How much does momentum matter on a baseball field? Can a team that enters the playoffs at its lowest point top one that’s been riding a hot streak for more than a month now? How much stock do you put into the notion that the team with the most talent eventually wins out? Does being a two-time defending champion with all the benefits of big game experience matter? Or can a team that’s seemingly been playing above its head continue to their magical ways? These are just a sampling of some of the storylines floating around a compelling winner-take-all contest between Texas and Baltimore to kick of the American League playoffs.
In 2011 we saw the St. Louis Cardinals use a powerful offense while leaning heavily on a revamped bullpen to roll all the way to a World Series title. Having a strong bullpen for the postseason has never been as important as it has during the past couple of seasons, and for good reason. Pitchers throw fewer innings per outing with each passing year, which means a larger part of the 9 inning burden falls on pitchers who throw no more than 70 innings a season normally. Many of these players will be called upon in situations with enormous ramifications, whether it be to match up with a slugger like Joey Votto or to get out of a bases loaded jam. Let’s take a look at which teams’ bullpens are best prepared to enter the war of attrition known as October baseball.
The Baltimore Orioles, tied for 1st in the AL East, are in action today and currently involved in yet another extra innings game, this time against the 3rd place Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles are 80-62 and just 2 wins from their first season over .500 since 1997, but they have the run differential of a 69-73 teams, because they’ve been outscored by 21 runs. It’s a baffling feat, particularly in the AL East, which is routinely baseball’s toughest division, and it’s just a part of what makes this team one of the quirkiest in baseball history. Don’t believe me? Well then, let’s take a look at some of the facts.
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 scalding hot St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis has been red-hot all year and now has the best record in the National League to go along with the best run differential in baseball. New manager Mike Matheny has invigorated the lineup, unleashing the Cardinals on the base paths as well as at the plate. St. Louis is tops in the National League in homeruns, bashing 7 in their last 2 games alone, and is 2nd in the league in steals. Carlos Beltran may be having one the finest seasons of his career, hitting 10 homers and 26 RBI in the first 30 games. Last night he had 2 homers, including a grand slam, to push the Cards to victory. Another recent addition, Rafael Furcal, is also on a tear to begin the season. Furcal has yet to be caught in 6 steal attempts and is hitting .342/.409/.496, scoring 22 runs which is important for a leadoff hitter. Meanwhile the pitching staff hasn’t gotten a single inning out of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright has an ERA over 5.00, but they rank 2nd in the National League in runs allowed. Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse, and Lance Lynn are a combined 14-3. Each pitcher has an ERA under 2.20, with Lohse and Lynn having WHIPs under 1.00. The news keeps getting better in St. Louis because Allen Craig has returned and bashed the ball in his first 6 games, slugging 2 homers and 3 doubles for a .364 batting average. The Cardinals have a lot of depth, both on the mound and in the lineup, and they look to be emerging as the early favorites in a jumbled National League.
- Josh Hamilton’s monster night. Last night in Baltimore Josh Hamilton became the 16th player in history to hit 4 homers in a game, and the first since Carlos Delgado accomplished the feat in 2003. Hamilton’s production also included one double and 8 RBI to cap off a perfect 5-5 night. He totaled up 18 bases for his efforts, 1 shy of Shaun Green’s major league record 19 from a May 2003 game. Hamilton also took over first in baseball in the batting average, slugging %, total bases, and in the home run race after just this one game. And what’s more impressive may be the home runs. Baltimore’s Camden Yards is a hitter neutral park, and 3 of Hamilton’s 4 jacks were to straightaway center, over 400 feet away. The one homer he didn’t hit to centerfield was no cheapie either. Hamilton bombed it to opposite field, for a 380-foot blast. Hamilton is completely locked in at the plate and the rest of the league needs to look out right now.
