The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
The steal is one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, and thrilling events in all of sports. When a quick runner gets on first and begins to take his lead, the entire stadium sits in nervous anticipation, thinking along with the runner: Which pitch should I go on?, How big of a lead should I get?, and in the case of a pickoff move, Get Back! Get Back!
The true Picasso’s of the steal, Ricky Henderson, Maury Willis, Lou Brock were impossible to gun down on the base paths, and could nab any base off of any pitcher at any time. These players, if used properly by managers, could be used as baseball’s point guards, shifting the defense around, irritating the pitcher, and allowing other players to pick up hits. Today’s top thieves include Brett Gardner, Dee Gordon, Coco Crisp, and Juan Pierre. Each of these players are slap hitters who rely on speed, not power, to attack an opponents pitching game. If any of the hitters can get on base, pitchers should be proceed with extreme caution, or have their pocket picked.
There are many variants to stealing bases: the steal of 2nd, 3rd, home, a double steal, a delayed steal, and even the rare triple steal, a feat not performed in over 100 years. Today we’re going to look at a couple examples of the double steal.
The double steal is a particular treat, and was performed to perfection yesterday by the St. Louis Cardinals, completely catching the unsuspecting Reds napping. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, a speedster in his younger years, easily swiped 2nd and 3rd last night, contributing to a big 1st inning, which put the Cardinals up for good at 3-0. Beltran saw something in the delivery from Mat Latos and was able to jump the pitch, taking 3rd without a throw. Berkman, always a heads up player, followed his teammates lead and hustled into 2nd.
About a week ago two of the fastest players in baseball were also able to pull off the feat down in Miami against the Houston Astros. Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio each led off the game with singles and put the pressure on immediately, taking 3rd and 2nd in one maneuver. Reyes has fantastic speed, and if he can get a good jump, he will almost assuredly take any base. Even with a good throw down to 3rd, Reyes was still safe, and Bonifacio wisely followed his example taking 2nd base.
Another version of the double steal, in which runners begin on 1st and 3rd is a particularly risky, but rewarding play if executed properly. The Yankees ran this to perfection with two excellent base runners, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, in 2010 against the Red Sox. The Yankees were able to pull this play of without a hitch, because of the speed of Gardner at 3rd base, and the jump Jeter gets at 1st. When Jeter reads the pitcher properly and gets a fast start toward 2nd base, it forces Martinez to react immediately, without looking the runner at 3rd base back. As soon as Martinez stands up to fire toward 2nd, Gardner takes off and is easily able to take 3rd base.
The middle infielder on the play is taught to come in to receive the throw in front of 2nd base so he can fire home to nab the runner. Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox shortstop attempts this maneuver, but because Brett Gardner’s jump was so excellent he has no chance at getting him at home. Jeter is able to take an extra pause to try to distract the fielder, and in doing so completely freezes Scutaro out, taking 2nd base to complete the double steal. This is a textbook version of the double steal of home, and it makes one wonder why more teams do not resort to this play in close games.
Around the League
-Boy that Cliff Lee-Matt Cain duel was a doozy wasn’t it? In a game seemingly from a previous era, the Giants were able to edge the Phillies 1-0 in 11 and it only took a tidy 2 and 27 minutes. Lee went 10 innings, throwing only 102 pitches with an astonishing 81 going for strikes. He allowed 7 hits, walked no one, and struck out 7, but got nothing to show of for his efforts. Matt Cain was similarly excellent, throwing 9 innings, scattering a measly 2 hits with 1 walk and striking out 4. The Giants won the game on a Melky Cabrera base hit 1 inning after Lee was removed from the game.
-The Washington Nationals won another 1-run game, their 5th already on the young season, beating Houston 3-2. They improved their record to a National League best 10-3, and look every bit the part of a contender. Adam LaRoche, Jason Werth, and Ian Desmond are all having nice bounce back years so far, and once Ryan Zimmerman gets it going the offense could be scary. The pitching staff has proven to be as strong as it looked on paper, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in all of baseball, behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and company. The schedule has been a little cushy so far, with the Mets, Astros, and Cubs all figuring to be bottom-feeders, but give the Nats credit for taking care of teams they believe they should beat.
