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The 30: Change Begets Change

The Tigers have changed for the better; which four teams have changed for the worse?

No matter how much we watch, study, and obsess over baseball, the game will still make us look like fools. That’s because for all of its hidebound ways, baseball is ultimately propelled by change. We might think we know which teams are going to win and which players are going to dominate, but injuries, erratic performances, sudden collapses, and more make the sport impossible to consistently predict.

In the spirit of acknowledging that reality, this week’s column will highlight five teams that have experienced major changes from 2013 to ’14. In four of those cases, 180-degree turns have led to disappointing results. In the other, a perennially successful team is finding a new way to win. Of course, three-quarters of the season remains, which is more than enough time for more changes … and more revised rankings.

It’s Week 7 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

This week’s honoree is third baseman Yangervis Solarte, who’s emerged as a bat-flipping expert as well as the Yankees’ infield savior. That part of the roster looked like it would be the team’s undoing this preseason, but it’s been far better than expected thanks largely to Solarte, a minor league journeyman with no former prospect status who became New York’s default option when the Bombers failed to plug their infield holes with marquee names this spring. He’s been a godsend, ripping line drives and flashing an elite batting eye.

He’s also been a character: After drawing yet another walk on Wednesday against the Mets, Solarte celebrated with the best helicopter flip we’ve seen this season:

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For those watching at home, dancing is encouraged:

dancing

Though we’d recommend you keep your voices to a whisper:

And try to figure out how the other half lives:

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Down Low

Thin silver linings and very dark clouds.

30. Houston Astros (16-28 record, -53 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Arizona Diamondbacks (18-28, -60, LW: 28)
28. Chicago Cubs (15-27, -3, LW: 29)
27. Philadelphia Phillies (19-22, -21, LW: 27)
26. San Diego Padres (21-24, -23, LW: 26)

When the Diamondbacks announced Saturday that they’d hired Tony La Russa as their new chief baseball officer, a position that outranks general manager and executive vice-president Kevin Towers, it was possible to interpret the news a few ways.

The most charitable option was to assume that the D-backs simply knew they needed to do something. Even after taking staff ace Patrick Corbin’s season-ending injury into account, Arizona has been a colossal disappointment, posting the second-worst record in the National League and the worst run differential in baseball, allowing more runs than any other team. Any squad playing that poorly would want a new set of eyes, and La Russa, who’s widely regarded as one of the greatest managers and keenest minds the game has seen in decades, would seem to be a great choice.

The least charitable option? Well:

Here’s what we know: La Russa will oversee the entire baseball operations department, which means he’ll evaluate Towers, manager Kirk Gibson, and everyone else, then report to team president and CEO Derrick Hall. At this point, it would be an upset if both Towers and Gibson make it through this season, and a major upset if they return next year.

Beyond that, there’s also the possibility of an on-field shake-up. If the Diamondbacks make him available, second baseman Aaron Hill would immediately become one of the most valuable commodities on the trade market. Hill, who signed an extension last February, is in the first season of a three-year deal that has him making $11 million this year and $12 million in both 2015 and 2016. While advanced metrics no longer love the 32-year-old former Gold Glove-caliber player, he remains a perfectly viable option at the deuce, capable of turning in spectacular plays and ranking among the best-hitting second basemen in the majors. There’s a long list of contending teams with holes at second base, including Solarte’s Yankees, the A’s, and Hill’s former team, the Blue Jays.

Hill won’t be the only sought-after D-back if Arizona decides to reload by trading veterans for prospects, though. Brandon McCarthy is in the walk year of a two-year deal, and the 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, 54.1 percent ground ball rate, and extra oomph on his sinker that he’s showing this year belie his inflated ERA. Martin Prado has two-plus years left on his long-term contract, and while that looks ugly right now, we’ve seen him shake off horrific slumps before to bounce back strong; if the Snakes agree to pay part of his remaining salary, Prado could be a worthwhile add. Bronson Arroyo is a capable innings-eater who could fill the back of a contender’s rotation for a semi-reasonable price. And Cody Ross can really flip a bat.

