ST. LOUIS - SEPTEMBER 16: Yorvit Torrealba #8 of the San Diego Padres returns to the dugout after striking out against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on September 16 2010 in St. Louis Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
4 Total Updates since September 23, 2010
over 2 years ago Update 0 comments
One of my favorite stories of the season - and one that I will maintain doesn't get enough attention until my last breath - is how well the Twins have done without Justin Morneau. Morneau, you may recall, was hitting like an MVP candidate at the time of his concussion, with a .354 average and a 1.055 OPS. Then he got hurt, and he's missed 68 consecutive games.
And over those 68 consecutive games, the Twins have gone 47-21 to pull away in the AL Central and even clinch it outright before any other division leader. The Twins, right now, are tied with the Yankees for the best record in baseball. That's nothing short of amazing. How would the Nationals do without Ryan Zimmerman? How would the Reds do without Joey Votto? How would the Tigers do without Miguel Cabrera? Without Justin Morneau, one could argue that the Twins have played the best baseball they've ever played.
Unsurprisingly, what we see in the numbers is that the Twins' run prevention has been a lot better since Morneau went away. At the time of his injury, the Twins had a 3.96 ERA. In the two and a half months since, that's dropped all the way to 3.46. I don't think this is connected to Morneau in any way - it's not like Morneau is the worst defensive player of all time - but when a team goes on a stretch of winning 70% of its games, you expect the numbers to reflect some improvement. The big key to the Twins' survival without Morneau is that they've just stopped allowing runs.
But that isn't the whole of it. See, it isn't just the Twins' run prevention that's kicked it up a notch. Morneau's last appearance came on the seventh of July.
Offense, through July 7th: .767 OPS
Offense, since July 8th: .781 OPS
The Twins have actually been a better offensive team without Morneau than with him. The difference isn't enormous, but their batting average has jumped from .272 to .284, and we've seen a corresponding increase in runs per game, from 4.7 to 5.2. It hasn't just been about the run prevention. The Twins have just stepped it up overall.
How? Well, there are a number of people to thank. For one thing, Danny Valencia emerged as the solution at third base right around when Morneau went down. For another, Joe Mauer's batted .368 since July 8th. Additionally, Jim Thome has gone from starting a fraction of the Twins' games to starting a majority of them, and he's OPS'd 1.118 since the injury. Finally, JJ Hardy has taken off after an extended early-season slump.
So those are the four big reasons. Without Mauer, the Twins have seen production out of shortstop and third base, and they've seen increased production out of catcher and DH. Decent players have played well, and good players have played great.
Justin Morneau's status now, with the playoffs approaching, is unclear. Morneau himself is optimistic, and he's been working out a little bit, but concussions are unpredictable, and the symptoms may return or worsen at any time. What the Twins have rather remarkably established, however, is that they don't need him. That sounds more cruel than I intend, but it's true. Could they use him? Sure. Every team in baseball could use a bat like Morneau's. But in the event that he can't come back, or that he does come back and proves to be a bit rusty, the Twins can survive. They've gotten by this long, and while performances like, say, Valencia's, or Mauer's over his hot streak are unsustainable, there's enough talent and depth in there to absorb a big loss.
Jim Thome has been the acquisition of the year.
over 2 years ago Update 0 comments
As a Mariners fan, I'll be honest with you - one of life's few remaining pleasures is figuring out a new way, every day, of expressing just how miserable this whole team is. Just how unthinkably, unreasonably, improbably, absurdly, impossibly miserable. It's a challenge, but it's rewarding, in that the team has been miserable for so long that this has become an exercise in creativity.
I came across another I really liked just the other day. Unfortunately the Mariners kind of spoiled it for the time being while winning on Wednesday night thanks to a surprise quartet of dingers, but still, the 2010 Seattle Mariners stand a realistic chance of ending the season with more losses than home runs.
They currently stand at 93 and 96. Before Wednesday, it was 93 and 92. The next-smallest gap is Oakland, at 75 and 95. On the other end of the spectrum, you've got Toronto, at 75 and 233.
Now, I wouldn't consider this analysis. The Mariners were never built as a home run-hitting team, and so we'd expect their homer count to be lower. We'd expect them to be more vulnerable to this sort of achievement than, say, the Yankees, or the Diamondbacks. But at the same time, I think it's one of those things that, when you really think about it, highlights the bad. Underlines the awful.
All-time, it's not that big of a deal. The 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, for example, went 92-70 and won the World Series despite knocking just 67 balls out of the yard. It's when you consider the era that the meaning becomes apparent. The Mets came close a year ago, with 92 losses and 95 dingers, but then, they're in the National League. The Mariners have the DH. The last big league team to pull it off was the expansion 1993 Marlins, with 98 losses and 94 dingers. The last American League team to pull it off was...well there were three of them back in 1992, when the Royals had 90 and 75, the Red Sox had 89 and 84, and the Angels had 90 and 88.
