The 30: Got Injury Issues? Tell It to the Rangers

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In baseball, as in other sports, injuries are often the great equalizer. You think you have a once-in-a-generation starter, and then Jose Fernandez tears his UCL and misses a year. Or you think you have a once-in-a-generation team, and then the Nationals buckle under the weight of lengthy DL stints and wonder what might have been. Half of the battle, it seems, is just keeping your best players on the field.

Yet sometimes the injuries just don’t fit the narrative: Key players go down and their replacements pull their weight, or the injuries never come and a team fails for other reasons. The Brewers and Indians rank among the healthiest teams in baseball this year, but both have fallen short of preseason expectations. On the other hand, the Rangers and Cardinals have been whacked by injuries, yet both are well positioned to make the postseason.

No pain, no gain. It’s Week 23 of The 30.

Best Man Down of the Week

Kyle Schwarber is one of the most impressive rookies baseball has seen in years. He is also something pretty close to Matt Stairs 2.0.

Like Stairs, the 22-year-old Schwarber is blessed with tape-measure power and a good batting eye. He’ll work deep counts, wait for his pitch, then hit it a mile. Also like the Wonder Hamster, he is relatively short and, um, un-chiseled by modern baseball standards. That combination lets him both dazzle us with a rocket into the bleachers and delight us with a lighthearted moment — sometimes within seconds of each other.

In his first at-bat during the second game of Friday’s doubleheader against the Phillies, Schwarber launched his 14th home run of the year. In his very next at-bat, he went deep again — his 15th in his 51st major league game, a nearly historic feat. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one player younger than 23 years old has ever needed fewer than 51 games to hit his 15th big league homer. That player: future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols.1

Schwarber being Schwarber, we needed to see a little extra something to complement those two majestic home runs. Our man didn’t disappoint. Rounding first in a sprint in that second at-bat, Schwarber stumbled. It was magical.

His teammates, riding high as the Cubs charge toward the playoffs, were highly amused.

Milwaukee Malaise

The Brewers have been the healthiest team in baseball … and that’s about it.

30. Atlanta Braves (56-88 record, minus-184 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (56-88, minus-186, LW: 29)
28. Colorado Rockies (60-83, minus-108, LW: 27)
27. Cincinnati Reds (60-82, minus-56, LW: 28)
26. Miami Marlins (61-82, minus-63, LW: 26)
25. Oakland A’s (61-82, minus-11, LW: 25)
24. Milwaukee Brewers (62-81, minus-64, LW: 24)
23. Detroit Tigers (65-77, minus-102, LW: 23)
22. San Diego Padres (67-77, minus-68, LW: 22)

No team has seen its players spend less time on the disabled list this year than Milwaukee. Yet the Brewers might lose 90 games this season anyway, as they’re on pace to post their worst result in 11 years.

Before we get into the reasons for the Brewers’ struggles, let’s first go through those injury results. Nathan Currier runs ManGamesLost.com, which examines injury data across multiple sports in two ways. First, it tallies up the total number of games missed for each team. It then weights those games missed based on which players gobble up the most playing time when they are healthy.2

For the latest update, check out the site’s weekend post. And to visualize how much healthier the Brewers have been compared to all other teams, check out this chart:3

injury-chart

Now, on to the causes of Milwaukee’s struggles. First, the Brewers have been miserable at bat, ranking just 25th in park-adjusted offense. Infielders Jonathan Lucroy, Scooter Gennett, and Aramis Ramirez all have had down years.4 Jean Segura, an offensive terror in the first half of the 2013 season, has been a cipher since then: He’s one of the worst offensive shortstops in all of baseball this year. Trading away Gerardo Parra and Carlos Gomez, two of the team’s best hitters, hasn’t helped — even if cashing in on players approaching free agency is a sound long-term strategy.

