It's August 24th, and we've officially hit the stretch run. Some teams are comfortable in playoff position and are getting set to make a run in October. Some teams are close, fighting tooth and nail for every last game in their effort to get into the picture. And some teams are out of it. Hopelessly out of it, drifting along with little purpose other than to play games and try to win them, just because, hey, it's the thing to do. Some teams are different degrees of ‘out of it' - the Pirates, at 31 games back of first place, are more deeply hopeless than the Dodgers, at 12 - but in the end, it's the same. You're either in it or you're not, and by now, most every team can be easily placed in one of the two groups.
I'd like to take this little opportunity to talk about the teams who're toast. We'll have plenty of chances to talk about the teams in the picture. The teams in the picture, as it happens, are the teams who'll command the overwhelming bulk of the attention from everybody the rest of the way. Less is said about the teams on the outside looking in. They go nearly unmentioned, save for the times they're noted as colossal disappointments. There's little attention paid to what they're doing, and little attention paid to how they're feeling.
The point I'd like to make is a simple one: playing for an also-ran is hard work.
This is a point I've made elsewhere, so for some of you, it's already familiar. But it's a point I want to raise again, because it's one I feel more people should keep in mind.
As a fan, it can be difficult to understand. If you're a fan of a bad team, you'll be frustrated, but you'll have the option of reducing your emotional investment. You can care less. You can put less effort into watching and rooting for your team, such that, if it's really bad, you might find yourself watching far fewer games, and maybe just checking the box scores every so often to stay up to date. A fan has the option of backing off.
Players have no such option. For the players, this is their job. This is their entire life. This is their means of supporting themselves, and their wives, and their children, and their parents. The players can't afford to give up. They can't afford to back off. Players that back off would run the risk of losing their jobs, and who knows if that could be the last one they get in the game?
The players, of course, will continue to believe in the hopes of the team for far longer than the fans will. Fans are reactionary and easily frustrated, and prone to throwing in the towel. Meanwhile, I saw Ryan Rowland-Smith go on Twitter and say ‘we'll just have to get them next time' after the Mariners got swept by the Rangers in early June to fall to 14 games under .500. The players have to believe. It helps to keep them focused.
But even for the confident, hopeful player on a bad team, there comes a point at which it's clear that October just isn't in the cards. There comes a point at which it's clear that, at least with regard to playing for something meaningful, the season is lost. And that's where it gets to be hard.
How do you stay motivated? Especially on a team like this year's Orioles, or Mariners, or Pirates, or Indians, who were out of it in May. You know how hard it is to stay interested as a fan when you're watching meaningless baseball? Imagine having to play in those games. Imagine having to participate in all the on- and off-field activity. Where does the drive come from? How do you get that little boost? How do you go out there and give it your all on a hot summer day in front of 10,000 fans when you know that, ultimately, it isn't going to make any difference?
Playing for a team that's out of the race is so much about self-motivation, because there's little else to motivate. MVP voters have demonstrated a tendency to vote for players on winning teams, in part because they were able to perform under the pressure of a pennant race. Me, I think the players on good teams have it the easiest. Being in the race gives you a goal. It gives you something to strive for. Players on good teams face the challenge of having to play Major League baseball. Players on bad teams face the challenge of having to play Major League baseball with little clear purpose. They can't set their sights on gunning for the playoffs. They have to set their sights on something else, and whatever it is, it won't have the same pull.
I imagine playing for a bad team isn't so hard for a rookie, since a kid is just gracious for the shot and wants to prove himself. And for the player in a contract year, there's the powerful motivator of money. For other players, it's a matter of going out there and telling yourself to compete as hard as you can in games that lack real significance. That's a challenge of a magnitude that few of us will ever face.
It's enough to understand why bad teams will sometimes be accused of mailing it in, or going through the motions. I'm not saying that happens, and I'm not pointing fingers, but if it were to take place, can we really be critical? I know they're getting paid to play a game, and we'd all gladly trade places, but if Ty Wigginton dogged it to first on a groundball tomorrow, could we blame him? The human brain can only push the human body so hard for so long, and we have to assume that, once the lure of October baseball goes out the window, there will be lapses. It isn't realistic to expect 100% effort on every single play from any given player. It certainly isn't realistic to expect 100% effort on every single play from a player on a last-place team.
It's impressive to me that Joey Votto's been able to slug .593 and carry the Reds into first place. That's a hell of a performance. It's more impressive to me that Luke Scott's been able to slug .580 for an Orioles team that was ten games out by April 21st. Achievements by players on good teams are remarkable. Achievements by players on bad teams are extraordinary, and require an ability to self-motivate far beyond my means.
The big story the rest of the way is going to be the playoff picture. But baseball is littered with a million stories, and some attention should be paid to those from the basement, and to those from third place. We watch sports to be impressed, and what some players are able to do on teams out of the race is most certainly impressive.
