Archive for September, 2008

Pitching Under September’s Radar

This morning we took a look at some of the hitters who performed extremely well over the final month of the season, but went largely unnoticed for a variety of factors. Now, let’s take a similar look at the best under the radar pitchers. Again, we are using WPA/LI as our barometer. For starters, Roy Oswalt and Derek Lowe dominated the season’s final month, posting a 1.64 and 1.27 mark, respectively. In six starts, Oswalt pitched 44.1 innings, surrendering 24 hits, walking just six hitters, while striking out 30 of them. He allowed baserunners to the tune of a 0.68 WHIP, and allowed just 1.42 runs per nine innings. Lowe allowed even less hits and runs. In five starts and 30.1 innings, he managed a 0.59 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP. Other than these two, who performed well on the mound?

Jesse Litsch did, for sure. Formerly an intern for the Tampa Bay Rays (I honestly didn’t write Devil!) Litsch found himself a key component of baseball’s best rotation and he definitely had a September to remember. In six starts, he compiled a 1.13 WPA/LI thanks to a 2.18 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and just 27 hits surrendered in 41.1 innings. For the season, Litsch recorded a 3.58 ERA, 4.29 FIP, and a 2.54 K/BB. He may be one of the least intimidating pitchers, based on mound presence and appearance, but he throws all of his pitches at least 10% of the time and looks to have great control over his controllable skills.

I never thought I would ever get the chance to write anything positive about Kyle Davies, a guy I used to wish would face the Phillies when on the Braves, but he… wasn’t… that… bad… this year. His overall season saw him make 21 starts with a 4.05 ERA and 4.22 FIP. His K/BB was the highest it has ever been at just 1.65, but hey, at least it is some type of an improvement. In September he was 1.10 wins above average, with a 2.27 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP, walking 7 and fanning 24 in 31.2 innings.

Mark Buehrle seems to do the same thing every year. He isn’t a Cy Young Award contender, and he is above average, but he is in that area between being slightly above average and being well above average. This year was a typical Buehrle line with a 3.79 ERA and a 3.94 FIP. In September, he produced a 0.94 WPA/LI, posting a 2.29 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, while striking out 30 and walking ten.

Lastly, another Royal found his way into this article. Zack Greinke had a great September, posting a 2.18 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, resulting in a 0.92 WPA/LI. He walked just 7 while fanning 32 in his 33 innings of work. On the whole, he produced a 3.47 ERA, 3.56 FIP, and 3.27 K/BB. Zack also experienced the highest frequency of groundballs in his entire, but short, career. With a .318 BABIP I would normally call for some type of regression, but Zack has posted BABIPs of .318, .316, and .318 over the last three seasons, so perhaps this should be expected.

The headlines were dominated by Sabathia, Lee, Halladay, Lincecum, and Santana, but Oswalt and Lowe staked claim as September’s best, and the five players mentioned above were decent surprises.

Path To Victory: Philadelphia Phillies

When the Mets were surging early while Ryan Howard was doing his best impression of Pedro Cerrano impression, it was hard to imagine the Phillies repeating as NL East champions. However, they got enough good performances, especially on the pitching staff, to carry them back into the playoffs. What do they need to do to make Eric a happy, happy man?

Don’t overreact to Burrell’s struggles

He’s been pretty horrible the last couple of months of the season, but if Charlie Manuel decides that represents a real change in talent and limits his October playing time, he’ll be taking a right-handed power bat out of a line-up that needs right-handed power. Burrell’s not as good as he was early or as bad as he was late, and they can’t just react to the recent performance – it’s not more predictive than his body of work overall. Taking Burrell out of the line-up makes the Phillies worse, slump or no slump.

Don’t trust J.C. Romero

You can’t evaluate relievers by using ERA, and with a guy like Romero, that’s even more true. He had a shiny 2.75 ERA this year, but his command is so dreadful that he’s a very risky option as a high leverage reliever. He gets enough groundballs that he probably won’t kill you by giving up the big home run, but you can’t afford to let him walk the bases loaded while trying to find his release point. If ever there was a guy who needed to be on a much shorter leash in the playoffs than he was given in the regular season, it’s Romero.

Ride the big four

There’s a significant talent gap between Hamels/Myers/Moyer/Lidge and the rest of the pitching staff. As much as possible, the Phillies need to maximize the number of innings that quartet throws. The more innings they give to Joe Blanton or the middle relievers, the less likely they are to win. With a wide open National League, Philly has a real chance to reach the World Series this year, but they’ll have to lean on their best pitchers to get them there – the role players aren’t good enough.

Revisiting the Sabathia Deal from Cleveland’s Perspective

Given the recent impact that the C.C. Sabathia trade has had on the playoffs, let’s revisit the move that brought the burly left-hander to the National League and the Milwaukee Brewers. We all know what Sabathia has done for the Brewers in the second half of the season, so let’s look at how the prospects received by Cleveland did this past season.

Outfielder Matt LaPorta was the prospect with the highest profile, as a former first round pick who has put up impressive minor league numbers. He struggled, though, after coming over from Milwaukee and hit just .233/.281/.350 in 17 Double-A games before heading to the Olympics where he was beaned by a pitch and sat out the remainder of the season as a precaution.

