Archive for August, 2013

Should the Braves Be Worried?

It was a rough week for the Atlanta Braves. Not only did they drop four of their six games but they also got the one-two punch to the gut of losing Brandon Beachy and Jason Heyward to injury.

They did drop another spot in the ESPN Power Rankings, back to the No. 3 spot, but there is little reason for concern at this point as far as their playoff hopes are concerned. However, some recent injuries reveal a team that could be very vulnerable come October.

Playoff lock

According to, the Braves have had a 99.9 percent chance of reaching the postseason since Aug. 4, and their mini-slump this week has not affected their odds one iota. Not only have they been the best team in baseball but their competition has been lacking. There is no other team in the National League East above .500, and, at 65-65, the Nationals have just a 4.1 percent chance to reach the postseason, which is easily the lowest percentage for a team currently in second place in its division. With a whole week of August still to go, we are already talking about Atlanta’s magic number.

The problem for the Braves is that the team that built that lead is not the same one that is taking the field right now. In fact, Fangraphs projects them to be just a .500 team the rest of the way, good for the 12th-best record in baseball. This is mildly alarming, but not for the reason you might think.

Momentum myth

If Atlanta stumbles down the stretch, you are sure to hear a lot about why that is a bad omen for the postseason. Now, a team never likes to limp into the playoffs, especially if it’s with two of its best players rusty or on the shelf. However, statistically, there’s very little to the notion that a team needs momentum entering the postseason tournament.

Back in 2005, Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times noted that, from 1969 (the first season of the two-division/league championship series play format) through 2004, World Series champions had a slightly worse September record than the average playoff team and that the team with the best record in September won the World Series only eight times in 35 seasons, and six of those eight teams also had the best overall regular-season record. This essentially means that just two teams that got red-hot in September went on to win the Fall Classic.

Momentum aside, the real issue for the Braves could simply be that they won’t be as good a team if Heyward and Beachy aren’t on the field. Heyward, in particular, has really come into his own. The still-just-24-year-old had been putting together a monster second half at the dish before taking a fastball off the cheek.

He had been hitting .317/.405/.554 since the break, and his 168 wRC+ — a measure of a player’s overall offensive contributions compared with the league average — was seventh-best in the game among qualified hitters. His jaw wasn’t wired shut, however, so there is hope that he can be ready for the postseason, even if he has to wear a Dave Parker-like mask in the batter’s box.

The only real effect on Atlanta, though, will be dealing with whether he is rusty once the postseason starts, as the Braves actually have several capable bodies in the outfield.

Plenty of players

The most capable replacement for Heyward  is Joey Terdoslavich, a 24-year-old Florida native whom the Braves plucked out of the sixth round of the 2010 first-year player draft. Since his call-up on July 4, Terdoslavich has displayed a keen eye at the plate, albeit in a small sample — he has walked in eight of his 49 second-half plate appearances, good for a robust 16.3 percent walk rate.

In addition, the team has Evan Gattis and Jordan Schafer, both of whom have tailed off after monster first halves but nevertheless possess the talent to cover for Heyward in his absence. Gattis is especially free for outfield support now that third catcher Gerald Laird is back in the lineup.

The story is similar in the rotation — the Braves have dug deep this season to find arms when they’ve needed them. For a while, there was the thought that they had too many starters, but when Tim Hudson was felled for the season, in stepped Beachy. But now, with Beachy possibly being lost for the season after a complication in his surgically repaired right elbow, the team can turn to lefty Alex Wood.

Wood himself had stepped into Paul Maholm’s spot when the latter landed on the DL, but now Maholm is back and Wood has been pitching well in the rotation. He has posted a 2.52 ERA and 2.56 FIP in his six second-half starts — both marks best the effort put forth by staff ace Mike Minor. Like Heyward, Beachy had been playing well, but, over the course of a month, it isn’t hard to replace his contributions. If Atlanta has any problem on its hands, it will be setting a postseason rotation — specifically, whether Wood is needed more in the rotation or in the bullpen, where he had pitched well earlier in the season.

Losing Heyward and Beachy in one week is no doubt painful for a Braves squad that has faced more than its fair share of injuries this season. However, not only do the Braves have good depth to cover for them but they are going to sail into the playoffs on the wings of their 13-game lead.

And even if they drag themselves into the postseason in T-101 fashion, their lack of momentum won’t be a death knell as long as they can get some of their injured players — particularly Heyward — back on the field.

Spending the Red Sox Money

When the Red Sox shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers last year, they cleared a little more than $260 million in guaranteed contracts off their books. It was the salary dump to end all salary dumps, and that they happened to land a couple of flame throwing pitching prospects was just a nifty bonus. The primary motivation for the deal was to recoup the money they’d spent, giving them a chance to reallocate those dollars in a more effective fashion in the future.

This winter, that future is going to become the present. The Red Sox spent last winter redistributing their newly available cash to quality role players on short term contracts, and after the season ends, the team will not longer have any further commitments to the likes of Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, or Joel Hanrahan, and only Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Shane Victorino are signed through the 2015 season. Even after acquiring Jake Peavy at the trade deadline, the Red Sox are still expected to have approximately $40 million to spend this winter, and there are going to be opportunities for the team to put that money to use.

The primary decision, and the one that will shape what the rest of Boston’s off-season will look like, will require an in depth look at Jacoby Ellsbury’s value. Ellsbury’s return to excellence has been one of the driving factors in the team’s success, and it would not be easy to replace his production, especially considering that Ellsbury earned just $9 million this season. But, to retain his services for the future would likely require a 100% raise over a long term deal, and the Red Sox might not be that interested in signing another $100+ million deal with an outfielder whose value comes from speed and defense after seeing the Crawford deal go bad so recently.

