

The Phillies still have some quality players, like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and kept star second baseman Chase Utley in the organization with a mid-season contract extension, but the Phillies veteran core is no longer good enough to carry the team to the postseason. This team needs some productive young players, and soon.

5. Toronto Blue Jays, +8 WAR

Jose Bautista, R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buehrle aren’t spring chickens any more, which is one of the reasons the Blue Jays didn’t trade away veterans for prospects at the trade deadline. While they fell flat in 2013, there are still pieces in place that make a 2014 run a real possibility, and they don’t have lot of time to waste while Bautista is still an impact hitter.


The Braves Are Loaded

Every Major League team wants to win, but at the same time, each organization has to constantly balance maximizing wins in the present with maintaining a stockpile of talent and financial flexibility for the future. Loading up on expensive veterans might have a short term payoff, but in time, those old players aren’t going to be enough to sustain a competitive team, and if those players are making big money in their decline years, things can get ugly in a hurry; just ask the Phillies.

However, some organizations have figured out how to both contend and build for the future at the same time. In order to look at which teams have done the best job of getting value from young talent that they can build around in the future, I’ve broken down every team’s total FanGraphs WAR into three age groups: young players (25 and under), in their primes (26-31), and aging veterans (32 and up). Today, we’re going to focus on the teams that have gotten the most value from players no older than 25, giving them a core nucleus to build around both now and in the future.

Atlanta Braves, +24 WAR

The Braves are destroying every other team in baseball in production from young talent this season, and they boast perhaps the best crop of young Major Leaguers in the entire game. On the position player side, they are led by three 23-year-olds in Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman. The “old guy” in the middle of their order is Justin Upton, who played most of the year at 25 before turning 26 a few weeks ago. Their rotation boasts both Mike Minor (25) and Julio Teheran (22), while Alex Wood (22) has provided value both as a starter and a reliever. Oh, and they have some guy named Craig Kimbrel (25) who is okay at closing out games.

The Braves have the best record in baseball, and they’re doing it with one of the youngest group of core players in the sport. Other teams that have similar aged players in key positions are focused solely on rebuilding and accumulating experience, while the Braves are riding their host of young kids to a potential World Series title.

The Braves have long been known as a player development machine, but the group they’ve put together might just be their most impressive collection yet. 60% of their total team WAR has come from the young player group. For comparison, the Braves have gotten more production from players 25-and-under than the Mariners, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, Blue Jays, Cubs, Padres, Astros, Yankees, and Twins combined. 10 big league franchises, several of them in full on rebuilding mode with a primary focus on acquiring and developing young talent, and even if you put them all together, they don’t have enough good young players to match what the 2013 Braves have amassed.

The Cardinals, Rays, and others deserve the praise that is regularly heaped upon them, but let’s not overlook what Frank Wren and his staff have done in Atlanta. This is a great team built around players who aren’t likely to get worse any time soon.

Anaheim Angels, +14 WAR

This is almost entirely Mike Trout. In fact, Trout’s +10 WAR would rate as the 6th best mark of any team’s under-25 total all by himself. Having the very best young player in baseball — and maybe the best young player anyone has ever seen — is obviously a huge advantage, but Trout isn’t the only young talent the Angels have, even if it feels that way sometimes. Garrett Richards has developed into a pretty interesting pitcher this year, while Kole Calhoun is establishing himself as a nice option in the outfield for the future.

But, at the end of the day, this is basically Mike Trout’s team. If they can keep him and build around him, then there’s hope for the Angels, because he is the single most valuable asset in the game. There’s plenty wrong in Anaheim, but Mike Trout covers a multitude of sins.

Colorado Rockies, +13 WAR

This one might be a bit surprising, because the marquee players for the Rockies are in-their-prime guys like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. We don’t necessarily always think of the Rockies as a team stocked with young talent, but they’ve gotten some really good seasons from Jhoulys Chacin (3.09 FIP while pitching half his games in Coors Field), Tyler Chatwood (3.57 FIP), Nolen Arenado (elite defense at third base), and Wilin Rosario (105 wRC+ while “catching”, even if he probably belongs at first base).

This is basically the opposite case of Anaheim, where they have one superstar young player and then a huge cliff. Beyond even those four, the Rockies have gotten value from guys like Corey Dickerson and Rex Brothers, so there’s a base of talent in Colorado that extends farther than Tulo and CarGo. It didn’t lead to a winning season this year, but it looks like there are some better days ahead for the Rockies.

Los Angeles Dodgers, +12 WAR

Yasiel Puig has been the Dodgers best under-25 hitter, producing +4 WAR in less than a full season’s worth of playing time. Their second best under-25 hitter? Clayton Kershaw, edging out backup catcher Tim Fedoriwicz in performance relative to his peers. On the offensive side, this is an old team with one phenomenal young talent.

The pitching is similar, as Kershaw is not only the best under-25 pitcher in baseball, he’s probably the best pitcher in baseball period. And he’s the only young starter to provide value in LA this year, but the young bullpen — led by Kenley Jansen — has been excellent. Almost all of the team’s performance from young players has come from those three players, but those are three pretty nifty pieces to build around.

Arizona Diamondbacks, +12 WAR

Like with LA, this is primarily driven by one star hitter (Paul Goldschmidt, +5 WAR) and one star pitcher (Pat Corbin, +4 WAR). They’ve gotten some production from the likes of A.J. Pollock, Didi Gregorius, Trevor Cahill, and Randall Delgado, but Goldschmidt and Corbin have really carried the brunt of the load.

The good news for the Diamondbacks is that there is reason for optimism for players beyond just those two. Adam Eaton had a disappointing rookie season, but his minor league track record is very strong, and if he’s completely healthy next spring, he could take a big step forward. Likewise, young arms like Tyler Skaggs might be more ready to contribute in 2014 than they did in 2013. The Diamondbacks have a solid young nucleus, and with Goldschmidt, they’ve got a franchise player to build around.


The MVPs Who Won’t Get Votes

The AL MVP is going to be Miguel Cabrera, barring some kind of historic upset that would seemingly require a late season felony conviction of some sort, and even then, he might still win the award anyway. The outcome of the NL MVP race isn’t quite as clear, but it will very likely come down to Clayton Kershaw, Yadier Molina, or Andrew McCutchen. These are the players who are going to receive recognition for their efforts in contributing to a team’s success, and rightfully so; they’re all having fantastic seasons and are worthy candidates.

But, baseball is not basketball, and the impact any one player can have on a team’s final record pales in comparison to the sum of his teammates; just ask Mike Trout how realistic it is for even the game’s very best performer to “carry” his team to the postseason without assistance. The reality is that good teams are made up of numerous contributors. So, today, let’s talk about some of the guys who deserve recognition on MVP ballots, even if they aren’t going to occupy one of the few spots.

Russell Martin, C, Pittsburgh

While McCutchen is the star and pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano get the spotlight, Martin might be the biggest factor in the Pirates success this year. Signed for a relative pittance — $17 million over two years — after the Yankees decided they didn’t want him back, Martin has been a revelation in Pittsburgh.

The bat is more solid than spectacular, but a 109 wRC+ from an everyday catcher is well above average for the position, and unlike many other good hitting catchers, he doesn’t get a break from the toll of catching by spending time at first base or designated hitter; in fact, Martin ranks 7th in the majors in innings behind the plate, which is where his value really comes through.

Martin leads the majors in runners gunned down stealing, with 33 baserunner kills to his credit in just 76 attempts, a spectacular 44% caught stealing rate, and it’s not the Pirates pitchers doing a great job of holding runners; Pirates catchers not named Russell Martin have allowed 37 stolen bases on 43 attempts, a 14% caught stealing rate that is in line with the awful performance the Pirates had as a team last year before bringing Martin in over the winter.

And that’s just the running game. As Jared Cross wrote earlier this week, catchers can have a significant impact on the called strike zone by the way they receive the ball, and while that piece focused on Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy, Martin also excels at this skill, coming out at +19 runs according to Cross’ evaluation.

Martin currently ranks 12th in the NL in FanGraphs version of WAR even though framing runs are not yet included in the calculation. If you give him any bump at all for his contributions to turning balls into strikes, he easily flies into the top 10, and if you give him the full 19 runs that Cross estimated, then he’d actually end up #2, behind only McCutchen.

And when you look at the Pirates staff — with cast-offs like Burnett, Liriano, Mark Melancon, and Jason Grilli — taking starring roles for the best run prevention unit in baseball, it’s hard to not notice that Martin is the common link between all of them. His arrival has transformed the Pirates defense, and that is the unit that is carrying them to the postseason. He won’t get many MVP votes, but he deserves recognition for being one of the primary catalysts on the best story of the year.