In a small sample size, LaPorta’s walk rate plummeted after the trade from 13.0 percent to 6.3 percent, while his strikeout rate remained roughly the same around 20 percent. His power stroke also disappeared as his ISO dropped from .288 to .117, and his OPS went from .957 to .631. He’s likely earned a ticket back to Akron in 2009 to begin the season.

Zach Jackson is a former supplemental first round pick (32nd overall in 2004 by Toronto). He is a soft-tossing lefty who projects as more of a middle or long reliever than a starter. Jackson, 25, appeared in 11 Major League games (nine starts) combined between Cleveland and Milwaukee in 2008. He posted a 5.55 ERA (4.61 FIP) in 58.1 innings. He allowed 69 hits and 16 walks to go along with 31 strikeouts (4.78 K/9). He’ll have to battle for a roster spot in 2009.

Rob Bryson was a name that wasn’t known by many people before the big trade. The 20-year-old, who has split time between the starting rotation and bullpen, spent the season in A-ball. He appeared in just seven games after coming over from Milwaukee after suffering from shoulder inflammation and possibly a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. He has the ability to hit the mid-90s when healthy.

When the Brewers secured the playoff berth, it allowed Cleveland to pick a fourth prospect, as a player to be named later. That player is expected to be named today and should be either outfielder Michael Brantley or infielder Taylor Green.

Both prospects are interesting but they project as bench or platoon players. Neither player has much power but they are both versatile. Brantley has a slightly better chance of being a regular, at least for a few seasons, due to his amazing strike zone judgment and speed (28 stolen bases in 36 attempts). He hit .319/.391/.398 in 420 Double-A at-bats. He walked 50 times (10.6 BB%) with just 27 strikeouts (6.4 K%). His ISO is a paltry .079. Green hit .289/.380/.443 in 418 High-A at-bats. He walked 61 times (12.7 BB%) with 59 strikeouts (14.1 K%). His ISO was a more respectable .153.

Obviously, none of the players above have impacted Cleveland like Sabathia has affected Milwaukee, but 2009 could be a whole different story, especially if Milwaukee is bounced from the 2008 playoffs early on and Sabathia walks for a larger free agent payday. Until then, though, Milwaukee has definitely won this deal.

Other Than Howard..

Ryan Howard had a scorchingly hot month of September, as he hit .352/.422/.852, with 11 home runs. Producing a 1.68 WPA/LI in the month put the slugging first baseman ahead of all other hitters in the season’s final month and likely earned him plenty of undeserving MVP votes. There were several other hitters, however, that had performed extremely well in September, yet whose work in that span will likely go unnoticed by the larger fanbase of major league baseball. A couple of these players have been covered here before, but at least two will surprise or shock you.

First, Andre Ethier finished just one-tenth of a win behind Howard, as his final month resulted in a 1.57 WPA/LI. Dave mentioned here that the talk of Manny Ramirez as MVP was a bit odd considering that Ethier was arguably better than Manny since his arrival. In September, Ethier hit .462/.557/.692, with 12 extra base hits. His batting order compadre, Ramirez, hit .370/.465/.753. There is no doubt that Manny is a big reason that the Dodgers were able to win the division, but nobody should sell Ethier short. His performance over the last few months has been just as important.

Felipe Lopez is quite the interesting case. He was solid for the Reds a few years back, went to the Nationals as part of that odd Austin KearnsGary Majewski trade, and was deemed to be so ineffective this year that the Nationals–yes, the Nationals–let him go. After all, in 100 games, he was hitting a measly .234/.305/.314. The Cardinals were quick to snatch him up and he did not disappoint. In 43 games, he hit .385/.426/.538, numbers you may expect from Cardinals-teammate Albert Pujols, but not the light-hitting Lopez. This past month, he hit .414/.443/.596, with 6 doubles and 4 home runs. For those keeping score, that means he hit 2/3 of his total number of home runs over the final month.

Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians had a tremendous more-than-half-season with the Indians. In the final month, he hit .400/.464/.659, with 5 doubles and 5 home runs. He was not this hot during the entire season, but his overall numbers and very impressive: .309/.387/.549, 28 doubles and 14 home runs in 94 games. His teammate, Asdrubal Cabrera, started off alarmingly slow, but finished very strong, with a .416/.455/.571 in September, complete with 6 doubles and 2 home runs. It didn’t bring his seasonal line to that of Choo’s, but he did manage to “up” it to .259/.346/.366.

Lastly, Joey Votto of the Reds had a great rookie season, hitting .297/.368/.506 in his first year of big league action. His 32 doubles and 24 home runs are equally impressive and his continued development will be a big part of the Reds’ success moving forward. Over the final month, though, his batting average rose just slightly to .309, but his OBP rose to .400 and his SLG jumped to .723. One fourth of those doubles came in September, and 9 of those 24 home runs did as well. He also showed he could be fleet of foot, adding 2 triples.

The regular season is just about over, so you would think the performances of these players would be fresh in our minds, but unfortunately they are not covered too often. Tonight we will take a look at pitchers who flew under the radar in September. This would basically be anyone not named Sabathia, Lee, Halladay, or Lincecum.

