Last season, the Memphis Grizzlies shocked the basketball world, knocking off the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, then pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games in one of the most compelling playoff series in years. The experience was so incredible, Zach Randolph went from this…
Can we get there again? Can the unlikeliest of underdogs overcome long odds and find playoff success? With powerhouse teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees looking nearly unbeatable, could baseball give us its own version of the Grizz this year?
To identify the sleeper team no one wants to face in October, we need to establish parameters.
First, we need a team with a real chance to play spoiler.
Fifty Sixty years and three days ago, the New York Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 games with 47 games to play. We know how that ended. But there’s a reason the Shot Heard ‘Round the World is regarded as the most dramatic, unlikely moment in baseball history. You don’t bet on miracles.
All of which means we can safely rule out the following teams: Houston, Baltimore, Kansas City, Seattle, Oakland, Minnesota, Toronto, Washington, Florida, San Diego, Colorado, the Dodgers, the Cubs, and the Mets.
Second, a favorite can’t be a spoiler. A spoiler should be a team with a low payroll, or merely an outside shot at winning the whole thing, that screws up another team’s run. That means the Phillies and Red Sox, the best teams in their respective leagues, are out. If the playoffs started today, the Yankees would be a wild card, but they’re a wild card on a 99-win pace with a $207 million payroll. They’re out, too. The Giants aren’t even in first place, but they’re the defending champs. They’re out. The Rangers might finish with a worse record than either league’s wild card — but they also won the AL pennant last year, dealt for two elite relief pitchers at the deadline, and convinced plenty of smart people that they’re a great bet to get back to the World Series this year. They’re out, too.
With all of those teams out of the picture, here are the six clubs with the best chance to go Z-Bo on the rest of the league.
6. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
In the 2006 book Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver and Dayn Perry take on Billy Beane’s famous line, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” If the A’s and their Moneyball strategies couldn’t find playoff success, should we attribute those failures to bad luck? Or could a different kind of excrement prove successful in the postseason?
The authors found three characteristics that define the majority of successful playoff teams, together comprising the “Secret Sauce.” Those traits are:
- A pitching staff with a high strikeout rate
- A dominant closer
- Great team defense
Notice anything there? All three of those variables relate to run prevention. None relate to run-scoring. From 1972 through 2005, 27 teams made the playoffs despite having below-average offenses; seven won the World Series. Meanwhile, 20 teams with below-average run prevention made the playoffs during the span. None won the World Series, and only two teams even played for the crown. Sixteen of the 20 teams with below-average run prevention lost in the first round in which they played.
As Silver wrote: “There is literally no relationship between regular-season offense and postseason success in our data set.”
This was, at the time, a stupefying discovery. Collect a lineup full of Babe Ruths if you want — you’re still screwed if you don’t have very good pitching and defense.
It’s also an idea that would seem to bode well for this year’s Angels. The Halos are nothing if not an old-school team, run by a manager who’s a zealot for defense, even if it means Jeff Mathising a potential rally four times a game and flailing your way to the 21st-best offense in the majors.
Yet they continue to pitch well and catch well. The Angels rank fourth in MLB in defense by FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating. Their closer, Jordan Walden, has been excellent, posting a 2.47 FIP.1
It’s not all perfect. The Angels rank just 22nd in team strikeout rate. But their top three starters — Jered Weaver (7.6 K/9 IP), Dan Haren (7.3 K/9 IP), and Ervin Santana (7.4 K/9 IP) — all sport above-average K rates, as does Walden (9.6 K/9 IP). The Angels sit four games behind first-place Texas, with just seven weeks to play. But if they can catch the Rangers, they’d be a big threat to score some upsets, based on the Secret Sauce theory.
There’s just one problem: The Secret Sauce theory hasn’t held up. From 2002 through 2009, it was no more predictive than a coin flip. There could be a number of reasons for this change. One theory holds that Mariano Rivera was single-handedly messing up the study,2 with the Yankees dynasty of the ’90s messing with the numbers. After all, if having a dominant closer is one of the three key ingredients in Secret Sauce, and the Yankees made the playoffs many times during the years covered in the study and they happen to have the most dominant closer in baseball history, that could throw everything out of whack.
Given the Angels’ 21st-ranked offense and four-game deficit, they were already a long shot — more so if the Secret Sauce doesn’t do much for their chances.
