In the years following the PED era (or whatever you want to call it), home runs have come at a premium. That’s how you get aggressive GMs going on power-obsessed trade benders, and it’s why productive mid-thirties sluggers now look like aliens. The scarce long ball, which used to be a necessity for any club that didn’t want to be left in the dust, has become a way to separate yourself from the pack.
At least, most of the time. This week’s four featured teams all rank among the league leaders in homers, but the Mariners and Blue Jays haven’t parlayed those dingers into many wins. The Cubs have emerged as contenders, although weaknesses elsewhere on the roster have held them back from an even hotter start. Meanwhile, the Astros’ league-leading home run total has helped propel them to a surprise spot atop the AL West.
Time to go deep on going deep. It’s Week 7 of The 30.
Best Play by a Shortstop Not Named “Andrelton”
It’s a tough gig, being a major league shortstop during the Andrelton Simmons era. Unless you learn the power of human flight, you’re going to fall short by comparison. But in the realm of non-Andrelton shortstops, few pull off more acrobatic plays than Kansas City’s Alcides Escobar. In the past couple of weeks alone, we got this, this, and this.
On Friday night, he topped ’em all. Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams rapped a grounder far to Escobar’s right. The rangy shortstop dove for the ball, snagged it, then, well, just watch.
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The Royals own the second-best record and best run differential in baseball, making jackasses out of dim-witted writers who doubted they could repeat. From the evolution of Mike Moustakas to Eric Hosmer’s breakout, there are lots of reasons for that success. And for a team that’s allowed the fewest runs in the American League, plenty of thanks goes to Escobar, who’s consistently pulling off plays like this one.
Hot Stove, Cold Results
Aggressive winters by the Padres and Blue Jays haven’t produced winning seasons.
30. Milwaukee Brewers (16-30 record, minus-55 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (18-25, minus-38, LW: 29)
28. Philadelphia Phillies (19-28, minus-56, LW: 28)
27. Miami Marlins (18-28, minus-18, LW: 24)
26. Cincinnati Reds (18-26, minus-36, LW: 20)
25. Oakland A’s (17-30, minus-3, LW: 26)
24. Chicago White Sox (19-23, minus-47, LW: 19)
23. San Diego Padres (21-25, minus-14, LW: 15)
22. Texas Rangers (22-23, minus-1, LW: 27)
21. Toronto Blue Jays (21-26, plus-26, LW: 16)
No team came into this season with more riding on young pitching than the Blue Jays.
Veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle were guaranteed jobs at the top of the rotation, more because their big salaries made them unmarketable trade commodities than because they were any good. J.A. Happ, another functional but underwhelming vet, got shipped to Seattle for outfield help in Michael Saunders. That left the final three rotation spots to four homegrown pitchers, all 24 years old or younger: Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez, and Daniel Norris.
Forty-seven games into the season, Jays starting pitchers rank 28th in the majors in park-adjusted ERA and last in park-adjusted fielding-independent pitching. The young pitchers experiment has failed miserably so far, and the team with the longest playoff drought in baseball sits in last place in the AL East.
For starters, and to the surprise of many, the Jays miss Happ. The well-traveled left-hander averaged just under six innings per start for Toronto in 2014, producing a 4.12 ERA in 26 starts that was right around league average after adjusting for park effects. He’s improved this year in Seattle, chopping his walk and home run rates and posting identical 3.61 ERA and FIP marks, which are both better than league average. With Saunders sidelined by injuries for most of this season, that’s quietly been one of Toronto’s worst trades in a while.
The loss of Happ became more painful when Stroman suffered a (likely) season-ending knee injury a few weeks before Opening Day. The 24-year-old righty looked like a potential star in his rookie season last year, posting a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and a ground ball rate just shy of 54 percent to spark big expectations, only for them to be put on hold.
However, right behind Stroman on the list of pitchers carrying great expectations was Hutchison, who was the team’s Opening Day starter last month. Granted, Dickey pitching well in domes contributed to the decision to start Hutchison in the first game, but that’s still a plum assignment no matter how you spin it. And there were good reasons to expect big things.