It’s clear that Arizona’s “grit” experiment is about to come to an end. The only question is what approach La Russa will take instead. Regardless, he’s clearly already having an impact:

Keep Me Hanging On

Plenty of would-be contenders are languishing in this tier, hoping for better days ahead.

25. Pittsburgh Pirates (18-25, -18, LW: 22)
24. Tampa Bay Rays (19-26, -22, LW: 24)
23. New York Mets (20-23, -9, LW: 23)
22. Cleveland Indians (19-25, -29, LW: 21)
21. Chicago White Sox (21-24, -11, LW: 18)
20. Seattle Mariners (21-22, +7, LW: 17)
19. Kansas City Royals (22-21, +3, LW: 20)
18. Minnesota Twins (21-21, -13, LW: 25)

What the hell happened to Danny Salazar? Did those of us who drool over prospects overreact to his 10 terrific 2013 starts? Is Triple-A his new 2014 reality, or merely a bump in the road for an immensely talented pitcher who’s bound to bounce back soon?

The answer could determine quite a bit for the Indians. Opponents hit .301 while slugging .521 off Salazar in his eight 2014 starts before Friday’s demotion; those numbers stood at .226 and .374, respectively, during last year’s sparkling stretch. A big part of that gap stems from a corresponding 68-point jump in his batting average on balls in play allowed, which was up to a sky-high .369 this year. And while Salazar once again ranked among the league leaders in strikeout rate, he wasn’t fooling nearly as many batters this year, inducing fewer swings on pitches out of the strike zone and fewer swings and misses. Per ESPN’s TruMedia system, opposing batters hit more line drives off Salazar this year than last (27.7 percent versus 25.2 percent), with a higher percentage of what TruMedia classifies as “well-hit” balls (15.3 percent versus 11.3 percent). Salazar also lost a mile and a half off his formerly 97 mph four-seam fastball between seasons, which helps explain the big spike in line drives he surrendered off that pitch in 2014.

The breakout many expected Salazar to deliver has instead come from Corey Kluber, another right-hander with excellent peripheral numbers who, unlike Salazar, had yet to deliver the low ERA to match. Though Kluber has chopped his ERA from 3.85 in 2013 to 3.38 this year, even that doesn’t tell the full story of his terrific season. Going by fielding independent pitching, which focuses on events (like strikeouts, walks, and home runs) that are more within a pitcher’s control than the defense’s, Kluber ranks third among qualified starters, trailing only Jon Lester and Jose Fernandez. Cleveland’s offense has also come alive, ranking second among AL teams in May by park-adjusted metrics.

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Still, the Tribe are way off last year’s 92-win pace. In some cases, there’s reason to believe things will improve: Jason Kipnis might return from the disabled list as soon as this week, while early slumpers Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher won’t remain this bad for much longer. In many ways, though, the story of the 2014 Indians boils down to two disappointments: Salazar and atrocious team defense. By Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved stat, the Indians have been the worst defensive team in baseball by far; they’ve essentially handed 40 runs to the opposition just by failing to catch the ball.

Fixing the defense would likely give the Indians a bigger lift than merely straightening out one pitcher would. Plus, many of Salazar’s problems have been self-inflicted. Of course, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. Cleveland is on a quest to return its would-be phenom to 2013 form, and getting better glove work from Swisher, Kipnis, Michael Bourn, and other defensive laggards certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Walking Wounded

Injuries are threatening to derail these talented teams’ seasons.

17. Texas Rangers (21-23, -33, LW: 15)
16. Cincinnati Reds (19-23, -4, LW: 16)
15. Miami Marlins (23-22, +20, LW: 14)

The Marlins have lost Fernandez, which could torpedo what was shaping up to be a thrilling season in Miami. The Rangers knew entering the year that they’d have to deal with a litany of injuries, but Tommy John surgery for Martin Perez and a career-threatening back injury for Matt Harrison have further decimated Texas’s rotation, thrusting the team’s 2014 fortunes into doubt.1

The Reds haven’t suffered that one fatal blow, but they’re well on their way to death by a thousand cuts.