5. Cleveland Indians
The Indians lack Secret Sauce, in a big way. They’re second-to-last in team strikeout rate (Ubaldo Jimenez helps in that department, but only one pitcher on the whole staff, setup man Vinnie Pestano, strikes out more than a batter per inning). They’re 19th in team defense. And Chris Perez has posted a 4.36 FIP with just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings, ranking among the worst closers in the game. Still, if these were their only problems, we might say it’s possible.
Unfortunately, there’s more. The Indians have a mediocre offense themselves (17th in wOBA). Grady Sizemore’s injuries have made it worse. His latest replacement, Ezequiel Carrera, is “hitting” .236/.284/.281 in his stead. For as much criticism as the Jimenez deal received, he’s the team’s best bet if it makes the playoffs, by far. Nominal ace Justin Masterson’s career high in innings pitched is 180; he’s already at 167, putting both his near- and maybe longer-term future at risk if the Indians ride him deep into October. Carlos Carrasco’s on the DL. Josh Tomlin owns the eighth-worst strikeout rate among qualified starters, hanging with the likes of Tyler Chatwood and Kevin Correia. Fausto Carmona is the most experienced starter on the staff; he also owns a 5.12 ERA and 4.72 FIP this season.
The Indians sit just a game behind Detroit in the loss column, giving them a real chance to make the playoffs. But they don’t pitch well, hit well, or field well. Look elsewhere for your spoiler.
We won’t worry too much about Secret Sauce from here on out. I’d like to offer a perfectly scientific and foolproof approach to picking the playoffs. But then, if such a method existed, we’d all own our own islands by now.
Instead, we’ll look at the remaining playoff contenders by considering every aspect of their respective teams, including their offense. If a team has, say, three really good starting pitchers, plays killer defense, and is borderline unhittable at the back of the bullpen, it gets bonus points.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
The D-backs own the best defense in the majors and rank second in the NL in homers thanks to breakout seasons from players like Justin Upton and Ryan Roberts, as well as a homer-friendly home park. But that might not be enough to make a dent in a powerhouse team like the Phillies, or even prevent the Giants from winning the West and getting a chance to defend their crown.
The biggest concern lies with the D-backs’ starting rotation.
Ian Kennedy was a first-round pick who threw a grand total of 60 innings with the Yankees. Everything we know about small sample sizes and prospects tells us not to put too much stock into the first 12 starts of a player’s career. Still, Kennedy put 101 runners on base in those 60 innings. He was a disaster, even as AL East debuts go.
Everything changed as soon as he got to Arizona. Kennedy posted a career-best strikeout-to-walk rate of 2.4-to-1 last year, hurling 194 innings with a respectable 4.33 FIP.3 He’s broken out this season, hiking his K/BB rate above 3-to-1, giving up fewer homers, and dropping his FIP to 3.57. His 15-3 record and 3.12 ERA look pretty shiny, too, if you care about that sort of thing.
My question is: Would Ian Kennedy still look like a borderline ace if he never left the Yankees? It’s harder to find success as a pitcher in the AL East than it is in any other division; it’s much harder there than it is in the NL West this year, where you get 54 games against the punchless Giants, Padres, and Dodgers. Will Kennedy and Dan Hudson fare as well against the likes of Philly and Milwaukee as they have against their soft divisional opponents? Does no. 3 starter Joe Saunders (4.9 K/9 IP) have a chance in hell of succeeding against the tougher competition that the postseason provides?
3. Detroit Tigers
On July 9 of last year, the Tampa Bay Rays owned the second-best record in the majors. They had their usual killer defense, a solid, versatile lineup, a loaded bullpen, and two solid arms at the top of their rotation in David Price and Matt Garza. But they also knew how tough it would be to continue their success and get back to the playoffs. They also wanted more than just a postseason sniff, having made it all the way to the World Series two years earlier, only to fall to the Phillies. So they started exploring the trade market. Not just little deals either. They took a long look at Cliff Lee, the best left-hander in the game and the gem of the trade deadline, having been made available by the struggling Mariners.
The best team in the league at that point was the New York Yankees. They’d won it all the year before, and rode a loaded lineup, a legitimate ace in CC Sabathia, and the usual Mariano Rivera heroics back to favorite status in 2010. But they, too, coveted Lee, who would give the Yanks the best one-two punch in baseball and make them odds-on favorites to repeat as champions. They had the top-hitting prospect the Mariners craved in Jesus Montero, and a chance to get their man.