Yunel Escobar, SS, Tampa Bay

Escobar’s back story is as much about his conflict with teammates and team personnel as it is about his performance, which hasn’t exactly been consistent either. The Braves tired of him in 2010, shipping him to Toronto simply because they didn’t want to be around him anymore, and the Blue Jays shipped him to the Marlins in the Mega Deal of the Winter in part because he performed terribly last season. The Marlins had no interest in keeping him, however, and only took him to offset some of the salary they were forcing the Blue Jays to take on in Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, so Miami dumped him on the Rays before he ever suited up for them.

Acquiring Escobar for a fringe prospect has turned out to be one of the primary reasons the Rays are in line to take a wild card spot, as he has returned to prior excellent form on the field and has apparently fit right into the Rays unusual clubhouse atmosphere as well. With a 104 wRC+ and terrific defense, Escobar leads all American League shortstops in WAR, and his presence has allowed Ben Zobrist to shift back over to his more natural positions, strengthening the team’s defense across the board.

And Maddon is a fan of Escobar’s personality, even if others haven’t been before. A month ago, Maddon told MLB.com:

“It’s entertainment, man, and this guy entertains,” Maddon said. “You watch before the game how he energizes the dugout before everyone takes the field. He’s always up. He’s upbeat. He brings a lot of positive energy to us.”

The players say they like him. The manager likes him. There is no evidence of dissent in the Rays clubhouse, and of course, Escobar is performing on the field. While his reputation might not ever completely dissolve, Escobar’s 2013 season is showing that in baseball, one organization’s trash can absolutely be another team’s treasure.

Chris Johnson, 3B, Atlanta

It’s always going to be referred to as the Justin Upton trade, as the Braves traded away Martin Prado and a group of prospects to land Arizona’s talented young right fielder over the winter, but the second piece that came east in that trade — third baseman Chris Johnson — has been just as important as the guy who they made the trade to get. Consider their performances side by side:

Johnson: .330/.366/.466, .361 wOBA, 131 wRC+
Upton: .262/.354/.469, .358 wOBA, 129 wRC+

By WAR, Upton leads +2.7 to +2.6, which is a tie, for all intents and purposes. Johnson isn’t a very good defensive third baseman, and there’s no way he’s going to keep hitting .330 in the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s been an excellent offensive player for the Braves in 2013, and is one of the primary reasons that their offense has been so good even with prolonged slumps from the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward landing on the disabled list. Johnson is hardly the most recognizable player on the roster, but his contributions shouldn’t go unnoticed.


A Great Free Agent Class For Those Who Like Risk

With all the new television money flowing into the game, Major League teams have ramped up pre-free agent contract extensions, keeping the best players away from the open market. When the off-season rolls around, you’re going to hear a lot of talk about what a lousy group of players are available, especially if Robinson Cano ends up staying with the Yankees. However, there’s one area where this free agent class is actually quite interesting: broken but perhaps fixable formerly great pitchers.

Among the hurlers who will hit the open market this year: Roy Halladay (2010 NL Cy Young), Tim Lincecum (2008/2009 NL Cy Youngs), Dan Haren (three time All-Star, finished 7th in 2011 Cy Young), and Josh Johnson (two time All-Star, finished 5th in 2010 Cy Young). Just a couple of years ago, this quartet would have made up the best rotation in baseball, as they combined to throw 749 innings and post a 2.67 ERA in 2011.

Over the last few years, though, things haven’t gone so well, especially this season. Over 419 innings, these four pitchers have combined for a 5.22 ERA. Halladay didn’t look like himself last year, and spent most of this season on the DL with a shoulder problem. Johnson was lousy for the Blue Jays in the first half and will end up missing the final two months of the season with a forearm strain. Lincecum has stayed off the DL, but his velocity is still missing and his ERA over 4.50 for the second straight year. Haren was so bad in the first half that the Nationals stashed him on the DL just to give him a break, and while he’s been better since, his 4.66 ERA overall is not what the team was hoping for when they signed him as a free agent.

In each case, the results these guys have posted make them look like a shell of their former selves. However, in each case, there’s reason for some optimism about the future, and a team with a significant appetite for risk could potentially rebuild their entire rotation in one fell swoop this winter.

ERA can often be a misleading indicator of future performance, and especially in one or two year samples, a pitcher’s FIP and xFIP will often give you more of an idea of what they’re going to do in the future. We’ve already noted that these pitchers have all been lousy by ERA this season, but FIP and xFIP tell a pretty different story in each case.

Tim Lincecum: 4.55 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 3.39 xFIP
Josh Johnson: 6.20 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 3.59 xFIP
Dan Haren: 4.66 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 3.81 xFIP
Roy Halladay: 7.92 ERA, 6.37 FIP, 4.58 xFIP

Lincecum, Johnson, and Haren all grade out pretty well by xFIP, which is based on their walk rates, strikeout rates, and ground ball rates. Halladay’s numbers aren’t as good, but his 2013 season covers fewer than 50 innings so far, and an off-season of resting his shoulder may allow him to come back stronger next year. Even including Halladay, the group’s collective FIP is 4.24, and their xFIP is 3.66, so some significant positive regression may be in store.

Of course, that regression is not guaranteed. Among the pitchers who posted a much higher ERA than xFIP last year was Joe Blanton, who was a total disaster for the Angels this year. Lincecum was on the list last year as well, and while he’s been better this season than last, his ERA is still much higher than his xFIP. There could be sustainable problems that are driving higher hit and home run rates for each of these four hurlers, and especially for pitchers who have health issues, their results can’t be entirely ignored.

However, in each case, these guys have a long track record of big league success. It isn’t a question of talent, as each have proven themselves more than capable of dominating Major League hitters when they’re healthy and locating their pitches effectively. None of these guys are Joe Blanton. As recently as two years ago, these were four of the elite pitchers in baseball.

Perhaps age and injuries have permanently broken them, and I wouldn’t expect any of them to turn back the clock and pitch like they were 27 again. However, as their underlying peripherals mostly show, the rumors of their demise may have been greatly exaggerated. For teams willing to take risks on short term bets for aging, past-their-prime starters, this winter looks like one of the best crops in recent history. You’re not going to rebuild your franchise around one of these guys, but if a team is looking for a rotation boost in 2014, there are several very interesting options to be found.


Spending the Red Sox Money

When the Red Sox shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers last year, they cleared a little more than $260 million in guaranteed contracts off their books. It was the salary dump to end all salary dumps, and that they happened to land a couple of flame throwing pitching prospects was just a nifty bonus. The primary motivation for the deal was to recoup the money they’d spent, giving them a chance to reallocate those dollars in a more effective fashion in the future.

This winter, that future is going to become the present. The Red Sox spent last winter redistributing their newly available cash to quality role players on short term contracts, and after the season ends, the team will not longer have any further commitments to the likes of Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, or Joel Hanrahan, and only Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Shane Victorino are signed through the 2015 season. Even after acquiring Jake Peavy at the trade deadline, the Red Sox are still expected to have approximately $40 million to spend this winter, and there are going to be opportunities for the team to put that money to use.

The primary decision, and the one that will shape what the rest of Boston’s off-season will look like, will require an in depth look at Jacoby Ellsbury’s value. Ellsbury’s return to excellence has been one of the driving factors in the team’s success, and it would not be easy to replace his production, especially considering that Ellsbury earned just $9 million this season. But, to retain his services for the future would likely require a 100% raise over a long term deal, and the Red Sox might not be that interested in signing another $100+ million deal with an outfielder whose value comes from speed and defense after seeing the Crawford deal go bad so recently.

If Ellsbury asks for something like $18 million per year over seven years — the 7/126 template that was given to Vernon Wells, Jayson Werth, and Barry Zito, making it both a popular and infamous contract total — then his days in Boston are likely numbered. With Shane Victorino capable of moving back to center field in the short term, and Jackie Bradley Jr around as a long term replacement, the Sox are not running low on center field options. The marginal value Ellsbury could provide to another team may very well be higher than the value he can provide to the Red Sox, who could fill his gap with a lower priced corner outfielder instead.

Of course, Ellsbury might not shoot for the moon, and the Red Sox would be foolish to closing the door on his return altogether. Having Ellsbury and Victorino play side by side hasn’t hurt them this year, and if he wants to continue his career in Boston at a less-than-market rate — say, $80 million over five years? — then the Red Sox should be willing to bring him back and figure out what to do with Victorino and Bradley when it becomes a problem. That scenario seems unlikely, however, with Ellsbury likely to command a much larger contract from a team badly in need of a center fielder who can also jumpstart an offense.

So, let’s pencil the Red Sox in for an outfielder not named Ellsbury. They’re also likely going to want a first baseman to replace Napoli, who has been decent but perhaps not quite as effective as hoped. They’ll probably also need an infielder who can slide between shortstop and third base, giving them some depth behind youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks. And finally, they’ll have a decision to make behind the plate, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia set for free agency.