- Baltimore’s Bullpen. The biggest reason the Orioles are surging right now? Their bullpen has been lights out. When Buck Showalter turns the game over to his bullpen, Baltimore has not let him down. Out of the Orioles 6 most frequently used relievers (all with more than 13 innings pitched), only 1 has allowed more than 3 runs. Closer Jim Johnson and middleman Luis Ayala have yet to allow an earned run over a combined 28 innings. Even the position players are getting in on the act. During Sunday’s 17-inning marathon against the Boston Red Sox, DH Chris Davis was called upon to pitch. He responded by throwing 2 scoreless innings striking out 2, while Adam Jones provided the offensive lift, hitting a 3-run homer. If Baltimore’s firemen continue to pitch this well, the O’s could stay in the race for the long run.
- Milwaukee’s infield situation. On Sunday the Brewers lost the 2nd member of their Opening Day infield, when Alex Gonzalez went down with a torn ACL after Mat Gamel had already gone down with a season-ending knee injury. The Brewers have responded by going uber-defensive, starting Cesar Izturis at short and Travis Ishikawa at 1st. Izturis is one of the worst hitters in the majors with a career 64 OPS+ in 4000 at-bats. Ishikawa is also a very light hitting 1st baseman, with 17 career homers in 643 at-bats. Milwaukee will need to find an upgrade if they want to compete for the playoffs this season, because they can’t afford any more light hitting bats. Nyjer Morgan and Rickie Weeks are off to terrible starts, hitting under .200 apiece, and Aramis Ramirez hasn’t been much better, batting only .216. Milwaukee has already fallen into 5th place in the NL Central, 6 behind St. Louis, and they need to get things turned around quickly.
- Colorado’s Starting Pitching Staff. You know its bad when your best pitcher to date has been 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. The Rockies have gotten almost nothing out of their pitching staff, ranking last in the National League in runs allowed, homeruns allowed, hits allowed, and ERA. The aforementioned Moyer is the only Rockie checking in with an ERA+ above league average, and he’s just barely over at 110. The biggest issues so far have been the inability to strike batters out and locating pitches in the strike zone. We knew Moyer would struggle with this, but who would have thought that Jeremey Guthrie would post a 1.8 Ks/9 rate in his first 24 innings? No one on the staff has a K/BB rate better than the league average of 3. The worst perpatrator has been poor Jhoulys Chacin, who has been bombed so far, giving up 7 homers, 31 hits, and 15 walks in just 24.2 innings of work. It’s a shame too, because the Rockies offense is rolling, ranking 2nd in the National League in homeruns and OPS, as well as 3rd in runs scored behind a resurgent Carlos Gonzalez.
- Daniel Bard’s balky 2nd inning. Last night in Kansas City Daniel Bard had a little bit of a problem with balking. On his 1st balk, Bard had a runner on 1st and 3rd. He attempted the old fake-to-3rd-throw-to-1st, but never made a legitimate move to the 3rd base bag. Bard attempted to argue, but the umpires made the correct call, because Bard’s foot came up but never got close to moving in the direction of 3rd. The move led to the Royals’ 1st run of the game, and moved the runner on 1st down to 2nd. The 2nd balk was also an easy call the umpires got right, and occurred during the same at-bat 2 pitches later. A pitcher is not allowed to make a move toward a base and not throw the ball and when Bard brought his foot down, then turned to 2nd, he was caught red-handed. It ended up costing Bard and the Red Sox another run when Chris Getz singled home Moustakas. Bard appeared to get a little jumpy with the base runners on, which is interesting because the runner both times was Mike Moustakas, the owner of 3 career steals in nearly 500 at-bats. Moustakas is a very nice looking young hitter, but he’s not exactly Ricky Henderson out there.
Now that April is in the books, and with All-Star voting already underway, it’s a good time to look at the American League’s best, by position, so far.
