The 30: Six P’s, One Giant Surge

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Slowly but surely, the playoff field is starting to narrow. Three teams now lead their divisions by five or more games, meaning they’re nearing the point at which they can start to feel safe. Two AL West and two AL Central teams are battling for the wild-card spots. The NL Central has a new front-runner that has opened up a decent lead of its own. Even with a few races likely heading down to the wire, we’re gaining some clarity.

So hang in there:

Break out your best dance moves:

Watch out for loud noises:

And make sure your aim …

… is true:

It’s Week 23 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

Starling Marte. Casual. Flawless.

Race to the Bottom

The swooning Reds join the ranks of the downtrodden.

30. Texas Rangers (54-89, -148 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (59-84, -74, LW: 30)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (59-84, -101, LW: 28)
27. Minnesota Twins (61-82, -58, LW: 25)
26. Boston Red Sox (63-80, -73, LW: 26)
25. Houston Astros (63-80, -85, LW: 27)
24. Chicago White Sox (63-79, -86, LW: 24)
23. Philadelphia Phillies (66-76, -54, LW: 22)
22. Chicago Cubs (64-79, -56, LW: 23)
21. Cincinnati Reds (67-76, -9, LW: 19)
20. San Diego Padres (66-76, -39, LW: 20)
19. New York Mets (68-75, -4, LW: 21)

Thanks to the offseason acquisitions of Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, a helpless White Sox offense now has two vital pieces: an on-base machine at the top of the lineup, and an MVP-caliber slugger in the middle. The Sox also have Chris Sale, who’s one of the best left-handers in the game and who’s signed to one of the league’s most attractive contracts; Jose Quintana, who’s arguably the most underrated pitcher in baseball; and Alexei Ramirez, a quality shortstop who’s signed through 2015, with an option year in 2016.

Now, the question becomes whether the White Sox can build around that five-man nucleus quickly and effectively enough to contend next season. Here’s a look at how they’ll need to attack three key areas.

1. The rotation: Despite the excellence of Sale and Quintana, the White Sox rank 27th in the majors in starting pitching ERA. For that, they can thank a miserable lack of quality depth: Scott Carroll, Andre Rienzo, Erik Johnson, Charlie Leesman, Chris Bassitt, and Felipe Paulino combined to make 39 starts this year, producing a 6.36 ERA in 232 innings. An optimist would argue that such incompetence actually creates an opportunity for next year: Find even a decent mid- or back-rotation starter to replace those innings, and the Sox could easily add three or more wins.

Carlos Rodon has the ability to put up decent numbers, and maybe considerably more. A 6-foot-3, 234-pound bruiser out of NC State and the third overall pick in this year’s amateur draft, Rodon has fanned 38 batters in 24.2 innings across three minor league levels, ending his season at Triple-A Charlotte. He’s expected to compete for a rotation job next spring, and scouts say he’s skilled and polished enough to succeed quickly if he wins the gig.

If Rodon can perform the way management hopes, the White Sox will employ the best trio of lefty starters in the game. They could still use a veteran innings eater to provide some stability in the middle of the rotation, particularly with John Danks looking like a $14.25 million–a-year albatross rather than the All-Star-caliber pitcher he was a few years ago. Still, the foundation is in place for Chicago to assemble one of the best and youngest rotations in the majors.

chris-sale-miguel-cabrera

2. The bullpen: Only the lowly Rockies and Astros own worse bullpen ERAs than the White Sox. Once again, however, we can actually count this year’s incompetence as upside in Chicago: Rebuilding teams have no reason to throw big money at top relievers, because much like $10,000 leather seats would do little to make your 1989 Chevy Corsica markedly nicer,1 great relievers do little to help bad teams. The White Sox invested very little in this year’s bullpen, especially after trading away Addison Reed to Arizona, and they spent most of the year throwing spaghetti against the wall in the hope that some young pitchers might stick. The 27-year-old Zach Putnam and 26-year-old Jake Petricka look like the best of the bunch, while 25-year-old Daniel Webb and other young arms offer additional potential. The Sox can ride this talent and invest in more.

