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The 30, Week 26: Ace in the Hole

While everyone fixates on the Triple Crown in Detroit, they're forgetting about Justin Verlander

In our final installment of the season, we’re interested in how little has changed in six months. Check out the very first installment of this column, before it even adopted its current name: Six of the top 10 teams then are likely to make the playoffs 156 games later, two others are still in the mix, and the Cinderella Orioles were already 3-0. There’ve been a few changes, with the Braves and Giants shaking off 0-3 starts to crack the postseason, and the A’s nearly there now after a rough start of their own.

It’s Week 26 of The 30. See you in the playoffs.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

1. Washington Nationals, 96-63 (722 RS, 589 RA) (last week: 3)

First there were the expected doubts that come with being a team that hadn’t ever finished above .500 for seven years in its new home. Then came concerns over the Nationals’ offense, which missed Michael Morse for the first two months of the season and Ryan Zimmerman’s power until late June because of his ailing shoulder. Ian Desmond, the Nats’ most valuable position player this season, got hurt. After a hot start, Bryce Harper stopped hitting. Finally, shutting down Stephen Strasburg made you wonder why and how a team that relied on pitching all year could justify shutting down its best pitcher (or second-best … it’s very close between Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez on a per-inning basis this year).

Those questions have all been answered. The Nationals are still a very good pitching team without Strasburg, with Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann stacking up well compared to other 1-2 combinations and the bullpen remaining sound. Harper has gone bonkers over the past six weeks, launching 12 homers and posting an OPS well above 1.000. And Morse, Zimmerman, and Desmond have all returned as healthy, productive regulars — so much so that Morse has taken to miming home-run trots and a local bar is now serving something called a Cortisone Shot1 in honor of the procedure that’s done wonders for the trio of Nats who’ve recovered so well from injuries. Tip your caps to the upstart Nationals, their architect, Mike Rizzo, and the team’s spot at the top of these rankings in the final 2012 edition of The 30. They’ve earned it.

2. Cincinnati Reds, 96-63 (664 RS, 582 RA) (last week: 2)

“No one’s even paid attention … You don’t hear about that on ESPN. We keep hearing about [the Reds in the '70s]. Nobody’s talking about this team, this rotation, the things we’ve done, the amount of quality starts, the innings. Four guys over 200. Five guys making every start. Johnny Cueto about to go for his 20th win. He was in Cy Young contention. Nobody’s paying attention to it. Nobody’s paying attention to how our bullpen is probably the best in baseball. We come here last night and there’s [34,000] people. We go back home and there’s only 20,000. We’re a first-place team with a bunch of exciting things going on — whether it’s Todd Frazier going for Rookie of the Year or Joey Votto going for a batting title or Johnny Cueto up for a Cy Young. A rotation full of guys that day in day out take the ball. I don’t think we necessarily try to get attention. But I think what everybody is witnessing with this team is pretty special. It shouldn’t go overlooked.”
Homer Bailey, after tossing a no-hitter against the Pirates on Friday

Consider all of those things acknowledged, Homer. Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Aroldis Chapman, and about 10 other guys on the roster are pretty good too. I’d throw you onto that list, too, if you’d stop making up false narratives for 10 minutes.

3. Texas Rangers, 93-66 (799 RS, 688 RA) (last week: 1)

The team that might be the most talented in all of baseball might not win its own division. That’s where we sit after the Rangers stumbled to a 3-4 week and the surging A’s narrowed the AL West gap to two games, with a three-game series to end the season in Oakland. Their recent struggles notwithstanding, the Rangers have few exploitable weaknesses, especially with Mike Napoli making good on last week’s love letter and leading Texas to a gigantic win Sunday night.

Still, if you’re looking for a potential red flag in the postseason, keep an eye on Texas’s bullpen. Ron Washington’s bizarre playoff decision-making is a big part of that concern, of course. The more pressing issue now is the potential loss of setup man Mike Adams, out with what’s called a mild case of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The Rangers should theoretically remain well covered with Joe Nathan, Alexi Ogando, and Koji Uehara able to handle the late innings. But it’s hard not to notice Washington’s nasty tendency to bring Mark Lowe into games at exactly the worst time. Sometimes these are unavoidable circumstances, like when he’d burned through his entire bullpen in last fall’s infamous Game 6, been forced to bring Lowe in for the 11th inning, then watched as David Freese completed the Cardinals’ unbelievable comeback. Other times it’s for more dubious reasons, like when he brought in Lowe (and not Nathan) to face the heart of the Rays’ order in the 11th inning on September 7, only to have that decision end with a Ben Zobrist walk-off. Lowe gave up another game-winning homer to George Kottaras on September 25, again using an inferior reliever over Nathan with the game on the line.2

Guess what I’m really saying is, Ron Washington is going to make some good moves with his bullpen and some bad ones. Same as any other manager. But if three weeks from now you see Mark Lowe enter a game where a home run can win it for the other team, run away. Far away.

