Archive for September, 2010

FanGraphs Audio: Justin Merry of Red Reporter

Episode Forty-Seven
In which the guest is getting reds-y to watch postseason baseball.

“Red October” = Actual, Usable Pun Again!
Aroldis Chapman: The Man, the Myth, the Missile
Bold and/or Foolhardy Playoff Predictions
… and other make-or-break propositions!

Justin Merry (a.k.a. Justin Inaz) of Red Reporter and Beyond the Boxscore.

Finally, you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio on the flip-flop. (Approximately 30 min play time.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Uribe Bounces Back

Juan Uribe is eight plate appearances away from topping 1,000 for his Giants’ career. An absurd twist to Uribe’s career has him playing the role of starting shortstop on a playoff team in the year 2010. Absurd in the sense that Uribe very easily could be out of the majors right now. His 2007 and 2008 seasons were downright horrible. Rarely do defensive-first middle infielders nearing the wrong side of 30 continue getting looks when their defense seems to be on the brink of extinction.

Uribe signed a minor league deal with the Giants in January of 2009 to salvage his career. For a man with the reputation as a stranger to conditioning and offense alike, Uribe hit better than he had previously in his career. Perhaps giving flashbacks to his outstanding 2004 season with Chicago in which he hit 23 home runs and contributed a career best ISO as well.

The 31-year-old has not mimicked that performance this season, but his wOBA is a decent .319. One of the main differences between this Uribe and the one that bombed out of Chicago is his willingness to take a walk. Working free passes in nearly 8% of his plate appearances may not seem like a big deal, but Uribe has the finest walk-to-strikeout ratio of his career when combined with a slightly reduced strikeout rate.

His position and defensive prowess fail to translate into great speed. For his career, he only has 39 stolen bases (with 37 caught stealings) and that helps to translate into a .282 BABIP. This year, only a little over 25% of his balls in play are turning into hits. The rate is not out of reach given his recent history and reliance upon hitting balls into the air, but Uribe’s contact skills are probably better than his .246 batting average suggests.

A free agent at season’s end, Uribe could potentially get a multiple-year offer if a team is willing to put his history of portly disappointments behind them.

Rockies Hang Stars Out to Dry

Given that Troy Tulowitzki missed about a full month worth of playing time due to injury this season, the fact that he’s played himself into MVP consideration is quite remarkable. His teammate, Carlos Gonzalez, has consistently put up huge numbers all season long, and as a result he has also been part of the MVP discussion for much of the season and, for a time, he even staked a claim at a triple crown. These two form the base of the Colorado Rockies lineup, and both have been playing above and beyond expectations this September. Tulowitzki has a tremendous .324/.380/.820 line in September so far, good for a .501 wOBA, and Gonzalez barely trails him, hitting .393/.454/.626 this month. Despite this ridiculous performance from the leaders of the team, the Rockies have only gone 14-13 this month, failing to capitalize on struggles from the Padres (12-15) and Braves (13-14) while allowing the Giants (17-8) to completely take charge of the NL West.

Part of the failing here is the pitching. Rockies relievers have a 5.08 ERA this month, and although a 4.35 FIP suggests some poor luck, that’s still well below the NL reliever average (they do have a 3.35 xFIP, but keeping the ball in the yard is such a massive part of relieving that I’m loath to credit the unit for this). Huston Street has been solid (+1.1 WPA, 1.93 ERA, 1.87 FIP), and Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle have performed well too. However, the back end of the bullpen has been miserable. The primary offender is recently acquired Manny Delcarmen, whose -0.6 WPA in September is the worst out of the Rockies pen, and neither his 7.36 ERA nor his 5.13 FIP look any better. Overall, the Rockies bullpen has a +0.40 WPA – a number that looks good, but since the average reliever is better than the average pitcher, that number actually comes out to about .3 wins worse than the average bullpen. The rotation hasn’t been great either, as all the good from Jhoulys Chacin (1.78 ERA, 3.63 FIP) has been more than undone by terrible performances from Jeff Francis (8.38 ERA, 7.95 FIP) and Jason Hammel (6.41 ERA, 4.93 FIP). Those two combine for a -1.04 WPA on the month, and the unit as a whole checks it at a meager -0.41 WPA.

The pitching wasn’t good, but one might expect that a Rockies offense powered by the September explosions from Gonzalez and Tulowitzki would be able to overcome those efforts. Indeed, the offense as a unit has a .351 wOBA and was 20 runs above average – a good mark, but when we look deeper, many Rockies players missed opportunities to turn a good month into a special one. Without Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, the rest of the Rockies only posted a .312 wOBA and, with park adjustments, that comes out to a full 12 runs below average (roughly 2 runs below average without pitchers hitting). The primary offenders here are Eric Young Jr. (74 PA, .259 wOBA, -4 wRAA) and Miguel Olivo (72 PA, .273 wOBA, -3 wRAA). Melvin Mora and Ryan Spilborghs did put together solid months, but all together, the team simply couldn’t support the red-hot stars of the team.

Between the two of them, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez were nearly 32 runs above average in the course of only a full month. It’s impossible to ask a pair of players to contribute more to a team. However, the failings all around – from the starting rotation, the bullpen, and the rest of the lineup – were just too much for the Rockies to make another historic run. Now, instead of playing meaningful baseball and competing for a playoff spot this weekend, they will toil for nothing while the Padres, Giants, and Braves race for the final two playoff spots.

Cito Gaston Retires, Dusty Baker Signs an Extension; There Are Still Too Few African-American Managers

Last night was Cito Gaston’s last home game in Toronto, after nearly three decades with the organization. Today, Dusty Baker — Gaston’s teammate with the 1975 Braves, and a fellow protege of Henry Aaron — reportedly agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Cincinnati Reds. The 61-year-old Baker and 66-year-old Gaston are, respectively, the first- and third-winningest African-American managers in baseball’s history, with 2293 wins, three pennants, and two World Championships between them. And yet, in the 35 years since Frank Robinson was named the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball’s history, they’re two of the only African-Americans ever to sit in the manager’s chair.

It is probably not a coincidence that two of the most successful African-American managers ever were both teammates of Henry Aaron’s, and both men have consistently credited Henry Aaron as a mentor. It’s also not a coincidence that both men are in their 60s, and no other active African-American managers are even close to their win total. The second-winningest African-American manager is Frank Robinson himself, a contemporary of Aaron’s. According to a list compiled earlier this year by Gary Norris Gray of the Black Athlete Sports Network, there have been 14 African-American managers in the past 40 years. It’s not a perfect list — he mistakenly put Jerry Manuel in his list of Latino and Hispanic managers, for example — but it’s reasonably comprehensive: Don Baylor, Cecil Cooper, Larry Doby, Davey Lopes (who is descended from Cape Verde, an island off the coast of West Africa), Hal McRae, Lloyd McClendon, Willie Randolph, Jerry Royster, Ron Washington, Maury Wills, Manuel, Robinson, Gaston, and Baker. Of those 14, only 11 ever managed a full season — Royster, Doby, and Wills were midseason replacements who were canned before they ever got a chance to manage their 162nd game — and just nine ever won as many as 200 games, a total reached by 250 other managers in history.

Gaston remains the only African-American manager ever to win a World Series. And yet he had to wait more than a decade, from 1997 to 2008, to be given another managing job — of the 22 managers who have won multiple World Series, he’s the only one that has happened to, with the exception of two former player-managers more than 70 years ago (Bill Carrigan and Billy Southworth). He recently raised eyebrows by comparing himself to Tony La Russa, because they both have two World Series rings, but it probably goes without saying: Tony La Russa wouldn’t have had to wait a decade for another managing job. Gaston isn’t that good, but you can’t win two World Series completely by accident, either. His visibility may have been hurt by all those years he spent in Canada, but that seems like an insufficient explanation for his unprecedented decade in the wilderness. (Interestingly, Frank Robinson had a similar layoff between managerial posts, between his 1991 Baltimore Orioles and 2002 Montreal Expos.)