And then nothing. Nothing, for 17 years. Until the 2010 Mariners, who threaten the mark, and who have been threatening the mark, really, all season long.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Wednesday's outburst greatly reduced their odds. The team's second four-homer game of the season means they'll really have to press to make recent history. If anyone can do it, though, it's a team with guys like Ichiro, and Chone Figgins, and Josh Wilson, and a bunch of kids who are still getting their feet wet. The Mariners may not do it - the Mariners probably will not do it - but the fact that they even have a chance this close to the finish line is something else.
This is as weak a team as any I've ever watched. It's almost beautiful, in a way. Delicate. I want to press it between paper and put it in a book.
over 2 years ago Update 0 comments
A few weeks ago, I used this space to sing the praises of Oakland's infield defense. The A's pitching staff had - and still has - the lowest batting average in the league on groundballs, and I chalked this up to an infield unit with good hands and better range. This was based on the assumption that, over time, teams tend to allow groundballs of pretty even difficulty, and while that assumption may not be correct, I think it's close enough to lend our measure some validity.
If we're going to note the best team, though, then it only makes sense to note the worst team as well. If we're going to label as the best infield defense the team with the lowest batting average allowed on groundballs, then we should have to label as the worst infield defense the team with the highest batting average allowed on groundballs.
And that team? None other than the Florida Marlins, at .262. The Marlins, thus far, have beaten out the White Sox - at .259 - the Astros - at .256 - and the league average - at .234.
How dramatic has the difference been between the Oakland and the Florida infields? Oakland has allowed 366 hits on 1827 groundballs for a .200 average. Florida has allowed 458 hits on 1751 groundballs for a .262 average. Over 1751 groundballs, the difference between a .200 average and a .262 average works out to 108 hits, or roughly three hits for every four games.
That's a big gap. We can see why Ultimate Zone Rating - the pre-eminent advanced defensive metric available to the public - puts the difference between the Oakland and Florida infields at 72 runs. One of them has been the best in the league at turning grounders into outs. One of them has been the worst. Each individual play may not mean very much, but they can add up very quickly.
It perhaps shouldn't come as a complete surprise that the Marlins are where they are. Regular second baseman Dan Uggla, for example, has had a poor defensive reputation for years, and is thought to be nearing a position switch. Regular shortstop Hanley Ramirez isn't the zoo he used to be, but he isn't Omar Vizquel. The now-departed Jorge Cantu got a lot of time at third base, and he's always been a disaster in the field. Wes Helms isn't much. And though it's too early to know what we can make of Gaby Sanchez, he's a first baseman, and first basemen make the least difference in the group.
So the Marlins most definitely had all the ingredients for a lousy infield defense coming into the year, and sure enough, that's what they whipped up. They made life a little more difficult for groundballers like Josh Johnson and Leo Nunez.
Of course, the question is, how much does it matter? And given that the Marlins have also had one of the top offensive infields in baseball this season, that helps a whole lot. All we should ever really be concerned about is overall value, and overall, the Marlin infield has been all right. Dan Uggla's the perfect case in point. Dan Uggla doesn't field like a second baseman, but he doesn't hit like one, either.
So it's not necessarily that great of a concern. Rather, it's just something to note as we near the time for year-end retrospectives. What did the Marlins do in 2010? They swung hard, they limited home runs, and they watched grounder after grounder sneak through to the outfield. So it was, and so it may be again in 2011 in the event of minimal change.
over 2 years ago Update 0 comments
When the Yankees signed AJ Burnett to a five year, $82.5 million contract in December 2008, they knew they were getting a volatile pitcher. They knew they were getting a guy with a history of injury, and inconsistency, and bouts of immaturity. They knew they were getting a guy with top-tier stuff but without top-tier dependability. AJ Burnett was a known entity.
At the same time, the Yankees were getting a guy fresh off more than 220 innings. They were getting a guy fresh off 231 strikeouts, with power and groundballs to make up for occasional fits of wildness. They were getting a guy who, over the previous five years, had posted a 3.78 ERA over 131 starts. There was a reason a pitcher with Burnett's colorful past was able to come into such money. His pitches were good, and his numbers were better. It made sense for the Yankees and their fans to be optimistic.
Now fast forward about two years. Burnett's ERA is up in the 5's. He's averaging fewer than six innings a start. His strikeouts are as low as they've been since he was a kid, and with the Yankees approaching the playoffs, Burnett has nobody's trust. He isn't seen as an asset. He's seen as a question mark, as a weakness on a Yankee team with few others.