4. New York Yankees, 92-67 (776 RS, 661 RA) (last week: 4)

Between Mark Teixeira’s persistent injury, Alex Rodriguez’s deep funk, Boone Logan being terrible for the past three months yet still likely to get used in high-leverage situations, and the best candidate for a fourth starter in the playoffs being Ron Guidry, the Yankees have their share of problems. CC Sabathia, hopefully, is no longer one of them. After marking the first two-DL-stint season of his career, then pitching poorly for four straight starts from late August to mid-September, he’s blazed through his past two outings, allowing just two runs on nine hits in 16 innings, striking out 21 batters and walking just three.

5. Atlanta Braves, 93-66 (694 RS, 593 RA) (last week: 5)

Lowest team runs allowed:

• Rays, 572
• Reds, 582
• Nationals, 589
• Dodgers, 590
• Braves, 593

Not bad for a team that went most of the season without 2011’s best starters by ERA (Jair Jurrjens, 2.96)3 and FIP/xFIP (Brandon Beachy, 3.19/3.16). Kris Medlen helped. Having the best defense in baseball did, too.

6. Oakland A’s, 91-68 (651 RS, 578 RA) (last week: 7)

It’s tough to pick only a few superlatives to describe the Oakland A’s season, and especially their recent play. As Buster Olney noted, Oakland went 12-8 in a crucial stretch of September games, with 17 of those 20 on the road and the final 17 in a row against teams either already in the playoffs or still in contention. Their entire current starting rotation consists of rookies. You can’t help but notice a few similarities to the Moneyball teams of yore, including A’s hitters ranking fifth in the MLB in walks. They’re pounding the ball, too, bashing more second-half home runs than any other team. Of course the biggest story for the 2012 A’s will be its 14 walk-offs (and counting) — none more dramatic than Saturday’s homer-to-tie, homer-to-win party.

7. San Francisco Giants, 93-66 (711 RS, 638 RA) (last week: 6)

So which is the real Tim Lincecum? The Cy Young–winning beast of years past is almost certainly gone forever. What about the meatball chucker of the first half of this season? The comeback kid who struck out a batter an inning, allowed just eight homers in 13 starts, and posted a 3.06 ERA for the second half before his most recent outing? Or the incredibly wild pitcher who got torched by Arizona last time out? Count the Giants as yet another team with major question marks at the back of their playoff rotation.4

8. Baltimore Orioles, 92-67 (707 RS, 696 RA) (last week: 8)

All year long, we’ve been wondering when the other shoe would drop for the Orioles. Until a few days ago, the O’s were a playoff contender that had somehow allowed more runs than they’d scored, with the Steve Johnson Experience merely the latest salvo in a season that defies explanation. How do you reconcile a team that was perfectly crappy in one-run games a year ago (same as two-, three-, four-, five-, and six-run games) … but now produces results like these:

Teams with the best winning percentage in one-run games (since 1901):
2012 Orioles — .757
1981 Orioles — .750
1908 Pirates — .733
1970 Orioles — .727

To get results like that, it definitely helps, as Dave Studeman of Hardball Times points out, that the Win Probability of the 2012 Orioles bullpen may be the highest in MLB history.

You can’t fully explain the entire season, or that one-run record, not with the same manager this year as last, and many players in common, too. But here’s something we can say: The Orioles have been a legitimately good team for the past two and a half months, by any objective standard. Baltimore has gone 46-23 since July 17, with a +67 run differential. Why is that date significant? As Orioles fan Matt Frese notes, that was the day of Chris Tillman’s second start of 2012, the day after Zach Britton’s first. Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta, three pitchers who’ve been battered this year, have made just three starts between them since that day in July. You can quibble with the pedigree of those pitchers’ replacements, or the fact that Nate McLouth has been a viable contributor on a team with a real shot at snagging home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs, or the idea that these guys will be this good again in 2013. But when you’ve got nearly half a season’s worth of evidence that you’re a good team … maybe you really are a good team.

