Previous Story

Pop Culture

All Features

Next Story

Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated: Coldplay

The 30: Running for Their Lives

We’ve reached the point in the season when run differential can tell us more about a team’s chances than its actual record. So, what can we learn about the Cubs, Mets, Nats, and Angels?

As part of my weekly effort to explain the difference between a true power rankings column and a page that simply ranks teams by record,1 I’ve noted the importance of multiple factors beyond wins and losses.

One of the biggest is roster quality. If a team is winning lots of games with a mediocre group of players, it’s safe to assume that success won’t last; conversely, if a team is struggling but loaded with stars, it’s reasonable to expect that club’s record to improve eventually. Sometimes, major injuries can signal an impending decline; other times, those concerns can abate as the season progresses. Of course, that’s the rub: Roster quality is handy to a point, but it’s possible to be wrong about a team, particularly one stuffed with players poised to break out. It’s a long season, and our spring training talent assessments don’t always hold up, which is why there’s value in reassessing all 30 teams each week.

When it comes to trying to figure out whether hot or cold starts are legit, run differential is one of the handiest tools. It can be unreliable and even misleading very early in the season, when a 10-1 win or 13-2 loss can skew the stats, but at a certain point it becomes an indispensable metric. When? Glad you asked! Just last week, excellent Baseball Prospectus analyst Russell Carleton explored that very question, examining how long it takes until a team’s run differential becomes more than random noise. And while you should read Carleton’s column all the way through,2 I’ll share his conclusion: “Around the 40-game mark — mid-May — run differential starts to be a good predictor of what things will look like at the end of the year.”

Well, it’s May 13, which means we’ve pretty much reached that point of statistical relevance. Since run differential is a better predictor of future results than a team’s actual record, it’s time to start lending more credence to runs scored and runs allowed totals when assessing how good each team is and what its remaining 120-odd games might bring.

So let’s take another swing at the rankings …

While watching out for deadly condiments …

And get right to it …

Well, after introducing our new feature for The 30, that is.

Bat Flip of the Week

When it comes to bat flips, I’m diametrically opposed to Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, and other objectors. I can’t get enough. Why should football, basketball, hockey, and especially soccer fans get to experience joyous bursts of celebratory fun while the slightest show of flair on a baseball diamond comes off as a grave insult to the entire free world?

Eff that. Bat flips deserve to be celebrated, which is why I’m going to spotlight one each week for the rest of the season. In order to select a winner, I’ll consider flip flair, flip length, and flip circumstances. So forget walk-off homers, the rare instance when flips are almost universally accepted; I’m looking to highlight completely unwarranted flipping, like on a productive groundout to second that advances a runner to third.

Our first winner is … Yasiel Puig, who might be baseball’s current flip king. Much respect to this week’s featured flip, which came on a routine lineout to center field:

If you’ve got a candidate for a future Bat Flip of the Week, send it to grantlandfantasy@gmail.com.

And now, it’s Week 6 of The 30.

The Spoilers

These cellar-dwelling (or near-cellar-dwelling) teams are long shots to reach the playoffs, but they can cool off hot teams in a hurry.

30. Houston Astros (12-27 record, -64 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Chicago Cubs (13-24, -4, LW: 29)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (15-26, -64, LW: 28)
27. Philadelphia Phillies (17-19, -30, LW: 26)
26. San Diego Padres (18-21, -23, LW: 25)
25. Minnesota Twins (17-19, -9, LW: 27)

No team has a bigger gap between its expected record (16-20) and its actual record than the Cubs, who have the second-worst winning percentage in baseball despite scoring just four fewer runs than they’ve allowed. Two star performances have fueled those semi-decent underlying numbers.

On the hitting side it’s been Anthony Rizzo, the 24-year-old first baseman who’s showing signs of a big breakout in his fourth big league season. He’s hitting .281/.393/.474 through 37 games, ranking 10th in the NL in on-base percentage and 16th in park-adjusted offense, as measured by wRC+.

Anthony-Rizzo-Hitting-Meatballs-GIF

Not all opponents are throwing Rizzo meatballs, though. Through Sunday night, teams had shifted against Rizzo 247 times since the start of last season, putting him fourth in the NL behind Ryan Howard (326), Adam LaRoche (308), and Pedro Alvarez (290), according to Baseball Info Solutions. Rizzo has suffered accordingly, hitting just .187 on grounders and short liners against the shift since Opening Day 2013.

