The 30: When the Road to Failure Comes, Well, on the Road

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Every year, home-field advantage has a tangible effect on baseball games. Historically, the home team wins about 54 percent of the time, the kind of seemingly minute but actually meaningful edge that clubs would love to replicate in as many other areas as possible. Of course, home-field advantage cuts both ways: Every year, several teams play themselves out of contention by performing far worse on the road than what the typical built-in advantage for home teams would suggest.

There are plenty of possible explanations: The rigors of travel might affect some teams more than others; staffs built around young pitchers might struggle in road parks, where everything from different mounds to hostile fans could mess with their heads; and the old standby that anything can happen in a relatively short amount of time might hold true, making separating the signal from the noise on home/road splits a nearly impossible task.

This week’s four featured teams have all played a lot better in their own friendly confines than they have on the road this season. The plummeting Braves own the biggest home/road split in the National League; the White Sox’s always-leaky defense has looked even worse away from the Cell; the loaded Blue Jays have been on fire since their trade deadline shopping spree but still own a sub-.500 road record; and the Orioles’ road losses have prevented them from making headway in the crowded race for the AL’s second wild-card spot … and Baltimore manager Buck Showalter has some thoughts about that.

Home, as ever, is where the heart is. It’s Week 21 of The 30.

Sonic Boom of the Week

Songs, movies, and literature about baseball tend to romanticize the crack of the bat. The sound elicits all kinds of wistful thoughts for fans, who hark back to summer pickup games in the park.

Sluggers like Kyle Schwarber are the reason. On Tuesday night, the Cubs’ rookie phenom came to bat in the third inning with two runners on base. After Giants starter Matt Cain got ahead on a first-pitch changeup down the middle and just above the knees, he threw a slider that ended up in exactly the same location. Schwarber tracked the ball all the way, swung, and pulverized it.

Blasting a ball into the right-center-field bleachers at AT&T Park is impressive enough, since that’s the toughest stadium in which to hit a homer in general, and one of the toughest parts of the park in particular. But the sound of the homer was even more jaw-dropping than the location. Watch the clip once to see how hard Schwarber smashed the ball. Then run it a second time with your eyes closed, using only your ears to absorb the play. The sound produced when Schwarber made contact can’t just be described as “the crack of the bat” — it was an explosion, a boom that carried through the park and out into McCovey Cove.

Youth Is (Not Yet) Served

The Braves’ young pitchers have struggled this season, sparking lots of losses on the road.

30. Miami Marlins (52-79 record, minus-67 run differential, no. 28 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (52-79, minus-162, LW: 30)
28. Atlanta Braves (54-76, minus-136, LW: 25)
27. Colorado Rockies (52-76, minus-105, LW: 29)
26. Cincinnati Reds (53-76, minus-69, LW: 26)
25. Milwaukee Brewers (55-75, minus-70, LW: 27)
24. Oakland A’s (57-74, plus-12, LW: 23)
23. Detroit Tigers (60-70, minus-73, LW: 19)
22. Seattle Mariners (61-70, minus-91, LW: 24)

It’s hard to believe now, but for a good chunk of the 2015 season, the Braves were contenders, sitting just two games out of first place in the NL East as late as June 21. Of course, that success proved to be fool’s gold, as the eye test, run differential, and Base Runs indicated it would. The Braves were bound to regress eventually.

Still, the fury of that regression has been jarring to behold. Since June 21, the Braves have gone 19-41, the worst record in baseball over that span. They’re also a woeful 21-47 away from home, with losses in 15 of their past 16 road contests, including their past nine.

While no team would ever wish for that kind of swoon, the Braves’ skid is still more of a feature than a bug. Atlanta aggressively tore down its roster in the offseason, then continued to trade established major leaguers for future assets from April through August. The goal was simple: collect a passel of young talent now with an eye toward contending by the time the new Cobb County ballpark opens in 2017.

That rebuilding plan centers on pitching, and in the past nine and a half months, the Braves have traded for:

• Twenty-four-year-old right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, a flamethrower who once rated as a top-50 prospect on Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com; lost two seasons to Tommy John surgery; landed on the Cubs in 2013; and was reacquired by the Braves in November 2014 for infielder Tommy La Stella.