$40 million and the shopping list includes an OF, an IF, a 1B, and a C? No problem. Here’s one way to spend those funds and keep the team in contention for years to come:

Sign catcher Brian McCann to a four year, $60 million contract.
Sign outfielder Carlos Beltran to a one year, $13 million contract.
Sign infielder Jhonny Peralta to a one year, $7 million contract.
Sign first baseman Michael Morse to a one year, $5 million contract.

McCann has had a huge season in his final year before free agency, answering some of the questions surrounding whether his body was breaking down after carrying a heavy workload in Atlanta since 2006. The Braves seem unlikely to re-sign McCann, but a qualifying offer is a near lock, which should depress the market and allow Boston to forfeit a late first round pick in order to pick up an impact bat at a reasonable price.

And as a bonus, the Sox already have McCann’s former platoon partner in David Ross, who they signed from the Braves last winter. McCann and Ross form a formidable left/right tandem, and Ben Cherington could get the band back together with a contract that lures McCann to Boston. While questions about his health are legitimate, McCann can produce enough to justify a $15 million paycheck even while spending parts of the year on the DL. Yes, it’s another lefty bat on a team that hasn’t hit right-handed pitching that well this year, but we’ll get to that part with the next three signings.

To replace Ellsbury in the outfield, the switch-hitting Beltran is something of the Red Sox ideal player: still productive, hits lefties, won’t require a long term commitment. The Cardinals outfield logjam may force Beltran to look for work elsewhere, and a move to the AL where he could get some days at DH when David Ortiz rests could help prolong his career. He would provide the perfect bridge to Bradley Jr, who could fill in as a part-time player behind Beltran in 2014 before taking a full-time job in 2015, when Victorino might be best served moving back to right field.

Additionally, the acquisitions of Peralta and Morse would give the team two more right-handed hitters who shouldn’t require multiple year commitments, and provide additional depth at multiple positions. Peralta likely won’t have a strong market after serving a 50 game suspension for being linked to BioGenesis, but he’s worth the gamble as a super utility guy who could split time between all the infield positions and play 3-4 days per week, or take over a starting job if either Bogaerts or Middlebrooks shows that they’re not quite ready for prime time. Morse was miscast as an outfielder by the Mariners, but could share the first base job with Mike Carp, allowing both to play the position where their lack of athleticism hurts the team as little as possible, and Morse can still hit lefties and fake it against right-handers if need be.

While the contract figures for McCann, Beltran, Peralta, and Morse are all speculative at this point, they’re reasonable price points for the players, as each comes with some kind of red flag but has enough upside to make the risk worth it. These players fit the mold that Cherington pursued last winter, allowing the team to make key additions when available without threatening the long term health of the franchise.

This is the kind of off-season that would set the Red Sox up for another strong push in 2014, and it’s only possible because of the Great Salary Dump of 2012. This is the trade that just keeps on giving.


The Nationals Path to the Playoffs

On paper, the playoff race in the National League looks pretty boring. The Braves have a 14 game lead in the NL East, and while nothing is ever a completely sure thing in mid-August, they’re about as close to a lock to win their division as you’re going to find. The Dodgers, meanwhile, haven’t lost a game since some time back in May — okay, they have, it just feels that way — and look poised to run away with the NL West, especially if Matt Kemp ever gets healthy.

The NL Central is shaping up to be a fun fight, but with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati fighting over one division title and two wild card spots, it mostly seems to be a fight to avoid the wild card game, with the two runners up likely to face off once the regular season is over. It’s not impossible to see Arizona running down one of the Central teams and perhaps adding a little more intrigue, but even if they make a run, we’re still looking at six teams fighting for five spots. The NL does not look like it’s in for any kind of dramatic finish.

However, there is a seventh team quietly lurking, hanging out on the periphery of the playoff bubble, not quite a serious threat yet but with enough potential to pull off a miracle. Of all the teams in baseball that look like their season may already be over, the Washington Nationals are the one who might just have a chance to shock the world and end up playing in October.

On the one hand, the Nationals making the postseason wouldn’t be a stunner, because this team was supposed to be good. They had the best record in baseball last year, and then added pieces like Denard Span, Dan Haren, and Rafael Soriano to fortify their defenses. With Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper ready for stardom, this was supposed to be the year of Natitude. Instead, pretty much everyone on the team has been a disappointment in some manner, and the Nationals find themselves 14 games behind the Braves in mid-August.

The division race is probably over at this point. Not officially, of course, as teams have come back from this kind of deficit before, but it would take a collapse of historic proportions for Atlanta to give the NL East title away. It’s theoretically possible — the 1995 Angels say hello — but it’s unrealistic to expect that kind of comeback; the gap is just too large.

However, with the Cardinals and Reds both showing some vulnerability and the Nationals winning five straight, sneaking back into the wild card race isn’t completely out of the question. After Wednesday’s games, Cool Standings gives the Nationals a 3.1% chance of winning the wild card. 1-in-33 odds aren’t very good, of course, but there are reasons to think that maybe the Nationals can be the one who pulls this kind of miracle off.

For one, they’re better than they’ve played so far this year. The thing about underachievers is that they’re underachieving because they’ve played better in the recent past, and some percentage of those underachievers are likely to play more like their old track records than their 2013 performances. The Nationals have no shortage of candidates for improvement over the final six weeks, starting with Dan Haren.

Haren is certainly not the front line starter he used to be, but he also is showing signs of pitching significantly better than he did in the first half of the year. He was atrocious for the first three months of the year, giving up 19 home runs in just 82 innings pitched, looking like the same broken down starter that the Angels dumped over the winter. However, after a short stint on the DL, Haren has been fantastic since June ended, having allowed just two home runs in 37 innings since July 1st.

Even during his early season struggles, his walk and strikeout rates were solid enough, but the frequent home runs were his undoing. Now, with the ball staying in play far more regularly, he’s been giving his team a strong chance to win, allowing a 2.43 ERA during this stretch. He’s not likely to keep that recent performance up, but his finish to 2013 should be a lot better than the cumulative performance he’s put up to date, and getting solid performance from Haren down the stretch would go a long way to stabilizing a rotation that was supposed to be among the league’s best.

And Haren has done this before. In 2010, the D’Backs got tired of Haren’s home run problem, dumping him on the Angels after he posted a 4.60 ERA over 140 innings. In Anaheim, the home runs went away, and he posted a 2.87 ERA over the rest of the season. It’s easy to watch a pitch give up a lot of dingers and think it’s just because he’s a terrible pitcher, but home run rates can fluctuate wildly and are often not very predictive, so don’t rule out a strong finish from Haren just because he gave up too many long balls in the first half of the year.

The other reason for some optimism? The Nationals offense has been hilariously un-clutch so far this year. Here are their position players batting lines — so that this isn’t skewed by the pitchers feeble attempts to hit — by the various leverage states, with leverage representing the relative importance of the situation based on the score, inning, number of baserunners, and how many outs there are.

Low Leverage: .251/.316/.401, .315 wOBA (13th)
Medium Leverage: .259/.315/.417, .319 woBA (19th)
High Leverage: .203/.269/.322, .255 wOBA (30th)

The Nationals offense hasn’t been great overall, but early in the game or when there aren’t men on base, they’ve been roughly average. However, in important situations with the game on the line, they’ve been completely inept, and no one is even in their same area code of terrible high leverage hitting. The second high leverage offense, by wOBA, is the Chicago Cubs, who check in at .276, 21 points better than the Nationals. The gap between 29th and 30th is larger than the gap between 19th and 29th.

As we detailed a few weeks back when looking at the Tigers un-clutch pitching staff, however, this is the kind of thing that has no real predictive value. There’s no reason to believe that the Nationals hitters just lack the intestinal fortitude to deliver in key situations, especially as essentially the same line-up of hitters ranked 9th in high leverage wOBA a year ago.

Even if the Nationals offense doesn’t get more hits in the next six weeks than they have in the first 4 1/2 months, a simple redistribution of when those hits occur should lead to more runs and more wins. It probably won’t be enough to catch the Braves, but the Nationals have enough talent on hand to make one final run. It won’t be easy to run down the three NL Central contenders and potentially Arizona as well, but the Nationals aren’t dead quite yet. If anyone is going to pull off a miracle comeback this year, it’s probably going to be the team in D.C.


Fernandez Mania

Back in 1981, the Dodgers had a young pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela. He began the season as part of the team’s rotation despite being just 20 years old, and he proceeded to take the sport by storm. Despite being an untested rookie, he led the majors in innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts. He was an All-Star, won Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award while finishing 5th in the MVP race. The hysteria around him grew so large that it earned the nickname Fernandomania.

Well, 32 years later, it’s happening again, only because of the anonymity of the 2013 Marlins, this time it’s happening in relative obscurity. Their young ace, Jose Fernandez, deserves a bright spotlight, because he’s having a better age-20 season than Fernando Valenzuela did in 1981. In fact, when we look at age-20 pitchers over the last 50 years, Fernandez’s 2013 season is near the very top.