Path To Victory: Milwaukee Brewers

On the left arm of CC Sabathia, the Brewers made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. It wasn’t an easy season by any means, but their survival resulted in a playoff berth via the wild card, and with that, a first round NLDS matchup against the Philadelphia Phillies. What will they need to do in order to go from Wild Card to World Champion?

Get on Sabathia’s back

The big southpaw has been ridiculously great since coming over from Cleveland, and with their season in jeopardy the last few weeks, he’s repeatedly answered the call on short rest. He’s made three starts on three days of rest and has given up six runs with a nifty 4/21 K/BB, averaging over 7 innings per start on short rest.

Well, he’ll have a chance to do it again in Game 2, as he went Sunday to get them in, but they can’t give up their chance to get him two starts in this series. With Ben Sheets likely on the shelf for at least for the first round, the Brewers need Sabathia to throw as many innings as he possibly can, and that means keeping him on his three day rest schedule. The odds of them beating the Phillies if CC only makes one start are not good, and if CC’s willing to keep pitching with abbreviated rest, the Brewers have to take him up on it.

Swing For The Fences

The Brewers hit 198 home runs as a team, and the middle of their order features some fearsome power – they even get longballs from unusual sources such as SS and CF. They play big baseball, and if they buy into cliches about bunting and making productive outs to win October, they’ll be cutting their offense off at the knees. They have a lot of guys who can hit the ball a long way, and they need to let them try. The less often they bunt, the better off they’ll be. Swing away boys.

McGough: My First Day in Pinstripes

This is a few weeks old but I just caught Matthew McGough telling the hilarious story of his first day as the Yankees bat boy on The Moth podcast. It’s definitely worth a listen, especially if you’re a fan of one of the 21 teams already looking forward to opening day 2009.

Season in Review: Boston Red Sox

Today will kick off a series of retrospectives now that the regular season is over and done with. These will concern themselves only with the regular season and how the teams fared. They will be presented, from first to last, in order of their run differential as given by the BaseRuns formula, which I feel is the best overall measurement of a team’s actual talent level for the season.

Number One: Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox occupied the top spot according to BaseRuns and by a fair margin to boot, 35 runs better than the second place team. The Red Sox were 2nd best on offense at a projected 884 runs scored and 7th at run prevention with 699 runs allowed.

Boston’s pitching was well balanced between the rotation and the bullpen. The rotation was anchored by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester and saw a solid, if curious and likely unsustainable, performance from Daisuke Matsuzaka as well. The bullpen was built on the backs of another outstanding season from Jonathan Papelbon and a breakout year for Manny Delcarmen.

On the hitting side there were many people to spread the credit around to. J.D. Drew rebounded from a vilified first season in Boston to post fantastic numbers both at the plate and in the field. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz provided much less value than before but were still helpful contributors. The breakouts though came from Dustin Pedroia (a fine, but nowhere near MVP performance) and Kevin Youkilis, who busted out a never before seen slugging power.

While the catcher and center field positions did what they could to drag down the offense, the rest of the lineup made up for it and with Boston’s immense financial resources they should be in prime position to patch what few holes they have and continue being a dominant force in 2009.

Bookending With Burrell

In my very first post here at Fangraphs, back on April 14, I took a look at Phillies leftfielder Pat Burrell, and how his numbers had been very consistent over the last few years. They had also been consistently better than his reputation would suggest; his reputation was seemingly spawned from a very poor 2003 season following his 6 yr-50 mil extension. His batting average will only be high thanks to very high BABIPs, but based on his 2005-07 numbers, he was as much of a sure thing in the OBP, SLG, OPS, and BB department as you can find. He might not have been atop the leaderboards for each of these metrics, but you knew exactly the type of production he would provide. And, to top it off, he cut back on his strikeouts.

He started out scorchingly hot, hitting 8 home runs with a 1.126 OPS in 28 April games, before cooling in May. June and July saw “the bat” range from .956-.973 in OPS, before his much documented slide in August and September. Even when he struggled, however, he seemed capable of stepping up in crunchtime, and his 1.15 clutch score, ninth highest in baseball this year, seems to agree. On the whole, Pat hit .250/.367/.507 this year, an .875 OPS, with 33 doubles, 33 home runs, and 102 walks. Using win based metrics, he was worth about 2.5 wins above an average hitter via WPA/LI, and his 3.78 WPA ranked 12th in the sport.

As I did back in April, let’s compare his last few seasons:

2005: .389 OBP, .504 SLG, 27 2B, 32 HR, 99 BB
2006: .388 OBP, .502 SLG, 24 2B, 29 HR, 98 BB
2007: .400 OBP, .502 SLG, 26 2B, 30 HR, 114 BB
2008: .367 OBP, .507 SLG, 33 2B, 33 HR, 102 BB

His OBP was down from the previous three years but his SLG outranked his marks in 2005-07, even if by the slightest of margins. His home runs and doubles increased, evidenced by his .257 ISO, his highest in this span. Pat’s BABIP, which went from .341 to .298 to .283 from 2005-07, fell to .275 this year. The Phillies won the NL East for the second straight season, thanks in part to his hot early season performance, which made up for the slow start of Ryan Howard. Howard returned the favor over the last month of the season, but if the Phillies want to avoid a repeat of last year’s division series, both sluggers will need to be at the top of their games.