There are four African-American managers in baseball right now: Washington (58 years old), Manuel (56), Baker (61), and Gaston (66). Gaston is retiring, and Manuel is likely on the chopping block. There are no young African-American managers in baseball, and few active players who are seen as likely managers when they retire. (An exception is Terry Pendleton, who is a strong internal candidate to replace the retiring Bobby Cox. Pendleton is currently Bobby Cox’s hitting coach, as Gaston once was.) Major League Baseball has long acknowledged its desire to improve baseball’s appeal to young African-American players with its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, but it hasn’t done much of anything to improve its own track record with regard to the front office.

It’s been 35 years since Frank Robinson integrated baseball’s managerial fraternity, and still too little progress has been made. The departure of one of the most successful black managers ever only highlights just how much work is yet to be done.

UPDATE: The above list is not comprehensive. Other African-American managers include Dave Clark, who managed the Astros for 13 games in 2009, as reader timmy! points out.

Analyzing Madison Bumgarner’s Pitches

The San Francisco Giants have one last game before they face their NL division rival San Diego Padres in one last three-game battle before the NL West division crown is decided (cross your fingers for a 163rd game). At this point in the season, with three or four games left on the schedule for most teams, a 2.0 game lead is an unsafe lead or a sizable mountain to climb depending on which team you are rooting for. For San Francisco, Giants fans look at this afternoon’s matchup with the Arizona Diamondbacks as a must-win if they want to put away the Padres for good. If the Giants win today and the Padres lose, San Diego will have to sweep San Francisco at AT&T Park this weekend in order to force a one-game playoff.

This afternoon’s start by the left-handed rookie Madison Bumgarner may be the most important game of the season for the Giants, at least up to this point. A young pitcher (legally allowed to drink less than two months ago) being handed the reins to a pivotal game, Bumgarner has put together quite a fine season, with a 6.71 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, 3.06 ERA, and 3.77 FIP. Bumgarner is looking for his first career win at home today, all six wins being on the road this season.

When Bumgarner was taken 10th overall in the 2007 draft, he apparently only had a plus fastball and little else. Since then, he’s quickly developed two breaking balls and a changeup, putting himself on the fast track to the Major Leagues. According to his pitch type values, Bumgarner’s most effective pitches this season have been his changeup (wCH/C of 2.88 changeup runs per 100 pitches) and his curveball (wCB/C of 1.60 curveball runs per 100 pitches).

Let’s take a deeper look at all four of his pitches and how he has fared against batters this season, looking at both swinging strikes and balls put in play. First up, let’s look at Bumgarner’s fastballs:

You’ll have to click the image to get a closer look. I’ve added the number of pitches Bumgarner has thrown for each pitch type so you can get an idea of the sample size. Bumgarner throws a 91 MPH fastball, and it looks like his fastball gets a decent number of swinging strikes. When Bumgarner throws fastballs to LHH, he goes outside a bit more, rarely throwing inside, while fastballs against RHH go down the middle of the plate. A lot of these fastballs are put in play, which may add to the fact that Bumgarner’s fastball run value is not as high as his breaking ball pitches. Let’s take a look at Bumgarner’s sliders:

Bumgarner has an 85 MPH slider with good horizontal and vertical movement. Looking at where he throws the slider, they seem pretty uniform between RHH and LHH, although it looks like he goes low and inside to RHH quite a bit, which has allowed him to get swinging strikes. Bumgarner faces much less LHH, so it’s hard to tell who whiffs more on his sliders because of the sample size. Let’s look at the curveballs:

Now this looks interesting, although a note of caution should be posted right away when looking at the sample sizes. Still, it’s interesting that Bumgarner locates his 75 MPH curveball all over the strikezone and out of the zone much more against LHH, inducing swinging strikes mostly on low and outside curveballs to LHH. Against RHH, he tends to keep the curveball over the plate or on the outside (which has more horizontal movement than it does vertical movement), sometimes going down below the zone where he’s gotten a few swinging strikes. Finally, let’s look at Bumgarner’s changeup, which has been his best pitch this season in terms of run value:

This L-R usage split is key. Bumgarner has only thrown 23 changeups against LHH all season, but has thrown almost six times as many against RHH. Granted, left-handed pitchers tend to face lineups filled with right-handed batters far more than left-handed, but it’s still quite a wide split. He has gotten quite a few swinging strikes against RHH and locates his 83 MPH changeup down and away, sometimes out of the zone on the outside to RHH or below the zone.

Against the Arizona Diamondbacks tonight, Bumgarner will face a few left-handed batters in Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson, and Adam LaRoche. Look for Bumgarner’s curveballs against these batters, while the rest of the lineup will likely see his changeup once or twice as his punch-out pitch throughout the game.

A Fitting Farewell for Gaston

Last night, the Blue Jays beat the Yankees 8-4 in their final home game of the season. It was also the last home game for legendary Toronto manager Cito Gaston, who is set to retire after the season. Pre-game ceremonies made for an emotional send-off.

It was also an appropriate goodbye to Gaston in a baseball sense. It has been said (I don’t remember by whom) that the plate approach of the 2010 Blue Jays resembles nothing more than every hitter swinging at the first pitch they think they can drive as if he were in the Home Run Derby. Given that the 2010 Jays are (depending on how you round) currently “on pace” to displace the 1997 Mariners with the highest team isolated power in baseball history, it was fitting that the Blue Jays hit three home runs for Gaston’s Toronto farewell, setting a new franchise record for home runs in a season. Travis Snider, wearing an eyeblack mustache in tribute to Gaston, broke the old record with a 400-foot shot to right field to lead off the bottom of the first. In the second inning, catcher John Buck hit his 20th home run of the season with an opposite-field solo homer that just cleared the wall. Aaron Hill finished yet another Derby at the Rogers Centre with a three-run bomb to left in the fifth. The only thing that would have made it better (other than Jose Bautista hitting three more jacks) would have been if all three homers had been solo shots, given the Blue Jays’ power-without-walks offense this season.

Bautista’s big season is in itself an nice accompaniment to Gaston’s retirement, not in how it relates to Gaston’s distinguished career as a manager, but in how it relates to Gaston’s career as a player. The Bautista story is well-known so I won’t go through it again. It has certainly been fun to watch Bautista’s monster shots fly out of the park (unless your team was the victim, of course). After never having put up more than 2 wins above replacement in a season, Bautista current stands at 6.7 WAR for 2010. His .421 wOBA for the year is 82 points higher than the next closest season.

But until last night, I never realized the curious parallel between the playing careers of Gaston and Bautista. In parts of 11 seasons with three different teams (he had two different stints with the Braves), Gaston (who played all three spots in the outfield at different points in his career) accumulated a mere 3.9 WAR. His .313 wOBA (.256/.298/.397) was actually league average for his career (100 wRC+), but TotalZone sees him as as a poor fielder for his career at -63 runs. Gaston never was worth one WAR in a season, and several seasons, despite a decent amount of playing time, ended up below replacement… except for his 1970 season with the Padres. That year Gaston hit .318/.364/.543 for a .400 wOBA (153 wRC+). In 1969, the year before his big season, Gaston hit for a .267 wOBA (.230/.275/.309) in 419 plate appearances. In 1971, the year after, he had a .295 wOBA (.228/.264/.386). His next best season came six years later as a bench player for the Braves, and it was only a .355 wOBA. In no other season did he have a a better than .330 wOBA.

Check out this incredibly difficult to read comparative WAR graph comparing “nth best” seasons by WAR. The green line is Gaston, the orange line is Bautsita. (Click here for a larger version.)

