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The United States of Lana

The 30: A Yankee in Winter

The numbers are starting to put a damper on the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour, while the Padres should already be looking to 2015

If you had to pick one word to describe the 2014 season, you could do a lot worse than … weird.

The Dodgers, heavy favorites in the National League, are as close to last place as they are to first. Last year’s cellar-dwelling Jays and moribund Brewers both lead their divisions. The defending champion Red Sox sit well below .500. The 2013 wild-card-winning Rays own the worst record in baseball. Hell, the Astros are one of the hottest teams in the league, and the Marlins could take over first place by tomorrow. Night is day, day is night.

We’re still a month away from the All-Star Game, leaving plenty of time for the balance of power to shift. But as of right now, a combination of terrible injury luck, successful rebuilding jobs, and painful regression has turned this into a season where anything could happen. Even baseballs bursting into flames.

It’s Week 11 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

This week we go beyond a single bat-flip hero to honor the great nation of South Korea. The @MyKBO Twitter account provides frequent updates of all the happenings in Korean baseball, including weekly bat-flip montages — which are delightful. The king of the Korean bat flippers is Hong Sung-heon, a designated hitter for the Doosan Bears. Attention, Yasiel Puig, Luis Valbuena, Wil Myers, and all the other elite MLB flippers: Game done changed.

End of the Road

A half-dozen teams likely to be trade-deadline sellers.

30. Tampa Bay Rays (28-43, -16 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. San Diego Padres (29-41, -61, LW: 26)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (30-43, -60, LW: 27)
27. Chicago Cubs (29-39, -13, LW: 28)
26. Philadelphia Phillies (30-38, -36, LW: 30)
25. New York Mets (31-39, -10, LW: 25)

Saturday’s 5-0 whitewashing of the Mets was a perfect illustration of what can happen when things go right for the Padres. Making his second major league start, Jesse Hahn dominated the Mets’ punchless offense, cruising through six scoreless innings by striking out seven and allowing just one walk. The bullpen was flawless, as it’s been all year long, producing three scoreless innings between Dale Thayer, Joaquin Benoit, and Huston Street. The Friars scratched out enough hits to make that pitching stand up, and that was that.

With the win, the Padres moved to an incredible 22-4 in games in which they’ve scored four runs or more. That makes sense when you’ve got a bullpen that’s the fifth-stingiest in baseball (even after adjusting for Petco Park’s pitcher-friendly confines) and a starting rotation that’s the seventh-best in the league (after adjusting for defense). Unfortunately, San Diego has scored fewer than four runs all too often — and in those games it has gone 7-36.

A simple look at offensive rankings doesn’t quite do the team’s batting justice. Yes, Padres hitters are batting an abysmal .215/.276/.342 this season, easily the worst in the majors even after adjusting for Petco. But Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Info passes along a visual representation that slams the point home even more forcefully. Stats & Info tracks a metric called hard-hit average, which is exactly what you think — the frequency with which every team hits the ball hard. Beyond the obvious, looking at a team’s hard-hit average can help us see if it has been getting lucky or unlucky on balls in play: If a team has a high hard-hit average but a low batting average on balls in play, it’s getting bad luck, whereas if it’s struggling with hard-hit average but posting a high BABIP, it’s been fortunate. In either case, you might expect to see some future regression toward the mean. The Padres have no such disconnect. As this graphic shows, they’re hitting the ball hard far less frequently than anyone else, and seeing worse results on balls in play.

What this means is that, barring a monumental turnaround, we’re already nearing wait-till-next-year time in San Diego. Which means it’s time to assess what the Padres have now, and what they could have by Opening Day 2015.

