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The 30: Amid Another Collapse, No Hard Knocks for Anemic Atlanta

Could the Braves have prevented their 2014 collapse? Are the Twins deceptively well positioned for the future? Can the Pirates and Tigers keep cruising right into October? It’s Week 25 of The 30.

The Twins are closing out the season behind one of the most enigmatic pitching staffs of all time, the Braves are pondering one of their worst offensive showings in recent franchise history, the Pirates are riding the coattails of an overachiever, and the Tigers are benefiting from the power stroke of a spring training reject.

So make your move:

Let the dirt be your friend:

dodgers-rockies

Shoot dem arrows:

https://twitter.com/MLBGIFs/status/512839688848023552/

Avoid reliving moments of baseball infamy:

https://twitter.com/hochman/status/512771201752518658/

And, most important, save some room for pie:

[protected-iframe id=”468fec2ea70c69df1b29c6b19f7eb4f3-60203239-35703816″ info=”https://vine.co/v/OWm659gY9M6/embed/simple” width=”600″ height=”540″ frameborder=”0″]

It’s Week 25 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

We have a three-way tie!

First, a warm round of applause for Jake Smolinski, who celebrated his first major league home run with a nifty little flip:

[mlbvideo id=”36321813″ width=”540″ height=”302″ /]

Then, some appreciation for Chase Headley, who was so exasperated by a recent ejection that he marked the moment with an impressive twirl:

[protected-iframe id=”27d7ecbff26ee8657aecf8bf0d45d72b-60203239-35703816″ info=”https://vine.co/v/OaYW2zVxL73/embed/simple” width=”600″ height=”540″ frameborder=”0″]

And finally, give a moment to Jose Bautista, who trotted almost all the way to first base with bat in hand before finally spiking his lumber:

https://twitter.com/BlueJayHunter/status/512780031085391872/

It’s a Dry Heat

The plummeting Diamondbacks set up shop in the cellar.

30. Arizona Diamondbacks (62-94, -128 run differential, no. 28 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (65-91, -53, LW: 29)
28. Texas Rangers (62-93, -136, LW: 30)
27. Minnesota Twins (66-89, -73, LW: 27)
26. Boston Red Sox (68-88, -96, LW: 25)
25. Chicago Cubs (69-87, -92, LW: 26)
24. Houston Astros (69-87, -84, LW: 24)
23. Chicago White Sox (71-84, -88, LW: 23)
22. Cincinnati Reds (72-84, -21, LW: 21)
21. Philadelphia Phillies (71-85, -63, LW: 22)
20. San Diego Padres (74-81, -37, LW: 20)
19. New York Mets (76-80, +9, LW: 17)
18. Tampa Bay Rays (75-81, +5, LW: 19)
17. Miami Marlins (74-81, -31, LW: 18)

We at Grantland embrace nuanced metrics, which means eschewing traditional measures of pitching success like win-loss record and even, to some extent, ERA. Instead, we focus on the stats over which a pitcher has the most control, like strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, and, to a lesser degree, ground ball, fly ball, and line drive rates. Those are what we pointy-headed types often call “peripheral” stats, even though they’re actually quite crucial when it comes to understanding pitcher performance.

In recent years, Twins pitchers were arguably the worst in baseball when it came to peripheral stats. They finished last in the majors in strikeout rate in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and they went a mind-boggling 379 games between double-digit strikeout efforts, from Francisco Liriano’s 10-K outing on July 18, 2012, to Phil Hughes’s 11-punch-out showing on September 13 of this year.

The team earned frequent mockery for its stated approach of pitching to contact. We’ve known for years (and suspected for longer) that pitchers don’t have as much control over balls in play as they might like to believe, which is why analysts have come to value peripheral stats so highly: If a pitcher can fare well in the areas he can best control, it usually bodes well for future success, even if it doesn’t always lead to immediate success.

Well, the Twins are about to finish last in the majors in strikeout rate yet again, which would mark the first time in baseball history a team has done that four years in a row. Yet their peripherals look better this year than they have the past three seasons, especially among the starters. That’s because Minnesota’s rotation has been stingy with walks, posting a lower walk rate than all but three other teams.

