Sunday, September 21, 2014

Flyover: Los Angeles Dodgers

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. The National League West is the only divisional race I haven't discussed so far. Let's change that, starting with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

How Are They Doing Lately? Their 16-10 record over the past 30 days is the third best in the league and half a game ahead of their divisional rivals, the San Francisco Giants. They've scored the most runs in the National League, 5.7 runs per game, by a wide margin; the Giants are second with 5.0. However, they've given up 4.5 per game, the third most in the league. At 88-67 entering play today, the Dodgers have assured themselves a playoff berth, and any combination of five Dodgers wins and/or Giants losses will give them the NL West crown. They're two games behind Washington and a game ahead of St. Louis in the race for the best record in the league (and home field advantage throughout the playoffs). 

What's Going Right? The Dodgers are first in the league in batting average (.296) and on base percentage (.359) and third in slugging percentage (.454) over the past 30 days, while the league's averaging .253/.314/.386. The pitchers have been pretty middling, seventh in the league in ERA. They have the sixth-highest strikeout rate and fourth-lowest walk rate, but they're third to last in strand rate, as 31% of baserunners have come around to score. They've had good control, as LA's one of four pitching staffs in the National League with over half of pitches in the strike zone over the past 30 days.

What's Going Wrong? Those offensive stats are a little bit of an illusion. The Dodgers have benefited from a .356 batting average on balls in play, by far the best in the league, which is averaging .302 over the past 30 days, and they've gotten home runs on 15% of fly balls, while the league's averaging less than 10%. Neither of those sorts of deviations are usually sustainable; the Dodgers were at .309 and 9.5%, respectively, in the first half of the year. So while they've been hitting like crazy, they're not likely to keep it up. The pitchers are third-worst in the league at inducing swings outside the strike zone, at 30%, and as a result opposing hitters are making contact on 80% of swings, which is above average. 

The Dodgers have also had a pretty easy schedule. Over the past 30 days, entering play today, they've had five games against the worst team in the league (Arizona), three against the second-worst (Colorado), three against the third-worst (Chicago), and six against the sixth-worst (San Diego). They've had only six games against teams with winning records, San Francisco and Washington, and they split them. So there's plenty of reason to take that 16-10 record over the past 30 days with a grain of salt.

Who's Hot? Most Dodgers batters have been swinging the bat well of late. Over the past 30 days, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is leading the league in home runs (eight) and RBI (28), and he's second in runs (21) and slugging percentage (.614). Juan Uribe and Justin Turner have been a formidable tag team at third, with a combined .395/.429/.463 slash line over the past 30 days. Left fielder Carl Crawford's batting .379, right fielder Matt Kemp is batting .310 with seven homers and a .610 slugging percentage, second baseman Dee Gordon's batting .327 while shortstop Hanley Ramirez is at .305. That's six of eight lineup positions where the Dodgers have a .300+ batting average over the last 30 days. 

Three starting pitchers--Clayton Kershaw, Dan Haren, and Zach Greinke--have been almost unbeatable, combining for an 11-1 won-lost record and a 2.40 ERA. Setup man Pedro Baez has a 1.46 ERA over the past 30 days, the only reliever with over eight innings pitched with an ERA below 3.00. 

Who's Not? Much has made of center fielder Yasiel Puig's slump, as he's gone from batting .309 with twelve homers prior to the All-Star break to .283 with three homers since. He was particularly bad in August, when he hit .216 with no homers. He's come alive some in September (.313 with two homers entering play today), and over the past 30 days his slash line is .250/.365/.375 compared to .253/.314/.386 for the league as a whole--not great, but not much different from the league average.

After Kershaw, Haren, and Greinke, the rotation's been a mess. The No. 4 starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu is hurt, and the other three starters the Dodgers have tried (Roberto Hernandez, Carlos Frias, Kevin Correia) have a combined ERA of 7.92. 