Interesting. If one wants to talk about “seasons out of nowhere,” off the top of my head I can’t think of any more out of nowhere than Gaston’s 1970 given both what came before and after — including Bautista’s. It points out (again) how subject to unpredictability and randomness player performance can be. This isn’t to postulate a Gaston-esque career path for Bautista; I don’t expect him to have a .420 wOBA next season, but I think he’ll do better than the .339 he put up in 2009. I simply think that after looking at Gaston’s monster 1970 against the rest of his playing career, Bautista’s own unforeseeable explosion in 2010 is a fitting tribute to his retiring manager.

Padres Playoff Hopes Rest on Jon Garland

The term “must-win game” is overused to the point of rendering it useless. When fans, panicking over a June slump, call Game 68 a must-win, it tends to lose all meaning. Yet there are still games that a team must win if it will advance to the playoffs. By that strict definition, the Padres are not in a must-win situation tonight. Even if they lose and the Giants win they’ll still be three back in the division with three games against the Giants this weekend. But prayers of a four-game sweep, including Game 163, are not ones that are frequently answered.

Turning to Garland

With their last chance to gain ground before the weekend series in San Francisco, the Padres will hand the ball to Jon Garland. It will be the second time this season he has faced the Cubs. The first was on August 17, when he shut out Chicago through seven innings. That was at Wrigley Field. This time he’ll have a bit more margin for error while pitching at home in Petco Park. But as we know, past performance is no guarantee of future gains — especially when that past performance comprises just one outing.

During his first season in San Diego, Garland has realized a few changes from years past. He’s striking out nearly six per nine innings, a mark that he hasn’t approached previously in his career. The closest he came was 5.23 per nine back in 2002. He’s also walking a ton of batters, four per nine, which is the highest rate he’s realized since walking 4.23 per nine in 117 innings as a 21-year-old. Yet his FIP and xFIP are still within one standard deviation of his career average. So why, then, is his ERA so low at 3.58?

A career-high 52.4 percent ground ball rate has to play into the reason for Garland’s success. Only in 2008, when pitching for the Angels, did he come close to keeping half of his balls in play on the ground. That has helped his tERA, 4.31 against a career average of 5.19. He has also realized good results on balls in play, as his .267 BABIP is his lowest since 2005. His strand rate, 75.4 percent, is also his best since 2005. It’s no surprise, then, that his ERA also approaches his 2005 mark.

The Padres have to be comfortable with Garland taking the hill in a season-making game. He’s had success at Petco this season, a 3.19 ERA in 101.2 innings, and has generally been among the team’s top pitchers. If the Pads continue to play stellar defense, Garland should be just fine.

Offense stumbling

The Padres haven’t had a very good offense all season. At 4.15 runs per game they rank 11th in the NL. That includes a September swoon in which they’ve scored just three runs per game and have scored zero or one runs seven times. In their next four games they will play the Nos. 10 and 9 offenses in the NL, so they’re not at a distinct disadvantage. But they still have to score more than three runs per game in their final four. That’s going to be a rough proposition when facing San Francisco and its No. 2 pitching staff. Thankfully for them, the Cubs have allowed the fourth most runs in the NL, so perhaps tonight they can put up a crooked number in support of Garland and, ultimately, their playoff hopes.

Out of their control

In a way the Padres control their own destiny. If they win their next four games they will, at worst, force a one-game playoff with San Francisco. If the Giants drop the finale to Arizona tonight, a four-game win streak (five counting last night) will put the Padres alone atop the NL West. But, again, banking on sweeping a team that is not only ahead, but has also played better baseball of late, does not always reap rewards.

Before they take on the Cubs at 6:35 EDT this evening, the Padres will certainly be in the clubhouse watching San Francisco play Arizona. If Arizona can defeat Madison Bumgarner, the Padres will move to within 1.5 games of first. A victory on their part would put just a single game between the two teams heading into their weekend series. The Padres, then, would only need to win two of three on the road in order to force a Game 163. If the Giants win, the Padres must then win all three games in San Francisco.

The Braves also present an obstacle for the Padres. A game and a half currently separates the two teams, meaning San Diego desperately needs a win tonight to stay within one game heading into the final weekend. Atlanta plays Philadelphia at home, and while they fight for their playoff lives Philly will be worried about resting up for the NLDS; they already have home-field advantage locked up. While Philly swept Atlanta just last week, the stakes are different this time. Philly won’t lay down for Atlanta, but they also won’t be starting Roy Halladay. It doesn’t guarantee Atlanta anything, but it certainly makes for a match-up more favorable than the last one.

The importance of tonight

While the Padres can retain their postseason hopes even with a loss tonight, a win will go a long way. Here’s the general breakdown.

If the Padres lose tonight, they need:

1) To sweep San Francisco this weekend, whether San Fran wins or loses today.


2) To take two of three from San Francisco and have the Phillies sweep the Braves.

Winning tonight changes that a bit. A San Fran win means that a sweep is still required, but it does make San Diego’s Wild Card hunt a bit easier. In that case they would need to take two of three while Philly takes two of three. And if San Fran loses it means that San Diego has to take only two of three to force a tie.

In any scenario it will not be an easy path to the postseason for San Diego. Their hopes ride on winning, and possibly sweeping, a series on the road against a team that not only has a better record, but also has been playing much better baseball lately. It also means getting help from a team that has nothing left to play for. That doesn’t bod well. But it does make for some excellent September baseball.

Changes In New York

It is widely expected that this weekend will be Omar Minaya’s last stand as the General Manager of the Mets. A disappointing team performance will almost certainly lead to changes in the front office and on the field, with the franchise looking for a new direction. The new guy, whoever he is, will have some interesting choices to make.

The first thing he’ll notice is just how many players he will inherit that are going into their final season under contract to the Mets. After next year, Carlos Beltran, Oliver Perez, Jose Reyes, and Luis Castillo will be eligible for free agency. In addition, the club will almost certainly decline their option on Francisco Rodriguez, setting him free as well. Of those five, only Reyes seems like he has any chance of staying in Queens long term, but even that is not a given.

Those guys represent a huge chunk of the Mets committed salaries. For next year, they don’t have a lot of money to spend without expanding the budget, as they’ve already guaranteed $109 million in salaries for 2011, and that doesn’t include arbitration raises for Angel Pagan or Mike Pelfrey. Yet they have only$61 million in guaranteed money for 2012. Next winter seems to be the time when the new administration will really be able to put their mark on the roster with wholesale changes.

The opportunities for change will leave the new guy in an interesting spot. He’s essentially going to inherit a roster that he didn’t put together and that he can’t do much about. There’s just not going to be much flexibility in how the team is constructed for 2011, unless the organization is willing to eat money in order to move Castillo, Beltran, or Rodriguez a year early, and even then, none of them will be in high demand.

Based on the legacy contracts given out by Minaya, his influence will extend even after he’s gone. Mets fans are going to have to be patient with the new guy, who simply won’t be able to work miracles and transform this roster overnight. The 2011 team is what it is. For the most part, they’ll have to ride out this roster for one more year before they can get into the work of building it right. It won’t be a quick fix in Queens.

Venable’s Winning Defense

A quick glance of the FanGraphs page for last night’s Padres-Cubs game suggests that Chris Young, not Will Venable, was the most important contributor for the Padres. Young pitched five shutout innings (still on a pitch count) and allowed only five baserunners while striking out six Cubs hitters, good for +.254 WPA. Venable, meanwhile, was 1-4 with a bases-empty single in the third inning and a stolen base. That drab performance only left him with -.011 WPA on the night. But one of the limitations of WPA as implemented by FanGraphs is the fact that immediate evaluation of defense is subjective and therefore nearly impossible to include in a live updating win probability chart.

 Simply looking at the win probability graph misses two fantastic defensive plays made by the Padres center fielder. The first play came as Alfonso Soriano led off the top of the second for Chicago. Soriano’s blast went deep to center field. The picture (and the video) tells the rest of the story.