If Ellsbury asks for something like $18 million per year over seven years — the 7/126 template that was given to Vernon Wells, Jayson Werth, and Barry Zito, making it both a popular and infamous contract total — then his days in Boston are likely numbered. With Shane Victorino capable of moving back to center field in the short term, and Jackie Bradley Jr around as a long term replacement, the Sox are not running low on center field options. The marginal value Ellsbury could provide to another team may very well be higher than the value he can provide to the Red Sox, who could fill his gap with a lower priced corner outfielder instead.

Of course, Ellsbury might not shoot for the moon, and the Red Sox would be foolish to closing the door on his return altogether. Having Ellsbury and Victorino play side by side hasn’t hurt them this year, and if he wants to continue his career in Boston at a less-than-market rate — say, $80 million over five years? — then the Red Sox should be willing to bring him back and figure out what to do with Victorino and Bradley when it becomes a problem. That scenario seems unlikely, however, with Ellsbury likely to command a much larger contract from a team badly in need of a center fielder who can also jumpstart an offense.

So, let’s pencil the Red Sox in for an outfielder not named Ellsbury. They’re also likely going to want a first baseman to replace Napoli, who has been decent but perhaps not quite as effective as hoped. They’ll probably also need an infielder who can slide between shortstop and third base, giving them some depth behind youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks. And finally, they’ll have a decision to make behind the plate, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia set for free agency.

$40 million and the shopping list includes an OF, an IF, a 1B, and a C? No problem. Here’s one way to spend those funds and keep the team in contention for years to come:

Sign catcher Brian McCann to a four year, $60 million contract.
Sign outfielder Carlos Beltran to a one year, $13 million contract.
Sign infielder Jhonny Peralta to a one year, $7 million contract.
Sign first baseman Michael Morse to a one year, $5 million contract.

McCann has had a huge season in his final year before free agency, answering some of the questions surrounding whether his body was breaking down after carrying a heavy workload in Atlanta since 2006. The Braves seem unlikely to re-sign McCann, but a qualifying offer is a near lock, which should depress the market and allow Boston to forfeit a late first round pick in order to pick up an impact bat at a reasonable price.

And as a bonus, the Sox already have McCann’s former platoon partner in David Ross, who they signed from the Braves last winter. McCann and Ross form a formidable left/right tandem, and Ben Cherington could get the band back together with a contract that lures McCann to Boston. While questions about his health are legitimate, McCann can produce enough to justify a $15 million paycheck even while spending parts of the year on the DL. Yes, it’s another lefty bat on a team that hasn’t hit right-handed pitching that well this year, but we’ll get to that part with the next three signings.

To replace Ellsbury in the outfield, the switch-hitting Beltran is something of the Red Sox ideal player: still productive, hits lefties, won’t require a long term commitment. The Cardinals outfield logjam may force Beltran to look for work elsewhere, and a move to the AL where he could get some days at DH when David Ortiz rests could help prolong his career. He would provide the perfect bridge to Bradley Jr, who could fill in as a part-time player behind Beltran in 2014 before taking a full-time job in 2015, when Victorino might be best served moving back to right field.

Additionally, the acquisitions of Peralta and Morse would give the team two more right-handed hitters who shouldn’t require multiple year commitments, and provide additional depth at multiple positions. Peralta likely won’t have a strong market after serving a 50 game suspension for being linked to BioGenesis, but he’s worth the gamble as a super utility guy who could split time between all the infield positions and play 3-4 days per week, or take over a starting job if either Bogaerts or Middlebrooks shows that they’re not quite ready for prime time. Morse was miscast as an outfielder by the Mariners, but could share the first base job with Mike Carp, allowing both to play the position where their lack of athleticism hurts the team as little as possible, and Morse can still hit lefties and fake it against right-handers if need be.

While the contract figures for McCann, Beltran, Peralta, and Morse are all speculative at this point, they’re reasonable price points for the players, as each comes with some kind of red flag but has enough upside to make the risk worth it. These players fit the mold that Cherington pursued last winter, allowing the team to make key additions when available without threatening the long term health of the franchise.

This is the kind of off-season that would set the Red Sox up for another strong push in 2014, and it’s only possible because of the Great Salary Dump of 2012. This is the trade that just keeps on giving.

One Year Later, a Win/Win Blockbuster

When the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers matched up on the stunning trade that sent more than a quarter-billion dollars worth of contract commitments west last year, reactions in the baseball world to what the Dodgers had done tended to take on a certain tone. “Risky” was on the nicer end of that scale, while more often than not words like “gluttonous,” “laughable,” or simply “insane” were tossed around as the game struggled to comprehend the scale of what had happened.

For the Dodgers, it was an opportunity to jump-start a tattered organization that hasn’t been to the World Series since 1988 and had suffered through years of neglect due to the personal problems of former owner Frank McCourt.

In Boston, it was seen as a chance to make a fresh start as the Red Sox continued on the path to 93 losses, their worst season since 1966.

One year later, as the Red Sox come to Dodger Stadium for a highly-anticipated series this weekend, both clubs are in first place and looking towards October. It may have been a shocking deal when it happened, but it’s turned out to be a win/win that neither side would undo if they had the chance — and it’s a big part of the success both teams have had.

Here’s why.

As ESPN’s Buster Olney reported at the time, the response he heard from those in front offices of other clubs was that it was a “terrible value” and a “huge overpay” for the Dodgers. After all, in order to acquire Adrian Gonzalez — one of the central figures of the clubhouse revolt against Boston manager Bobby Valentine — they also had to agree to take on the more than $130 million still due declining pitcher Josh Beckett and injured, unproductive outfielder Carl Crawford. That they still had to send five players to Boston (including highly regarded pitching prospects Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster) to seal the deal seemed to be an unnecessary hardship.

