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The 30, Week 24: Return of the Freak

Tim Lincecum's return to his dominant ways has the Giants thinking of October glory

With the regular season now in the home stretch, it’s time to focus on those teams still in contention. Here, then, are our all-contender rankings. It’s Week 24 of The 30.

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

1. Texas Rangers, 87-59 (746 RS, 623 RA) (last week: 2)

The mockery started almost immediately after the trade was consummated. Ryan Dempster’s career year was about to burst into flames, what with a move to the American League and to the AL’s toughest ballpark for pitchers to navigate. In his first start with the Rangers, Dempster got creamed for eight runs on nine hits (including two homers), the Angels knocking him out after 4⅔ innings. After a decent start against Boston, Dempster got torched again, giving up eight runs on nine hits and two homers again, this time over six innings at Yankee Stadium. Since then, he’s dominated: 33 innings pitched, 36 strikeouts, 1.91 ERA, with opponents hitting just .208/.267/.283 off him. Credit a big jump in Dempster’s slider usage against right-handers — 33 percent during Dempster’s first three Texas starts, 48 percent since then, with his numbers against righties taking a giant leap as a result. With Roy Oswalt not working out, the Rangers needed a fourth decent-to-very-good starter to slot in with Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison. Given the larger sample sizes of success with the Cubs and in Texas post-slider adjustment, Dempster looks like he could be that guy.

2. Washington Nationals, 89-57 (653 RS, 525 RA) (last week: 3)

They were swept by the Braves over the weekend, but the Nationals still hold the best record in baseball. More important, they’re getting contributions from everywhere on the roster, setting themselves up as legitimate World Series contenders. John Lannan’s 5⅔ shutout innings against the Mets last week were nice, though Lannan’s merely the team’s fifth starter, which means he’s looking at a middle-relief role in the playoffs in all likelihood. Jayson Werth is more relevant to the Nats’ chances, and his second-half performance could portend great things. Since the All-Star break, Werth is hitting .331/.417/.472, giving him the fourth-highest second-half on-base percentage for any full-time player. When a player’s not quite a superstar and he’s playing through a $126 million contract, there’s a natural tendency to label him a disappointment almost regardless of production. But Werth has been Washington’s best hitter when healthy this year; you can’t call the Nats exclusively a pitching-and-defense team when Werth’s getting on base constantly, Adam LaRoche is whacking 30 homers, and Bryce Harper’s belt skills are so tight.

3. Cincinnati Reds, 88-59 (627 RS, 549 RA) (last week: 1)

Losing Aroldis Chapman to a shoulder injury, or even simply losing the unhittable, 101-mph-fastball-chucking version of Chapman at the back of the bullpen, would hurt the Reds. It wouldn’t be a death blow or anything, not when Jonathan Broxton has upgraded an already strong pen, and not when the Reds can trot out a deep lineup and solid starting rotation. The Reds can afford to take it slow with the Cuban Missile, what with an insurmountable 11-game lead this late in the year. But between Chapman’s shoulder fatigue and Todd Frazier crashing back to earth over the past few weeks, this isn’t quite the same Reds team that we saw not long ago.

4. New York Yankees, 83-63 (704 RS, 607 RA) (last week: 4)

Though this shorthand explanation for the Yankees’ woes does have a certain … charm, we have to keep coming back to injuries. Saturday’s lineup featured a sub-.300 OBP in the leadoff spot (Ichiro), a sub-.300 OBP batting fifth (Raul Ibanez), and an Eduardo Nunez (Eduardo Nunez). With Mark Teixeira out of the lineup with a calf injury, Derek Jeter limited to DH duty by an ankle sprain, and Nick Swisher seven for his past 62, Joe Girardi has put together some ugly lineups. CC Sabathia put up another mediocre start Friday, too, ceding four runs on six hits in 6⅔ against the Rays, walking two and striking out just three. There’s good news here, with Jeter still healthy enough to hit and continue his renaissance season, Teixeira expected back in time for the playoffs (assuming the Yanks make it there), and Swisher likely to start hitting sometime soon, given how slumps don’t actually last forever. Ivan Nova’s back, too, having fanned eight Rays and allowed just two runs over six innings in his start back. No team figures to look more different between now and playoff time than the Yankees.

5. Oakland A’s, 84-62 (620 RS, 540 RA) (last week: 6)

Like the Nationals, the A’s get credit for being a great run-prevention team, without their offense receiving much praise. We covered A.J. Griffin’s ascension last week, but really the entire young staff has flourished, from tenure leader Brett Anderson to key trade acquisitions Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone. Where a few weeks ago the Rangers looked uncatchable in the AL West, the A’s closed the gap to two games Saturday night before drifting back to three out on Sunday.

