Keep up with the latest news, notes and developments with Fungoes, a daily journal for all things baseball that will last all season long.
Wild Card: The True Triple Threat
As the pennant races come down to the wire, the other races that are being decided in the final weeks of the season are those for the major awards, notably the MVP and Cy Young races. In the American League, Alex Rodriguez's recent home run barrage and the Yankees' late-season surge have all but locked up the AL MVP for Rodriguez despite the strong run made by the Tigers' Magglio Ordoñez. The AL Cy Young race is still wide open, however, with wins leaders Chien-Ming Wang and Josh Beckett going head-to-head in Fenway on Saturday. The real race, however, is likely between Beckett, Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia, and last year's winner Johan Santana.
In the NL, the MVP derby is wide open. The Marlins' Hanley Ramirez leads the league in VORP. The Mets' David Wright is second. Matt Holliday of the Rockies has had one of the best all-around offensive seasons in the league for a surprise contender. Milwaukee's Prince Fielder has been the league's best slugger for another underdog contender.
The NL Cy Young, however, is clear cut. It belongs to Jake Peavy.
The Padres' righty currently leads the NL in wins, strikeouts and ERA. If he holds on to his leads in all three categories, he will become just the fourth pitcher to win the pitching triple crown in the NL since the retirement of Sandy Koufax (the other three being Steve Carlton in 1972, Dwight Gooden in 1985, and Randy Johnson in 2002, all of whom won that year's Cy Young). In the AL, the pitching triple crown has been won just four times since the end of World War II (by Roger Clemens in his two years with the Blue Jays, in 1997 and 1998; Pedro Martinez in 1999, and Santana last year). Overall, since the creation of the NL in 1876 (including the 10 seasons of the American Association in the late 19th century), the pitching triple crown has been achieved 36 times, 20 in the NL, 15 in the AL, and once in the American Association. By comparison, the hitting triple crown has been won just 15 times over the same period, with Carl Yastrzemski being the last to achieve it, in 1967, and Joe "Ducky" Medwick the last to win it in the NL, all the way back in 1937.
A more apt barometer for hitters is what I'll call "the slash-stat triple crown." The two most important hitting statistics are on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not batting average. The first, OBP, is the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs. Since there is no clock in baseball, an offense's opportunity to score is limited only by the number of outs it makes. Thus, the hitter who reaches base most often is also the hitter who makes an out least often, which in turn gives his team the most opportunities to score. Since every hitter in major-league history with more than 32 plate appearances has made an out in more than half of his plate appearances, it's crucial to be able to advance more than one base at a time; thus the importance of slugging percentage, which measures a batters' ability to hit for extra bases. Throw in the classic batting average, which measures how often a hitter gets a hit, and you get what are commonly known as the slash stats: AVG/OBP/SLG.
In the 131 years of major league baseball, the slash-stat triple crown (leading the league in all three rate stats) has been won 45 times: 23 in the NL, 19 in the AL, and three in the American Association. Rogers Hornsby won the slash-stat triple crown the most, doing so seven times in the 1920s (Hornsby also won the traditional triple crown in 1922 and 1925). Ted Williams won the slash-stat triple crown an AL-best five times (including in both of his traditional triple crown seasons in 1942 and 1947). Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb are the only other men to have won it more than twice, doing so four and three times, respectively. Eleven of the traditional triple crown winners also won the slash-stat triple-crown (the exceptions being Medwick, Mickey Mantle in 1956, Jimmie Fox in 1933, and Hugh Duffy in 1894, all of whom led their leagues in slugging but not in OBP). In the NL, the slash-stat triple crown has been won just four times since Stan Musial did it in 1948, twice by a Colorado Rocky from the pre-humidor era (Larry Walker in 1999 and Todd Helton in 2000) and twice by Barry Bonds (2002 and 2004).
In the AL it has been won just twice since Yastrzemski won both the traditional and slash-stat triple crowns in 1967. Fred Lynn took the crown with .333/.423/.637 rates in his overlooked 1979 season (he was second in home runs with 39 and fourth in RBIs with 122), and George Brett took it with .390/.454/.664 rates in his MVP season the following year (Brett was second in RBIs with 118, but his 29 home runs were a distant ninth).