Pat will be a free agent at the end of this season, and while he has expressed a strong desire to remain in Philadelphia, it just does not seem like a viable option. His fielding has deteriorated to the point that some teams in the senior circuit may seriously shy away from him. It would appear that he would fit best in the American League, where he could work as a designated hitter, but we will have to wait and see. He has been one of the top offensive leftfielders over the last four years and it is a shame that so many in Philadelphia could not get over his very poor 2003 campaign. Burrell is not a hall of famer, and he has never even been named to the all star team, but there are many teams out there, including the Phillies, that could continue to benefit from his bat for the next few years.

Path To Victory: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers had an up-and-down season, coming from behind to overtake the Diamondbacks and win the N.L. West after Manny Ramirez breathed some much needed life into their offense following his acquisition at the deadline. For the final two months, Manny swung the bat like the best hitter in baseball and offset some of the other problems the team was having. But Manny can’t win a title by himself, so what do the Dodgers need to do to take out the Cubs and march towards a World Series title?

Heal Rafael Furcal

Furcal was the team’s best player for the first five weeks of the season, but then missed all but the last four games with a serious back injury. The Dodgers struggled to replace him, finally settling on Angel Berroa for most of their September playoff push. The only problem is that Berroa is horrible – he hit .230/.304/.310 in 226 at-bats and that might have been playing over his head. He racked up a -1.57 WPA/LI in just over a third of a season, a truly horrible offensive performance. Even if Furcal isn’t completely healthy, he’s almost certainly an upgrade over what they’ve had at the position. The more often they put him in the line-up, the better their chances of winning.

Use Juan Pierre as a pinch-runner only

Despite the fact that he pales in comparison the both Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, Juan Pierre has still started five of the last 15 games the Dodgers have played. Joe Torre likes putting him in the line-up despite the fact that Pierre can’t hit. He has value as a baserunner, and high leverage steals can make a big difference in a single game (Dave Roberts, anyone?), but there’s just no reason to write Pierre’s name on the line-up card. He shouldn’t start a single playoff game, and if Torre can’t resist the urge to keep him on the bench, the Dodgers will suffer for it.

Don’t be afraid to use Clayton Kershaw

While I advised the Cubs to keep their talented young pitcher to low leverage situations, I’d suggest the opposite for the Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw is significantly ahead of Samardzija as a pitcher, putting together a solid season as an above average starting pitcher at the age of 20. If he’s unleashed as a reliever who can throw max effort for 20-30 pitches a night, he could sit comfortably in the high-90s with a devastating breaking ball to boot. He’s good enough to be used in tight situations, and Torre should ignore the fact that he can’t legally drink yet.

Spoiler Alert: It’s Garcia Time

Well, the regular season is not entirely over, as the White Sox and Tigers play at 2 PM EST today. The south side bunch trails the Twins by one half game in the AL Central, meaning the best they could do is force a tie with a win, leading to a one game playoff. The White Sox are putting the season in the hands of Gavin Floyd, who has definitely exceeded expectations this season. Jim Leyland is handing the ball to Freddy Garcia, former Mariners and White Sox great, who won a ring with the White Sox in 2005.

Garcia spent last season with the Phillies, though most of it was not actually spent with the Phillies, as he missed a large portion of the season due to injury. And, as a Phillies fan, I can attest to the fact that while he did look great in spurts in the several starts he did make, he was more than largely ineffective. He spent the last year and a half or so rehabbing and getting back in shape, hoping to audition for, and impress, a team willing to give him a chance this season.

The White Sox were one of these teams, but Ozzie Guillen felt that Freddy just was not ready yet, and likely would not return this season. Garcia used these words as a motivational tool, driving him to prove he was definitely ready for big league action. Sportscenter hinted that Garcia held some ill will towards Guillen for the comments; I am sincerely hoping this was more of a literary technique by the anchor as opposed to the truth, since Guillen’s comments (for once) were pretty harmless in this case.

He has made two previous starts, compiling 10 IP, 9 H, 5 ER, 3 HR, 3 BB, 9 K. I will refrain from discussing, in detail, his 4.50 ERA, 6.43 FIP, or 8.10 K/9, since he has made just two appearances, but a solid performance from Garcia, against his old team, could knock the White Sox out of the playoffs. Let’s hope this does not happen, however, or else we will be one step closer to dozens of mainstream newspapers discussing how the Mets with Johan Santana did not get in but the Twins sans-Santana are still alive in October.

Path To Victory: Chicago Cubs

Life was good for the Cubs this year – they won 97 games, best in the National League by a comfortable margin, and essentially ran away with the NL Central. They were the only NL team to crack 800 runs scored, and only the Dodgers allowed fewer than the 671 runs they gave up. They hit, they pitched, they fielded well – they were the league’s best team and played like it all season long.

So, as they look to open their NLDS series against the Dodgers, what is the path to success that will lead the Cubs to a WS Championship?