Forget the pitching for a second, though. Since the All-Star break, only the White Sox have hit more home runs than Oakland has. From Cuban rookie Yoenis Cespedes to former Red Sox prospect Josh Reddick, the A’s have reaped big contributions from players who’d never before hit as well as they have in 2012. And let’s not forget Red Sox, Pirates, and Phillies castoff Brandon Moss. A cool stat via Rotoworld’s Matthew Pouliot: With 18 homers in 209 at-bats and a newly secured role as Oakland’s most likely starter at first base against right-handed pitching, Moss has a chance to become just the seventh player ever to hit 20 home runs in a season in 250 or fewer at-bats. It’s almost enough to make Derek Norris cut out his look of death.

6. Atlanta Braves, 84-63 (647 RS, 565 RA) (last week: 5)

It’s not easy to move down a spot after sweeping the team with the best record in baseball. But that’s what happens when you’re treading into this elite company, and also what happens when you get outscored 17-3 in three games against the Brewers. Rob Neyer loved Fredi Gonzalez making higher-percentage managerial moves lately. Defensive junkies are fired up about Andrelton Simmons’s return from the disabled list. But the hottest pitcher — really the hottest player at any position right now — is Kris Medlen. His season-long stats after a return from Tommy John surgery already look impossible: 117 innings, 102 strikeouts, 21 walks, four home runs, 1.66 ERA, 2.33 FIP. The Braves actually eased Medlen back slowly before finally dropping him into the rotation on July 31. Since then: 62⅔ innings, 66 strikeouts, eight walks, three home runs, 0.86 ERA, .490 opponents’ OPS. Tim Hudson is the nominal ace of the staff, given his experience and continued solid performance. But Medlen has made his case to become perhaps the first pitcher ever to come back from Tommy John and start in the first game of the playoffs in the same season.

7. San Francisco Giants, 83-63 (642 RS, 597 RA) (last week: 10)

There’s something to be said for consistency. While their neighbor across the bay and a few other teams have been flashier stories for going on huge runs, the Giants’ steady excellence has all but clinched the NL West already, even with 2½ weeks to go in the season. On the other hand, no Giant has been less consistent than Tim Lincecum. We were writing about The Freak’s major velocity and location problems as far back as mid-April, and continued to bang that drum into August. Then the light went on. In his past nine starts, Lincecum’s striking out nearly a batter an inning, with a 3.38 ERA that’s the best among all Giants starters over that stretch. Lincecum’s velocity has ticked back up slightly. But this is really about a pitcher getting more luck on his side (.331 batting average on balls in play with a 21 percent line-drive rate over his first 21 starts, .308 BABIP and a 26 percent line-drive rate since) and also simply throwing fewer meatballs, if extensive viewing of seven of Lincecum’s past nine starts is any guide.

Buster Posey’s hitting a stratospheric .390/.464/.663 since the All-Star break, making him the best hitter in baseball during that time and also a potential new front-runner for the NL MVP award. But the Giants are also getting a version of Lincecum that’s reliably good, if still not nearly the Lincecum of old. Compared to where their former ace was earlier this season, that’s a monumental jump for what was consistently one of baseball’s best starting rotations … until this year.

8. Baltimore Orioles, 82-64 (636 RS, 656 RA) (last week: 9)

In a season overstuffed with highlights, sweeping the pitching-rich Rays and grabbing a stranglehold on the second wild-card spot by becoming the first team in 17 years to win 13 straight extra-inning games beat most anything that’s happened in Baltimore this year. Unlike teams like the Yankees, who figure to get healthier as we near the playoffs, though, Orioles are dropping like flies. The latest are Jason Hammel, who reaggravated a knee injury and is now out one start and very possibly more; and Wilson Betemit, whose right wrist injury flared up on him again, causing the O’s to lose a valuable part-time bat. We’ve already seen Orioles GM Dan Duquette dig deep to get Nate McLouth and Lew Ford out of exile, onto the roster, and into the lineup this year. With Betemit and Hammel down, you have to figure Gil Heredia and Bret Barberie will be getting invites any minute now.

9. Los Angeles Angels, 80-67 (698 RS, 628 RA) (last week: 7)

Two red flags for a very talented team that’s now two games out in the race for the second wild-card spot:

• The bullpen continues to cost the Angels games. Ernesto Frieri struck out 45 batters and gave up 25 baserunners (including just eight hits), zero extra-base hits, and not a single run in his first 26⅓ innings pitched for the Angels this year. Since then: six homers, a .270 Isolated Power mark, and a 5.23 ERA in 20⅓ IP. Ruining the resurgent Zack Greinke’s sparkling 8⅓ innings by allowing back-to-back Royals homers to lose the game walk-off style was particularly cruel.

• Mark Trumbo was a better prospect than Frieri coming up, but no one expected him to become a godless hitting machine with every-other-day light-tower power. Through July 20, Trumbo was hitting .307/.358/.630 with 27 home runs in 85 games. He’s hit just .197/.250/.264 since, with just three homers in 45 games. In retrospect, you had to expect some major regression to come given Trumbo’s hacktastic approach — he’s struck out 143 times this year, versus just 35 walks. Some extra Trumbo Thrust practice is probably in order.