When the Dodgers pulled the trigger on the trade, their goal was clear. They badly wanted Gonzalez, the first baseman who had followed up a smashing 2011 Boston debut (.407 wOBA) with a below-average (for him) .348 mark through mid-August of 2012. With the continually disappointing James Loney as the incumbent at first base and few upgrades at the position available either in the organization or on the upcoming free agent market, the opportunity to add a Southern California native who remains popular with the area’s huge Hispanic base was too tempting to pass up.

While Gonzalez hasn’t quite returned to the MVP levels he showed while with San Diego — his .298/.346/.458 (.347 wOBA) is almost identical to his 2012 line — a certain amount of context is required. As the Dodgers struggled badly over the first two months, with Yasiel Puig still in the minors and stars like Zack GreinkeMatt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez all missing time due to injury, Gonzalez represented one of the few productive constants for Don Mattingly’s club. Besides, even a diminished Gonzalez has already put up the most valuable season by a Dodger first baseman since 1999, with a month still remaining.

Acquiring Gonzalez was the primary focus, but it was Crawford who represented the largest risk. The former Tampa Bay star had hit just .260/.292/.419 in two seasons with Red Sox, proving that the marriage was a mismatch both on the field and off. He’d also undergone Tommy John surgery on his elbow just days before the trade, so his status to even start the season for the Dodgers was uncertain.

Crawford was not only ready for Opening Day, he hit .308/.388/.516 in April, filling the leadoff hole and pairing with Gonzalez to be basically the only two Dodgers to hit at all during the early part of the season, especially with Ramirez hurt and Kemp struggling. As the team struggled to stay afloat, it was their two Boston imports that were leading the offense. He’s missed a chunk of time since then due to a hamstring injury and has shown uneven results since then until an August rebound, but he’s proven that he can still contribute on both sides of the ball in a situation where he’s happy and healthy.

Beckett made just eight mediocre starts before being lost for the season, though the team has survived just fine without him; Crawford, Gonzalez, and fellow trade acquisition Nick Punto have combined for a full-season pace of approximately eight wins above replacement. If that’s perhaps not quite the impact that Puig and Ramirez have provided, it does make for a far deeper lineup than the one that finished eight games out of first last year.

While most of the focus was in Los Angeles, the Red Sox took a risk in this as well. Yes, clearing themselves of so much payroll and clubhouse trouble represented an unexpected chance they couldn’t pass up. But Boston is a difficult town to commit to a rebuilding process in, and removing Gonzalez created a hole both at first base and in the heart of the lineup. Coming off the disaster that was 2012, few observers picked the Red Sox to make it out of the tough American League East, much less compete for the best record in the league.

The newfound financial freedom allowed Ben Cherington to sign Jonny GomesMike Napoli, and Shane Victorino, among others, though none of the five players received from Los Angeles are currently on the active roster. While the primary reason for the Red Sox rebound is due to much improved health over 2012, it’s difficult to think that they would be where they are right now if they still had last year’s bad feelings, inflated payroll, and without this winter’s upgrades.

It should be noted that not only did the Sox “acquire” significant financial flexibility with all the money they cleared from the books in the deal, they haven’t lost it. The deals they signed this offseason could never be considered frightening, or of the long-term variety.

As the teams prepare to face on the field this weekend, there still a good case to be made that the Dodgers overpaid to get Gonzalez. That’s true not so much for the money (which they seem to have endless reserves of), but because they assumed most of the risk and still had to kick in a few very good prospects. Still, they managed to hang onto their best prospects like Zach Lee and Joc Pederson, and none of the big contracts they received extend past age 36.

The Dodgers wouldn’t be in this position without Gonzalez, and the Red Sox wouldn’t be here with him. It’s hard to think of a better outcome for both sides than that.

Young Pitchers Making Their Mark

Across the sport, the majors are in the midst of a renaissance of incredible young starting pitching. To merely name Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg as elite under-26 talents is to neglect the work of Madison Bumgarner, Shelby Miller, Matt Moore, Chris Sale and so many outstanding others.

But those are the big names, the ones who win awards and headline highlight packages. Everyone knows them. While the attention is mostly given to those top-line pitchers, there’s an impressive crop of young arms behind them who may not be future aces in the sense that Fernandez and Harvey might be, yet are still making names for themselves at the beginning of what could be very productive careers. Let’s shine a spotlight on four under-the-radar pitchers who are excelling this season.

Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets
While all of the pitching press in Flushing these days goes to Harvey and Zack Wheeler, the Mets do have a pitcher younger than Harvey who was in the big leagues before he or Wheeler were even in the organization. Mejia was rushed to the show as a reliever in 2010 at just 20 years old by the previous administration, perhaps trying to generate some excitement while fearing (correctly) that their tenure was ending. Mejia had been a starter in the minors and a nicely regarded prospect, but struggled with his command out of the bullpen that season while throwing nearly 80 percent fastballs — which did little for the development of his secondary pitches. He then blew out his elbow early the next season and missed most of 2011 and 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Once again healthy, Mejia — still just 23 — has returned to the Mets and has been very impressive in doing so. He shut out the Nationals in Washington over seven innings in his season debut in July and in his first four starts he’s managed a 22/3 K/BB mark in 24.1 innings. He’s also brought with him a brand-new slider, one that he’s thrown about a quarter of the time this season. That’s allowed him to use his naturally cutting fastball less often and keep hitters off guard. While there’s still a chance that a somewhat undersized righty with an injury history ends up in the bullpen, the thought of Mejia joining with Harvey and Wheeler to form a young powerful rotation trio for years to come has to give Mets fans some hope.