9. Los Angeles Angels, 88-71 (758 RS, 677 RA) (last week: 9)

At the risk of overstating the recency effect, it’s entirely possible that the Angels are the best team in baseball as currently constituted, and that if they could miraculously sneak into the playoffs, they’d smash the competition. The starting rotation’s struggles from earlier this year are long gone, with Zack Greinke showing Cy Young form after a few initial bumps, Dan Haren returning to reliable form, even Ervin Santana righting the ship save for Mike Napoli’s obligatory demolition of the Angels on Sunday night, because being on the hook for $86 million worth of Vernon Wells wasn’t quite punishment enough for the Halos’ horrific January 2011 trade. Torii Hunter’s crushing everything in sight, Albert Pujols is hitting like vintage Albert Pujols after a brutal start to the year, and Mike Trout … well, we’re saving our awards thoughts for a mega-column on Wednesday, but let’s just say we’re impressed. Even the much-maligned bullpen has delivered better results lately. You get the sense that if the season were played over again,5 the Angels would be preparing for playoff baseball.

10. Tampa Bay Rays, 88-71 (688 RS, 572 RA) (last week: 10)

Barring an end to the season even more mathematically ludicrous than last year’s ride, the Rays’ American League–leading run differential will be a mere footnote to a disappointing season. Despite the Rays’ success since 2008, it still seems a bit weird to be calling a year in which they might win 90-plus games a disappointment. But given that the Rays lead the majors in run prevention, with the expected excellence from the rotation (including a possible Cy Young Award for David Price) and killer numbers from the bullpen (including Fernando Rodney now standing ⅓ of an inning away from breaking the all-time record for lowest ERA by a reliever with 50-plus innings pitched),6 it feels like a major opportunity blown.

The missing ingredient for this team going forward will be developing hitters who can start to approach the production of their killer young pitchers. From Greg Vaughn to Pat Burrell to the disappointing 2012 duo of Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, the Rays have failed spectacularly when they’ve tried to throw money at aging sluggers. If the owners plan to continue their low-spending ways, the Rays will have to either find potent bats in-house or trade one of their eight currently viable major league starting pitchers for offensive help. Doubly so with B.J. Upton likely gone and first base, second base, and DH likely to be gaping holes at season’s end too.

11. Detroit Tigers, 86-73 (717 RS, 663 RA) (last week: 14)

For all the hoopla over Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown run and The Great MVP Debate, it’s worth remembering that Miggy’s had a lot of help this year. Prince Fielder has come as advertised, cracking seven homers in his past 24 games to hike his season line to .309/.407/.525. Max Scherzer’s parlayed his high-strikeout stuff into the best results of his career. Austin Jackson’s having the breakout season that prospect hounds hoped for back when he was a Yankees farmhand waiting to be cashed in for a blockbuster deal. And Justin Verlander has posted numbers in 2012 virtually identical to those of 2011, yet he’s somehow considered just one of several candidates for Cy Young and a no-chance-in-hell guy for MVP, after winning both awards last year.

OK, we said we’d wait until Wednesday to break down this year’s awards, but here are two quick fun facts about the 2012 AL MVP race:

1. Though I’m not one to simply glance at a Wins Above Replacement leaderboard and declare the guy with the higher WAR the automatic winner, it’s interesting that Cabrera and Verlander have produced virtually identical levels of value for the Tigers this year, going by WAR. Here, look it up for yourself.

