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The 30: Reply Hazy; Try Again

Four teams, four glaring questions. Can the Dodgers, Tigers, Pirates, and Cubs find the answers in time?

At this point in the season, most teams should have figured it out. The elite teams should be cruising toward the postseason; the upper-middle-class teams should have their rosters set as they make a playoff push; the squads in the next tier down should be thinking about how to avoid another .500-ish finish next year; and the clubs at the bottom should have a pretty good idea of which players they’ll use to build a winner in the future.

Only, that’s not the case for this week’s four featured teams. The Dodgers have lots of big-name stars, but half of their infield looks highly suspect. The Tigers also boast plenty of elite talent, but they’ve struggled to close out games, and they suddenly have serious starting pitching issues and even some problems on offense. The Pirates looked primed to make a charge, but a recent seven-game losing streak rekindled questions about their lack of activity at the deadline. And the Cubs have seen two unheralded pitchers come out of nowhere, creating a pleasant if unexpected dilemma on the North Side.

In these times of uncertainty, it’s always smart to maintain a sense of humor:

david-ortiz-laugh

And if your nerves get jangled, reach for support from old friends:

david-price-hug

It’s Week 21 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

It doesn’t get any better than when a hitter gleefully flips his bat, only to look like a fool seconds later when a defender catchers the ball. This week, we present the pinnacle of premature bat-flippery … in the Little League World Series:

The Rebuilders

As these teams look ahead to 2015, new faces start to see more playing time.

30. Colorado Rockies (52-77, -73 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Texas Rangers (50-79, -139, LW: 29)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (55-76, -97, LW: 27)
27. Houston Astros (55-76, -87, LW: 28)
26. Boston Red Sox (56-74, -74, LW: 23)
25. Chicago Cubs (58-72, -46, LW: 26)
24. Philadelphia Phillies (58-72, -71, LW: 25)
23. Minnesota Twins (58-72, -36, LW: 24)
22. Chicago White Sox (59-71, -72, LW: 22)
21. New York Mets (61-70, -7, LW: 20)
20. San Diego Padres (60-69, -14, LW: 21)
19. Cincinnati Reds (63-68, +6, LW: 19)

As Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli recently wrote, the Cubs have turned typical rebuilding strategy on its head, developing hitters and picking pitchers off the scrap heap, rather than obsessing over the “pitching wins championships” mantra. As Rany noted, Jake Arrieta has been the poster child for this approach, flashing a tidy 2.53 ERA1 with 127 strikeouts and just five homers allowed in 124.1 innings. While the Cubs reportedly bid on Masahiro Tanaka in the offseason and may well pursue some of the bigger pitching names on the free-agent market this winter, finding more Arrietas would be a cheap and hugely welcome development for a team swimming in talented young hitters but potentially lacking front-line arms.

If the early returns are any indication, the Cubs might’ve stumbled on two more of them in Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada.

Baseball America didn’t list Hendricks among the Cubs’ top 10 prospects entering the season, but the rookie right-hander still had some prospect luster, and Baseball America declared that Hendricks owned both the best changeup and best control of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system. Through eight big league starts, Hendricks has been outstanding, flashing a 1.78 ERA in 50.2 innings. Two of the biggest secrets to his success: (1) that devastating changeup, which has limited opposing hitters to a .125 batting average and .225 slugging average, and (2) excellent control, with Hendricks posting a 5.6 percent walk rate that compares favorably to known control artists like Adam Wainwright. Hendricks knows how to locate his pitches, too. As this heat map shows,2 he’s especially adept at throwing his sinker and change down and away to left-handed batters, which will serve him well if he can keep it up:

kyle-hendricks-heat-map-tri 2

We’re a long way from knowing if this will last, of course. Hendricks has posted weak strikeout rates throughout his professional career, eight MLB starts is a very small sample size, and it’s fair to wonder how long his batted-ball luck (a .252 batting average on balls in play that would rank as the third lowest in the league if Hendricks qualified, but with subpar hard hit average, per ESPN) will continue. With tidy control but so many balls in play allowed, Hendricks’s fate might rest in large part with how well all those great hitting prospects catch the ball once they reach The Show. Still, he’s 24 years old, he’s off to a strong start, and he’s under team control through 2019. Not bad.