-The best record in the American League currently belongs to the 2-year reigning champion Texas Rangers at 10-2. They plowed over Boston again last night 6-3, and are now allowing the fewest runs in all of baseball, 30 total. Boston on the other hand has been bombed for 74 runs already. If they can’t find a way to get the pitching staff in order it won’t matter what Bobby Valentine is doing or how many runs the offense scores, because team with bottom-5 pitching staffs historically do not make the playoffs and struggle to play .500 baseball. The Red Sox have played a brutal schedule so far, so expect some improvement once they get away from playing the Tigers, Rays, and Rangers, all of whom are good offensive teams.
-Bartolo Colon had a dominant night for the A’s against the Angels in a 6-0 win. At one point during his start he threw 38 straight strikes, and was utterly unhittable. He’s now 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA on the season and if he keeps this kind of performance up he could become very desirable on the trade market in June and July. The offense for Oakland was provided by Yoenis Cespedes, who smashed his 5th homer, an absolute missile to right field that scored 3 runs. Pitchers are starting to figure him out, over the past week and his batting average has dropped down to .238, but he has been having good at-bats for the most part, which is an encouraging sign.
The 2012 American League West is one of the most top-heavy in baseball. The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are star-studded teams that will probably eclipse the 90 win plateau. Seattle and Oakland, not so much. Let’s take a look.
The Texas Rangers 2012 season has one goal and one goal only: get to the World Series and finish the job this time. After two consecutive American League pennants, Texas enters the season as the odds on favorite and their most talented team ever. The offense remains elite, with solid to great hitters 1-9, and now the pitching is getting up to speed as well. Texas has all the ingredients of a World Series winner, it’s just a matter of finishing the job this time around.
The Rangers offense should once again finish in the top-3 in baseball after ranking 3rd a year ago, a comfortable 64 runs ahead of the 4th place Tigers. Texas has a balanced attack, with 6 hitters that had an OPS+ above league average in 2011.
The heart of the lineup is ferocious, with 2012 MVP Josh Hamilton surrounded by Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, and Ian Kinsler. Only the Yankees and Red Sox have this sort of firepower and its no coincidence that these 3 teams all won 90+ games a year ago. All 5 of the aforementioned players are a threat to hit 30+ homers, making Texas the most powerful lineup in baseball. Many of these sluggers, including Hamilton, Napoli, and Beltre also have the ability to post a batting average over .300 as well.
The Rangers also have plenty of speed to go with all that power, finishing 5th in the baseball in steals a year ago. Texas prides themselves on taking the extra base, and plays with one of the most aggressive approaches in baseball. Manager Ron Washington always has the green light on, and this puts extra pressure on a pitching staff. The double play duo of Kinsler and Elvis Andrus sets up the rest of the lineup, applying pressure on the opposition, and combining for 67 steals a year ago.
For a long writeup on the Rangers rotation check here.
The Texas bullpen should once again be deep and talented too. Newcomer Joe Nathan has had some injury problems, but should provide elite production in the back of the ‘pen. When health he posted 5 straight seasons of 35+ saves with an ERA south of 2.20. The rest of the bullpen is a good mix of lefties and righties, featuring Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, and Alexi Ogando. This should be one of the best end game units in the league, and will make Texas tough to beat.
The Rangers enter 2012 as the favorites in the American League for the first time. Despite there defending AL champion status a year ago, Boston was seen as a heavy favorite in the spring in 2011, but this year is different. Yu Darvish is aboard, the rotation is deep, the lineup deeper, and the bullpen is lock down good. Expect another year of October baseball in Texas.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The unanimous winners of the 2011-12 offseason were the Los Angeles Angels. By adding the best hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols, and stealing CJ Wilson away from rival Texas, LA has set itself up nicely for a return to the promised land after a season away. The Angels will have one of the best rotations in the American League after finishing 2nd in runs allowed a year ago, 7th overall. The offense will have more power, with Pujols and Kendry Morales making a return from injury, so expect improvement from a unit that finished 17th in baseball. The battle out west between Texas and Los Angeles will rage all season and probably won’t be decided until the last week or two, so every run matters.