The latest setback involves Joey Votto. The former MVP first baseman has seen his production trail off the past couple of years, with weaker power numbers and (some) struggles with runners in scoring position. But even a lesser version of Votto is still instrumental to the Reds’ chances, which is why the quadriceps injury he suffered last week is so scary. We’re still waiting to hear if the ailment will send him to the disabled list, but whether he hits the shelf or tries to gut his way through the pain, the Reds’ lineup will suffer.

And that lineup has already suffered plenty, ranking just 24th in park-adjusted offense, down from 15th last year, when the team was healthier and had an OBP machine atop the order in Shin-Soo Choo. This year? Jay Bruce tore the meniscus in his left knee and could be out until June, while Devin Mesoraco missed three weeks with a wonky hamstring. The pitching has hardly been exempt, with Mat Latos yet to start following an offseason knee injury, Aroldis Chapman missing six weeks after taking a line drive to the face, and Tony Cingrani hitting the DL with shoulder inflammation.

Mercifully for the Reds, there’s been some good news too. Mesoraco returned on Friday, and has gone 5-for-7 with a homer and four RBIs since.

Cingrani is also back, and though he gave up three homers in his return Sunday, he’s pitching again and could give the rotation a big lift once he shakes off the rust. And then there’s Johnny Cueto, who’s been unhittable this year while posting a 1.25 ERA and becoming the first pitcher in a century to begin a season with nine consecutive starts of seven or more innings pitched and two runs or fewer allowed. If Votto and Bruce can make it back to full health in the next couple of weeks and Latos can return as hoped around June 1, the Reds would go back to having one of the most talented teams in the league, much as they did last year when they claimed a wild-card spot.

At that point, the question would become whether they’ve already dug themselves too big of a hole. The Brewers have a seven-game lead over the Reds in the NL Central, while fellow division foe St. Louis has started to snap out of its early funk. In the wild-card race, it looks like the Reds will have to deal with surprise contenders like the Rockies. If Cincinnati plans to extend a middle finger to the rest of the National League, it needs to get all hands back on deck, and quickly.

E7ziste

AL East and Friends

Four-fifths of one division, plus other promising squads on the cusp.

14. Boston Red Sox (20-23, -12, LW: 13)
13. Toronto Blue Jays (23-22, +7, LW: 19)
12. Baltimore Orioles (22-20, -8, LW: 9)
11. Los Angeles Dodgers (23-22, -3, LW: 7)
10. Washington Nationals (23-20, +3, LW: 10)
9. New York Yankees (23-20, -8, LW: 11)
8. Atlanta Braves (23-19, +1, LW: 5)
7. St. Louis Cardinals (23-21, +11, LW: 12)

Of the five teams profiled this week, the Cardinals’ shift in fortunes might be the easiest to explain. In 2013, they were clutch-hitting wizards, leading the majors by batting .330/.402/.463 with runners in scoring position. In 2014, they’ve been clutch-hitting disasters, batting .236/.316/.337 with RISP, 26th in baseball.

Which performance is real, and which is the mirage? Are the Cardinals clutch-hitting demigods suffering through a small slump that will soon abate, or should we expect their rallies to continue dying on the vine, leaving the Cards with one of the top pitching staffs in baseball (again), but without the situational firepower to support another playoff run?

Unfortunately for St. Louis, it’s likely that last year’s RISP performance was a massive outlier. In 2013, the Cardinals posted a .377 batting average on balls in play with runners in scoring position, the best result in those situations since the stat was introduced in 2002.2 Though the Cards fared well in general when they put the ball in play, their overall .314 BABIP wasn’t anywhere near historic, ranking behind three other teams last year. So either everyone on the roster gained supernatural powers for hit placement in RBI opportunities, or St. Louis benefited from an incredible, season-long run of luck. It’s almost certainly the latter. With largely the same cast from last year, the Cardinals are hitting .276 on balls in play with RISP this year, a decidedly middle-of-the-pack result.

allen-craig-fe

The good news is that some of St. Louis’s individual 2014 hitting performances look likely to improve as the year goes on. Allen Craig probably isn’t going to hit .226/.281/.354 all season, even if we can safely rule out him ever again hitting .454 with runners in scoring position, as he did last year. And Matt Adams has too much power to keep up this two-homers-in-43-games pace, though his .309 batting average also looks like a fluke … on the high side.

