Previous Story

Wedded Blitz! Sweating the Details

All Features

Next Story

The Sport of Fools

The 30: Hope Springs

The Cubs and Rockies are trying to focus on the good, while the Mariners and A’s would be hard-pressed to do anything else

This week’s edition of The 30 is dedicated to the great Norichika Aoki, master of misfortune. Rest assured, Nori, we kid because we love.

We love you when you swing so hard you helicopter yourself into the ground.

We love you when you help Yadier Molina prove he can neutralize the opposition in unconventional ways.

And we definitely love you when you take one for the team.

norichika-aoki-ouchie

It’s Week 10 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

This week, honorable mention goes to high school star Hunt Smith, who celebrated his grand slam homer in the state title game with impressive flourish:

But the winner is Houston rookie Jon Singleton. Led by impressive left-hander Dallas Keuchel and rookie oppo-taco specialist George Springer, the Astros have clawed their way back to respectability. When slugging first-base prospect Singleton signed a five-year deal (with three club options) before he’d played a single major league game, the excitement in Houston grew. And when Singleton launched his first major league home run in his first game, he (and Astros fans) really had something to flip over:

jon-singleton-bat-flip

It’s Not All Bad

Even bottom-feeders have win streaks!

30. Philadelphia Phillies (25-36 record, -50 run differential, no. 27 last week)
29. Tampa Bay Rays (24-40, -51, LW: 26)
28. Chicago Cubs (25-35, -9, LW: 30)
27. Arizona Diamondbacks (28-37, -51, LW: 29)
26. San Diego Padres (28-35, -46, LW: 25)
25. New York Mets (28-35, -5, LW: 23)

The Cubs had won five straight prior to Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Marlins. While that may seem like a shocking accomplishment, it becomes a lot less surprising after examining the colossal bad luck the Cubs suffered in the 54 games preceding that run, and understanding how overdue they were for better fortune.

At the excellent Rockies blog Purple Row, Matthew Gross recently examined the Giants’ spectacular luck this season, noting that San Francisco’s hitters and pitchers have enjoyed more good fortune in high-leverage situations than those of any other team. On the flip side, Cubs hitters have been by far the worst in baseball in those high-leverage spots compared with all other situations. From the seventh inning on, the Cubs are hitting an abysmal .220/.300/.340, and it’s pretty easy to lose games when that happens.

The Cubs’ five-game winning streak brought much better offense in key situations. They went scoreless for the first seven innings on Tuesday, then tallied single runs in the eighth and ninth to walk off with a 2-1 win. They blew a 4-0 lead over the sixth and seventh innings on Thursday, then knocked in three total runs in the bottom of the seventh and eighth to win 7-4. And they won just their second game in eight extra-inning tries on Friday, with Anthony Rizzo hitting a walk-off, two-run homer in the bottom of the 13th.

Unlike their situational hitting, the Cubs’ starting pitching has been incredibly consistent, leading the majors in FIP-1 and making the team’s lousy record all the more puzzling.

While Jeff Samardzija’s elite performance has earned most of the headlines,2 he has arguably been the team’s second-best starter this year. Jason Hammel holds slight edges over Samardzija in both ERA and FIP, sixth and ranking 10th among all NL starters in those categories.

During Hot Stove season, it’s common to hear that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract. Now, that’s obviously not actually true: The small-revenue, small-payroll Padres can’t feel good about giving Josh Johnson $8 million to throw zero pitches this season. Still, it’s a smart idea more often than not, and in this case it has been a huge win for the Cubs, who committed just $6 million to get Hammel for 2014.

Hammel’s best season came in 2012, when he posted career marks in just about every major category — except innings pitched, as injuries limited him to just 20 starts and 118 innings. He’s been even better this year, with the most notable improvements coming in his walk and hit rates. The steep drop in hits looks like a fluke that might not last much longer, however: Hammel’s .234 batting average on balls in play sits 76 points below his career mark, and his batted-ball profile doesn’t show the big drop in line-drive rate or spike in infield popups that might help explain that gap. Still, the improved control is real, and it comes from Hammel throwing a combination of sinkers and sliders more often than ever before, with greater success than ever before.

Samardzija gets mentioned most often in trade rumors because he’s younger, and because he has a bigger name, better track record, and more controllable service time. But that might actually make Hammel a more appealing target for some teams at the deadline: His asking price will be much lower, and his impact for a 2014 contender could be just as substantial.