Wada likely has less long-term potential due to his age. He’s 33 years old, and he’s taken a long road to get here. He was one of the best pitchers in Nippon Professional Baseball, striking out 1,329 batters in 1,444.2 innings with a 3.13 ERA during nine seasons in Japan before signing a two-year deal to pitch for the Orioles starting in 2012. Tommy John surgery prevented him from ever pitching in Baltimore, so the Cubs scooped him up on a minor league deal this offseason. After an impressive performance at Triple-A Iowa (120 strikeouts and just 28 walks in 113.2 innings, with a 2.77 ERA), Wada made his major league debut on July 8.

He’s befuddled hitters ever since, including allowing just one hit against the Orioles on Sunday. Wada is a finesse pitcher with a four-seam fastball that barely averages 90 mph, but he throws that heater just 37 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball. The rest of his repertoire consists of a series of deceiving and progressively slower pitches (sinker, slider, splitter, curve), which all have serious movement, and which he sequences in a way that’s fooled big league hitters so far: They’re batting .218 with a .271 OBP against Wada through his first eight starts, netting a 2.56 ERA.

Beyond his iffy velocity and the generally tenuous potential success of a pitcher who relies primarily on deception, Wada’s age and contract status3 raise doubts about the Cubs’ ability to wring ample long-term value out of him. But for now he’s fun to watch, and he represents the kind of pitcher the Cubs are looking to snag for pennies on the dollar in the hope that they can produce like multimillionaires.

The Outsiders

A few of these teams remain in the hunt, but will need big closing tickets to make it happen.

18. Miami Marlins (64-65, -22, LW: 18)
17. Tampa Bay Rays (64-66 +24, LW: 17)
16. Toronto Blue Jays (66-64, 0, LW: 14)
15. Cleveland Indians (66-63, +16, LW: 16)
14. Pittsburgh Pirates (67-63, +7, LW: 12)
13. New York Yankees (67-61, -34, LW: 15)
12. Atlanta Braves (68-63, +21, LW: 13)

The easiest explanation isn’t always the right one. For example: Amid Oakland’s recent losing streak, many resorted to blaming the team’s sudden woes on Yoenis Cespedes’s departure, but as I wrote in last week’s edition of The 30, the bigger culprits were an injury and a slump for Coco Crisp; a punchless middle infield further depleted by Jed Lowrie’s DL stint; and Sonny Gray hitting a potential wall in his first full big league season.

The Pirates now present a similar analytical dilemma: Pittsburgh went 5-9 with Andrew McCutchen out of the lineup for much of August, so it’s reasonable to assume that losing the defending MVP to a 15-day DL stint caused that ill-timed slump, especially with cleanup hitter Neil Walker making just one start from August 2 to August 14 and young slugger Gregory Polanco falling into the offensive abyss. (The Pirates demoted Polanco on Monday morning.)

Unless McCutchen has the magical ability to influence the pitching staff, however, that theory is off base. Over the past 14 days, Pirates batters hit a respectable .245/.306/.437; adjust for park effects and that’s good for a 110 wRC+, meaning the office was 10 percent better than league average during that time, the seventh-best mark in the majors. Meanwhile, Pirates pitchers posted a 4.43 ERA during that same period, 23rd in MLB. Strip out credit for the Buccos’ highly regarded defense — particularly their creative shifts — and they’ve delivered a 4.24 FIP that ranks just 27th over that span.

It’s easy to dismiss stats in such small samples, but starting pitching has been the Pirates’ biggest weakness all season. Yet the Bucs haven’t addressed that weakness, either because they have faith in their ability to wring positive results out of mediocre pitchers and to prevent runs with their defense, or because they simply aren’t keen on spending money.

Take Vance Worley. In his first nine starts this season, the 26-year-old right-hander flashed a 2.08 ERA, with just 53 hits, 10 walks, and three home runs allowed in 60.2 innings. In his three most recent starts, though, opposing hitters have belted him for 15 runs on 30 hits. Again, sample-size rules would suggest we downplay these recent outings and focus on the nine before … except this is Vance Worley, the pitcher who’s on his third major league team in just his fifth season, who’s coming off a year with the Twins in which he allowed 43 runs and 82 hits in 48.2 innings, and who’s one of just 21 NL pitchers with as many innings pitched who throws an average fastball below 90 mph (only in his case, without the wipeout secondary stuff and extraordinary command that allows fellow soft-tossers like Tim Hudson and Doug Fister to be successful).

