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The 30: Trouble in the Capital

In a season when the Nationals were supposed to win it all, everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.

Bryce Harper

Ready for some knee-buckling, parrot-carrying rankings action?

It’s Week 9 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

9. OAKLAND A’S

Three things I’m loving about the A’s:

1. Bartolo Colon’s slim … walk rate. The 40-year-old right-hander carved through the feckless White Sox lineup on Friday, tossing a five-hit shutout with three strikeouts and no walks. The lack of free passes wasn’t a surprise, given what Colon’s done this season: In 70⅓ innings, he’s walked a total of four batters. Since the turn of the 20th century, only one other qualified starting pitcher has posted a lower walk rate than Colon’s 0.51 BB per nine innings: Carlos Silva, who walked nine batters in 188⅓ innings in 2005, good for a 0.43 BB/9 IP rate.1


1.

Vogelsong tossed 39 innings in 2006, posted a 6.39 ERA, then didn’t pitch in the majors again until 2011, when he shocked the baseball world by throwing 179⅔ innings with a 2.71 ERA. Sure, he benefited from a flukishly high strand rate, terrific defense behind him, and other factors mostly beyond his control. When you’re out of the game for half a decade, it’s still pretty insane.

Nearly as remarkable is the way Colon has done it. A poor and portly man’s Mariano Rivera, he’s essentially a one-pitch pitcher, throwing fastballs 85.5 percent of the time. Unlike Rivera, Colon is of course a starter, where merely being a successful two-pitch pitcher is a rare feat usually reserved for Randy Johnson types, with successful one-pitch pitchers all but nonexistent. Colon throws fastballs far more often than any other starter, with some of the other high-fastball usage names really throwing multiple types of the same pitch.

Colon’s complete-game shutout was the first by a 40-year-old AL pitcher since Curt Schilling turned the trick six years ago. Colon hasn’t allowed a run in his past 16 innings and is 3-0 with a 0.78 ERA and a 15-to-2 strikeout-to-walk rate in his past three starts. Any team could have had him this offseason via free agency. Instead the A’s scooped him up … for just one year, $3 million guaranteed. When it comes to roster construction strategies, seems they’re still not selling jeans in Oakland.

2. Jarrod Parker’s turnaround. If last season weren’t stuffed with killer Rookie of the Year candidates, Parker might’ve seized the trophy. The right-hander rang up a 13-8 record with a 3.47 ERA, with a 3.43 FIP that suggested his performance (and eventual fifth-place Rookie of the Year finish) was legitimate. But Parker likely benefited from some luck, too, with a below-average strikeout rate, a 6.8 percent home run–per–fly ball rate, and a run through the end of June in which he posted a sparkling 2.57 ERA, but with a strikeout-to-walk rate of just 58-to-36 in 73⅔. So when Parker started this season by getting hammered (8.10 ERA, 1.018 OPS allowed through five starts), it looked like the regression monster had finally struck.

One day we’ll learn not to overreact to terrible, small-sample stretches just because they happen to occur at the start of a season. Since Parker’s short stretch of season-opening debacles, he’s posted a 3.22 ERA, 21 percent strikeout rate, and 8 percent walk rate in seven starts, covering 44⅔ innings. On Sunday he steamrolled the White Sox lineup, striking out seven, walking two, and allowing just two hits in 6⅓ shutout innings. Parker might’ve lasted longer, but he ran up numerous deep counts, reaching the 105-pitch mark before lefty Jerry Blevins came in to face Adam Dunn in the seventh. Still, Parker got ahead of batters all afternoon, tossing 16 of 22 first-pitch strikes. Led by Parker and Colon, the A’s have now allowed just 2.5 runs a game over the past 16 games.

3. Covelli Loyce Crisp. Actual sequence from the eighth inning of Sunday’s 2-0 sweep-finalizing win:

• Crisp smashes a ball down the right-field line, misses a homer by 2 feet.

• Next pitch lines a sharp single to left-center.

• Two pitches later, Crisp scampers to third on a hit-and-run single by Jed Lowrie, then scores when center fielder Jordan Danks bobbles the ball for a split second.

Crisp scored both Oakland runs in the win, giving him a team-high 36 runs scored despite him missing 18 games due to various injuries. He’s now hitting .284/.387/.477 with an incredible 28-to-16 walk-to-strikeout rate and his usual display of base path derring-do. He’s 33 years old, putting up the best numbers of his career. He uses “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B. & Rakim as his walk-up music. Though it’s something of a small-sample fluke, the A’s have scored two more runs a game with him in the lineup than without. He’s got the best hair in baseball, rolling out a panoply of great dos, none better than this one. If you’re not a Coco Crisp fan, you’re just not trying.

13. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

When we last left the Giants, Madison Bumgarner was emerging as the staff’s new ace, coming off a dominant start against a powerful Braves lineup, with seven of his first eight starts of the season yielding two runs or fewer. Since then, Bumgarner has been rocked for a 6.29 ERA. And that’s the least of the Giants rotation’s problems.

Ryan Vogelsong is on the DL with a broken right hand. Considering he’d gone from rotation mainstay and one of the best stories in baseball2 to carrier of a 7.19 ERA and general piñata status, the injury wasn’t the worst news in the world. Barry Zito had the world believing a few tidy late-season starts, a couple of dramatic playoff performances, and a lucky start to this season canceled out years of mediocrity. Then the Jays and Rockies lit him up for 17 runs in 17⅓ innings. Tim Lincecum hasn’t been Tim Lincecum since 2011.


2.

Two of Silva’s nine walks that year were intentional, which means he issued seven unintentional walks in 27 starts that year.

But the biggest source of concern for Giants fans is whatever it is that’s happening to Matt Cain right now. Known for years as a front-line pitcher by the masses, and one who defies pitching-independent metrics by analysts, whatever Cain has had for the bulk of his highly successful career has gone up in smoke this season. The biggest source of his voodoo had always been abnormally low home run–to–fly ball rates. Whether those low rates were due to AT&T Park’s pitcher-friendly confines, some staffwide area of emphasis, Cain’s innate ability, or one of the most incredible (and incredibly long) streaks of luck in recent memory, no other pitcher could beat Cain in this category. This season, his home run–per–fly ball rate, normally around 7 percent, has ballooned to 15.3 percent, the 12th-worst mark in the game. There’s more: His strand rate, at 74.5 percent for his career, has plunged to 62.8 percent this season.

How is this happening? Cain’s fastball velocity is down only very slightly, seemingly not enough to make a difference. He’s striking out more batters than ever before and inducing about as many swings and misses as he has in some of his best seasons. Watching some of Cain’s recent starts, he’s starting to look a little like Lincecum over the past couple seasons, able to blow away batters, but also prone to bouts of lousy command, catching too much of the plate and getting hammered as a result. Granted, it’s just one metric, subject to statistical noise. But Cain’s getting fewer hitters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone than he has in four years.

It’s still early enough in the season that a lot of this could be a simple case of ill fortune, that we’ll need more time to get to the truth. This perennially elite defensive team is still flashing good range, but also racking up a huge number of errors, often game-changing ones. The Giants had better hope these results start to change. Their two former aces have put up replacement-level results, their current ace is scuffling, the back-of-the-rotation options aren’t any better, and the farm system doesn’t have any high-caliber prospects who look ready to pick up the slack. With few trade chips to cash in for win-now starters to boot, this is pretty much it. The winners of two of the past three World Series might have to sink or swim with what they’ve got.

15. WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Here’s why you should be worried if you’re a Nats fan.

Bryce Harper is hurt. So much so that he should have gone on the disabled list more than a month ago, when he crashed into a wall at Turner Field. He crashed into another wall two weeks after that at Dodger Stadium, injuring his knee. He has since reinjured his knee and struggled with hand and wrist problems. After hitting .344/.430/.720 in April, Harper hit just .193/.319/.368 in May. You can credit normal regression toward the mean for some of that pullback. But injuries have almost certainly played a major role, too. There’s no timetable for Harper’s return. But his absence will be strongly felt, especially considering …

… even with Harper, the Nationals posted the third-worst offensive numbers of any team in baseball, on a park- and league-adjusted basis. Some of that’s due to other injuries. Jayson Werth is slated to return from the disabled list this week, but he’ll have done so having missed more than half of Washington’s games this year. Ryan Zimmerman also served a DL stint; he has resumed hitting, but has been awful defensively, short-arming throws, making errors, and looking like he’s either on a terrible, fluky run, or might need to move to an easier position sometime soon. In other cases, it has been regression that has bitten the Nats in the ass. Ian Desmond’s 2012 line of .292/.335/.511 could be construed as a monster breakout, or a year totally out of line with what he’d done before, depending on your perspective. So far it looks like the latter, given he’s at just .265/.298/.455 this year. Adam LaRoche’s OPS is down 70 points from last year. Most painfully, Danny Espinosa has gone from just slightly below-average numbers in 2012 (.247/.315/.402) to hideous levels this year (.158/.193/.272). The Nats have highly touted prospect Anthony Rendon ready to come up and possibly contribute soon. They could slide more playing time to young power hitter Tyler Moore. But if the lineup’s truly this broken, one or two changes might not be enough.