Do You Believe in Mediocrity?

YES!

24. Houston Astros (28-36, -39, LW: 28)
23. Boston Red Sox (28-34, -16, LW: 16)
22. Kansas City Royals (31-32, -15, LW: 22)
21. Cincinnati Reds (29-32, -16, LW: 18)
20. Pittsburgh Pirates (29-33, -20, LW: 24)
19. Minnesota Twins (29-32, -24, LW: 21)
18. Colorado Rockies (29-33, +4, LW: 11)
17. Chicago White Sox (31-33, -18, LW: 20)
16. Texas Rangers (31-32, -31, LW: 15)
15. New York Yankees (31-31, -31, LW: 10)
14. Baltimore Orioles (31-30, -10, LW: 14)

His debut triggered far less national hype than Oscar Taveras’s or George Springer’s, but when Eddie Butler took the mound Friday night for his first big league start, those of us in Denver certainly took notice. The Rockies entered the game having lost seven in a row, wiping away the goodwill built up by their excellent early play. A strong start from Butler would help restore a bit of that confidence and give Colorado fans some hope for their leaky rotation.

That didn’t happen. Butler earned his promotion after posting a sparkling 2.49 ERA over 11 starts at Double-A Tulsa this year, despite striking out just 40 batters in 68.2 innings. Instead of blowing pitches by hitters, Butler thrived by inducing lots of weak contact with his sinker. Against the Dodgers on Friday, however, Butler was unable to bury his sinker below the knees, instead leaving a bunch of them up and near the middle of the plate. The result: six runs and 10 hits allowed in 5.1 innings, including two triples by Dee Gordon, a booming double by .208-hitting catcher Drew Butera, and an opposite-field double by Hyun-Jin Ryu (with a stylish bat flip thrown in for good measure).

Ace Denver Post beat writer Nick Groke broke down Butler’s mistakes in detail, with help from Friday night’s starting catcher, Mike McKenry. “He said he started short-arming a little bit,” McKenry told Groke after the game. “He said that’s one thing he gets in trouble with. We talked about it — I’ve had success with guys in the past who are strong sinker guys just to throw it in the dirt, to make sure he gets on top of it. He started to lose his angle and wasn’t staying over the rubber. He knows that. He’ll grow from it.” McKenry then added, “Next time out, I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes six or seven innings and does great.”

Butler’s promotion triggered lots of local grumbling before he even took the mound. Fans who’d had their spirits repeatedly crushed by Franklin Morales complained that the Rockies took too long to call up a replacement, while others argued that 17 starts above Class A weren’t enough for a developing pitching prospect, and that Butler needed more seasoning before getting the call. While both arguments held merit, the true cause of fan disenchantment was likely a deeper mistrust of Rockies management and ownership. When a team has made the playoffs only three times (and won zero division titles) in 22 years of existence and the same guy has been at the top of the baseball operations department for 15 of those years, fans start to mistrust personnel decisions.

And rightfully so. Saturday morning at the monthly Rocky Mountain SABR meeting, a room full of Rockies bloggers, media types, and fans theorized about the team’s continued struggles. Some expressed doubts about the two-pronged GM system of Dan O’Dowd and Bill Geivett. Others pointed to problems at the very top, saying the Monfort family ownership is ill equipped to make baseball decisions and lacks the bridge between it and the baseball operations department that Keli McGregor provided before his untimely death in 2010.

As usual, there was lots of talk about playing in mile-high conditions and the kinds of players who could perform best at Coors Field. The Rockies might’ve picked up on something by stacking the lineup with high-contact hitters: As much as people talk about Coors’s effect on home runs, it’s also a paradise for high batting averages, with balls flying into the gaps and tons of room for singles to fall in the spacious outfield. And while the teams’ starters have pitched poorly collectively (even after adjusting for park effects), this staff is still full of ground ball pitchers, which is exactly what’s needed at Coors.

Ultimately, the team’s failures boil down to the simplest of factors: a lack of talent. Troy Tulowitzki is one of the best players on the planet when healthy, as we’ve seen this year. Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado are both on the disabled list, and CarGo has struggled in 2014, but they’re still All-Star–caliber regulars. Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson are the two most promising members of a supporting cast that’s been excellent on the hitting side this year thanks to obscene numbers at home, and Dickerson, who put up big minor league numbers, looks like a real talent capable of holding down a full-time job. However, the Rockies still don’t have any viable catchers, and Justin Morneau is not a long-term answer at first base. Most important, the pitching staff sorely lacks elite talent — a problem that has persisted for years and has caused Colorado to do all kinds of weird things, such as draft Greg Reynolds over Evan Longoria in 2006.