Pitching coach Ray Searage & Co. deserve plenty of credit for wringing even this much out of Worley and other marginally talented pitchers like Edinson Volquez and Jeff Locke, who’ve pitched better than ever before for much of this season. But as I wrote last month, just because you keep hitting on 17 and striking blackjack doesn’t mean you should expect that good fortune to continue.

To make another Oakland comparison: The similarly low-budget A’s had been riding incredible performances from pitchers like Gray, Jesse Chavez, and Tommy Milone to the team’s best-in-baseball record, but they knew those big results probably weren’t sustainable — in Gray’s case because he might wear down, and in Chavez’s and Milone’s because they’re just not all that good. So rather than trying to beat the house with so-so hands for the rest of the season, the A’s went out and got Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Jon Lester.

The Pirates didn’t do anything like that. They might still get away with it, though those odds took a hit this past week when Charlie Morton, another over-performing fourth-start type, hit the DL with a hip injury. They’ve got McCutchen, Walker, and Gerrit Cole back, and they rebounded from that seven-game losing streak by taking the weekend series from the first-place Brewers. On the other hand, after looking primed to potentially overtake Milwaukee just two and a half weeks ago, they’re now in third place in the NL Central and stuck behind two other teams in the race for the second wild-card spot.

The Pirates still have five weeks left to make another thrilling run to the playoffs. They have one week left to bring in pitching reinforcements before the waiver deadline. And they might have a whole offseason to wish they’d done something more, or sooner.

And Then There Were Three

Rising and falling teams thin out the ranks of baseball’s almost-top crust.

11. San Francisco Giants (68-61, +31, LW: 11)
10. St. Louis Cardinals (70-59, -8, LW: 10)
9. Detroit Tigers (70-59, +30, LW: 9)

The Tigers’ bullpen woes are nothing new. Closer Joe Nathan has put up a 5.36 ERA, and he’s been so bad that fans at Comerica Park have started booing him, prompting the normally reserved 39-year-old righty to gesture an “eff you” to the crowd. It got so bad that the Tigers decided human gas can Jim Johnson was worth a shot, and he’s promptly allowed seven runs in his first four innings in Detroit. The hope is that Joakim Soria comes off the disabled list this week (possibly as soon as today) and helps address a season-long weakness. Given that we’re talking about one of the worst bullpens in the majors this year, I’ll believe it when I see it.

The leaky pen isn’t the only reason the Tigers have gone from apparent shoo-ins to win a fourth consecutive division title to looking up at even the second wild-card team, however. For that they can thank two setbacks few would have expected a year ago: starting pitching issues and a punchless Miguel Cabrera.

On Friday, the Twins strafed Detroit pitchers for 20 runs, the most by any team this season. They followed with 12 more in the first half of Saturday’s doubleheader. Though the Tigers rallied to win two and salvage a series split, the 42 runs they allowed over four games marked their highest total during any four-game period in 20 years.

Rookie lefty Robbie Ray took the beating on Friday, surrendering six runs in 1.1 innings, taking the Tigers out of the game early and taxing that already undermanned bullpen. Fellow rookie starter Buck Farmer also lasted just 1.1 innings the next day, serving up a seven-spot. Saturday’s doubleheader, combined with another impending twin bill this coming Saturday, has the Tigers digging deep for starters; they’ve yet to name Thursday’s starter, but it could be rookie Kyle Lobstein, who’s thrown only 5.2 innings in the majors so far after posting mediocre numbers at Triple-A this year. A tough schedule and a chest injury to Anibal Sanchez have severely thinned out Detroit’s pitching depth, and it hasn’t helped that Justin Verlander has gone from Cy Young winner to owner of the second-highest ERA of any AL starter, or that the club gave away Doug Fister to the Nats this offseason for reasons that make less sense with each passing day. A rotation that was recently one the league’s strongest, and appeared to get even stronger by adding former Cy Young winner David Price at the trade deadline, now looks far too shaky.

Meanwhile, a passel of injuries has turned Cabrera into a far lesser version of the world-beater we’re used to seeing. Over his past 21 games, Miggy has hit exactly zero home runs while slugging a measly .342. Cabrera has blamed offseason groin surgery and his slow recovery from the procedure for his relatively pedestrian power numbers this year.4 Now Cabrera is also dealing with an ankle injury, which knocked him out of Sunday’s lineup. Even a diminished Cabrera is still a major asset: Despite his power drying up, he posted a gaudy .404 OBP during that 21-game stretch. If the bullpen’s going to keep struggling and the rotation’s going to get ugly two out of every five days, however, the Tigers’ climb back to October might be a steep one indeed.