Speaking of Adams’s home run drought, the Cards’ exceptional results in “clutch” situations last year hid a real weakness: a lack of power. St. Louis finished 27th in homers last year, and this season’s Carlos Beltran–less edition ranks just 29th. Matt Carpenter had 73 extra-base hits last year, but just eight so far this season.

This team will need to ride the arms of Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, & Co.,3 and then hope for a few breaks. Because barring an extremely unlikely turn of events, the Cardinals won’t field an elite offense in 2014.

They’re Greeeeeat!

The best of the best at the quarter-way mark.

6. Colorado Rockies (25-20, +51, LW: 6)
5. Los Angeles Angels (24-19, +40, LW: 8)
4. Milwaukee Brewers (27-17, +10, LW: 3)
3. San Francisco Giants (28-17, +27, LW: 2)
2. Oakland A’s (28-16, +95, LW: 4)
1. Detroit Tigers (27-12, +55, LW: 1)

From the moment they made their blockbuster trade weeks before the winter meetings, the Tigers announced to the baseball world that they weren’t going to settle for the same one-dimensional attack that got them to the playoffs the last three years, but with disappointing October results.

The experiment has worked, in multiple ways. Adding Ian Kinsler gave Detroit a second baseman with speed, some pop, a solid glove, and elite contact-hitting ability. The move that had an even more dramatic impact on the roster’s complexion, though, cost a lot less than Prince Fielder. By signing Rajai Davis to a two-year, $10 million deal in December, the Tigers landed something they haven’t had in years: an elite base stealer who does enough other things well to be a lineup regular, or at least a semi-regular.

Thanks in large part to Kinsler and Davis, the Tigers have gone from last in steals in 2013 to second this season. But as Buster Olney wrote on Sunday — right before the Tigers completed their first sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway since 1983 — Detroit has improved in many other ways as well. Rick Porcello has become an elite control pitcher; Alex Avila has helped curb other teams’ running game, with the Tigers throwing out baseball’s fifth-highest percentage of would-be base stealers; and the Tigers’ improved speed has translated to better overall baserunning numbers, in another case of worst to much better.

Despite all of that improvement, not everyone would expect the Tigers to have baseball’s best record a quarter through the season, with Miguel Cabrera down from his recent offensive norms4 and Justin Verlander not looking like the Verlander of old. For that, they can thank Victor Martinez. Well, and these outfits:

On May 5, one of baseball’s quietly incredible streaks came to an end, as Martinez struck out looking for the first time in 155 games.5 Though that stretch ended, Martinez’s overall numbers remain eye-popping, as he’s hitting .331/.378/.595 with more home runs (10) than strikeouts (9). With MLB currently on pace for its eighth consecutive season of record strikeout totals, that’s simply not something we should expect to see today. Hell, we’d have to go back decades to find a small number of hitters who could pull off the feat with any regularity. Joe DiMaggio did it seven times in his illustrious career, and when a player is putting up the kinds of numbers that have people bringing up the Yankee Clipper, he’s doing pretty … prettaaaaaay well.

What the Tigers have now is a team that can beat the opposition with power hitting, contact hitting, speed, and a deep starting rotation. What’s more, they’re leveraging their newfound speed and athleticism into some downright competent defensive play, a massive change from the group of statues that played terrible D last year by just about any advanced stat that exists. The Tigers are currently listed in Vegas and on many online betting sites as the favorites to win the World Series. While it’s still incredibly early, and while this team and this season could change in countless ways over the next five months, it’s tough to find a better bet than the Tigers based on how many ways they can beat the competition. 

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers, Victor Martinez, MLB Stats, Jonah Keri

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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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