Tony Cingrani, Cincinnati Reds
A third-round pick in 2011, the 24-year-old Rice product has done nothing but pile up absurd strikeout numbers during his professional career. In 228 minor league innings over parts of the last three seasons, he whiffed 301, then made his big league debut last September just over a year after being drafted.

Cingrani relies almost exclusively on his fastball, leading many to believe that his future is in the bullpen, but 14 of his 19 appearances for Cincinnati this season have been starts, and he’s looked excellent in them. In seven starts since a brief trip to the bullpen in June, Cingrani has allowed just a .164/.265/.250 line while striking out 45 in 40 innings. A particular highlight came on July 28, when he struck out 11 otherwise unstoppable Dodgers over seven shutout one-hit innings.

Despite the reliance on his main pitch — the fastball that succeeds in part because of his deceptive delivery — Cingrani has shown no problem with missing bats so far. His swinging strike percentage of 9.6 percent not only ranks him in the top 40 of all starters, but it puts him slightly ahead of young stars like Fernandez and Miller. Still, he’ll need to increase his offerings if he plans to stay in the rotation long term, and he’s begun to do that by introducing a new sweeping curveball this season. While it’s more of a “show-me” pitch at this point designed more to keep batters thinking than anything else, he’s also yet to allow a hit off it on any of the 68 times he’s thrown it.

Nate Eovaldi, Miami Marlins
Acquired from Los Angeles in the deal that sent Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers last year, the 23-year-old Eovaldi is perhaps best known for being a product of the same Texas high school that Nolan Ryan attended. That’s beginning to change, however. Eovaldi is now hitting triple digits on the radar gun and showing flashes of the talent that made him so appealing to the Marlins when they were shopping Ramirez.

Eovaldi’s career numbers may look underwhelming, but it’s important to remember that he was just 21 when the Dodgers skipped him past Triple-A to help reinforce a tattered rotation in 2011. He flashed potential in 16 starts with Los Angeles over 2011-12 before being traded, though he generally struggled with his control. Still, a FIP of 4.18 through 154 innings over his first two seasons put him at only slightly below league average, which was 4.01 last season. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an average major leaguer before your 23rd birthday.

A bout with shoulder soreness delayed his 2013 debut until June. But in the 10 starts since, he’s allowed more than three runs just once. While his 3.83 FIP doesn’t quite back up his 2.82 ERA, it does continue his trend of improvement each year. As with many young pitchers, Eovaldi needs to improve his secondary pitches, though his slider is showing promise. Eovaldi’s ceiling is short of an “ace,” but with fellow young pitching talents like Fernandez and Jacob Turner in the Miami rotation, it doesn’t need to be.

Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
This could have just as easily been 25-year-old Alex Cobb or 24-year-old Alex Colome, because the Rays are just overflowing with young pitching. (Even Moore, in the Cy Young conversation until he was sidelined by a sore elbow, only just turned 24.) The twice-traded Archer is the proud owner of one of the most impressive outings from any pitcher this season: a two-hit, 1-0 shutout of the Yankees in New York in late July.

Armed with a solid fastball and an excellent slider, Archer still needs to master his consistency, since he’s allowed four or more earned runs three times in 14 starts and left early with an injury in another. Still, he’s also capable of doing things like allowing only three earned runs in five July starts. He is part of the young core that makes the possibility of trading David Price a palatable option.

The Nationals Path to the Playoffs

On paper, the playoff race in the National League looks pretty boring. The Braves have a 14 game lead in the NL East, and while nothing is ever a completely sure thing in mid-August, they’re about as close to a lock to win their division as you’re going to find. The Dodgers, meanwhile, haven’t lost a game since some time back in May — okay, they have, it just feels that way — and look poised to run away with the NL West, especially if Matt Kemp ever gets healthy.

The NL Central is shaping up to be a fun fight, but with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati fighting over one division title and two wild card spots, it mostly seems to be a fight to avoid the wild card game, with the two runners up likely to face off once the regular season is over. It’s not impossible to see Arizona running down one of the Central teams and perhaps adding a little more intrigue, but even if they make a run, we’re still looking at six teams fighting for five spots. The NL does not look like it’s in for any kind of dramatic finish.

However, there is a seventh team quietly lurking, hanging out on the periphery of the playoff bubble, not quite a serious threat yet but with enough potential to pull off a miracle. Of all the teams in baseball that look like their season may already be over, the Washington Nationals are the one who might just have a chance to shock the world and end up playing in October.

On the one hand, the Nationals making the postseason wouldn’t be a stunner, because this team was supposed to be good. They had the best record in baseball last year, and then added pieces like Denard Span, Dan Haren, and Rafael Soriano to fortify their defenses. With Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper ready for stardom, this was supposed to be the year of Natitude. Instead, pretty much everyone on the team has been a disappointment in some manner, and the Nationals find themselves 14 games behind the Braves in mid-August.

The division race is probably over at this point. Not officially, of course, as teams have come back from this kind of deficit before, but it would take a collapse of historic proportions for Atlanta to give the NL East title away. It’s theoretically possible — the 1995 Angels say hello — but it’s unrealistic to expect that kind of comeback; the gap is just too large.

However, with the Cardinals and Reds both showing some vulnerability and the Nationals winning five straight, sneaking back into the wild card race isn’t completely out of the question. After Wednesday’s games, Cool Standings gives the Nationals a 3.1% chance of winning the wild card. 1-in-33 odds aren’t very good, of course, but there are reasons to think that maybe the Nationals can be the one who pulls this kind of miracle off.