Get Carlos Zambrano fixed

Three starts ago, Big Z threw a dominating no hitter, shutting down the Astros in a game that seemed to state loudly that his arm was fine. His next two starts were a disaster, however, as he gave up 13 runs in 6 1/3 innings. His command was gone (7 walks), he wasn’t missing bats (3 strikeouts out of 35 batters faced), and hitters were pounding the pitches they swung at (4 of the 9 hits he allowed were XBH knocks).

The Cubs need Zambrano to win it all. The most important variable for the Cubs this October is getting him pitching like the guy he’s been for the last few years. If they can’t, the odds of them holding a parade drop significantly.

Low Leverage Jeff Samardzija

His no-clue-where-the-strike-zone thing is worked well in August, when he posted a .256 BABIP, which kept runs off the board even as he put baserunners on. However, he simply couldn’t sustain that kind of performance, and he was pretty lousy in September – more walks than strikeouts with 19 of the 47 batters he faced reaching base. Velocity can be seducing, and it’s tempting to want to hand the ball to the guy who throws 98 as often as possible, but Samardzija isn’t a very good reliever right now, and the fewer important innings the Cubs give him, the better off they’ll be.

Get Fontenot in the line-up

Mike Fontenot hs had a remarkably good season as a reserve infielder who played when Mark DeRosa was playing something besides second base. His .305/.395/.514 line made him one of the Cubs best hitters, though obviously those numbers are inflated by his limited playing time. However, there’s a good case to be made that Fontenot is a better player than Kosuke Fukodome right now, and the Cubs best line-up involves moving DeRosa to right field in order to keep Fontenot in the line-up. As good as the Cubs offense is, you don’t want to be leaving runs on the bench in a playoff series, and the difference between Fontenot’s bat and Fukodome’s could end up deciding a game. Play your best players, and right now, Fontenot is one of your best players.

Down To Two For First

Last night the Mets and Brewers both won, leaving the NL Wild Card race at a standstill. The Rays lost and Red Sox won leaving the Rays still without a clinched division title. The Twins came back from a huge deficit and completed a sweep of the White Sox, but that still left the separation in the division at one half of a game, just with a new leader now.

Those races are all highly publicized. One other race was pared down last night that might have gone unreported. With the Mariners losing, the Padres were officially eliminated from the race for the first overall pick in next June’s amateur draft. The tiebreaker for draft order is to award the earlier pick to the team with the worse record in the year prior and of the three teams vying for that top spot: Seattle, Washington and San Diego, the Padres had the best record in 2007, followed by Seattle.

This means that in the event that San Diego and Seattle tie in overall record come Monday, the earlier pick will be awarded to the Mariners. Since if Seattle wins out and the Padres lose out, the two teams would end up with identical records, there is now no way for the Padres to surpass the Mariners for the first pick. What that ends up meaning is still very much up in the air, but no matter who ends up emerging over the course of next Spring, draft picks get exponentially more valuable the closer they get to first overall.

The current consensus top talent, San Diego State starter Stehpen Strasburg, will be closely watched along with fellow southern California collegian Grant Green. In the event that their stock hold up into next June, that San Diego will have to hope that at least Seattle, and possibly Washington as well, pass on both can not fill them with much glee.

Familiar Season-Ending Series x2

Three games remain for both the Phillies and Mets. The Phillies currently hold a one game lead in the NL East, and the Mets are deadlocked with the Brewers atop the Wild Card standings. The Mets have not blown a 7.5 game lead like last year, but the similarities to last year at this same time are pretty striking. Entering the final series in 2007, the Phillies and Mets were tied, and were set to host the Nationals and Marlins at home, respectively. In the first game, Cole Hamels looked dominant, striking out thirteen Nationals en route to a 6-0 win. Up north, Oliver Perez fell to Byung-Hyun Kim, 7-4, giving the Phillies a one game lead.

The next day, John Maine had a Hamels-like performance as the Mets beat up on the Marlins, 13-0. The Phillies were not as lucky, and why should they have been, with Adam Eaton on the mound? Why Eaton was pitching on such an important day will forever escape me and the multitude of Phillies fans. Anyways, they lost 4-2, once again bringing the division to a tie. On the final Sunday, I will never forget watching in shock (and glee) as Tom Glavine imploded and the Marlins erupted for seven runs in the first inning. Ramon Castro came a few inches short of a grand slam to make the score 7-5, and the Mets were down and out. Jamie Moyer, meanwhile, looked brilliant for the Phillies, as they clinched the division with a 6-1 victory.

Weather permitting, the Phillies will host the Nationals for three this weekend, while the Marlins visit Shea Stadium. Below are the tentative matchups:

Phillies vs. Nationals
Friday: Joe Blanton vs. Collin Balester
Saturday: Jamie Moyer vs. John Lannan
Sunday: Cole Hamels vs. Odalis Perez

Mets vs. Marlins
Friday: Mike Pelfrey vs. Chris Volstad
Saturday: Brandon Knight (?) vs. Ricky Nolasco
Sunday: Johan Santana vs. Scott Olsen

The question mark is not meant to serve as an insult towards Knight but rather it points towards the fact that the Mets seemingly have not decided who will pitch Saturday. The New York announcers speculated Knight would toe the rubber tomorrow and he very well might. Should the Phillies or Mets clinch prior to the final game, Hamels and Santana will likely be given the day off in order to pitch in the first game of a playoff series. With the way the forecast looks this weekend, these final games may be Monday or Tuesday. The circumstances of this season’s division race is different than last year, but just like then, both teams will have to stave off potential spoilers to earn their way into October baseball.