As I wrote in March when I pegged Hutchison as one of my 2015 breakout candidates:
In his final 16 starts, he struck out a staggering 105 batters in 92.1 innings, with 63 percent of his pitches going for strikes. While his ERA — 4.97 during that run, 4.48 for the year — obscured an impressive performance, we can blame it on lousy results with men on base. Opposing batters hit .282/.335/.484 against Hutchison with men on, compared to just .222/.288/.373 with the bases empty.
Hutchison had been getting crushed by bad luck again this year: His batting average on balls in play has jumped 19 points despite an uptick in soft contact by opposing hitters. Also, a combination of lousy bullpen support and randomness has saddled him with the fifth-lowest strand rate in the AL. On Monday against the White Sox, we got a strong reminder of how good Hutchison can be, thanks to a four-hit, no-walk, eight-strikeout, 96-pitch complete-game shutout, otherwise known as a “Maddux.” Bottom line, this is a pitcher who’s been much, much better than what his surface numbers say.
While Hutchison is starting to turn his season around, the two youngest kids in the quartet have not been much help. Twenty-two-year-old Daniel Norris made five starts, struggled with his command, and got sent to the minors, where he’s still having trouble finding the plate. Fellow 22-year-old Aaron Sanchez sports a respectable 3.98 ERA, but he also leads all starting pitchers with as many innings in walk rate (by a mile), continuing his walks-plagued results from spring training.
Beyond the big four’s disappointment, the rest of the staff hasn’t been much better. Dickey and Buehrle both sport ERAs above five, and they each offer little more than bulk innings, save for the increasingly rare occasion when Dickey fools the world with his knuckler. Marco Estrada has been a half-decent fill-in as the team’s replacement fifth starter, but he came over in a salary-dump trade that has Adam Lind providing left-handed thump for Milwaukee, a commodity the Jays now lack. Meanwhile, the bullpen had exceeded expectations until recently, when it blew two games in five days against the Astros and Angels.
With both right-handed mashers playing like All-Stars, the offseason acquisitions of Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson have worked out brilliantly, but the Jays took a calculated risk by earmarking the rest of their offseason funds for a top relief pitcher instead of a starter, and they came up with neither. Throw in an ongoing battle to get a sore-shouldered Jose Bautista back into an everyday outfield spot, and you’ve got a ballclub facing a potential 22nd consecutive season without October baseball.
Add in that the AL East looks more winnable than it’s been in decades, with its current leader featuring this as its Monday starting lineup …
… and it’s been a frustrating first seven weeks in the Tdot.
A six-game winning streak makes the Indians this week’s biggest risers.
20. Seattle Mariners (21-23, minus-17, LW: 21)
19. Arizona Diamondbacks (21-23, plus-11, LW: 23)
18. Atlanta Braves (22-22, minus-7, LW: 22)
17. Boston Red Sox (21-24, minus-37, LW: 12)
16. Baltimore Orioles (20-22, plus-5, LW: 17)
15. Cleveland Indians (20-24, minus-9, LW: 25)
14. Tampa Bay Rays (24-22, plus-11, LW: 14)
13. New York Yankees (23-22, plus-10, LW: 9)
12. Pittsburgh Pirates (22-22, plus-28, LW: 18)
Four years ago, the Mariners ranked just 25th in the majors with 109 home runs. Only three players on that team even managed double-digit homers — and two of them are now out of baseball, while the other one is barely hanging on as a bench jockey. Fast-forward to today, and the M’s rank fourth in baseball in homers and are on pace to crank a staggering 203 long balls. Yet Seattle still sits in fourth place, below .500, and with the third-worst run differential in the American League.
By far the biggest reason for that power binge has been Nelson Cruz. After failing to land the lucrative multiyear deal he wanted before the 2014 season, Cruz settled for a one-year, $8 million pact with Baltimore and promptly clubbed 40 homers to lead the majors and to earn the unofficial award for that winter’s best signing. So far, he also looks like the best signing of last winter: Forty-four games into his Mariners career, Cruz leads the majors in homers and is tops in the AL in slugging and park-adjusted offense.