• Twenty-four-year-old righty Shelby Miller, a first-round pick by the Cardinals in 2009 who stormed into the league with a strong 2013 season that placed him third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting; struggled with command in 2014; and came to Atlanta last November in the Jason Heyward trade. The Braves also landed 23-year-old right-hander Tyrell Jenkins, the 50th overall pick in the 2010 draft and a former top-100 prospect, in that deal.

• Twenty-one-year-old lefty Max Fried, the seventh overall pick in 2012, who was a top-55 prospect last year according to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com; is now recovering from Tommy John; and came to the Braves a few months after his surgery in December’s Justin Upton deal with San Diego.

• Twenty-four-year-old lefty Manny Banuelos, who rated as MLB.com’s no. 13 prospect three years ago; was felled by Tommy John surgery at the end of that 2012 season; and finally came to Atlanta in January for relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve.

• Twenty-three-old righty Mike Foltynewicz, a first-round pick in 2010 who’s been hailed for his electric stuff, including a fastball that can touch the high 90s and a big, breaking curveball, and who came to Atlanta in January’s Evan Gattis trade with Houston.

• Twenty-two-year-old right-hander Matt Wisler, Baseball America’s no. 34 prospect heading into this season, and the linchpin of the six-player trade that sent Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. to San Diego just before Opening Day.

• Nineteen-year-old right-hander Touki Toussaint, the no. 16 pick in last year’s draft and a player we profiled in June, a few days after the Braves stole him from Arizona in exchange for eating the rest of Bronson Arroyo’s dead-money contract.

And that’s not counting the slew of B-level minor leaguers the Braves nabbed in those deals and others during that period.

While acquiring all of those young arms could pay off in the future, it hasn’t done much to help this year’s squad. The Braves rank last in the majors in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching, and that doesn’t even fully capture the young pitchers’ woes: Road games have absolutely crushed Atlanta’s young staff this season, with the team’s semi-respectable 4.14 ERA and 3.85 FIP at home spiking to 4.72 and an MLB-worst 4.78, respectively, away from Turner Field. Some of the kids, including Foltynewicz (5.89 ERA), Wisler (6.53 ERA), and 24-year-old presumed ace Julio Teheran (6.32 ERA), have put up some of the staff’s ugliest numbers on the road.

The good news is that it hasn’t all been bad news. Getting four years of control on Miller (while the Cardinals got just one on Heyward) looks like a heist, as he has been one of the best starting pitchers in the NL this year despite a criminal lack of run support. Meanwhile, Vizcaino looks terrific as the team’s new closer, while Foltynewicz and Wisler have shown flashes of potential that suggest better times ahead. With many of the Braves’ best young arms still developing in the minors, this could be a much better team both overall and on the road in a couple of years.

And hey, while they wait for the kids to improve, the Braves can always fall back on their new pitching savior: Jonny Gomes.

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Shark Attacked

The combination of eroding skills and lousy defense behind him has torpedoed Jeff Samardzija’s walk year.

21. Boston Red Sox (60-70, minus-38, LW: 22)
20. Chicago White Sox (61-68, minus-58, LW: 20)
19. San Diego Padres (63-67, minus-47, LW: 18)
18. Arizona Diamondbacks (63-67, plus-24, LW: 17)
17. Tampa Bay Rays (64-66, minus-22, LW: 15)

White Sox fans entered this season with high hopes. GM Rick Hahn’s offseason shopping spree had brought Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, and Zach Duke into the fold, upgrading several key areas of need.

But based on previous performance, the biggest acquisition of the winter was bringing Jeff Samardzija over from the A’s. By dealing for a pitcher coming off a season in which he’d fired 219.2 innings, struck out nearly five times as many batters as he’d walked, and flashed a 2.99 ERA, the White Sox could add a top-flight veteran righty to a rotation already set to feature lefties Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and, eventually, rookie Carlos Rodon. Adding Samardzija to the rotation and Robertson and Duke to the back of the bullpen figured to greatly improve a pitching staff that finished next to last in the American League in park-adjusted ERA last season.