Red Sox-Angels

While there are still a few pennant races to be determined, we have a pretty good grasp on at least one series that will open next Tuesday – the Red Sox and Angels will be squaring off, as Boston’s the very likely wild card entry and the Angels will almost certainly finish with the league’s best record.

This is a tough draw for the Angels, because despite not winning their division, it’s pretty easy to make a case that the Red Sox are the best team in the AL this year. They have the league’s best run differential (+165), and no one else is particularly close. They’ve scored more runs than each of the other AL playoff teams (only Texas scored more often overall) and they’ve allowed the second fewest runs, 12 behind Tampa Bay.

On top of that, the Red Sox are built extremely well for the playoffs. Their big weakness this year was the #5 starter position, which was filled by a variety of players at different times. Overall, the starters beyond Beckett/Lester/Matsuzaka/Wakefield pitched 231 innings and had a 4.81 FIP, compared to the 3.91 FIP that the four playoff starters managed to total.

In addition, the best innings of the #5 starter group came from Justin Masterson, who has been terrific out of the bullpen for the Sox, giving them another RH setup man to bridge the gap to Jonathan Papelbon. With Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, and Manny Delcarman, along with Masterson and Papelbon, the Sox have five quality relievers for high leverage situations.

Assuming that the nine main pitchers for Boston log a significant majority of the playoff innings, the Red Sox probably have the best playoff pitching staff of any team headed into October. Beckett’s a legitimate #1, Lester and Matsuzaka are inconsistent but occasionally brilliant, and Wakefield’s knuckler makes him one of the best #4 starters around.

This isn’t to say the Angels don’t have a chance – they have a good team with some quality arms themselves, but their reward for having the AL’s best record is a date with a team that is probably superior in most ways. If the Angels end up bowing out in the first round, it won’t be because they couldn’t handle the pressure – they’ve just drawn a better opponent.

It takes a Brave Team to Draft Prep Pitchers

The Atlanta Braves organization is well-known for its preference in drafting raw high school pitchers and molding them with the club’s pitching philosophies. The 2006 draft was known for being heavy in talented college pitchers, but the Braves still followed through with the club’s original formula and selected four high school pitchers as part of its seven picks within the first three rounds of the draft.

(FYI: The club also draft high school first baseman Cody Johnson, community college shortstop Chase Fontaine, and college pitcher Dustin Evans).

Cory Rasmus, brother of St. Louis’ Colby Rasmus, was the first prep pitcher taken by Atlanta (38th overall). He has been slowed by injuries and has pitched just 13 innings in the last three seasons. He is expected to be healthy in 2009 and the right-hander should spend most of the year in A-ball.

Steve Evarts (43rd) has also pitched far less in the past three seasons than the Braves had hoped he would, in part due to injuries and in part due to disciplinary reasons. When he’s been on the mound, the young lefty has pitched well and he has a 2.30 career ERA in 98 innings, having allowed just 86 hits and 17 walks, with 81 strikeouts.

Jeff Locke (51st) has at least been able to stay on the mound for three seasons with good, but not spectacular, results. This season, his first in full-season ball, Locke allowed 150 hits in 139.2 innings but walked just 38 batters and struck out 113. The lefty obviously has excellent control, but he needs to miss more bats if he is going to be successful in the upper minors.

Chad Rodgers (100th) was the fourth high school pitcher taken and the third lefty. He, like Locke, played his first full season of ball in 2008 after two stints in Rookie ball. Rodgers went just 2-10 with a 4.53 ERA and split time between the starting rotation and the bullpen. He showed good control (2.76 BB/9) and struck out more batters than Locke (7.59 K/9) but also had trouble missing bats and allowed more than one hit per inning.

It’s true what they say: Young pitchers will break your heart. This quartet of talented pitchers have opportunities that millions dream of, but few realize. It’s about time they start to take advantage of those chances.

Walk Off Thursday

Heading into the final weekend of play, there are some playoff races that look like they could go down to the wire, and last night, we saw some huge plays that could end up being season altering for the teams involved. Here’s a look at the biggest hits.

8th inning, White Sox lead 6-5, runner at first, 1 out: Denard Span triples off Bobby Jenks.

Span’s hit was huge, adding .419 WPA by driving in a runner not already in scoring position to tie a crucial game with just five outs left before the Twins lost. That hit set the stage for

9th inning, Twins-White Sox tied at 6, runners at first and third, 2 out: Alexi Casilla singles off Jenks.

A game winning single by Casilla gives the Twins the win and the division lead, though he should share the .360 WPA credit with Nick Punto, who was able to draw the walk that eventually led to the winning run. By winning again, the Twins have taken the division lead from the White Sox headed into the final weekend of play.