Here is a table of all starting pitchers in the last 50 years who threw at least 120 innings in their age-20 season, along with their ERA- and FIP-. These numbers are just their respective ERA or FIP relative to the league average in that season, allowing us to better compare pitchers from different offensive eras. Like with ERA, lower is better, so an ERA- or FIP- of 50 would mean that their ERA or FIP was exactly half of the league average that year.

Year, Pitcher, ERA-, FIP-
1985, Dwight Gooden, 44, 59
2013, Jose Fernandez, 69, 75
1981, Fernando Valenzuela, 73, 74
1977, Dave Rozema, 74, 94
1975, Dennis Eckersley, 75, 97

By ERA-, Fernandez has been better than every 20-year-old pitcher since 1964 not named Dwight Gooden. Gooden, of course, had one of the great pitching seasons of all time, and set a standard that is unlikely to ever be matched. Coming in second to Gooden’s 1985 season is nothing to be ashamed of, and and the fact that Fernandez is keeping company with the likes of Gooden and Valenzuela is a testament to how good he has been this year.

And he’s getting better as the year goes on. Fernandez was fantastic in the first half, but since the All-Star break, he’s been on another level. In four starts, he’s allowed a grand total of six runs over 28 innings — a sparkly 1.92 ERA — and it hasn’t come through spectacular defensive support from his teammates. Over those same four starts, Fernandez has racked up 40 strikeouts against just seven walks and a single home run.

In fact, if we reset the list of best age-20 pitching seasons to focus on the three things a pitcher is most in control of — their walks, strikeouts, and home runs — we can see how much better Fernandez has been this year compared to other recent phenoms.

Fernandez has a FIP- of 75, meaning that he’s been 25 percent better than the league average based on his walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate. In 2000, Rick Ankiel caught the world by storm with an amazing debut, but his FIP- that year was 88, nowhere near Fernandez’s 2013 mark. The next year, CC Sabathia came up on the scene with a 95 FIP-. In 2004, Zack Greinke put up a 99 FIP-. In 2006, Felix Hernandez posted a FIP- of 90.

Since Fernandomania back in 1981, only Valenzula, Gooden, and now Fernandez have posted a FIP- below Ankiel’s 88, and like the other two, Fernandez is blowing that out of the water. The best pitchers in the game today weren’t anywhere near as good as Fernandez has been in his age-20 season. For reference, Fernandez’s FIP- of 75 is almost a near match for the 73 FIP- that Justin Verlander posted in 2011, the year he won both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.

Need more evidence of just how incredible Fernandez’s accomplishments at this age are? Okay, how about this one. Matt Harvey has been perhaps the best non-Clayton Kershaw pitcher in baseball this year, and has rightfully garnered significant attention for his breakout season. When Matt Harvey was 20 years old, he posted a 5.40 ERA for the University of North Carolina. Fernandez is destroying major league hitters at the same point where Harvey was struggling against college amateurs.

Put Fernandez on virtually any other team in baseball — okay, maybe not the Astros — and Fernandez is the talk of the sport. However, the Marlins organization isn’t held in the highest esteem after yet another off-season of dumping salary, and so most of the talk about Fernandez’s team centers around when they’ll trade Giancarlo Stanton. However, if we’d put down the trade rumors long enough to watch the Marlins play, we’d find that perhaps their star attraction is no longer the right fielder who hits the ball 500 feet. The Marlins still have Giancarlo Stanton, but this might just be Jose Fernandez’s team now.


The Indians Chance at October Baseball

When Dan Szymborski released his updated playoff odds to account for moves — or lack thereof — at the trade deadline, he noted that the big losers of July 31st were the Cleveland Indians. The deadline came and went, and the Tribe failed to add any talent to their roster, while the Tigers, Orioles, Rangers, and Red Sox make strong additions to bolster their rosters for the stretch run. Standing still while your competitors improve is equivalent to going backwards.

However, it should be noted that Szymborski’s simulations still had Cleveland’s playoff odds at 36.3%, a fairly robust number for a team with Ryan Raburn as their offensive hero. And since that post was published, the Indians have won two of three and pulled into the lead for one of the two wild card positions in the American League. If the postseason began today, the Cleveland Indians would qualify for the playoffs, and yet, a quick glance at their roster does not exactly resemble a list of All-Stars. How is this team making a playoff push?

It’s impossible to start anywhere but with Raburn. Coming off an unbelievably terrible year with the Tigers — of the 347 batters to hit at least 200 times in 2012, Raburn rated 346th in wRC+, ahead of only utility infielder Wilson Valdez — Raburn signed a minor league contract with the Indians in January, and has since been a revelation. Of the 284 batters with 200 more plate appearances this season, Raburn’s 169 wRC+ is tied for 5th with some guy named Mike Trout. On a per plate appearance basis, Raburn has been a better hitter than the likes of David Ortiz, Joey Votto, or David Wright. That’s not a bad return for a guy who got a non-roster invite to spring training.

Raburn’s success somewhat symbolizes this Indians team. A year ago, he was one of the game’s worst players, and at age-32, his career looked to be hanging in the balance. He’s responded by having one the best stretch of baseball of his entire career. And he’s not the only Indian who has come back from baseball purgatory.

Scott Kazmir hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since recording five outs (and allowing five runs) in 2011. The year before that, he’d been the worst pitcher in baseball. He then spent time in independent ball, and joined a long line of cautionary tales about getting overly excited about the future of young hurlers. Instead of accepting that his arm had given out, Kazmir worked to get his velocity back, signed with the Indians after a good run in winter ball– as a non-roster invite, just like Raburn — and has returned back to the form he showed when he was in Tampa Bay. His walk rate is the lowest of his career, and Kazmir’s success has stabilized the back end of a rotation that is still generally seen as the Indians big weakness.

However, a closer inspection shows that starting pitching might actually be the primary reason the Indians are hanging around the playoff chase. While their rotation may not be full of house hold names, their ability to avoid relying on terrible performers has proven to have a strong positive impact on their record. In 2012, 102 of their 162 starts were made by pitchers who ended the season with an ERA over 5.00, including giving 21 starts to Derek Lowe (5.52 ERA), 17 starts to Jeanmar Gomez (6.23 ERA), and 16 starts to Josh Tomlin (5.72 ERA)

This year, just 13 of their 109 starts have been made by pitchers with an ERA over 5.00, and none of those five project to start another game for the Indians this year. Instead of horrendous outings from everyone besides Justin Masterson, the rotation behind the Tribe’s ace has been quite solid if not spectacular. Kazmir’s resurgence has been part of that, but so too has the underrated dominance of Corey Kluber.

The young right-hander might not be a household name, but he sure is pitching like one. On the season, he has a 3.03 xFIP that rates #9 among qualified big league starting pitchers. He currently sits in between Homer Bailey and Cliff Lee, and once you adjust for the fact that he’s pitching in the American League, he actually moves up to #7, just behind Max Scherzer. Corey Kluber has been a revelation for the Indians this year, and has had as much of a low key impact as any non-Raburn player on the Indians.

But herein lies the rub; the Indians success to date is based on players doing things they’ve never really done before, or in Kazmir’s case, haven’t done in quite some time. While the team has more established stars like Masterson, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana, they had those players last year and won 68 games. Masterson and Kipnis are having better seasons than they did a year ago, but the team’s success this year is due to a far better supporting cast, and unfortunately, those role players probably can’t be counted on to sustain these performances.

Expecting Raburn to keep hitting like Mike Trout just isn’t realistic. Expecting Kluber to keep pitching like an ace isn’t fair to the youngster. Expecting backup catcher Yan Gomes to keep hitting bombs when he’s put in the line-up is likely a path to disappointment. The Indians have been heavily reliant on a bunch of players with mediocre track records playing like All-Stars, and yet they still only have a half game lead over the Rangers and Orioles in the wild card race.

Maybe some of these guys really have figured things out and are going to keep performing at a high level, but there re just too many guys on this team playing over their heads right now. Some of them will regress, and when they do, it isn’t clear that there are enough players on the other side of that coin who can pick up the slack. And so, while the Indians are a collection of great stories, this team looks to have serious potential for a second half fade.

Ryan Raburn can only carry you so far for so long. When the magic runs out, the Indians playoff chances might evaporate with it.


Beware Bud Norris

With a handful of non-contenders reportedly deciding to hang on to their best trade chips, the supply of quality pitchers on the market is quite thin. As a result, teams in the playoff hunt are having to look at players they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, and tarnished pieces start looking more attractive given limited options. However, even for a contender in need of a rotation boost, Bud Norris should not be viewed as the answer to anyone’s problems.

The Astros 28-year-old right-hander will have some superficial appeal due to his 3.93 ERA and multiple years of team control, as he isn’t going to be free agent eligible until after the 2015 season. Unlike other pitchers changing teams this summer, Norris would not just be a rental, and could be penciled into a team’s rotation for the next few years. The only problem? Bud Norris isn’t particularly good, and shouldn’t be trusted to start a game in the playoffs.