Let's move on, now. It's time to rank some baseball teams.
SBN Blog: Bucs Dugout
2010 record: 41-84
Last week's rank: 30
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 30
With credit to Ed Price, the Pirates are on pace for a -324 run differential, which would be the second-worst in modern NL history behind the 1962 Mets, who finished at -331. And after an encouraging July that saw them get outscored just 122-108, August has seen them drop to 117-61, meaning we could very well see some history get made.
SBN Blog: Camden Chat
2010 record: 44-81
Last week's rank: 29
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 26
Not even Buck Showalter can keep them winning forever. A 2-4 week for the Orioles comes in stark contrast to the success of the two weeks previous, but perhaps saves the O's chances at the top pick next year. They'll have to ‘take advantage' of a six-game road trip if they want to contend with the Pirates. Nick Markakis is helping in that regard, with a .652 second half OPS.
SBN Blog: Let's Go Tribe!
2010 record: 50-74
Last week's rank: 24
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 21
A dispiriting three-game sweep at the hands of the previously toothless Tigers, on the heels of a series loss in Kansas City, should dampen that nascent Tribe boosterism. You can now return to your previously scheduled misery.
27. Seattle Mariners
SBN Blog: Lookout Landing
2010 record: 49-76
Last week's rank: 28
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 28
Under new manager Daren Brown, the Mariners went 6-3 against Oakland, Cleveland, and Baltimore, but are now 1-3 against New York and Boston. Has the honeymoon period come to an end? Is the team just getting tired at the end of a long road trip? Do the results have far more to do with the quality of the opponent than with the quality of the manager? These are questions that absolutely no one is asking, because even Mariner fans can barely stand to follow the Mariners these days.
SBN Blog: AZ Snakepit
2010 record: 49-76
Last week's rank: 26
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 24
Arizona was swept by Cincinnati, including a depressing game where the bullpen turned a four-run lead into a four-run deficit in two innings, in front of the smallest crowd in franchise history. But they then took two of three from Colorado, holding the Rockies to five runs in the series. Barry Enright became only the second pitcher since the war to start his career by going five innings and allowing three runs or less in each of his first ten games.
25. Chicago Cubs
SBN Blog: Bleed Cubbie Blue
2010 record: 52-74
Last week's rank: 25
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 25
Lou Piniella retired to look after his ill 90 year old mother, leaving behind an organization that's been ill for more than a century. The Cubs did win Mike Quade's first game 9-1, though, and considering they lost Piniella's first game 5-1 back in 2007, hey, hope! Quade and Pat Listach were two managerial candidates that Piniella beat out in the 2006 offseason, and they double as guys the Cubs could probably use on the field right now.
SBN Blog: Royals Review
2010 record: 53-72
Last week's rank: 27
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 29
Ned Yost's troops took two out of three in a bizarre, all-extra-innings weekend series against the fading White Sox. Since returning to the Royals in late July, Alex Gordon has just a .681 OPS. Kila Ka'aihue, meanwhile, has an OPS of nearly half that, at .376 in limited action. The future was then?
23. Detroit Tigers
SBN Blog: Bless You Boys
2010 record: 62-63
Last week's rank: 20
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 18
Close your eyes. Think about baseball. Are the Tigers a young team or an old team? It's a little bit difficult to say, which is part of the problem for the Motor City Kitties. Players such as Austin Jackson (23), Brennan Boesch (25) and Max Scherzer (25) are part of the team's Cabrera/Verlander/Porcello future. Another huge chunk of the team, however, is nearing the end of its time in Detroit and/or its individual peaks as players. Detroit has some elite talent on hand, but if they want to compete in 2011, they have to find a way to not field three or four sinkholes every night, a disease that has killed them in 2010.
SBN Blog: Federal Baseball
2010 record: 53-72
Last week's rank: 22
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 23
Stephen Strasburg is going to the DL with a strained flexor tendon in his right arm. Is there even a question of whether to take this precaution with the rookie face of your franchise? Well, for one man's opinion, Ron Dibble says Strasburg should "suck it up" and "stop crying." We'll see who sticks around in Washington longer.
21. Houston Astros
SBN Blog: The Crawfish Boxes
2010 record: 55-69
Last week's rank: 23
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 27
The worst the Astros have been this year is 19 games below .500, and since the last time they hit the mark on July 26th, they've gone 15-10. They've also been able to do that without Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, which I don't think anyone saw coming. It's a wonder the things a team can accomplish when nobody's paying attention.
SBN Blog: Halos Heaven
2010 record: 62-64
Last week's rank: 15
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 22
A couple lousy back-to-back outings against Boston and Minnesota pushed Jered Weaver's ERA up to 3.21, dealing a lot of damage to whatever Cy Young hopes he might've had. Also worth noting: on the first of July, the Angels had an .867 team OPS in high leverage situations, and a .728 team OPS in medium leverage situations. As of today, that split's down to .755 and .728. The lost ability to hit in clutch situations explains in large part why the Angels have gone 17-28 over their last 45 games. Is this a slump, or is this regression? Who knows? It's happened.
