The 30: Smoke, Mirrors, and Torii Hunter

Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Even with 162 games to smooth out all the randomness, baseball manages to defy our expectations every year. We’re already two months in, but it’s still hard to tell what’s sustainable and what won’t last.

Take last year, for example: Only one of the six outright division leaders on this date in 2014 occupied the same spot at the end of the season. The Blue Jays led the AL East by five and a half games, and they didn’t make the playoffs. The Pirates were languishing four games below .500, just beginning their patented post-May push into the postseason. And both the Marlins and the Braves were tied with the Nationals atop the NL East — only for neither to finish within 17 games of the capital club.

This week, we’re here to figure out which clubs will continue down their unlikely paths and which will revert back to preseason projections. Will the White Sox pick up the pace and start to meet spring forecasts for improvement after a spendy offseason? Can the Tigers shake off a devastating recent slump and vie for a fifth-straight AL Central title? Can the Cardinals keep winning at a breakneck pace despite multiple major injuries? And what the hell is going on with the Twins?

Expect the unexpected. It’s Week 9 of The 30.

Best Alternative Pest-Control Method

Carlos Gomez has never been a wallflower. From styling on long hits to being warm and gracious with fans to, um, notable facial expressions, the Brewers’ All-Star center fielder has always been a little different.

Of course, all of those interactions occurred with actual human beings. Pit Gomez against a swarm of bugs flying too close to his head in the middle of an at-bat, and his true essence shines through: competitive, intense, a little unhinged, and a lot of fun.

South Slide

The White Sox offense sputters to an ugly start.

30. Milwaukee Brewers (21-37 record, minus-61 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (22-37, minus-76, LW: 29)
28. Miami Marlins (24-34, minus-26, LW: 28)
27. Cincinnati Reds (25-31, minus-25, LW: 26)
26. Colorado Rockies (26-30, minus-24, LW: 27)
25. Oakland A’s (23-36, plus-3, LW: 25)
24. Seattle Mariners (25-32, minus-30, LW: 15)
23. Chicago White Sox (26-30, minus-54, LW: 24)
22. Boston Red Sox (27-31, minus-43, LW: 22)
21. Baltimore Orioles (26-30, minus-1, LW: 18)

The path toward rebuilding a baseball team is always bumpy. You might start out with a key piece or two, the way the White Sox did with staff ace Chris Sale (who delivered his fourth-straight double-digit strikeout game on Monday night). You can hit the jackpot on a young star, the way the Sox did when they trusted the optimists and reeled in star slugger Jose Abreu. But even with a few standout players on the roster, top-to-bottom strength and depth become musts, especially in a deep and competitive division like this year’s AL Central.

An offseason shopping spree was supposed to solve that problem on the South Side of Chicago, but 56 games in, it has not. The White Sox rank 28th in the majors in park-adjusted offense, ahead of only the sad-sack Brewers and Phillies. They’re the worst defensive team in the American League by a wide margin, giving up 36 more runs than the average club according to Defensive Runs Saved. They own the worst run differential in the American League, allowing 54 more runs than they’ve scored. And in the only department that truly matters, they’ve come up way short: After losing 99 and 89 games the past two years, respectively, the heavily retooled Sox are on pace to lose 87 games in 2015.

The biggest bust among the team’s five biggest offseason acquisitions has been Melky Cabrera. Chicago’s starting left fielder is batting just .228/.264/.259 for the year — by park-adjusted metrics, that’s the third-worst mark for any everyday player in the AL. Name a key part of Cabrera’s offensive game, and it’s likely way down from past seasons. This has been the worst year of Cabrera’s career by Isolated Power, where his .031 trails 23 different pitchers who’ve had 20 or more at-bats. Never that patient a hitter, his walk rate ties his career low of 5 percent, thanks to both his free-swinging approach and pitchers now being unafraid to challenge his flaccid bat in the strike zone. Line-drive rate? Worst in five years. Well-Hit Average? He’s 160th among 166 batting-title-qualified hitters. These would be ugly numbers for a dead ball era middle infielder. For a corner outfielder in 2015, they’re astoundingly awful.

Granted, we can’t yet know for sure if Cabrera’s early-season swoon is just a small-sample-size fluke or the result of real skills erosion for an over-30 player who (presumably) no longer benefits from PED use. He was a highly productive player last year and is just a few months into his thirties, but with only two months elapsed on the three-year, $42 million deal he signed over the winter, what seemed like a reasonable deal at the time could potentially turn into a gigantic waste of money.

If Cabrera were the only major weak spot in the lineup, the White Sox could certainly survive, and could maybe even contend for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, he’s far from it.