10th inning, Brewers-Pirates tied at 1, bases loaded, 2 out: Ryan Braun hits a home run off of Jesse Chavez

The Brewers are in a race to the finish for the Wild Card, and they needed a big. Ryan Braun’s walkoff grand slam added .339 WPA and sealed the win for Milwaukee, allowing them to keep pace with the Mets because…

9th inning, Cubs-Mets tied at 6, runners at first and second, 2 out: Carlos Beltran singles off Kevin Hart

Beltran gave the Mets a walkoff win of their own, racking up .386 WPA for his game winning single. Seriously, MVP voters who want to give an award to a Met named Carlos – you’re focusing on the wrong one. Beltran’s been tremendous for the Mets this year, and while he’s obviously not the NL MVP, he’s the better candidate on the boys from Queens.

Porcello and Detroit’s Future

Never minding the ludicrous idea that the Tigers could score 1,000 runs this season, they did look to come into the year with an overpowering offense and despite a slow start to April that left most people forgetful of them, the Tigers did exactly that. Though Miguel Cabrera perhaps had a disappointing season given his hype and move over to first base defensively, the Tigers offense was not what sunk them this season.

No, it was on the run prevention side that Detroit flopped. Notably, their defense was horrible. Anyone who was paying attention in 2007 would have predicted that coming in however. What was unexpected was the utter collapse of the Tigers pitching staff. Last season the bullpen was nothing special, but neither were they especially terrible. This year? Not so much as they had Bobby Seay and that’s about it as far as relievers that actually contributed positively to the pen.

However, not even that is the most troubling aspect of 2008 for Detroit. That distinction goes to the rotation, once hyped full of young talent. In 2008, it nearly all fell apart aside from Justin Verlander. Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis and Kenny Rogers were all colossal failures compared to preseason expectations and what’s worse is that Detroit purged its system of Andrew Miller in acquiring Willis and Cabrera from Florida.

Detroit would like hope to be on the way in the form of Rick Porcello, but the teenage stud of the 2007 draft who the Tigers nabbed after he fell due to signability reasons did not have an inaugural professional season to write home about. Walking or hitting over 8% of hitters in advanced A ball isn’t going to get you noticed unless you’re fanning over 25% of them at the same time. Porcello certainly wasn’t doing that, registering a 13.7% figure in that department.

Yes, Porcello is young. Very young in fact; just 19 in a league averaging 23 years of age, but his slow start just going to reinforce that the Tigers are going to need to look elsewhere for awhile to find help in the rotation.

Remember That Volquez Guy?

Back at the beginning of the season, fans in Cincinnati did not really know what to expect after trading away best-story winner Josh Hamilton for a slender righthanded pitcher named Edinson Volquez. After a month, many were convinced that the trade was a win-win, because Hamilton’s bat caught fire and Volquez emerged as the early Cy Young Award favorite in the National League. Few had truly heard of Volquez or knew anything about his repertoire, velocity, or potential, but he dominated hitters left and right, posting some insane numbers in the process. In fact, if Cliff Lee had not had an Orel Hershiser-esque stretch, Volquez would have looked even better early on.

In his first 13 games, 12 of which were starts, Volquez amassed 75 innings, giving up just 49 hits, only 3 of which were longballs. Walks were a bit of an issue as he surrendered 38 free passes, but he showed the ability to miss bats with 91 strikeouts, a 10.92 K/9. His ERA was a measly 1.32, his average game score was 68, and hitters were posting a .188/.303/.261 slash line against.

Over his last 20 starts, his numbers have regressed, and his position atop the out-of-nowhere-story throne was lost, but his overall season is still quite good. In this 20-start span, Volquez posted the following: 121 IP, 118 H, 11 HR, 55 BB, 115 K, 4.39 ERA, 51 GSC, .257/.345/.403. Okay, so he became human again and looked a bit closer to what we would expect from an average pitcher instead of the dominant force through the beginning of June. But hey, Hamilton regressed too, so it is still a win-win.

Combined, Volquez is at 196 innings pitched, just 167 hits surrendered, 93 walks, and 206 strikeouts. His 9.46 K/9 is very attractive but the 4.27 BB/9 chips away a bit. A 2.22 K/BB is not terrible but his one glaring flaw this season lies in the walks issued. His 3.21 ERA is not deemed out of line based on his 3.59 FIP, and while his 1.33 WHIP is closer to average than dominant, his 75.5% strand rate has ensured a good portion of those runners remained put. He should get one more start to finish up the season, making it very likely for him to surpass the 200 IP mark with solid numbers to backup that amount of usage. He might not win any postseason awards and he may have regressed since the beginning of June, but Edinson Volquez still put together one heck of a season

Tampa’s Role Players

Tampa Bay is one game away from clinching the American League East – a win or a Red Sox loss will give them their first division title in franchise history, completing the best story of the year as the little guy slays a couple of baseball giants. Andrew Friedman and his staff deserve a ton of credit for building a division winner on a shoestring payroll.