The good news is that he’s improved dramatically against left-handed pitching, at least in a small sample of 50 plate appearances this year. Check out his progression versus lefties since 2012:

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the biggest difference has come on pitches from lefties on the lower half of the plate. After hitting .196 against those pitches from 2012 to 2013, Rizzo was hitting .417 in 2014 through those 50 plate appearances. Perhaps the best sign for Rizzo’s future, though, has been his increased willingness to not swing at certain pitches.

Meanwhile, on the pitching side it’s been Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs’ de facto ace and the topic of many offseason trade rumors. Despite still toiling away at Wrigley, Samardzija ranks second in the league in ERA, has traded his usually high strikeout totals for better control, and has one of the highest ground ball rates and lowest home run rates in the league. Thanks to yet another season of atrocious run support, however, Samardzija remains winless on the year.

With Rizzo and Samardzija performing as well as they have been, and with Starlin Castro and a few other players improving considerably since last year, the Cubs’ terrible record might look a little perplexing. The offense as a whole isn’t very good, with only four teams scoring fewer runs, but the rotation has been surprisingly strong, and certainly strong enough to bring us back to a run differential that suggests a mediocre but not awful team.

It turns out the discrepancy lies in close games, as the Cubs have gone just 2-7 in one-run games this season and 1-4 in extra-inning contests. Blame a combination of lousy bullpen performances and atrocious hitting late in games, two factors that could stem from a lack of talent but could also stem from bad breaks. In all likelihood, the Cubs are probably suffering from a little bit of both.

Early Disappointments

We expected more from many of these .500-ish teams.

24. Tampa Bay Rays (16-23, -17, LW: 16)
23. New York Mets (18-19, -6, LW: 19)
22. Pittsburgh Pirates (16-21, -12, LW: 23)
21. Cleveland Indians (18-20, -13, LW: 21)
20. Kansas City Royals (18-19, 0, LW: 15)
19. Toronto Blue Jays (19-20, +15, LW: 24)
18. Chicago White Sox (19-21, 0, LW: 22)
17. Seattle Mariners (20-18, +8, LW: 20)
16. Cincinnati Reds (17-19, +10, LW: 17)

The Mets would have been a sharper case study for run differential variance a couple of weeks ago, when they’d raced to the NL’s third-best record through 25 games but had scored as many runs as they’d allowed. Things have gone south in a hurry since, with the offense generating just 14 runs last week in six games against the Marlins and Phillies.

Pick any offensive stat and it probably looks bad for the Mets. They’re 27th in batting average, 24th in home runs, and 26th in slugging. In a couple of cases, that’s because of genuinely lousy offensive performances. Eric Young Jr. has no business playing every day for a major league club, which the Mets mercifully seem to have realized now that Juan Lagares is back from the disabled list. Chris Young is a very good defender, but he hasn’t hit above .236 in his last four full seasons, and he’s walking much less than he did in his prime. Travis d’Arnaud is a highly regarded prospect, but this is his first extended run as a starting catcher in the big leagues, so his early struggles aren’t that surprising. And Mets pitchers have exacerbated the team’s offensive woes, going hitless in 63 at-bats to start the season.

Plenty more seems likely to improve. For example, there’s no way David Wright will keep hitting like he’s honoring Rey Ordonez’s legacy.

2013-07-22_David_Wright_hop_skip_jump

His ugly 2014 campaign got a slight boost on Saturday, when he hit his second home run of the year, and that might mark a turning point for his performance. Meanwhile, while Curtis Granderson might be a bit further removed from his peak than Wright is, there’s still no universe in which Granderson hits below the Mendoza Line for much longer. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Granderson ranks 35th among 185 qualified hitters in a stat called Well-Hit Average, which is exactly what you’d think.

The bullpen will continue to cost this team games,3 because that’s usually what happens when a non-contending club fails to make a significant effort to assemble quality relievers. But the Mets have a perfectly respectable (and healthy) starting rotation at their disposal, and the offense is going to improve, no matter how bad it has looked lately.