At the last minute, the Texas Rangers swooped in and trumped both teams. When the playoffs rolled around, Lee reminded the Rays and Yankees what they’d missed. He won Games 1 and 5 of the ALDS against Tampa Bay, yielding just two runs, striking out 21 batters, and walking no one in 16 surgical innings. He then won his lone ALCS start against New York, tossing eight shutout innings, yielding two hits and one walk, and fanning 13. The Rangers had a lot going for them last season, including a powerful lineup, an aggressive baserunning approach, and a dynamic, young closer in Neftali Feliz. But you could make a strong case, after the fact, that whichever AL contender got Cliff Lee last summer was going to the World Series.
Justin Verlander is the Tigers’ Cliff Lee. He leads the AL in wins and strikeouts, but also FIP and WAR. Every time he takes the mound he gives his team a great chance to win, even if the offense isn’t clicking. Hell, every time he takes the mound we half-expect a no-hitter.
The Tigers own baseball’s fifth-best offense, led by Miguel Cabrera. Max Scherzer (7.8 K/9 IP) fits the power-pitcher profile as Detroit’s no. 2 starter (though he’s also been prone to bouts of wildness and gopheritis at various points in his career). The bullpen includes enough strikeout specialists to make things interesting. But other teams have those qualities, too, without being plagued by lousy team defense.
If Justin Verlander gets to start twice in the ALDS and twice again in the ALCS, the Tigers have a shot at a miracle run to the World Series. If he doesn’t, they probably don’t.
2. Atlanta Braves
The Atlanta organization is so overflowing with dynamic, young arms right now that the Braves barely know where to put them, slotting in potential future aces as fill-in starters and spare bullpen guys.
- Only Clayton Kershaw (9.89 K/9 IP) owns a higher strikeout rate than Tommy Hanson (9.83 K/9 IP) this season among NL starters.
- Brandon Beachy (9.90 K/9 IP) would beat everyone if he weren’t a couple of starts short of qualifying.
- Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson are such prolific worm-burners (third and fifth in the NL in groundball rate, respectively) that they’re better overall pitchers than two of the top three strikeout guys in the league.
- Jair Jurrjens is 12-4 with a 2.63 ERA and you could argue that he’s the fifth-best starter on the team.
- Craig Kimbrel, the team’s closer, and Jonny Venters, the team’s primary setup man, have combined for 169 strikeouts in 127.1 innings.
- Julio Teheran, widely considered one of the top five right-handed pitching prospects in the game, got a cup of coffee with the Braves earlier in the year, then got sent back to Triple-A. He’s 20 years old.
- Arodys Vizcaino, also one of the top five right-handed pitching prospects in the game, made his third big league appearance yesterday against the Cubs. He struck out the side. Vizcaino’s stuff was so filthy that it prompted this tweet from SB Nation blogger and Braves fan Andy Hutchins: “How many years of team control do we have on Vizcaino? It’s not enough.”
The Braves, second in team K rate (behind only the Giants) and third in FIP (behind only the Phillies and Giants) have several other really good pitchers we won’t have time to mention.
That’s a helluva blueprint for a deep playoff run. The problem is well, there are several problems.
The Braves sport the fourth-worst team UZR in the majors. That stat’s somewhat misleading, since Michael Bourn joined the Braves at the deadline and provides a big lift in center field, replacing the ghastly Nate McLouth. Still, several weak defenders dot the roster, led by Dan Uggla and an aging Chipper Jones. Even Uggla’s range-free repertoire doesn’t portend anything as brutal as last year’s Brooks Conrad Show. But the Braves still lag behind their likely playoff rivals defensively.
The offense also looks better now than it did earlier in the season, thanks to the addition of Bourn and Uggla going from Bill Bergen to Joe DiMaggio in a span of a few weeks. Still, Uggla (.325 wOBA), Martin Prado (.317 wOBA), Jason Heyward (.315 wOBA), and Alex Gonzalez (.266 wOBA) have all disappointed.