2. Even though he’s chasing the Triple Crown, Cabrera is actually having his worst offensive season in three years. It’s true, and we can measure it without using a stat nearly as intricate as WAR to do it. Check out Cabrera’s last three years using the simple combination of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average:

2010: .328/.420/.622
2011: .344/.448/.586
2012: .325/.390/.601

Lowest batting average and lowest OBP in those three years, with a slugging average that trails 2010’s mark. Even after adjusting for offensive levels coming down a bit in the past couple years, Cabrera’s still been a less useful offensive player in 2012 than he was in 2010 or 2011. This is the real problem with fixating on Triple Crown stats: They ignore so many other things a player can do to help a team offensively, and that’s before we even touch all the elements that have nothing to do with pure hitting. Cabrera does have more home runs and runs batted in this year than in any previous season in his career. But he hit more doubles in each of the past two years, and more singles in two of the past three. He’s drawn just 49 unintentional walks; if that total stands, it would mark the lowest total for any full season of his career. He’s grounded into 28 double plays, more than in any other season of his career and more than any other player in the league this year. As for the Triple Crown itself, Cabrera wouldn’t be in position to claim it if Austin Jackson hadn’t raised his OBP by 62 points this year — leaving aside Cabrera being lauded for his lowest batting average in three years.

It’s impossible to contend for a Triple Crown without having a truly amazing offensive season. But the hype over Cabrera’s 2012 campaign compared to his others largely comes down to a big, random down year for the league leaders in batting average7 and bagging more RBI opportunities due to other players’ vast improvement. Leaving aside that guy who plays in Anaheim, defense, baserunning, or any other factors unrelated to pure mashing … if you didn’t think Cabrera’s hitting warranted an MVP in 2010 or 2011, why vote for him now, when factors beyond his control are driving the narrative?

12. St. Louis Cardinals, 86-73 (759 RS, 643 RA) (last week: 11)

On the long list of homegrown, medium-pedigree players coming up big for the Cardinals — Allen Craig, David Freese, Jason Motte, Jaime Garcia — we can now add the name Pete Kozma. Sure, Kozma’s had only 95 plate appearances in the big leagues, and his 16-game cup of coffee last year has little to no bearing on his current hero status in St. Louis. Also, Kozma was a first-round pick while Craig (eighth), Freese (ninth), Motte (19th), and Garcia (22nd) all went much later in the draft. But Kozma had forged his reputation as a player with good contact skills and someone with the quickness, instincts, and hands to handle a middle-infield spot at the big league level. That he’s now hitting .338/.375/.600, winning games almost by himself with the bat and even cranking homers, with Rafael Furcal out for the year and the team needing a lift to complete its run back to the playoffs, has to rank up there on the list of pleasant recent Cardinals surprises.

13. Los Angeles Dodgers, 84-75 (626 RS, 590 RA) (last week: 15)

We probably shouldn’t get too crazy over a five-game winning streak, not when it comes at the hands of the Padres and Rockies. But no one hands out awards for degree of difficulty, especially at this point of the season. Weak competition or not, seeing Clayton Kershaw strike out 10 batters over eight shutout innings Friday, Matt Kemp smash 11 hits and four homers in his past five games as he shows he’s recovered from a nasty outfield wall collision a few weeks ago at Coors Field, and Adrian Gonzalez finally come alive with a 13-game hitting streak after a miserable start with the Dodgers hints at the kind of upside this heavily fortified team now has if it could conjure a way to crack the postseason. The Dodgers likely have to sweep the Giants just to have a chance to erase the Cardinals’ two-game wild-card lead, and while Bruce Bochy might opt to rest some regulars, Matt Cain isn’t going to suddenly start throwing batting practice in tonight’s series opener. If nothing else, this late charge offers a preview of what might happen next year, especially if the Dodgers open their checkbooks again to make further upgrades on the free-agent market.

14. Chicago White Sox, 83-76 (725 RS, 672 RA) (last week: 12)

Losing 10 of their past 12 games, coupled with the Tigers’ recent strong play, has all but ended the White Sox’s season. Assuming we don’t see a miracle comeback, the next round of intrigue starts on the first day of the offseason, when Kenny Williams ends the fifth-longest active tenure for any MLB general manager8 to become team president, and assistant GM Rick Hahn takes over. Hahn has a strong enough reputation in the industry to have earned GM interviews with the likes of the Angels. He also has a solid grasp of sabermetric principles (or at least talks a really good game), as I can confirm from hearing him talk at a FanGraphs event in the spring of 2011. It’s fair to say that Hahn will bring a different approach to the GM job, given that there weren’t any GMs more willing to make aggressive deals and take big, honking risks (Jake Peavy, Alex Rios) than Williams was. Coming off a season in which so many young pitchers (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Addison Reed, Nate Jones) took steps forward, there’s reason to get excited about the future of the White Sox, even if 2012 ends in disappointment.

Filed Under: Justin Verlander, People

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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