What they have, first and foremost, is a young, promising starting rotation. Andrew Cashner is the best 2-6 pitcher this side of Jeff Samardzija, wielding his blazing mid-90s fastball with great command and ranking among the league leaders in ERA and FIP. Tyson Ross has struck out nearly a batter an inning while posting the highest ground ball rate in the National League. Ian Kennedy is enjoying the best year of his career, ranking among the NL’s best in strikeout-to-walk rate. That trio, along with younger pitching prospects like Hahn and Matt Wisler (assuming his shellacking in eight Triple-A starts is just a temporary setback), as well as rehabbing live arms like Max Fried and Casey Kelly, represent the team’s best hope for 2015 and beyond.

But the lineup still needs lots of work. As great as Street has been as the team’s closer this year, a year and a half of Street at an affordable price isn’t likely to yield a new cleanup hitter for the Padres, and Street’s bullpen mates who’ll be dangled at the deadline will fetch even less. The hope then will rest on two planks: (1) that the Padres’ incumbent major leaguers — especially their double-play combination of Jedd Gyorko and Everth Cabrera — can hit better than pitchers in the future; (2) that by clearing lots of payroll room by letting Josh Johnson walk and potentially trading Street and Benoit, they can find money to go get better hitters.

On the other hand, with the Padres making about one-sixth as much in local TV money as their division rivals in L.A. make1, and San Diego needing to replace (or re-sign) its best hitter in Seth Smith and starting third baseman Chase Headley as they hit free agency at year’s end, keeping up with the Joneses in the NL West could be a huge challenge again next year. 2

What the Deal

Good luck understanding the ebbs and flows of these dozen teams.

24. Houston Astros (32-39, -38, LW: 24)
23. Boston Red Sox (32-38, -16, LW: 23)
22. Chicago White Sox (33-37, -31, LW: 17)
21. Minnesota Twins (32-36, -19, LW: 19)
20. Texas Rangers (35-35, -34, LW: 16)
19. Cincinnati Reds (33-35, -9, LW: 21)
18. Pittsburgh Pirates (34-35, -11, LW: 20)
17. Colorado Rockies (34-36, +12, LW: 18)
16. Cleveland Indians (36-35, -13, LW: 17)
15. Seattle Mariners (36-34, +32, LW: 11)
14. New York Yankees (35-33, -27, LW: 15)
13. Baltimore Orioles (35-34, -6, LW: 14)

Those fellows in feline-themed singlets are right: Derek Jeter is one classy cat. Unfortunately, he’s also slugging .322 this season, making him the fifth-least-threatening hitter in the American League by that standard, someone who looks like he can no longer catch up to quality fastballs. When Joe Girardi was asked earlier this season about managing Jeter’s playing time, he was blunt in his assessment: “I wasn’t hired to put on a farewell tour.” From a distance, you could look at Jeter’s punchless bat and rangeless play at shortstop in the final season of his career, and ask Girardi: “You sure about that?”

Thing is, benching Jeter for an extended period of time isn’t really an option. Leaving aside the backlash that could come from mothballing a Yankees legend, one of the greatest shortstops of all time, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the fact of the matter is that New York doesn’t really have any better options. Brendan Ryan is a better defender, but he’s also a lesser threat at the plate, which is saying something when you’re comparing him to a guy slugging .322.3

If you’re an optimist, you hope Jeter still has something left in the tank, and that the 10 hits he racked up over his past six games are a sign of good things to come. And you realize that, despite the Yankees operating as the third-worst offensive team in the American League, they’re still just one game back in the wild-card chase.

For that, the Yankees can credit a few factors: Yangervis Solarte’s huge start to the season; Mark Teixeira returning to health and (re)establishing himself as the team’s best hitter; and, of course, Masahiro Tanaka emerging as one of the five best pitchers in the game. If we’re being honest, luck has also played a role — the Yankees own the eighth-worst run differential in the game, yet they’re still two games over .500, thanks to a strong record in close games (9-6 in one-run games, 4-2 in extra innings).

