The 30: Who Did the Mets Sacrifice to the Schedule-Making Gods?

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

We’re eight days away from September, and so in keeping with a now-annual tradition, we’re about to get an onslaught of games between division rivals. Not a fan? Thank the dramatically unbalanced schedules meant to foster division rivalries. But for better or worse, the deluge of divisional games means that plenty of teams, both good and bad, are especially well-positioned to have an outsize effect on the shape of the standings over the final month.

The also-ran Mariners and Diamondbacks will try to fill the spoiler role against some top rivals. No contender has a better opportunity to take advantage of the next month than the Mets, who play in MLB’s worst division and own the league’s easiest schedule from here on out. Meanwhile, the Pirates came into August with one of the league’s toughest remaining slates, but after getting through the worst of it, they might have a chance to make a run at the first-place Cardinals before October rolls around.

Clear your calendars. It’s Week 20 of The 30.

Best Home Plate Gymnastics of the Week

When it comes to players performing acrobatics on the basepaths, you don’t typically imagine lead-footed catchers getting in on the act. But maybe that’s misguided: Who better to outsmart a catcher setting up for a tag at home plate than another catcher?

That’s certainly what Brayan Pena did to Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the seventh inning of Friday night’s Reds-Diamondbacks game. With two outs, Reds center fielder Jason Bourgeois singled to right. Leading off second, Pena sprinted to third, turned, and headed home. D-backs right fielder Yasmany Tomás fired the ball home in plenty of time to nail Pena. But rather than slide right into Saltalamacchia’s tag, Pena pulled up short, causing his lunging counterpart to lose his balance and topple over:

Score one for the slow guy.

The King Becomes a Pauper

Before the Mariners start looking toward next year, they’ll need to address the struggles of their ace.

30. Philadelphia Phillies (50-74 record, minus-145 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (49-73, minus-112, LW: 28)
28. Miami Marlins (50-74, minus-55, LW: 30)
27. Milwaukee Brewers (53-72, minus-66, LW: 27)
26. Cincinnati Reds (51-71, minus-63, LW: 24)
25. Atlanta Braves (53-71, minus-104, LW: 25)
24. Seattle Mariners (57-67, minus-92, LW: 23)
23. Oakland A’s (54-71, plus-11, LW: 22)
22. Boston Red Sox (56-68, minus-44, LW: 26)

As we hit the home stretch of the season, no division is more loaded with playoff implications than the AL West. Even though they’re way out of contention, the Mariners can still throw a wrench into the postseason plans of some of their closest rivals. Starting on August 31, the M’s play 19 of 28 games against the division-leading Astros and the Astros-chasing/wild-card-contending Angels and Rangers.

However, that might be a more intimidating prospect for the Astros-Angels-Rangers trio if Felix Hernandez didn’t suddenly look terrible. In his past five starts, Hernandez has allowed an 8.48 ERA and 50 hits over 28.2 innings. Yes, 46 percent of balls in play against him during that span have landed for hits, and that’s an ugly pace that isn’t going to last. But he’s getting hurt far more by hard-hit balls than fluky bloops: His opponents have posted a 21 percent line-drive rate, hit five homers, and are running an Isolated Power mark higher than .200 during that five-start period. More broadly, Hernandez has given up seven or more runs three times this year, including a 10-run, 2.1-inning debacle on August 15. On the season, Hernandez’s 3.74 ERA is his highest in eight years, his 3.49 FIP his highest in seven years, and his park-and-league-adjusted ERA ties for the worst mark of his career.

We’ll leave the speculation about mechanics and health to the pitch and medical doctors. But King Felix’s shaky results really do seem to go beyond the realm of small sample size and random chance. It’s not a velocity problem, either.

felix-grid-14

felix-chart-15

Hernandez is throwing too many middle-in pitches without enough movement on them, and they’re getting whacked. Look at those ugly results on inside pitches against left-handed hitters this year. That holds the potential for trouble, especially when Felix faces Prince Fielder, Mitch Moreland, and the Rangers’ other potent lefty hitters.

On the plus side, Robinson Cano is hitting like Robinson Cano again. Seven weeks ago, I wondered what was ailing the Mariners’ All-Star second baseman. The list of possible reasons for his 2015 struggles ranged from a persistent stomach ailment to lingering grief over the death of his grandfather. Since July 7, he’s batted .318/.374/.554, numbers that are actually slightly better than his terrific career line.