For one, they’re better than they’ve played so far this year. The thing about underachievers is that they’re underachieving because they’ve played better in the recent past, and some percentage of those underachievers are likely to play more like their old track records than their 2013 performances. The Nationals have no shortage of candidates for improvement over the final six weeks, starting with Dan Haren.

Haren is certainly not the front line starter he used to be, but he also is showing signs of pitching significantly better than he did in the first half of the year. He was atrocious for the first three months of the year, giving up 19 home runs in just 82 innings pitched, looking like the same broken down starter that the Angels dumped over the winter. However, after a short stint on the DL, Haren has been fantastic since June ended, having allowed just two home runs in 37 innings since July 1st.

Even during his early season struggles, his walk and strikeout rates were solid enough, but the frequent home runs were his undoing. Now, with the ball staying in play far more regularly, he’s been giving his team a strong chance to win, allowing a 2.43 ERA during this stretch. He’s not likely to keep that recent performance up, but his finish to 2013 should be a lot better than the cumulative performance he’s put up to date, and getting solid performance from Haren down the stretch would go a long way to stabilizing a rotation that was supposed to be among the league’s best.

And Haren has done this before. In 2010, the D’Backs got tired of Haren’s home run problem, dumping him on the Angels after he posted a 4.60 ERA over 140 innings. In Anaheim, the home runs went away, and he posted a 2.87 ERA over the rest of the season. It’s easy to watch a pitch give up a lot of dingers and think it’s just because he’s a terrible pitcher, but home run rates can fluctuate wildly and are often not very predictive, so don’t rule out a strong finish from Haren just because he gave up too many long balls in the first half of the year.

The other reason for some optimism? The Nationals offense has been hilariously un-clutch so far this year. Here are their position players batting lines — so that this isn’t skewed by the pitchers feeble attempts to hit — by the various leverage states, with leverage representing the relative importance of the situation based on the score, inning, number of baserunners, and how many outs there are.

Low Leverage: .251/.316/.401, .315 wOBA (13th)
Medium Leverage: .259/.315/.417, .319 woBA (19th)
High Leverage: .203/.269/.322, .255 wOBA (30th)

The Nationals offense hasn’t been great overall, but early in the game or when there aren’t men on base, they’ve been roughly average. However, in important situations with the game on the line, they’ve been completely inept, and no one is even in their same area code of terrible high leverage hitting. The second high leverage offense, by wOBA, is the Chicago Cubs, who check in at .276, 21 points better than the Nationals. The gap between 29th and 30th is larger than the gap between 19th and 29th.

As we detailed a few weeks back when looking at the Tigers un-clutch pitching staff, however, this is the kind of thing that has no real predictive value. There’s no reason to believe that the Nationals hitters just lack the intestinal fortitude to deliver in key situations, especially as essentially the same line-up of hitters ranked 9th in high leverage wOBA a year ago.

Even if the Nationals offense doesn’t get more hits in the next six weeks than they have in the first 4 1/2 months, a simple redistribution of when those hits occur should lead to more runs and more wins. It probably won’t be enough to catch the Braves, but the Nationals have enough talent on hand to make one final run. It won’t be easy to run down the three NL Central contenders and potentially Arizona as well, but the Nationals aren’t dead quite yet. If anyone is going to pull off a miracle comeback this year, it’s probably going to be the team in D.C.

Fernandez Mania

Back in 1981, the Dodgers had a young pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela. He began the season as part of the team’s rotation despite being just 20 years old, and he proceeded to take the sport by storm. Despite being an untested rookie, he led the majors in innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts. He was an All-Star, won Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award while finishing 5th in the MVP race. The hysteria around him grew so large that it earned the nickname Fernandomania.

Well, 32 years later, it’s happening again, only because of the anonymity of the 2013 Marlins, this time it’s happening in relative obscurity. Their young ace, Jose Fernandez, deserves a bright spotlight, because he’s having a better age-20 season than Fernando Valenzuela did in 1981. In fact, when we look at age-20 pitchers over the last 50 years, Fernandez’s 2013 season is near the very top.

Here is a table of all starting pitchers in the last 50 years who threw at least 120 innings in their age-20 season, along with their ERA- and FIP-. These numbers are just their respective ERA or FIP relative to the league average in that season, allowing us to better compare pitchers from different offensive eras. Like with ERA, lower is better, so an ERA- or FIP- of 50 would mean that their ERA or FIP was exactly half of the league average that year.

Year, Pitcher, ERA-, FIP-
1985, Dwight Gooden, 44, 59
2013, Jose Fernandez, 69, 75
1981, Fernando Valenzuela, 73, 74
1977, Dave Rozema, 74, 94
1975, Dennis Eckersley, 75, 97

By ERA-, Fernandez has been better than every 20-year-old pitcher since 1964 not named Dwight Gooden. Gooden, of course, had one of the great pitching seasons of all time, and set a standard that is unlikely to ever be matched. Coming in second to Gooden’s 1985 season is nothing to be ashamed of, and and the fact that Fernandez is keeping company with the likes of Gooden and Valenzuela is a testament to how good he has been this year.

And he’s getting better as the year goes on. Fernandez was fantastic in the first half, but since the All-Star break, he’s been on another level. In four starts, he’s allowed a grand total of six runs over 28 innings — a sparkly 1.92 ERA — and it hasn’t come through spectacular defensive support from his teammates. Over those same four starts, Fernandez has racked up 40 strikeouts against just seven walks and a single home run.

In fact, if we reset the list of best age-20 pitching seasons to focus on the three things a pitcher is most in control of — their walks, strikeouts, and home runs — we can see how much better Fernandez has been this year compared to other recent phenoms.