Although Rodriguez leads the AL comfortably in home runs, RBIs and slugging, there are no hitters in either league who have any hope of either type of triple crown. With that in mind, one could fairly describe Peavy as the most dominant player in the game this season. True, Peavy has gotten an assist from his home park, the most extreme pitchers park in baseball, but he still leads the league in the park-adjusted ERA+ by a fair margin over second-place Brad Penny of the Dodgers and Peavy's closest rival for the Cy Young, third-place Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks. Peavy also has a 23-strikeout lead over Cincinnati's Aaron Harang and leads the NL in strikeouts per nine innings pitched by more than a K per inning over his teammate Chris Young.
The only threat to Peavy's bid for a pitching triple crown comes in the team-dependent wins column, where he holds a slim one-win lead over Webb, with five more pitchers just a win behind Webb, all of them from contending teams. More tellingly, in his 30 starts this season, Peavy has failed to complete the sixth inning just three times and has allowed more than three earned runs just four times. What's more, he's been even better on the road than he has in his own pitching-friendly stadium, going 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .179/.251/.275 line outside of San Diego. Winning the triple crown would be a historic achievement, but Peavy should win the Cy Young over Webb regardless of who ends up leading the league in wins.
Labels: Wild Card
NL East: D-Train Derailed
It's always a fun exercise to look back at one's fantasy draft and see how one did six months later -- as I did earlier this week with my effort with our impolitely mocked SI mock draft. Prince in the 10th round, Griffey in the 21st? Big money! (That's 74 homers and counting from those two). Josh Barfield in the 11th, Anibal Sanchez in the 16th, Jorge Cantu in the 17th and Mark Prior in the 20th? Whammy.
The one selection that really burns me, however, is the fellow I chose in the eighth round: Dontrelle Willis. At the time I wrote, "I considered Scott Kazmir, but D-Train's just more fun -- and far less injury-prone. Also, for the little it's worth, he excels in odd-numbered years (36-16 and 2.90 ERA in '03 and '05, 22-23 and 3.94 ERA in '04 and '06)." Well, perhaps I should have gone for a little less fun, a little less meaningless statistical modeling, and a little more Kazmir. Because -- and the numbers are pretty shocking -- Dontrelle Willis has this year been one of the worst pitchers in baseball.
This is a guy whom as recently as the '06 trading deadline I felt the Mets should have mortgaged the future (in the form of prospects Lastings Milledge and Mike Pelfrey) to acquire. And who knows -- had New York had last year's version of Willis (3.87 ERA) on board, perhaps they would have had enough pitching to get them past the not-exactly-mighty 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. We haven't been hearing much about his struggles, because we don't hear about much at all that happens baseball-wise in South Florida, but here are Willis' 2007 stats:
By any metric -- have you see the dude's ERA+? Egads! -- Willis has had an unspeakably awful year. What happened? Willis insists he's healthy ("I'm fine ... it's life," is all he's had to say on that subject), but has inexplicably had trouble controlling his fastball this year. Jimmy Rollins, a boyhood acquaintance of Willis from their days in Oakland, believes he's simply depressed from years of toil in Miami: "Just going out with nothing to play for ... you lose your zip and some of your concentration," said J-Roll -- who has expressed his desire to see Willis in Philly next season -- to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The worst-ase scenario for Willis is that the league has finally figured out that high leg kick delivery, much in the way they eventually figured out Hideo Nomo's twisting style and many others with funky approaches. However, I don't think that's the case -- Willis' stuff is too good for that, and he's had too many years of success. I'm inclined to believe Rollins' explanation -- for an energetic guy like Willis, who thrives on buzz and excitement, five years in Dolphin Stadium must be soul-deadening indeed.
It may well take a change of scenery -- to Philly or elsewhere -- for the D-Train to once again start chugging along.
Labels: NL East
AL West: Cellar Battle
Well, Seattle's epic implosion sure took all the fun out of September baseball in the American League West. Besides effectively ending the division race, the Mariners' collapse also made the Wild Card race irrelevant to followers of baseball's smallest division.