Yet even with the most powerful hitter in the American League now anchoring the middle of their lineup, the M’s, who are coming off an 87-win season in which they just missed the playoffs, have actually gone backward. For that they can thank bad pitching, bad luck, and bouts of bad defense.
Every team deals with injuries, but we’re now at five weeks and counting without Hisashi Iwakuma following a recent setback in his rehab from a shoulder injury, costing Seattle one of the American League’s best pitchers the past two years. Iwakuma’s absence has forced the M’s to continue to send Taijuan Walker out to the slaughter: The four runs and 10 baserunners the 22-year-old right-hander allowed Sunday were somehow both improvements over his results heading into that game. New addition Happ has been a pleasant surprise, as has Roenis Elias, another Iwakuma stand-in; those two starters, along with young lefty James Paxton, have given decent support to King Felix, who’s again pitching like royalty. But a team with hopes of contending really should be giving a struggling kid like Walker (7.33 ERA, nearly two baserunners allowed per inning) more seasoning in the minors.
Other problems persist, too. Seattle is running out an outfield defense that has been the worst in the American League, costing the M’s 16 runs more than the league-average outfield according to Baseball Info Solutions’s Defensive Runs Saved. The bullpen has regressed badly after flourishing last year. The Mariners are batting .220 with runners in scoring position, 28th in the majors. And even with all of their power, this is still a middle-of-the-pack offensive team; when $240 million man Robinson Cano is batting just .253/.295/.337 and Dustin Ackley is combining lousy defense with replacement-level hitting, that’s bound to happen.
Some of these problems could get ironed out soon. Austin Jackson returns from the disabled list tonight, which should help the outfield’s glovework. Bullpens are notoriously unpredictable, and the emergence of right-hander Carson Smith could stabilize the back end of the pen as Lloyd McClendon works to weed out his worst relief performers. Plus, the M’s can’t expect to stay snakebitten all year: Of the 55 homers they’ve launched, a staggering 42 have come with the bases empty, a run of randomness that likely won’t last.
Making up an eight-game deficit in the AL West won’t be easy, especially with the rotation still missing a quality arm while Iwakuma sits and Walker flounders. But it’s a long season, and FanGraphs still gives Seattle a 47.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, so don’t count the Mariners out just yet.
The Meek Shall Inherit Early-Season Success
Four of this tier’s five teams finished below .500 last year.
11. Minnesota Twins (26-18, plus-18, LW: 13)
10. New York Mets (25-21, plus-2, LW: 7)
9. Los Angeles Angels (23-22, minus-3, LW: 10)
8. Chicago Cubs (24-20, plus-3, LW: 8)
7. San Francisco Giants (26-20, plus-8, LW: 11)
Twelfth in the majors and fifth among National League teams, the Cubs aren’t quite launching homers at the same rate as this week’s three other featured clubs. They’ve also run into a mini-slump, dropping five of their last eight games after previously reeling off six wins in a row. But don’t fret, Cubs fans: Look for more long balls — and wins — in the near future.
Before playing a single game in the big leagues, Kris Bryant drew raves for his immense power potential, with some prospect hounds arguing that he might have more raw pop than anyone in pro ball, save for possibly Rangers prospect Joey Gallo. However, Bryant’s big league career didn’t start with a flurry of home runs. In fact, he didn’t hit one until his 21st game on May 9. Despite the power drought, it was only a matter of time until the homers started coming. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Bryant cuts an imposing figure at the plate, and he immediately showed a willingness to work deep counts until he could get a pitch to hit: He drew 17 walks in those first 20 homerless games, and he now ranks fifth among batting-title-qualified hitters in pitches seen per plate appearance. Sure enough, the bleacher shots have started flowing, with Bryant homering six times in his past 16 games.