The Brewers’ starting pitching has been just as bad. The team’s starters rank 28th in park-adjusted ERA and 21st in park-adjusted FIP. Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse have combined to make 47 starts this year — in those 47 starts, they’ve tossed 267.2 innings and posted a 6.05 ERA. Adding to Milwaukee’s run-prevention woes is a lousy defense, which ranks just 11th among National League teams in Defensive Runs Saved, per Baseball Info Solutions.

There have been a few bright spots, such as the emergence of young right-handers Taylor Jungmann and Jimmy Nelson, along with Ryan Braun staying healthy and rediscovering some of his old power stroke. But in a forgettable season, the most notable highlight for the Brewers might be something that affects other teams more than themselves. Milwaukee owns a winning record against just four NL teams: the lowly Phillies, Reds, Padres … and the Pirates, who own the second-best record in the majors. Pittsburgh finally snapped a seven-game losing streak against Milwaukee on Friday and went on to win on Saturday and Sunday, too. Still, the Brewers’ 10-9 record against the Buccos hasn’t helped the Pirates as they try to catch the front-running Cardinals.

So, the Brewers have that going for them. Which is nice.

Rookie to the Rescue

The rise of Francisco Lindor has pushed the slow-starting Indians to the edge of the wild-card race.

21. Arizona Diamondbacks (68-75, plus-14, LW: 21)
20. Chicago White Sox (67-74, minus-48, LW: 18)
19. Seattle Mariners (69-75, minus-73, LW: 19)
18. Tampa Bay Rays (69-73, minus-13, LW: 16)
17. Baltimore Orioles (69-73, plus-25, LW: 17)
16. Boston Red Sox (68-74, minus-18, LW: 20)
15. Cleveland Indians (70-71, minus-1, LW: 15)

Like the Brewers, the Indians rank among the league’s healthiest teams this year — both by total DL days and quality of players lost. But the team dug itself a huge hole at the start of the season by falling to last place with an 11-19 record through the first 30 games. A big reason for those early struggles was a miserable defense: An injury to Yan Gomes, lousy play in center field, and a shaky left side of the infield highlighted what was, at the time, the worst defense in the league.

Last week, my colleague Ben Lindbergh documented what’s happened since then: The Indians have staged the biggest in-season turnaround for any team’s defense, ever. As a result, they’re now hiding out at the edges of a crowded AL wild-card hunt. We can’t say enough about the man at the center of the newly reinforced defense, so let’s tip our caps to Francisco Lindor.

We heard about Lindor’s incredible defensive tools as he came up through the minors. He owned the rare combination of superior range, a rocket arm, and soft hands needed to succeed at short. From day one in the big leagues, it’s all been on display. The 21-year-old Puerto Rico native made his major league debut on June 14. Despite that late start to the season, Lindor has racked up lots of defensive value. In just 77 games, he’s saved six more runs than the average shortstop, making him the sixth-most-valuable gloveman at that position.5

If his glove figured to play right away, though, his bat figured to need some work. In 59 games this year at Triple-A Columbus, Lindor hit .284/.350/.402. That followed a 2014 season in which Lindor batted .276/.338/.389 while splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A. Those were solid numbers for a player that young manning a premium position at the highest level of the minors. Still, factoring in the much higher skill level among pitchers in the big leagues, there was reason to expect Lindor to break in as a glove-first player who wouldn’t do much offensively. At first, that’s exactly what he was: Through his first 27 games with the Indians, Lindor hit just .224/.257/.308.

Since then, he’s been a hitting machine. Over his past 52 games, Lindor has batted .353/.393/.534. He’s improved his batting eye over that stretch and displayed surprising pop, with six homers, two triples, and 15 doubles in 204 at-bats. A switch-hitter, Lindor has excelled from both sides of the plate, hitting better than .300 from both sides, with a better walk rate from the right side and more power as a lefty.6

Fellow Puerto Rican shortstop phenom Carlos Correa appeared to have a stranglehold on the AL Rookie of the Year Award after surging out of the gate with a flurry of extra-base hits. But he’s got two serious challengers now. Sano seems to hit a home run almost every day; he has to be considered a legitimate contender for the award, despite logging about 100 fewer times at bat than Correa. And yet, Lindor might be the best of the bunch. The combination of his ability to hit for average and gap power, his impressive speed, and especially his all-world defense has Lindor leading all AL rookies in Wins Above Replacement.7

Whoever emerges with the hardware, Cleveland can feel good about Lindor, his masterful glove, and his surprisingly precocious bat. Even if the Indians fall short of the playoffs this year, they might have a franchise player on their hands for the next six seasons.

