Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
One of the most vital tasks for any veteran pitcher worth his salt to master is the ability to will his team out of losing streaks. That means taking the mound knowing the bullpen is overworked and in need of rest and delivering a big performance. It means efficiently working through 7 or 8 innings while shutting down the opposing lineup. It means throwing everything plus this kitchen sink to get your team the win. On Thursday night a couple of crafty lefties in Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee were able to do just they. They were able to be the veteran stopper, putting both the Yankees and the Phillies among the ranks of the victorious. Let’s take a look at each pitcher’s performance:
Let’s take a trip down memory lane real quick, back just two years ago. The Phillies were in the midst of assembling one of the greatest rotations of the past decade, a rotation that would be honored with many glowing nicknames like the Phab Four or Four Aces and a Joe-ker. The offense wasn’t too shabby either, possessing perennial All-Stars like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Shane Victorino. Basically the sky was the limit and the Phillies had the finest regular season in franchise history, winning 102 games. But they bowed out in the first round of the 2011 postseason, losing Ryan Howard as well. As he lay crumpled on the ground, writhing in pain, any notion of a future dynasty was soon dismissed.
The 2012 season would be one full of disappointment. Cliff Lee struggled to pickup wins as a terribly assembled and poorly managed bullpen blew lead after lead. Roy Halladay went down with a shoulder injury, ending his run as one of the most dependable big game starters in baseball. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley experienced lost seasons, as they were unable to get their bats going after injury. By midseason the towel was thrown in by the front office when 2/3rds of the starting outfield was shipped west. When the Washington Nationals clinched the NL East on October 1st, it marked the end of Philadelphia’s five year reign over the division.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., ever the optimist, has again decided to play the role of favorite, reloading his aging roster with veterans in a last gasp sort of way. Michael Young was brought in to play 3rd through a trade with the Rangers. Delmon Young and Ben Revere were brought in to reinforce the outfield as well. If last year’s 81-81 finish was suppose to mark the end of an era, that’s not how Amaro Jr. views it. He’s imagining more of a speed bump, a one year deterrent on the way back to the postseason, and he may be biting off more than he can chew.
Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee has been one of the most durable, successful, and all-around excellent pitchers in Major League Baseball for the past 4 seasons. He’s got one Cy Young Award on his mantle, and can boast about 2 other top-5 finishes. But the 2012 season just hasn’t gone the way he expected it to. Lee has slipped a little bit this year, seeing his ERA rise from 2.40 (161 ERA+) a year ago all the way up to 3.83 (107 ERA+) this season. As you would expect, as his ERA and ERA+ dropped from elite a year ago to slightly above average this season, so it makes logical sense that his win total would drop as well. But for Cliff Lee to be the proud owner of a meager 2 wins is a little absurd, especially when you consider the fact that he has lasted fewer than 6 innings in just 1 of his 21 starts, while posting a quality start 60% of the time in general. Both numbers would lead you to believe that Lee had a record around the .500 mark, maybe a little better if he was lucky and his offense scored a lot when he pitched, and maybe a little worse if he was undone by poor defense or little run support. But Cliff Lee hasn’t just had bad luck, he’s having a historically bad run of luck, equivalent to a black jack player watching the dealer turn over 21 after 21 until the player is forced to walk away.
Earlier today I discussed the hottest team in baseball, the New York Yankees, and now I want to take a look at a franchise currently mired in the worst slump, the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies have gone 3-12 over their past 15 games, a ghastly run of poor play from the team with the 2nd highest payroll in baseball.
Their slump has directly coincided with the loss of Roy Halladay, who was placed on the DL on May 28th for shoulder soreness, and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. The good news is that he is already throwing and is ahead of schedule on recovery, which means a return in 5-6 weeks now looks likely, barring a setback. But even if Halladay can return ahead of schedule, do the last place Phillies, now 9 back of Washington in the NL East and 5 games out of a Wild Card spot, realistically have a chance to make the playoffs?
- Rangers on a Roll. The Texas Rangers are absolutely on fire right now, beginning the season with the best mark in baseball at 13-3. They lead all of baseball in both runs scored and runs allowed, making the Rangers a truly great team in the early going. Its been bombs away so far for Josh Hamilton, who after yesterday’s 3-3 game with a homer, is now hitting a massive .418/.438/.776 slash with 7 dingers and 17 RBI. Michael Young has been hitting behind Hamilton for most of the season, and he’s punishing opposing pitchers as well, to the tune of a .403/.431/.532 line. In addition to the fantastic offense the pitching staff has been sublime, with every starter posting an ERA under 4.00 so far. As a whole, the Rangers’ staff has the best ERA in the AL, the lowest walk rate, the fewest homers allowed, and ranks 5th in k’s. Colby Lewis has been downright phenomenal in his 4 starts, posting a 2.03 ERA with 24 strikeouts to only 1 walk. The worst starter on the staff so far has been Japanese import Yu Darvish, who has had some control issues, walking 6.6 per 9, but even he has a shiny 2-0 record and a 3.57 ERA. Texas has already won 2 straight American League pennants and this may be their best team yet. They begin a 3-game series with the Yankees in Arlington this evening and it will be another good test against one of the American League’s elite.