Despite the high hopes for the multiyear signings of Cabrera and Adam LaRoche last offseason, even the biggest White Sox optimists had to concede that catcher and second base looked like potential weaknesses, as the team basically stood pat at both positions. With White Sox brass figuring that Micah Johnson’s speed and athleticism could cover for his so-so bat, he started the year as the team’s starting second baseman. Turns out they weren’t enough: Johnson hit just .270/.333/.297 and earned a demotion to the minors. Now, the Sox probably already wish they could have that meager level of production back: Johnson’s replacement, Carlos Sanchez, is hitting .145/.205/.184, with six times more strikeouts than walks. Meanwhile, the catcher position has been only modestly better, with Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto combining to bat .203/.245/.330 for the year.

Go down the rest of the lineup and you’ll see more of the same. Alexei Ramirez has two homers and a .253 on-base percentage, and he looks like he might be severely slowing down at 33. Conor Gillaspie’s modest 2014 breakout looks like a fluke, given his .280 OBP and 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After a brutal April, Adam Eaton has been hitting better, but he’s still trying to climb above a sub-.300 OBP. Even bench pickups like Soto, Emilio Bonifacio, and J.B. Shuck have fallen flat.

At least Sox pitchers have started to show better results, led by Sale, rookie Carlos Rodon, and David Robertson, the one offseason pickup who’s been unequivocally great.1 But everything else remains in bad shape: It’s a lineup that can’t hit, can’t catch the ball, and manages to run the bases worse than every other team in the majors.

Given the awful performances turned in by so many players — including a few established veterans who are usually better than this — what’s happened to the White Sox so far is close to a worst-case scenario. But even if the Sox start to benefit from some positive regression, it’s hard to imagine them leaping back into the playoff race: FanGraphs gives them little more than a 5 percent chance of making the postseason. While the big rebuilding project has certainly begun, it’s still far from over.

It’s So Cold in the 313

A lagging offense leaves the Tigers languishing in mediocrity.

20. Atlanta Braves (27-30, minus-14, LW: 19)
19. Arizona Diamondbacks (27-30, plus-1, LW: 20)
18. Toronto Blue Jays (29-30, plus-53, LW: 21)
17. San Diego Padres (30-29, minus-2, LW: 23)
16. Texas Rangers (30-27, plus-11, LW: 17)
15. Tampa Bay Rays (31-27, plus-18, LW: 16)
14. Cleveland Indians (27-29, plus-1, LW: 14)
13. Detroit Tigers (30-28, minus-3, LW: 9)

Tigers fans should be thankful that their team shares a division with the lowly White Sox. Otherwise, Detroit might be sitting on a 10-game losing streak.

The skid finally stopped at eight games on Saturday against the last-place Pale Hose, but that streak highlighted a surprising weakness for this year’s Tigers: It’s been the sputtering offense, more than the bullpen everyone expected to fail, that has confined the team to middle-of-the-pack status.

One of the biggest blows to the Tigers’ attack has been the disappearance of 2014’s version of Victor Martinez. Only Andrew McCutchen and Mike Trout outperformed Martinez’s bat last year (on a park-adjusted basis). His .335/.409/.565 line in 2014 was supported by incredible plate discipline and Joe DiMaggio–level power-to-contact numbers: 32 homers against just 42 strikeouts.

However, Martinez became a free agent at season’s end and turned 36 in December. He’d missed an entire season due to injury just two years earlier. And V-Mart’s 2014 numbers did look like a giant outlier compared to the rest of his career: This was a good hitter suddenly performing like an MVP at an age, in the post-PED era, that rarely supports that kind of jump.

The Tigers re-signed Martinez anyway because this was a team built to win now. Plus, with four AL Central titles but no World Series in this era, 85-year-old owner Mike Ilitch desperately wants a ring. Under those circumstances, you can both understand a four-year, $68 million deal and also suggest that it might end terribly. Seven months after handing out that contract, buyer’s remorse has already set in: A hobbled Martinez hit just .216/.308/.270 before landing on the disabled list with a knee injury. While he could be back in the next couple of weeks, it’s hard to be too optimistic about his chances of suddenly returning to anywhere close to last year’s level of stardom.

Despite the struggles of Martinez, the Tigers offense has been quite good by advanced metrics. This is the third-best offense in the AL by park-adjusted wRC+. But it’s only the ninth-best attack in the junior circuit by runs scored per game — a ranking that dropped after the Tigers scored just 22 runs during that eight-game slide.