[mlbvideo id=”36220275″ width=”540″ height=”302″ /]

That’s created a massive discrepancy between the Twins’ runs allowed and their fielding-independent numbers. Strip out the impact of defense and other factors that pitchers can’t control and Twins starters have posted a 4.05 FIP this season, which isn’t great, but which is still better than four other AL teams, including the AL East champion Orioles. It’s also much better than the rotation’s 5.13 ERA, which ranks dead last in MLB. In fact, that 1.08 gap marks the second-largest put up by any team’s starters … in at least 100 years.

The good news is that the ERA-FIP chasm can inform how the Twins try to improve the team for next year. Upgrading a defense that ranks 26th in Ultimate Zone Rating and 28th in Baseball Info Solutions’ proprietary Defensive Runs Saved rankings could pay dividends for a pitching staff that does a great job of avoiding free passes.

All of this also serves as a reminder of how much worse off the Twins would be without Phil Hughes. The 28-year-old right-hander has two more seasons left on his three-year, $24 million contract, and that deal looks like one of the biggest steals for a free-agent pitcher in several years given what Hughes has done this season, striking out 181 batters while walking just 16. That’s an 11.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best in baseball history.

With the Twins on their way to their third last-place finish in four years, Hughes has offered a rare bright spot — and a beacon of hope for a pitching staff trying to dig its way out of four consecutive seasons of futility.

Close, But No Cigar

Each of these teams looked like a playoff threat before eventually falling off.

16. Atlanta Braves (76-79, -19, LW: 16)
15. Toronto Blue Jays (78-77, +17, LW: 12)
14. New York Yankees (80-75, -31, LW: 15)
13. Milwaukee Brewers (80-76, -4, LW: 13)
12. Cleveland Indians (81-74, +17, LW: 14)

The Braves, in two tweets:

https://twitter.com/craigcalcaterra/status/512692680011165697/

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That first tweet is a bit misleading, of course. The Braves went 19-8 in September 2012 to secure a wild-card berth before losing that play-in game in controversial fashion, while the 2013 Braves rolled to an NL East title before losing to the talented Dodgers in the NLDS. Still, there’s a prevailing sense of disappointment over how the past four seasons have turned out for Atlanta. And while this year’s team certainly didn’t collapse as excruciatingly as the 2011 squad did, the weeks since the All-Star break have been miserable for Braves fans, as a 24-36 nosedive took the team from tied for first place to potentially its first sub-.500 season in six years.

As for the second tweet: The Braves fielding just one more player all season than the Angels have rostered in September would initially seem like a good thing. Fewer players used often speaks to strong team health, and following the season-crushing injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy this preseason, the Braves have indeed done a decent job of avoiding the disabled list, particularly the position players. On the other hand, the Braves are the second-lowest-scoring team in baseball, with only the historically weak Padres faring worse, and amid that kind of futility it would have been nice to see the Braves try some different things.

Atlanta’s inability to course-correct is damning in multiple respects, signaling a farm system that couldn’t deliver high-caliber hitters and a front office that’s gone back to its old hara hachi bu ways.

To be fair, the Braves spent their share of money. The team’s Opening Day payroll surged 24 percent this year, from $90 million last season to $112 million this year, due mostly to the one-year, $14.1 million deal it gave Ervin Santana, who’s been worth every penny while filling part of the void Medlen and Beachy left. But after the team lost its division lead and slumped back into a crowded wild-card pack, the Braves settled for a deadline deal for punchless utility man Emilio Bonifacio, which was far from sufficient given B.J. Upton’s and Chris Johnson’s struggles.

The Braves’ offensive woes have gone beyond the dregs of their lineup, though. Jason Heyward’s development as a hitter has stalled, as he’s gone from being a 27-homer hitter two years ago to managing just 11 long balls and a .387 slugging average this season. He’s also hitting like a pitcher against lefties, batting an abysmal .174/.258/.232 against them in 2014. And not everyone is as supportive as this fan:

heyward-fan-fistbump

Meanwhile, shortstop Andrelton Simmons is hitting .245/.286/.335 this year, but he’s likely got another Gold Glove on the way. While Simmons and Heyward are both too good defensively to bench, if the Braves had even a half-respectable replacement option at their disposal, they could sit Heyward against tougher lefties in an effort to augment their terrible offense. And while it’d be tough for the Braves to even occasionally rest their best hitter when so few other guys are hitting, it’s easy to wonder if Freddie Freeman would have managed more than one homer during the last 33 games if he’d gotten any rest throughout the year.

