Work got you down? Wife and kids hate your guts? Life kicking you in the head? Jon Miller, Gangnam Style. You’re welcome.
This week, we’re only covering the teams that have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of coverage of the non-contending teams in the coming weeks.
It’s Week 25 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
1. Texas Rangers, 90-62 (764 RS, 646 RA) (last week: 1)
For Mike Napoli, 2012 has been a far cry from 2011. The slugging catcher hit an incredible .320/.414/.631 in 113 games last year, making him the single most productive hitter in all of baseball for anyone with more than 400 plate appearances. He appeared on his way to World Series MVP honors until two things happened: Nelson Cruz took the worst route to a fly ball in the history of the universe, and Napoli suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Game 6.1 He’s struggled with injuries this year, and seen his production fall, too, hitting .232/.352/.458 in 98 games. But he is raking again since returning from the disabled list on September 15, launching three homers and driving in six runs in the six games since. If you’re looking for a small chink in the Rangers’ armor, there’s this — teams facing Texas have stolen 66 of 81 bases against Napoli and deadline pickup Geovany Soto, a success rate of 81 percent. The good news is, only the A’s (sixth in the AL) constitute something close to a running team among the Rangers’ most likely playoff competitors, with the White Sox (eighth), Yankees (11th), and Orioles (14th) all below average in steals.
2. Cincinnati Reds, 92-61 (648 RS, 561 RA) (last week: 3)
September 28, 2010: Jay Bruce leads off the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off home run. It’s just the fifth time in major league history that a homer clinches a division title.
September 22, 2012: Jay Bruce leads off the bottom of the fourth inning with a home run, giving the Reds their first run of the game in what would prove to be an NL Central–clinching, 6-0 win over the Dodgers. Not sure if that counts as the sixth time, but it’s something, anyway.
More germane for the Reds now is getting everyone healthy as they go for their first World Series in 22 years. Aroldis Chapman made his first appearance in 12 days on Saturday, and regained his lost velocity, throwing his fastball at 96 to 99 miles per hour. He walked one batter but otherwise breezed through a non-save situation in the ninth, retiring the side on 12 pitches. Comeback-player-of-the-year candidate Ryan Ludwick has missed the past four games with a groin injury, but his recent rest looks more precautionary than anything given that the Reds have already clinched. Cincinnati also goes into the playoffs with a starting rotation that looks remarkably similar to 1990s:
3. Washington Nationals, 92-60 (680 RS, 548 RA) (last week: 2)
Hearty congratulations to the Nationals for their first playoff berth since moving to Washington, also the first time D.C. will have a postseason entrant in 79 years. Acknowledging the vagaries of short playoff series, the Nats could still present a bit of a litmus test on how to build a playoff roster. Though the team’s biggest strength lies in its run prevention, it has an incredibly young pitching staff, with Edwin Jackson the only one of the team’s four starters with any postseason experience. It’s also a team that thrives on balance more than star power. Jayson Werth is the only starter with an on-base percentage above .350, Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche are the starters with an OPS above .850, and not a single Nat has managed 20 steals this year (Washington ranks ninth in the NL in stolen bases). Maybe pitching, defense, and carrying very few true slugs on the roster will prove to be a formula for playoff success. But something in the back of my mind makes me wonder if a team whose best power threat is Adam LaRoche might see its offense exposed a bit by superior teams with better pitching.
4. New York Yankees, 88-64 (736 RS, 632 RA) (last week: 4)
A tale of two outfielders:3
Raul Ibanez blasted seven homers with a .922 OPS in his first 27 games in pinstripes, and the whole world threw hosannas at Brian Cashman for getting the lefty-swinging veteran on the cheap. Over his next 92 games, he hit just eight homers with a .640 OPS (and his usual blend of uninspiring defense and ineffectual base running), producing like a sub-replacement-level player who was unfortunately playing nearly every day anyway. Then came Saturday’s Raulvaganza, a wild 10-9 Yankees win that saw Ibanez get thrown out at home to prevent the winning run from scoring after Joe Girardi burned most of his bench and refused to use the rest in an obvious pinch-running situation. Only then did Ibanez come right back in the bottom of the 13th and crank a game-tying, two-run homer, his second bomb of the game. The Yankees still miss Brett Gardner’s speed, defense, and on-base ability, and Ibanez still sits barely above replacement level for the year. But he’s still a left-handed hitter with power, which makes him a threat to go off during any Yankees playoff home game.
Ichiro was a disaster in his 12th season with the Mariners, hitting just .261/.288/.353, tracing what would seem to be the inevitable path for a speed guy who doesn’t walk or hit for power as he moves into his late-30s. There were many reasons to feel optimistic about Ichiro’s move to the Yankees, from the speed and glove he could bring in Gardner’s absence to being able to play in any ballpark friendlier than Safeco — which is just about all of them.