Fernandez has a FIP- of 75, meaning that he’s been 25 percent better than the league average based on his walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate. In 2000, Rick Ankiel caught the world by storm with an amazing debut, but his FIP- that year was 88, nowhere near Fernandez’s 2013 mark. The next year, CC Sabathia came up on the scene with a 95 FIP-. In 2004, Zack Greinke put up a 99 FIP-. In 2006, Felix Hernandez posted a FIP- of 90.

Since Fernandomania back in 1981, only Valenzula, Gooden, and now Fernandez have posted a FIP- below Ankiel’s 88, and like the other two, Fernandez is blowing that out of the water. The best pitchers in the game today weren’t anywhere near as good as Fernandez has been in his age-20 season. For reference, Fernandez’s FIP- of 75 is almost a near match for the 73 FIP- that Justin Verlander posted in 2011, the year he won both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.

Need more evidence of just how incredible Fernandez’s accomplishments at this age are? Okay, how about this one. Matt Harvey has been perhaps the best non-Clayton Kershaw pitcher in baseball this year, and has rightfully garnered significant attention for his breakout season. When Matt Harvey was 20 years old, he posted a 5.40 ERA for the University of North Carolina. Fernandez is destroying major league hitters at the same point where Harvey was struggling against college amateurs.

Put Fernandez on virtually any other team in baseball — okay, maybe not the Astros — and Fernandez is the talk of the sport. However, the Marlins organization isn’t held in the highest esteem after yet another off-season of dumping salary, and so most of the talk about Fernandez’s team centers around when they’ll trade Giancarlo Stanton. However, if we’d put down the trade rumors long enough to watch the Marlins play, we’d find that perhaps their star attraction is no longer the right fielder who hits the ball 500 feet. The Marlins still have Giancarlo Stanton, but this might just be Jose Fernandez’s team now.

For Contenders, Closers Found on the Cheap

For years, proponents of advanced statistics have been trying to push forth the idea of bullpen volatility, arguing that unless you have a truly elite reliever in his prime — think Mariano Rivera — it almost never makes sense to spend huge dollars on a ninth-inning option. Closers, the argument goes, are made, not born, and often all that separates the All-Star in the ninth inning from the relatively nameless seventh-inning setup man is the simple opportunity to collect saves.

For many of those same years, plenty of baseball’s front offices have been doing their best to prove that argument invalid, spending tens of millions on “proven closers” and getting burned in the process. Just recently, you can look to Heath Bell’s single disappointing year in Miami, orBrandon League losing his job in Los Angeles by June, or especially the $51 million Philadelphia gave to Jonathan Papelbon prior to 2012. As the Phillies collapse due to increasing holes in their aging roster that might have been filled by that money, their return on that investment is merely declining velocity and complaints that Papelbon “didn’t come here for this.”

In a sport that is often notorious for its reluctance to accept change — note how many still want to award the Cy Young based on “wins” — it appears the myth of the high-priced closer as a requirement for success is finally dead, or at least close to it. If the playoffs started Thursday, not a single one of the six division winners would be using a closer they paid top dollar to on the open market.

Championship trend

That’s a trend that may have gained popularity over the past two Octobers, since both of the two most recent World Series winners took home the title with inexpensive internal options who were forced into the role during the season. In 2011, Jason Motte took over for the Cardinals after Fernando Salas and others faltered earlier in the year; in 2012, it was Sergio Romo on the mound as the Giants won after Brian Wilson blew out his elbow. Motte and Romo had each come up as relatively unheralded prospects through their organizations, and each had a mere three saves entering those seasons.

Instead, this year’s contenders have found their ninth-inning options in nearly every other way except for large free-agent spending. For example, Boston thought it’d collected more than enough options for the back end of its bullpen after trading for Andrew Bailey from Oakland last year and Joel Hanrahan from Pittsburgh this year. Unfortunately, that duo combined for just 35 2/3 innings this year before each went down with season-ending arm injuries. In their absence, the mantle of “closer” now falls to 38-year-old Koji Uehara, signed for a simple one-year deal over the winter — and all Uehara has done is prove to be one of the most reliable relievers around.

When the Red Sox acquired Hanrahan, part of the return to Pittsburgh was righty reliever Mark Melancon, who was joining his fourth organization in four years and had spent most of 2012 in the minors after putting up a 6.20 ERA for Boston. As the Pirates make their shocking run to the playoffs, they owe a great deal of thanks to Melancon, who has turned his career around partially due to increased usage of his effective cut fastball. He was a first-time All-Star this season setting up fellow reclamation projectJason Grilli, and has recently taken over the closer job himself as Grilli has missed time due to injury.

Grooming them on the cheap

In Atlanta and Los Angeles, the Braves and Dodgers are both using closers they developed, though in very different ways. Craig Kimbrel was a third-round selection by the Braves in 2010 who managed to harness his control problems in the minors, and was a star nearly from the moment he made his debut in the big leagues. Kenley Jansen, meanwhile, spent years in the Dodgers’ system proving that he was never going to hit enough to make it as a catcher before being converted to the mound. Once he did, the Dodgers attempted to block him with both Javy Guerra and League before acknowledging that the League signing was a mistake this year. Since 2011, Jansen and Kimbrel are two of just three relievers with a strikeout rate north of 14 per nine innings.

Like Boston, Detroit and Oakland are using free-agent closers, but no one that they signed with the idea of closing at the time. The Tigers have struggled all year to find a reliable ninth-inning option after rookie Bruce Rondon and veteran Jose Valverde were each unable to answer the bell, and they’ve instead turned to 36-year-old Joaquin Benoit, signed to a much-maligned three-year deal after 2011. Acting as a full-time closer for the first time in a career that dates back to 2001, Benoit has been outstanding for the Tigers as they’ve surged ahead of Cleveland in the American League Central.