Venable’s catch robbed Soriano of at least a double and possibly a home run. According to the WPA Enquirer at The Hardball Times, that means the play checks in at somewhere between +.093 and +.146. Not only should that be credited (at least mostly) to Venable, but that amount should be debited from Young, who was the beneficiary of this fantastic defensive play.

The Padres once again called on Venable to make a play in the top of the third inning. At this point, the Padres had taken a one run lead on a Chase Headley RBI single. With two outs in the inning and a runner on base, Aramis Ramirez hit a ball to deep left center field. Once again, a picture is worth a thousand words (and who knows how many the video is worth).

I feel safe in saying that this one would clearly have been a home run if not for Venable’s catch. The difference in the two situations – top of the 3rd, two outs, nobody on and a one run lead for the Cubs against the beginning of the bottom of the third and a one run lead for the Padres – comes out to +.289 WPA for Venable (and again, -.289 WPA for Young).

The two catches for Venable add up to between +.382 and +.435 WPA. Regardless, Venable becomes the clear MVP of the game for the Padres and Young becomes a goat who received worlds of support from his center fielder. With the 3-0 win, San Diego kept pace with the Giants and Braves, who both notched victories last night. The Padres still control their own destiny, as they will play one of the most intense and important final series of the season this weekend against the Giants. Good defense has been a hallmark of the Padres unlikely contention this season. Last night, it was good defense that effectively saved their playoff lives.

Idle Thoughts on Watching Late-Season Baseball

Entering play today, there are precisely three teams which have neither (a) clinched a playoff spot nor (b) been eliminated entirely from doing the same. Two of those teams, Atlanta and San Francisco, are very likely to make the posteason; the third, San Diego, is less likely, but has a compelling series this weekend against the Giants.

What that leaves us is 27 teams currently occupying a sort of competitive purgatory — playing without any hope of reaching the postseason and, yet, unable merely to concede the remainder of their games. Yes, there are implications for draft position and tickets that’ve already been sold, but, from a competitive standpoint exclusively, those teams are done-ity done done.

For those of us who like watching baseball, in general, and who, specifically, dedicate substantial amounts of time to devising systems by which we might adjudge the watchability of a particular contest (see: NERD), this particular time of year raises some questions. Well, one question mostly. This one:

Is there any appeal to watching a team that has either clinched, or been elimated from, a playoff spot?

It’s important to note immediately that we’re not considering team allegiance in this conversation. It’s very likely that people in Boston, for example, will continue to watch Red Sox games — because, well, that’s what you do if you’re a Boston fan. (Mind you, it’s not the only thing you do. You probably also refer to everybody as “guy” and use filthy, filthy language — even around grandmothers and newborns. But those matters aren’t germane to the present effort.)

For the neutral supporter, though, the question remains: is there any reason to watch a non-contending team?

I think we can “yes.” I think we can say it for a number of reasons, probably, but two reveal themselves immediately. For one, it’s still baseball, and watching baseball is, as foreign people are always saying in their foreign-sounding languages, “better than a kick in the face.”

So, that’s one reason.

The other is this: there are still things to learn. For example, consider yesterday’s Pirates-Cardinals game. I previewed it in a white-hot edition of One Night Only; Jackie Moore provided the readership with some equally hot postgame notes on the performances of starting pitchers Young James McDonald and Even Younger P.J. Walters. Yes, the game was meaningless so far as wins and losses are concerned this year, but it’s likely that those two starters and any number of field players — Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez — it’s likely they all contribute, at some level, to future wins. Smart baseball fans care about that type of thing.

So we can say with some degree of certainty that the so-called “meaningless” games we’re talking about — we can say that they have some value, that they’re not meaningless to the curiouser of us.

But that prompts us to ask another question, specifically: is it possible for any of these so-called meaningless games — is it possible that even the most interesting of them could be more compelling than a game featuring a still-contending team?

Consider the Diamondbacks, for example. Or the Brewers. Both teams rate pretty highly by NERD’s exacting standards (a 9 for each). Arizona is young and plays excellent defense. Milwaukee has the best offense in the NL by park-adjusted wRAA. Both teams hit for power, feature modest payrolls, and have scored fewer runs than their Base Runs totals would otherwise suggest. Those are all qualities amenable to the baseball nerd.

The Giants and Braves, on the other hand, feature NERD scores of 4 and 5, respectively — not bad scores, but not great, either. San Francisco runs the bases poorly, they’re on the old side, they feature a slightly below-average offense. Really, a lot of their aesthetic value is in the quality of their starting rotation. As for Atlanta, they also run the bases poorly, they feature one of the league’s poorer Team UZRs, and their HR/FB ratio is below average.

Of course, the difference is that both of those teams (i.e. the Giants and Braves) are playing meaningful games — meaningful in the traditional baseball sense. So while, yes, the Brewers might be more interesting than the Braves in a vacuum, the circumstances presented by a playoff race aren’t very vacuum-y at all.

We’re confronted with a truth, then. Roger Caillois discusses it somewhere in his excellent Man, Play, and Games, but I have no idea where I’ve deposited my copy of said text, nor am I particularly inclined to go looking for it. In any case, I’m almost positive that Caillois writes something like this in it, something like: for whatever its other vrtues, a game that doesn’t incentivize winning — or that features even a single contestant for whom victory isn’t the primary objective — that is, by definition, a less interesting game.

As I very obviously have no intention of reaching something so pedestrian as a “conclusion” in the present work, allow me to end with two notes, as follows:

1. Given the nature of competition and games, it’s unlikely that a game between two eliminated (or playoff-bound) teams — it’s unlikely that said game could be more interesting than one featuring a still-contending team.

2. On the other hand, merely because a team — owing to its place in the standings — merely because a team as a whole lacks incentive to win a game, this doesn’t necessarily apply to all the individual players involved in the game. For example, in the case of the aforementioned Pirates-Cardinals game, we can assume that St. Louis starter P.J. Walters in fact had a great deal of incentive to perform well. As a young pitcher likely to compete for a spot on the 2011 Cardinals, Walters presumably wanted very much to dominate his opponent and impress the major league coaching staff, who ultimately have control over his career and, thus, his livelihood. We might even say that Walters had more incentive to perform ably in yesterday’s game than a veteran player on a contending team.

Something About Zack Greinke Is Consistent

Zack Greinke pitched well this season. At first blush, his ERA does not suggest that to be the case. A 4.23 figure is more than two runs higher than his impossible to replicate 2.16 ERA from 2009. He won only nine games and lost 14. Although he has one start remaining, he will finish at least seven innings shy of his 2009 season tally. Our WAR metric values Greinke at five wins this season. In 2008, he posted a 4.9 WAR and last year he nearly captured the sum of the two seasons with a 9.4 WAR. Clearly, 2009 will be the pinnacle of Greinke’s pitching career.

If you go by WAR, Greinke is the fourth best pitcher over the last three seasons, ahead of CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, and everyone without the surnames Halladay, Lincecum, and Lee. Of course, that’s a tad unfair given the whole amazing 2009 season thing. This season, his WAR is higher than David Price’s. Higher than Sabathia’s. Higher than all American League pitchers save a select few.

He will not receive consideration in the AL Cy Young voting and… well, whatever. He already has one of those trophies anyways. The weirdest aspect about Grenke’s stats extends beyond his WAR, his FIP, his ERA, and into his BABIP. Over the last four seasons – five, if you count the six innings he pitched in 2006 – Greinke’s BABIP has remained painstakingly similar:

2007: .316
2008: .318
2009: .313
2010: .316

Greinke is primarily a groundball pitcher nowadays and, as such, his infield defense should be taken into consideration. That’s the interesting part, because you would think with a high level of turnover (of players with 50 or more innings on the defensive infield in 2007, only Alex Gordon and Mike Aviles remain with the team) something would’ve clicked – either good or bad – with Greinke’s BABIP. Even with a historically great 2009 – as illustrated above – Greinke’s BABIP was right there with a decent 2007.

