Saturday, July 7, 2012

Smoke And Mirrors (The National League Playoff Race)

The upcoming All-Star Break is what is traditionally considered to be the end of the first half of the season.  But being the stickler that I am for mathematical detail, I know that all teams in baseball have already passed the halfway point of the season, having played at least 81 games of their schedules.

Since teams now have less than half of their schedules remaining to be played, now would be a good time to start looking at the playoff race in the National League.  And what an odd race it's shaping out to be.  As of today, the three division winners in the NL would be the Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers, with the two wild card spots being claimed by the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds.  The Mets are a half-game behind the Reds for the second wild card spot.  The Braves are a half-game behind the Mets and the Cardinals are a half-game behind the Braves.  Got that?  Good.  Because it just gets more confusing after that.

None of the five teams currently holding playoff spots made the playoffs last year.  The top two teams on the outside looking in (Mets, Braves) also failed to crash the 2011 postseason party.  Are those seven teams really that good to be competing for the right to extend their season well into October?  Or are they just winning with smoke and mirrors?

The Washington Nationals currently have the best record in the National League.  They have had this success while being in the lower half of the league in batting average, stolen bases, on-base percentage and runs scored.  As of today, Bryce Harper leads the team with a .283 batting average.  He is also the only regular on the team with an on-base percentage higher than .340.  Second baseman Danny Espinosa leads the team with 14 stolen bases, but he is one of only four Nationals who have stolen more than three bases.  Meanwhile, the Mets' Jordany Valdespin stole four bases in one game on Monday before being recalled to the majors this week.

The Nationals are winning with pitching, pitching and more pitching.  Washington leads the league with a 3.23 ERA.  None of their starters has an ERA above 3.73 and four of their relievers (Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus) have ERAs below 2.00.  Those four pitchers have combined to allow 27 earned runs in 141.1 IP.  Compare that to former Met Manny Acosta, who allowed 29 earned runs BY HIMSELF in only 22 IP.

The only thing scarier than this photo of Manny Acosta was Manny Acosta's ERA.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have the second-best record in the National League, one percentage point ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Pittsburgh hasn't had a winning season since Willie Randolph was a Met ... as their second baseman!  Since Barry Bonds* defected to the land of BALCO following the 1992 campaign, the Pirates' best season was in 1997, when they finished in second place in the NL Central with a 79-83 record.  But with a 46-37 record this year, they might just finish with their best record in two decades.  As bad as the Nationals are offensively, the Pirates are even worse.  The team is batting .243 (13th in the NL) with a league-worst .298 on-base percentage.  They're also near the bottom of the league in runs scored (12th), hits (15th), doubles (13th), stolen bases (14th) and walks (15th).  But for all the flaws they might have, the Pirates are winning with the two Ps - power and pitching.

The Pirates have hit 85 HR, good for 6th in the NL.  They are led by third baseman Pedro Alvarez and centerfielder (and top MVP candidate) Andrew McCutchen, who have both hit 16 HR.  Utility player Garrett Jones has also shown impressive power in limited plate appearances, stroking a dozen home runs on the season.  Over 40% (137) of the Pirates' 329 runs have scored on home runs this year, which has offset the team's low on-base percentage.  In addition to their long ball prowess, the Pirates have also had exceptional pitching performances from unexpected sources.  James McDonald has pitched like a Cy Young Award candidate all year, going 8-3 with a 2.45 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .197 batting average.  And seriously, who expected Yankee castoff A.J. Burnett to be 9-2 at this point of the season?  In the bullpen, Joel Hanrahan has saved 22 games and is on pace for his second straight 40-save season.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were riding on MVP candidate Matt Kemp's coattails for the first month of the season en route to the best record in baseball.  Then Kemp went on the disabled list and the offense crashed harder than a Chicago Police Department cruiser chasing Jake and Elwood.  Take Kemp's numbers out of the Dodgers' team stats and the rest of the roster has combined for 37 HR in 2,661 at-bats.  That's worse than Joel Youngblood's power numbers as a Met (38 HR in 1,897 at-bats for the Mets from 1977 to 1982).  Despite the fact that Kemp has been out of action for nearly two months, his 28 RBI are still the second highest total on the team.  Simply stated, the Dodgers sans Kemp make the Nationals and Pirates look like offensive juggernauts.  But just like the Nats and Bucs, the Dodgers can claim one key strength - they can throw the baseball with the best of them.

Kemp and the Youngbloods - a much better name for a band than Hootie and the Blowfish.

The Dodgers are second to the Nationals in team ERA (3.26) and have an impressive front of the rotation with reigning Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw (6-5, 2.91 ERA. 1.06 WHIP) and former Met Chris Capuano (9-3, 2.62 ERA, 1.12 WHIP).  To close games, they have one of the best young studs in the game in 24-year-old Kenley Jansen.  Jansen has 15 saves since becoming the team's closer in late April.  In his last 33 appearances, Jansen has been practically unhittable, holding opponents to a .111 batting average while compiling a 1.39 ERA.  For the year, Jansen has struck out almost half of the batters he's faced and has a phenomenal 14.3 K/9 IP rate, which is actually slightly lower than his 15.0 K/9 IP rate for his career.