His 3.93 ERA is mostly a mirage, based around an unsustainably low rate of fly balls flying over the fence. From 2009 to 2012, Norris posted an 11.4% HR/FB ratio, a little bit higher than the league average. This year, his HR/FB rate is just 6.9%, the 13th lowest mark of any qualified starting pitcher in the Majors. While not giving up home runs is definitely a positive, history has shown that HR/FB ratio is not very predictive, and Norris is more likely to go back to giving up something closer to his career number of home runs per fly ball over the rest of the season.

When he does, that ERA is going to go up in a hurry, because Norris’ strikeout rate has taken a dramatic turn for the worse with the move to the American League, going from 22% down to 17%. For reference, a 22% strikeout rate would put him in the same range as Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, and Derek Holland, while a 17% strikeout rate actually makes him the equal of guys like Miguel Gonzalez and Jarrod Parker. Strikeouts aren’t an absolute requirement to be a quality starting pitcher, but Norris hasn’t off-set the reduction in strikeout rate by limiting his walks or his fly balls, so he’s basically just pitching worse, not differently.

Beyond just the strikeout decline, though, is another significant problem, especially for a team considering handing him the ball in October: his platoon splits.

Because Norris relies heavily on his slider, he’s able to dominate right-handed batters but is much less effective against left-handed hitters. This season, RHBs are hitting .240/.305/.315 against him, while LHBs are at .300/.365/.494. Of the 117 qualified starting pitchers this season, Norris’ .372 wOBA allowed versus left-handers ranks 104th, putting him squarely between Jon Garland and Jason Hammel. Allowing a .372 wOBA is essentially the equivalent of turning every left-handed batter he faces into Andrew McCutchen.

And no, it’s not just bad luck. Norris’ strikeout rate against left-handers is a paltry 12.5%, and 10 of the 11 home runs he’s allowed this season have been hit by a left-hander. His slider is a knockout pitch against right-handed batters, but just tilts right into a lefties wheelhouse. There are a lot of pitchers in Major League Baseball just like Norris, but most of them are pitching in relief, where they can be selectively used against right-handers in order to maximize their effectiveness.

As a starter, Norris simply has to face whatever group of hitters the opposing manager decides to put in the line-up that day. If that line-up happens to be stacked with good left-handers, he’s in trouble, and every potential playoff team in both leagues has good left-handed hitters to throw at pitchers just like Norris. Unless someone is planning on playing the Angels in October, handing Norris the ball probably isn’t a great idea.

Anaheim is exactly the kind of club that Norris’ skillset works the best against. They’re very right-handed, with their only four hitters posting an OPS over .700 — Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo, and Howie Kendrick — all hitting from the right side. Norris has made four starts against the Angels this year, thanks to his new home in the AL West, and he’s allowed exactly one earned run in 28 innings over those four starts, a sparkling 0.32 ERA.

His ERA against every other team he’s faced? 4.95.

Here’s how he’s performed against a few teams he might actually have to face in the playoffs, if he’s traded to a contender.

BOS: 6 IP, 5 R, .346/.393/.538
OAK: 12.2 IP, 14 R, .278/.371/.519
DET: 12 IP, 9 R, .292/.346/.500
STL: 5 IP, 7 R, .478/.500/.739

These teams all have good left-handed hitters, and Norris has been terrible against all of them. That isn’t likely to change in October, and any team facing him is going to stack the line-up with as many lefties as they can manage. Starting Norris against a bunch of left-handers with the season on the line is not a great bet.

Norris is good enough against right-handers to be a useful #5 starter, and he could probably be an effective weapon out of the bullpen in the playoffs if a team was willing to use him in that role. But that’s what he should be viewed as; a right-handed specialist who could be used situationally in October. If a contender put him in their playoff rotation, don’t be too surprised when a lefty heavy line-up makes it end poorly.


Five AL Trades That Should Happen

With the trade deadline now just a couple of weeks away, the obvious buyers are still waiting for several of the sellers to decide to actually sell. Maybe they just need the right kind of motivation, so we’ll provide it for them here. Here are five deals that AL teams should make in order to bolster their rosters for the stretch run.

#1: Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Michael Choice, second baseman Jemile Weeks, and starting pitcher Michael Ynoa.

Utley is an absolutely perfect fit for the A’s; he does all the things that Oakland values, and despite his health issues over the last few years, he remains an elite player when he’s on the field. His 126 wRC+ this year equals what Dustin Pedroia is doing for the Red Sox, and no one thinks he’s over the hill. If he stays healthy, Utley could easily add two wins to the A’s total over their rotation of second baseman, and would provide another left-handed bat to a line-up that could use some thump from that side.

Ruiz, meanwhile, would provide the team with another catching option, and a guy who could form a formidable platoon with John Jaso. While Derek Norris hasn’t been bad and Ruiz has been pretty lousy since coming off the disabled list, he has continued to pound left-handed pitching, which is Jaso’s primary flaw. He’s also good at gunning down would be base stealers, and could serve as a defensive upgrade when the A’s want to put their best run prevention line-up on the field.

To get the Phillies to sell, the A’s have to give them enough of a return to forfeit the right to make Utley a qualifying offer; Michael Choice may be the bait that would make Ruben Amaro bite. Choice ranked as the A’s third best prospect on Keith Law’s pre-season Top 10, and while he hasn’t yet taken big leap forward, he’s held his own in Triple-A and isn’t that far from the big leagues. Given the Phillies reliance on Delmon Young this season, they could certainly use some talent in the outfield, and Choice could be able to contribute as soon as next season.

Weeks and Ynoa are lottery tickets whose early promise has mostly fizzled, but both could still develop into big leaguers at some point. Weeks is showing good on base skills in Triple-A, though he might end up as a utility infielder. Ynoa, fresh from giving up a home run in the Futures Game, still throws hard but might profile best as a reliever. These guys provide some upside, but Choice is the guy who makes this deal work for Philadelphia. The A’s would likely prefer to keep him in their organization, but facing an opportunity to make a substantial upgrade in a dogfight of a division race, they should take the plunge. You can replace a prospect like Michael Choice, but flags fly forever.

#2: Seattle Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, reliever Oliver Perez, “outfielder” Michael Morse, starting pitcher Joe Saunders, and shortstop Brendan Ryan to the Detroit Tigers for starting pitcher Rick Porcello and outfielder Avasail Garcia.

It’s no secret that the Tigers need to upgrade their bullpen, and this move could give them a potent relief corps in October. While Wilhelmsen has struggled with his fastball command this year, he was a dominating closer a year ago, and he may very well just be a mechanical tweak away from blowing hitters away again. The Tigers have been looking for a long term solution to their 9th inning problems for a while, and Wilhelmsen could very well be the guy to take that role for the next several years.

By acquiring Perez at the same time, they won’t have to rush Wilhelmsen into a high leverage role right away, giving him time to find his command in lower pressure situations. Perez has been a revelation as a reliever, showing that he can get hitters out from both sides of the plate, and would give the Tigers another left-handed reliever besides Drew Smyly who isn’t a pure specialist.

In Morse, the Tigers would get a power hitter to split time between the outfield — they’re already punting defense, so might as well go all the way — and 1B/DH, giving Victor Martinez some rest or Prince Fielder an off day against a tough lefty. Saunders gives them a steady #5 starter to replace Porcello who could potentially be yet another bullpen weapon in October, as his career numbers against left-handers are lethal, and he could more easily move into a playoff relief role given his splits. Ryan serves as a defensive upgrade and shortstop depth, capable of entering games late to provide a boost to the team’s run prevention.

Giving up Porcello just as he’s learned how to strike hitters out is a real cost, but he’s once again posting results that don’t line up with his talent level, and using him as bait opens the door for Smyly to move back into the rotation next year, plus keeps the team from having to surrender top prospect Nick Castellanos. The Mariners have the opportunity to give Porcello a better situation — they put their DHs in the outfield instead of the infield, and he’s a ground ball pitcher — and could use him as a mid-rotation starter for 2014, while Garcia gives them another outfield body in their search for anyone better than Jason Bay.

#3: Chicago White Sox reliever Jesse Crain to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Deven Merrero.

The two Sox already swapped prospect-for-reliever in the Matt Thornton trade, but they should go another round by shipping Crain to Boston for a shortstop who is as blocked as any prospect in the game. Before landing on the disabled list, Crain was among the best relievers in baseball, and he’s overcome minor arm problems with no long term effects before. While he might not have the proven closer label, he’s a serious weapon, and the Red Sox need talent more than a guy with a label and an inflated ego.

Merrero, the Red Sox first round pick in 2012, might seem to be a high price to pay for an injured reliever rental, but he has no future in Boston. Defensive wizard Jose Iglesias has already reached Boston, and elite prospect Xander Bogaerts isn’t far behind. A move to third base is both impractical because of his limited offensive abilities and the presence of Garin Cecchini. There’s just no future with the Red Sox for Marrero, and the White Sox could begin grooming him as Alexei Ramirez’s replacement.