I have no idea if this pattern will hold true heading forward, but part of me hopes it does for curiosity’s sake.

Young Starters Dominate in St. Louis

Although they converged on today’s game in wildly different fashions, both the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates entered Busch Stadium finishing lost seasons. The Cardinals roster contained one of the most formidable front end starting rotations along with two of the game’s best players in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, and they will be forced to watch the Cincinnati Reds play in October. The Pirates have been by far the league’s worst team, entering at 55 games below .500 and waiting for the merciful end of a six-month death march.

At least both teams received some encouragement this afternoon in the form of two excellent performances from the starting pitchers, P.J. Walters of the Cardinals and James McDonald of the Pirates. Walters earned the win, going seven shutout innings, allowing four hits and a walk and striking out four. McDonald received a tough-luck loss despite allowing only one run in six innings (on an Allen Craig HR) and striking out seven against no walks.

For Walters, this was merely building on a successful minor league season. Walters threw just under 125 innings for the AAA Memphis Redbirds this season, compiling a 3.81 FIP in the hitter friendly PCL and a very encouraging 8.7 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 over that stretch. Walters doesn’t have much in terms of velocity – his fastball averages around 88 MPH – but he flashes a curveball, a changeup, a slider, and a cutter. With that arsenal combined with solid control, Walters has seen success at every level, most notably in 2009 and 2010 at AAA.

For McDonald, this is just more of the same. As I wrote about two weeks ago, McDonald has done his best impression of an ace so far this season, and although he probably yields too many fly balls to keep up this kind of pace, he’s showing the potential to at least become a top-half of the rotation starter, something that will be key to McDonald’s success. After today’s start, McDonald has struck out 61 batters and only walked 24 in his 64 innings as a Pittsburgh Pirate. It’s hard to imagine that Neal Huntington could have imagined much more when McDonald was acquired at the trading deadline.

Of course, each team did have a relatively poor lineup on the field today, as can happen in late September with expanded rosters. The Pirates, although they’ve played better of late, aren’t a good offensive team, and the Cardinals were sitting their superstars Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Still, these performances are impressive against Major League lineups of any quality, and both clubs must be very happy with their young arms today.

The Strongest Weakest Link

I had a radio spot on ESPN 1500 in Minneapolis today, and during the interview, I repeated something that I’ve been saying for a month or so now – I think the Twins are the best team in baseball. I get why people don’t see it that way, as they aren’t as star studded as the Yankees, Rays, or even the Rangers, but what they lack in name value, they make up for with sheer quantity of useful players.

Really, who is the worst player on the Twins who will see significant playing time in October? Probably Jason Kubel, who doesn’t hit enough to make up for his defensive problems in the outfield. But Kubel, while not a good player, is also not a terrible one. He’s a league average hitter, maybe a little bit better, and on days when the ball isn’t hit towards him, he’s just fine. He isn’t actively taking wins off the board, and there’s reason to think he may perform better in the playoffs than he did during the 2010 season.

The same goes for Michael Cuddyer, who is basically the same kind of player – decent bat, bad defense. Both of them have their uses, and yet, they’re the worst players the Twins put out there on a daily basis. Where most teams have offensive holes, the Twins have J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, and Denard Span, who have each put up about a +3 win season this year. Even their reserve middle infielders, Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto, are valuable role players.

The same is true of the pitching staff. Maybe Carl Pavano isn’t the sexiest #2 starter in the league, but very few of the other teams headed to the playoffs can throw a more effective game 4 starter than Kevin Slowey or Scott Baker. The Twins have four average or better starting pitchers, plus Brian Duensing, who has pitched like one even if he’s probably been a bit over his head.

Relievers? The Twins have a bunch of solid arms down in the bullpen too. Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, and Matt Capps might not come with theme songs and overpowering fastballs, but they’re good pitchers. Toss in Brian Fuentes as a good situational reliever, Jose Mijares as a quality second LHP, and whatever starter they don’t choose for the #4 spot, and the Twins won’t have any lemons coming on in relief.

The old cliche that you’re only as strong as your weakest link isn’t really true unless you’re in the business of building fences, but the Twins didn’t run away with the AL Central through smoke and mirrors. They put a good team on the field every night with a deep batting order that can score runs no matter what three hitters are due up, starting pitchers who throw strikes, and relievers that can get out of jams. There is no soft underbelly to the Minnesota roster. You can’t pitch around one guy and then go on cruise control.

If this was a 5-on-5 competition, the Twins might be in trouble. However, since every game involves 10+ players, the Twins depth of talent gives them an advantage over all of their competitors. When your worst player is Jason Kubel, you’re doing pretty good. Don’t underestimate the Twins just because they didn’t build a top heavy roster. They can win with this team.

2010 AL Playoff Rotations: Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays clinched a spot in the American League playoffs last night, ending a bitter drought. It isn’t over yet — there are 18-month-olds who have never seen a Rays pennant winner (that is what a certain left-handed ace should be embarrassed about), but it is an essential step. Ahem.

Although the Rays have done a good job of run-prevention overall (and much credit here must go to their excellent fielders), questions remain about their starting pitching heading into the playoffs. As in previous posts about the Twins’ and Rangers’ playoff rotations, in addition to listing certain 2010 stats for each pitcher, I will also refer to CHONE’s updated pitcher projections (both CHONE’s neutralized component “nERA” as well as FIP derived from the stat lines) to get a sense for each pitcher’s “true talent.” There is still some ambiguity as to exactly who will be in the playoff rotation (Niemann/Davis) and what order they will go in (Shields/Garza), and I’m not claiming to know for sure, so take the “ordering” with a grain of salt; that’s not the focus of the post. And keep in mind this is just about the starting rotation compared with other playoff teams, not an evaluation of the team as a whole. Starting pitching is important, but it isn’t the whole story.

1) David Price CHONE 4.02 nERA , 4.16 FIP
2010: 4.4 WAR, 3.44 FIP, 4.01 xFIP, 3.32 tERA, 2.73 ERA

In 2010, Price has shown signs of being the ace the Rays need. His strikeout rate has been excellent and he has cut down on the walks from 2009. Still, he isn’t as good as his ERA, and his xFIP likely indicates good fortune on fly balls. His CHONE “true talent” projection might irk some, but one can’t simply focus on the current season while ignoring prior performance. Price is a tremendous young pitcher, but just as a closer look at his numbers shows that he shouldn’t win the Cy Young award, they also show that it would be premature to say that he’s one of the top aces in the playoffs. Nonetheless, he gives the Rays a good chance to win every time he takes the mound, no matter who the opponent.

2) James Shields CHONE 4.09 nERA , 4.06 FIP
2010: 2.3 WAR, 4.27 FIP, 3.69 xFIP, 4.45 tERA, 5.04 ERA

Who had the better game: Pitcher A, who pitched six innings, struck out seven, walked two, and got 10 ground balls, six fly balls, and two liners; or Pitcher B, who pitched 6.2 innings, struck out three, walked three, and got seven ground balls, 11 fly balls, and three liners? It has to be Pitcher A, right? Both games were this past Sunday, and Pitcher A got the loss after giving up 5 earned runs, while Pitcher B got the all-important win and gave up no runs. Pitcher A is James Shields, and Pitcher B is Bruce Chen. That pretty much sums up Shields’ season.

Yes, his ERA is terrible, but Shields leads all qualified pitchers in HR/FB ratio. In other words, Shields is probably having more than his share of bad luck (witness his career rate of 11.8%), and he’s only 40th among the same group in FB% — below David Price, which explains why Shields’ xFIP is better than Price’s. Shield’s walk rate is up, but it is still excellent at 2.22 per 9 IP, and his K rate has jumped to 8.44 per 9 IP. Despite his batted-ball profile being about the same as usual, he has by far the highest BABIP of his career. This isn’t to say that Shields is a great pitcher (read this for a deeper look into a possible cause of his home run problems this season), but both this season’s peripherals and CHONE’s projection indicate that he’s probably a very good #2.