The Angels bold move to snag Albert Pujols this offseason signaled that the franchise was going all-in. Pujols will make an obscene $254 million over the course of his backloaded 10 year deal, and will have to put up monster numbers early to earn his keep. Pujols will be making $12 mil this year and $16 mil next, but will make 29 mil for his age-39 season and $30 mil for his age-40 season. Numbers that could cripple the Angels in the future, but his current production will be worth it. Pujols 162 game average is ridiculous and jaw-dropping. He averages .328/.420/.617 with 42 homers and 126 RBIs.
The Angels need this sort of run producer, after a season in which not one player accumulated over 90 RBI. Pujols has never failed to do that, and has only failed once to get 100 ribbies, last year when he drove in 99. If Kendry Morales can return successfully, the Angels will have a fearsome heart of the order. Morales was a MVP candidate during his only full season, hitting .306/.355/.569 with 34 home runs and 108 RBI. A 25 homer, .280 batting average seems doable and would provide a big boost to the club.
The rest of the Angels’ lineup is either aging poorly or is under 26. The Angels will ask veterans Torii Hunter and Wells to man the corner outfield positions around youngster Peter Bourjos. Hunter is still a productive veteran and brings excellent leadership to the clubhouse, but Wells would be better served in a reduced role. The Angels have youngster Mike Trout, who has the #1 rated prospect in baseball a year ago. Finding the 5-tool Trout at-bats and playing time would be an improvement over Wells and could add a win or two to the total. Bringing up Trout to play left or right field would also give the Angels excellent outfield defense, which could save a few runs for the pitching staff.
In adding CJ Wilson to what was the 2nd best staff in the AL a year ago, LA made another move to catch the Rangers. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren are a playoff caliber top-2 who won a combined 34 games in 2011 while posting sub-3.20 ERAs. Each pitcher has a strong fastball, locates their pitches well, and they both pile up strikeouts. Wilson, despite his playoff struggles, provides another top of the rotation arm, and slots in nicely in the #3 spot. He is capable of winning 15 games with a sub-3.50 ERA. Ervin Santana, the 4th starter, had a breakout year in 2011, throwing for a 3.38 ERA in 220 innings with 7 strikeouts per 9.
The Angels will need to find the right mix in their bullpen. Jordan Walden will be entering his 2nd season in the bigs and was able to compile 32 saves a year ago while striking out more than a batter per inning. He has an issue allowing too many base runners, leading to an average 2.98 ERA.
Overall the LA Angels have plenty of star power and are a good bet to win 90 games. Texas has a deeper roster but the Angels may have the best players. If the Angels find a way to get Mike Trout in the lineup and platoon Wells and Abreau, they could sneak past Texas and avoid the Wild Card round. If not they will still be able to keep pace with the Rangers and are in for a season-long dogfight.
Oakland has a very good chance to be the worst team in baseball during 2012, and will probably be the worst team in the American League. After a somewhat disappointing year in 2011, finishing 74-88, Billy Beane decided that it was time for another tear down. Gone are Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Daric Barton, and David DeJesus and in their place is Yoenis Cespedes, Bartolo Colon, and not much else. The offense will struggle to score against everyone, and the pitching staff is comically shallow. Billy Beane has not won so much as an American League pennant since becoming GM in 1997 and hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2006, so maybe his way of doing things isn’t working anymore.
The offense has only one potential star, and only a few players who would start on other major league teams. Yoenis Cespedes is the future of the franchise, a 26-year old, powerfully built outfielder who hasn’t met a pitch he doesn’t love. He will probably experience some growing pains this season, but is immensely fun to watch. He has shown the ability to hit the ball with big power, going deep in his second major league game. He is going to have a strikeout problem, probably finishing with around 150, but he has the ability hit 30 homers in the Coliseum, a difficult feat.
The rest of the rest of the up-the-middle defense is Cliff Pennington, Jemile Weeks, and Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki and Pennington are major league average players at their peaks and both were not last year. Weeks has some potential, hitting .306 in 400 at bats. He could develop into a decent base stealer, but last year was thrown out on 1/3 of his attempts, a rate that has to improve. Coco Crisp, the left fielder, can also steal bases, nabbing 49 a year ago. The rest of the offense is completely uninspiring and will not put up many runs.