What's the Outlook? The Dodgers should win their division, but they're not as good a team, it seems to me, as their recent record would suggest. As things stand now, they'd play the Cardinals, another team that I've described as good but flawed, in a divisional series. The Dodgers' top three starters may give them the edge, but the Cardinals can pitch as well. It could make for an interesting series.

Trailing 30 - September 21

Here are the top (and bottom) performers over the past 30 days, made possible through the magic of Fangraphs and its fabulous Leaders application. Comment for the week: If you're wondering how the Pirates have put together the best record in the National League over the past 30 days, take a look at the NL batting leaders. 

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Los Angeles      20-9     1. Pittsburgh       18-9       
   Baltimore        20-9     2. St. Louis       18-11        
3. Detroit         18-11     3. Washington      17-11         
4. Cleveland       16-12     4. Los Angeles     16-10   
5. Seattle         15-13     5. San Francisco   16-11        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Minnesota       10-18     1. Milwaukee        9-19      
   Oakland         10-18     2. Arizona          9-18       
3. Boston          11-17     3. Atlanta          9-17      
4. Chicago         11-16     4. Cincinnati      10-17
5. Texas           12-16     5. Miami           11-17

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Abreu, Chi       .398     1. Posey, SF        .408        
2. Altuve, Hou      .384     2. Harrison, Pit    .361      
3. V Martinez, Det  .378     3. Marte, Pit       .360           
4. Brantley, Cle    .363     4. Martin, Pit      .333          
5. JD Martinez, Det .363     5. McCutchen, Pit   .327       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. Teixera, NY      .143     1. Smith, SD        .122          
2. Markakis, Bal    .168     2. Baez, Chi        .142       
3. Gordon, KC       .184     3. J Upton, Atl     .181
4. Schoop, Bal      .184     4. Adams, SL        .184           
5. Middlebrooks,Bos .185     5. Hamilton, Cin    .191      

   On Base Percentage           On Base Percentage  
1. Abreu, Chi       .495     1. Werth, Was       .451           
2. V Martinez, Det  .448     2. Posey, SF        .432          
3. Beltre, Tex      .447     3. Martin, Pit      .412         
4. Brantley, Cle    .419     4. Marte, Pit       .412          
5. Dozier, Min      .414     5. 2 with           .400       
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. Trout, LA        .632     1. Posey, SF        .689         
2. V Martinez, Det  .622     2. Gonzalez, LA     .614     
3. JD Martinez, Det .611     3. Kemp, LA         .610       
4. Cabrera, Det     .596     4. Martin, Pit      .595       
5. Bautista, Tor    .596     5. Dickerson, Col   .584        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Bautista, Tor      10     1. Gonzalez, LA        8
2. Trout, LA           8     2. 6 with              7        
3. 4 with              7        
   Runs                         Runs    
1. Trout, LA          28     1. Rendon, Was        22        
2. V Martinez, Det    24     2. Gonzalez, LA       21     
3. Santana, Min       23        Gordon, LA         21
4. Bautista, Tor      22     4. Valbuena, Chi      20
   Calhoun, LA        22        Yelich, Mia        20

   RBI                          RBI      
1. Bautista, Tor      24     1. Gonzalez, LA       28        
2. Longoria, TB       23     2. Posey, SF          27      
   Pujols, LA         23     3. Holliday, SL       25       
   Santana, Cle       23     4. Kemp, LA           24
5. 3 with             21     5. LaRoche, Was       21
   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Schafer, Min        9     1. Hamilton, Cin      10            
2. Altuve, Hou         8        Revere, Phi        10     
   Dyson, KC           8     3. Lagares, NY         9   
4. 6 with              7     4. 3 with              7
   Saves                        Saves
1. Rodney, Sea        10     1. Mejia, NY           9
2. Britton, Bal        8        Melancon, Pit       9
3. Nathan, Det         7     3. Storen, Was         8
4. Allen, Cle          6     4. 5 with              7
5. 3 with              5        