Meanwhile, the Nationals’ pitching has been merely good, not elite as expected. Dan Haren has been a bust, looking a lot more like the ailing, pedestrian starter of 2012 than the top-flight arm he’d been for the previous several seasons. The bullpen has been merely functional, failing to get the boost expected with Rafael Soriano moving into the closer role and others expected to ease into lower-prestige jobs. Ross Detwiler can’t strike anyone out, and some of the old command problems that used to plague Gio Gonzalez have returned this year. Most frightening of all, Stephen Strasburg is dealing with a lat injury that threatens to leave the Nats without both of their sky’s-the-limit phenoms. He lasted just two innings and 37 pitches in his most recent start on Friday and now has the team wondering when he’ll be back. The latest is that he could return to make his next start on Thursday, but that’s far from a certainty right now.

The Nats came into this year as one of the favorites to come out of the National League and challenge for the first World Series title in franchise history. They’re now six and a half games back of the front-running Braves, lagging well behind the league wild-card contenders, sitting below .500 with a negative run differential, and dealing with performance and injury concerns for about a half-dozen key roster spots. They get three against the Mets and three against the Twins this week, and just in time. When you’re desperately trying to get well, every break in the schedule is a big, fat gift.

17. CHICAGO CUBS

Cubs starting pitchers have put up the third-best numbers in the National League. Given the expectations for this team coming in to 2013, and the extremes other teams have gone through to build their own rotations, that’s borderline meshuga.

Jeff Samardzija has emerged as the rotation’s mainstay. He’s a strikeout machine who has whiffed batters more frequently than any other starter save Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish, or Strasburg since the start of last season. He was also a fifth-round pick better known for his football exploits than those on the baseball field. But the team’s patience, and Samardzija’s adjustments over the years, have netted the Cubs a new staff ace.

Scott Feldman posted a 2.25 ERA and 39-to-7 strikeout-to-walk rate in May, and is on pace for a career year in his ninth major league season. We’ve covered Feldman’s exploits before in this space — getting him on a one-year, $6 million contract ranks as one of the best bargains of last offseason. Matt Garza missed the first seven weeks of the season with a lat injury. But he has made two terrific starts out of three since returning from the DL, with a seven-inning gem against the D-backs on Friday that looked like vintage Garza. Edwin Jackson has been the bust of the group, with a 6.29 ERA fresh off signing a four-year, $52 million deal. Not all of that has been his fault. He’s shown much better defense-independent results (3.65 FIP), striking out nearly a batter an inning and falling victim to all manner of bad luck, including an inflated batting average on balls in play (.358), the lowest strand rate for any starter (55.9 percent), and bizarre bouts of bad defensive support, like the one seen during Sunday’s bobble-fest against the Diamondbacks.

The Cubs starter who has been arguably the biggest bargain is Travis Wood. The 26-year-old lefty came to Chicago from Cincinnati along with two minor pieces for lefty reliever Sean Marshall. He’s making just $527,500 this year. For that minimal investment, Wood has posted a 2.75 ERA, placing him 12th among all qualified NL starters. Some of that might be due to luck: Wood has ceded home runs on just 5.6 percent of his fly balls allowed, with a .218 BABIP that is lower than any other starter’s except Matt Moore’s .201. He’s shown decent but not overwhelming command with a strikeout-to-walk rate a tick above 2-to-1.

What has made Wood’s performance so impressive and so unusual has been, of all things, his bat. A career .158/.158/.292 hitter heading into this season, he has crushed the ball this year, hitting .292/.320/.583. On Thursday, he blasted a grand slam to break the game open against the plummeting White Sox, win no. 4 in what would be a five-game winning streak (which Arizona snapped with wins on Saturday and Sunday). Cubs pitchers as a group absolutely raked in May, hitting .282/.283/.623 with four homers and six doubles in 59 plate appearances. For comparison’s sake, the entire Kansas City Royals team has hit three home runs in the past 18 games.

The chance that Cubs pitchers continue to slug like Miguel Cabrera lies somewhere between none and none. Still, let’s tip our cap to this group of slugging hurlers for accomplishing the following (courtesy Elias Sports Bureau):

• The Cubs’ 19 RBIs by their pitchers in May were the most in a calendar month since the 1940 Tigers (20 in August).

• The 19 RBIs were 15 more than any other team’s pitchers in May. Wood (seven) and Feldman (six) alone each had more RBIs than any other team’s pitchers.

• Those 19 RBIs were more than what their no. 3 hitters totaled (17).

The Cubs’ 23-32 record may not show it, but when you come into a season with zero expectations, only to allow just one more run than you’ve scored through nine weeks, with a starting five that’s excelled both on the mound and at bat, those are pretty strong results.