Sometimes, we’ll use this space for a long, elaborate intro — one filled with alternate versions of reality and mind-bending hypotheticals. This week, we offer something simpler, but no less mind-bending: Jake “The Snake” Roberts singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” You’re welcome, America.
It’s Week 7 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
9. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Entering the Marlins’ Friday-night game against the Diamondbacks, Kevin Slowey ranked among the biggest surprises of the 2013 season. Even after a rough start against the Dodgers, Miami’s scrap-heap find owned a 2.55 ERA, having given up three runs or fewer in seven of his first eight starts, one or fewer in five of eight. Then Paul Goldschmidt came up, and this happened. Two innings later, Goldschmidt worked Slowey for 12 pitches; on the 13th, this happened. So endeth the good fortune of Kevin Slowey.
If there’s any consolation for Slowey, it’s that Goldschmidt hasn’t played favorites in mashing his way through the rest of the league. As we pass the quarter-way mark of the season, Goldschmidt is neck-and-neck with Miguel Cabrera for the title of the best hitter in baseball. Not someone with a high-pedigree, but Goldschmidt — the eighth-round pick turned world-beater who has thrust the upstart Diamondbacks into first place in the NL West.
The narrative surrounding the D-backs this offseason revolved around the team’s efforts to purge certain players who didn’t please manager Kirk Gibson in favor of others who were supposedly grittier, and more likely to come through in high-leverage situations. But the secret to this team’s success has little to do with Martin Prado’s clutch bat (he has been terrible) or Justin Upton’s addition by subtraction (he’s leading the league in home runs) or some nebulous attitude transformation. The Diamondbacks are succeeding because they built one of baseball’s most productive farm systems, one that started paying dividends long before this season’s revival.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Goldschmidt brought plenty of power potential coming out of Texas State in the 2009 draft. But the game had started to shift by then, with the Moneyball tradition of piling John Jahas to the sky eschewed in favor of old-school traits like speed, defense, and athleticism. Power still played, but a hitter with seemingly little defensive or baserunning value, lots of strikeouts, and potential problems against right-handed pitching didn’t wow many scouts; not once did Goldschmidt so much as crack Baseball America‘s list of top 100 prospects. You’d think that hitting .317/.407/.620 in 315 minor league games might’ve swayed someone, but even those gargantuan numbers could be dismissed as the product of hitter-friendly leagues and parks and weak minor league competition. Goldschmidt made the Show in 2011, then put up solid numbers in his first full season last year, hitting .286/.359/.490, adding 18 stolen bases to his 20 homers. Even then, a skeptic could still hand-wave away much of that production: Chase Field is a very friendly hitter’s park in its own right, plus Goldschmidt appeared to be the kind of hitter who could be exploited in the right matchup, given he hit just .257/.326/.412 with 96 strikeouts and just 34 walks in 386 plate appearances against right-handers last year. Though 44 games don’t make a conclusive data set, Goldschmidt’s progress so far this year is encouraging, with a wOBA above .430 against both lefties and righties in 2013. As ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon illustrated, Goldschmidt has been particularly lethal against pitches up, crushing those in the zone and doing a better job of laying off those that sail too high.
Goldschmidt is one of many homegrown Diamondbacks directly or indirectly contributing to this year’s success. Finally given the chance to play every day, Gerardo Parra has flourished this year. Even after The Trade shipped Upton out of town, Parra still looked like he’d get aced out of playing time, with the newly signed Cody Ross set to join December 2011 pickup Jason Kubel and rookie Adam Eaton as the team’s starting outfield trio. Never mind that Parra had shown with his speed, decent on-base skills, and Gold Glove–caliber defense that he might’ve been the team’s best outfield option heading into this season, rather than the fourth outfielder that the D-backs seemed determined to make him year after year. Injuries to all three of the would-be starters have pushed Parra into a starting role, and he’s responded by being one of the most valuable all-around players in the league, hitting .320/.385/.4941 and again playing terrific defense, even in the more challenging role of everyday center fielder.