I said it at the start of the season, and I’ll say it again now: While Mets fans shouldn’t make any playoff plans, this is a team capable of playing .500 ball and giving opponents fits once the big boys start hitting.

Knocking on the Door

With a hot streak, a bit more luck, or a bit more health, some of these teams could crack the top tier.

15. Texas Rangers (20-19, -24, LW: 8)
14. Miami Marlins (20-19, +14, LW: 18)
13. Boston Red Sox (19-18, -4, LW: 13)
12. St. Louis Cardinals (19-20, +3, LW: 9)
11. New York Yankees (19-18, -13, LW: 11)
10. Washington Nationals (20-18, -2, LW: 7)
9. Baltimore Orioles (20-16, -5, LW: 12)

The Nationals are one of just five teams with an above-.500 record and a negative run differential. The simplest way to look at those five squads (the Nats, Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers) is to conclude that luck has fueled their positive records, and that some pullback might be coming. There’s a whole column to be written (possibly soon!) about the weirdness in the AL East alone.

When it comes to the Nats, however, we’ve seen a lot more bad luck than good, giving us reason to expect better things as the season progresses. Much of that ill fortune has stemmed from injuries, as no team has suffered more damaging hits to its lineup.

First, Ryan Zimmerman hit the disabled list with a broken thumb. A cynic would argue that a significant Zimmerman injury was not only unsurprising but also inevitable given his weak health track record. Coming into this season, Zimmerman had already served DL stints for injuries to his left shoulder, abdomen, and thigh. He’s also suffered various setbacks with his right shoulder that have been severe enough to inhibit his ability to throw normally across the diamond. That limitation could land him at first base soon, making the $100 million deal he signed two years ago look like a potential bust.

So, fine, dismiss that injury if you want. But how about Bryce Harper, who tore a thumb ligament on a headfirst slide into third base last month on a play that has sparked waves of coverage and debate? Keith Law blamed Harper’s injury on mismanagement by manager Matt Williams, who benched his young star for lack of hustle, thus possibly causing Harper to go a little harder than he should have. Steve Wulf used the injury as an opportunity to examine the curiously hard and unyielding bases MLB uses, and how sliding headfirst into any of them is a risk players shouldn’t take. Harper missed more than a month last year after slamming his knee into an outfield wall, so it’s fair to say that he posed some health risks entering this year. But that doesn’t change the facts: With apologies to Anthony Rendon (and Kevin Frandsen), Harper is the best young position player on the roster, and one of the best in the league; losing him for any length of time hurts a lot.

The third injury, though, is the one that should convince everyone the Nationals are truly snakebitten. I’m on record for disliking the two-year extension the team gave Adam LaRoche in January 2013, because the deal looked like an overreaction to a late-career spike (33 homers, .510 slugging average) for a decent but not great 32-year-old player who was bound to start declining soon. When LaRoche hit just .237/.332/.403 in 2013, that skepticism seemed justified. But sharply rising salaries, thinning free-agent markets, and a .319/.421/.504 start through LaRoche’s first 32 games this year threatened to serve up a big bowl of Shut the F Up to those who doubted the deal — at least until Saturday, when LaRoche hit the DL with a quad strain. As much as I love Rendon,4 the Nats look a hell of a lot weaker when he’s the no. 3 hitter instead of the no. 6 or 7 guy. And that’s to say nothing of Wilson Ramos occupying the middle of the order and bench-caliber players like Frandsen and Nate McLouth being forced into regular playing time.

Now, the question becomes whether the Nats can stem the tide long enough for their walking wounded to return and push the team to a postseason run. LaRoche is expected back by month’s end, and Zimmerman could return soon after. Harper might not make it back on the field until July, so that’s a tougher pill to swallow. Still, the emergence of Tanner Roark has fortified an already strong pitching staff, and the Nats own one of the best and deepest lineups in the game when everyone’s actually playing.

Like the Rangers in the AL, the Nats can no longer be considered elite while this many top players are sitting on the sidelines. But if you’re looking for a club that could be dangerous in the second half once all hands are back on deck, Washington’s it.

Eight Is Enough

Our top tier is full of surprise successes.