That’s why watching Butler get lit up was so frustrating, even though it was just one start against a dangerous lineup: More than any other team, the Rockies are overdue to develop some high-quality pitchers who can elevate the team and end this run of mediocrity.

NL East Traffic Jam

And four other upper-middle-class clubs.

13. Cleveland Indians (32-31, -9, LW: 17)
12. Miami Marlins (33-30, +22, LW: 13)
11. Seattle Mariners (33-29, +29, LW: 19)
10. Los Angeles Dodgers (33-31, +22, LW: 9)
9. St. Louis Cardinals (33-31, +16, LW: 8)
8. Atlanta Braves (32-29, +8, LW: 7)
7. Washington Nationals (32-29, +38, LW: 12)

Is Felix Hernandez the best pitcher in baseball?

Though universal consensus is impossible, the prevailing thought entering this season was that Clayton Kershaw held that title. Before that, Justin Verlander was generally considered the best in the business. But Hernandez’s long track record of success, combined with his superlative performance this season, gives him a reasonable claim. And Sunday’s annihilation of the Rays offered one more small, but incredibly impressive, data point in his favor.

King Felix3 faced 26 batters on Sunday in St. Pete and struck out 15 of them, allowing just four hits (and only one extra-base hit, a double), walking one, and firing seven shutout innings. Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon succinctly evaluated Hernandez’s performance: “I think he was better than when he threw the perfect game.” Maddon would know all about that perfect game, since his Rays were the victims then, too.

To evaluate Maddon’s claim, ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon did a deep dive to see how the numbers from those two games stack up. We won’t give too much away here, but here are a few factoids: Felix induced whiffs on 44 percent of the swings Rays hitters took in both games. He dominated with his changeup on Sunday, notching 13 of 21 outs with that pitch, including 10 strikeouts; in the perfect game, he got seven outs with the changeup, including six strikeouts. Check out the rest of the article for more details.

For more recommended Felix reading, check out Grantland contributor Shane Ryan’s most recent PitchCraft post. In it, Ryan breaks down Hernandez’s preposterous changeup and his four other offerings, with all kinds of jaw-dropping stats and images. Again, read the whole thing. I do have to steal one of the GIFs from that article, though, because it’s filthy:

felix-gif

So, back to the original question: Is Felix the best pitcher in the game?

He has been this year, that’s for sure. Sunday’s start lowered his ERA to 2.39 and his FIP to 1.92. Focusing on defense-independent numbers and adjusting for park and league effects, Felix comfortably leads the league in FIP-. In fact, Hernandez’s 2014 park- and league-adjusted FIP ranks as the second-best by any starting pitcher in a single season over the past decade, trailing only Randy Johnson’s inhuman 2004 campaign, which he delivered when the PED era was still going strong.

Of course, this is just one year — or 14 starts, to be precise. So let’s look at the larger body of evidence. Felix didn’t truly start to earn his regal nickname until 2009, when he fired 238.2 innings with a 2.49 ERA. Running the numbers from 2009 to today, here are Hernandez’s rankings:

Innings: second

ERA-: second

FIP-: third

xFIP-: first

He definitely has a case, especially if you’re willing to give him extra credit for his fantastic start this season.

Felix isn’t the only reason the Mariners have gotten hot lately and now hold the lead in the (early) race for the AL’s second wild-card spot, however. Part of that comes from Seattle’s hitters having impeccable timing when it comes to clustering their hits together to score more runs. Credit Kyle Seager for raising his game; free-agent pickup Robinson Cano for boosting the lineup by ranking second in the league in batting average (albeit with exactly the same number of home runs as Billy Hamilton); Hisashi Iwakuma for returning in top form; and a few other factors.

Still, take Hernandez off the roster and this is a pretty ordinary team. After 13 years of waiting for a playoff berth, M’s fans have a chance to see their wish granted this year. If it does happen, King Felix pitching better than ever will be the biggest reason why.

Fresh Faces

Only two of baseball’s current six best teams made the playoffs last year.

