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.
Every team has at least 62 games under their belts this season, and we’ve seen quite a few impressive performances out of rookies from nearly every position on the diamond thus far. One quick note, in last month’s rankings we had Lance Lynn of the St. Louis Cardinals included, but this month he has been taken out because he does not qualify as a rookie. He was on the Cardinal roster for a few too many days last season to qualify for this season’s award, so his removal has nothing to do with performance. In fact Lynn has been one of the National League’s elite pitchers this season, and would rank 1st or 2nd if he qualified as a rookie. Now on to the list, which has some fresh faces and a more offensive outlook this month:
The first 2 months of the baseball season has produced quite a few teams rebounding from poor 2011 seasons. Some of these teams, like Miami, went out and spent big to turn things around. Other teams saw internal improvement from 2011, like the improvement of Adam Jones, leading to more runs scored, fewer runs allowed, and more victories. Let’s take a look at the chances for the 3 biggest turnaround teams of 2012, starting with the biggest surprise of all, the Baltimore Orioles.
I want to take a look at some of the most intriguing rookies that have made their debuts during the 2012 season. This is the first Rookie Report, because now that we are in mid-May, many rookies are beginning to establish themselves in their club’s lineup and many new players are just being called up to the majors. Players are ranked in order based on who have been the most impressive to date.
No rookie has made more of an impact than Yu this season. Darvish has immediately stepped into the role of staff ace for the Rangers, pitching 52 innings, compiling a tidy 6-1 record, while striking out 58 with a 2.60 ERA. He has been utterly dominant, baffling AL hitters with a wide variety of breaking pitches complimenting an excellent 95 mph fastball. If Yu has one issue, it is his propensity for walking batters. The rookie ace has walked 26 batters, 3rd most in the American League, which could be a problem later in the season. The strikeouts help to balance out the walks, and prove Yu’s ability to be a bona fide ace of a playoff team. His teammates also rave about his commitment to the team, and the game, which was shown last weekend, when he went out and returned to the game after a long rain delay, getting the win against the Angels. Right now he is a mortal lock for AL Rookie of the Year, which is somewhat unfair because he is an accomplished professional ballplayer already, and a top-5 contender for the Cy Young award. Darvish has been worth every penny the Rangers spent so far.
2. Lance Lynn
Lynn, much like Darvish in the American League, is the early frontrunner in the Rookie of the Year race because he has pitched very well and compiled a 6-1 record. His peripheral stats are also outstanding: 44.2 innings with 44 k’s, 14 walks, and a 0.89 WHIP for a 1.81 ERA. Opposing batters are only hitting a puny .171 off of Lynn, due in part to his excellent 93-95 mph fastball. He’s throwing his 4-seamer for 54% of the time, and generating a lot of swings and misses with the pitch. He also has the advantage of pitching in front of one of the most supportive offenses in the National League, with an average of 6.86 runs per game of support. It will be interesting to see if this kind of run support keeps up, and if the Cardinals don’t score a lot for Lynn, how will he pitch in a tight game? We’ve seen him pitch in high-pressure situations out of the bullpen, and he performed well, but I want to see him tested in a tight game as a starter.
3. Wei-Yin Chen
Chen has been one of the many revelations for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012. He has a shiny 4-0 record over his 44 innings pitched with 32 strikeouts and a 2.45 ERA. He’s coming off his best start of the season, a 7 inning, 2-run, 4-strikeout gem against the powerful Yankee lineup. He really displayed a lot of his strengths against the Yankees, keeping hitters off-balance by locating a variety of pitches well. He threw his fastball, slider, and change-up for strikes more than 56% of the time, pounding righties inside and lefties away. Chen will never be a dominant strikeout pitcher like Darvish or Lynn, but he has the ability to be a successful mid-rotation pitcher and an excellent find for the Orioles.
Alonso has probably been the most consistent rookie hitter in the National League during the early part of the 2012 season. He’s hitting a solid .296/.369/.416 clip for an above average 123 OPS+. The spacious confines of Petco Park have limited Alonso to only 1 homerun, but he has 12 total doubles, which is 3rd in the National League. He is also very patient at the plate walking in 10% of his at-bats, just a tick above the league average of 9%. This is an important skill for a 25-year-old slugger to grasp early in his career, because it will allow Alonso to command the strike zone better, which will lead to a higher on-base percentage and better contact at the plate. Alonso’s biggest issue right now is staying focused on defense. He leads all 1st baseman with 5 errors committed, but has shown good range outside of a few mental lapses. If he cuts down the errors Alonso has the potential to develop into a plus defender, in addition to being the middle-of-the-order bat that San Diego so desperately needs.
