The 30: For the Orioles, Cardinals, Jays, and Rangers, Timing Is Everything

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Consider the huge importance of timing in baseball.

A major league hitter has less than 0.4 seconds to react to an Aroldis Chapman fastball, and as soon as he gears up for that heater, a looping curve falls out of the sky and into the strike zone. As Hall of Fame lefty Warren Spahn famously put it: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”

An ill-timed injury can scuttle a team’s playoff hopes, while a player coming off the DL at just the right time can fuel World Series dreams. Reputations are forever burnished or dismantled based on one play in a big moment. As we’ve discussed multiple times this season, the sequences in which a team clusters or prevents hits can determine success or failure.

This week’s featured teams have all suffered or benefited from quirks of timing. The Rangers were crushed by injuries early, turning a potentially promising campaign into a disaster. The Blue Jays led their division for a good chunk of the season, before a terribly timed losing streak all but smashed their playoff hopes. The Cardinals just got two of their best players back from injury, right as the pennant race enters the home stretch. And the Orioles have crushed preseason projections with perfectly timed pitching success that we’d call “clutch” if we believed in such things.

To prepare for all of this timing talk, let’s exchange a few high fives:

angels-fan-high-five

Get ready for a looooong flight:

And avoid the head at all costs:

It’s Week 22 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

I’ve been critical of the Phillies almost from day one, lamenting both the present and future of a team built on aging players well past their prime. But this franchise still boasts a rich history, and with that in mind, I’m dialing up the Wayback Machine and revisiting a great moment in Phillies history for this week’s Bat Flip honors.

In 1983, the Phils faced the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS, needing one more win to clinch the series. Philly put two runners on with two outs in the first inning, bringing Gary Matthews to the plate. The man they called Sarge annihilated the pitch, sending a three-run rocket over the wall in left at Veterans Stadium, and eventually leading the Phillies to a series-clinching win and their second trip to the World Series in four years. Matthews’s reaction was instantaneous: a behind-the-back flip that propelled the bat to the ground and out of the batter’s box, followed by a cocky look back to Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager. To this day, it’s one of the greatest flips of all time.

Eyes on the Future

If history is any guide, at least a couple of these non-contenders will become threats in 2015.

30. Colorado Rockies (54-82, -85 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Texas Rangers (53-83, -132, LW: 29)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (57-79, -98, LW: 28)
27. Houston Astros (59-79, -94, LW: 27)
26. Boston Red Sox (60-76, -72, LW: 26)
25. Minnesota Twins (59-77, -49, LW: 23)
24. Chicago White Sox (62-75, -77, LW: 22)
23. Chicago Cubs (61-76, -55, LW: 25)
22. Philadelphia Phillies (62-74, -64, LW: 24)
21. New York Mets (64-73, -13, LW: 21)
20. San Diego Padres (64-71, -23, LW: 20)

Some Rangers writers and fans have called for Yu Darvish to pitch through injuries, carrying on a local tradition of labeling the staff ace a diva who lacks the needed fortitude to be a true top pitcher. Given all that’s happened to this team in 2014, this attitude is spectacularly meshuganeh. The notion that Darvish should fight his way through elbow pain so that the worst team in the American League can finish 33 games under .500 instead of 35 makes no sense at all.

Jeopardizing Darvish’s health would be irresponsible in general, but particularly so given the team’s wider health concerns. I wrote about the Rangers’ injury woes back in June, detailing how an avalanche of early pitching injuries had wrecked the team’s hopes by April. Some of those injuries are so severe that we might not see those pitchers back until the middle of next season, if at all.

One man we’ll see before then: no. 2 starter Derek Holland, who’s been sidelined all year following an offseason knee injury, but who’s set to make his season debut on Tuesday. In some ways, though, Holland’s return is less cause for excitement than a reminder of the woes this team has faced to date:

If Holland can make it through two or three starts while throwing five or six innings each time, it’ll be a great sign for next season. Last year, Holland quietly emerged as one of the AL’s best starters. At just 27 years old, and with two more years under contract plus two club option years after that, he’s nearly as big a part of the club’s future as Darvish is.

After that, it gets ugly for Texas.