#4: Seattle Mariners designated hitter Raul Ibanez to the New York Yankees for starting pitcher Phil Hughes.

The Yankees have been dangling Hughes around for weeks, looking to exchange some of their pitching depth — especially a guy who is basically guaranteed to head elsewhere when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year — for an injection of offense. Ibanez is miraculously having the year of his life at age-41, launching 24 home runs in the first half of the season despite beginning the year as a bench player. The Yankees are clearly familiar with Ibanez, and his swing is still tailor made for their home ballpark. If he keeps defying age as he has this year, he could provide some much needed power to their line-up.

The rebuilding Mariners wouldn’t seem to have much use for a free-agent-to-be, but as an extreme fly ball pitcher with a home run problem, Hughes should be intensely interested in pitching on the west coast next year, hoping the marine layer can knock down some of his meatballs and turning them into outs. With a two month trial run in Seattle, the Mariners could see how Hughes approach would play in reconfigured Safeco Field. Just 27, Hughes could potentially be an interesting free agent for a team that lacks pitching depth behind Felix Hernandez and should have money to spend this winter, and swapping Ibanez for him would give them a few months to see him up close and personal before deciding whether or not to be a bidder.

#5: Miami Marlins reliever Chad Qualls to the Tampa Bay Rays for reliever Josh Lueke.

After a couple of awful seasons the last few years, Qualls is throwing harder than ever and has seen his strikeout and ground ball rate both spike, allowing him to resume his previous position as a quality right-handed setup guy. With Kyle Farnsworth struggling, the Rays could use a righty who can come in and induce a double play grounder when needed, and Qualls fits the bill perfectly.

In Lueke, the Marlins would be getting a guy with the upside of a late inning reliever but a past that he won’t ever escape from. It would be best for MLB to have Lueke work in the most anonymous setting possible, and it doesn’t get any more anonymous than pitching for the Marlins right now.


The Tigers Are Poised For A Big Second Half

The Detroit Tigers are supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball. With Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder anchoring the offense and a starting rotation that is the envy of everyone else in the game, this is a team that was built to crush the American League Central and play deep into October. However, they enter play on Friday at 50-41, just 2 1/2 games ahead of the Indians, and have been beaten in far too many games they should have won.

Part of that is their defense, as they’ve exchanged range at first and third base to maximize offense, and their pitchers pay the price for that trade-off. However, even accounting for the runs that their fielders give away, the Tigers have played better than a 50-41 team would indicate. At 5.1 runs scored per game and 4.2 runs allowed per game, the Tigers run differential suggests that they “should be” 54-37, which would give them the second best record in the AL and a comfortable lead in their division.

So, why are the Tigers winning fewer games than their runs scored and allowed would suggest? Put simply, they’ve been absolutely terrible in clutch situations.

On FanGraphs, we have a Clutch score for every team (and player), which is calculated by measuring the difference in a player’s performance based on the score, inning, and base/out situation for each play. Essentially, this statistic tells us who has performed better or worse with the game on the line than they have in less critical situations.

By this metric, the Tigers have been the worst team in the league, coming in at -4.8 wins; only the Cubs (at -4.4 wins) are also below -4.0, and likewise, they have also dramatically underperformed their expected record based on runs scored and runs allowed. You might think this is just the natural result of not acquiring a better closer over the off-season, but in reality, it’s their starting pitchers that have been the big culprit here; Anibal Sanchez (-1.35 clutch wins), Doug Fister (-1.11 clutch wins), and Rick Porcello (-0.81 clutch wins) account for a vast majority of the team’s rating.

Now, because this metric isn’t separating out credit for pitching from defense, the problem could very well be the poor defenders behind those pitchers, but the point is that the Tigers poor clutch performances have happened with their starters, not their relievers, on the mound. For all the talk about the Tigers bullpen problems, Joaquin Benoit has actually been excellent in relief, and has the highest clutch score of any Tigers pitcher, so he’s been even better than his overall numbers would indicate when the game is on the line.

I’m sure the Tigers would much rather not be singled out as the least clutch team in baseball so far, but I have good news that should give them confidence in their abilities down the stretch: clutch performance in the first half has no predictive value whatsoever.

Every year, there are teams that perform just as poorly in important situations in the first half as the Tigers have this year, and often more than one. Over the last three years, here are the teams that have posted clutch scores of -4.5 or worse in the first half of the season, and then for reference, their clutch performance in the second half of the season.

Year, Team, 1st Half Clutch, 2nd Half Clutch

2011, Astros, -5.5, -0.7
2011, Dodgers, -5.3, +1.2
2012, Phillies, -5.2, +4.3
2010, D’Backs, -4.7, -0.1
2012, Red Sox, -4.5, -1.9

From 2010 to 2012, these five teams combined for a clutch score of -29.2 in the first half, but then went on to post a collective +2.8 clutch score in the second half. Their first half performance in high leverage situations did nothing to tell us what they would do in similar situations in the second half.

And it’s not just the underperforming teams where clutch rating shows wide variance. I took the first half and second half clutch ratings for all 30 teams from each of the last three years, and in each season, there was no correlation to be found. A 1.0 correlation is found when we look at two items with an absolutely perfect relationship to each other, while a correlation of 0.0 would occur when we looked at the relationship between two items that have nothing to do with each other.

From 2010 to 2012, the correlation between a team’s first and second half clutch scores were, in order, -0.01, -0.04, and +0.04. In other words, first half team clutch score had about as much relationship with second half team clutch score as we would find from looking at the rate of ice cream consumption in Wisconsin and the length of an average commute in Istanbul. There’s just no evidence that a team who performs poorly in high leverage situations in the first half will continue to do so in the second half.

The numbers that are predictive, and correlate well from first half to second half, are the core numbers that the Tigers are excelling in, and the ones that rate them among the very best teams in baseball. Those performances are far more likely to carry over, and with a more even distribution of their play across critical situations, the Tigers should be expected to post a better record second half record even if they don’t make any huge upgrades at the trade deadline.

And if they do end up landing a couple more quality players for the stretch drive? Well, then Cleveland and Kansas City better pray for a miracle, but despite the Tigers mediocre record so far, Detroit is going to be very difficult to catch.


Don’t Ignore The Old Guys At The Deadline

Last summer, Zack Greinke was the big fish at the trade deadline. A legitimate ace who could make a difference in the playoffs, Greinke was the guy everyone wanted, and the Angels eventually coughed up three players — including 2013′s breakthrough shortstop Jean Segura — in order to rent his services for the final two months of the year. Other high profile acquisitions included Hanley Ramirez, Hunter Pence, and Ryan Dempster, as teams loaded up with big names for the stretch run. However, in looking back at how the remainder of the season played out, none of those names turned out to be the most important acquisition of the deadline: that title goes to Marco Scutaro, and he should be a lesson for buyers this month.

When the Rockies traded Scutaro to the Giants on July 27th, he was hitting just .271/.324/.361, mediocre numbers for a hitter playing anywhere, much less one who got to spend half of his time playing at altitude in the most hitter friendly ballpark in the Major Leagues. At 36-years-old, Scutaro looked like he was just done as a big leaguer. His defense limited him to second base, he’d never hit for any power, and as a .270 hitter who didn’t walk much, Scutaro looked like a utility guy off the bench at best.

After all, he didn’t make the big leagues until he was 26, and he didn’t lock down a starting job until he was 28. Scutaro has been defying the odds his entire career, and it was inevitable that he was going to run out of juju at some point. So, when we saw him put up half a season of replacement level performance, it didn’t look like a slump; it looked like the end for a guy who peaked as a solid role player to begin with.

When the Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez despite his mediocre performance in Miami, it was considered “buying low” in hopes that a “change of scenery” would restart his career. These are the kinds of phrases that get tossed around when a team trades for a slumping player in his 20s. If he’s on the wrong side of 30, though, the consideration that it might just be a cold streak is hardly considered. We assume that any older player going through a rough stretch is struggling because his skills are eroding. As Scutaro showed, however, old players can slump too, and we should be wary of writing off players in their mid-30s with strong track records just because they had a bad couple of months.

For teams who want to try and repeat what the Giants did with Scutaro last year, here are a few players worth going after, even though they aren’t that young and their first half performance doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

Alfonso Soriano, OF, Chicago Cubs

Soriano is 37-years-old and posting an 89 wRC+, his worst offensive performance since 2009. At 2.8%, his walk rate is actually the lowest he’s posted since becoming a regular in 2001, and it’s not like he’s been a particularly patient hitter throughout his career. In addition to the lack of walks, his .174 Isolated Slugging percentage would be his worst mark since his rookie year. The power seems to be eroding, and that’s really the only tool that has been able to keep him a productive player through the second half of his career.