19. New York Mets
SBN Blog: Amazin' Avenue
2010 record: 62-62
Last week's rank: 17
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 19
The Dodgers claimed Rod Barajas off waivers, robbing the Mets of their distinguished position of being the only team carrying three catchers. Not to worry though, Mets fans, your team is still the only team in the league that uses its worst relievers in the biggest spots and starts Jeff Francoeur.
SBN Blog: True Blue LA
2010 record: 63-62
Last week's rank: 16
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 17
LA played Colorado and caught ‘alternatitis' off the Rockies - they've now alternated wins and losses for the past seven games. The Dodgers were held to two runs or less in four of this week's contests. Ted Lilly has proved to be a brilliant acquisition from the Cubs, going 4-0 in four starts, with a 1.29 ERA, and holding opposing batters to a .129 average. However, it's looking more and more unlikely it will be enough to propel Los Angeles to the post-season.
SBN Blog: Brew Crew Ball
2010 record: 59-65
Last week's rank: 21
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 20
The Brewers took two from St. Louis before taking two of three from San Diego, sticking their foot out in front of a couple of playoff contenders. They get to play a big role once again a week from now, when they begin a nine-game stretch against St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. Participation is no substitute for direct involvement, but it's better than nothing. Not better than nothing: the now-released David Riske.
16. Colorado Rockies
SBN Blog: Purple Row
2010 record: 64-60
Last week's rank: 14
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 11
The offense is what's been crippling Colorado's chances of late: they've scored only 70 runs this month over 20 games - that ranks them near the bottom in the majors, and is just not playoff caliber. It's on the road they've really struggled. Since August 12, the Rockies have scored a total of eight runs in seven games out of Denver, being held to zero or one runs in six of the last nine road contests. Over the season, Colorado has batted just .228 away from home, the worst figure in all baseball.
SBN Blog: Athletics Nation
2010 record: 61-62
Last week's rank: 18
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 13
Jack Cust has batted just .164 over the last several weeks, and with his numbers in a tailspin, the A's still have a real shot at finishing without a single player having an OPS of .800 or above. Currently, Cust stands at .826, and the next-closest contender is Daric Barton, at .789. Of course, knowing how these things usually go, the A's will probably have some jerk from the minor leagues come up and go 1-2 in September pinch-hit appearances just to ruin it, since it's written in stone that nothing about the A's can be interesting.
SBN Blog: South Side Sox
2010 record: 67-57
Last week's rank: 13
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 12
The White Sox went from up 1.5 games on the Twins to down five in just over two weeks, a stunning free-fall that one rarely sees in baseball. Chicago went 4-10 in that span, going an excruciating 1-6 in one-run games. The dominant narrative is that the bullpen has murdered the team. To be sure, they've played a role. However, getting entangled in close, low-scoring games with the Tigers, Royals and Orioles also speaks to an offense that can only occasionally contribute.
13. Florida Marlins
SBN Blog: Fish Stripes
2010 record: 62-61
Last week's rank: 19
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 14
It's been a bad week for the Fish. First, Ricky Nolasco may have torn his meniscus. Then, Cody Ross left for San Francisco on a waiver claim which will net the Marlins nothing but negligible salary relief in return. They even had sensitive financial documents leaked on Deadspin, of all places. At least now everyone will know why they let Cody Ross leave for San Francisco for negligible salary relief.
SBN Blog: McCovey Chronicles
2010 record: 70-56
Last week's rank: 11
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 15
San Franciso faced two of their Wild Card rivals on the road last week, and it didn't go too well, the Giants dropping both sets 2-1. With the Padres ahead comfortably in the West, the Wild Card seems like San Fran's only good shot at playoff baseball, and so that was a slump they could've done without. Monday's blowout of Cincinnati could steer them in the right direction, though. Tim Lincecum has lost his past four outings, with a worrying 8.38 ERA for the month of August.
SBN Blog: Bluebird Banter
2010 record: 65-59
Last week's rank: 12
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 4
A 16-2 beatdown of Boston wasn't enough to save the Jays from a 2-4 week and three series losses. While the Jays continue to hit the ball out of the park with regularity and the starting pitching remains strong, it hasn't proved to be enough against the tough American League East competition. Of note: Brandon Morrow has 12 starts with at least eight strikeouts, and 12 starts with fewer.