10. Chicago White Sox, 79-66 (686 RS, 611 RA) (last week: 11)

Win today and the White Sox might consider shopping for champagne, if not quite buying it yet. If the Pale Hose can beat the Tigers, they’ll take a three-game lead in the AL Central, with these games remaining: three at Kansas City, three at Anaheim, three at home vs. Cleveland, four at home vs. Tampa Bay, three at Cleveland.

11. Detroit Tigers, 77-68 (650 RS, 611 RA) (last week: 13)

If the Tigers can win today’s makeup game against the White Sox, on the other hand, look out. After three games against the surprisingly mighty A’s, Detroit closes with seven against the Royals and six against the Twins. If they do pull off the comeback and make it back to the postseason, save some credit for Brayan Villarreal, once the Verlanders, Cabreras, Fielders, Jacksons, and Scherzers have been acknowledged. The 25-year-old right-hander has had a huge rookie season, striking out 61 batters in 49⅓ innings and posting a 2.36 ERA and 2.49 FIP. Villarreal can thank both his impressive fastball-slider combo and impressive luck for allowing just two home runs all year, despite a 29.3 percent ground-ball rate that makes his pitches more likely to go airborne than nearly any other pitcher in baseball.

12. Tampa Bay Rays, 78-68 (606 RS, 532 RA) (last week: 8)

Luke Scott and Carlos Pena have combined for just 0.4 Wins Above Replacement this season. Yet they’re making a combined $13.25 million, making up more than 20 percent of the Rays payroll. On paper, it made sense to hoard all of the Rays’ young pitching talent and try to plug two big offensive holes with lefty sluggers who’d put up impressive numbers in the not-too-distant past. In reality, Pena and Scott are just the latest examples of over-30 free agents who actually cost some real money1 yet didn’t work out, joining the ranks of Pat Burrell and Troy Percival on the new regime’s list of biggest whiffs. Perhaps the Rays shouldn’t have expected Scott and Pena to be this bad, just as they shouldn’t have expected castoffs John Jaso and Justin Ruggiano to go nuts for other teams. But after the team’s punchless offense dropped five out of six pivotal games to Baltimore and New York to nearly euthanize their playoff chances, the front office might take a second look at dealing from their vast stable of arms to get younger and better hitting talent next offseason. They could always use this as a selling point.

13. St. Louis Cardinals, 77-70 (694 RS, 611 RA) (last week: 12)

After losing to the Dodgers Saturday night in excruciating fashion,2 thereby seeing their wild-card lead reduced to zero, the Cardinals salvaged a series split Sunday to restore their one-game wild-card lead and salvage a 2-5 record from an ugly road trip. The next three series go Astros, Cubs, Astros, and Chris Carpenter’s slated to make his first start of the season Friday, so St. Louis can feel about as optimistic as a team that’s lost eight of their past 11 games and 13 of their past 19 can possibly feel.

14. Los Angeles Dodgers, 76-71 (574 RS, 558 RA) (last week: 14)

This is a pretty mediocre team at this point, with Clayton Kershaw at risk of missing the rest of the season with a hip injury and Matt Kemp going 5-for-48 since crashing into a wall in Colorado, looking like a player who can’t take his normal, powerful cuts at the plate. The Luis Cruz Experience has been a blast, but you have to wonder if a lineup plagued by injuries and disappointing performances, combined with a rotation of Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Joe Blanton, has much of a chance to get hot and storm into the playoffs, let alone actually give someone a run if they did somehow manage to crash the postseason dance.

15. Milwaukee Brewers, 74-72 (701 RS, 660 RA) (last week: 16)

In that two-team battle for potential miracle status, the Phillies have faded away, while the Brewers rode a 4-2 week to plant themselves just 2½ games out in the battle for the NL’s second wild card. The new hotness is Wily Peralta. The 23-year-old rookie right-hander made just his third major league start Sunday against the Mets, and it was a masterpiece: eight innings, two hits, no runs, one walk, five strikeouts. Peralta now owns a 1.80 ERA over his first three big-league starts, picking up the slack just as fellow rookie Mike Fiers has tailed off. However the rest of this season shakes out, between Milwaukee’s young pitching and their sustained ability to put up lots of crooked numbers, they could be back in force in 2013.

16. Pittsburgh Pirates, 73-72 (601 RS, 608 RA) (last week: 15)

James McDonald, the Pirates’ ace for a good chunk of this season, has been bounced from the rotation after posting a 7.08 second-half ERA in 12 starts, with 13 homers allowed in 61 innings. But the sad truth is that the lineup is still full of holes, too, even with Pedro Alvarez’s breakout season. Neil Walker returned to the starting lineup after missing 16 starts with lower-back tightness, but unless Walker can pick up exactly where he left off earlier this summer when he was raking, and hit in the catcher and shortstop spots in the lineup, all that early-season Pittsburgh promise is likely to end in disappointment again.

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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