Go down the roster and you’ll find the fruits of Arizona’s farm system everywhere. Early-season breakout pitching star Patrick Corbin2 has emerged as an unlikely ace, yielding two earned runs or fewer in each of his first eight starts, one shy of Randy Johnson’s franchise record to start a season. Wade Miley’s delivered above-average results a year after finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. Didi Gregorius has been a revelation as the team’s new starting shortstop, showing the slick glove everyone expected but also shockingly strong production at the plate (.354/.414/.582); Gregorius isn’t homegrown, but he did come over as part of a three-team trade that shipped highly touted D-Backs prospect Trevor Bauer to Cleveland.3 Trevor Cahill, on his way to a second straight strong season in Arizona with a 2.48 ERA and 3.67 FIP, was acquired for former D-backs farmhands Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill, and Ryan Cook. Ian Kennedy, Miguel Montero, and Prado are all off to slow starts this year, but all three still project as core players who were either homegrown or acquired in trades with born-and-raised Arizona players going the other way.
As I’ve written before, the Diamondbacks would’ve projected as contenders this year even if they’d done nothing over the winter, having finished at .500 last year but with an expected won-lost record of 86-76 based on their runs scored and runs allowed totals. Kevin Towers, Gibson, and others mistook a 15-27 record in one-run games and terrible late-inning hitting for a lack of fortitude, ignoring that the same core of players won 94 games and hit very well in late-game situations just a year earlier. Rather than being patient, they singled out certain players they no longer wanted around. They haven’t missed Chris Young (or Bauer), but Upton teaming with Goldschmidt would’ve been terrifying for opponents.
You could reasonably argue that management has done a masterful job building the Diamondbacks into winners this year, that the proof lies in their charge to the top of the standings. Or you could posit that the front office did more harm than good, that trading away Upton was a terrible idea that will haunt them through 2015, that they owe a big chunk of their success to dumb luck because Parra might’ve been stapled to the bench if not for injuries, and that Mike Rizzo, Tom Allison, and company deserve the lion’s share of the credit for what’s happened in the desert. Either way, the Snakes are winning, and they’ve got the talent to keep it up.
18. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Has any sequence better summed up a team’s season than what the Phillies pulled off Sunday? Trailing 2-1 in the ninth inning and facing the usually unhittable Aroldis Chapman, the Phils sent the execrable Delmon Young, Mendoza line–scraping backup catcher Erik Kratz, and career .243/.278/.397 hitter Freddy Galvis up to bat. You couldn’t script what happened next even after 30 shots from SCDPCGC’s Dr. Feelgood.
First, Young led off with a walk, a lunar eclipse of an event given his track record. Six years ago, Young was the no. 3 prospect in baseball, a five-tool commodity known as much for his speed as his bat; on this day, the Phillies sent Cliff Lee — Cliff Lee! — in to pinch-run for him. Then Lee, in there for no reason other than to not be Delmon Young, somehow got picked off. Then Kratz turned around a 98 mph fastball and launched a rocket over the wall in left-center to tie the game. Then Galvis got a 95 mph heater and roped a line drive just inside the foul pole to win it. Seriously, all of that really happened.
At two games under .500, the Phils have had more bad moments than good ones, perhaps not as exhilarating as what transpired Sunday afternoon. But it’s the how, not the what, that truly encapsulates the 2013 Phillies.
The offensive powerhouse once led by Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley is now an offensive pushover, with only the Nationals, White Sox, and Marlins producing weaker numbers on a park- and league-adjusted basis. Utley’s still the team’s best all-around player, but at .276/.335/.481 he’s nowhere near the MVP-level player he used to be. Rollins has seen a steeper fall, hitting .251/.302/.389 with peripheral numbers down across the board compared to last year’s levels. Howard’s simply a disaster, hitting .245/.282/.430, retaining a sliver of his peak power but also striking out five times more often than he’s walking, his defense and baserunning down from the already weak levels of his prime as age and injuries whittle away at his remaining value.