   ERA                          ERA
1. Shoemaker, LA    1.39     1. Peavy, SF        0.79
2. Carrasco, Cle    1.50     2. Liriano, Pit     0.82
3. Gonzalez, Bal    1.56     3. Collmenter, Ari  1.01
4. McHugh, Hou      1.56     4. Matzek, Col      1.56
5. Samardzija, Oak  1.66     5. Bumgarner, SF    1.59

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. May, Min         8.22     1. Hudson, SF       6.07
2. Oberholtzer, Hou 5.83     2. Vogelsong, SF    5.16
3. Price, Det       5.81     3. Anderson, Ari    5.00
4. Vargas, KC       5.51     4. Colon, NY        4.97
5. Hellickson, TB   5.46     5. Lohse, Mil       4.85

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Hammel, Oak      0.74     1. Collmenter, Ari  0.70
2. Samardzija, Oak  0.76     2. Haren, LA        0.77
3. McHugh, Hou      0.81     3. Miller, SL       0.82
4. Carrasco, Cle    0.86     4. Peavy, SF        0.85
5. Feldman, Ho      0.86     5. Petit, SF        0.87

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Carrasco, Cle      50     1. Kershaw, LA        44      
2. Samardzija, Oak    44     2. Petit, SF          43
3. Hutchison, Tor     43     3. deGrom, NY         40
4. Sale, Chi          40        Wood, Atl          40
5. 4 with             39        Zimmermann, Was    40

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Flyover: Pittsburgh Pirates

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. The last post was about the NL Central leader, St. Louis, so let's stay in the National League Central with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Pirates are 18-8 over the past 30 days entering play today. That's the best record in the league. They're fourth in scoring at 4.7 runs per game and they're allowed by far the fewest runs per game, 2.7. The league's averaging 3.9 runs per game on offense and allowing 4.0 runs per game (the discrepancy due to interleague play). As a result, they seem to have a pretty secure hold on a postseason spot. They're 2.5 games behind the Cardinals in the division, a game behind the Giants for the first wild card, and 4.5 ahead of Milwaukee in the race for the second wild card. 

What's Going Right? The offense has been good, the pitching has been good. The Pirates are batting .281, third in the league, over the past 30 days, with a .336 on base percentage, also third, and the best slugging percentage in the league, .467. They've also been tough to fan, striking out on 18% of plate appearances, third lowest in the league, compared to a league average of 21%. The pitching's been pretty ridiculous: 2.29 ERA overall, 2.70 for starters and an absurd 1.38 for relievers. All those ERAs are first in the league.

What's Going Wrong? Not a lot. They've been pretty bad basestealers, with nine stolen bases (second fewest) against eight caught stealing (tied for fifth highest). There's been some luck involved in those pitching numbers. There are three statistics for which large deviations from league averages generally don't persist: batting average on balls in play (all batted balls excluding homers), percentage of baserunners stranded on base, and percentage of fly balls resulting in home runs. A team that performs exceptionally well in those metrics typically can't keep it up. Pirates pitchers have allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play, stranded the highest percentage of baserunners, and given up the second-fewest homers as a percentage of fly balls over the past 30 days. They're due for regression.

Then there's the matter of their schedule. Over the last 30 days, the only teams the Pirates have played with a winning record are the slumping Brewers (against whom they're 3-1 entering tonight's game) and the Cardinals (against whom they're 2-4). They're 13-3 against teams with losing records. There's nothing wrong with that--good teams generally beat bad team--but those games have pumped up their team stats.

Who's Hot? There hasn't been an easy out among the top five hitters in the Pirates lineup. The league has a .249/.312/.383 batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage slash line over the past 30 days. Here's the top of the Pirates order:

  1. Josh Harrison, 3B .369/.387/.573
  2. Starling Marte, LF .365/.419/.488
  3. Andrew McCutchen, CF .327/.372/.558
  4. Neil Walker, 2B .290/.366/.520
  5. Russell Martin, C .321/.398/.580
Hard to ask for more than that.