- Beast Mode. Matt Kemp said he was going to let Beast Mode out of the cage more often this season, and he wasn’t lying. He has hit a bananas .450/.500/.967 in his first 16 games with 9 homers and 22 RBIs. Every single one of those numbers is the best in baseball, and Kemp is the biggest reason why the Dodgers are off to an excellent 12-4 start, which is tied for the best record in the National League. Kemp said before the season that he thought he could be the 1st ever 50-50 player, and while he has only swiped 1 base, the power numbers are off the charts. His isolated power, which measures a batter’s ability to hit for extra-bases is an unheard of .517!! Kemp’s was .262 a year ago, a number that led the entire National League. Kemp will obviously cool down at some point in the season, but he is off to a historically good start.
- The red-hot Atlanta Braves offense. The Braves are leading the NL in scoring so far on the young season, showing an excellent blend of team power and speed. They have 18 home runs and 14 steals already, and are getting production throughout the lineup. The star of the offense has been Jason Heyward, who is back to hitting a .900+ OPS, and showing good instincts on the base paths, with 5 steals without being caught. The Juan Francisco-Chipper Jones platoon at 3rd base is working wonders, combining for 3 homers, 12 RBI, and 16 hits while keeping the future Hall-of-Famer fresh for the stretch run. Michael Bourne has been the catalyst at the top of the lineup batting .338 and stealing 7 bases with 5 extra-base hits. The only issue for the lineup so far has been a propensity to strikeout, as Atlanta ranks 10th in the National League in the category. The Braves big question this season was whether or not they would hit enough to support a deep pitching staff, and the early returns have been excellent. The boys from Atlanta will be in competition all season long with this kind of offensive production.
- The stumbling, bumbling Royals. The Royals are currently riding a 10-game losing streak, and they possess the 3rd worst run differential in baseball. The Royals’ offense, which was 10th best in baseball last year, has declined to 25th in baseball so far. No Royal currently has more than 9 RBI total, and they rank 2nd to last in the American League in strikeouts. Eric Hosmer has had a rough beginning to his season, hitting a measly .183/.269/.367 in 15 games after showing some promise a season ago. Another hitter struggling early is Alex Gordon, who is also hitting under the Mendoza line and has struck out 19 times already. Gordon had a breakthrough year in 2011, hitting for a 139 OPS+ while winning a Gold Glove, so it’s too early to give up on him, but the Royals will continue to lose until his play improves. The pitching staff hasn’t been much better outside of Bruce Chen, who continues to show that last season’s improvement was no fluke. Chen has thrown 18 innings, posting a 2.00 ERA while only allowing 15 total base runners, and he has a 0-1 record to show for it. Danny Duffy has also been solid, showcasing a blazing fastball to rack up an elite 10.4 K’s/9. The rest of the rotation has been abysmal, with no player posting an ERA under 5.50. The bullpen has also been sporadic, finding ways to lose games that the Royals have the lead in, contributing to the 10 game slide. Kansas City needs to turn things around quickly if they want a shot at finishing higher than 4th place.
- Pittsburgh’s offense. Pittsburgh is currently hitting .202/.249/.281 as a team, while scoring only 30 runs in 15 games! The complete absence of production in any form around Andrew McCutchen is almost unbelievable. McCutchen has hit an excellent .351/.403/.404, stolen 4 bases and scored 9 of Pittsburgh’s 30 runs. Four of Pittsburgh’s regulars currently have batting averages under the Mendoza line, with Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas being particularly awful, hitting .089 and .091 respectively. The Pirates rank dead last in baseball in every offensive category outside of triples, homers, and stolen bases. Pittsburgh is hitting for a collective 52 OPS+ with 2 players doing the impossible and ranking negatively on the scale. The worst team OPS+ in the last 45 years was the Mariners historically putrid offense in 2010, which hit 27 points higher than the Pirates are currently hitting. Luckily for Pittsburgh the rotation ranks 2nd in baseball in runs allowed, so the Pirates have been able to post a 6-9 record. The pitching won’t be able to keep this up forever and if the offense doesn’t improve soon, the Pirates will start losing every night on the way to another 100-loss season.
- Pitchers on the DL. Cliff Lee threw 10 innings on Wednesday against the Giants, and now he finds himself on the disabled list for the next 15 days, due to an abdominal strain. “We’re being very cautious with this,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. `’There’s no reason for him to kind of completely blow it out because it’s an injury that if he hurts himself and really pulls it, we could lose him for a long time. We’ll shut him down, get him right and hopefully he’ll miss only a couple of starts and go from there.” The Yankees also had to shut newly acquired Michael Pineda down after only 15 pitches in his 1st rehab start. There is no timetable for his return and the Yankees, historically cautious with their pitchers, will probably give him a couple months to recover. Diamondbacks #2 pitcher Daniel Hudson will also hit the DL, a precaution due to shoulder soreness. Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos is also hitting the DL, becoming the 6th closer on the early season to have to miss time. He is complaining of shoulder tightness, which is never a good sign for a pitcher.
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.