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Some of Bryant’s teammates, though, are still trying to turn things around. Jorge Soler charged into the big leagues last year by smacking five homers (plus eight doubles and a triple) in 89 at-bats, but he’s managed just three round-trippers (plus 11 doubles and a triple) in 172 at-bats this year, and his slugging average has plunged 166 points as a result. Starlin Castro’s power numbers are also down,1 as is everything else: He’s been the team’s worst hitter at .265/.295/.337, yet he’s still getting penciled into the cleanup spot every day.
And they weren’t that high to begin with: He’s never hit more than 14 homers in a season.
Even with the struggles of Soler and Castro, Chicago’s lineup has enough pieces to do some real damage. Of course, younger players can produce volatile results, and it’s no sure thing that a lineup featuring five players 25 or younger will ever be humming perfectly at a given moment. But the emergence of Anthony Rizzo as an MVP-caliber player and the less-heralded but still vitally important additions of Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler make the Cubs one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league.
With ostensibly no big names after the rotation’s top two of Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, the pitching staff doesn’t look as talented as the batting order. Going by ERA alone, you get a club that ranks a middle-of-the-pack seventh in the National League. But strip out the effects of fielding and adjust for park factors, and the Cubs, along with four other clubs, rate as the second-best collection of pitchers in the majors.
Again, we can thank an under-the-radar move for much of that excellence. Rather than, say, throwing $55 million at Ervin Santana, the Cubs inked veteran right-hander Jason Hammel to a two-year, $20 million deal … five months after trading him to Oakland. Still, the deal had intriguing upside from the start, given that Hammel posted near career bests in strikeout and walk rates last season. This year, he’s been a strike-throwing machine, fanning 58 batters and issuing just six unintentional walks in 60.1 innings; only Michael Pineda and Bartolo Colon have produced higher strikeout-to-walk rates.
For Hammel, the secret to success comes down to recognizing his strengths. Over the past three seasons, Hammel’s slider has become increasingly difficult to hit, and he’s throwing it way more often.2
|Year||Batting Average Against||Usage Rate|
Stats according to Brooks Baseball.
In addition to Hammel’s slider-heavy repertoire, look for two factors to make the Cubs’ pitching stingier, and deeper, as the season wears on.
First, Cubs pitchers have allowed a bloated .272 batting average with runners in scoring position (21st in MLB). Along the same lines, they’ve been victimized by unlucky hit clustering, with opponents scoring about 10 runs more than they would have if Cubs pitchers were scattering hits across innings at a league-average rate. Both are probably a bit fluky and will likely regulate as the season wears on.
Second, with the Cubs occupying the NL’s second wild-card spot as we pass the quarter-way mark of the 2015 season, a playoff berth is there for the taking. FanGraphs has Chicago’s playoff odds at just a hair below 57 percent — up from 35.5 percent to start the year — and the aggressive shopping approach shown by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer over the winter suggests both a front office that recognizes how elusive winning seasons can be in Wrigleyville and an ownership group that’s willing to spend money to win. Add in the organization’s avalanche of young position-player talent, and you have plenty of trade chips to reel in yet another top-notch starting pitcher or, more importantly, bolster a struggling bullpen that’s been around league average or a tick worse by both traditional and fancy metrics.
If the Cubs can make the necessary upgrades, expect to see more of those homers under the bright lights of the postseason.
They’ve Shown Us
Our two highest-ranked teams hail from Missouri.
6. Detroit Tigers (26-20, plus-13, LW: 3)
5. Houston Astros (29-17, plus-26, LW: 5)
4. Washington Nationals (27-18, plus-26, LW: 6)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (27-17, plus-46, LW: 2)
2. Kansas City Royals (28-16, plus-52, LW: 1)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (29-16, plus-56, LW: 4)
No nuance required here: The Astros lead the majors in homers by a comfortable margin. That’s not the only reason they’ve been baseball’s most pleasant surprise through the season’s first seven weeks, but it’s certainly one of the biggest ones.
Unlike the Mariners and their Cruz-led power surge, the Astros have done it by committee. Five hitters have cracked seven or more homers, and seven of the lineup’s starting nine players have five or more.
None has done so more entertainingly than Evan Gattis. The story of Gattis’s journey from janitor/ski lift operator/pizza slinger to major league mainstay has been told many times, but even if you look past that unlikely tale, you still have a hitter who seems more myth than man. How else can we process a 6-foot-4, 260-pound behemoth who eschews batting gloves, swings for the moon on every pitch, and has so little regard for pitch location that he’s an eyelash away from going full Vladimir Guerrero?
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For as big a hacker and strikeout threat as Gattis is, he’s not even close to the leading whiffer on this team. Colby Rasmus ranks fourth among all qualified batters in strikeout rate. Right behind him is Chris Carter at no. 4, while George Springer’s not far off the pace at no. 11. All in all, only the Cubs have whiffed more times than the Astros. And when you put the ball in play that infrequently, hits obviously become tough to find, which is why the Astros sit 29th in batting average.
So, if the Astros are hitting like a lineup full of Dave Kingmans, how are they tied with the Cardinals for most wins in the majors? Several reasons, really:
• Dallas Keuchel is a godless, worm-killing machine, and it’s driving opposing hitters nuts. The soft-tossing lefty had allowed just one homer in his first nine starts before surrendering two in eight innings Monday. Still, Keuchel’s downward-spinning repertoire has netted a 63.3 percent ground ball rate, the third-highest in the majors.
• As a seventh-round pick lightly regarded by scouts due to his sub-90-mph stuff, Keuchel’s still a blue-chipper compared to no. 2 starter Collin McHugh (3.65 FIP, 4.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate), who was a waiver claim from the Rockies in December 2013.
• Meanwhile, the bullpen has been a complete MacGyver job, with key pieces smushed together with baling wire, chewing gum, and Silly Putty. Tony Sipp (1.06 ERA, 18 strikeouts, and three walks in 17 innings) was acquired for nothing after the Padres cut him loose last May. Will Harris (0.40 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 22.2 innings) was a waiver claim from Arizona in November. Josh Fields (0.87 ERA, 18 punchouts in 10.1 innings) was a Rule 5 draftee from the Red Sox in 2012. Credit the Astros’ pro scouts and number crunchers for repeatedly turning straw into gold.3
If you’re an ERA skeptic, the Astros bullpen leads the majors in park-adjusted xFIP, too.
• Speaking of Houston’s analytics team, save some praise for the work they’ve done in orchestrating the team’s frequent shifts. Though every club now shows at least some interest in aggressive defensive positioning, no team does it more successfully than Houston.4 According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Astros led the majors last year by saving 27 runs via shifts, and they’re at it again this season, leading MLB with 13 runs saved.
After leading the majors with 1,341 shifts last season, the Astros narrowly trail the Rays for most shifts in 2015.
• They’ve been both aggressive and successful on the basepaths, ranking in the top five in stolen bases and third in Baserunning Runs.
The extent to which the Astros have outperformed preseason expectations has led many pundits to predict major pullback as the season goes on. Beyond the sheer shock of what’s happened in Houston, there are reasons to agree with that stance: The Astros are 11-5 in one-run games (best in the American League) and 3-1 in extra-inning contests. Having a great bullpen can enable success in close games, but winning tight battles that often is rare, and that’s before we get into the fickle and volatile nature of relief pitchers. Houston has also been extraordinarily healthy, and that’s never a sure thing to last, especially on the pitching side.
The good news is that the Astros could have some impressive hedges against potential regression. Carlos Correa, one of the best prospects in the game, could be up at some point this season. Houston also finally ironed out a contract dispute that at one point had it making zero dollars from local television, and earlier this month, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow told me that having a real TV revenue stream could facilitate a go-for-it trade or two if the team is still at or near the top of the AL West come June and July.
Combine that with a cushion of the biggest division lead in baseball and the likelihood that Carter, Gattis, and Luis Valbuena won’t hit at or below the Mendoza Line all year, and you have multiple reasons to believe that — as crazy as it would have sounded two months ago — the Astros might be for real.