The Pirates' two best starters over the past 30 days have been Edinson Volquez (2-0, 1.93 ERA) and Francisco Liriano (3-0, 0.82 ERA). Volquez has probably been a little lucky--his strikeout rate is well below average, his walk rate well above average--but Liriano appears to be peaking at the right time. The eighth and ninth inning pitchers, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, have been pretty unhittable, allowing 18 hits (no homers) and two walks over 28 innnings, striking out 33 en route to a 0.32 ERA.

Who's Not? Right field has been an issue all year for the Bucs, and the current incumbent, Travis Snyder, has a slash line of only .196/.297/.286 over the past 30 days. First base has been another weak spot, with Ike Davis batting .229 with only three homers over the past month. A couple starters, Gerrit Cole and Vance Worley, have ERAs above 4.00, but barely, at 4.31 and 4.03, respectively.

What's the Outlook? Assuming the Pirates don't catch the Cardinals, they will almost certainly be a wild card team, with a one-game play-in against (as of today's games) the Giants. San Francisco's 2-4 against the Bucs this year but has been a slightly better hitting team against lefties than righties, potentially neutralizing Liriano (assuming he starts the play-in game). The Pirates have been hot, but it seems to me that they'll be challenged to keep it going deep into the postseason.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Flyover: St. Louis Cardinals

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. Last time up I wrote about the Los Angeles Angels, so let's stay on that topic and hit on the other team that's roared to a divisional lead of late, the St. Louis Cardinals.

How Are They Doing Lately? They're 17-11 over the past 30 days, tied with the Nationals for the second-most wins in the National League. A month ago, they were in second place in the Central division, two and a half games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. Since then, the Brewers have collapsed, and the Cardinals enter play today leading the Central, 2.5 ahead of the Pirates and six up on the fading Brewers after taking two of three against Milwaukee over the past three days. Their ticket to the postseason is pretty much punched. They've scored 4.0 runs per game over the past 30 days, ninth in the league, but they've given up only 3.4, the third fewest.

What's Going Right? The team's ERA over the past 30 days is 3.05, third best in the league. There are a couple items that make me think there's been some luck involved here. The Redbirds have allowed a batting average on balls in play, .275, that's well below the league average of .301, and they've stranded 78% of batters who've reached base compared to a league average of 73%. Outliers that large are unlikely to persist. There's no question that they've been good, though, as both the starters' 3.01 ERA and relievers' 3.12 ERA are third in the league. They haven't racked up a lot of strikeouts (they're third to last at 19.5% of batters faced) but they've walked a below-average number of hitters (6.9%, fifth lowest). And remember the On The Field Of Play mantra: It's good to throw strikes, it's better to get strikes. No team has been as good as the Cardinals at throwing strikes over the past 30 days--52% of pitches in the strike zone, best in the league--and they're second in the league at getting strikes, getting batters to swing at 32% of pitches outside the strike zone. As a result, opposing hitters are making contact at lower-than-average rates, and the contact's been weak, with 13% of fly balls going to the infield, most in the league. 

What's Going Wrong? The offense has been middling at best over the past 30 days: .257 batting average, .331 on base percentage, .353 slugging percentage compared to league averages of .253, .314, and .383, respectively. The standout has been the on base percentage, buoyed by a third-in-the-league walk rate of 8.4% of plate appearances compared to a league average of 7.4%. The Cards haven't hit for power--.096 isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average), fourth-lowest in the league--and they haven't stolen bases (last in the league with five stolen bases but tied for second with nine caught stealing--they really ought to give up on SBs). Their hitters have been selective, though, swinging at just 29.5% of pitches outside the strike zone, the second-lowest percentage in the league, and making contact on 80.5% of their swings, fourth-highest. I will point out that back in March, when I projected the Cardinals to win their division, I wrote:
Still, that ridiculous .330 batting average with runners in scoring position [that the Cards maintained in 2013], by far the best since World War II (there aren't accurate statistics before then)? No way they keep that up.
They are batting .255 with runners in scoring position this year. That's not bad (the league average is .250) but it does illustrate that last year's Redbirds, third in the league in runs scored per game, were due for a decline. We're getting it.