3. The lineup: Offensively, the White Sox have improved considerably over the team that lost 99 games and finished last in the AL in runs scored last season. Eaton, Ramirez, and Abreu held down the top three spots in the order this year, and we should expect the same next season. The Sox are also high on Avisail Garcia, the 23-year-old slugger acquired in last year’s three-way deadline deal for Jake Peavy; Garcia has struck out nearly five times more often than he’s walked so far in his brief major league career, but scouts like his power potential. Flip through the rest of this year’s lineup and there are more talented twentysomething players with upside, namely third baseman Conor Gillaspie, who’s hitting a smidge below .300 with doubles power, and 22-year-old Carlos Sanchez and 23-year-old Marcus Semien, who figure to compete for the second base job next year.2

Best of all, Chicago’s young, affordable corps allows the team to do some major shopping this winter, if GM Rick Hahn & Co. think this team is ready to contend. Money can buy that midtier veteran starting pitcher (Brandon McCarthy? Jason Hammel? Brett Anderson, if the Rockies decline his option?). It can upgrade the bullpen without breaking the bank (Pat Neshek? Luke Gregerson?). And it can give the Abreu-and-Eaton-led lineup the lift it needs to form a top-five AL offense (Russell Martin? Melky Cabrera? Nelson Cruz?). With just $46 million committed for next season and an exponentially brighter outlook now than they had a year ago, the White Sox could be one of the biggest sleeper teams entering 2015.

Outside Looking In?

There’s a good chance only one of these eight teams makes the playoffs.

18. Tampa Bay Rays (69-75, +8, LW: 18)
17. Miami Marlins (69-72, -16, LW: 17)
16. New York Yankees (73-68, -26, LW: 16)
15. Toronto Blue Jays (73-69, +8, LW: 15)
14. Pittsburgh Pirates (74-68, +21, LW: 14)
13. Milwaukee Brewers (74-69, -4, LW: 10)
12. Atlanta Braves (74-69, +7, LW: 13)
11. Cleveland Indians (74-67, +16, LW: 12)

Barring a furious charge over these final three weeks or some spectacular losing from the teams ahead of them, the Yankees probably aren’t going to reward Derek Jeter with a playoff berth in his swan-song season. Still, there’s a glimmer of October hope left, and for that the Yankees can thank a starting rotation that should be in tatters but is instead mowing down everyone in sight.

Season-ending injuries to Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia along with significant injuries to Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and David Phelps left Hiroki Kuroda as the only projected starter or alternate to make it through this season (largely) unscathed. But a combination of savvy deals, homegrown contributors, and some timely returns to health has kept New York in the race. Riding a battalion of backups, Yankees starters have ranked fourth in park-adjusted FIP and seventh in park-adjusted ERA since the All-Star break.

The Yankees’ best deal — and indeed one of the best midseason trades by any team — was nabbing Brandon McCarthy. When the veteran right-hander went 3-10 with a 5.01 ERA in Arizona before the trade, most seamheads chalked up those results to factors beyond the pitcher’s control, as tons of balls dropping in for hits, lousy bullpen support, and other influences negated a strikeout-to-walk ratio approaching 5-to-1. It turned out there was even more going on. The Diamondbacks wanted McCarthy to throw more sinkers and fewer cutters, forcing him to nearly junk a pitch he’d thrown 35 percent of the time in 2013 and 45 percent in 2012. The Yankees placed no such restrictions on him, and the results have been amazing. Relying on his cutter more often (and mixing in some more four-seam fastballs), McCarthy has fared much better against AL hitters, posting a 2.79 ERA3 since joining the Yankees while also showing even better command, whiffing 64 batters and walking just 12 in 71 innings. Even Walt has to be impressed with that:

Pineda has also pitched well lately. The oft-injured righty returned from a three-plus-month DL stint on August 13 amid tempered expectations about what he’d do next, but he’s managed to do quite a lot. In the five starts since his return, Pineda has tossed 30.1 innings, allowing just 21 hits, two home runs, and a single walk while striking out 19. That has netted him a 1.78 ERA, and an opponents’ line of just .193/.198/.294. As this Brooks Baseball chart shows, Pineda has changed the look of his fastball so that it’s essentially a cutter, as evidenced by the pitch’s big change in horizontal movement.

Those heady performances, combined with some solid if inconsistent numbers from rookie Shane Greene, offer hope for Yankees fans — for the rest of this year, yes, but especially for next. McCarthy’s a free agent at season’s end, and while he has expressed interest in re-signing, that’s no sure thing. But Pineda, Greene, and a healthy Phelps could give the Yankees some good rotational depth in 2015. And if Tanaka returns to full strength, the team gets any kind of useful contributions from Sabathia and Nova, and Manny Banuelos or other prospects take a step forward, the Yanks might even have a starting pitching surplus, especially if they re-sign McCarthy or acquire a big-ticket starter over the winter through trade or free agency.