However, we shouldn’t just assume that Soriano’s power is gone for good. He had 67 extra base hits a year ago, and half of those went over the fence. His .237 ISO in 2012 was actually higher than his career average of .229, so this is not the continuation of any kind of recent trend. Soriano’s hitting for less power this year, but there’s no reason to think that his ability to launch home runs has completely disappeared.

Because that’s really all Soriano does well at this point, he’s not any kind of offensive savior, and should probably only be expected to produce at about the rate of a league average hitter. However, for teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, getting league average offense from a corner outfield spot would be a tremendous upgrade, and Soriano is unlikely to cost much of anything in trade. With about $27 million left on his contract — he’s scheduled to make $18 million at age-38 next year — the Cubs will have to pick up almost all of his remaining money in order to move him, but a contender could do worse than taking a shot on Soriano rebounding in the second half.

Scott Hairston, OF, Chicago Cubs

Hey, look, another Cubs outfielder. Hairston doesn’t have Soriano’s name value, but his skillset is very similar. At 33-years-old, Hairston has a nice track record as a guy who mashes left-handed pitching, but his aggressive approach at the plate limits his value to a part time role. Signed by the Cubs over the winter to serve as a platoon outfielder, Hairston has hit just .160/.224/.372, and has basically fallen out of the Cubs line-up at this point.

However, his offensive downturn is almost entirely based on hitting balls right at people. His walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power are almost identical to his marks from last year with the Cubs, when he posted a 118 wRC+ and was a high quality role player. His batting average on balls in play, however, is a staggeringly low .132, 155 points below his 2012 mark and easily the lowest of any hitter with at least 100 plate appearances this year. BABIP is much less predictive than other measures, especially over 100 plate appearances, and Hairston could easily go back to mashing left-handed pitching in the second half. For a team looking for a platoon outfielder, Hairston would be a nice low cost option.

Shaun Marcum, SP, New York Mets

Marcum, once an excellent pitcher in Toronto, has seen his career derailed by shoulder problems, and he’s currently dealing with both neck and shoulder tightness that could land him back on the disabled list. At 31-years-old and with a fastball that now averages just 85.3 mph, along with his current 5.03 ERA, it’s easy to see Marcum as a washed-up has been that doesn’t have the stuff to get big league hitters out anymore.

However, Marcums’ xFIP is 4.26, almost a dead on match for the 4.21 mark he put up a year ago when his ERA was 3.70. Even with his stuff degrading, his rate of home runs on fly balls (6.5%) is at a career low, and his strikeout rate is hanging around league average thanks to his excellent change-up.

Marcum is not an innings eater by any stretch of the imagination, but for a contender who is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, Marcum could throw 50 to 75 decent innings and will likely not cost much in terms of prospects to acquire. He’s not going to fix your entire rotation, but if a team is looking for an adequate stop gap to help get them through the stretch run, Marcum could be a useful piece, even if he hasn’t looked great in the first half.


Time To Make Tim Lincecum A Reliever

The Giants have been rumored to be involved in talks with the Marlins about acquiring Ricky Nolasco to bolster their starting rotation. Given that they’re currently rolling with rookie starter Michael Kickham — who has allowed 10 runs in 7 2/3 innings in his first two big league starts — in the #5 spot in their rotation, going after a solid innings eater like Nolasco makes a lot of sense. However, I’d like to suggest that the Giants expand their shopping list even if they acquire Nolasco; their goal over the next month should be to trade for two starting pitchers, not just one. By picking up two starters, they can get Tim Lincecum’s career back on track by using him as a true relief ace.

The blueprint has already been laid. After struggling throughout the 2012 season, Lincecum was deployed in relief during the playoffs last October, and the results were electrifying. His total line out of the bullpen during the playoffs: 13 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 1 walk, 17 strikeouts. There’s dominance, and then there was Tim Lincecum pitching in relief. He was absurdly good.

The primary difference was the effectiveness of his change-up. Now that Lincecum doesn’t throw in the high-90s anymore, he’s heavily relient on hitters chasing his change-up for strikeouts, and it’s a pitch he needs to be able to locate effectively in order to entice hitters to swing. According to the data from BrooksBaseball.net, During the regular season, hitters only chased his change-up 51% of the time during the regular season, but they went after it 61% of the time during the post-season.

And they weren’t swinging at hittable pitches either. His swing-and-miss rate on the change-up was 32 percent in October, up from just 21 percent during the regular season. In short stints, with hitters unable to make adjustments facing him multiple times in the same game, Lincecum’s change-up became a dominating weapon once again. And the Giants would be better off with Lincecum pitching well in that role, even during the regular season, than they are with him starting every fifth day.

I’m not advocating for Lincecum to be converted into a reliever who fits into a modern bullpen role. With Sergio Romo and an army of effective match-up relievers, the Giants already have a pretty good bullpen. However, utilizing Lincecum in that multi-inning relief ace role that worked so well in the playoffs could not only prepare him for that job in the postseason, but could pave the way for a bullpen renaissance of sorts.

Back before Tony LaRussa made the middle/setup/closer structure popular, it was completely normal for teams to have relievers throwing 120 to 150 innings in 60-80 appearances, getting six to nine outs before their day was considered over. 30 years ago, 18 relievers threw at least 100 innings, with Bob Stanley leading the way at 145. He wasn’t some kind of long reliever either, as he led Boston with 33 saves. It was just expected that each team would have a guy who could pitch multiple dominating innings whenever the team wanted to protect a lead.

As Bochy showed in October, that role is perfect for Lincecum. His change-up works really well against both left-handed and right-handed hitters, so he doesn’t need to be pigeonholes as some kind of match-up specialist. Since he’s already stretched out as a starter, transitioning Lincecum into a multi-inning reliever shouldn’t be terribly difficult, and will give the added perk of giving the rest of the Giants starters a chance to get out of the games a little bit earlier, increasing both their effectiveness and perhaps their ability to pitch well in October.

One of the main reasons relievers perform better than starting pitchers is that they only have to face a hitter once per game. As hitters get multiple looks at a starter throughout a game, their performance against them improves, and the pitchers tire as they throw more pitches. The combination of these effects can be seen in the Giants rotation this year:

First time facing a batter: .695 OPS
Second time facing a batter: .732 OPS
Third time facing a batter: .752 OPS

This is a league wide trend, so it’s not just a Giants thing we’re focused on. Starting pitchers really begin to fall off the third time through the order, and that’s where leads can evaporate in a hurry. Because the modern bullpen doesn’t allow for a team’s best relievers to be used until the 8th or 9th innings, a starter who runs into trouble in the fifth or sixth inning might give way to one of the worst bullpen arms on the team, who ends up throwing gas on the fire. To illustrate this point, here is the opponents OPS versus the Giants for each inning this season:

1st inning: .709
2nd inning: .678
3rd inning: .805
4th inning: .651
5th inning: .774
6th inning: .770
7th inning: .579
8th inning: .705
9th inning: .663

You see the big drop-off in hitter performance from those middle innings that are handled mostly by faltering starters or long relievers to when Bochy starts handing things over to his better setup guys. This is where Lincecum could have a huge impact.

By utilizing him as a bridge in those middle innings, Bochy could have an earlier hook with his starters, not allowing them to give up crucial runs in earlier game situations, and still have the confidence of knowing that he’s saved Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo for any late game leads that need to be protected. Linecum’s ability to get six to nine outs could serve to keep games close that might otherwise never turn into save situations, and if he responds as well to a bullpen role as he did in October, he’ll be far more valuable holding tight games than he would be as an inconsistent starter every fifth day.

Let Lincecum pitch in 2-3 inning outings every 2-3 days, and you’ll end up getting about the same number of innings from him as you would by keeping him in the rotation. In essence, by acquiring a second useful innings sponge — Scott Feldman would be a good fit for this role, for instance — to allow Lincecum to pitch in relief, they wouldn’t just be adding depth, but they’d be reducing the workload for their entire staff, and preparing Lincecum for the role he showed he could thrive in last October.


The Nationals Should Trade Rafael Soriano

The Nationals were supposed to be one of baseball’s best teams. They led the majors in wins a year ago, and this year, they were going to have a full season of both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, plus they added Dan Haren to fill out their rotation and Rafael Soriano to save games in the ninth inning. On paper, they looked like a team with few holes.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Harper got hurt, Haren has been terrible, and pretty much every role player the Nationals were counting on has taken a step backwards. The result is that they currently sit at 35-36, seven games back of Atlanta in the AL East race. As they head for the trade deadline, they’ll almost certainly be looking to boost their offense in order to make a strong push for at least a wild card and give them a better chance of running down Atlanta, but I have another suggestion: they should trade Rafael Soriano.

This is not to say that I think the Nationals should give up on 2013 season and start playing for the future, but I do think they can make themselves better for 2014 without really harming their chances of winning this year by using Soriano as a trade chip.