Who's Hot? Adam Wainwright is the team's ace starter, and over the last 30 days, he has a 4-2 record and a 2.66 ERA. That makes him fourth in ERA on the team among starters with ten or more innings pitched. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Marco Gonzales have combined for a 6-1 record and 1.69 ERA. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, who appeared to be on thin ice for a spell over the summer (from July 4 to August 18, he had a 4.94 ERA over 20 appearances), has eight saves and a 1.54 ERA over the past 30 days, and setup men Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness have ERAs of 1.76 and 2.13, respectively. Maness has allowed no unintentional walks over 12.2 innings. The key player on offense has been left fielder Matt Holliday, who is putting up why-don't-they-walk-him-more numbers: ninth in the league in batting at .311, eighth in on base percentage at .393, tenth in slugging at .553, second in RBI with 25, tied for third with six homers. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta's batting .260 but his four doubles and four homers are second on the club to Holliday, giving him a .420 slugging percentage that's second on the team. Highly touted rookie outfielder Oscar Taveras, disappointing much of the year (a horrid .197/.225/.276 slash line at the All-Star break), has a promising .311 batting average over the past 30 days.

Who's Not? The only starter who with an ERA over 3.00 over the past 30 days is trade deadline pickup John Lackey, who's at 4.64. On offense, first baseman Matt Adams has been cold (.174/.270/.314 slash line) and the team's two best players from last season, third baseman Matt Carpenter and catcher Yadier Molina, haven't contributed much. Carpenter's batting .214 over the past 30 days with a punchless .265 slugging percentage, while Molina's .254 average has been accompanied by an also punchless .296 slugging percentage.

What's the Outlook? The Cardinals should win their division but will have the worst record among National League divisional champs, meaning they'll face the second-best team, at this point the Dodgers, with Los Angeles enjoying home-field advantage, in the Divisional Series. This isn't as strong as club as last year's Redbirds. The pitching's been good but a bit lucky, and the hitters have had less pop and haven't maintained their stratospheric batting average with runners in scoring position. I'd be surprised to see them return to the Fall Classic, despite their formidable starting rotation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Flyover: Los Angeles Angels

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. Let's improve the mood around here. Having looked at the tales of woe that are the Milwaukee Brewers and the Oakland Athletics, let's look at a happy story: the Los Angeles Angels.

How Are They Doing Lately? As I pointed out in the A's essay, the Angels have gone from trailing the best-record-in-baseball A's at the July 31 trade deadline to an insurmountable 10.5 game lead in the American League West, the first team in the majors to clinch a postseason appearance. And they have the best record in baseball, 94-57 entering today's play, three games better than the surprising Baltimore Orioles. But their ascendancy shouldn't be that much of a surprise. Yes, they trailed the A's most of the season, but they trailed them with the second-best record in baseball. 

Anyway, they've been really good lately. They're 22-7 over the past 30 days, the best record in the American League. They've scored the most runs per game (5.7, well ahead of the Tigers, in second at 5.4) and they've given up the third fewest (3.4). 

What's Going Right? Well, obviously, both hitting and pitching. (The team's defense has been a bit above average as well.) On offense, they're second in batting average and on base percentage, and fourth in slugging percentage over the past 30 days. They've been the third toughest team in the league to strike out, whiffing in just 18% of plate appearances, and they're fourth in homers and fifth in isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average), which means that when they make contact, it's hard contact. Oh, and speaking of contact, they've made contact on 90% of the pitches thrown to them in the strike zone, the third-highest percentage in the league, indicating that they're not missing on pitches in the zone.