Martin Perez would slot in as the team’s third starter if healthy, but the 23-year-old lefty had Tommy John surgery in May. Since it often takes pitchers 18 months or more to return to full effectiveness, the Rangers might not be able to count on Perez again until 2016. Nick Tepesch will make something close to league minimum next season, and has started 34 games in the majors since Opening Day 2013. Despite a misleading drop in ERA, he’s also seen his skills decline sharply this season, posting the second-lowest strikeout rate among all pitchers with as many innings pitched this year. Colby Lewis is a free agent at season’s end, and he’s pitched so poorly that it’s hard to see much reason to bring him back. Tanner Scheppers will likely work out of the bullpen next year. Alexi Ogando is also out for the year with an arm injury and looks unlikely to return in any role other than relief. Matt Harrison might never pitch again after undergoing spinal fusion surgery.

Presumably, the Rangers won’t be content to settle for that ugly status quo, not after winning 90-plus games in four consecutive seasons before this year’s fiasco. If Jurickson Profar makes it back to full health, they’ll likely try to deal one of their trio of talented middle infielders, with $120 million man Elvis Andrus by far the most expendable, and either Profar or Rougned Odor offering the most trade value. A team like Cincinnati, which is rich with starting pitching but trotting out an all-glove/terrible-bat/arbitration-eligible shortstop in Zack Cozart, could be a good match, to name just one possibility.

The larger question is whether the Rangers will open their wallets for a big-ticket free-agent pitcher. Adding someone like James Shields, Jon Lester, or Max Scherzer to a rotation headed by Darvish and Holland, and a lineup fielding a healthy Profar, Prince Fielder, et al., could quickly make Texas a contender again.

On the other hand, the Rangers already have nearly $109 million in committed salary for next year, not counting multiple arbitration-eligible players who are likely to return. Instead of adding salary, the team could look to shed contracts and retool the roster. Trading Alex Rios and maybe even the perpetually underrated Adrian Beltre (along with Andrus) could allow GM Jon Daniels & Co. to rebuild a roster that could use a lot more payroll flexibility, with the massive albatross contracts of Harrison, Fielder, and Shin-Soo Choo looking unmovable.

A serious rebuild could be painful for both management and fans to swallow, and could end up costing some people their jobs. But at the very least, both rebuilding and resuming spending should be considered. The one thing the Rangers can’t afford to do is nothing.

The Hoverers

Eight teams within a shout of .500 on either side, with only a few in reach of something more.

19. Cincinnati Reds (66-71, +9, LW: 19)
18. Tampa Bay Rays (66-71, +15, LW: 17)
17. Miami Marlins (66-69, -27, LW: 18)
16. Toronto Blue Jays (69-67, -2, LW: 16)
15. New York Yankees (70-65, -27, LW: 13)
14. Pittsburgh Pirates (71-65, +12, LW: 14)
13. Atlanta Braves (72-65, +26, LW: 12)
12. Cleveland Indians (70-64, +24, LW: 15)

This was going to be the year.

The Blue Jays led the AL East by six games on June 6, and still owned a share of first four weeks later. On July 31, they sat just 1.5 games behind the front-running Orioles, riding a six-game winning streak and leading the race for the AL’s second wild-card spot by three games. After 21 years in the wilderness, it looked like the Jays would finally make it back to the playoffs.

Since the non-waiver trade deadline, the Jays have won just nine games and lost 17. They’re now an extreme long shot to crack the postseason, sitting 10.5 games out in the East and five games out of the second wild-card spot. All of which has left one of North America’s most tortured sports towns asking questions — namely: How did this happen? And why didn’t the Jays do more at the deadline to prevent it?

One of the Blue Jays’ biggest problems has been their performance in close games. They’re just 13-14 in one-run games and 4-6 in extra-inning games this season. There’s usually an element of randomness to those results — a bloop hit here, a double-clutch throw there, and those kinds of games can swing in an instant — but in Toronto’s case, it’s not random. It’s a pattern.

On August 24 against the Rays, manager John Gibbons trotted out Sergio Santos in the 10th inning, with the score tied. Three batters later, the game was no longer tied, due in part to an error but also to Santos allowing a walk and a single, triggering a 2-1 Jays loss. The next night, in another tied game in the 10th, Gibbons turned to rookie Aaron Sanchez, who’d been pitching well since his July 23 debut, but who promptly coughed up a run, resulting in a 4-3 loss to Boston. The next night was the worst one yet. Tied 4-4 in the 11th, Gibbons called on closer Casey Janssen for a rare second inning of work. A single, an ill-advised throw by Janssen, an error by Janssen, and a two-run single by Dustin Pedroia put the Jays down by two. Then Santos threw gas on the fire, following a strikeout by allowing a three-run homer, a double, and a two-run homer in succession. Three straight games, three straight blowups resulting in extra-inning losses. For a team trying to contend, bad relief pitching is the worst sort of timing.