On Monday morning, the hammer fell, as the Braves fired GM Frank Wren. This marked the first time the team had dismissed a GM or manager in 24 years, a shockingly long time given the transitory nature of pro sports. Wren’s interim replacement will be baseball operations senior adviser John Hart, who helped build a powerhouse in Cleveland (and pioneer the practice of signing players to long-term deals well before they become eligible for free agency), then ran the Texas Rangers for four years. It’s tough to see Hart being the long-term solution after being out of the GM’s chair for nearly a decade, though. Instead, keep an eye on John Coppolella, the young, bright Braves assistant general manager whose name has been floated as a potential GM candidate for years.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez still has a job, but he’s also taken a lot of heat for the Braves’ struggles, frequently getting ripped for his autopilot approach to managing (which leads to puzzling decisions, such as his stubborn insistence to play Freeman every day) and for his even less defensible moves (such as his intractable approach to bullpen usage). But while Gonzalez will never engender praise for his creative and cerebral approach to in-game situations, a chef can cook only with the groceries he’s given. And this season, Wren handed his manager a couple of rotten bananas and a pile of rancid squirrel meat and told him to field a competitive offense. Ownership could have decided this showing was a fluke, but instead, those in charge demanded better. Now, the Braves will try to dig out from their first major firing since before the worst-to-first 1991 season that launched a near quarter century full of winning.

Race to the Finish

One of these three AL wild-card contenders will likely be playing golf a week from now.

11. Seattle Mariners (83-72, +92, LW: 9)
10. Oakland A’s (85-70, +150, LW: 6)
9. Kansas City Royals (84-70, +16, LW: 11)
8. San Francisco Giants (84-71, +52, LW: 7)
7. Pittsburgh Pirates (84-71, +49, LW: 10)

The Pirates failed to address the offseason loss of productive 2013 starter A.J. Burnett, muddled through this season with castoffs like Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley in the rotation, sat on their hands at the trade deadline, and generally looked like a club that was unwilling to make the necessary moves to secure a second straight playoff run. And yet, barring a huge collapse in the final week, they’re going to earn a postseason berth again anyway.

There are numerous reasons for that success, from team health to a change in offensive approach to Volquez and Worley pitching better than expected to Josh Harrison’s remarkable rise. But the Pirates wouldn’t have reeled off a 66-45 run since their May 20 nadir, nor sailed into October this comfortably, without a guy who barely played at all until late May: their excellent catcher, Russell Martin.

After spending nearly a month on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, Martin returned to the lineup on May 23, and he’s been a hitting machine since, batting .308/.421/.460. Narrow that query to the past two months and Martin has been absolutely unconscious, battering pitchers at a .329/.427/.516 clip.

He has also been clutch, coming up with huge hits at just the right time. On Friday, the Pirates pulled off their 40th comeback win of the season, more than any other NL team, and it was Martin who supplied the fireworks, blasting a go-ahead three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth that will go down as one of the biggest moments of Pittsburgh’s season.

[mlbvideo id=”36407349″ width=”540″ height=”302″ /]

While Martin’s 2014 production has earned plenty of headlines, his pending free agency has also been a hot topic. With few impact players expected to test the market this winter, and no one even close to Martin available in the catching ranks, he will be in prime position to score a big contract following his impressive 2014 season. On defense, Martin is widely regarded as one of the best in the game, both in handling pitchers and in more quantifiable tasks, such as pitch framing. So if this offensive outburst is for real — he’s batting .297/.408/.442 for the year, 44 percent above league average for any position by wRC+ — he’ll deserve every penny he gets in a heated market.