Catcher- Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
The toughest position to choose from in either league, because of the excellent quality of play to date from Joe Mauer, who leads AL catchers in batting average and steals, AJ Pierzynski, who is hitting .309 with 4 homers, and Mike Napoli, who has crushed 7 homers already. I decided to go with Wieters, who plays behind the plate every game, unlike Mauer and Napoli, and who excels defensively, unlike Pierzynski. Wieters is hitting .279 with 6 homers and 15 RBI, helping Baltimore get off to a surprising start.
Konerko has been mashing the ball on the South Side, crushing for a .383/.444/.679 slash that puts him in the early MVP discussion. The slugging 1st baseman has also hit 5 homers, which put him over 400 for his career, and has driven in 15. He is the White Sox leader in the clubhouse, and has helped propel the team to a 2nd place start after the 1st month. This is one of the deepest positions in baseball, so we will see how long Paulie can hold on to the top spot.
2nd base- Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Kinsler has been the spark at the top of the Rangers finely tuned machine of an offense, leading baseball in runs scored with 24. He’s also hitting a robust .298 while blasting 5 homers out of the leadoff spot.
Shortstop- Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
This one isn’t even close, as Jeter is the only AL shortstop hitting above .300. He is currently off to one of the best starts to a season in his career, hitting .389 with 4 homers and 13 RBI out of the leadoff spot. He has also scored 16 runs and leads all of baseball in hits. He is also driving the ball to the outfield again, something he struggled with early last season.
3rd Base- Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Longoria injured his knee last night, attempting to steal 2nd, which has really put a damper on what was shaping up to be his finest professional season. Longoria has hit .349/.433/.561, spraying the ball to all fields and showing good power, with 4 homers to go with 19 ribbies. Hopefully he won’t have to miss more that a week or two, because he has some competition at 3rd with Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome and will probably cost the Rays a couple wins.
Outfield- Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
Hamilton, along with Matt Kemp, has been playing in his own stratosphere early in 2012. He is hitting .395/.438/.744 and has compiled a major league leading 64 total bases in a scant 22 games. He also leads the American League in homeruns and RBI and may have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown, if he can stay healthy.
Outfield- Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins
Josh Willingham has arguably been the most valuable free agent pickup to date. He’s driving the ball to all fields, posting an outstanding .347/.447/.681 with 5 taters. He may not stay in Minnesota for long, because if the Twins don’t get their pitching sorted out, Willingham would bring back a big return from an outfield or slap hitting team around the deadline.
Outfield- Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Adam Jones has been the other driving force behind the Orioles offense so far, hitting .333 and driving in 12. He has shown an All-Star level mix of power and speed, slugging 6 homers and stealing 4 bases, while scoring 18 runs. Other candidates for this last spot include: Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Nolan Reimold, and Nick Swisher, who is having a career-best start to his season.
Designated Hitter- David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
Ortiz is having quite the season so far in Boston leading baseball in batting average, at .405 and OPS at 1.184. He has buoyed the Red Sox with his steady demeanor and production, leading the team in RBI and homers.
Right-handed pitcher- Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox
What a comeback so far for Jake Peavy, who is currently 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA for the Sox. He’s already thrown 37 innings and has struck out a robust 33 while only walking 5 so far, for an excellent 6.6 K/BB. His WHIP of .690 leads baseball, as does his ERA+, which accounts for park factors and sits at an absurd 252. He will have some regression to the mean, but this is an excellent start for the righty.
The young 22-year-old was a blip on the radar before the season started, and a month later he leads all qualifying pitchers in ERA, at 1.23. He has only pitched 22 innings so far, but has struck out 22 while only allowing 1.182 base runners to reach per 9. He isn’t afraid to throw any pitch in any count and looks to be the real deal.
Relief pitcher- Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Johnson probably won’t occupy this spot for long, but right now he has a league leading 7 saves without allowing a run in any of his 8.2 innings pitched. Fernando Rodney has also been excellent, and apart from blowing an Opening Day save, Mariano Rivera has not allowed a run.