Santos was finally designated for assignment on Wednesday, likely ending a nightmare season in which he posted an unimaginable 8.57 ERA. But even minus Santos, the bullpen remains full of pitchers who’ve underachieved this year, making it four years out of five that the Jays’ relief corps has been somewhere between bad and awful.

Chalk the rest of the Jays’ unfortunate results up to some of that lousy timing. Juan Francisco’s home run binge went south, resulting in a .130 batting average and no home runs over the past month. Edwin Encarnacion came off the DL on August 15, but hasn’t hit a lick since. Colby Rasmus and Anthony Gose have both been out machines in center field since the trade deadline. Mark Buehrle has gone from an apparent Cy Young contender early in the season to the pedestrian pitcher he was in 2013. And Marcus Stroman, one of the most impressive rookies in the league, has had some of the worst timing of all, putting up solid peripherals but also a 6.39 ERA in his past five starts, which is what happens when nearly half the runners a pitcher allows on base come around to score.

With the season seemingly going down the tubes, some fans and media have blamed GM Alex Anthopoulos and gun-shy ownership for acquiring nothing more than useful infielder Danny Valencia via trade. It’s certainly possible that acquiring, say, Lester or David Price might have changed Toronto’s season and helped avert this hellish stretch of losing. But it’s also fair to ask if giving up, say, Stroman and/or Sanchez to pull off that kind of trade would have hurt the team too much in the long term.

The truth is that Toronto was a lousy team a year ago, and isn’t much better this season, torrid start notwithstanding. If the result is another .500 season or worse for the Jays, then both management and ownership should absolutely be taken to task for allowing another round of October golf. But it’s tough to blame Toronto’s record on a lack of activity at the deadline. After an excellent first four months, half the roster went ice-cold all at once, with little rhyme or reason. If the Jays do indeed break hearts this year, their lack of roster quality, plus some awful timing, will be the biggest reasons why.

Jockeying for Position

Six teams representing multiple races that could go right down to the wire.

11. St. Louis Cardinals (73-63, -7, LW: 10)
10. Milwaukee Brewers (73-63, +15, LW: 8)
9. Seattle Mariners (73-62, +96, LW: 7)
8. Kansas City Royals (74-61, +22, LW: 6)
7. Detroit Tigers (74-62, +33, LW: 9)
6. San Francisco Giants (74-62, +61, LW: 11)

When it comes to timing, there’s little better than getting a franchise player or two back for the final month of the regular season. Getting star catcher Yadier Molina back in the lineup following his seven-week absence, and possibly getting young phenom Michael Wacha back this week following his two-and-a-half-month absence, could give the Cardinals a huge lift. And not a moment too soon, given the bigger timing problem that’s plagued the Redbirds all year: miserable hitting with runners in scoring position.

The Cards rank a lowly 25th in MLB with RISP, batting just .249/.335/.352 this season. The list of Cardinals struggling in that spot runs deep, but to name three of the worst offenders: Matt Adams is hitting .224 with runners in scoring position, while Jhonny Peralta is batting .227 and Kolten Wong .221. Last week’s four-game losing streak featured numerous problems, including Justin Masterson getting crushed for five runs in 4.1 innings Saturday and raising his ERA with the Cards to 7.90 in the process, but when a team goes 5-for-26 with runners in scoring position over four games, it’s not likely to win regardless of the pitching.

The Cards also rank second-to-last in the majors in home runs. This isn’t a new problem, as last year’s squad finished 27th. But St. Louis batted an incredible .330/.402/.463 with RISP last year, easily the best line in the majors, one of the best in baseball history, and the biggest driving force in the team’s 97-win season. Lacking those timely hits this year, the Cardinals rank 26th in runs scored, with only the punchless Padres behind them.

So when handicapping the Cardinals’ chances to win another wild card or NL Central crown and make the playoffs for the fourth straight year, we’re forced to weigh several conflicting factors. On one hand, we’re talking about a team with a minus-seven run differential, eighth-worst in the National League. On the other, we’re aware that a huge part of that weak run differential comes from the team’s terrible outcomes with runners in scoring position, a 136-game run of bad luck that’s reversed last year’s preposterously fluky RISP numbers, and could thus improve toward a more reasonable mean at any time. We’re also talking about a team that’s also pitched terribly over the past month, but could improve those results once Wacha returns and replaces Masterson in the rotation.