It’s been the relative no-names — not Kratz and Galvis per se, but others close to that phylum — who have kept the season afloat. There’s 25-year-old Domonic Brown and his 30-homer potential (even if he makes far too many outs at the plate and far too few in the outfield at this stage of his career). And there’s 28-year-old Kyle Kendrick, having the best season of his career, but he’s living on an elevated strand rate and low hit rate that are covering for his below-average ability to miss bats. It gets thin after that, with Roy Halladay seemingly on his last legs and even reliable co-ace Cole Hamels having (by far) his worst season at age 29. You can’t tell too much from run differential after 44 games, but the Phillies’ expected win-loss record of 18-26 does seem more indicative of the team’s true talent level at this stage, with wildly improbable wins like Sunday’s needed just to keep Philly on the outer reaches of the race.
Scraping by on guile, luck, and miracles usually isn’t a path that portends success. The question is whether the Phillies will try to stay the course, or recognize their own mediocrity and act on it.
We’ve already lobbied for Ruben Amaro Jr. and company to blow up the Phillies — there are at least a couple of deals worth pursuing in the next few weeks. Though there’s little to suggest the two teams have explored this, multiple writers have suggested that an Utley trade to Baltimore would make all kinds of sense, given the Orioles’ dire need at that position and that Utley’s due to become a free agent at the end of the year. Rollins can’t become a free agent until after the 2014 season, and maybe 2015 if his option vests. Even a diminished Rollins would be an upgrade over several teams’ starting shortstops. Lee’s having another strong season, but he, too, could be prime trade bait come July.
Yet even if retooling seems like the most logical move, there are reasons to believe it might not happen. First there’s Amaro, who after years of go-for-it moves in which he emptied the farm system, might not have the will to pull a 180. Looming even larger are off-field considerations. Though the Phillies rank a solid fifth in attendance, they were first last year, and per-game numbers are down nearly 14 percent this season.4 Plus as Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported earlier this year, the Phillies could be next in line for a huge local TV deal. Maybe they look at what the Dodgers have done and realize that throwing bad money after bad is a great way to build a losing team. But the pressure to double down with more expensive veterans could be substantial. Which means the National League’s winningest team from 2007 through 2011 might keep charting the same path, long odds be damned.
22. SEATTLE MARINERS
At this moment, Jesus Montero is a terrible baseball player. He’s an out machine and an awful base runner, his supposedly legendary raw power not showing up often enough to make up for his other flaws. But what truly makes Montero among the very worst players in the big leagues — someone who shouldn’t have anything close to an everyday gig — is his unbelievably bad defense.
We’ve made encouraging progress over the past few years in quantifying defensive contributions for players at most positions. Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating are far from perfect.5 But given a large enough sample, we can learn a fair bit about a player’s defensive ability, certainly a lot more than we could when fielding percentage was our only way to measure defense. Catcher defense remains tougher to quantify, though we’re starting to make progress there, too. As Ben Lindbergh ably demonstrated last week, we can evaluate a catcher’s defensive contributions in part by breaking down his pitch-framing ability. Montero is to framing pitches as Angel Hernandez is to quality umpiring.
Lindbergh recently ran down the list of best and worst pitch framers of 2013. He found that Montero is tied with the Twins’ Ryan Doumit as the worst pitch framer in the game this year. Jeff Sullivan took a different approach. Using FanGraphs data on pitches in and out of the strike zone and actual ball/strike calls, he crunched some numbers to see which teams get the most extra called strikes, and which ones get the fewest. It’s conceivable that everything from the movement on a given pitching staff’s pitches to the quirks of certain umpiring crews might affect the numbers. In a large enough sample, though, counting extra called strikes should give us an intriguing additional gauge of pitch-framing ability. Sullivan found the Brewers ahead of every other team in extra called strikes, with the Mariners coming in dead last. That’s not all Montero’s fault, given he’s caught in 25 of the team’s 44 games. Still, the numbers reinforce what scouts and even casual observers have been saying from day one, without the benefit of data: Montero should be DHing, not squatting for nine innings. Problem is, this would leave the Mariners with a designated hitter who’s also a lousy hitter.