But there's still one race left in the A.L. West -- the race from the cellar. Back on Aug. 24, the Rangers trailed third-place Oakland by eight games and seemed like a lock to finish in dead last for the first time since 2003. But the new look Rangers battled back. Even after losing their last two games, Texas has still won 13 of 17 and currently sits a game back of the A's (and more importantly, even in the loss column).
Today, the Rangers begin their final meeting with the A's -- a four-game set in Oakland. Having Swept the A's last week in Arlington, the Rangers have a golden opportunity to make up more ground in the division's virtual toilet bowl. And it seems that the schedule gods are smiling down upon Texas, as the Rangers dodge Oakland ace Dan Haren.
Here are the pitching matchups in this all-important back-seat battle:
Thursday: Kevin Millwood (9-11, 5.31) vs. Chad Gaudin (10-11, 4.47)
Skinny: Gaudin hasn't fared too well against the Rangers this season, going 1-3 with a 6.26 ERA.
Friday: Kason Gabbard (6-1, 4.07) vs. Dan Meyer (0-1, 4.32)
Skinny: For Meyer, this September is a tryout for a spot in Oakland's rotation next season.
Saturday: Brandon McCarthy (5-9, 5.04) vs. Joe Blanton (13-9, 3.77)
Skinny: McCarthy is working back from a stress fracture in his shoulder and will be limited to around 60 pitches in this start.
Sunday: Vicente Padilla (6-9, 5.70) vs. Lenny DiNardo (8-9, 3.87)
Skinny: Padilla, who is earning $9 million this year, is finally showing a pulse. He has thrown 12 consecutive innings of shutout baseball.
It's been a long year for first-year manager Ron Washington. His team's basically been out of the division race since May and he's experienced public rifts with a couple of his own players (Mark Teixeira and Gerald Laird). But with 16 games left, the Rangers have an outside chance of finishing at .500 or better for just the second time this millennium (they went 89-73 in 2004), and Washington has legitimate shot to finish above his old team in the division standings.
Labels: AL West
NL Central: Cardinals Crash
A week ago the Cardinals were the feel-good story of the year, having climbed to within a game of first place in the Central, due in part to the storybook comeback of Rick Ankiel. Things have taken an ugly turn, however, as the New York Daily News published allegations on Friday that Rick Ankiel had received a year's worth of human growth hormone shipments from an Orlando-based pharmacy in 2004. That story received even more play after this site reported just hours later that Toronto Blue Jays' third baseman Troy Glaus had received steroid shipments from the same pharmacy around the same time, and the San Francisco Chronicle's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams tied it all together in a front page story on Saturday.
The Cardinals haven't won a game since the Ankiel allegations broke, getting swept by the Diamondbacks, dropping a crucial make-up game to the Cubs at Wrigley, and losing the opener in Cincinnati last night. Ankiel, who hit two more home runs and drove in seven on Thursday night, has just a single and five strikeouts in his 14 at-bats since. With the Brewers feasting on the bottom three teams in the division (winning eight of their last 11), the Cardinals are suddenly four games behind once again and, given the strength of their remaining schedule (a four-game showdown with the Cubs this weekend followed by three against the Phillies, with three in Milwaukee and a make-up at Shea in the final week), that may be too many.
Adding injury to insult, right fielder Chris Duncan, who hasn't hit a lick since July (.167/.274/.245 since July 27 to be exact), may be done for the season with a hernia (curiously, the same may be true of his brother Shelley on the Yankees).
With the Cardinals fading, the story in the Central once again has become the Brewers, who have first place to themselves once again thanks to Luke Scott's game-winning triple against the Cubs in the 11th inning of last night's matchup in Houston (which broke a five-game losing streak for Cecil Cooper's team). The big story in Milwaukee has been the return of Ben Sheets. The Brewers have won two of Sheets' three starts since Big Ben has returned from the DL, but Sheets has been shaky in the last two, walking six Astros in his penultimate turn and allowing five runs in six innings to the Reds on Sunday. The good news is that Sheets has allowed just 17 hits in his 18 innings since coming off the DL and has struck out 11 in his last 12 frames.