It's clear that something's gone wrong. Something that Burnett used to be able to do, he is no longer able to do as consistently or effectively.
There could be a number of things, actually. Most likely, Burnett isn't being undone by a single vital flaw. But here I've identified one, and one that I think is a pretty big deal. See, Burnett, for all intents and purposes, is a two-pitch pitcher. Though he has a change he'll throw a handful of times a game, he works primarily off of his fastball and curve. The fastball's there to set hitters up, and the curveball's there to put them away.
And, lately, the curve hasn't been able to put them away quite like it used to. What follows are opposing hitters' contact rates against Burnett's curveball over the years:
In 2008, hitters missed nearly half the time they swung at Burnett's curveball. Now they're making contact with well more than three-fifths of their swings, and though a contact rate of 64.6% on a curve is still rather good, it isn't spectacular. It isn't what it was.
And you can see this show up in his splits. In 2008, after getting ahead in the count, Burnett struck out 42.9% of opposing hitters. In 2010, that's down to 31.7%. His curveball isn't getting as many whiffs, which means he isn't getting as many whiffs, which means he isn't getting as many strikeouts, which means he isn't having as much success.
That's a problem. Unfortunately for the Yankees, I don't have the solution. With three years and $49.5 million left on AJ Burnett's contract, they're going to want to find it. They're going to at least want to look everywhere they can.
over 2 years ago Update 0 comments
Ordinarily, when a team that's held strong in first place after five months falls into a slump, people are taken by surprise. They're caught off guard, and they begin to get worried. If they're fans of the team, anyway. If they're fans of other teams - rival teams - they delight in their rival's sudden misery. Basically, it changes things. It makes people feel a lot less sure about a team that was previously thought to have proven itself.
Those principles don't really apply to the Padres. Sure, on August 25th, they peaked at 27 games over .500, and 6.5 games up in the division. On August 25th, they held the best record in the National League, and were just a game off the best record in baseball. But still, few people ever really bought into them. From the beginning, they were baseball's Cinderella story, but the thing about Cinderella stories is that, no matter how much support they may get, no one expects them to keep going. Eventually, they'll have to look down.
And so when the Padres hit their slide - losing ten in a row, and 16 of 22, to move into second place for the first time since June - people weren't taken by surprise. They weren't caught off guard. They saw it not as a shock, but rather as a demonstration of the universe righting itself. The Padres, such was the consensus opinion, were never supposed to be as good as they looked, and so at last they were regressing back to what they should've been. And what they should've been was a team in the cellar.
In short, the Padres' ill-timed slump didn't exactly aid their fight for respect. It was seen as justification for everyone's continuing skepticism.
A side effect of this perspective, however, is that it causes one to underestimate the magnitude of what has gone on. So maybe the Padres aren't as good as their record might suggest. So maybe people were right to be a little skeptical. That shouldn't take away from the fact that, on August 25th, according to CoolStandings.com, the Padres' playoff odds were 97.2%.
97.2%. Then the slump happened. Things didn't change much in the early going. A loss dropped them to 95.8%. Then 95.1%. Then 95.1% again. Then 92.5%. But soon the decline picked up speed. 82.9%. 63.0%. 48.8%. A few days ago, the Padres bottomed out at 34.4%, after having dropped out of first place and out of playoff position.
Less than a month after holding the second-largest division lead in baseball, the Padres are in a fight for their lives, with a real chance of missing out on the postseason. Even if the Padres were a fraud the whole time - a feeling I'd dispute - to lose that much ground, that quickly, would be beyond remarkable. It'd be historical.
The Padres, right now, are back in first place after having won on Wednesday night. They hold a half-game lead over the Giants, and are even with the Braves. Their playoff odds are looking pretty good at 61.9%. Yet their grip is tenuous. The whole picture could change in a day. There are no longer any certainties, or probablies, and these final weeks could very well cause the Padres to miss out on everything they'd spent so long working for.
And if that happens - if the Padres go on to miss the playoffs - their collapse will go down as one of the biggest baseball's ever seen. To go from odds of 97.2% to missing out completely would, according to CoolStandings' calculations, stand as the seventh-worst collapse of all time, between the Mariners' collapse in 2003 and the Dodgers' collapse in 1962. Sure, you can argue with the numbers. You can argue with how they're derived, and on what foundation they're based. What you can't argue with is that the Padres are staring a legendary collapse in the face.
Because they're back in first, it's important to remember that the Padres are in a good position. They seem to have put their skid behind them and are back to playing decent baseball at a very critical time. Just make no mistake: if they fail, it won't matter how much you did or didn't believe in them as a team. They will have made history.