Ultimately, however, Chicago’s playoff hopes proved premature due largely to the worst collection of position players in the league: The White Sox’s offense has been worse than any other AL team’s, while only Detroit has been worse on the basepaths. But one of the team’s most insidious problems this year was also a major issue in 2014: terrible defense. The White Sox ranked 12th in the AL last year in Defensive Runs Saved, and they’re last this year. When trying to decode why Samardzija has been a rare disappointment on an otherwise improved pitching staff, and why the Sox have been so bad on the road, that leaky defense explains a lot.

On Saturday, the Mariners’ middle-of-the-road offense strafed Samardzija for five runs on eight hits and three walks in 5.2 innings. That raised the right-hander’s ERA to 4.85, much higher than his 4.06 FIP. In fact, only two other AL starting pitchers have shown a bigger split between earned runs allowed and fielding-independent numbers … and one of those is the Shark’s teammate, Sale.

When White Sox pitchers allow balls in play, the fielders behind them don’t catch the ball nearly as often as they should. In fact, they’ve done so just 68.5 percent of the time this year, better than only the awful Phillies and Rockies. And things have been even worse on the road: The Sox have allowed 4.6 runs per game away from U.S. Cellular Field compared to a shade under 4.0 at home, and they’ve produced by far the biggest gap between ERA and FIP among AL teams during road games. So while they certainly haven’t been a great team at home, going just 33-32, they’ve been a fair bit worse on the road, at just 28-36.

In Samardzija’s case, the net effect is a pitcher with the sixth-worst ERA in the AL (including a brutal 4.98 mark on the road) who’s suffered from the twin pains of that bad White Sox defense and regression in areas that he can control: His strikeout rate and swing-and-miss rate are both at their lowest point since Samardzija became a full-time major league starter, with a lot fewer missed bats on the road than at home. With free agency looming at season’s end, few other walk-year players not named Ian Desmond would’ve been better off signing an extension before Opening Day.

Whether or not the Sox opt to re-sign Shark, this season will have produced a valuable lesson for Hahn to remember when he goes shopping again: Patching some holes is great, but no team can win with half a lineup and a miserable defense — especially in games where a club can’t fall back on home-field advantage to help the cause. Build a deeper roster and things will improve, no matter where the Sox’s travels take them.

The good news on that front? The wheels are already in motion.

The Road Trip From Hell

A 1-6 trip pushes the O’s to the periphery of the wild-card race.

16. Baltimore Orioles (63-67, plus-39, LW: 12)
15. Cleveland Indians (63-66, minus-2, LW: 21)
14. Los Angeles Angels (65-65, minus-18, LW: 13)
13. Minnesota Twins (67-63, minus-7, LW: 16)
12. Washington Nationals (66-63, plus-33, LW: 14)
11. San Francisco Giants (69-61, plus-62, LW: 10)
10. Texas Rangers (68-61, minus-19, LW: 11)

Things had already started to turn ugly for the Orioles before their series in Kansas City began on August 24. After winning five of six games to start their homestand, they’d dropped four straight to the Twins at Camden Yards, losing four games in the standings against a direct playoff rival and hampering their ability to chase down the Rangers and Angels in the race for the AL’s second wild-card spot. If the O’s ultimately fail to make the playoffs, however, the road trip that followed that home sweep will likely stand out as their undoing. Even in a wild-card race defined by parity, dropping six of seven, including three straight to the Texas team currently occupying the second wild-card spot, could end up being the crushing blow.

Baltimore’s road record now stands at 26-42, leaving just one other AL team with a bigger split between its home and road marks: Houston, which, unlike the Orioles, has more than made up for its road struggles by tying for the best home record in the AL. Those road woes explain how an Orioles team that led the second wild-card race by half a game just two weeks ago now finds itself 5.5 games out of that final playoff position (and all but mathematically eliminated from winning its division).