Joining Sheets in the Milwaukee rotation is 23-year-old righty Carlos Villanueva, who returned to the big-league roster as a September call-up. Villanueva was a hard-luck loser when the Crew got shutout by Tony Armas Jr. and company on Monday, but, after a solid showing in six starts last year, has excelled in his three starts for the Brewers this year (two since being recalled and a spot start in mid-June): 16 IP, 15 H, 4 R, 2 HR, 7 BB, 14 K, 2.25 ERA.
On the other side of the ball, Bill Hall, who has hit just .218/.261/.416 since Aug. 1, has been riding pine against right-handers since Aug 26, starting just one game against a righty pitcher since then. Gabe Gross has taken Hall's place in the order against righties, slotting into right field and pushing Cory Hart to center. Gross has hit .255/.342/.482 against righties this year versus Hall's .245/.305/.412 against his own kind. In the nine starts he has made in Hall's place, Gross has hit .266/.405/.400, but Hall is just 4 for 18 since being demoted into the platoon.
Elsewhere in the division, the Pirates and Reds are making the most of the expanded rosters. The Reds are starting first-base prospect Joey Votto and have put Phil Dumatrait into the rotation. Votto, who made his major league debut by striking out as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a loss to the Mets on September 4, has gone 7 for 13 since with a pair of homers. Expect him to open next season as the Reds starting gatekeeper. The lefty Dumatrait, however, is making a strong argument that he should not be in the rotation next year. That was Dumatrait who gave up three straight homers to start Sunday's game against the Brewers and got the hook after the next two batters singled.
In Pittsburgh, Brian Bullington, who was the top pick in the 2002 draft but missed all of 2006 following labrum surgery, was the last man to lose to the Cardinals on Thursday, but faired much better in a hard-luck loss to the Brewers yesterday. The Pirates are also starting a pair of call-ups in the outfield with Nyjer Morgan in center and Steven Pearce in right, but Morgan is 26 and not hitting. Pearce, however, hit .320/.366/.557 with Triple-A Indianapolis and is acquitting himself nicely at the plate thus far.
Finally, keep an eye on the rotations in St. Louis and Chicago. The Cubs, who are in the midst of playing 24 games in 23 days with a double header in St. Louis on Saturday, will start Steve Trachsel on three-days rest on Thursday despite his getting bombed by the lowly Pirates in his last outing (though the fact that he only threw 47 pitches in that game is actually part of the reason for the decision). Sean Marshall will then return to the rotation for the doubleheader on Saturday, giving him an opportunity to reclaim his starting job from the newly imported Trachsel.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are in the middle of playing 35 games in 34 days and not only have that doubleheader against the Cubs on Saturday, but have no remaining off days this season (the Cubs have two left). Tony La Russa has used seven different starters over the last seven days (including today's starter Anthony Reyes) with Mike Mulder and Mark Maroth coming off the DL and Brad Thompson being called up all since rosters expanded. Maroth got just five outs on Thursday and is back in the pen. Mulder has been awful in two starts including yesterday's loss. Thompson only lasted two innings himself on Sunday. La Russa has said that now that he has an 18-man pitching staff he's willing to use a committee of relievers in place of a fifth starter if Reyes, Kip Wells, and Thompson don't pitch well enough to go deep into games. That assumes a starting four of Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro, and the struggling Mulder. Like I said, things have gotten ugly in St. Louis.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: Let's Play Nine
"Nine Full Innings."
That's the inscription inside the rings celebrating Detroit's 2006 American League pennant, and with 144 games played the Tigers are exactly 8/9 of the way through 2007. Headed into today's day-night doubleheader with the Texas Rangers, they're entering the ninth inning of their season with a 78-66 record. At six games back, the AL Central looks unlikely, but they trail the Yankees by 3.5 games, making the wild card still a possibility -- if they can mount a considerable rally.
For last night, at least, the Tigers seem up to the challenge of playing the full nine innings. Trailing the Blue Jays 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth, with Toronto ace Roy Halladay on the mound, a comeback seemed improbable, especially after Timo Perez's double play wiped out a leadoff single from Mike Rabelo.