5. Drew Smyly
Smyly has proven to be quite the find at the bottom of the rotation in Detroit, providing the Tigers with 39 mostly quality innings so far. Though he only has 1 win to show for it, Smyly has a nice 2.31 ERA, and an excellent 1.103 WHIP. In the 39 innings he’s thrown the lefty has compiled 38 strikeouts to go against only 11 walks. His ERA is 3rd in the American League, and his WHIP 8th. If you go in terms of WAR, Smyly has put up a nice 1.6 total so far, good for 4th among all AL pitchers. The lefty quite as good as he is cracked up to be however. Smyly averages just over 5.1 innings per start and has yet to make it past the 6th inning. The Tigers are being very cautious with him, only letting him throw a maximum of 101 pitches, pulling him after an average of 92 pitches. Smyly only has 1 win because he doesn’t go very deep into games, which allows his bullpen the opportunity to snatch victory away from him. Until he starts going deeper into ballgames, the Tigers’ rookie will not be able to compete for the ROY award in what is becoming a loaded field.
6. Jesus Montero
Montero has had a bit of a rollercoaster season during his 1st year in Seattle. The Mariners have given him just under half of the Major League catching duties, more than he ever was going to see with the Yankees, and he has struggled mightily so far. Montero was never going to be a Gold Glove winner and he is in the majors on the strength of his bat, not his catching ability, but he still needs to be a passable catcher if the Mariners want to be competitive. Right now he leads the Major Leagues in passed balls with 4 and had a particularly ugly inning last night in Cleveland. Montero allowed 1 run on a passed ball and then compounded his error with more errors. On a double steal by Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, the Mariner catcher threw the ball away into left field. When Cabrera came home to score, Chone Figgins fired the ball back in from left, but Montero could not come up with it, and the runner originally on 1st, Santana, was also able to score. Montero struggles may prove the Yankees right that he would be best served at DH, where he can focus on hitting. Major league catching is the toughest job ot master in all of sports, so we should cut Montero some slack as he learns the tools of the trade. While he strikes out a little too much, Montero does have excellent power, and is 2nd on the Mariners in homers with 5 and is slugging an excellent .675.
Trout has been on fire since his call up to the big leagues, showing a variety of All-Star level skills. He has been hitting .333/.391/.567 over the 16 games he has played, with 3 homers, 5 doubles, 8 RBI, and 3 steals. Trout has also shown solid outfield instincts and good range, due to his excellent speed. Trout has also improved his plate discipline from his call-up a year ago, drawing 7 walks already. He only had 9 in twice as many plate appearances a year ago, which means he is making excellent progress as a hitter. This kind of patient approach and the potential for him to have a 20-20 season, make Trout one of the strongest competitors for Rookie of the Year. Darvish may have too much of a head start, but some voters may not be inclined to vote for him, due to h, but he is professional experience and Trout could be the benefactor. The only reason the talented outfielder isn’t ranked higher on the list is because of his lack of playing time, due to the fact he began the year in the minors.
8. Wade Miley
Another rookie pitcher off to an excellent start this season, Miley has been one of the best in the Diamondbacks’ rotation. In 39.1 innings he’s 4-1 with 27 strikeouts, 12 walks, and a 2.52 ERA. The 25-year-old began the season in the bullpen for Arizona, pitching well enough to earn a call up to the rotation. Like the Tigers with Smyly, the Diamondbacks are being ultra-conservative with the youngster, only allowing him to top 100 pitches once this season. Until we see Miley go deeper into ballgames, it’s going to be tough to figure out just how effective he can be.
9. Kirk Nieuwenhuis
The 24-year-old outfielder has been somewhat of a surprise for the Mets this season, emerging to become a reliable everyday player. He’s batting .293/.367/.407 and has 9 extra-base hits. Nieuwenhuis doesn’t have a ton of power in his bat, but he knows how to draw a walk, and he has the ability to steal bases. His outfield defense has been great so far this season as well, and he shows good instincts to go along with plus range. Even if Nieuwenhuis’ performance stumbles over the next couple of months, if he can finish hitting around .275 with 10 homers and 15-20 steals, it would be a good year for the rookie.
10. Best of the Rest.
Randall Delgado, Atlanta Braves. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals. David Phelps, New York Yankees. Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox, Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox.
Note: Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland A’s would have been on the list, but he is injured, so I decided to highlight some other players instead.
With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.
Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.
If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.
The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:
40% division title/80% playoff spot
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.
Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.
The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:
0% division title/5% playoff spot
The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball. The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.
Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.
The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:
30% division title/75% playoff spot
The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.
The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:
15% division title/35% playoff spot
After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.
