Streaking Padres playing their best ball of the year despite injuries
The Padres are the National League's hottest team, so hot that they turned Fathers' Day (a.k.a. El Día del Padre) into a weeklong celebration, rattling off six straight wins in consecutive sweeps of the NL East-leading Braves and the NL West-leading Diamondbacks. Since starting 5-15, San Diego is now just two games out of first place in the NL West after having gone 10-5 in June and 30-19 over the last seven weeks, with two-thirds of those games against teams with winning records.
A huge thrust of his hot stretch has been the play of the Padres' middle infielders, shortstop Everth Cabrera and second baseman Jedd Gyorko. It was a point of emphasis for the team, with San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes saying before the season how important two-way players in the middle of the diamond were for a club whose payroll discourages high-priced sluggers in the corners.
Last year the team ranked 18th in OPS from its second basemen and 25th from its shortstops; this season those rankings are seventh at second base and fourth at shortstop.
"Those two have played great," Byrnes said. "Our position player group has been pretty good even though we've had some injuries. Some guys haven't even performed like we expected, but those two have been really good and the depth behind them with [Logan] Forsyth and [Alexi] Amarista --that's kind of been what's helped us, that not only our starters but our bench guys have played pretty well."
Now, however, we will see if the Padres can maintain their high level of play without both of them. They are 6-0 so far without Gyorko, who is halfway through a 15-day disabled list stint that's expected to last only the minimum number of games, and Cabrera injured his hamstring on Sunday, though the severity is not yet known.
The Padres' depth has been tested regularly, with injury absences for Gyorko, first baseman Yonder Alonso, third baseman Chase Headley, leftfielder Carlos Quentin and centerfielder Cameron Maybin, not to mention the suspension for catcher Yasmani Grandal -- that's six of eight position-player starters and doesn't yet include Cabrera.
There have been other significant contributors for San Diego over the last seven weeks -- Eric Stults, Jason Marquis and Andrew Cashner leading the rotation; former prospect Kyle Blanks finally healthy and contributing every day; the stalwart bullpen dominating like usual -- but the production of the middle infielders has been essential to the turnaround.
San Diego deserves credit particularly for not stunting Gyorko's growth by stashing him in the minors at the start of the season and, rather, putting its top offensive prospect in the starting lineup on Opening Day.
June in baseball is a month of promise and potential, as many top prospects start populating big league rosters. This month has already seen the recent or forthcoming promotions of such blue chips as the Pirates' Gerrit Cole, the Rays' Wil Myers, the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, the Cardinals' Michael Wacha and the Mets' Zack Wheeler. A few of those prospects remained in the minors just long enough to avoid the costly Super 2 cutoff, but the Padres might not be contending if they had done the same with Gyorko.
"We really didn't want to have service time impact that decision," Byrnes said. "We wanted to put our best team on the field."
The reality is that not every future star will also star immediately while adjusting to the rigors of the big leagues. The 24-year-old Gyorko, who led the Arizona Fall League with a .437 average in 2011 and who hit 24 home runs in just 92 games at Triple A last season, was batting .210 with a .296 on-base percentage, .258 slugging percentage and no home runs through his first 17 major league games this season. In his next 43 games, Gyorko had a .312/.359/.535 batting line with eight home runs and now leads all NL rookies in runs, walks and hits.
"As accomplished as he was as a minor league hitter, in his first couple of weeks he had to adjust to the caliber of the pitching he was seeing," Byrnes said. "Like a lot of our guys, around the third week of April, he started to click in and be productive."
Cabrera, meanwhile, is 26 and entered the year with 296 career games under his belt and wasn't anywhere near the premier top-of-the-order hitter he's become. He ranks fifth among NL leadoff hitters with a .371 OBP, and his 31 stolen bases lead the league.
"He really has done what you want a leadoff hitter to do," Byrnes said. "He gives good at bats, he sees pitches, he gets on base. He's a very good base runner and base stealer so that's hard to replace -- and he played well defensively. We have good depth, but he's played at a high level, so that's hard to replace."
The Padres' season has unfolded in a similar fashion to 2012, when a mystifyingly poor start was followed by an extended period of good play, but this year they've kicked it into high gear in late April instead of late May. If they can withstand the temporary losses of their middle infielders, the Padres will be part of the division race right to the end.
• The Dodgers and ace Clayton Kershaw are working on a contract extension that would make him the highest-paid pitcher in baseballhistory -- seven years and more than $180 million, according to a FoxSports.com report. And he quite simply deserves it. Kershaw, 25, has a 2.70 career ERA in his six seasons, more than a quarter run better than any other active starter who has thrown at least 1,000 innings. (The Cardinals' Adam Wainwright is second at 3.07, followed by the Mariners' Felix Hernandez at 3.16.)
• According to Elias (via the Pirates' Twitter feed), Gerrit Cole is the first pitcher to defeat former Cy Young winners in each of his first two starts, besting the Giants' Tim Lincecum last Tuesday and the Dodgers' Zack Greinke on Sunday, proving once again that not all prospects have an adjustment period.