3) Matt Garza CHONE 4.23 nERA , 4.28 FIP
2010: 1.7 WAR, 4.53 FIP, 4.56 xFIP, 4.67 tERA, 3.92 ERA

The rich man’s Armando Galarraga! It’s a joke, but there is an element of truth to it, as his no-hitter masks a mediocre season. It isn’t clear whether Garza or Shields will pitch second in the rotation, but I think Shields is the better pitcher. Garza has the better ERA, but Shields has the better FIP, xFIP, and tERA this season. Garza’s HR/FB rate doesn’t indicate he has had bad luck, and he isn’t much of a groundballer. He doesn’t give up many walks, but his K rate this season is unexceptional after being over eight per nine innings last season. Garza is a decent pitcher, but he should not be expected to dominate.

4) Jeff Niemann CHONE 4.42 nERA , 4.56 FIP
2010: 1.0 WAR, 4.75 FIP, 4.41 xFIP, 4.51 tERA, 4.49 ERA

Niemann has been battling shoulder trouble, and it isn’t clear yet whether he or Wade Davis will be the Rays fourth starter. Whatever the reason, Niemann has taken a step back this season after a good 2009. His K rate improved, but is still below average. In 2009, he primarily succeeded by not giving up home runs and walks; and while, like Shields, his home run problems this season are at least partly a random fluctuation, his walk rate going up combined with unexceptional strikeout and groundball skills doesn’t make up for it very much. Still, if he’s healthy, he’s certainly a better #4 option than the likes of Nick Blackburn and Tommy Hunter, and arguably even A.J. Burnett at this point.

5) Wade Davis CHONE 4.85 nERA , 4.97 FIP
2010: 0.9 WAR, 4.83 FIP, 4.86 xFIP, 4.61 tERA, 4.14 ERA

Davis probably disappointed a good chunk of Rays fans with his first full season in the majors. Whether or not those expectations were realistic is a question for another time. Davis generated neither gaudy strikeout nor groundball numbers this season, and his walk rate this season has been average-ish. While his numbers taken together put him in the same category with the aforementioned Hunter and Blackburn, I think his superior strikeout ability and youth puts him a small step ahead of them at the moment (and a larger one for the future). The Rays probably don’t want to depend on Davis in the playoffs, but that could be said of every other team and their #4 starter, and if Niemann is ready to go, they won’t have to, anyway.

Most teams in baseball would love to have the Rays’ rotation (or their entire team, for that matter), but it doesn’t stand out as much in the playoff field. The Rays’ starters aren’t “severely outclassed” or anything like it, but the rotation isn’t a particular strength relative to the other teams. Of the AL playoff teams, the Rays’ rotation is probably the least likely to carry them through the playoffs if their offense has trouble producing or if the bullpen falters. They do have a bit more depth than the other teams. The main difference is that Price isn’t obviously that one dominating pitcher like Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano, or (at least in the past) CC Sabathia. But (pardon the cliché) anything can happen in one game, especially when a young star-in-the-making combines an outstanding group of fielders.

The AL Playoff Bullpens

Starting pitching fuels playoff runs. That’s why Matt and I are running down the rotations for each postseason participant. But bullpens also play a large role in the postseason. A starting pitcher can go seven strong and put his team in a position to win, but a poor relief outing can ruin all of his hard work. Which AL teams have the best unit to back up their starters?

First, let’s look at team relief stats. On Monday Jeff went over shutdowns and meltdowns and how they affect playoff teams. Here we’ll look at some similar data, plus some other factors, for just AL teams.

SD = shutdowns, MD = meltdowns, IS% = inherited runners scored rate, BSv% = blown save rate, WPA/LI = situational wins

It appears as though each team’s bullpen excels in a different area. The Twins don’t fare well in shutdown to meltdown ratio, but they also allow the lowest percentage of inherited runners to score. The Yankees and the Rays have identical SD/MD ratios and nearly identical inherited runner rates, but the Rays’ bullpen blows far fewer save opportunities. The Rangers’ bullpen might allow inerited runners to score, but it can absolutely shut down a team. Both the Rangers’ and the Yankees’ bullpens have more situational wins than their competitors.

The difference between the postseason and the regular season is that the lesser arms in the bullpen won’t get much work in the postseason. With that in mind let’s look at the key relievers on each team.

Tampa Bay Rays

Closer: Rafael Soriano

Soriano might not be the strikeout machine he was in Atlanta, but he’s still getting his share of whiffs. To compensate he’s shaved plenty off his walk rate, which means he’s putting fewer men on base. His .210 BABIP furthers that cause, to which his 0.78 WHIP is a testament. The Rays have also done a nice job keeping his workload limited, just 61.1 innings in 63 appearances, so he should be fresh for the playoffs. If not for the agelessness of another closer, he might be the best in the playoffs.

Relief Ace: Joaquin Benoit

After he missed all of 2009 recovering from shoulder surgery, Benoit had to settle for a minor league contract. The Rays were the beneficiaries of that. Benoit has become an irreplaceable part of their bullpen, bridging the gap between the starters and Soriano. Oddly enough, he’s throwing harder than ever, with a fastball that averages 93.9 mph. He has used that to strike out 72 of the 209 batters he’s faced, an 11.11 per nine ratio. Even though he has a BABIP under .200, his fielding independent numbers back up his dominance (2.53 FIP, 2.64 xFIP). He’s also done the one thing a fireman must: leave men on base. His strand rate sits at a ridiculous 94.8 percent, and he’s allowed just two of 23 inherited runners to score (9 percent). If the Rays enter the eighth with a lead teams will find it exceedingly difficult to mount a comeback.

Of note: Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler

The Rays have gotten an excellent season out of Balfour after a shaky 2009, and it has added great depth to the bullpen. He’s good for a strikeout when they need one, and he generally keeps the ball inside the park. Wheeler can also come up with a big K, mostly when facing right-handed hitting. Touted prospect Jake McGee has come on fairly strong in September and would give the Rays a better look from the left side than Randy Choate. But he still walks way too many batters.

New York Yankees

Closer: Mariano Rivera

We need not revisit the lore of Mariano Rivera. His track record, and particularly his postseason track record, speaks for itself. He experienced a rough stretch in September, which can be alarming for a 40-year-old closer. But until he proves otherwise it is inadvisable to bet against Rivera.

Relief ace: David Robertson

After a shaky start to the season Robertson has turned into the Yankees true relief ace. Joe Girardi is willing to use him in any critical spot regardless of inning. He frequently comes in with men on base, though he has allowed 30 percent of those runners to score. But he does come up with strikeouts, 10.28 per nine.

Of note: Kerry Wood, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan

Had Wood been with the team all season he might have earned Girardi’s trust as the relief ace. As it stands, he fills more of a traditional setup role. Since coming to the Yankees he has allowed just one run in 25 innings, striking out 29 and walking 15. He has also allowed just one of 10 inherited runners to score, and could certainly could hear his name called when there are men on base. Chamberlain has been a bit shaky, but has come on later in the season. After two rough stints that included far too many walks, Logan has shown that he can get out lefties and even stay in the game to face a righty if need be.

Minnesota Twins

Closer: Matt Capps

Giving up prospect Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps didn’t sit well with many Twins fans at first, but they’ve hardly had reason to complain about Capps’s performance in the closer role. He’s not anyone’s idea of an overpowering guy, but he strikes out a healthy number while limiting his walks and keeping the ball inside the park. He’s no Joe Nathan, but he’s as good a replacement as the Twins could find.

