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The 30: The Young and the Rising

An out-of-nowhere pitching performance has the Mariners surging; with two challengers soaring, can the A’s stay afloat in the AL West?

No division has produced more intrigue this year than the AL West. The Angels and A’s boast the top two records in baseball, and along with the division-rival Mariners own three of the top four run differentials in the majors. All three AL West contenders made significant moves ahead of last month’s non-waiver trade deadline, solidifying their rosters for the stretch run.

Now, two fierce races are unfolding. What was once a six-game lead for the A’s over the Halos has evaporated, with the teams tied atop the standings and the Angels holding a .001 edge in winning percentage. Meanwhile, the M’s have grabbed the lead in the hunt for the second wild-card spot, riding a hot streak that has seen them win 10 out of 12 and vault to a half-game lead over the Tigers in the standings.

One of baseball’s lowest-revenue and lowest-payroll teams is vying for its third consecutive division title, and two teams that were below .500 last year are emerging as real threats for this October, all of which should make for a wild final six weeks.

So start running for it:

Do a little twirl:

Appreciate the wonders of youth:

And remember to celebrate responsibly:

marlins-celebration

It’s Week 20 of The 30.

Bat Flip Back Flip of the Week!

Much as I enjoy the weekly exercise of trying to find someone better than Yasiel Puig at flipping bats, I’m changing the theme this week. Facing the A’s on Monday night, the surging Royals secured a 3-2 victory that propelled them into first place, the first time since 2003 they’d led their division this late in the season. Showing his keen awareness of the moment, Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson squeezed the final out of the game, then channeled his inner Ozzie Smith:

Rocky Mountain Low

Season-ending injuries for Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez drop the Rockies into the 30-hole.

30. Colorado Rockies (49-75, -69 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Texas Rangers (48-76, -135, LW: 30)
28. Houston Astros (52-73, -91, LW: 28)
27. Arizona Diamondbacks (53-71, -91, LW: 27)
26. Chicago Cubs (53-70, -52, LW: 26)
25. Philadelphia Phillies (54-70, -78, LW: 24)
24. Minnesota Twins (55-67, -41, LW: 25)
23. Boston Red Sox (56-67, -56, LW: 23)
22. Chicago White Sox (59-65, -55, LW: 21)
21. San Diego Padres (58-65, -10, LW: 22)
20. New York Mets (59-66, -4, LW: 20)

The 2014 Diamondbacks aren’t a really talented team that hit a rough patch this year but have a chance to win it all next year following a few tweaks; this is a ball club in need of reconstructive surgery. Here are a few changes to expect between now and Opening Day 2015:

• At least a bit of payroll relief: The Diamondbacks are paying J.J. Putz the remainder of his $7 million annual salary to no longer pitch for them, but won’t have to carry that burden next year. Cliff Pennington has been a solid contributor off the bench this year, but it’s hard to see Arizona going to arbitration with him after the utility infielder earned $3.25 million this season. David Hernandez also looks like a long shot for arbitration, considering he made $2.1 million this year despite missing the season following Tommy John surgery and might not be back to 100 percent until around next year’s All-Star break. Plus, Arizona no longer has to worry about paying Martin Prado $22 million total in 2015 and 2016, since it traded him to the Yankees in July. Together, all of that should allow the Diamondbacks to deal with the $55 million owed in 2015 to the mediocre fivesome of Miguel Montero, Aaron Hill, Trevor Cahill, Bronson Arroyo, and Cody Ross, and still have money left over to upgrade a few positions.

• Patrick Corbin’s return: The Diamondbacks’ best pitcher last season had Tommy John surgery this spring, so returning by Opening Day 2015 might be asking too much, and returning to 2013 form could take considerably longer. Still, after a string of injuries annihilated the staff this season and all but ended the team’s chances in the NL West, Arizona will take what it can get.