However, some members of the mainstream media have continually attempted to demean the team building accomplishments of the Rays, claiming that the foundation of their success has been built by years of losing yielding a bevy of first round picks. As the theory goes, it’s those guys acquired as a reward of ineptitude that has allowed Tampa to thrive. To discredit the job Friedman and company have done, they instead point to the contributions of B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria, and the gang acquired for Delmon Young this winter. And certainly, those guys are integral parts of the team.

However, I wonder if those same writers have noticed that the Rays have been without Crawford for the last two months and without Upton for a good chunk of September? In fact, if you look at some of the line-ups the Rays have been running out this month, it’s regularly included guys like Fernando Perez, Ben Zobrist, Dan Johnson, Eric Hinske, and Gabe Gross. With a patchwork line-up of role players, the Rays went 7-4 in games against Boston, New York, and Minnesota. Facing the toughest part of their schedule, without the two toolsy outfielders that have become the defacto face of the Rays rebuilding process, Tampa won 64 percent of their games to essentially put away the division title.

In fact, here is the WPA/LI for the Rays hitters in September:

Carlos Pena 0.61
Evan Longoria 0.31
Gabe Gross 0.19
Willy Aybar 0.18
Ben Zobrist 0.11
Fernando Perez 0.11
Dioner Navarro 0.10
Cliff Floyd 0.10
Jason Bartlett 0.08
Justin Ruggiano 0.05
Dan Johnson 0.02
Akinori Iwamura -0.10
M. Hernandez -0.12
B.J. Upton -0.12
Eric Hinske -0.40
Rocco Baldelli -0.46

Crawford hasn’t played, Upton and Baldelli have been two of the least effective hitters, and the Rays have been able to play better than .500 ball against a ridiculously tough schedule: 6 against NY, 6 against Boston, 4 against Minnesota, 4 against Baltimore, and 3 against Toronto.

At some point, people have to recognize the contributions Tampa is getting from it’s role players this year. The Rays had Upton, Crawford, Pena, Kazmir, and Shields last year too, and they only won 66 games.

The young stars are certainly valuable commodities, but this team is going to win the AL East because of how good their role players have been. And for that, we have to acknowledge that no one in baseball has done a better job of team building in the last year than the folks down in Tampa.

Congratulations to Andrew Friedman and crew – you guys have earned this.

Bad Time For Injuries

As it came time for this season’s action, two pitchers I had my eyes on were Dustin McGowan of the Blue Jays and Shawn Hill of the Nationals. Both had displayed the ability to succeed in the major leagues in 2007, showed very solid controllable skills, and looked poised to take the next step in 2008. Hill’s 2007 was by no means reminiscent of Pedro circa 1999-2000, but he posted a 3.42 ERA, a 4.03 FIP, a 1.14 WHIP, and a 2.60 K/BB. Via WPA/LI, Hill was worth right around one win above an average pitcher, despite making just 19 starts.

This year he was plagued with injuries right from the get-go, missing time due to a strained right forearm, then right elbow tightness, and finally right forearm tightness, an injury serious enough to keep him out of action from June 25 until the end of the season. In the time he did toe the rubber, he posted a 5.83 ERA, a 1.75 WHIP, and a -1.18 WPA/LI, making him worth over a win less than an average starting pitcher. Fortunately, these numbers do not tell the whole story, as his BABIP was an otherworldly .373, and his strand rate was way below average because of this, at just 62%. Looking solely at his controllable skills, Hill’s FIP was 4.06, virtually identical to last year’s.

If the problems were due to the injuries, and the time off can help get him back on track, great, however he is very likely going to be on injury watch the rest of his career. I can remember watching Mitch Williams break down Hill’s mechanics before, and with Hill’s windup, his legs are planted while his arm still has its ways to go. This means he is basically throwing with all arm, which is an injury just waiting to happen. Williams proposed Hill alter his windup or else his career is going to consist of solid 16-start seasons with the other time spent rehabbing or on the disabled list.

McGowan, last year, posted a 4.08 ERA, a 3.73 FIP, a 2.36 K/BB, 1.22 WHIP, and was worth 1.5 wins above an average pitcher via WPA/LI. His 68% strand rate was below the league average but his BABIP was somewhat significantly better than the rest of the league. Entering this season, he was being counted on to be the key third member of what could be the best rotation in baseball. His numbers were not as “poor” as Hill’s, but did not signal a step forward by any means. His 3.81 FIP, very similar to last year’s, suggests his 4.37 ERA was too high, and his .316 BABIP led to a higher WHIP of 1.37. Since his strand rate remained the same, the increase in BABIP led to more baserunners who came around to score. His K/BB dropped a bit, but only from 2.36 to 2.24.

Dustin was previously diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear before it was decided he would need to undergo surgery to repair fraying in the glenoid labrum of his right shoulder. From what I have gathered, pitchers tend to resume mound throwing around seven months following such a surgery, though the rehab time could be longer. Additionally, if he experiences a problem with his rotator cuff again, he could miss the entire 2009 season. The Blue Jays expect him to be back in action in May, however. Injuries prevented both of these potential stars from taking the next step this year, so we will have another year of wondering what if, but next year will definitely be pivotal in understanding where they might be headed.