Perhaps most important, we’re talking about 26 games to go between now and season’s end. With Milwaukee losing five in a row, the Cards have worked their way back into a tie for first in the NL Central. We can tally up their weaknesses and make a case for St. Louis’s rivals being better equipped to play into October, even once both Molina and Wacha are back in the fold. But with so few games left to play, a bit of improved timing could be enough to propel a slightly weaker team over some stronger rivals. If the two returning DL stars bring some pixie dust with them onto the field, no one in Cardinal red would complain.

Less Than Straight A’s

Oakland’s sudden stumble looks out of place in a group that’s otherwise playing well.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers (77-60, +59, LW: 5)
4. Baltimore Orioles (79-56, +78, LW: 4)
3. Oakland A’s (78-58, +151, LW: 2)
2. Washington Nationals (77-58, +106, LW: 1)
1. Los Angeles Angels (83-53, +118, LW: 3)

Chris Tillman didn’t pitch particularly well on Saturday against the Twins. The right-hander surrendered six hits and three walks, and threw first-pitch strikes to just eight of the 24 batters he faced during five arduous innings. None of that mattered, though, thanks to spectacular timing. Facing jam after jam, Tillman found a way to tamp down Twins batters at just the right moment, allowing no hits in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position and stranding eight men on base.

The Orioles went on to win the game 3-2, continuing a season-long stretch in which ordinary pitchers have performed extraordinary Houdini acts to carry the team to victory. Baltimore pitchers have held opponents to a tiny .227 batting average with runners in scoring position this season, the third-lowest mark in the majors. Those sparkling RISP results, combined with the frequency with which O’s pitchers have allowed base runners on second and third, have made a huge difference in the team’s fortunes this year.

According to FanGraphs, the O’s rank first in the majors in “clutch” pitching. Those figures you see in the “clutch” column represent the number of additional wins they’ve collected, when compared with how they’d fare if their pitchers had instead put up league-average results with runners in scoring position.

The Orioles have enjoyed a fine season to be sure, building a nine-game lead that’s the biggest of any current division leader and that all but ensures they’ll win the AL East for the first time in 17 years. Still, if they’d gotten average luck in “clutch” pitching spots, we’d be talking about a race that’s still very much up for grabs, even in an uncharacteristically weak AL East. (And before you ask, yes, it is luck: With most of the same pitchers on the job last year, the Orioles lost two and a half more games than they would have thanks to lousy pitching results with runners in scoring position, ranking 28th in that department in 2013.)

Hypotheticals aside, the O’s can pretty much start planning for the ALDS, and for building a roster that can compete for a World Series crown. It’s a mortal lock that GM Dan Duquette, the self-proclaimed architect of Moneyball 1.0,1 is aware of his pitching staff’s unusually great results with runners in scoring position. So it was interesting to see the Orioles pull off deals for outfielder Alejandro De Aza and infielder Kelly Johnson before Sunday’s waiver trade deadline rather than chasing more pitching. Then again, players like those could offer useful contributions, without the hefty future dollar commitments that an over-40 Bartolo Colon or a mediocre Scott Feldman would’ve brought — let alone the king’s ransom a Price or a Lester would’ve netted at the July 31 deadline.

Besides, it’s not like this has been all good fortune, or even close to it. The Orioles lead the majors in homers by a wide margin, and they rank seventh in runs scored. They’ve built a dynamic bullpen duo in closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O’Day, with the side-winding O’Day putting up some of the best RISP numbers by any pitcher ever (.080/.226/.100, albeit in a sample of just 62 plate appearances) to help produce a microscopic 0.91 ERA. Interestingly, Britton is actually faring much worse in those spots than he is the rest of the time.

In short, the O’s won’t win any beauty contests with a postseason rotation featuring four out of Kevin Gausman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, and our recently fortunate friend, Mr. Tillman. But if they can get five or six adequate innings, strong relief pitching, and continued power binges against tougher playoff competition … well, you never know.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, Baseball, MLB Stats, Bullpens, MLB Trade Deadline, injuries, Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha, Yu Darvish, Darren O'Day, 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 national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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