• The kids will get their chance: Archie Bradley entered the season as one of the best pitching prospects in the game and a top-10 overall prospect according to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, ESPN’s Keith Law, and MLB.com. However, he missed a month due to an elbow strain and has struggled with command for most of the season, walking 41 batters in 77.2 innings across three levels. As Law wrote last month, the challenge now is figuring out whether to keep exposing Bradley to the pitching horrors of the Pacific Coast League, or to expedite his path to The Show. Other intriguing prospects and young players to watch heading into 2015 include right-handed starter Braden Shipley, last year’s first-round pick who has already made it to Double-A; fellow righty starter Aaron Blair, a supplemental first-round pick last year who has also arrived at Double-A; Jake Barrett, a third-round pick in 2012 who has saved 24 games between Double-A and Triple-A this season and could nab a high-leverage relief role with the big club; and Chris Owings, who had already grabbed the starting shortstop job with the Diamondbacks this year before becoming yet another DL victim.

• Change at the top: Manager Kirk Gibson and GM Kevin Towers might not be around much longer. The team’s dismal performance, its well-earned reputation for general jerkiness, and the hiring of Tony La Russa to essentially perform the role of the Two Bobs suggests that big change could be afoot. It’s too soon to know what that would mean for the club, since we don’t actually know if anyone is leaving, let alone who the replacements might be. Regardless, getting all that pitching talent up to the majors, spending wisely this winter, and escaping this season’s injury demons should help the Diamondbacks compete next year … or at least avoid similarly horrific results.

Living on the Edge

Tough times knock a handful of preseason contenders to the brink of also-ran status.

19. Cincinnati Reds (61-63, +19, LW: 16)
18. Miami Marlins (62-62, -26, LW: 19)
17. Tampa Bay Rays (61-63, +23, LW: 18)
16. Cleveland Indians (62-61, +13, LW: 17)
15. New York Yankees (63-59, -37, LW: 14)
14. Toronto Blue Jays (64-61, +9, LW: 12)
13. Atlanta Braves (64-60, +3, LW: 15)
12. Pittsburgh Pirates (64-60, +6, LW: 10)

While handicapping the Reds’ chances last month in a column on the NL Central, I noted that the club rolled into the All-Star break at 51-44, just a game and a half out of first place and seemingly in position to make a playoff run, but introduced the caveat that injuries to Joey Votto and others could very well doom Cincinnati. Sure enough, the Reds have gone 10-19 since, all but ending their chances at an NL Central crown and seriously harming their wild-card hopes. For that, they can blame a rash of injuries even worse than what plagued them in July.

To illustrate how bad Cincinnati’s injury situation has become, I put together a little chart that examines the teams with the biggest year-over-year drop in win-loss record, and the total games lost to injury for each club’s top five players (designated as the top five 2013 holdovers based on Wins Above Replacement). Here are the results (source for injury days: Baseball Prospectus):

Steepest Declining Teams Drop (Prorated Games) Total DL Games for 2013 Top Five
Texas Rangers 29 159
Boston Red Sox 23 70
Atlanta Braves 12 42
Arizona Diamondbacks 12 142
Tampa Bay Rays 11 38
Colorado Rockies 10 199
Cleveland Indians 10 40
St. Louis Cardinals 10 43
Pittsburgh Pirates 10 81
Cincinnati Reds 10 146

This isn’t a perfect metric, namely because it fails to account for long absences from valuable players who weren’t quite top-five performers on their teams last year, like Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the Braves, Wil Myers for the Rays, etc. Still, the key takeaway remains: The Reds have been absolutely slammed by injuries this season, with top contributors like Votto, Jay Bruce, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Aroldis Chapman, and Brandon Phillips all suffering injuries.

The Reds haven’t quite suffered under the weight of injuries the way that, say, the crash-and-burn Rangers have. Still, no matter how much breakout players like Johnny Cueto, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, and Billy Hamilton have brought to the table, the odds of overcoming this avalanche of absences now lie somewhere between slim and none.

The Upstarts

The surging Royals and Mariners are trying to break long playoff droughts.

11. San Francisco Giants (65-58, +30, LW: 13)
10. St. Louis Cardinals (66-57, -8, LW: 9)
9. Detroit Tigers (66-56, +34, LW: 7)
8. Seattle Mariners (67-56, +99, LW: 11)
7. Kansas City Royals (68-55, +29, LW: 8)

There are all kinds of reasons for the Mariners’ success this season.

There’s King Felix, who’s having one of the best seasons of any starting pitcher in years. There’s Seattle’s bullpen, which is on pace to post the third-lowest ERA of any AL team’s relief crew since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. There’s the team’s strong defense, which ranks somewhere between very good and the best in baseball1 depending on which advanced stat you consult. And there’s Robinson Cano, who’s missing his trademark power numbers this season but is still flourishing in the first season of his polarizing 10-year contract.

There has also been a huge surprise factor: Chris Young. Over the past decade, Young has gone from being a promising young starter, to an All-Star, to struggling amid a litany of terrible injuries, to posting a 6.81 ERA last year during a full season in the minors, to being an indispensable part of Seattle’s rotation this season and a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.

To fully understand the unlikely nature of the 6-foot-10, 35-year-old Frisbee chucker’s big season, we need to start by talking about Randy Wolf.2 The back of the Mariners’ rotation was so fraught with uncertainty this spring that Wolf, who posted a 5.65 ERA in 2012 and then missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, won the fifth starter’s job. Just before the end of camp, however, the M’s released Wolf due to a contract dispute, and the Nationals released Young, figuring (correctly) that their rotation would be set following the addition of Doug Fister and the emergence of Tanner Roark. On March 27, the Mariners picked up Young on a one-year, $1.25 million contract.

They’ve been laughing their way to the bank ever since. On Sunday, Young shut down a Tigers offense that has struggled lately but remains the second best in baseball overall, allowing just four hits over six scoreless innings while striking out four and walking just one. As usual, Young’s fastball made the radar gun laugh derisively, topping out at 87 mph and averaging just 85. With an average velocity just above 85 mph overall on the season, Young has thrown slower than all but two other starting pitchers, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and his veteran Jays teammate Mark Buehrle. Yet Sunday’s 8-1 win over Detroit shoved Young’s ERA down to 3.07 for the year, better than David Price’s or Madison Bumgarner’s and just an eyelash behind Yu Darvish’s. Young has been particularly dominant in his last 12 starts, delivering a 2.45 ERA during that span.

So how can we explain Young’s sudden resurgence? Despite Young’s impressive 3.07 ERA, his 4.58 FIP is the third-highest among all AL starters, with the gap between Young’s FIP and ERA the largest in all of baseball. At first glance, he seems to be benefiting from some luck. He’s allowing a microscopic .224 batting average on balls in play, the lowest among qualified AL starters, and way below the league average of .296. Though pitchers do have some control over BABIP,3 the stat is still heavily influenced by team defense, park factors, and, yes, luck. Some of the nastiest pitchers in the game — including Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Corey Kluber, Bumgarner, and Darvish — have posted BABIPs above .300 this season. ESPN tracks a stat called Hard Hit Average, which can heavily influence BABIP, since harder contact tends to lead to more hits. But that stat doesn’t help to explain Young’s incredibly low BABIP: The veteran is actually faring poorly in Hard Hit Average this year, ranking among the 10 worst AL starters.

To fully understand Young’s success, we need to reframe his results to extend beyond luck. I mentioned earlier that the Mariners’ defense has been outstanding this year, converting more balls in play into outs than any other team. And even after moving in the fences, Safeco Field remains a highly favorable ballpark for pitchers. A decade after making his major league debut, Young appears to be keenly aware of his limitations, having long ago shut out the critics who wondered why a 6-10 pitcher couldn’t throw harder. It’s entirely reasonable to assume he’s aware of the defense and park factors working in his favor, and to assert that his slider is now his best pitch. So he has thrown a ton of them, limiting opponents to a .160 batting average against his slider this year, and inducing lots of weak, catchable contact on that pitch that has helped facilitate his success despite his low velocity and terrible strikeout rate. And while the Mariners’ defense travels with Young wherever he may go, the Safeco effects are also undeniable: Young’s home ERA on the season is 2.35. On the road? 3.93.

Young also knows he can get away with pitching up in the zone, especially at Safeco. According to ESPN data, Young ranks ninth among all starting pitchers at generating what broadcasters often call a “rising fastball” — or in more technical terms, per ESPN research, “the vertical change in pitch location resulting from the spin on the pitch measured in inches.” In terms of the raw number of pitches up in the zone, Young ranks fourth, trailing only Cueto, Price, and Chris Tillman. This is by design: The only area in which Young truly excels when compared to league average is on pitches in the upper half of the zone — his .226 BABIP allowed on those pitches ranks seventh in MLB.4

If Young throws his fastball in the right spot, complements it with his wipeout slider, and trusts the outstanding defense playing behind him, he becomes the kind of pitcher who can lead Seattle rather than drag it down. A little bit of skill, a little bit of luck, and a little bit of experience are working in his favor and producing a whole lot of great results for the surging Mariners.

Changing of the Guard

A five-game losing streak knocks the A’s from their perch atop these rankings.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers (70-56, +50, LW: 3)
5. Milwaukee Brewers (70-55, +44, LW: 6)
4. Baltimore Orioles (70-52, +54, LW: 4)
3. Washington Nationals (69-53, +92, LW: 5)
2. Oakland A’s (73-51, +161, LW: 1)
1. Los Angeles Angels (72-50, +87, LW: 2)

For the last three months, the A’s held the best record in baseball while amassing a run differential that dwarfed that of all other teams. What’s more, they looked poised to improve, getting catalyst Coco Crisp back from injuries and beefing up an already strong rotation by adding Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Jon Lester in blockbuster trades.

Despite all those good tidings, the inevitable slump has hit, with the A’s losing five in a row and falling into a virtual tie with the Angels atop the AL West standings. There are two main causes for this slump:

1. The offense has gone cold. In the past 14 days, the A’s have posted a team wRC+ of 91, meaning that on a park-adjusted basis, they’ve been 9 percent worse than the average club.

Crisp has been one of the biggest slumpers. Since returning from a seven-game, injury-induced absence on August 4, Oakland’s leadoff hitter has managed just six hits in 46 at-bats. The bottom of the order, and middle of the infield, is also in rough shape. With starting shortstop Jed Lowrie on the disabled list, the A’s have cobbled together a platoon of Eric Sogard (.214/.298/.270, even after a modest recent hitting streak) and Andy Parrino (a career .184 hitter who just got called up from the minors) at short, with Alberto Callaspo (.234/.302/.300) at second. Crisp’s track record of success suggests he’ll bounce back soon enough, but the A’s could really use Lowrie back as soon as possible, given the replacement-level combination manning the middle of the infield in his absence; they’re hoping the hairline fracture in his finger will heal in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, the A’s will keep an eye out for available talent, though they might have a tough time landing a player good enough to help them but fungible enough (or expensive enough) to make it to their waiver position.

2. Sonny Gray has fallen on hard times.

sonny-gray-fans

I wrote about the tenuous success of Oakland’s pitching at the time of the Samardzija/Hammel deal, noting that a journeyman like Jesse Chavez might start to struggle after a blazing start, and that even a pitcher as talented as Gray could hit a rough patch, especially as his innings count started reaching unchartered territory. Chavez did hit a wall, and got demoted to the bullpen. And Gray passed his pro career high in innings pitched two starts ago, with the results suddenly turning ugly. In his last three starts, Gray has tossed 16.2 innings, allowed 14 runs (12 earned) on 24 hits, and eight walks, with opponents batting .338 with a .413 on-base percentage against him.

Slumps happen all the time in baseball, so the A’s will sit and hope that Gray’s is merely a small blip within an otherwise excellent season. Because with Hammel flashing a 6.75 ERA in seven starts with the A’s, Chavez turning into a pumpkin, Tommy Milone now with the Twins, Dan Straily now with the Cubs, and every major bullet in Billy Beane’s chamber likely already fired in those two huge trades for pitching, even a team as powerful as Oakland can’t afford to have Gray scuffle much longer.

After dominating the league for months, settling for a wild-card berth and a one-game playoff — possibly against a world-beater like Seattle’s Hernandez — isn’t something any A’s fan wants to contemplate.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Oakland A's, MLB Stats, Pitchers, Chris Young, Sonny Gray, Joey Votto, Baseball, injuries, 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.

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