Combine all that starting pitching talent with the team’s stable of power bullpen arms, and the cure for the Yankees’ expected 2015 infield holes could be a swap meet for the pitchers.

Seeing Red

The streaking Cardinals take over the NL Central and move up a couple of spots in our rankings.

10. Detroit Tigers (78-65, +44, LW: 7)
9. St. Louis Cardinals (79-64, +4, LW: 11)
8. Seattle Mariners (78-64, +104, LW: 9)
7. Kansas City Royals (79-62, +26, LW: 8)
6. San Francisco Giants (78-65, +62, LW: 6)

The Giants’ record has been whiplash-inducing this season. On June 8, the Giants won their fifth straight game to raise their record to an MLB-best 43-21. Then, disaster struck. San Francisco went 20-36 over the next nine weeks, dropping to 5.5 games behind the front-running Dodgers and jeopardizing what at the very least seemed like a wild-card lock earlier in the season. Since then? They’ve gone 15-8, including taking two of three on the road from the talented Tigers.

Back in July, I looked at one of the biggest reasons for the Giants’ stomach-churning play: cluster luck. The Giants’ pitchers in particular had been extraordinarily fortunate early, scattering hits so well they’d allowed 22 fewer runs than if their pitchers had enjoyed league-average luck. That luck completely dried up over the next four weeks, however, signaling the end of the team’s best-in-baseball results.

Beyond advanced stats, though, there was a simpler reason for the Giants’ June and July stumbles: Due to injuries and woeful depth, the team ran out of good players. By the same token, San Francisco’s recent winning stems largely from fielding a full roster again. The Giants have filled their holes thanks to a timely promotion, a return to health, an incredibly fruitful trade that no one expected to work out this well, monstrous performances from the team’s two best hitters, and an out-of-nowhere pitching performance. Call it the case of the six P’s.

P1: Joe Panik. Second base was a wasteland for the Giants before Panik came along. GM Brian Sabean had signed Marco Scutaro to the Aubrey Huff Memorial Deal, designed to overpay a thirtysomething veteran after a World Series, only to see Scutaro play in five games this season.4 The Giants tried Brandon Hicks at second, but he hit .162 in 71 games. For about 12 seconds they even resorted to playing Dan Uggla at the deuce, after the Braves decided they’d rather eat about $20 million rather than let Uggla sit on their bench, and that went about as well as anyone expected it to go for the Giants. Panik has more than picked up the slack, hitting .309/.354/.381 and playing steady defense, giving the Giants hope at an unstable position not only for this season, but also for the next several.

P2: Angel Pagan hasn’t necessarily flourished the way some of his other P-surname teammates have lately, batting .282 over his past 26 games, but with a poor .303 on-base percentage and .342 slugging average. But Pagan’s return coupled with Brandon Belt’s injury woes have allowed the Giants to shift Mike Morse from left field (where he was awful) to first base (where he’s at least playable). With Pagan playing next to slick-fielding (and suddenly hot-hitting) wingman Gregor Blanco, the Giants have regained some of the defensive skill that has typified their winning teams in recent years. While teams’ records with and without certain players can depend on unrelated factors such as other absences and strength of schedule, the Giants’ record with and without Pagan is borderline astounding. This season, the Giants are 53-36 when Pagan plays and 25-29 when he doesn’t. Since Pagan joined the Giants in 2012, they’re 177-134 when he plays and 69-84 when he doesn’t.

P3, 4, and 5: As much as those supporting players have helped, the Giants wouldn’t be where they are today if not for the massive recent contributions of Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, and Pablo Sandoval. (Yes, we’re cheating on the P thing by using “Pablo.” To make up for it, here’s the greatest Giants highlight of all time.) Through August 19, Posey was batting .279/.339/.422 — solid numbers for a catcher, but well below his vintage form. Since then, he’s gone nuts, hitting .493/.514/.925 with seven homers in 16 games, prompting Giants fans to crank up the MVPosey bandwagon.

Pence has been more consistent this season, and arguably just as worthy an MVP candidate as Posey. For the season, Pence is batting .295/.348/.477, leading the NL in hits and runs scored, and he’s gotten even hotter lately, hitting .404/.463/.579 over his last 15 games. Meanwhile, Sandoval started his contract year looking unusually svelte … and also like a guy who forgot how to hit, batting just .177/.262/.302 in the season’s first month. He has come on strong since, batting .311/.346/.466 since the start of May, and a gaudy .353/.387/.515 over his last 17 games.