But perhaps the biggest reason for the Yankees hanging in the middle of the race with a lousy offense and iffy defense is this: Several young pitchers have been terrific, even beyond Tanaka. The bullpen in particular leads the majors in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk rate, and ranks near the top in park-adjusted and defense-adjusted run prevention. Twenty-six-year-old Dellin Betances might be the most terrifying reliever in the game right now. He’s struck out an absurd 45 percent of the batters he’s faced this year, leaning on a high-90s fastball and a knuckle curve that’s positively nightmare-inducing:

Backing Betances are 26-year-old Adam Warren (2.19 ERA, 36 strikeouts against just 10 walks in 37 innings) and David Robertson, the no-longer-young closer who’s struck out 43.6 percent of the batters he’s faced, holding opposing hitters to a .188 batting average. Betances was once a very promising starting-pitching prospect, and Robertson was one of the league’s best setup men for years before finally claiming the closer job upon Mariano Rivera’s retirement.

The biggest surprise of the bunch, though, has been Chase Whitley. Baseball America didn’t even have Whitley as one of the top 10 prospects in the system coming into this year. Yet Whitley has done a pretty convincing Tim Hudson impression so far. Whitley’s sixth major league start was also his deepest, a 7.2-inning gem that held the Mariners to two runs on five hits and earned the Yankees a win. It was also Whitley’s fourth consecutive start without a walk, something no other Yankees pitcher had done since David Wells in 2003; think about all the excellent starters the Bombers have trotted out over the past decade, then let that factoid sink in.

This might not last. Whitley has feasted on mostly weak offenses, Solarte is now hitting like the low-impact player we expected at the start of the season, and all that late-inning luck might start to dry up before long. But the Yankees could get CC Sabathia back in July, and they have enough prospect depth, and enough of a track record with deadline deals, to suggest that reinforcements could be on the way. With several expected contenders having rough seasons, the door’s open for a second-half run.

I Will Get There

The Royals surge into this eclectic tier of playoff aspirants.

12. Miami Marlins (35-34, +15, LW: 12)
11. Kansas City Royals (37-32, +11, LW: 16)
10. Washington Nationals (35-33, +37, LW: 7)
9. Atlanta Braves (36-33, -5, LW: 8)
8. Los Angeles Dodgers (38-34, +28, LW: 10)
7. St. Louis Cardinals (38-32, +25, LW: 9)

What you make of the Braves’ offense — and by extension the Braves’ chances this season — largely depends on which sample of data you want to use to make your case.

Braves hitters have been getting progressively more strikeout-prone going back to the 2008 season, when they posted the eighth-lowest strikeout rate in the majors. The long-term trends are pretty awful. Via ESPN Stats & Info, here are some numbers that’ll make you weep:

 
That spike in strikeouts has helped fuel a sharp decline in offense. Even acknowledging that part of the drop comes from transitioning from the high-offense era that ended last decade, the trend from 2010 to today in particular has been disturbing:

 
The Braves’ walk rate is down from last season, their on-base percentage is down from last season, and they’re chasing more pitches out of the zone than last season.

 
Add all that up and you get a team that ranks 23rd in park-adjusted offense this season, third-worst in MLB by plain old runs scored.

Now, the better news. If we look at the past two weeks, the Braves still aren’t setting the world on fire … but they’ve been a solidly middle-of-the-pack offensive squad. The easy (and often correct) instinct is to figure that a couple of weeks shouldn’t trump two prior months’ worth of data. But there could be legitimate forces at play here that bode well for the Braves’ offense coming around. Two of the biggest:

• Tommy La Stella has grabbed the starting second-base job from the disappointing Dan Uggla and run with it. It was La Stella’s two-run double Sunday night that gave Atlanta the lead in the sixth inning, propelling the Braves to a 7-3 win over the Angels. La Stella had a perfect night at the plate, reaching base all four times he came up, and hiking his season line to .411/.476/.446. Obviously, 56 at-bats don’t tell us much about a hitter. But La Stella maintained high batting averages and on-base percentages throughout his minor league career, thanks in large part to extremely low strikeout rates. He’s a 180-degree turn from Uggla’s skill set, and that’s almost certainly a good thing.