The San Francisco Giants have no power (50 HR, good for next-to-last in the NL), strike out way too much (555 Ks, also next-to-last in the NL) and don't walk enough (239 BB; 13th in the NL).  They also lost their closer (Brian Wilson) to an injury and their ace (Tim Lincecum) has been lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (6.08 ERA, 1.55 WHIP).  So how are they competing for the division in the NL West?  By beating up on the NL Central.

The Giants are 17-9 against the six teams in the Central division, but are a .500 team (29-29) against all other opponents.  The other four teams in the NL West are a combined 37-41 against the teams from the Midwest.  Of course, it's not just their dominance over their Central division foes that has kept the Giants in contention.  The three-headed pitching monster of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have combined to go 26-11 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.05 WHIP for the Giants.  Also, fill-in closer Santiago Casilla has been Brian Wilson-esque, racking up 21 saves with a 2.84 ERA.  And who actually expected Melky Cabrera to hit almost .360 in the first half of the season?

The Cincinnati Reds had recent playoff experience two years ago, but stumbled in 2011.  Now they're back in contention for their second division title in three years after failing to make the playoffs in every season since 1995.  They're not succeeding because they get on base.  In fact, their .248 team batting average and .314 on-base percentage puts them 10th in the National League in both categories.  They're not succeeding because of their starting pitching.  Other than All-Star snub Johnny Cueto (9-5, 2.35 ERA, 1.13 WHIP), the rest of the staff is mediocre at best.  Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey have yet to miss a start (the Reds have only used five starting pitchers all year), but perhaps they should since all they've been able to produce is a combined 20-19 record with a 4.02 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.  But they are succeeding greatly in two places.

The Reds hit for power.  Lots of it.  Other than catcher Ryan Hanigan, the other seven regular starters have all hit at least eight home runs.  They also hit a ton of doubles.  Seven players have hit at least 11 doubles, with three of those doubles already having reached 20 doubles.  Joey Votto leads the planet in two-base hits with 35, putting him on pace to break Earl Webb's 81-year-old record of 67 doubles in a season.  In addition to the extra-base excellence, the Reds also have a sneaky good bullpen.  Of the eight pitchers the Reds have used in relief this year, only one (Bill Bray) has an ERA above 4.00.  Five of the eight relievers (Aroldis Chapman, Jose Arredondo, Sean Marshall, Alfredo Simon, J.J. Hoover) have ERAs of 3.00 or lower.  They also strike out a ton of batters, fanning 243 batters in 215.1 IP.

The Braves and the Mets are currently on the outside looking in, but both teams have gaping holes that leave people wondering how they've been able to contend for the majority of the season.  The Braves do not have anyone on the team with more than 50 RBIs yet.  Michael Bourn has nearly half of the team's stolen bases.  (Bourn has 23 SB; the rest of the team has 26.)  Take out the lost-for-the-season Brandon Beachy (2.00 ERA) and closer Craig Kimbrel (1.45 ERA), and you're left with a team that has a 4.31 ERA.  That's not a very good team.

Forget the planet.  The Mets have the worst bullpen in the Milky Way.  No other bullpen is even close.  The Mets' bullpen ERA has been at or above 5.00 for most of the season.  Plus Ike Davis has hit like Mario Mendoza.  Plus Lucas Duda's would be the worst fielder on Charlie Brown's team.  Plus the Mets have used 22 pitchers this season (the Reds have only used 13).  So why are the Braves and Mets competing?  Each team can do something better than anyone else in the league.

Sorry, Charlie.  We didn't mean to insult your team by comparing their defense to Lucas Duda's.

The Braves have the best road record in the National League.  At 24-17, they have a winning percentage of .585 away from the House that Ted Built.  The ability to win on the road has kept the Braves from languishing in the depths currently occupied by the Marlins and Phillies in the NL East.  (Both Miami and Philadelphia have losing records on the road.)  What about the Mets?

The Mets hit better than any team in baseball when the number '2' is flashing under the word 'outs' on the scoreboard.  The Mets have scored nearly half of their runs (185 out of 391) and have hit nearly 50% of their home runs (33 out of 71) after two men have been retired in an inning.  Furthermore, with multiple men on base, the Mets have hit an astounding .309 (134-for-434), with a .376 on-base percentage and .493 slugging percentage.  Of course, having a top three in the rotation of R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana and Jonathon Niese doesn't hurt either.

So in conclusion, there isn't a dominant team in the National League.  You won't find a 1986 Mets in this year's crop of contestants.   Every division race is still up for grabs.  Both wild card spots have multiple teams gunning for them.  The teams that make up the top half of the National League all have good reasons for being up there.  But they also have some pretty big holes they'll need to fill if they want to remain in contention throughout the second half of the season.

The Mets have been winning with smoke, mirrors and two-out hits for three months now.  But what happens if the mirror breaks?  What happens if the fire is put out?  What happens if those two-out hits find opponents' gloves?  The team needs to repair its leaky bullpen, add a potent right-handed bench not named Jason Bay and hope the starting rotation holds up or three more months.  If they don't, then they'll need more smoke, more mirrors and more teams to fold so that they can still be playing meaningful games in September for the first time since 2008.  It's certainly going to make for an exciting second half of the season.

No comments: