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The 30, Week 22: Oakland’s Tunnel Vision

Forget about a good summer, the A's are focusing their sights on October

Hope you all had a great Labor Day weekend. This is how you spend it if you’re a crazy person like me.

It’s Week 22 of The 30.

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

1. Cincinnati Reds, 82-54 (594 RS, 510 RA) (last week: 3)

By the time you read this, Joey Votto will likely have come off the disabled list and joined the Reds’ lineup for the first time since July 15. We’ve already talked about the numbers-game issues Cincinnati will have once Votto’s back, with Todd Frazier and his potent bat in danger of losing a lot of playing time. Let’s not overstate the issue or frame it as a bad problem to have, though. Even if Votto’s not quite 100 percent, getting one of the two or three best hitters in baseball back on the field is a huge plus for any team, let alone a ball club that’s cruising to a division title.

Talking up Votto and Frazier too much also ignores the strength of this team: its excellent pitching. We might see the Cy Young race come down to Reds pitchers Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron reveals one of Cueto’s secret weapons: his phenomenal pickoff move. The right-hander’s just one off the major league lead, with seven pickoffs this year. For his career, Cueto has allowed just 14 steals in 41 attempts, a ludicrously low 34 percent success rate. Chapman’s on pace for an even wilder stat. Through 65 innings pitched, the Cuban Missile has racked up 34 saves, while allowing just 30 hits.

2. Texas Rangers, 80-54 (694 RS, 573 RA) (last week: 4)

Is Adrian Beltre a Hall of Famer? If you’re a Babe Ruth–Ty Cobb–and-no-one-else guy, clearly not. If you’re a “If I can’t immediately make a yes-or-no decision on someone, they’re out” guy, also no. But if you want to use the current crop of inducted players as your yardstick, Beltre has a decent case. He’s got an MVP-caliber season on his résumé, blasting 48 homers and generating nearly 10 wins’ worth of value in 2004. He was a seven-win player for the Red Sox in 2010. And while his career .274/.330/.474 line might not look spectacular, he plays a position where offense can be scarce, with the first 12 years of his career forged in pitcher’s parks. He’s one of the greatest defenders at third base or any other position in baseball history, with 143.4 runs saved according to Ultimate Zone Rating. He also plays a position that has been woefully underrepresented over the course of baseball history; of the 10 third basemen already inducted in Cooperstown, he’s got a vastly superior repertoire to three of them (Freddie Lindstrom, George Kell, and Jimmy Collins). The well has really run dry over the past 25 years or so, too. After Chipper Jones and A-Rod (who has still played 125 more games at shortstop than he has at third), which third basemen from the past quarter century project as slam-dunk Hall of Famers?

Beltre’s 61.2 career Wins Above Replacement puts him in a class with several players who have borderline Hall of Fame cases, including Keith Hernandez and Todd Helton, as well as already-inducted players like Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg. And the biggest factor working in Beltre’s favor is that he’s putting up peak-level numbers right now. Moving to Boston and then Arlington over the past three years has revived his offensive production, with Beltre mashing at a .318/.353/.546 rate this year, while still playing stellar defense. Most important for the Rangers, he’s crushing baseballs right as the team hits the home stretch, with four homers in his past seven games, and a recent stretch in which he became just the second player to post a three-homer game and hit for the cycle in the same week. The only other player ever to do that? Joe DiMaggio.

3. Washington Nationals, 82-52 (592 RS, 478 RA) (last week: 1)

The Nationals own a better record and better run differential than the Reds, and have lately been winning games at a similar rate to their NL Central first-place counterparts (7-6 for Washington since our last full version of The 30, 8-6 for Cincy) while also sitting two games ahead of the Rangers. So why drop the Nats in these standings? Simple. The Rangers are at full strength and the Reds are about to get their best player back from injury, while the Nationals are about to lose their best player in an effort to avoid potential future injuries.

Are the Nationals making a huge mistake in shutting down Stephen Strasburg after his final scheduled start of the year September 12? Or is their prudence with one of the game’s most precious assets justifiable? From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to promote the idea of a theoretical benefit (that limiting Strasburg’s innings might prevent an injury or ineffectiveness down the road) over a real benefit (having the ace of your staff and one of the best pitchers on earth taking the mound in October, when D.C. will likely get playoff baseball for the first time in 79 years). There might’ve been ways to restrict Strasburg’s workload and still get some playoff innings, too, ideas that we covered in late June and early July: Skip his turn in the rotation starting early in the season; give him an extra day between starts when possible; limit his per-start innings count, etc. ESPN’s Karl Ravech noted another possibility: Have Strasburg start the year throwing multiple innings at a time in relief, then build him up gradually until he can throw six-plus innings at a time in the rotation. As Ravech noted, the Braves’ Kris Medlen had Tommy John surgery two weeks before Strasburg did. By using the old Earl Weaver approach to easing in young starters, Medlen’s now on fire for Atlanta and ticketed for a playoff rotation spot if the Braves get in, while Strasburg is about to shut it down.

An analyst’s job is to speak with authority on such matters and lay out a clean plan for such decisions. But the truth is, no one knows more about Strasburg’s mechanics, his health, and the likelihood of another injury than the Nats do. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Tim Marchman wrote: “If only Davey Johnson had once seen a young pitching genius burn out, I might consider his opinions on Stephen Strasburg credible.” So here’s a question for you, Nats fans: If you’ve still got one of baseball’s top four heading into this year’s playoffs, and Strasburg goes on to become what everyone imagined Dwight Gooden would be … will it have been worth it?

4. New York Yankees, 76-58 (640 RS, 554 RA) (last week: 2)

The funny thing about rankings and projections is that when a team looks its worst, that’s typically when you should start expecting better things. To wit: The Yankees have scored three runs or fewer in eight of their past 12 games. Curtis Granderson has four hits in his past 31 at-bats, with 10 strikeouts. Derek Jeter might still lead the league in hits,1 but he also has just four hits in his past 31 at-bats. Ichiro has seven in his past 39 at-bats, with just one extra-base hit and two walks. Teams — even terrible teams — don’t score that few runs for all that long, and players of this caliber won’t put up such gruesome numbers for too long. The Yankees have battled multiple injuries, several core players are well past their prime, and the starting pitching behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda is a crapshoot. But the Yankees remain one of the most talented teams in baseball, probably the most talented team in the AL East. What was a 10-game division lead six weeks ago is now down to one, and they’re playing ugly baseball over the past few weeks. Still no panic button needed.

5. Oakland A’s, 76-58 (490 RS, 453 RA) (last week: 11)

Their nine-game winning streak is over, but the A’s remain the hottest team in baseball, and not just over a short span. Before Monday’s loss, Oakland went 54-27 in their previous 81 games. That’s half a season, with a 108-win pace. The players who’ve carried the team remain productive, with Josh Reddick reeling off three homers and nine runs knocked in over a recent five-game stretch, to name one.

If you’re looking for an extra reason to remain optimistic for the final month of the season, consider the reinforcements the A’s have brought in. Stephen Drew has posted an OPS about 150 points higher over 12 games in Oakland than he did in Arizona, plugging an offensive black hole in the A’s middle infield. The biggest addition has been Brett Anderson. After missing more than a year to Tommy John surgery, Anderson returned to the rotation August 21 and has shown no signs of rust or any of the command concerns that sometimes come with early post-TJ results. In his three starts since, the lefty has tossed 20 innings, struck out 15 batters, walked just three, and allowed no home runs, making him 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA. Three years ago, in healthier times, Anderson was a rookie and also the ace of the A’s staff. If that’s the pitcher Oakland’s adding for the final push — and by early indications it might be — it’s hard to see the A’s as anything other than the top contenders to claim one of the AL’s two wild-card spots.

6. Atlanta Braves, 76-59 (613 RS, 531 RA) (last week: 5)

A 4-10 stretch threatened to knock the Braves from their perch as the top NL wild-card team. Their two most reliable starters wouldn’t let that happen. Chipper Jones’s second walk-off homer of the year was a three-run bomb Sunday that capped a huge comeback from a 7-1 deficit against the Phillies. Chipper’s line for the season: .302/.381/.500, putting him on pace for his best year since 2008’s ludicrousness.

Then Kris Medlen fanned 12 Rockies and walked none en route to a complete-game win Monday. Medlen’s effort hiked his line since joining the rotation to 7-0 with a 0.54 ERA, with 50 strikeouts, five walks, and just one homer allowed in 49⅔ innings. An unearned run cruelly ended his scoreless-innings streak at 34⅔ innings. But the Braves’ in-season bullpen-to-rotation switch serves as a reminder that such moves can work if done right. By using Medlen as a reliever for more than two innings five times over the course of the season and giving him ample time to heal from Tommy John surgery and gain strength, Atlanta gave its surprise pitching beast enough long-form preps ahead of his transition. Daniel Bard is shaking his head right now.

7. Baltimore Orioles, 75-59 (569 RS, 600 RA) (last week: 14)

You know how you know everything’s going your way?

Your first baseman, a supposed power monster who had hit just 12 homers in 103 games while putting up his usual near-historic strikeout numbers, explodes for four homers in two games exactly when you need it, in a three-game set against the first-place Yankees.

Your best pitcher for most of the season, whose status for coming back this year was once in doubt, fired five scoreless innings in his first rehab start Saturday and looks likely to return soon.

Your Opening Day starter is 3-9 with a 6.13 ERA, and you’re a game out of first place.

8. Tampa Bay Rays, 74-61 (567 RS, 489 RA) (last week: 6)

We weren’t able to conclusively prove this by press time, but it’s exceedingly likely that the ending of Friday and Saturday’s Rays-Jays games marked the first time in MLB history that two straight games ended on a player being thrown out at the plate trying to score the tying run.2 If you think that’s the weirdest bit of Rays news of the past week, you clearly missed B.J. Upton motorboating a gigantic bag of popcorn.

9. San Francisco Giants, 77-58 (590 RS, 547 RA) (last week: 12)

The other scorching-hot team by the bay, the Giants have won 13 of their past 17 games, opening up a 4½-game lead on the Dodgers in the NL West. Among the many things that have gone right for Los Gigantes in the past few weeks has been the quasi-revival of Tim Lincecum. Over his past 10 starts, Lincecum’s chucked 60⅔ innings, struck out 58, and posted a 3.26 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of .704. Hardly spectacular, and hardly the Cy Young–winning form Lincecum showed in his not-too-distant past. But when the alternative is the arsonist who couldn’t get anyone out early in the season, you take it and run.

10. Los Angeles Angels, 72-63 (645 RS, 595 RA) (last week: 15)

Winners of 10 of their past 13 after halting Oakland’s nine-game winning streak, the Angels have climbed back into the wild-card race after a four-game sweep at the hands of the Rays threatened to euthanize their season. The latest bit of news has a chance to do that, as staff ace Jered Weaver could miss his next start due to shoulder tenderness. Though the Angels’ rotation has improved lately, this is still a team that’s struggled to prevent runs all year long, with a leaky bullpen and disappointing starters combining to make the Angels 21st in team ERA. Losing Weaver for more than a start or two would deal a massive blow to the Halos’ chances.

11. Detroit Tigers, 72-62 (607 RS, 570 RA) (last week: 13)

How does the team that ranks second in the majors in on-base percentage (.339) place a more modest 10th in runs scored? One reason has been the Tigers’ shockingly mediocre power numbers; despite the presence of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the lineup, Detroit places just 17th in home runs. Less surprising given the plodders in the middle of their lineup: Only four teams have been less effective at running the bases.

12. Chicago White Sox, 73-61 (625 RS, 559 RA) (last week: 8)

They stumbled into tough times after a six-game winning streak that included the team’s first sweep of the Yankees at home in 21 years. But the start of a cupcake series against the Twins helped restore a one-game lead in the AL Central, after the Tigers tied it by sweeping the Sox. In fact, Monday’s win over the Twins started a stretch in which 12 of Chicago’s 16 games come against lowly Minnesota and Kansas City, giving the White Sox a chance to strengthen their position in their own division as well as the wild-card race.

13. St. Louis Cardinals, 73-62 (651 RS, 554 RA) (last week: 10)

Straight to the monkey: The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored and were tied for third in homers in the first half of the season. Since the All-Star break, they’re sixth in the NL in runs scored and just 11th in homers (hat-tip to Bernie Miklasz). Now, Rafael Furcal’s out for the year with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, leaving him in a fight just to avoid Tommy John surgery. Furcal had been absolutely listless after a quick start to the season, but untested, light-hitting rookie Pete Kozma (.232/.292/.355 in Triple-A) could fare considerably worse in the big leagues.

14. Los Angeles Dodgers, 73-63 (546 RS, 518 RA) (last week: 7)

They’d lost eight of 11 games before finally catching a few breaks. After a one-run win over Arizona Saturday, well-heeled newcomer Adrian Gonzalez delivered a walk-off double Sunday. A.J. Ellis followed with a walk-off single to win it Monday. All of which is great, part of a dramatic, unpredictable season for the Dodgers, etc. But … ummm … who taught Chris Capuano to celebrate this way?

15. Pittsburgh Pirates, 70-64 (555 RS, 546 RA) (last week: 9)

It’s been ugly watching the Pirates’ free fall toward mediocrity, which has recently included being swept by poor Padres and Brewers teams and getting shut down by Astros starter Edgar Gonzalez, who’d been pitching in the Mexican League until a week and a half ago. Even if Pittsburgh does fall short in its quest to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, though, there’ll be some positive takeaways … few bigger than Pedro Alvarez. The 25-year-old slugger’s up to 27 homers this season, including four in a four-game stretch last week. Tough to do much better than he did last Tuesday against the Cardinals: 4-for-5, two homers, the second a bomb that flew clear out of the stadium … and impressed the dude in the stands dressed exactly, and creepily, like Alvarez.

16. Seattle Mariners, 66-70 (526 RS, 533 RA) (last week: 18)

Safeco Field has played as the toughest park for hitters in the game. John Jaso’s best season before this year saw him hit .263/.372/.378 in 2010 for the Rays. This season: .282/.387/.452, with an .855 OPS at home. Credit Eric Wedge for using Jaso judiciously enough to get the maximum platoon benefit. Give a lot more credit to GM Jack Zduriencik for flipping a fungible relief pitcher3 to get an OBP fiend of a catcher for a team that’s dead last in baseball in on-base percentage.

17. Arizona Diamondbacks, 66-70 (599 RS, 576 RA) (last week: 16)

As ace D-backs beat writer Nick Piecoro tweeted, this is what happened to the Diamondbacks on August 24: TV broadcaster Mark Grace got charged with driving under the influence, extremely disappointing outfielder Justin Upton suffered yet another injury setback, Willie Bloomquist had a setback in his rehab, and the D-backs’ rivals added Adrian Gonzalez for the stretch run. Far too many days have gone like that this year for Arizona, which is why the team will struggle to top .500, let alone match last season’s 94 wins and NL West crown.

18. Milwaukee Brewers, 65-69 (636 RS, 617 RA) (last week: 22)

Another playoff team last year that’s a likely also-ran this year. There are still some compelling story lines to be resolved, though. One big question is how Ryan Braun will fare in MVP voting, given that he might be the most qualified candidate right now, combined with the inevitable backlash he figures to get for allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs.4

19. Philadelphia Phillies, 65-70 (564 RS, 584 RA) (last week: 20)

Kyle Kendrick in his past four starts: 28⅓ innings pitched, 4-0, 1.23 ERA, 22 strikeouts, three walks. He’s 28 years old, in his sixth major league season, with a career ERA of 4.34, averaging just a strikeout every other inning, his lone major career highlight a fifth-place finish in 2007’s Rookie of the Year balloting that had a lot more to do with the Phillies’ potent offense pumping up Kendrick’s won-lost record than with the pitcher himself. Anything that even hints at actual, bigger potential is welcome in this lost season.

20. New York Mets, 64-71 (565 RS, 593 RA) (last week: 19)

Johan Santana’s first 16 starts of the season: 98 innings, 93 strikeouts, 2.76 ERA, .618 opponents’ OPS. The Mets compiled a 43-36 record during that time, and stood 2½ games out of first at that point.

Johan Santana’s subsequent five starts: 18⅓ innings, 15.63 ERA, 1.242 opponents’ OPS. The Mets have gone 21-35 since, and Santana’s out for the year with a back injury.

21. Boston Red Sox, 62-74 (653 RS, 662 RA) (last week: 17)

John Henry hinting that Bill James will become more involved in high-level decision making for the Red Sox? Intriguing. Everything else swirling around this dramatically underachieving team? Pass.