Still, as much as everyone loves a primo two-way catcher,1 there are reasons to wonder if Martin’s offensive barrage will carry over to future seasons. By batting average on balls in play, this is an aberrant performance, with Martin sitting at .343 this year, 54 points above his career mark. If he were roping line drives all over the park, that would help explain the jump … but he isn’t, posting batted-ball numbers very much in line with his career norms. ESPN Stats & Info can dig up more granular metrics, such as Hard Hit Average, which is exactly what it sounds like, and by that measure Martin has hit the ball hard 17.3 percent of the time, just a hair above the MLB average of 16.6. That’s a good mark, but it’s not enough to explain the BABIP or batting average that the career .259 hitter has posted this season. Martin has modest speed and will turn 32 in February, meaning there’s real risk in buying high here.


1.

One who grew up in Montreal, no less! #BelleProvinceBias

Right now, though, Buccos fans are forgiven for not giving a damn, as their team looks to follow up two decades of heartache with two seasons of joy. Plus, if another suitor sweeps Martin away with a massive offer this winter, it could actually work out surprisingly well for the Pirates, who would avoid potential overpaying for an older player and could hopefully parlay those saved bucks into talent at other positions — and into October outings for years to come.

Rolling Redbirds

The surging Cardinals move into the penthouse.

6. St. Louis Cardinals (87-69, +12, LW: 8)
5. Detroit Tigers (86-69, +59, LW: 5)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (89-67, +85, LW: 4)
3. Baltimore Orioles (93-62, +116, LW: 3)
2. Washington Nationals (91-64, +128, LW: 2)
1. Los Angeles Angels (96-60, +149, LW: 1)

A J.D. Martinez timeline:

July 30, 2011: Martinez, a 20th-round draft pick by the Astros in 2009 out of noted baseball powerhouse Nova Southeastern University, rides gaudy minor league numbers (including a .338/.414/.546 line in 88 games at Double-A Corpus Christi) to an unlikely call to the big leagues. He looks good playing nearly every day as a rookie, batting .274/.319/.423 in 53 major league games, 3 percent better than league average on a park-adjusted basis, per wRC+.

August 9, 2012: Ice cold after a torrid start to the season, Martinez gets sent down to Triple-A following a hitless showing. Six days later, enjoyable Astros blog Crawfish Boxes publishes a post detailing the problems with Martinez’s swing. On the whole, the outfielder looks overmatched against major league pitching, and he finishes the year batting a sluggish .241/.311/.375.

May 24, 2013: Martinez goes 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs against the A’s, giving him five homers, eight doubles, and a .511 slugging average in 92 at-bats of part-time duty. Though he’s still a deeply flawed hitter, with a .289 on-base percentage and 22 strikeouts against just four walks, he’s at least starting to flash his plus power again. He slugs just .319 the rest of the way, though, with his season marred by a wrist injury — and a complete lack of production even when healthy.

March 22, 2014: Seeing little progress in Martinez’s game, and with the outfield ranks swelling following a trade for Dexter Fowler and the imminent arrival of George Springer, the Astros release Martinez.

March 24, 2014: The Tigers sign Martinez to a minor league contract.

April 21, 2014: Looking for added sock and seeing Martinez slugging an insane .846 with 10 homers in 17 games at Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers promote him to the bigs.

September 16, 2014: Martinez launches a three-run homer in the top of the ninth, putting the Tigers ahead 3-2 against the Twins. The Tigers lose the game 4-3 anyway, because Brad Ausmus is determined to drive fans to their graves by sticking with Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan in high-leverage situations, despite Joakim Soria being markedly better than either guy.

Still, it’s the eighth ninth-inning home run of the year for Martinez, tying him for the second-highest single-season total in baseball history (hat-tip @suss2hyphens). He’s now batting .320/.363/.570 with 23 homers in 116 games, putting him fourth in the AL in park-adjusted offense for anyone with as many at-bats despite making just a few bucks more than the league minimum.

2013-14 offseason: Going back in time, we see that FanGraphs writer Dan Farnsworth declared Martinez to be a potentially dangerous deep sleeper after Martinez completely overhauled his swing over the winter. The Astros opted to part with Martinez despite those changes, while the Tigers opted in. Chalk it up to strong scouting. Or chalk it up to luck, because how many players ever improve that much that fast?

Regardless of where the credit lies, this much is clear: The Tigers wouldn’t be in position to win their fourth consecutive AL Central crown without the kid who couldn’t hack it with an AL West cellar dweller.