Considering Detroit's recent swing of bad luck -- likely shutting down Jeremy Bonderman for the season and even losing Pudge Rodriguez and Joel Zumaya earlier in the game to dizziness and a lost finger nail, respectively -- no betting man would have put money on the Tigers at that juncture of the game.
And certainly Baseball Prospectus hasn't been betting on Detroit to make the postseason. Looking at the right-most column (the percentage chance of the Tigers making the postseason), you can see that they peaked at 93.5 percent likelihood back on July 20, when they were 57-36 and the Indians were two games back. But entering last night, Detroit had dipped below a 15 percent chance.
But the Tigers played nine full innings. Sean Casey and Brandon Inge contributed two-out singles off Halladay, chasing him out of the game in favor of closer Casey Janssen. After Inge scooted to second on defensive indifference, Curtis Granderson laced a two-RBI single. Placido Polanco singled and Gary Sheffield walked. Suddenly it was bases loaded for Magglio Ordoñez, and he did not disappoint, knocking home the game-tying and -- winning runs on a two-RBI single of his own. John Lowe of the Detroit Free-Press immediately dubbed it Detroit's signature win of the season.
Alex Rodriguez's monstrous season has pretty much eliminated Ordoñez and everybody else from MVP contention -- splits of .318/.424/.672 with 52 HR and 140 RBIs will blow just about everybody away -- but Magglio has continued to churn out an impressive season. He's not just leading the majors with a .359 average (and second in RBIs with 128), but he's also leading the majors in average with runners in scoring position: hitting at a staggering .422 clip.
If the Tigers miss the playoffs, it won't be for lack of a few exceptional seasons. Beyond Magglio, there's also been the historic season of Curtis Granderson, who joined Willie Mays and Frank "Wildfire" Schulte as the only players to have a 20-20-20-20 season, compiling a score of doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases. And Placido Polanco, besides his errorless streak of 147 games, is still batting .345.
But, save Justin Verlander (16-5, 3.56 ERA), you can't even begin to toss around the phrase "exceptional season" near any of Detroit's pitchers. Kenny Rogers and wunderkinds Fernando Rodney and Zumaya have been various combinations of middling and injured, while Bonderman and Nate Robertson have been decidedly mediocre.
While last night's win was spectacular for Detroit, keeping the team within 3.5 games of New York, rather than falling to 4.5 back, there's still significant ground to cover.
Except for Detroit's three games with Texas now, both the Yankees and Tigers have only divisional games remaining. Though the AL Central has disappointed this season, it's still stronger than the East, meaning the schedule favors the Yankees.
Time for the Tigers to play the ninth.
Labels: AL Central
AL East: Sum of All Fears
What is a baseball fan's greatest fear? These days, it is discovering that your favorite player has used performance-enhancing drugs. It's what keeps Red Sox Nation up at night, as they privately hope that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez's accomplishments have been on the up-and-up. It is also what must gnaw at Yankee fans as they witness the best offensive season since the days of Mantle and Maris. Now, aside from a coy remark earlier this summer from Jose Canseco, there is no taint of drug-use in Alex Rodriguez's past, and I'm in no way suggesting that he has used PEDs. But these are cynical times, and it's not hard to let your mind wander. The kid in me just hopes that the giants of the game -- Ortiz, Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, etc -- are not disgraced. Am I just being cynical or would I be naïve if I wasn't thinking about these things?
OK, enough about fears. How about some reality? How good has Rodriguez been? He's the front-runner for the American League MVP (and something truly spectacular would have to happen over the next three weeks for him not to win it), and the only third baseman to ever hit 50 home runs in a season -- he was the only shortstop to hit 50 in a year too. Together, Rodriguez (190 OPS+) and Jorge Posada (159 OPS+) are having the best seasons of any two Yankees since Rickey Henderson (157 OPS+) and Don Mattingly (156 OPS+) in 1985, so writes Steve Lombardi of Was Watching.