The pitching staff, a strength in 2010 and 2011, will probably see some drop off in 2012. Their projected top-5 is Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, Tom Milone, Tyson Ross, and Graham Godfrey. There will be plenty of long days in Texas, Los Angeles, where Oakland is pounded by a 6-1 or 8-2 mark. Both McCarthy and Colon looked good in their first 2 starts, but McCarthy is a #2 or #3 starter masquerading as an ace, and Colon, at age 38, will probably wear down like he did a year ago as the season gets into July.
Billy Beane has been given a lot of credit for furthering the use of sabermetric statistics in baseball, but it may not be working or the rest of the league has caught up. Oakland is probably looking at 2-4 more losing seasons at minimum, which would be an extremely long run of mediocrity. Beane is given too much credit constantly and needs to be reassessed for what he is: a mediocre GM at best, who found an edge, used it until everyone else caught on, and has failed to adjust.
The Mariners have an excellent chance to be an improved team in the upcoming season, possessing a solid collection of young, talented players. Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Felix Hernandez, Mike Carp, and Justin Smoak are all under 26 and have the potential to be an impressive core. The Mariners pitch isn’t as deep as it was a year ago, but the offense should be better, which will mean more wins and a shot at 3rd in the division.
Felix Hernandez will have to carry the rotation, because the other 4 days the Mariners will be sending out a below average starting pitcher. King Felix looked downright nasty in his Opening Day start, striking out 5 while only allowing 1 run in 8 innings. Hernandez has had some of the toughest luck in baseball the past 2 seasons, going a combined 27-26 while posting a stellar 2.87 ERA, 11 complete games, and 454 strikeouts. If Seattle could scratch out a meager 4 runs a game, Hernandez would be a threat to win 20 games.
The rest of the rotation isn’t looking so good following the trades of Doug Fister and Michael Pineda. Jason Vargas, Kevin Millwood, Hector Noesi, and Blake Beavan round out the rotation currently, and will probably get hit very hard. Vargas has the potential to be league average, but the rest of the unit is terrible. Millwood was unable to win a starting job on a rotation a year ago, and won’t be any better in 2012. Noesi is a 5th starter at best and Beaven shouldn’t be in a major league rotation. On days where the King rests, the Mariners will be hard pressed to win.
The offense on the other hand is on the up-and-up after ranking as the worst in baseball the past 2 seasons. A full year of Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and a healthy Justin Smoak should be able to improve that standing. Ackley and Montero each had impressive major league debuts in 2011. Ackley in particular, has the look of a future All-Star at 2nd base. He was a corner fielder in college at North Carolina, where he hit for a high batting average with some decent power. Ackley has displayed both in his first 350 at bats, posting a Mariner’s best 117 OPS+. Montero massacred the ball in his short call-up in New York, batting .328 with 4 homers in 60+ at bats. He has been ranked as high as the #3 prospect in all of baseball, a tribute to his batting prowess.
The rest of the Mariner offense is a collection of slap hitters, the best being Ichiro. Chone Figgins has been abysmal in his time in Seattle and posted a god-awful 38 OPS+ last year in 300 at bats. Finding even a cardboard cutout to play 3rd base would be n upgrade at this point. Weak-hitting/above-average fielding, Brendan Ryan is back at short again, and will probably provide what he usually does.
Seattle is probably not good enough to compete with the powerful Rangers and Angels, even if everything breaks just right. The Mariners could, at best, finish around .500 but expecting much more is asking too much. Getting out of the division cellar, while continuing to develop young talent would count as a successful season in the Great Northwest.
*Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
American League West MVP: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
American League West Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
This division will be a 2-horse race between Texas and LA. Seattle and Oakland will fight for the bottom of the division and I give the edge to the Mariners because of Felix Hernandez. I like Texas to repeat as division champs for the 3rd year in a row with the Angels no more than 3 games behind. I think the lineup depth in Texas will win out over the course of a long season, giving the edge to the Rangers.