It’s a similar situation in Oakland, where Grant Balfour signed with the Athletics for a mere $8.1 million guaranteed over two years following 2010, plus a 2013 option that the club exercised. Balfour spent his first year in the Bay Area setting up for Bailey and Brian Fuentes, then briefly won the job over Fuentes in early 2012 before getting demoted. After spending most of the summer setting up for Fuentes and then Ryan Cook, Balfour won the job back in August, and parlayed his success into his first All-Star appearance this year at age 35.

All told, the six closers for the division leaders are making a total of just less than $16 million combined this year, which is only slightly more than the $13 million Papelbon is making by himself. None of them have guaranteed contracts past this season, though some will remain under team control. While we’ve focused here on the likely playoff teams, it’s a trend that is being seen throughout baseball; of the 15 pitchers with at least 25 saves through Wednesday, only three — Joe Nathan, the legendary Rivera and Rafael Soriano — are signed to non-arbitration contracts of $5 million or more.

As Buster Olney wrote in July, just three teams still have the same closers they did just two years ago, only because closers rarely have a long shelf life. Time and again, closers have proven to not be worth huge investments of years or money, and we’re seeing teams around the sport finding success in staffing the back of their bullpen in other, more efficient ways.

The Indians Chance at October Baseball

When Dan Szymborski released his updated playoff odds to account for moves — or lack thereof — at the trade deadline, he noted that the big losers of July 31st were the Cleveland Indians. The deadline came and went, and the Tribe failed to add any talent to their roster, while the Tigers, Orioles, Rangers, and Red Sox make strong additions to bolster their rosters for the stretch run. Standing still while your competitors improve is equivalent to going backwards.

However, it should be noted that Szymborski’s simulations still had Cleveland’s playoff odds at 36.3%, a fairly robust number for a team with Ryan Raburn as their offensive hero. And since that post was published, the Indians have won two of three and pulled into the lead for one of the two wild card positions in the American League. If the postseason began today, the Cleveland Indians would qualify for the playoffs, and yet, a quick glance at their roster does not exactly resemble a list of All-Stars. How is this team making a playoff push?

It’s impossible to start anywhere but with Raburn. Coming off an unbelievably terrible year with the Tigers — of the 347 batters to hit at least 200 times in 2012, Raburn rated 346th in wRC+, ahead of only utility infielder Wilson Valdez — Raburn signed a minor league contract with the Indians in January, and has since been a revelation. Of the 284 batters with 200 more plate appearances this season, Raburn’s 169 wRC+ is tied for 5th with some guy named Mike Trout. On a per plate appearance basis, Raburn has been a better hitter than the likes of David Ortiz, Joey Votto, or David Wright. That’s not a bad return for a guy who got a non-roster invite to spring training.

Raburn’s success somewhat symbolizes this Indians team. A year ago, he was one of the game’s worst players, and at age-32, his career looked to be hanging in the balance. He’s responded by having one the best stretch of baseball of his entire career. And he’s not the only Indian who has come back from baseball purgatory.

Scott Kazmir hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since recording five outs (and allowing five runs) in 2011. The year before that, he’d been the worst pitcher in baseball. He then spent time in independent ball, and joined a long line of cautionary tales about getting overly excited about the future of young hurlers. Instead of accepting that his arm had given out, Kazmir worked to get his velocity back, signed with the Indians after a good run in winter ball– as a non-roster invite, just like Raburn — and has returned back to the form he showed when he was in Tampa Bay. His walk rate is the lowest of his career, and Kazmir’s success has stabilized the back end of a rotation that is still generally seen as the Indians big weakness.

However, a closer inspection shows that starting pitching might actually be the primary reason the Indians are hanging around the playoff chase. While their rotation may not be full of house hold names, their ability to avoid relying on terrible performers has proven to have a strong positive impact on their record. In 2012, 102 of their 162 starts were made by pitchers who ended the season with an ERA over 5.00, including giving 21 starts to Derek Lowe (5.52 ERA), 17 starts to Jeanmar Gomez (6.23 ERA), and 16 starts to Josh Tomlin (5.72 ERA)

This year, just 13 of their 109 starts have been made by pitchers with an ERA over 5.00, and none of those five project to start another game for the Indians this year. Instead of horrendous outings from everyone besides Justin Masterson, the rotation behind the Tribe’s ace has been quite solid if not spectacular. Kazmir’s resurgence has been part of that, but so too has the underrated dominance of Corey Kluber.

The young right-hander might not be a household name, but he sure is pitching like one. On the season, he has a 3.03 xFIP that rates #9 among qualified big league starting pitchers. He currently sits in between Homer Bailey and Cliff Lee, and once you adjust for the fact that he’s pitching in the American League, he actually moves up to #7, just behind Max Scherzer. Corey Kluber has been a revelation for the Indians this year, and has had as much of a low key impact as any non-Raburn player on the Indians.

But herein lies the rub; the Indians success to date is based on players doing things they’ve never really done before, or in Kazmir’s case, haven’t done in quite some time. While the team has more established stars like Masterson, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana, they had those players last year and won 68 games. Masterson and Kipnis are having better seasons than they did a year ago, but the team’s success this year is due to a far better supporting cast, and unfortunately, those role players probably can’t be counted on to sustain these performances.

Expecting Raburn to keep hitting like Mike Trout just isn’t realistic. Expecting Kluber to keep pitching like an ace isn’t fair to the youngster. Expecting backup catcher Yan Gomes to keep hitting bombs when he’s put in the line-up is likely a path to disappointment. The Indians have been heavily reliant on a bunch of players with mediocre track records playing like All-Stars, and yet they still only have a half game lead over the Rangers and Orioles in the wild card race.

