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.




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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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