SBN Blog: Viva El Birdos
2010 record: 68-54
Last week's rank: 10
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 9
It wasn't long ago that the Cardinals swept the Reds in Cincinnati and assumed sole possession of first place. They then proceeded to lose five in a row while the Reds embarked on a seven-game winning streak, rejecting everything you ever thought about the nature of momentum. The Cards were able to gain two games back in a three-game span to salvage the week, and they have nine consecutive games against the Pirates, Nationals, and Astros, but the Red series that lies afterwards is the last such series of the season, and is of vital importance.
SBN Blog: Lone Star Ball
2010 record: 70-54
Last week's rank: 6
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 8
The Rangers have gone 9-11 for the month of August, and have surrendered exactly zero ground in the division, their 8.5-game lead remaining intact. I don't want to accuse them of coasting, but it's clearly something they could have afforded. Now 6.5 behind Tampa Bay and New York for the best record in the American League, one wonders what the motivation will be the rest of the way. Of note is that Texas is just 3-6 in Cliff Lee starts. That, though, shouldn't continue; Lee's pitched a good deal better than his 4.18 Ranger ERA, and the Ranger offense is a good deal better than its 3.4 run/game pace in games that Lee takes the hill. This is a midseason acquisition whose payoff wasn't intended to come in August, but in October.
SBN Blog: The Good Phight
2010 record: 70-54
Last week's rank: 8
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 10
Another week and the Phillies are still keeping exact pace on the Braves, going 6-4 in their last 10 and staying exactly 2.5 games back. This week, strong performances from the Roys led the way, with Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay both tossing gems. On the season, the Roy brothers are a combined 19-9, with 209 K/ 34 BB in 233 IP for the Phillies, with a combined ERA around 2.20. Cliff who?
SBN Blog: Over The Monster
2010 record: 72-54
Last week's rank: 9
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 5
Time continues to run out for the Sox, whose 5-2 week translates to no gain in the standings. At 5.5 back, Sox fans have to wonder if the move to potentially bring Johnny Damon back to Boston is rooted in baseball strategy, or in flagging TV ratings? With 12 more games against New York and Tampa Bay, one figures the Sox will have to go at least, say, 8-4 to have a chance at this thing.
SBN Blog: Talking Chop
2010 record: 73-52
Last week's rank: 5
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 6
Mike Minor tied a franchise rookie-record with 12 strikeouts against the Cubs on Sunday. As the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, Minor raised some eyebrows - scouts criticized his sub-standard fastball velocity and overall "projectability." A year later, however, after a meteoric rise through the minors, Minor has a Strasburgian 22 K/4 BB in his first 18 innings. The Braves planning on riding the former Vanderbilt workhorse to the promised land - no innings cap.
SBN Blog: Red Reporter
2010 record: 72-53
Last week's rank: 7
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 16
So Edinson Volquez hasn't exactly provided the second half boost many expected, with 35 innings, 27 walks, and a 6.17 ERA over eight starts since coming back. Still, the Reds refuse to go away, and their current 2.5-game division lead is about as wide as it's ever been. Fun fact: the Reds have a team ERA of 3.65 since April 25th. In that ballpark. That's how you offset an offense that hasn't been much to write home about since May.
SBN Blog: Gaslamp Ball
2010 record: 74-49
Last week's rank: 3
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 7
Even after dropping two of three against Milwaukee over the weekend, San Diego's lead in the division is hovering in the five- to six-game range, and coolstandings.com gives them a 94% chance of making the postseason. Curiously, they're 9-15 against the Dodgers and Rockies - it's going 23-7 against the Central that has largely propelled them to where they are. The Padres are also 22-8 in games decided by five runs or more. 19 of their next 22 games are against divisional opponents.
SBN Blog: Twinkie Town
2010 record: 72-53
Last week's rank: 4
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 2
The Twins are 26-11 since the All-Star Break, and their brutal dispatching of the White Sox in the last two weeks has made the first three months of the season merely look like so much playing. Like the way Killer Whales throw baby seals around before eating them. It still isn't clear how the Twins will match up against one of the AL East powers in the postseason, but it now seems certain that they will. A month of "it's going to be cold in Minnesota, this is bad/awesome" stories should be fun.
SBN Blog: Pinstripe Alley
2010 record: 77-48
Last week's rank: 1
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 3
One week later, and the Yankees remain tied atop the American League East. The question now is whether they can survive a stretch without Alex Rodriguez and the much-maligned Lance Berkman in the lineup. If the injuries start to take their toll, it could be an uphill climb to stay ahead of the Rays as the season comes to a close. Andy Pettitte's setbacks certainly aren't helping, although he should still be back in plenty of time to gear up for October.
SBN Blog: DRays Bay
2010 record: 77-48
Last week's rank: 2
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 1
A pair of one-run losses in Oakland mars an otherwise strong week from the Rays, which saw them mop up the division-leading Texas Rangers. With Jeremy Hellickson having provided a very effective bridge, the Rays are getting healthy at just the right time to make a final push for the division title and the best record in the majors.