If the Nationals made Soriano available, there would be a market. There’s no secret that the Detroit Tigers are in need of a closer upgrade, as Jose Valverde is doing what you expect Jose Valverde to do — give up runs and generally instill fear into all Michigan natives every time he takes the mound — and Detroit cannot enter the postseason again with him as the de facto ninth inning guy. The Diamondbacks might also need a closer upgrade to reach the postseason, with Heath Bell giving up home runs left and right while J.J. Putz’s elbow keeps him on the shelf. There would be contenders interested in acquiring Soriano from the Nationals.

So, if the Nationals were able to take advantage of the demand for a quality closer, they could not only clear $14 million in salary off the books for 2014 that could be reallocated to an offensive upgrade next year, they could potentially turn Soriano into a piece that they need more than a one inning reliever. With the other options in their bullpen, trading Soriano might not even make their team substantially worse this season, and if they can turn Soriano into a decent back-end starter, it might even make them better.

Before Soriano was acquired, Drew Storen was in line to close games for the Nationals this season. His 4.34 ERA might suggest that it was a good thing they moved him to a setup role, but Storen’s underlying performance suggests he’s mostly back to the pitcher he was two years ago when he saved 43 games.

Storen, 2011: 6.6% BB%, 24.4% K%, 47.3% GB%, 3.32 FIP, 3.14 xFIP
Storen, 2013: 5.5% BB%, 21.9% K%, 52.9% GB%, 3.74 FIP, 3.35 xFIP

He’s gone slightly more towards a contact/ground ball profile at the cost of a few strikeouts, but the overall package is about the same, and he might trade some of those ground balls to get more strikeouts if moved back to the ninth inning role. Either way, Storen’s peripherals suggest that he’s more than capable of handling the ninth inning, and the drop-off from switching Storen out for Soriano wouldn’t be dramatic.

Of course, they’d have to replace Storen in the setup role, but 22-year-old Ian Krol — acquired as one of three prospects from Oakland in the Michael Morse trade over the winter — is flashing serious potential since his promotion, striking out eight of the first 22 batters he’s faced while throwing a fastball that tops out at 96. By trading Soriano away, they’d essentially be creating higher leverage opportunities for Krol, who will make the league minimum for the next few seasons and could become a dominant setup man in front of Storen.

That isn’t to say that Krol is Soriano’s equal, but it is hard to argue that the Nationals are better off with Krol pitching middle relief in front of Storen/Soriano than they would be with $14 million to spend this winter and the talent they could get back from shipping Soriano to a team with fewer quality bullpen options. Especially if Detroit or Arizona decide that Soriano is the piece that could put them over the top, the Nationals might be able to turn their relief depth into a valuable player for the future, similar to how they flipped Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos back in 2010.

Thankfully for the Nationals, both Detroit and Arizona are swimming in starting pitching depth, which is an area of need for the team with Haren’s struggles and a lack of quality options in the high minors. If Mike Rizzo could turn Soriano into a decent #5 starter, the difference in performance from that rotation spot could offset any downgrade they see in the late innings.

And, as an added perk, putting Soriano in play might make things a little more complicated for the division rival Phillies. Jonathan Papelbon has been assumed to be the potentially available proven closer in the NL East, and without any other competitors trading off ninth inning specialists, the Phillies might be able to extract some value in exchange for their closer while clearing salary off their own books, which they could then use to retool their roster in order to better compete with Washington in the future. Any team acquiring Soriano would only be on the hook for his salary through 2014, while Papelbon is signed through 2015 at essentially the same annual salary. The monetary difference alone should make Soriano more appealing, and Washington could essentially undercut the trade value of one of their closest competitors.

While trading Soriano might be viewed as a sign of giving up on the season, they could offset the negative PR by making simultaneous offensive upgrades and give their team a similar chance to sneak back into the playoff race that they have now. If it doesn’t materialize, they’ve freed up salary to allow for a more active off-season and a better team in 2014. Trading away talent isn’t always the same thing as giving up, and in this case, the Nationals can trade from a surplus to help their organization overall.


Coco Crisp, Power Hitter

Coco Crisp is not a big guy. He’s listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, and those numbers are often fudged upwards a bit. He’s been a big leaguer since 2002, and has spent a majority of that time hitting leadoff. He plays center field, and he’s also one of the most effective base stealers in the sport. If there was a poster child for the skills that allow a little guy to be a quality big league role player, it’s Coco Crisp. He’s had a long career as exactly the kind of player you imagine when you see a relatively short baseball player.

Except now, at age 33, Coco Crisp is becoming a power hitter. Well, actually, he started becoming a power hitter last summer, and it’s carried over to the 2013 season to the point that now we’re all noticing. And his transformation is one of the more amazing stories in baseball.

Last year, the first two months of the season were a total disaster for Crisp. After re-signing with the A’s to a two year, $14 million contract, Crisp was one of the worst players in the league right out of the gates. Last June 6th, he went 0 for 4 and dropped his overall line to .158/.213/.175, good for a .389 OPS. That’s the kind of offensive performance teams get when they send their pitchers up to hit. Crisp had managed just two extra base hits — both doubles — in 124 plate appearances. At 32-years-old, he looked washed up.

On June 7th, Crisp went 2 for 3 with a triple and a home run and never looked back. From that day on, he hit .293/.361/.499, with 41 of his 100 hits going for extra bases. In the first two months of 2013, he’s hitting .297/.384/.505, with 40% of his hits going for extra bases. Since June 7th of 2012, Crisp has racked up 609 plate appearances, which is about equal to one full season’s worth of playing time. During that stretch, Crisp has 64 extra base hits, which is not exactly what you expect from an aging leadoff hitter whose career specialties have been speed and defense.

So, what’s the deal? How did Crisp not only turn his season around last summer, but become a legitimate power hitter in the process? In a word, patience.

A’s hitting coach Chili Davis has been a big advocate of the A’s longstanding philosophy of working counts, getting into fastball situations, and then swinging hard. As he told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week:

“”Guys are more patient at the plate, they’re seeing a lot of pitches. They’re making pitchers work, too.”

Crisp is a perfect example of a more patient hitter and how that approach can lead to better hitter’s counts and better results. From 2007-2011, PITCHF/x data shows that Crisp swung at 43.3% of the pitches he was thrown, and while he wasn’t Pablo Sandoval at the plate, he chased his fair share of pitches out of the zone, posting an out-of-zone swing rate of 24.4%. Over the last year, Crisp’s swing rate is down to 40.9% and his out-of-zone swing rate is down to 21.8%.

These aren’t huge drastic shifts, but they’re increasing as Crisp gets more comfortable with the more selective approach. In 2013 only, Crisp’s at 38.7% of the pitches he’s thrown, and his out-of-zone swing rate is down to 18.7%, which is the fourth lowest rate of chasing balls of any hitter in baseball. Crisp has transformed from not-a-hack into a guy who swings almost exclusively at strikes, and that has led more swings in favorable counts.

Here are the rates at which Crisp’s at-bats have ended in either pitcher’s counts, hitter’s counts, or even counts, for both his career and for 2013.

Career:

Batter Ahead: 35%
Pitcher Ahead: 29%
Even Count: 35%

2013:

Batter Ahead: 42%
Pitcher Ahead: 29%
Even Count: 29%

Crisp has basically moved 7% of his plate appearances from even counts to hitter’s counts, which might not like sound that important, but here are Crisp’s relative performances by count this season:

Even Count: .250/.246/.375
Batter Ahead: .375/.564/.719

Five of Crisp’s eight home runs have come in hitter’s counts, and while you might think that this is the norm, Crisp is killing the ball in hitter’s counts at a rate that far outpaces the average AL hitter. According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, of the 168 players with at least 200 plate appearances this year, Crisp ranks 19th in OPS when ahead in the count and 23rd in slugging percentage. When he gets into counts where he can look for a fastball and swing for the fences, he has a higher slugging percentage than guys like Carlos Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, and David Ortiz.

And for all the talk about how a patient approach leads to more strikeouts and lower overall offensive levels, Crisp is showing the exact opposite to be true. For his career, 44% of his at-bats have reached ended on two strike counts, but by swinging less this year, he’s up to 53% two strike counts, and yet at the same time he’s posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career. Strikeouts aren’t just a function of getting to two strikes, but also swinging at the wrong pitches in two strike counts. Crisp has been willing to get to two strike counts this year because he knows he has the contact skills to still put the ball in play, and the increase in selectivity has gotten him into more favorable counts overall.

So, while some corners of the world rail against the A’s for encouraging hitters to not swing, Crisp is a living example of just how this offensive philosophy can work. Instead of becoming a slower, less effective lead-off hitter, Crisp’s turned himself into a guy who gets into good hitter’s counts and swings for the fences. As a result, he’s having the best offensive season of his career, and he’s one of the main reasons why the A’s are in first place in the American League West.