The team ERA of 3.27 over the past 30 days is fourth lowest in the league, compared to a league average of 3.68. The starters' 3.19 is fifth best, the bullpen's 3.38 is sixth best. The Angels don't follow the On The Field Of Play mantra that it's good throw strikes, but it's better to get strikes, as they're fifth-lowest in the league over the past 30 days at pitching to the strike zone (they're not throwing strikes), and they're getting batters to swing at just 27% of pitches outside the zone, second-lowest in the league (they're not getting strikes). They've induced weak contact, though, with only 7% of fly balls becoming homers (fourth-lowest in the league, where the average is 9%). Among six Angels relievers with over six inning pitched over the past 30 days, only one, Fernando Salas, has given up a homer.

What's Going Wrong? Hard to quibble with the offense. They've been maybe a little lucky. Their batting average on balls in play is .313 compared to a league average of .295, and an average well above (or below) the league average are probably a little fluky. But that's about it. Same for the pitchers: that very low home run rate on fly balls probably isn't sustainable. The pitchers also walk more hitters than you'd like, 8.5% of batters over the last 30 days compared to a league average of 7.3%, but they've been able to strand 78% of baserunners, second most in the league, compared to a league average of 73%. That, difference, too, is probably not going to persist.

All this suggests the Angels probably aren't quite as good as they've appeared to be over the past 30 days. That sure beats being bad, of course. 

Who's Hot? Three batters have been hot over the past 30 days. MVP-to-be center fielder Mike Trout is eighth in on base percentage, .392, and fifth in slugging percentage, .593. He's also tied for fourth in the league in homers with seven, first in runs with 28, and tied for seventh in RBI with 27. Shortstop Erick Aybar is batting .356 and second baseman Howie Kendrick has a slash line of .325/.361/.465. Catcher Chris Ianetta has a weird batting line: .212 batting average but .434 on base percentage, best on the club, as he's got twice as many walks and hit by pitches (22) as hits (11).

The Angels haven't missed a beat since ace Garrett RIchards (13-4, 2.61 ERA) suffered a season-ending knee injury on August 20. Over the past 30 days, Mike Shoemaker has gone 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA and Jered Weaver is 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA. 

At the beginning of the season, Huston Street was the closer for the Padres. The Angels' closer was Ernesto Frieri, who blew up for the Angels (6.39 ERA), then was traded to Pittsburgh (where he was worse: 10.13 ERA before earning his release) for Jason Grilli. Street joined the club on July 19 and has notched more saves (14) in the ensuing eight weeks than Frieri got in three months. Over the past 30 days, he's got five saves and a 1.80 ERA. Setup men Mike Morin and Joe Smith have pitched 23 innings and combined for a 0.78 ERA. 

Who's Not? On offense, no regular's been really bad, though highly-paid first baseman Albert Pujols ($23 million this year, $167 million more guaranteed through 2021, .286/.331/.420 slash line) and left fielder Josh Hamilton ($17 million this year, $89 million more guaranteed through 2017, .250/.294/.417) have been a lot more mortal than their paychecks would suggest. After Shoemaker and Weaver, the starting pitching's been unimpressive over the past 30 days. CJ Wilson and Hector Santiago have a combined 5-2 won-lost record, but that's due to outstanding run support; they have above-average ERAs of 4.22 and 3.97, respectively. 

What's the Outlook? The Angels are looking to October, where they'll appear for the first time since 2009. They have enough pop; the question will be whether they have enough pitching behind Shoemaker and Weaver. If they remain the top team in the league, they'll draw the wild card team, which presumably will have burned its ace in the one-game play-in, so LA will be favorites to advance to face the winner of what looks likely to be a Tigers-Orioles matchup for the American League championship.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Flyover: Oakland A's

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. Having looked at the Milwaukee Brewers in the last one of these, let's stay on the theme of total train wrecks: May I present the Oakland Athletics.