Maybe some of these guys really have figured things out and are going to keep performing at a high level, but there re just too many guys on this team playing over their heads right now. Some of them will regress, and when they do, it isn’t clear that there are enough players on the other side of that coin who can pick up the slack. And so, while the Indians are a collection of great stories, this team looks to have serious potential for a second half fade.

Ryan Raburn can only carry you so far for so long. When the magic runs out, the Indians playoff chances might evaporate with it.

Young Talent a Cause for Optimism in Miami

If you’re shocked by the idea of actually having something positive to say about the laughingstock Miami Marlins, you’d be far from alone. They have arguably the most despised owner in sports in Jeffrey Loria, a man who successfully talked Florida taxpayers into publicly funding a gaudy stadium that no one goes to. They underwent yet another fire sale last winter, less than a year after opening the new park. They just bid farewell to Loria’s hand-picked hitting coach Tino Martinez after allegations of verbal and physical abuse, all while the offense Martinez led challenges historical marks for futility.

Stripped of most of their veterans after the blockbuster trade with Toronto last winter that earned them near-universal grief, the Marlins lost 41 of their first 54 games, the worst season-opening stretch for any team since 1987. You probably haven’t given them much of a thought at all since then, and it’s understandable why that might be the case.

But that means that just about no one seems to have noticed that the Marlins have the fourth-best record in the National League (29-24) since May 31, two bona fide superstars under the age of 24 and a roster that is turning over the placeholders to include young and talented prospects.

It’s not easy to be a Marlins fan right now — but as you could see watching Jose Fernandezstrike out 14 batters on Friday night — they are shaping up as a juggernaut in the not-too-distant future.

When the team moved into its brand-new park last season, they did so with an excess of pomp and circumstance by signing Heath BellMark Buehrle and Jose Reyes to expensive free-agent deals. But as the team stumbled on the field, the selloff soon began, and after pitcher Ricky Nolasco was sent to the Dodgers last month, it left the team without a single player making more than $2.75 million in 2013.

With the roster gutted of talent other than elite slugger Giancarlo Stanton, new managerMike Redmond was forced to staff his lineup with past-their-prime veteran fill-ins like Greg Dobbs (.262 wOBA) and Juan Pierre (.261 wOBA). It didn’t help that Stanton was sidelined for much of the first half by a bad hamstring, and the team’s start was so atrocious that it fulfilled every critic’s claim that Loria cared only about revenue sharing and tax breaks, not spending on a winning roster.

But what was often lost in that accounting is this simple fact: the 2012 team was awful. It lost 93 games, cost around $93 million dollars and was a year older. While it was difficult to avoid piling on for the horrible optics of blowing the team up so quickly after moving into the new park, if there was a mistake made here, it wasn’t the Toronto trade. It was the players they had spent money on in the first place.

While Hanley Ramirez has become a star again after being traded to the Dodgers in the first fire-sale deal last summer, most of the players sent to Toronto have failed to contribute any more than they did in Miami, leaving the Blue Jays mired in last place themselves.

Meanwhile, the Marlins have reloaded by working with the talent imported in those deals to fill in around their two young superstars, Stanton and rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez. Stanton’s ongoing injury problems remain a concern, yet he remains one of the most fearsome sluggers in the game. Fernandez, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, just turned 21 on Wednesday, yet is one of the very few starters in baseball with a FIP below 3.00.

As the roster turns over, the team Redmond rolls out today looks very different than the one he had earlier. For example, in two different April games, he was forced to start Pierre,Justin Ruggiano (.285 wOBA) and Austin Kearns (.232 wOBA in 31 plate appearances) as his outfielders, a trio that is a combined 99 years old and well past their primes.

By May, 22-year-old Marcell Ozuna was seeing considerable time in the outfield, and for each of the last nine games, the starters have been Christian Yelich (21, Keith Law’s No. 6 overall preseason prospect), Jake Marisnick (22, Law’s No. 82 prospect, acquired from Toronto) and a now-healthy Stanton, still only 23.

The youth movement can be found nearly everywhere. When the Marlins hosted the Mets on Tuesday, seven of the nine starters were 25 or younger, including promising 23-year-old starter Nate Eovaldi, acquired in the Ramirez deal, and slick-fielding 24-year-old shortstopAdeiny Hechavarria, who came from the Blue Jays. That number could have been eight if 23-year-old catcher Rob Brantly (acquired from Detroit for Anibal Sanchez) hadn’t had the night off. Eovaldi was actually the oldest pitcher they’d had in three nights, since he was following Fernandez and 22-year-old Jacob Turner, who came with Brantly from Detroit and has a 3.31 FIP in 11 starts.

While the offense struggles to come together, other than Stanton and Logan Morrison — who is still only 25 — the pitching has been excellent. No team had a lower FIP in July than the 2.94 the Marlins did, as the bullpen has been effective and Fernandez, Eovaldi and Turner front a rotation that includes 23-year-old Henderson Alvarez, who also came from Toronto.

There’s more help on the way, as 21-year-old lefty Justin Nicolino (yet another piece from Toronto, and No. 62 on Law’s list) was recently promoted to Double-A, where he joins 2012 first-round pick Andrew Heaney in the rotation.

This new young group of Marlins will be further reinforced by what looks likely to be a top-two pick in next year’s draft, but the question here will always be about whether ownership will spend to build a competitive team or just continue to cycle off trades for minimum-salary players. At some point soon, they’ll need to decide on the future of Stanton, though trading him could bring back an enormous bounty that could potentially fill several holes.

We may be naive by expecting a Loria team to ever be successful, but for now, the baseball operations people have things pointed in the right direction in Miami — even if few care to notice.