Orioles manager Buck Showalter knows any team’s results can fluctuate from year to year, even with the kind of stable roster core the O’s have maintained through much of his five-year tenure. For instance, Showalter was hailed as a genius when Baltimore ended a 14-year playoff drought in 2012 thanks largely to an all-time best 29-9 record in one-run games, but the O’s went just 20-31 in those contests the following year despite fielding many of the same key players; they then went 32-23 in one-run games last year, only to go 17-24 in those battles so far in 2015. The Orioles’ home/road splits under Showalter look similarly random from year to year: They were nine games worse in the win column on the road in 2011, just one game worse in 2012, seven worse in 2013, four worse in 2014 … and a brutal 11 worse so far this season.

The O’s skipper has several thoughts on why some teams struggle on the road. One of the pitchers with the widest home/road splits in baseball this year is 24-year-old O’s starter Kevin Gausman, who owns a 2.19 ERA at Camden Yards and a 6.28 mark on the road. When I spoke to Showalter last Wednesday during the O’s series in K.C., he said he and pitching coach Dave Wallace try to counsel young pitchers on the challenges of playing in unfamiliar environments, but there’s often little they can do aside from hoping that pitchers gain enough experience to figure things out for themselves.

“It’s just part of the process younger pitchers have to go through,” Showalter said. “There are some things there that don’t show up in stat sheets. Something as simple as going to a park for the first time, the vibe in a ballpark, the mound being different, people yelling at you instead of cheering for you. You learn to pitch a certain way because you get to know how different ballparks play. Here in Kansas City, it’s a faster track, so you’re mindful of how balls can roll for doubles and triples. Veterans learn things like that.”

Despite the fluctuations in Baltimore’s one-run record the past few years, Showalter is still widely acknowledged as one of the best managers in the league when it comes to handling bullpens; turning failed starter Zach Britton into a top closer and carefully monitoring reliever usage so Baltimore’s lesser arms throw a ton of innings in lower-leverage spots are exhibits A and B on that front. But Showalter admitted that finding the right spots to use a closer on the road can be tougher, and that managers usually won’t deploy closers in non-save situations away from home in part to avoid burnout — not because they’re mindless slaves to a statistic.

Like many of his managing peers, Showalter also believes the schedule is too long and too congested. He sees August as a particularly cruel month, in which the grind of the season combined with fewer off days than teams get in April and May can result in poor results away from home.

Showalter also pointed to one factor that often gets overlooked: Ballparks vary wildly, leading to relentless adjustments for road teams.

“Some foul lines might be tilted to help bunts stay in play,” Showalter said. “Mounds can be totally different, one to the next. Sparky Anderson used to grow the grass so high that by the time [Alan] Trammell and [Lou] Whitaker got to the end of their career, you could hide Easter eggs in it.”

While all road clubs must contend with those hurdles, Showalter explained that AL East teams face a particular challenge:

“The grass is a big one,” Showalter said. “[Baltimore Ravens head coach John] Harbaugh has three practice fields! In the NFL you have turf and also two different grasses, so they’ve got all three of those different practice fields. We have two teams in our division that both play on turf, they’re totally different kinds of turf, we’re the only division that has two teams playing on turf … and we can’t prepare for it in the same way.”

Showalter said he hopes to learn more about home/road splits and figure out ways to fight them. Unfortunately for the Orioles, that knowledge will come too late to save the 2015 season.

Northern Aggression

The Jays are crushing opponents behind a blistering offense and revitalized pitching staff — and fans are rushing to the ballpark to watch.

9. New York Yankees (72-57, plus-77, LW: 7)
8. Houston Astros (72-59, plus-96, LW: 6)
7. Chicago Cubs (74-55, plus-29, LW: 4)
6. New York Mets (72-58, plus-53, LW: 8)
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (72-57, plus-63, LW: 9)
4. Toronto Blue Jays (74-56, plus-193, LW: 5)
3. Pittsburgh Pirates (79-50, plus-81, LW: 2)
2. Kansas City Royals (80-50, plus-85, LW: 3)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (84-46, plus-137, LW: 1)

The Blue Jays own a weak 31-33 road record this season, but Toronto fans can safely toss that stat into the trash for two reasons.