• That Mark Teixeira is suffering wrist pain is a cold reminder that the Yankees' injury woes weren't confined to just the season's first few months but will be a regular struggle with an aging roster. Just as Derek Jeter suffered a recurrence of his broken ankle and Kevin Youkilis went on the DL for the second time this season last week with back pain, so too has Teixeira apparently suffered a relapse. (Curtis Granderson has had two broken bones in his arms and hands, though his injuries were unrelated.) The feel-good story of the patchwork lineup coming through early in the year is coming to an end: In June only Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano have an OPS over .700, while Youkilis (.454 OPS) and Vernon Wells (.260 OPS) have particularly struggled this month.
• Toronto has very quietly gone on a five-game winning streak to pull within 8 1/2 games of first place in the AL East and 5 1/2 games of the second wild-card.
• It was very cool to hear Carlos Beltran speak last week about his academy in Puerto Rico, which not only trains teenagers to become better baseball players but also really emphasizes its educational mission. The Cardinals outfielder flew to P.R. on his off-day to attend his high school's first graduating class -- all 12 were going to play college baseball, Beltran said, who urged his students to use the sport to get a better education. "What's most important," he said, "is that they are good people in life."
Individual defensive metrics are often fickle, but there seems to be a bit more reliability in evaluating team defense. Some of the trickiest areas for quantifying an individual fielder's performance are attributing misplays when balls land in between two fielders or, at other times, whether credit should be given for good range or good positioning. With team defenses, it's either caught by the team or it's not.
Defensive efficiency can be approximated by 1 minus BAPIP (batting average on balls in play), and Baseball Prospectus has park-adjusted defensive efficiency metric that takes location into account. These rankings are based on BP's PADE.
Another key element to Pittsburgh's resurgence is an improving defense that was ranked 29th in 2010, 21st in '11, eighth in '12 and now second in '13.
A full year of Andrelton Simmons at shortstop has keyed Atlanta's stalwart defense, which is third in PADE.
That Colorado has the worst-rated defense in the majors is somewhat surprising given its winning record and the well above-average defensive play of Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop and rookie Nolan Arenado at third base, who played 47 and zero games last season, respectively. What appears to be holding the Rockies back is the play in rightfield of Michael Cuddyer and the recently designated Eric Young Jr. and of Josh Rutledge at second base.
A poor defense is particularly troubling given the rotation's extremely low strikeout rate, which translates into the Twins' defense needing to convert more balls in play into outs than any other club.
The Astros deserve this spot based on their 28th in the majors PADE ranking, but the Cardinals are only one spot higher on the leaderboard and a more notable selection given that they have the best record in the majors. The rotation is getting more strikeouts than it used to, but several members are still sufficiently reliant on groundball-inducing sinkers for this ranking to be worrisome.
The average home run is packing a little less punch these days. The average number of runs scored per homer held steady for years in the 1.58-to-1.60 range -- a rate of 1.0 would mean every homer was a solo shot; a 4.0 would signify that every home run was a grand slam -- but that rate has dipped to 1.53 this season. This makes sense given the decline in on-base percentage across baseball, and it may become increasingly difficult for clubs to rely on homer-dependent offenses.
Few ballplayers early in their big league careers have already thought ahead to life after they've retired, but Carpenter already knows he'll go into coaching. "I have a passion for it," he said last week. "It's something I definitely will do when my career's over."
There's a technical proficiency to the 27-year-old second baseman's game that makes coaching an intuitive choice for Carpenter. The lefthanded hitter's at bats are a calculated series of takes and fouls until he gets the pitch he wants; he ranks ninth in the NL in pitches per plate appearance (4.10) and ranks fourth in the league in on-base percentage (.405), which is why he's been installed as the Cardinals' leadoff hitter.
His father, Rick, is a longtime high school baseball coach. Matt played for him at Elkins High in Missouri City, Texas; Rick now coaches at nearby Prosper High, where Torii Hunter Jr., a 36th-round pick of his father's Tigers, played. When Matt Carpenter visits his family in the offseason, he always tags along to school with his father to meet and work out with the students. He also does the same for his high school and college (Texas Christian) alma maters, as well as Little League teams his friends coach.
"I just have it in my blood," Carpenter said. "I love being around kids and teaching them the game."
Carpenter said he's more inclined to want to coach in college than the pros, and he certainly had a formative experience at TCU. He had Tommy John surgery as a junior, his first draft-eligible season, then received a medical redshirt but wasn't drafted at all following a year in which he was honored as second team all-conference.
"I honestly felt like I might not have a baseball career at the end of that year," Carpenter said. "Oddly enough -- and that's just how life works -- that's when I really took off as a player. When you're playing with the mindset of 'every day could be your last day to do it,' things seemed to pick up a little bit."
That sounds like an experience worth sharing.
Fan voting for the All-Star Game starters may help generate interest in the Midsummer Classic, but it rarely results in the selection of the game's best players. With World Series homefield advantage at stake, fan voting -- which is all too easy to lead to ballot-stuffing -- should play a reduced role in the process.
Orioles fans, for instance, have had a formidable voting bloc, pushing four of their players to leads in the current voting. First baseman Chris Davis and centerfielder Adam Jones are wholly deserving of their leads and shortstop J.J. Hardy is an acceptable choice, but rightfielder Nick Markakis is not a top-three AL outfielder by any metric.
Perhaps the players voted in by the fans should all be guaranteed spots on the All-Star rosters but aren't necessarily starters, so that each league is fielding the best possible team. That way the large numbers of fans who voted for Markakis can see him in the All-Star Game, but the eventual AL pennant winner can be sure its World Series chances weren't hampered by an overeager fan base's voting skills.