A Turnaround in Texas

Thanks to the arrival of a new ace and the return of a few other injured arms, the Rangers look likely to make the playoffs — and they might even win the division.

14. Washington Nationals (72-70, plus-51, LW: 10)
13. Los Angeles Angels (72-70, minus-9, LW: 14)
12. Minnesota Twins (74-68, minus-6, LW: 13)
11. San Francisco Giants (75-68, plus-78, LW: 12)
10. Texas Rangers (75-67, minus-27, LW: 11)
9. New York Yankees (78-64, plus-78, LW: 7)
8. Houston Astros (77-66, plus-105, LW: 8)

The Rangers have lost more than 1,400 games to the disabled list this season, making them by far the most injured team in the majors.8 According to ManGamesLost.com, they also rank fourth in terms of most instrumental players lost. In a season rife with great story lines, the Rangers holding down the AL’s second wild-card spot in spite of all those injuries — and after a rash of injuries torched their 2014 season — ranks way up there.

The biggest blow came before the season even started. When Yu Darvish went under the knife in March for Tommy John surgery, it was hard to see how the Rangers’ pitching could hold up. Darvish joined Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and Matt Harrison as would-be members of the starting rotation who were knocked out of action for extended periods of time.

Credit Jon Daniels, Thad Levine, and the rest of the Rangers’ front office for building contingency plans. The January trade for Yovani Gallardo gave the team a new de facto no. 1 starter in Darvish’s absence, and Gallardo has come through, firing a team-high 169.1 innings and posting a career-best full-season ERA.9 Several kids pressed into action have soaked up quality innings, too. Nick Martinez and Chi Chi Gonzalez have combined to make 31 starts, both with park-adjusted ERAs that rate as slightly better than league average. And while we’re loath to make much of wins as a stat, journeyman Colby Lewis leading the staff with 15 of them — he’s posting park-adjusted numbers near league average and nearly threw a perfect game on Saturday — has been a huge, unexpected bonus.

Now, given time to heal, plus a major upgrade via trade, the Rangers suddenly own one of the most talented rotations in the league. Cole Hamels was the big pickup at the deadline — though at the time, with Texas just barely on the fringes of the playoff race in late July, he looked more like a key addition for the 2016-18 Rangers. Instead, Texas, which sat two games under .500 when Hamels arrived, has been the AL’s second-hottest team behind the Jays since the nonwaiver deadline. Hamels has been a big reason for that success: After a rocky first two starts with the Rangers, the former Phillies ace has been terrific, striking out 31 batters and allowing no homers in his past 35 innings, with opponents slugging just .315 over those five most recent starts.

Elsewhere, Holland’s back, and he’s been good, posting a 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate in his first six starts after returning from injury, showing no ill effects after a long absence. Perez has been the lone rotation laggard lately, but even that’s deceiving: A sky-high 61.6 percent ground ball rate and flukishly low 60.2 percent strand rate suggest that his 5.43 ERA should start to come down soon.

Talking up the Rangers as a favorite to nab a wild-card spot doesn’t fully capture the excitement brewing in Arlington, either. Texas starts a four-game series tonight against first-place Houston, and the Rangers trail the Astros by just 1.5 games. Win the series, and the Rangers will take over first place for the first time since the first week of the season.

With all their major contributors except Darvish now back and healthy, beating the Astros head-to-head this week is a real possibility. We still can’t call Texas an elite team, not with a negative run differential and iffy underlying numbers that typically define a team with a sub-.500 record. But with just 20 games to go, all we’ve got left are smaller sample sizes in which plenty of seemingly unlikely outcomes — like the Rangers winning the AL West — remain in play.