First, the Jays logged most of those road losses before their frenetic trade deadline week made them dramatically better,1 and they’re 9-2 on the road since acquiring Troy Tulowitzki. Second, the Jays have so thoroughly demolished opponents over the past month that they now hold home-field advantage over every potential playoff opponent except the Royals, an edge that could prove especially handy if Toronto can hold off the Yankees and win the AL East.

Here’s what you need to know about the Jays’ hot streak:

• They crushed the Tigers 9-2 on Sunday, completing a three-game sweep in which they outscored Detroit 29-6. That was the Jays’ 21st win of the month, putting them in rare company:

• Before landing Tulowitzki in their first pre-deadline blockbuster, the Jays’ record stood at just 50-51 despite their MLB-best 5.2 runs scored per game. Since then, they’ve gone 24-5 and scored 6.5 runs per game despite Tulowitzki batting just .228/.328/.377 as a Jay.2

• It’s not just the hitting that’s been great lately. Toronto’s starting pitchers rank third in the majors in park-adjusted ERA since the All-Star break. While new addition David Price deserves some of the credit, Toronto’s also getting great mileage out of unheralded arms like Marco Estrada, who boasts a 2.61 ERA since the break (albeit one driven in part by an unsustainably low .200 BABIP in that time).

The bullpen has also been fantastic. Only one pen owns a sub-2.00 ERA in the second half: You guessed it, Frank Stallone. (OK, it’s the Blue Jays.) Trades for Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins have helped, but many of the arms who’d been in Toronto all year have been excellent as well, with lights-out rookie closer Roberto Osuna leading the way.

Finally, the defense has improved, with Tulo replacing Jose Reyes ranking as one of the biggest in-season defensive upgrades made by any team this year. What’s more, Kevin Pillar, Ryan Goins, and newly acquired Ben Revere are playing like Gold Glovers.

• About that offense, though: Edwin Encarnacion is out of his mind. The slugging DH/first baseman banged out two more hits (including a home run) Sunday, extending his hitting streak to 25 games. During that stretch, he’s batting .409/.473/.882, with 11 homers, 11 doubles, and 35 RBIs. Remember earlier this year, when Encarnacion was a rare laggard in a Jays lineup that was otherwise destroying planets? The cortisone gods came to the rescue in June, and Encarnacion has been the scariest hitter in the game over the past few weeks — which is saying a lot, considering MVP front-runner Josh Donaldson is his teammate. At this point, Encarnacion’s running around the bases so frequently, the poor parrot is getting exhausted.

On Saturday, Encarnacion launched two-run, three-run, and grand-slam blasts, causing Toronto fans to litter the field with chapeaux in celebration of the hat trick.

• Grantland’s Michael Baumann wrote eloquently last week about the Jays’ run, noting that Toronto owning baseball’s longest playoff drought (22 years) should give fans even more license to go crazy. Throw in the Maple Leafs’ decades of irrelevance in the NHL, and you’d hope that things are getting hot up in the 6.

Still, no one could have predicted the full extent of Jays mania that’s gripping the city. Sunday’s game marked the seventh straight sellout at Rogers Centre. One club official I spoke to Sunday afternoon said the team might sell out every remaining home game this year once this week’s Indians series is done, since more than 40,000 seats have already been sold for every other game. Combine a gigantic metro market with more than 5.5 million people, the usual Toronto summer patio weather, and years of pent-up fervor waiting to be released, and you have crowds that rival those seen in 1992 and 1993, when the Jays won back-to-back World Series and drew an unfathomable 4 million-plus fans both years.

In a season that’s given us a slew of perennial underdogs like the Mets, Cubs, Astros, Pirates, and Royals rising up in thrilling fashion, the Blue Jays have captivated a city and lit up scoreboards like nobody else. So be warned, Toronto opponents: Whether it’s at home or on the road, sooner or later, the Jays are gonna cut you down.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, Shelby Miller, Jeff Samardzija, Kevin Gausman, Buck Showalter, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, MLB Trades, 2015 MLB Trade Deadline, 2015 MLB Playoffs, AL East, MLB Wild-Card, Splits, MLB Stats, Baseball, 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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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