The obvious solution is to acquire reinforcements, and with pitchers like Bartolo Colon, Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, and others reportedly hitting the waiver wire, there’s at least a smattering of decent talent out there. But the Tigers could face a tricky dilemma as August winds down: They’re at risk of getting sniped on the waiver wire by teams with inferior records.5 Admittedly, that still beats the alternative of seeing their record erode to the point where their waiver priority goes up, but their playoff chances go down. For a team that had serious World Series aspirations coming into this season, though, missing the postseason for the first time in four years is becoming a very real, and very jarring, possibility.

National Treasures

The dudes from D.C. move into our top spot for the first time this season.

8. Milwaukee Brewers (72-58, +33, LW: 5)
7. Seattle Mariners (71-58, +106, LW: 8)
6. Kansas City Royals (72-57, +35, LW: 7)
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (74-58, +49, LW: 6)
4. Baltimore Orioles (73-55, +56, LW: 4)
3. Los Angeles Angels (77-52, +99, LW: 1)
2. Oakland A’s (76-53, +160, LW: 2)
1. Washington Nationals (75-54, +107, LW: 3)

The Dodgers look like another contender facing significant starting pitching problems. After all, they’ve had journeyman right-hander Kevin Correia occupying the no. 5 slot in the rotation for the past two weeks. To no one’s surprise, Correia has been awful, allowing 12 runs and 19 hits over 14 innings in his three starts with L.A. The good news is that Hyun-Jin Ryu is expected back from the disabled list this week and should make his next scheduled start, sending Correia to the bullpen and moving the Dodgers one step closer to getting their rotation back to full strength for the postseason.

Another player just back from the DL is the bigger concern: Hanley Ramirez returned to the lineup on Sunday and played terribly, reigniting a problem that’s plagued the Dodgers for much of the season, and raising serious questions about what the team should do with Ramirez in particular and the shortstop position in general going forward.

Now, it might seem odd to call Ramirez’s return a problem. His replacement, Miguel Rojas, is hitting .205/.265/.254, which is worse than Zack Greinke’s career batting line. Meanwhile, Ramirez is a middle-of-the-order hitter batting .274/.363/.450, tops among all big league shortstops with as many times at bat. The Dodgers are certainly better off overall when Ramirez is in the lineup than when he isn’t.

That said, Ramirez’s bat doesn’t change the fact that his qualifications as a shortstop begin and end with his ability to stand in the proper place in the infield and avoid getting sucked into the Earth’s molten core. Ramirez ranks last in the NL in prorated Defensive Runs Saved, having cost his team 18 runs compared with the average full-time NL shortstop. While errors and fielding percentage can be misleading stats, since they fail to account for a fielder’s range or the difficulty of his defensive chances, Ramirez’s 12 errors in 90 games at short certainly don’t look good, and by all accounts, he should have added another error or two to that total on Sunday:

Ramirez’s second problem is durability. He’s appeared in just 187 games since the start of last season, and he’s played 101 or fewer games in three of the past four years; in many of the games he did play, he was at far less than 100 percent while nursing injuries. Utility infielder Justin Turner has been a godsend for the Dodgers this year while filling in for Juan Uribe at third, but he’s also a defensive liability at short. If the Dodgers decide Dee Gordon belongs at second base for good, it means they don’t have a major league–caliber defensive shortstop on the roster, whether Ramirez is in the lineup or not.

With a 4.5-game lead in the NL West and a roster laden with stars like Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers might be able to overcome that weakness this year. But with those holes in Ramirez’s game, his speed and mobility eroding with age, and his 31st birthday coming up in December, even the bottomless-pocketed Dodgers might have to think twice about giving him a lucrative new contract when he becomes a free agent. Whether or not it winds up being the Dodgers, whichever team signs Ramirez this winter should give serious thought to playing him somewhere other than short.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Baseball, MLB Stats, MLB Playoffs, 2014 MLB Playoffs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Hanley Ramirez, Detroit Tigers, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, Chicago Cubs, Bullpens, Pitching, 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

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