Fredi Gonzalez might be the most by-the-book manager in the game, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Braves skipper has drawn ample criticism for his batting order strategies, bunting fetish (three teams have bunted more often than the Braves this year, but Atlanta loves to sacrifice with position players, too, getting 18 sac bunts from its outfielders alone), and bullpen usage. Gonzalez’s latest attempt to drive statheads mad is his allegiance to recent call-up Jose Constanza. Constanza’s .382 batting average this season might excuse Gonzalez’s love affair with the diminutive outfielder. But Constanza is also a 27-year-old minor league lifer with a career high of two homers in a season, riding an unsustainable wave of good fortune. He’s stealing playing time from Heyward, who’s hitting just .219 but with 12 homers, 15 doubles, and enough talent to fill 100 stadiums. Gonzalez says he’s just playing the hot hand right now. But if we get to the playoffs and Heyward’s sitting in favor of a player NBC Sports blogger Matthew Pouliot called a “modern-day Bo Hart,”4 Atlanta will burn again.
The playoffs scream out for creative managing, starting pitchers brought on in relief, ace pinch-hitters coming up early in a game when a high-leverage situation warrants it, closers used in nontraditional roles. Bruce Bochy’s outmanaging Ron Washington wasn’t the only reason the Giants beat the Rangers in the World Series last fall. But it did help. Braves fans better hope their team’s playoff life doesn’t come down to a managerial battle of wits.
1. Milwaukee Brewers
On December 6 of last year, the Brewers and the Jays pulled off the kind of trade you rarely see in baseball. Toronto sent Shaun Marcum, a four-year, big league veteran and one of the most underrated starting pitchers in the game, to Milwaukee. In return, the Jays nabbed Brett Lawrie, a not-yet-21-year-old infielder with a big bat and some defensive question marks. What made the trade rare was its straight-up nature, a front-line major league veteran for the top prospect in another team’s farm system.5 That Lawrie suddenly gave the Jays a potential future All-Star who was also Canadian added another level of spice to the deal.
But it was Marcum’s addition to the Brewers staff that added a twist with the potential to influence the 2011 pennant race. Milwaukee had developed an incredible group of position player prospects over the past few years, led by Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart. But aside from de facto ace Yovani Gallardo, the pitchers (especially the relievers) brought up during that era failed to pan out. With Marcum in tow, the Brewers suddenly had two capable starters to go with their ever-potent lineup. Knocking off the defending champion Reds and the always loaded Cardinals wouldn’t be easy. But at least you could now squint and see a contender, no mean feat for a team with one playoff berth in 28 years.
Then, 10 days after the Marcum deal, the Brewers raised the stakes. Raiding the rest of their farm system, they shipped four young players, including shortstop-of-the-future Alcides Escobar, to Kansas City. In return they got stathead whipping boy Yuniesky Betancourt and Zack Greinke. This was the shocker of the offseason.6 Greinke was just one season removed from a masterpiece, a Cy Young season with both the traditional and advanced stats to confirm his excellence. He’d taken a step back in 2010, but remained one of the best starting pitchers in the game, a true ace for a team that desperately needed one. Suddenly, the Brewers weren’t just plucky little underdogs. They were a team you could dream on, both to win the NL Central and maybe even go deep in the playoffs.
All the Secret Sauce ingredients are there: a pitching staff that ranks fourth in strikeout rate, led by the big three of Marcum (7.6), Gallardo (7.8), and Greinke (11.2!!!); a dominant closer in John Axford (10.6 K/9 IP, 2.50 FIP, 31 straight converted saves, and stellar mustache skills); and a defense that’s above average, if less than spectacular. Only the Cardinals have a better offense, as Braun (.423 wOBA) and Fielder (.418 wOBA) both put up huge numbers. The addition of a suddenly vintage K-Rod only makes the Brew Crew more formidable.
There is one niggling concern. Way back in January, I wrote a piece touting Milwaukee as a serious threat to make a World Series run. The only obvious weak link on the team was Betancourt, the beefy shortstop who’d spent years showing off one of the worst batting eyes and ugliest set of defensive skills in all of baseball. He was the source of nightmares in Seattle and Kansas City, and of future headaches in Milwaukee. Replacing Betancourt with anyone would eliminate the biggest obstacle to a memorable season. Seven months later, Yuni’s still out there, a recent hot streak barely budging him above replacement level for the season.
If any team is going to harness its talent, ride the wave of enthusiastic small-market fans, and go Grizzlies on the baseball world, the Brewers are it. But if the Phillies face the Brewers for the right to go to the World Series, and it all comes down to a hard-hit grounder to Yuniesky Betancourt’s left, well pray. And may the spirit of Z-Bo be with you.
Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Check out the Jonah Keri Podcast at JonahKeri.com and on iTunes, and follow him on Twitter @JonahKeri.
Previously from Jonah Keri:
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