How Are They Doing Lately? Let's go back to the morning of July 31, the trade deadline. The A's had the best record in baseball, 66-41. They had scored the most runs (535) and given up the fourth fewest (373), giving them by far the widest run differential (scored - allowed) in baseball. On that day, they pulled off a blockbuster trade, giving up left fielder Yoenis Cespedes for Red Sox pitching ace Jon Lester and outfielder/DH Jonny Gomes. If I had told you that from that point forward:

  • Lester would post a sparkling 2.30 ERA, with the A's winning two thirds of his nine starts
  • The team trailing the A's in the American League West, the Los Angeles Angels, would lose their best starting pitcher, Garrett RIchards (13-4, 2.61 ERA), to a season-ending knee injury on August 20
  • The Angels' highly-paid ($17 million this year, $25 million next year, $32 million in each of 2016 and 2017) left fielder, Josh Hamilton, would bat just .207 with a .269 on base percentage and just four homers, and was described by his manager as "not the same [player] that we saw when we were looking at the other dugout [before signing a free-agent contract with the Angels prior to last year]" before going out with a shoulder injury in early September
...wouldn't you have guessed the A's would be at this point be on cruise control, sequencing their starting pitchers for the playoffs? Instead the Angels are the first team this year to clinch a playoff spot, the A's are hopelessly (10.5 games) behind in the AL West, and they are in a dogfight for American League wild card, a game ahead of Kansas City and three games ahead of divisional rival Seattle. As I said with the Brewers, what happened?

What's Going Right? The raw pitching stats haven't been that bad: 3.25 ERA over the past 30 days, fifth best in the league, including a 2.57 ERA for the relievers, which is fourth best. About the best thing you can say about the offense, though, is that they've probably been unlucky. They're last with a .258 batting average on balls in play (i.e., not homers), way below the league average of .294. Such a wide deviation is usually as indicative of luck as it is of skill.

What's Going Wrong? The relief pitchers' nice ERA is misleading. By one measure of calculating runs allowed based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs, they've been fourth worst, not fourth best. They've blown six saves, tying them with Tampa Bay for the most in the league over the last 30 days, and their four saves ties them for the fewest in AL. And the offense has been terrible: last in batting, fourth-worst in on base percentage, second-to-last in slugging percentage. Remember, this was the team that was leading the majors in scoring at the trade deadline. Over the past 30 days, they've scored 3.5 runs per game, fourth-fewest in the league. 

Who's Hot? As noted above, Lester has delivered for the A's, with a 2.20 ERA over the last 30 days, though a lack of run support's saddled him with a 2-3 record over his last six starts. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel, who was initially terrible after joining the club in a July trade with the Cubs (0-4, 9.53 ERA in his first four starts), has righted himself, with a 2.36 ERA over the last 30 days. When healthy (keep reading), closer Sean Doolittle has been lights out, with nine strikeouts, one walk, and four hits over 4.2 innings.

Who's Not? Picking the worst A's batter over the last 30 days is hard. Here are the nominees and the their slash lines (batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage);

The average American League batter over the period hit .249/.310/.384. When five of your starters are well below average, you have a problem on offense.

Closer Doolittle has 21 saves and a 2.20 ERA this year, but he was out with a strained ribcage muscle from August 24 through September 12. The A's went 5-14 in his absence, with only one reliever, Eric O'Flaherty (who also blew a save on September 8) getting a save. Fernando Abad gave up no earned runs but blew two saves, and Luke Gregerson also combined a superficially good ERA (1.64) with two blown saves. 

Starting pitcher Scott Kazmir was the A's best starter through the end of July (12-3, 2.37 ERA) but he's turned into a pumpkin since, and over the past 30 days he has a 6.57 ERA, with 23 hits and 15 walks over 24.2 innings.