Thanks to Joe Mauer, the Twins only use Doumit for occasional starts behind the plate. The M’s don’t have any great Plan B’s on the major league roster, with Kelly Shoppach a fine backup who hits lefties well but lacks the skill to start 120 games. Top catching prospect Mike Zunino swatted his seventh homer of the year Sunday to raise his slugging average to just shy of .500; he’s also getting on base just 30 percent of the time, striking out in more than one-third of his at-bats. Still, the hope is that Zunino comes up at some point this year and takes Montero’s job, Seattle finds a taker for Kendrys Morales, and Montero becomes free to focus on hitting and maybe develop into a useful DH, given enough reps. At age 23, at least time is on his side.
Until then, he’s holding back an M’s team that had been playing much better until last weekend’s three straight losses at the hands of the scorching-hot Indians. The Montero–Justin Smoak–Dustin Ackley trio that we profiled three weeks ago still isn’t hitting for any kind of pop (though at least Smoak’s walking a ton, thus getting on base). But Raul Ibanez is shooting flames out of his eyeballs right now, Mike Morse has provided some of the power the M’s sorely lacked last year, and twentysomethings like Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders are showing enough to warrant keeper status. You can also add Hisashi Iwakuma to Felix Hernandez on the list of reliable Mariners starters.6
With few options short of rushing Zunino or playing Shoppach, the career backup, far more than they should, the M’s might be stuck with what they have. If the plan is to have Montero play through his struggles and learn on the job, hey, that could theoretically work. But as long as they go that route, expect a lot more ugly to happen, and for an otherwise respectable Mariners team to pay the price.
30. HOUSTON ASTROS
Rany Jazayerli has already walked us through the Astros’ hideous season and their quest to hoard high draft picks and prospects so they might contend a few years down the road. We’ve covered Jeff Luhnow, the team’s smart front office, and what they hope will be a blueprint for success. George Postolos is out and Nolan Ryan’s son Reid is in as the organization’s no. 2 man below owner Jim Crane, a move that’s tough to evaluate given the nebulous duties of “president, business operations” and the junior Ryan’s lack of high-level major league managerial experience. “Bad team, trying to get better” would seem to be about all you can say.
So let’s try something different. Let’s run down all the positive things happening with the Astros. Not with some guy in rookie ball hitting .340, nor a treatise on the smarts of their decision-makers or anything that abstract. We’re talking actual ballplayers, on the actual major league roster.
There’s Jose Altuve, meme master and contact hitter supreme, hitting .333 though with few walks and limited power. There’s Bud Norris, owner of a 2.30 ERA at home and 7.71 ERA on the road this year, which the Astros can only hope is a small-sample-size fluke that won’t prevent Norris from becoming attractive trade bait this summer for a team looking for a fourth or fifth starter.7 Jose Veras has been a pleasant surprise as the team’s low-budget closer, striking out a batter an inning and mostly dodging the command demons that have followed him through much of his career. And that well, that’s about it for positive contributors, really.
There’ve been little flecks of hope. Wednesday’s 7-5 win against the Tigers snapped a six-game losing streak. J.D. Martinez homered in that game, showing another flash of the pop (.208 Isolated Power in 81 plate appearances) that gives him a whiff of potential. Maybe Chris Carter’s power becomes so prodigious that it washes away the rest of his skills, which are all replacement-level or worse. Maybe Carlos Pena goes on a hot streak for long enough that some DH-desperate team trades a B prospect to rent him for a couple months.
But there really isn’t much here, not now anyway. If you’re an Astros fan, you root for the tiniest victories in the present, knowing any bigger wins could be years away. You trust the process, and painful though they may be, you try not to sweat the results.