22. San Diego Padres, 62-74 (527 RS, 583 RA) (last week: 24)

The Padres are one of several teams moving to a six-man rotation for the final four weeks of the season. It’s a reasonable strategy for non-contenders who might want to baby their rookie callups and other young arms, given there’s no threat of a Strasburg situation. Casey Kelly pitched six shutout innings in his major league debut at home against Atlanta before getting torched at Coors Field. We’ll see less of him the rest of the way due to the switch to six-man. But what we will see will come under friendly (read: non-Coors) circumstances, as two straight starts at Petco Park’s pitchers’ paradise, followed by a game at AT&T Park, await.

23. Kansas City Royals, 60-74 (556 RS, 612 RA) (last week: 23)
24. Toronto Blue Jays, 60-74 (602 RS, 643 RA) (last week: 21)
25. Cleveland Indians, 57-78 (545 RS, 702 RA) (last week: 26)

Attention, rookies on AL clubs playing out the string: Your teams are out of it, you’ve earned your trip to the Show, show us what you’ve got. Wait, not you, Wil Myers. Because of baseball’s convoluted service time rules, you can keep adding to the 37 homers you’ve hit across Double- and Triple-A so far this year. We will start a sub-replacement-level Jeff Francoeur, we will start non-prospect David Lough, we will start holy waffles … but not the best player in the minor leagues.

26. Miami Marlins, 60-75 (509 RS, 605 RA) (last week: 25)

Sure, the Marlins were so bad and so dull this year that the Showtime series The Franchise, which planned to air a mere eight episodes about the team’s 2012 season, didn’t get the eighth installment to air. But The Franchise‘s replacement, a reality show in which 25 Marlins players battle for the right to play Walter White Double-Cross Victim No. 461 in a 2013 episode of Breaking Bad, should be compelling.

27. Colorado Rockies, 55-78 (640 RS, 735 RA) (last week: 29)

The Rockies are 40-36 since moving to a four-man rotation, and they’re planning to stick with it next season. There may very well be some merit to the plan, given the notion that fresh relief pitchers often pitch better than gassed starters, not to mention the potential benefit of giving hitters a whole new look sooner in games than they’re used to seeing. In fact, it’s possible that the biggest potential obstacle to making a long-term, four-man rotation work would have more to do with off-field implications than on-field ones. Given that pitcher evaluation is still done in arbitration using won-lost record, as is award voting and even Hall of Fame voting for some writers, pitchers stand to lose money and accolades if they’re limited to 75 pitches per outing, and thus at risk of not making it out of the fifth inning. On the other hand, the Rockies haven’t been able to lure a big-name free-agent starting pitcher to Denver since … what, Mike Hampton and his education-minded principles? Pitchers being discouraged from coming to the Rockies wouldn’t exactly be a new phenomenon here.

28. Minnesota Twins, 55-80 (587 RS, 693 RA) (last week: 27)

Congratulations to Jamey Carroll, who snapped a homerless streak that lasted 1,348 at-bats, the longest such streak in baseball. Time to bask.

29. Chicago Cubs, 51-83 (502 RS, 617 RA) (last week: 28)

Jeff Samardzija in day games, 2012: 88⅔ innings, 83 strikeouts, 34 walks, 94 hits, 14 homers, 5.08 ERA

Jeff Samardzija in night games, 2012: 77 innings, 88 strikeouts, 21 walks, 59 hits, six homers, 2.57 ERA

We probably need more data before we can ascertain that this is a trend, especially since Samardzija’s splits were more mixed in previous years, when he was a relief pitcher. Still, the Cubs play more day games than any other team. Might be something worth watching in the future.

30. Houston Astros, 42-93 (491 RS, 688 RA) (last week: 30)

Best of luck to Kevin Goldstein, former Baseball Prospectus prospect guru, now Houston Astros pro scouting director. Though Goldstein’s not a traditional scout, he’s spent years interacting with scouts and breaking down reams of information on players from all 30 minor league systems, as well as from high schools, colleges, and internationally. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has said that one of his preferred methods for rebuilding the team will be to lean on the best practices of groups of people, rather than putting too much pressure or emphasis on any one talent evaluator. If Goldstein can synthesize scouting ideas as well for a major league team as he did on the prospect beat, the Astros will have landed a strong pickup here.

This piece originally contained incorrect information about Aroldis Chapman’s saves and hits-allowed totals. That information has been removed.

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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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