What's the Outlook? The popular narrative has been to blame the A's meltdown on the departure of the popular Cespedes, viewed as the offense's sparkplug. I'm more inclined to point to Doolittle's absence, which threw the bullpen into chaos. He's back now, and I expect the A's to hang onto their wild cart berth. The schedule helps: They host the Angels for three games next week but the rest of their games are against two last-place teams, the Rangers and the Phillies.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flyover: Milwaukee Brewers

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. I was doing these alphabetically--got through Detroit--but I'm going to jump around now, for three reasons. First, I haven't been able to post as frequently as I wanted. Second, at this point in the season, I think the interest in non-contenders (the Florida Marlins are next alphabetically) is pretty limited. Finally, in September, with all the minor league callups, the mix of players for teams not in the pennant race can get pretty diluted. So I'm going to pick these based on my interest.

Let's start with a tale of woe: The Milwaukee Brewers.

How Are They Doing Lately? Thirty days ago, the Brew Crew was in first place in the National League Central (as they'd been every day since April 5), two games ahead of St. Louis and two and a half ahead of Pittsburgh. They had the third-best record in the league, just half a game behind Washington. Since then, they're 10-17, second-worst in the league, and they've fallen not only out of first place but also out of a playoff spot, as they're a game and a half behind the Pirates for the second wild card spot entering play today. What happened?

What's Going Right? This is going to be a short list, since over the last 30 days, the Brewers have scored 3.4 runs per game, the third fewest in the league, while giving up 5.0, the most (by a quarter of a run). The offense has put up mediocre but not terrible raw statistics (ninth in batting, eighth in on base percentage, tenth in slugging) but they haven't bunched their hits together in order to score runs. 

What's Going Wrong? I keep repeating this in these reviews, but it's because it comes up as such an important factor: The On The Field Of Play pitching mantra is It's good to throw strikes, but it's better to get strikes. Over the past 30 days, Brewers pitchers have been third worst in the league at throwing strikes (47% of pitches in the strike zone compared to a league average of 49%) and last in getting batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone (29% compared to a league average of 31%). In other words, the pitchers aren't getting pitches in the strike zone, and when they don't, they're not fooling batters. They've probably been a bit unlucky, as they're allowing a .324 batting average on balls in play, compared to a league average of .298. A large deviation from the league average is usually indicative of luck. Nonetheless, the starters' ERA of 4.68 is the league's worst, and the relievers' 4.36 is the fifth worst.

The offense hasn't been standout terrible, just overall not very good.

Who's Hot? Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, a fringe MVP candidate, has been OK over the last 30 days, batting .288 with a .362 on base percentage and a .442 slugging percentage. The team's other standout this year, center fielder Carlos Gomez, has a .274/.379/.479 slash line. Every one of those figures I listed, other than Gomez's on base percentage, is equal to or worse than the player's season-long average, but it's not easy coming up with happy stories here. The best pitcher over the past 30 days, easily, has been starter Mike Fiers, who is 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA.

Who's Not? Three starters have ERAs over 5.50 over the past 30 days: Wily Peralta (5.74), Kyle Lohse (6.04), and Matt Garza (9.00). Closer Francisco Rodriguez has blown only one save but he's compiled a 5.40 ERA, giving up five walks and five homers over his past 10 innings. (Frame of reference: Cardinals starter Lance Lynn has given up three more homers, for a total of eight, over 184.2 innings this year). 

All-or-nothing first baseman Mark Reynolds has been nothing over the last 30 days, batting .091 with a .114 slugging percentage. That's three singles, one double, and eleven strikeouts over 44 at bats. Second baseman Scooter Gennett is batting .244 with only a .262 on base percentage. 

What's the Outlook? At this point, the Brewers need help to make the postseason, though they've picked things up of late, winning three of their last four entering today's game against the Reds. After today, they have three games in St. Louis, three in Pittsburgh, three in Cincinnati, and then three at home against the Cubs. Their closest rival, the Pirates, have an easier schedule, but not by much: six games at home (three for the Brewers), remaining games against teams with a weighted won-lost percentage of .486 (.498 for the Brewers). If the Brewers are going to make the postseason, it seems, they'll have to continue their mastery of the Pirates, against whom they're 11-5 this year. I wouldn't rule them out yet.