Relief ace: Matt Guerrier

While Jon Rauch might play a more traditional setup role, Guerrier is the guy Ron Gardenhire calls on with runners on base. This season he has taken the responsibility for 45 runners not his own, and has allowed only 10 to score. Three of them came when he surrendered a grand slam in May, so he’s been even more effective otherwise. He might not strike out a ton of guys, which would seem a requirement for a pitcher coming in with men on, but Guerrier has been successful despite that.

Of note: Jon Rauch, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes

Clearly the Twins have a deep bullpen. Removed from the closer role when the Twins acquired Capps, Rauch has remained an effective reliever. He limits walks and strikes out a decent number, key components of an effective reliever. Mijares started the season poorly but has been dominant ever since. Crain is back to being the guy the Twins had a few years ago, though his walks could become a problem. Fuentes has proven an effective waiver acquisition; he has yet to allow a run as a Twin.

Texas Rangers

Closer: Neftali Feliz

Last year Feliz was a sensation. This year he’s playing a key role on the Rangers’ first playoff team since 1999. He brings the excellent combination of high strikeouts and low walks, and even though he pitches home games in a hitter-friendly park he has limited his home runs and extra base hits. He rounds out an excellent AL playoff closer crew.

Relief ace: Darren O’Day

He might not be the most recognizable pick, but he has been one of the Rangers’ most effective setup men. He has picked up 50 batters and has allowed just 13 to score. Like Feliz he suppresses homers, another important aspect of a relief ace. He’s the guy Ron Washington will turn to in a key spot.

Of note: Frank Francisco, Darren Oliver, Alexi Ogando

Even though Ogando has thrown just 40.1 innings, he has taken on 30 inherited runners. He has allowed 12 to score, so perhaps he won’t get the call in a big spot. But he can bring it with a clean slate. Francisco was removed from the closer role early but has regained his effectiveness in a setup role. Darren Oliver continues to amaze at 39 years old. He, too, will come in with men on base, especially to face a tough lefty.

FanGraphs Chat – 9/29/10

Weighing Dee Gordon

Dee Gordon is the skinniest baseball player I have ever seen. The revelation was one of my most profound at this year’s Futures Game, which might tell you a few things: a) I am not a scout, and b) Dee Gordon is really skinny. I’ve searched for the best image evidence I can find — try here or here — but it’s really something that must be seen to be believed. Someone pointed out to me that Eric Davis was probably that skinny, but Eric Davis was also 6-foot-2. He had room to, and eventually did, put on some weight. Gordon is listed at 5-11, and at best, could probably push his generous listing to 160 pounds if he packs on 10 pounds of muscle over the next decade. And even then, he’ll probably actually weigh about 140.

The probably-shouldn’t-have-taken-me-this-long revelation has since really altered the way I thought about Gordon as a prospect. In the offseason, it seemed that Gordon was talked about in prospect circles in the same neighborhood as Starlin Castro. With the value of hindsight on my side, I needed to think about the comparison more thoroughly. It’s important to put Gordon’s size into context.

Since 1990, Baseball-Reference finds 131 player seasons in which a player listed at-or-below 160 pounds qualified for the batting title. It appears some of those listings — like 1999 Deivi Cruz — were generous, but we’ll run with it. After tallying these 131 seasons, I found that, cumulatively, this lightweight division hit .278/.346/.386, which would put their wOBA in the .320’s and their wRAA at a few runs below league average. Their BABIP was .305, and as a group, they stole 2602 bases in 3,620 chances, a success rate of 71.9%. Certainly not too far from the 72.6 mark that Gordon was at this season in the Southern League.

The numbers don’t actually seem terrible, but it’s important to look at upside here. Only 21 player seasons had a slugging percentage above .440, and in that group, 12 of them stole fewer than 15 bases in their season of work. Players like the aged versions of Lou Whitaker and Tony Phillips aren’t good comps for Gordon, and neither are players like Deivi Cruz, Shane Halter, or the bulked-up version of Juan Encarnacion (did the Tigers only scout skinny players from 1980-2000?). Speed is the name of Gordon’s game — he has swiped 144 bases in 324 minor league games — and it should hold true for players to whom we are comparing him. Therefore, I chopped off the 72 player seasons in which the player didn’t steal more than 15 (arbitrary number alert! Selection bias understood!) bases.

Surprisingly, when we take out that group, the numbers improve. The 59 player seasons remaining hit .288/.355/.387, the bump due to an increase in BABIP, which moved up to .316. It should also be mentioned that this group stole bases at a 74.9% clip. Peripherally, they averaged a strikeout rate of 12.0%, and a walk rate of 9.1% versus Gordon’s career minor league rates of 16.0% and 6.5%, respectively. There is clearly work to be done in those columns for the young Dodgers shortstop.

The problem with this group, in my eyes, is one of potential. Considering that Gordon does not possess, nor profile to possess, any power to speak of, he’s not going to have seasons like Lenny Dykstra in 1993, Julio Franco in 1991, or Damion Easley in 1997. The literal ceiling for a player with his skillset is Lance Johnson in 1996: .333/.362/.479, good for a .369 wOBA, and, with +17 runs on defense, a 6.5 WAR. And this is from a guy with a career strikeout rate of 7.1%. For what it’s worth, here are the players that had 3 or more seasons that fit my criteria (1990-2010, </= 160 pounds, more than 15 steals, qualified for batting title) — and next to the number of seasons are their corresponding WAR numbers for those seasons:

Bip Roberts – 3 seasons (5.3, 5.0, 1.7)
Brett Butler – 6 seasons (4.9, 4.9, 5.0, 1.9, 3.4, 1.0)
Jose Offerman – 5 seasons (0.9, 1.5, 2.5, 5.0, 2.8)
Juan Encarnacion – 4 seasons (1.6, 1.2, 2.5, 1.2)
Lance Johnson – 7 seasons (2.0, 3.2, 3.9, 5.1, 1.5, 3.4, 6.5)
Luis Polonia – 4 seasons (2.1, 0.6, -2.3, 0.8)
Ozzie Smith – 4 seasons (3.3, 5.4, 2.7)
Tim Raines – 3 seasons (2.8, 3.3, 6.1)
Tony Womack – 7 seasons (-0.6, 1.0, 1.0, 0.2, 1.4, 0.5, 2.5)

After I saw Gordon in the Futures Game, I wondered what his “perfect world projection” could possibly be. I’ll tell you what: it’s explained somewhere in the players above. But while there are 10 seasons with 4.9 WAR or more, there are also 18 seasons with 1.9 WAR or below. The median strikes a balance at about 2.5 wins above replacement. This is how it is for skinny players — some good upside if you walk a lot (Butler, Raines), strike out a little (Johnson, Roberts), or play defense really well (Smith, Johnson). But if you don’t succeed in those areas, preferably more than one, performance potential slips fast.

And if this article is guilty of selection bias, it also ignores the much larger sample of sub-160 pound players that never qualified for a batting title, and didn’t make a splash in the Major Leagues. Gordon is facing an undeniable up-hill climb, but admittedly, it’s a little more paved than I previously thought. I refuse to be as bullish as other outlets until Gordon’s peripherals improve, but I don’t want to be guilty of overrating just how much size matters.

Soriano Dents Padres Chances

Wins are at a premium right now for the three teams competing for the final two spots in the National League playoff race. With both San Francisco and Atlanta winning last night, it was imperative for San Diego to defeat the Chicago Cubs and stay within a half game of the Braves and a full game of the Giants. But the Cubs and Alfonso Soriano simply wouldn’t lie down for the Padres at PETCO Park last night.

After five innings, Mat Latos of the Padres and Ryan Dempster of the Cubs both had good starts going. Latos allowed two runs in the fifth due to a couple of errors and a double by Kosuke Fukudome, and the Padres had tied it on a Nick Hundley home run, leaving the score at 2-2.