8. Los Angeles Angels (19-18, +28, LW: 14)
7. Los Angeles Dodgers (21-19, +7, LW: 3)
6. Colorado Rockies (23-17, +55, LW: 10)
5. Atlanta Braves (21-16, +7, LW: 6)
4. Oakland A’s (24-15, +62, LW: 5)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (24-14, +13, LW: 4)
2. San Francisco Giants (25-14, +28, LW: 2)
1. Detroit Tigers (22-12, +40, LW: 1)

One could certainly argue that the Angels should rank even higher than this despite their pedestrian record. On the advanced-stats front, they’re fourth in strength of schedule–adjusted run differential, which takes into account both runs scored and runs allowed totals, as well as the quality of a team’s opponents.

On a simpler level, there’s this: Albert Pujols is back, and he’s leading an offense that has been one of baseball’s best despite three key injuries.

We got an inkling of Pujols’s 2014 rebound potential a few weeks ago, when Angels director of baseball operations Justin Hollander told Grantland that the veteran slugger was finally healthy after a miserable, injury-plagued 2013 campaign. Neil Paine covered Pujols’s rediscovered dominance last month, and the slugger has kept the good times rolling since. His power numbers rank right up there with some of his best seasons,5 he’s reversed a two-year trend of rising strikeout rates, and he’s showing more agility than we’ve seen in years.

Pujols isn’t doing it all alone, as he’s getting ample support from an Angels youth movement that’s threatening to stifle all the talk about their awful farm system and poor 25-and-under talent at the major league level. Twenty-four-year-old C.J. Cron, who got the start at first (with Pujols sliding to DH) on Saturday, blasted his first major league home run that night against the Jays, and it was a missile.

Though Cron has looked impressive so far in his rookie season, he still has only 25 plate appearances on his big league résumé, which isn’t nearly enough to allow us to confidently draw any conclusions. Pujols is also getting lots of help from his more established pals. Erick Aybar is hitting .274 with a .418 slugging average, shaking off his rough 2013 campaign. Collin Cowgill has complemented his usual strong defense with some impressive hitting, posting a .306/.412/.431 line. Howie Kendrick is putting up some of the best numbers of his career at .313/.393/.451. And then there’s Mike Trout, who, even after cooling off in May, remains the most valuable player in the AL due to all the ways he helps the Halos win. Having offense come from so many sources has allowed the Angels to shake off injuries to Josh Hamilton, Kole Calhoun, and David Freese, and score more runs per game than any team except the high-flying Rockies and the Jose Abreu–led White Sox.

Meanwhile, the starting rotation has been downright decent, allaying some of the fears built up on Opening Day as the Angels went into the season with untested commodities in Tyler Skaggs, Hector Santiago, and Garrett Richards manning three-fifths of the rotation. The 25-year-old Richards has emerged as the team’s unlikely ace so far this year, carrying a sparkling 2.80 ERA that’s fully supported by his peripheral stats, including a strikeout rate of better than a batter per inning. He’s always had great fastball velocity, firing the fifth-hardest heater among all pitchers with as many innings pitched last year. This season, though, Richards has combined that blazing fastball with one of the most devastating sliders in the league, making him extremely tough to hit. The 22-year-old Skaggs has been more erratic, but he was in total command on Saturday, firing eight innings of four-hit, no-walk ball, and setting down 21 straight Blue Jays at one point. If that’s the kind of pitching the kids are going to deliver from here on out, we need to start taking the Angels seriously as a playoff contender, or more.

Assuming they can fix their bullpen, that is. 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.

Unsurprisingly, the Angels have a horrific 3-8 record in one-run games and figure to be taxed every fifth time through the rotation, with the struggling Santiago demoted to the bullpen and no obvious candidate ready to replace him. There are no monster prospects knocking on the door from the high minors, and GM Jerry Dipoto might (understandably) feel reluctant to dip into the corps of young players the organization has tried to rebuild, lest it relive what it’s like to lose Jean Segura, Patrick Corbin, and other excellent young players in go-for-it deals that didn’t work out as planned.

Then again, with some of the AL’s top teams from recent years looking weaker than expected this season, the Angels might not need to perform major surgery. Especially if the Pujols of old sticks around for five more months. 

This article has been updated to reflect that the Rangers are among the teams with a negative run differential and a winning record.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, Power Rankings, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Angels, MLB Stats, Run Differential, Albert Pujols, David Wright, Anthony Rizzo, Bryce Harper, 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