The Mariners are still likely headed for a sub-.500 season, a major disappointment following last year’s near-playoff berth. Their recent past is littered with repeated player development failures and misguided acquisitions of big, slow sluggers who struggle to get on base, run, or play defense. So, at least Cano’s starting to lend support to an offense that’d been dominated by Nelson Cruz. Combine those two big bats with slightly better-than-average contributions from Kyle Seager and Seth Smith,1 and you have a lineup that could mount a challenge against Dallas Keuchel, Garrett Richards, Cole Hamels, & Co. over the final few weeks. If Hernandez’s troubles continue, though, Cano’s revival might not be enough to prevent the Mariners’ tailspin from getting even worse.

Snake’s Bite

The combination of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock could be poisonous for the many contenders on Arizona’s closing slate.

21. Cleveland Indians (58-65, minus-24, LW: 19)
20. Chicago White Sox (58-64, minus-55, LW: 20)
19. Detroit Tigers (59-64, minus-45, LW: 18)
18. San Diego Padres (61-63, minus-39, LW: 21)
17. Arizona Diamondbacks (62-61, plus-40, LW: 17)
16. Minnesota Twins (63-61, minus-14, LW: 16)

While the Mariners have a chance to seriously disrupt the proceedings in their own division, the Diamondbacks can mess with plenty of potential playoff teams, both in-division and beyond. Their remaining schedule includes the best in the NL West — two series each against the Dodgers and Giants for a total of 13 games — but also showdowns with the Cards, Cubs, and Astros.

The biggest challenge for those high-in-the-standings opponents is simple and terrifying: Find a way to neutralize arguably the two best players in the National League not named Bryce Harper. By FanGraphs’s Wins Above Replacement, the second- and third-best batters in the NL this season have been Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock.

We know the Goldschmidt story by now: An eighth-round pick out of Texas State University six years ago, Goldschmidt, who was a hulking first baseman not expected to do much more than hit and walk, might’ve been more highly coveted during the height of the Moneyball era but was passed over by teams prizing speed, athleticism, and defense. In 1,387 minor league plate appearances, he posted a terrific .317/.407/.620 line, but he never made any top-100 prospect lists.

Of course, everyone was wrong: Goldschmidt has developed into an impressively well-rounded hitter, showing power to all fields and outperforming all but six other MLB hitters since making his big league debut in 2011. Better still, he’s become an excellent fielder and agile baserunner, too, checking the boxes for both elite slugger and superior athlete. And this season he’s been a monster, trailing only Harper and Joey Votto in park-adjusted NL offense, leading all first basemen with 15 Defensive Runs Saved,2 and even sliding into the top 10 with 20 stolen bases. (Barring a sudden six-week slump, he’ll post just the fifth season ever of a first baseman batting .300 and going 20/20.) Harper will be tough to beat in the MVP race, but next time Arizona’s good, Goldy’s got a shot to win his own trophy.3

While Goldschmidt’s no longer anonymous, the beastly teammate who’s been nearly as good remains unknown to many casual fans. Chosen with the no. 17 pick in the same 2009 draft Goldschmidt came out of, the Notre Dame product brought a much stronger pedigree to the table. In the minors, though, Pollock’s numbers weren’t in the same stratosphere as Goldschmidt’s, and he also didn’t make any prospect lists. In 2013, his first year in the majors, Pollock posted a .269/.322/.409 line that was essentially league average after adjusting for Chase Field’s hitter-friendly confines. Through the first two months of 2014, Pollock had hit a robust .316/.366/.554, and he looked set to become Goldschmidt’s able wingman. But a hand injury knocked him out for 79 games, and he struggled after returning in September.

Healthy again this year, though, he’s been an all-around beast: Pollock ranks fourth in the National League in batting average, sixth in on-base percentage, third in doubles, third in steals, second in Baserunning Runs, and fifth in Defensive Runs Saved among center fielders. Yet, without the same over-the-fence power that Goldschmidt and other boppers possess, Pollock isn’t going to hit as many homers. Batting first or second in the order most of the time, he isn’t going to rack up huge RBI numbers, either. So although Goldschmidt might be slightly overlooked in MVP voting, Pollock could be the player who gets the least respect relative to his jack-of-all-trades abilities and incredible value to his team. That will be cold comfort for all the pitchers he faces over the next month, as Pollock’s lack of recognition certainly won’t keep them from sweating.