Latos has had terrible results in September, allowing a 6.94 ERA despite fantastic peripheral numbers. Although we can’t blame the first two runs of the game on him due to errors, the next runs the Cubs scored are completely on Latos. After allowing a line drive single to center field, Alfonso Soriano drilled a two run homer to left field to give the Cubs a 4-2 lead. The home run clearly goes down as the turning point of the game, as the Cubs win expectancy rose from 55.5% to 81.2% on the play. This doesn’t even take into account the run suppressing tendencies of PETCO Park, so in all likelihood this win probability was likely even higher for Chicago, making the situation even bleaker for the Padres.

The Cubs bullpen has been, on the whole, roughly average this year, compiling 23 runs above replacement and just under +1.0 WPA on the season. But judging the Cubs bullpen “on the whole” isn’t entirely fair – Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol account for +47 runs above replacement and +5.2 WPA, meaning that the rest of the Cubs bullpen has, to put it lightly, struggled. As Sean Marshall pitched on the 27th, there was a good chance that the Cubs would turn to another candidate in the 8th, meaning that a two run lead for the Cubs wasn’t necessarily safe.

Soriano, however, wasn’t done. Facing Mike Adams – perhaps the nastiest member of the vaunted Padres bullpen – Soriano belted a second home run out of PETCO Park, putting the Cubs up 5-2 and lowering the Padres win expectancy from 11% down to 5.4%.

With Marmol waiting in the bullpen, the Padres only chance was likely to come against rookie Andrew Cashner, who despite solid stuff and a 96 MPH average fastball has struggled mightily against major league hitters. Cashner, however, managed to retire the side in order, all but sealing the Padres fate. Marmol entered in the ninth, and, somewhat shockingly, recorded only one strikeout in a hitless ninth. It was only the 30th time in 75 appearances that Marmol has failed to record at least two strikeouts, showcasing just exactly why he has been the best closer in the league by WAR.

In a low run environment and with a scoreless ninth almost a guarantee, the three runs from Alfonso Soriano home runs were truly killers for the Padres last night. There’s no reason for panic in San Diego – they’re only 1.5 back of Atlanta and 2 back of San Francisco. Atlanta gets Philadelphia in their next series, and San Diego gets a personal hack at the Giants to close the season. The Padres, however, need to take care of business from here on out and barring a sweep against San Francisco, they’ll need some help. Coolstandings has dropped the Padres’ playoff odds to 19.2% – panic may not be in order, but if I’m a fan of the friars, I’m definitely worried.

One Night Only!

This edition of One Night Only proves incontrovertibly that beauty is truth; truth, beauty.

(NERD scores in parentheses.)

Arizona (9) at San Francisco (4) | 10:05pm ET
Starting Pitchers
Diamondbacks: Undecided (10?)

Giants: Tim Lincecum (10)
205.1 IP, 9.64 K/9, 3.16 BB/9, .323 BABIP, 49.2% GB, 9.7% HR/FB, 3.24 xFIP, 5.0 WAR

• About a month ago, a kind reader noted — sorry, I forgot on which post exactly — but this kind reader noted that “undecided” starters ought to profile as average or better in terms of NERD. I don’t know what score I’d assigned an undecided starter in that particular case. Maybe it was a 3. I was thinking to myself “replacement level,” is why. (I was thinking some other things, too, but they’re all too disgusting to reprint here. Plus, I don’t have any soy sauce.) But more often than not, “undecided” means a minor league call-up. Generally, that means good times. And even if it doesn’t mean a minor league call-up, it means suspense — which, that’s a entire genre of film and literature, so it must be good.
• “But Cistulli,” maybe you’re saying, “I’m looking at Yahoo or whatever right now, and it very clearly states that [insert name] is pitching. How could you miss that?” Well, what you’re talking about there, friend, is “up-to-the-minute information.” That’s fine, I guess. But let me ask you a question: what’s so great about up-to-the-minute information, hm? All you’re really doing is being prejudiced against the past. That may be fine for you, but look: if there’s one thing Carson Cistulli isn’t it’s prejudiced.
Madison Bumgarner was originally scheduled to start tonight’s game for San Francisco but, as R.J. Anderson discussed yesternight in these pages, has been switched with Lincecum so that the latter could start a hypothetical Game 163 on normal rest.
• Oh, yeah: the Giants are trying to make the postseason. They’re doing a pretty good job. Here are their odds, per Cool Standings: 87.1% (Division), 3.4% (Wild Card), 90.6% (Overall).

Pittsburgh (6) at St. Louis (3) | 1:40pm ET
Starting Pitchers
Pirates: James McDonald (7)
58.0 IP, 8.38 K/9, 3.72 BB/9, .322 BABIP, 30.4% GB, 2.8% HR/FB, 4.17 xFIP, 1.6 WAR

Cardinals: P.J. Walters (15*)
23.0 IP, 7.04 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, .339 BABIP, 41.0% GB, 15.2% HR/FB, 4.66 xFIP, -0.2 WAR

• It appears as though P.J. Walters has already made a couple of starts at the major league level this season, but the most recent was on June 1st, so he’s still super fresh and super clean. Here are his numbers at Triple-A Memphis this season: 108.2 IP, 8.78 K/9, 2.48 BB/9, 0.99 HR/9, 3.73 FIP. Note that those numbers come out of the the Pacific Coast League, where a 4.79 ERA is league average. Also note that he was playing in a park (i.e. Memphis’s AutoZone park) that appears to suppress runs relative to those inflated levels*.
• Hey, America, the Pirates might be getting better. Yes, for the season, they possess one of the league’s worst offenses, but, over the course of the last month, they’re posting the seventh-highest (raw) wOBA (.319) in the NL. It willn’t surprise the reader to know that Andrew McCutchen has been the most valuable offender over that time, recording a .437 wOBA and 10.7 wRAA, the sixth-best figure over that time in the NL (behind Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Holliday, Ryan Braun, and Joey Votto). The success of other players bodes well, though — players like Neil Walker (.396 wOBA, 7.2 wRAA, .313 BABIP) and Pedro Alvarez (.364, 3.9, .348).

One Other Game
Chicago Nationals (2) at San Diego (9), 10:05pm ET
• Watching the current iteration of the Cubs is like dividing happiness by zero. Enter at your own risk.

Also Playing
These games are very likely playing at some kind of sporty channel near you.

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San Francisco Moves Lincecum Up

The San Francisco Giants begin their second-to-last regular season series tonight. The opposition is the Arizona Diamondbacks and the series precedes the biggest series of the season – three games against the San Diego Padres (whom they currently hold a one game lead on) that might very well decide who advances to the postseason and who does not. Today, the Giants swapped Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum’s starting assignments.

Lincecum will now pitch on Wednesday night while Bumgarner assumes his spot on Thursday. The move keeps Lincecum on full rest and allows him to pitch on Monday if required. Monday is important, as it would be day of a hypothetical game 163 – i.e. a tiebreaker between (presumably) the Giants and Padres. On the other hand, if the Giants find themselves needing to win on Sunday in order to reach the postseason, then Lincecum could come back on short rest in order to ensure their best chance at victory.

Pushing Lincecum back one day, in order to start on Friday night, might seem like an attractive alternative, but clearly, the key here is squeezing two more Lincecum appearances into the season. The Giants will not throw slop against the Padres, either, since their rotation members not named Tim are having an amazing month as well. Assuming no further changes, Barry Zito will open the series against the Friars, with the ever impressive Matt Cain going on Saturday, and then Jonathan Sanchez closing the regular season.

The Padres, meanwhile, will counter with Clayton Richard against Zito, Tim Stauffer, and staff ace Mat Latos going on Sunday. Chris Young would be in line for Monday’s start, if it comes down to that, although one would have to believe Jon Garland would get the call instead. While their ERA are nearly identical (Lincecum sits at 3.51, Garland at 3.58) the Giants would have the edge there, as Lincecum’s 3.24 xFIP is considerably superior to Garland’s 4.42.