• Jason Heyward looks like he’s finally snapping out of his nasty early-season slump. His solo homer Sunday night gave him five extra-base hits over the past two weeks, second in the club only to the scorching-hot Evan Gattis. We already know that Heyward is a fantastic defender. But with better plate-discipline numbers across the board, it looks like he’s now starting to recover the power stroke that helped to make him one of the best all-around players in the National League two years ago.

On the run-prevention side, we already know the Braves can dominate, led by 23-year-old phenom Julio Teheran (his most recent start, in the pitchers’ graveyard that is Coors Field, notwithstanding), lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel, and a defense anchored by Heyward and the incomparable Andrelton Simmons. If the offense can become simply respectable from here on out, the Braves will have a good chance to emerge out of a muddled NL East pack.

Doin’ Just Fine

The best of the best, though even this high up, some problems persist.

6. Detroit Tigers (36-30, +5, LW: 5)
5. Los Angeles Angels (37-32, +30, LW: 6)
4. Toronto Blue Jays (41-30, +39, LW: 4)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (42-29, +24, LW: 3)
2. San Francisco Giants (43-27, +54, LW: 1)
1. Oakland A’s (42-28, +126, LW: 2)

The week didn’t end the way anyone hoped, with the Angels blowing a 3-0 lead Sunday night, thus dropping two out of three to the Braves. But even with that setback, they’ve won seven of their past 12 games, sitting with the seventh-best record in baseball. We are now seeing, all too clearly, what a fully healthy Halos team can do.

The biggest recent boost has come from Josh Hamilton. The slugging outfielder missed nearly two months with a torn UCL in his thumb. That injury, combined with his ugly .250/.307/.432 line last year (which followed a 43-homer onslaught in 2012), led to major pessimism over what he might do once healthy. So far, so great — Hamilton banged out two more hits Sunday, hiking his season line to .351/.425/.532 through 20 games. His .429 batting average on balls in play isn’t sustainable, which means that .351 average might not last. Still, Hamilton’s roping more line drives than ever before and walking more than ever before, which could make him a deadly threat if he recoups some of that 2012 power. Per ESPN Stats & Info:

 
Combine Hamilton’s return with strong numbers from Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar up the middle, Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger behind the plate, Mike Trout’s usual dominance, and Albert Pujols reborn as a combination of massive power and so-so OBP, and you have one of the league’s most loaded lineups.

The rotation looks excellent too. Some more nuggets from ESPN Stats & Info:

 
Unfortunately, the Angels have the same problem that plagued them when we covered the team five weeks ago. Here’s what we wrote at the time:

Ernesto Frieri has returned to claim the role of co-closer after losing his job to Joe Smith a couple of weeks ago. But while Frieri pitched a perfect ninth on Friday night to save a 4-3 win, Smith suddenly looks shaky, blowing the lead in the eighth on Friday, then allowing two hits in the ninth on Saturday and nearly blowing a four-run lead but for a dazzling play at third by John McDonald and a nifty, game-ending double play started by Smith himself. The Angels own the seventh-worst bullpen in the majors this year by fielding-independent numbers, and that trend has persisted for years, with the Halos ranking ahead of only the sad-sack Cubs and Astros in bullpen performance since the start of the 2010 season.

Not much has changed since. Frieri melted down Saturday, allowing four runs on five hits without recording a single out, nearly causing the Angels to get swept. The Halos hoped that Cam Bedrosian, a 22-year-old right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and power slider, would help patch the pen; he has also struggled, posting a 10.13 ERA through his first five major league appearances. At this point, you could argue that the Angels’ bullpen has been the worst in baseball this year. The imminent return of Tyler Skaggs could move promising righty Matt Shoemaker to the pen, which could help.

Still, relief pitchers are the easiest and cheapest commodity to acquire at the deadline. So if you want to bet on anything happening over the next six weeks, wager on the Angels and Tigers getting into a bullpen arms race. As for betting on anything else in this crazy season, best to keep your money in your wallet.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, Masahiro Tanaka

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