The results have crushed even the most optimistic expectations. In 57 games as a Yankee, Ichiro’s hitting .331/.356/.481 with 12 steals in 15 tries and excellent defense. In one five-game stretch last week, he went 14-for-20 with two homers, three doubles, five steals, and an 1.877 OPS. Related: The Yankees won all five of those games, part of a seven-game winning streak that all but guaranteed a playoff berth and helped them cling to a one-game lead in the AL East despite a simultaneous winning streak for the Orioles.
5. Atlanta Braves, 88-65 (672, 583 RA) (last week: 6)
Didn’t take long for Fredi Gonzalez to wise up and make the amazing Kris Medlen his starter for the do-or-die wild-card game. Funny thing, though: Atlanta still has an outside shot at winning the NL East. For their final nine games, the Braves play the miserable Marlins and Mets three times each, followed by the Pirates, who’ve arguably been baseball’s worst team over the past month and a half. Meanwhile, Washington plays one last game against the hard-charging Brewers (who’ve already taken two out of three from the Nats in this series), three against a Cardinals team that will need to keep winning to hang on to the second wild-card spot, and six against a Phillies club that’s on the edge of the wild-card race but still among baseball’s hottest teams over the past few weeks. With Martin Prado carrying a diversified offense, and Medlen, Mike Minor, and Craig Kimbrel forming an unhittable trio in September, a 4½-game lead isn’t quite a sure thing.
6. San Francisco Giants, 89-64 (683, 615 RA) (last week: 7)
Here’s a weird stat for you: The Giants have gone homerless in 56 of their 78 home games this year. You’d expect one of baseball’s worst parks for home runs to mess with hitter stats, the same way it’s made Giants pitchers look better for years. Still, that’s a pretty notable power outage for a team that just won its second NL West title in three years. Don’t confuse the Giants for a bad offensive team, though. They still rank fifth in the National League in runs scored, with four players in particular crushing the ball down the stretch. Pablo Sandoval went 11-for-23 last week, cranking four homers over one three-game stretch; Angel Pagan’s hitting .325/.377/.541 over his past 47 games, with a ridiculous nine triples; Marco Scutaro’s hitting .361/.385/.458 with the Giants after hitting .271/.324/.361 in hitter-happy Coors Field; and Buster Posey’s made an excellent case for NL MVP.4
Before we leave the Giants, it’s probably appropriate to comment on L’affaire Melky. Fortunately, ESPN’s Dan Szymborski summed up my feelings on the matter perfectly.
7. Oakland A’s, 86-66 (651, 578 RA) (last week: 5)
A 2-4 week drops the A’s from nearly uncatchable status in the wild-card race to keeping a close eye on the suddenly hot Angels and the perennially undead Rays. Saturday’s game brought more of that Oakland second-half power binge we referenced last week, with Jonny Gomes, Yoenis Cespedes, and Chris Carter all going deep in the 13th inning, but a bullpen meltdown still led to a heartbreaking loss against the Yankees. The schedule-maker’s not making this easy, either — after facing the Angels, Orioles, Tigers, and Yankees in succession, the A’s close out their schedule with seven games against mighty Texas (and three against the Mariners). Of course, that’s the pessimist’s view. The optimist would say that Oakland controls its own destiny in its quest to pull off an even bigger shocker and take the AL West. Win five of seven against the Rangers, and they’ll have a shot at overcoming their four-game deficit in the next week and a half. Take six of seven, and they’re in the driver’s seat.
8. Baltimore Orioles, 87-65 (667, 673 RA) (last week: 8)
Eventful week for the O’s, and that’s saying something in this insane, delightfully impossible season:
• Rang up their 16th extra-inning win of the year, the most for any team since the Braves won 17 in 1999.
• Saw Adam Jones become the first player in major league history to hit four home runs in the 11th inning or later in one season.
• Celebrated the much-anticipated big-league debut of Dylan Bundy, who retired two straight Red Sox in his first taste of The Show.
9. Los Angeles Angels, 84-69 (726, 645 RA) (last week: 7)
It took a while, but the Angels finally got the Zack Greinke they were targeting when they raided their farm system at the deadline to make a deal happen. Over his past six starts, Greinke’s tossed 45 innings, struck out 34 batters, walked just nine, and yielded a 1.60 ERA and opponents’ OPS of .510. Of course, we probably shouldn’t overlook the luck factor. In Greinke’s first five starts with the Halos, he allowed a 6.19 ERA and a .363 batting average on balls in play. Greinke’s BABIP during his current six-start hot streak? A microscopic .205.
10. Tampa Bay Rays, 83-70 (659, 557 RA) (last week: 12)
They’re a longer shot to make the playoffs than several teams behind them, but we still consider overall team quality and strong play above simple divisional standings, and by those standards, the Rays deserve to sneak back into the top 10. We got a glimpse of how good this team could be, and how frustrating, last week: After scoring a total of 34 runs in a span of 10 games, Tampa Bay scored 32 more in just three days then 11 more the next day. You can thank the tattered Boston and Toronto pitching staffs for keeping the Rays’ season at least temporarily alive. But save some credit for B.J. Upton, who’s having another huge September, becoming just the second Rays player ever to crack 10 homers in that month.