Heck, after a four-game winning streak, the Diamondbacks are now one game above .500 and just five games out of first. The odds are just shy of single digits, but if the Dodgers and Giants keep stalling … well, you never know.

Downright Offensive

Already equipped with one of the best staffs in the game, the Mets’ hitters have started to cook.

15. Tampa Bay Rays (62-62, minus-14, LW: 15)
14. Washington Nationals (62-61, plus-21, LW: 13)
13. Los Angeles Angels (63-61, minus-2, LW: 12)
12. Baltimore Orioles (62-61, plus-54, LW: 11)
11. Texas Rangers (64-59, minus-23, LW: 14)
10. San Francisco Giants (66-58, plus-62, LW: 10)
9. Los Angeles Dodgers (67-56, plus-51, LW: 6)
8. New York Mets (67-56, plus-37, LW: 9)

We knew they would pitch. With Matt Harvey returning from Tommy John surgery, Jacob deGrom following up his rookie of the year season, flame-throwing righty Noah Syndergaard joining the parade, and veteran help from Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon, the Mets figured to field one of the league’s most impressive starting rotations in 2015.

What we didn’t know is if they would hit. For the first three and a half months of the season, they mostly didn’t. David Wright’s injury, underachieving results from several of his teammates, and a core of hitters that just wasn’t all that good left the Mets only one game over .500 on July 24 and three games out of first place.

Oh, how times have changed. In the past 30 days, the Mets lead the National League in doubles, runs scored, and slugging; they’re also second in home runs and third in park-adjusted offense.4 With the bats matching the strength of the arms, everything’s trending in the right direction: The Mets now sit a season-high 11 games over .500 and lead the East by five games.

That turnaround starts with Yoenis Cespedes. Acquired in a deal with the Tigers right before the trade deadline during one of the wildest weeks in franchise history, Cespedes has hit a ton as a Met, batting .307/.344/.545 in 20 games. Compare those numbers to Carlos Gomez’s .188/.226/.250 line so far as an Astro, and the Mets might have caught a colossal break. By the time Cespedes crushed three homers Friday night at Coors Field, the complaints of fans and media over GM Sandy Alderson’s supposed lack of action were a distant memory.

Beyond Cespedes and summer call-up Michael Conforto (.271/.371/.508 over those past 30 days), the same players that made up that moribund offense from early April to late July have woken up. During the past month, Daniel Murphy’s hitting over .300 and slugging better than .500. Curtis Granderson’s clubbed eight homers. Lucas Duda’s slugging a ludicrous .720. And Wilmer Flores has carried on his newfound folk-hero status, batting .324/.361/.500.

Wright returns today, and although his loss once seemed like it’d be the end of the team’s playoff hopes, he instead rejoins a club that went 62-53 without him. But even with their captain back, the Mets still have some roster uncertainty on their hands.

First, Duda hit the disabled list over the weekend. The Mets’ best full-season hitter this year, Duda’s absence leaves them short a big left-handed bat and forces Murphy to another position he’s ill-suited to play. Over at Mets blog Amazin’ Avenue, Kevin Palermo suggests that the best option for the Mets is to deploy platoons all over the diamond, and he’s probably right.

Second, the rotation is going through some flux. The Mets skipped Harvey’s turn in the rotation Sunday. That was just the first salvo in what will be an interesting innings-saving experiment for the rest of the season, as the team tries to manage the workloads of Harvey and Syndergaard (and possibly deGrom, too) while not dropping out of first. Those efforts will be aided by Steven Matz hopefully rejoining the rotation on September 5, and the Mets subsequently going to a six-man rotation again, but this time with the intention of sticking with it for a few weeks.

Despite those concerns, the Mets still have that cushy five-game lead, and the Nationals have shown few signs of playing the way most of us expected this year. Plus, New York owns the easiest remaining schedule in baseball, as its rest-of-season opponents sport an aggregate winning percentage of just .440.5 And as we saw yesterday, maybe this really just is the Mets’ year: After the first two games of the weekend series ended with identical 14-9 scorelines, rookie Logan Verrett made his first major league start … at Coors Field. He threw eight innings, giving up just one run on four hits and striking out eight.

Bully for Them

Pittsburgh’s fortified bullpen is one of the deepest (and best) in baseball.