P6: But the biggest revelation of all has been Jake Peavy. Pitching for the defending champion Red Sox to start the season, Peavy was awful, serving up 20 home runs in 124 innings and posting a 4.72 ERA. When the Giants acquired him as a replacement for the injured Matt Cain, there was little reason to expect the deal to work out. But it has, and in a big way. In eight starts with San Francisco, the rejuvenated Peavy has flashed a 2.36 ERA in large part by severely cutting back on his home runs allowed, surrendering just two in 53.1 innings pitched. This doesn’t look like a McCarthy situation, where a dramatic change in pitch mix might explain a big improvement. It could stem from pitching in a friendly environment at AT&T Park. Or it could have to do with intangible factors, such as fitting in so well and so quickly with the Giants that Peavy recently took part in the team’s fantasy football draft — to everyone’s delight, acting like the same ludicrously intense pitcher we see on the mound.

Or it might just be one of those tough-to-explain happenings that make baseball baseball and that make the Giants a threat for another deep playoff run.

California Love

Counting the second-tier Giants, four of our top six teams hail from the Golden State.

5. Oakland A’s (80-62, +153, LW: 3)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (81-62, +66, LW: 5)
3. Baltimore Orioles (83-59, +83, LW: 4)
2. Washington Nationals (80-61, +106, LW: 2)
1. Los Angeles Angels (87-55, +125, LW: 1)

Betting on the Angels to win the AL West seemed like a stretch on the morning of August 21. While the Halos held a 1.5-game lead at the time, they’d just lost staff ace Garrett Richards for the season, leaving the rotation with Jered Weaver, a struggling C.J. Wilson, and three question marks. Stack that group against a fortified A’s rotation that featured trade pickups Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and Jason Hammel, and it seemed like Oakland would soon retake the division lead and roll from there.

That hasn’t happened, with the Angels instead grabbing a nearly insurmountable seven-game lead while amassing the best record in baseball. One reason is that the A’s have suddenly tanked. Another is that Matt Shoemaker has suddenly turned into Greg Maddux’s bearded cousin.

Not much was expected of Shoemaker at the start of the season. He’d pitched a total of five innings in the big leagues, making his one and only appearance on September 20, 2013, a week before his 27th birthday, far too late for him to be deemed a top prospect. And while we had to discount the pitcher-crushing effects of the California League and Pacific Coast League when sizing up Shoemaker’s career 4.52 minor league ERA and the 866 hits and 95 homers he’d allowed in 786.2 innings, it was still hard to be impressed by those numbers. Scouts didn’t exactly love him, either, figuring that a right-hander with a low-90s fastball and seemingly good but not great secondary stuff wouldn’t excel as a major league starter.

After three unremarkable April relief appearances, Shoemaker got sent back to Triple-A. When he returned a month later, the Halos stuck him in the rotation. From May 13 to July 21, he again failed to impress, putting up a 4.60 ERA while allowing hitters to bat .280 and slug .467 against him, making himself seem so fungible that the Angels skipped a few of his starts and slotted him in relief three times over that stretch. Since then, he’s made nine appearances, including eight starts. His numbers over that span: 52.1 innings, 45 strikeouts, nine walks, three home runs, 35 hits, a 1.55 ERA, and an opponents’ line of .189/.236/.281.

Lacking the kind of wipeout stuff elite pitchers boast, Shoemaker has succeeded by mixing pitches and pounding the strike zone. He uses five pitches, throwing a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, a curveball, and a split-change, using each less than 26 percent of the time. That split-change has been his best weapon, holding opponents to a .167 batting average and .240 slugging average. When hitters swing at that pitch, they miss it 23 percent of the time, which is especially handy considering that 56 percent of Shoemaker’s split-change usage comes with two strikes, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Getting ahead in the count often and inducing so many whiffs with that split-change, Shoemaker has thrown strikes 65 percent of the time since starting his big run on July 26. When you chart out his most effective pitch spots during that stretch, nearly the entire strike zone looks like a giant solar flare:

matt-shoemaker-chart

It’s possible the Angels’ league-leading offense won’t be enough to take them all the way, or that Shoemaker and the rest of the Richards-less rotation won’t hold up as well in the playoffs when the competition gets tougher and the pressure mounts. But they’ll get their chance, with a playoff berth more or less assured, and home field throughout the playoffs very possible thanks to their winning ways and the AL’s victory in the All-Star Game. After four years of playing golf in October, the Angels will call that a win.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels, Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Carlos Rodon, Brandon McCarthy, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Jake Peavy, Matt Shoemaker, MLB Stats, Baseball, 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 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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