So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:
15% division title/30% playoff spot
Yesterday’s Yankees-Orioles clash was an exciting game for quite a few reasons. It was the first opportunity to get a look at one of the most dominant pitchers from the Nippon Baseball League in Wei-Yin Chen. It was also a game that featured 2 of the finest shortstops in baseball, Derek Jeter and JJ Hardy. By the end of 12 innings there had been, 5 wild pitches, a great relay throw to the plate, and countless clutch plays.
In the top of the 1st Derek Jeter came up to the plate and got the game started right for New York, smashing a homer deep to centerfield, well clear of the wall. Wei-Yin Chen looked a little nervous, much like Yu Darvish two nights ago, during the first inning. He admitted as much after the game saying “To be honest with you guys, this is my first major league outing. I was so nervous,” Chen said. “But after the first inning everything was fine for me.” His location was poor, and he was leaving plenty of pitches over the plate, and the Yankees hit him hard but only got the 1 run, leaving 2 men on base. Not to be outdone in the bottom of the 1st inning, JJ Hardy also took an upstairs fastball deep, tying the score at 1. From there the game really got interesting.
After escaping the 1st inning Wei-Yin Chen really began to settle in and show what he can do. Chen showed an array of pitches, featuring a lower 90s fastball, a plus changeup that Yankee hitters struggled with, and an average slider. He locates all 3 pitches well, keeping hitters off-balance, which is the mark of a successful big leaguer. At one point he ran of a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired. He looked every bit the part of a successful major league pitcher, and will fit nicely in the middle of the Orioles rotation. Chen is an excellent find for Baltimore, and their front office and scouts should be applauded for the pickup.
His counterpart on the mound, Freddy Garcia, struggled mightily all night with his command. Garcia threw 5 wild pitches, the most in one game since 1989, and was downright AJ Burnett-like. Garcia also walked 3 batters and hit another despite only making it through 4.2 innings. His breaking pitches in particular were terrible, with at least 50% of them bouncing in the dirt. Some pitches were missing the plate by more than 2 feet. Two of Baltimore’s runs were directly attributable to Garcia’s wildness and it makes one wonder why Joe Girardi stuck with him for so long, because the Yankee bullpen was dynamite.
By the 6th inning, the O’s were cruising, up 4-1, when Chen began to wear down. As he approached 90 pitches his command started slipping, and he started leaving pitches out over the middle of the plate. The Yankees managed a couple of singles, and then Chen walked his first batter of the night, Curtis Granderson, to load ‘em up. With one out Andrew Jones hit a meager fly ball to right and Robinson Cano was able to tag-up and score on a slick slide at the plate. Showalter decided to leave the tiring Chen in the game to face Russell Martin, and he was able to induce a grounder to 3rd, where Mark “Iron Hands” Reynolds plays. Reynolds botched the play badly, allowing a 3rd run to score. The next batter Brett Gardner hit a sharp single and the game was tied at 4 and the Yankees had chased Chen from the game. A battle of the bullpens ensued.
For the next 3 innings neither team was able to push across a run and the game would go into extras. The Yankees had their best chance in the 7th inning, with Nick Swisher on 1st and Robinson Cano at the plate. Cano laced a sharp double down the 3rd base line and it went all the way to the wall, where Endy Chavez picked it up. Chavez fired the ball in to shortstop JJ Hardy, who was perfectly positioned 10-15 feet into the outfield grass along the foul line. Hardy turned and fired a perfect line drive strike to the plate from 120 feet away, just in time to nab a sliding Swisher. If either throw had been less than perfect Swisher would have scored. The Chavez-Hardy-Wieters relay was executed with textbook precision, and should be used as a model for how the play properly works.
By the 12th inning, the Yankees were able to muster another offensive rally. Robby Cano hit a leadoff double, and 3 batters later, Raul Ibanez brought him home with an RBI double. Mariano Rivera was brought in for the save, and collected the 604th of his illustrious career.
Box Score Observations:
-The final line for Wei-Yin Chen: 5.2 IP/4R/2ER/7H/1BB/6K/101 pitches. Chen showed me a lot of ability tonight. He has excellent control with and understands how to mix his pitches, which will serve him well. He could be the most productive pitcher on the Baltimore staff this season. The 26-year-old has a bright future ahead.
-The Yankees bullpen was superb. They pitched 7.1 innings, allowing no runs while striking out 12 batters. Corey Wade and David Phelps were both individually impressive, striking out 4 batters apiece.
-The middle infield is carrying the Yankees so far in the young season. Jeter and Cano are the only regulars hitting above .300, and they combined to go 5-12 with 3 runs, 3 extra-base hits, and 1 RBI. Both have played solid defense as well.
-The Yankees were 2-18 with runners in scoring position. Baltimore was 0-8. Ouch.