I was somewhat amazed that the Royals pitchers continued to pitch to Rodriguez over the weekend even though Hideki Matsui is slumping. But they went after A-Rod, and he bit back. Rodriguez has homered in five straight games; over the last seven, he's hit .560/.633/1.440, with seven homers, eight runs scored and 13 RBIs. For the season, Rodriguez is hitting .318/.424/.672 with 52 home runs, 132 runs, and 140 RBIs in 141 games. Rodriguez's highest single-season slugging percentage was .631 in 1996; his career mark for RBIs, 142, in 2002. This could be the best overall year of his career.
Somehow, all of the talk about Rodriguez not being clutch has not come up this year, even in New York (just wait until October rolls around). With 2 Outs and RISP, Rodriguez is batting .319/.443/.847, and in Late/Close situations, he's .328/.412/.707. Does this mean he qualifies as a true Yankee yet?
Glaus is about to take a place standing next to Rafael Palmeiro on a very short list of All-Star-level players with a proven steroid past. Glaus didn't test positive like Palmeiro, and he never waved his finger at Congress, so it will be interesting to see the public reaction. Was Palmeiro's offense the positive test, or the lying? Does America only care when steroids help break milestones, or is there really outrage at the integrity of the game being compromised? On the heels of Rick Ankiel, Jay Gibbons, and whatever subsequent names get released, it's time to once again look back and decide what's really important--what happened then, or what we can prevent from happening in the future. Baseball's putting its money on the past, which is simply sad.
Labels: AL East
NL West: The Injury Bug
Injuries rocked three of the four National League West playoff contenders over the past week -- but the one club to make it through unscathed could only take partial advantage.
Filling in for Hudson will be Alberto Callaspo, who has had an up-and-down year to say the least: everything from being suspended and then reinstated to the team following a domestic violence arrest to falling for the hidden-ball trick.
The 24-year-old Callaspo has had on-base percentages of .404 and .406 his past two seasons in the minors, but was just at .257 with Arizona in 2007. Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic wrote that Arizona manager Bob Melvin "is hopeful that regular at-bats will allow Callaspo to get into a groove offensively."
Colorado manager Clint Hurdle told C.J. Moore of MLB.com that Matsui would miss a "few" games and Taveras "more than a few" -- in fact, Taveras may well be done for the season.
"There's not going to be an Eeyore mentality here; it's not going to be, 'Woe is us.' We need to play," Hurdle said to Moore. "We need not to dwell on what we don't have and figure out what we do have and figure out how we're going to win ballgames with what we do have."
Sure enough, the Rockies came back Sunday and beat the Padres, moving within three games of the NL wild-card lead. Ryan Spilborghs (.836 OPS) started in place of Taveras on Sunday, and Jamey Carroll (.602) took Matsui's spot. Cory Sullivan (.724), Omar Quintanilla (.630) and Clint Barmes (.555) could also see increased playing time, Moore wrote.
"There are three things to consider when it comes to Milton Bradley's strain of the oblique muscle in his right rib cage," Bill Center of the San Diego Union-Tribune cautioned. "The Padres have classified the injury as "mild." Historically, Bradley is not a quick healer. (And) Players rarely come back sooner than expected from oblique strains, even when the injury isn't severe."
Dan Hayes of the North County Times reported that Scott Hairston, Rob Mackowiak, Terrmel Sledge and Brady Clark might all step in to fill in for Bradley for an indefinite period.
When Andre Ethier hit a pinch-hit, three-run, ninth-inning home run to give the Dodgers their third victory in four games at NL Central-leading Chicago, it looked like the team was racing back into contention, having won 14 of their past 21. But this weekend in San Francisco, at a ballpark where Los Angeles had won 11 consecutive games over its fabled rivals, the Giants threw up a couple of roadblocks by hitting game-winning home runs off Dodger reliever Jonathan Broxton in their final at-bats Friday (by Dan Ortmeier) and Sunday (by Ray Durham).
Broxton, who also served up a homer in the Ethier game Thursday, had allowed only one homer all season prior to that. As a result (at least in part) of his sudden struggles, instead of trailing the Padres by half a game entering their three-game series in Los Angeles that starts Tuesday (with Jake Peavy pitching the first game for the Padres against Esteban Loaiza), the Dodgers trail by 2 1/2.
Labels: NL West
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)