As Rays PR man Jonathan Gantt notes, the past five American League teams to post an ERA as low as Tampa Bay’s 3.26 all advanced to the World Series. At 3½ games behind Oakland, the Rays still have an outside shot at the second wild-card slot. Still, between Upton’s September awakening, Evan Longoria hitting the DL for three months, and the previously opportunistic Rays going 20-26 in one-run games and 5-7 in extra-inning games this year,5 2012 already feels like a major what-if season, and — barring some 2012-level last-minute miracles — a golden opportunity squandered.
11. St. Louis Cardinals, 82-71 (723, 628 RA) (last week: 13)
Give up a Darwin Barney game-tying homer that leads to a loss Friday then Darwin Barney the Cubs right back the next day, thanks to Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals now lead the second wild-card race by 2½ games, Chris Carpenter’s back, and they get three games against the lowly Astros and three against a Reds team that’ll be resting its regulars. But this is still far from over. The Brewers are coming on like a hurricane, and the Cardinals are extending some of their key players to the limit and beyond down the stretch. Keep an eye on Jason Motte, who’s pitched in seven of the past eight games, and Yadier Molina, whose streak of 12 straight games caught ended only because of back spasms that now bear monitoring.
12. Chicago White Sox, 81-71 (702, RS 638 RA) (last week: 10)
Getting swept over the weekend by the Angels and scoring just five runs in the process hurt a lot. The White Sox have now lost five in a row and cling to a one-game lead in the AL Central. Luckily for the Pale Hose, Detroit is in a funk, too. And if the Sox do manage to hold on and win the division, there’s a chance this game-turning takeout slide by Alex Rios might prove to be the difference.
13. Milwaukee Brewers, 79-73 (733, 682 RA) (last week: 15)
Winners of 25 of their past 32 games, the Brewers are the token entrant in this year’s chase to be the 2011 Cardinals. Some of the team’s in-season improvement has been predictable, starting with Milwaukee’s Chernobyl bullpen becoming a lot less nuclear over the past few weeks. But then there’s this, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus’s R.J. Anderson: Not including Randy Wolf’s four outings, the Brewers’ rotation without Zack Greinke has allowed 4.05 runs per nine innings in their past 45 starts;6 in their first 107 starts, with Greinke in the rotation, they allowed 4.29. Also, Aramis Ramirez has more extra-base hits this season than Prince Fielder (Fielder’s teammate Miguel Cabrera is the only player in all of baseball with more extra-base hits than Ramirez).
You could argue that the Brewers are a great example of the Ewing Theory at work, what with first Fielder, then Greinke, leaving, and the team playing progressively better as the season has worn on. Leaving aside the fact that the Brewers will finish with an inferior record this year compared to 2011 even if they win out from there, it’s hard to say that Milwaukee’s suddenly become galvanized with Greinke following Fielder out the door. Baseball’s ostensibly a team sport in name only, where team chemistry probably matters to some extent, but on-field matters are decided by individuals; in basketball, a lazy or selfish defender can refuse to set picks, rebound, or play help defense, which can badly hurt his team, whereas in baseball you pretty much either hit and catch the ball, or you don’t. If the Brewers do keep their incredible hot streak alive and somehow make it to the playoffs, you can thank Ramirez for earning what seemed like a risky new contract, Marco Estrada for emerging as a force in the rotation, John Axford for going from 2003 Todd Jones–level awful to at least serviceable in closing games, and Ryan Braun for turning in an MVP-caliber season under a hell of a lot of scrutiny.
14. Detroit Tigers, 80-72 (689, 644 RA) (last week: 11)
If the Orioles are the poster children for one-run magic forging a playoff run, the Tigers represent Baltimore’s polar opposites. Detroit has lost 11 one-run games in a row, preventing the team from overtaking a reeling White Sox club. Two of the biggest factors working against them:
• They’re playing lousy defense. Lots of people saw this coming from a mile away, of course. The bigger surprise has been the names of the most offensive defenders. Turns out Miguel Cabrera has been merely garden-variety bad this year. Brennan Boesch, on the other hand? A disaster who’s cost the Tigers 13 defensive runs by himself, compared to last year’s defensive metrics.
• Jose Valverde’s been terrible lately. His latest egg-laying happened Sunday, when Valverde let in the winning run to give a second-rate Twins the doubleheader sweep. The Tigers closer now sports a 7.71 ERA in September, with 15 hits, four walks, and an opponents’ OPS allowed above .900 in 9⅓ innings pitched. Far cry from the guy who went 49-for-49 in save chances last year.
15. Los Angeles Dodgers, 79-74 (591, 581 RA) (last week: 14)
A two-homer game for Adrian Gonzalez and a gutsy performance by a hobbled Clayton Kershaw Sunday night kept the Dodgers within striking distance for now. But last month’s blockbluster trade has so far yielded an 11-16 record and a realization that if the deal’s going to pay off, it’ll likely have to start in 2013, with three already declining former All-Stars somehow returning to form as they get deeper into their 30s. Possible. Also unlikely.