6. Los Angeles Angels (34-28, +33, LW: 6)
5. Detroit Tigers (33-26, +9, LW: 3)
4. Toronto Blue Jays (38-26, +43, LW: 5)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (38-26, +24, LW: 4)
2. Oakland A’s (39-24, +128, LW: 2)
1. San Francisco Giants (42-21, +65, LW: 1)

To illustrate this team’s depth and the many ways in which Oakland can win, here’s a rundown of its top 10 players this year by Wins Above Replacement, how they were acquired, and what they’ve done in 2014:

10. Jed Lowrie: .235/.335/.364, 98 wRC+, acquired 2/4/13 in a trade with the Astros. Lowrie’s power is down this year, and a 66-point drop in his batting average on balls in play explains that .235 average. Still, he’s one of the best contact hitters in the league, ranks among the league leaders in doubles, and is now a reliable everyday option after being plagued with injuries earlier in his career.

9. Jesse Chavez: 74 IP, 3.04 ERA, 3.64 FIP, acquired 8/24/12 from the Jays for cash. I covered Chavez back in April, when he stormed out of the gate to help lead Oakland to a huge start. He has slowed down a bit, allowing 11 runs and 23 hits in his past 17.1 innings pitched. Still, Chavez wasn’t even expected to crack the rotation this spring until injuries opened up multiple slots. He’s been outstanding for someone who started as a fill-in.

8. Sean Doolittle: 29 IP, 2.48 ERA, 1.18 FIP, drafted by the A’s in 2007. An actual homegrown player! Doolittle is really a converted position player, so he too required great organizational imagination to get where he is now. Assuming 42 strikeouts and one walk is a noteworthy place to be, that is.

7. John Jaso: .294/.382/.490, 148 wRC+, acquired 1/16/13 from the Mariners. Jaso was a lousy defender who was ill suited to being a no. 1 catcher, so Oakland turned him into a hybrid catcher/DH and has been reaping sweet, sweet OBP rewards ever since. In other words, he’s a prototypical A’s player.

6. Sonny Gray: 86 IP, 2.83 ERA, 3.46 FIP, drafted by the A’s in 2011. Like Chavez, Gray has struggled a bit lately. Still, Gray is that rare baseball commodity: a homegrown ace. He’s also Oakland property through 2019.

sonny-gray

5. Derek Norris: .290/.404/.478, 151 wRC+, acquired 12/22/11 in a trade with the Nationals. Classic A’s: Wait for a promising prospect to hit .210 in the minors, then nab him as part of a multiplayer deal for a pitcher who was about to get expensive. Now they’ve got 2014’s top offensive catcher,4 who also happens to be cheap and controllable through 2018.

4. Scott Kazmir: 82 IP, 2.20 ERA, 2.93 FIP, signed 12/2/13 to a two-year, $22 million contract. It wasn’t easy to trust Kazmir on a multiyear deal, given that he’d bounced around indie leagues and winter leagues before signing with the Indians in 2013 and pitching well. The A’s believed, and they now have one of the 10 best starters in the AL.

3. Yoenis Cespedes: .252/.304/.504, 122 wRC+, signed 2/13/12 to a four-year, $36 million deal out of Cuba. More tools than a hardware store.

2. Brandon Moss: .279/.371/.582, 165 wRC+, signed 12/1/11 to a minor league contract. He’s fifth in the AL in homers and second in RBI (if you’re into that). And he’s making just $4.1 million, three years after signing for next to nothing when no one wanted him.

1. Josh Donaldson: .270/.361/.532, 150 wRC+, acquired 7/8/08 in a trade with the Cubs. The A’s lead the majors in ERA, which is partly due to having good pitchers, partly due to their pitcher-friendly home park, and partly due to having excellent defenders all over the diamond. In addition to being a great hitter, Donaldson is a human vacuum cleaner at third. Getting him cost the A’s Rich Harden. Read that last sentence again.

So to review, the A’s built their team almost entirely without the benefit of elite homegrown talent. And they’re not merely winning; they’re dominating. Per Athletics Nation: In the ninth inning this year, the A’s have either been winning, tied, or had the tying run at the plate in 56 of their 63 games. For the third season in a row, small-revenue Oakland is for real. 

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, MLB Stats, Baseball, Jeff Samardzija, Troy Tulowitzki, Felix Hernandez, Jonah Keri

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.

Archive @ jonahkeri

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 369,330 other followers