A Cardinal Comedown?

Despite plenty of injuries, St. Louis plowed through the rest of the league over the first five months. In September, though, the cracks might be starting to show.

7. New York Mets (82-61, plus-79, LW: 9)
6. Chicago Cubs (82-60, plus-47, LW: 6)
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (82-60, plus-73, LW: 5)
4. Kansas City Royals (84-58, plus-78, LW: 2)
3. Toronto Blue Jays (82-61, plus-198, LW: 4)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (89-54, plus-112, LW: 1)
1. Pittsburgh Pirates (86-56, plus-93, LW: 3)

In 2015, the Cardinals rank 12th in games lost to the disabled list. But they rank first in games missed by impact players, as multiple All-Stars and other key contributors have missed weeks and months due to injuries.

For most of the season, that didn’t matter … at all. The Cards rolled into September with an amazing 85-46 record — a 105-win pace over a full season. We’ve discussed the reasons for that incredible success numerous times this season, but let’s do it again: The Cardinals have parlayed excellent pitching, better-than-average defense, and phenomenal luck into the lowest ERA in the majors in 2015 and the second-lowest by any team over the past 40 years. Even if we acknowledge the Cards’ good fortune when it comes to scattering hits and stranding runners on base, any team that loses an elite pitcher like Adam Wainwright and still prevents runs this well deserves recognition.

If the Cardinals had one weakness while they were leaving the rest of the league in the dust, it was their offense. Injuries to Matt Holliday and Matt Adams took multiple bites out of the lineup. The Cardinals being the Cardinals, they found able replacements in their system, including rookie outfielder Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, another productive rookie outfielder before an elbow injury slowed him down. In a sport governed by depth, the Cards seemed to have the horses to make up for their lineup losses, albeit not quite to the same extent as they did on the pitching side.

Now, though, the cracks are starting to show, as the Cardinals’ 4-8 record in September can attest. Thanks to a combination of those injuries, plus several lineup mainstays struggling, St. Louis ranks just 22nd in park-adjusted offense since the All-Star break. You could excuse Kolten Wong’s free-swinging approach when he was clubbing balls into the gap and over the wall, but his sub-.300 on-base percentage since the break looks worse when complemented by a slugging percentage just over .300. Yadier Molina’s still an all-world defender, but his offense has slipped badly the past couple of years, and he’s hitting 15 percent worse than league average (per wRC+) in 2015. Jhonny Peralta was a world-beater in the first half of this season; he’s batted an atrocious .227/.287/.308 in the second half.

However, help could be coming soon. Grichuk and Adams were both recently activated from the DL and are now available for pinch-hitting duty. Even better, GM John Mozeliak said Sunday that Holliday should return to the everyday lineup once he’s activated, and that could come as soon as this week’s Brewers series, which begins Tuesday. Holliday tore his right quad in June and reaggravated the injury in July, so there’s some doubt about his mobility when he returns. Pre-injury, he was also on pace to post the lowest slugging percentage of his career, at just .420. Still, the Cards could sorely use Holliday’s right-handed bat and the .409 OBP that comes with it. The Pirates have closed the NL Central gap to just 2.5 games, and a three-game set at PNC Park at the end of September awaits.

Of course, we can only take the doom and gloom so far. The Cardinals smacked Reds pitching for nine runs on Sunday. Holliday and Grichuk getting fully healthy would give them a ludicrously deep outfield, which could make for a terrifying bench come playoff time. And hey, they still own the best record in baseball, setting themselves up for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs if they can hold off Pittsburgh and other challengers. The Cards’ record at Busch Stadium this year? An off-the-charts 50-24. Best of luck to the competition.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, Jonah Keri, MLB Power Rankings, MLB Stats, Baseball, Chicago Cubs, Kyle Schwarber, Milwaukee Brewers, Jean Segura, Ryan Braun, injuries, Cleveland Indians, Francisco Lindor, Texas Rangers, Cole Hamels, Derek Holland, St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Randal Grichuk

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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