7. New York Yankees (68-55, plus-67, LW: 7)
6. Houston Astros (69-56, plus-81, LW: 8)
5. Toronto Blue Jays (69-55, plus-164, LW: 5)
4. Chicago Cubs (71-51, plus-39, LW: 4)
3. Kansas City Royals (75-48, plus-77, LW: 2)
2. Pittsburgh Pirates (74-48, plus-77, LW: 3)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (78-45, plus-116, LW: 1)

In case it wasn’t hard enough chasing the division-leading Cardinals and fending off the surging Cubs, the Pirates also had to deal with a murderous stretch of schedule. Following an August 3 rainout, Pittsburgh faced a stretch of 18 games against teams ranging from deceptively tough to downright scary. With two against the Cubs, three against the Dodgers, Cards, Mets, and D-backs, then four against the Giants, this 18-game stretch threatened to undo much of the great work the Pirates had done to thrust themselves into playoff position for the third straight year.

Well, the results are in, and the Pirates went 13-5 over those 18 games. They’re just a half-game behind the Royals for the second-best record in baseball and three and a half back of the Cardinals in the NL Central race. Plus, with that brutal stretch out of the way, the Pirates now own the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the majors.

Can they catch the Cards and avoid the minefield that is the one-game wild-card playoff? It’s not out of the question. From Andrew McCutchen shaking off that concerning early-season knee injury and rounding into pristine form, to Jung Ho Kang making a run at the NL Rookie of the Year award (and the “bargain of the decade” award) with continued heroics, to the Cardinals potentially being due for some luck-related regression, there are plenty of reasons to believe.

Arguably the biggest surprise of the Pirates’ recent run has been the exemplary work of their bullpen. For the season, the Buccos own baseball’s third-lowest relief ERA. And the two mainstays doing the heavy lifting for most of the season have been Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. Locking down the final two innings of the game, the righty-lefty combination has combined for 116.1 innings pitched, 97 strikeouts, 23 walks, five home runs, a 1.86 ERA, and a ground ball rate just shy of 55 percent.

Two late-July pickups have fortified that bullpen corps, and you’d expect Joakim Soria to be a strong addition given his impressive credentials. Acquired from the Tigers on July 30 for Double-A shortstop prospect JaCoby Jones, the veteran right-hander has been mostly solid despite a couple of bouts with so-so command, as he’s delivered 10 strikeouts and a 2.38 ERA in 11.1 innings as a Pirate.

The bigger shock for Pittsburgh — and one of the biggest for any team all year — has been the performance of Joe Blanton. Acquired from the Royals for nothing more than a few bucks on July 29, the well-traveled right-hander has caught fire with his sixth major league team. In his 11-year major league career, Blanton had thrown 1,553.2 innings as a starter and just 55.1 frames as a reliever — both with forgettable results. But after being given the role of long man in the Pirates pen, Blanton has become Pittsburgh’s secret weapon. In 15.1 innings with the Bucs, Blanton has fanned 20 batters, issued just three unintentional walks, and allowed just 11 hits with no home runs. He’s throwing his slider far more often than he has all year — nearly 40 percent of the time — and opponents are batting just .211 on at-bats ending in Blanton sliders since he joined the Pirates.

With Soria joining Melancon and Watson, the Pirates have built the kind of Royals-esque fearsome late-inning trio that’s now all the rage. Throw in Arquimedes Caminero (one of the hardest-throwing pitchers on the planet with a fastball that averages 99 mph), along with veterans Jared Hughes and Antonio Bastardo, and you have a bullpen that’s deep enough and good enough to ably cover for a rotation weakened by A.J. Burnett’s elbow injury. And if Blanton can somehow keep up this out-of-nowhere, old-school, multi-inning brand of dominance, the Pirates could have a poor man’s version of 2012 Tim Lincecum on their hands.

That bullpen combination has already helped push Pittsburgh to an MLB-high 36 come-from-behind wins this year. And even if the reinforced relief staff doesn’t push them beyond the Cardinals in the standings, it rounds out a team that no one wants to face come playoff time.

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, The 30, MLB Stats, MLB Power Rankings, Jonah Keri, Seattle Mariners, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks, Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brayan Pena, Yoenis Cespedes, David Wright, Joe Blanton, Joakim Soria

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.

Archive @ jonahkeri