Should we expect Detroit’s output to eventually catch up to its performance? Much of the discrepancy comes down to the league-leading 61 double plays the Tigers have hit into. While they’ve recently added speedsters like Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose, as well as athletic players like Ian Kinsler and Yoenis Cespedes, they still feature a bunch of plodders, from all-world veteran slugger Miguel Cabrera to the young but slow-footed Nick Castellanos. That’s how you get a team that’s been both terrible on the basepaths and so highly prone to twin killings. Now, double plays alone won’t necessarily doom a team; the Tigers also ranked in the top five in double plays in each of the previous four seasons, and lots of double plays typically means lots of runners on base, which is always a good thing.

However, the margin for error is smaller now than at any other point in this five-year run of Tigers baseball, as this might be the least-talented team we’ve seen in Detroit over the past half-decade. With Max Scherzer and Doug Fister gone, and Justin Verlander a shadow of his former MVP self even when healthy, the starting rotation is much thinner than it has been in the past. Martinez’s crash to earth has been somewhat leavened by players like Cespedes and Jose Iglesias stepping up — just not enough to make up for an MVP-caliber hitter turning into the equivalent of the 25th man on a roster. And the rise of the small-revenue Royals and Twins means the big, bad Tigers have lots of company near the top of the division. If Detroit does make it five AL Central crowns in a row, it will take one hell of a fight to get there.

Minnesota Mystery

The breakout Twins continue to climb ahead of schedule.

12. Los Angeles Angels (28-29, minus-5, LW: 8)
11. New York Yankees (32-25, plus-30, LW: 13)
10. New York Mets (31-27, plus-5, LW: 11)
9. Chicago Cubs (30-25, minus-1, LW: 10)
8. San Francisco Giants (32-26, plus-6, LW: 6)
7. Pittsburgh Pirates (31-26, plus-43, LW: 12)
6. Minnesota Twins (33-24, plus-16, LW: 7)
5. Washington Nationals (30-27, plus-2, LW: 3)
4. Kansas City Royals (32-23, plus-43, LW: 5)

We’re in the second week of June, and the Minnesota Twins have the second-most wins in the American League. They’ve been winning for weeks — and yet that winning still seems to defy explanation. But you know what? We’re going to try to explain it anyway.

As a team, the Twins are batting .252/.304/.382, compared to a .272/.321/.418 line from their opponents. Going by those raw numbers, they’re getting outhit and outpitched by a pretty wide margin. And while you can’t necessarily see it by glancing at that gap in slash lines, all the advanced metrics tell us that the stone-handed Twins rank near the bottom of the league in defense, too. According to that profile, this should be a sub-.500 team, not a first-place world-beater.

To try to understand this discrepancy, let’s first turn to our old pal Cluster Luck. No team has shown more aberrant results on hit clustering and scattering than the Twins. Minnesota has scored about 52 more runs than you’d expect from a team that’s seeing average Cluster Luck, and that’s the biggest deviation in the majors by a wide margin. In today’s run-scoring exchange, we calculate nine runs of additional value equaling one win. So with normal Cluster Luck, the Twins would have six fewer wins, making them a sub-.500 team.

Much of the Cluster Luck bump comes from success in high-leverage situations. Minnesota is hitting .294 with runners in scoring position, tops in the league.2 They’re also pitching well in situations that Baseball-Reference defines as late in the game and close in score: Opponents are batting a measly .225/.270/.305 there, below AL pitchers’ late-and-close averages of .232/.300/.347. You’d have more faith in that result being sustainable if the Twins had a dominant bullpen, but they don’t. Closer Glen Perkins is a two-time All-Star who’s again pitching well this year, but there’s little top-flight bullpen talent behind him. Twins relievers actually rank dead last in both strikeout rate and park-adjusted, fielding-independent numbers (with home run rates regressed to league average).

There have been a couple of individual success stories: Brian Dozier has claimed his place as one of the best all-around second basemen in the game, and Mike Pelfrey has somehow turned a 55 percent ground ball rate and a feeble 12.3 percent strike rate into a 2.28 ERA. But beyond those two, it’s tough to look at the Twins from 30,000 feet and see all that much beyond a decent team seeing extraordinary results due largely to good fortune.

Rather than stopping there and furrowing our brows at the inscrutable nature of the baseball gods, we spoke about Minnesota’s puzzling success with Perkins, a former podcast guest, who’s well versed when it comes to analytics and something of a skeptic when it comes to intangibles.

“We had [chemistry] when I first came up, and our chemistry now is as good as ever,” Perkins said. “Which comes first, winning or chemistry? I think that chemistry can come first, but winning has to follow shortly after, or it is hard to sustain. There is absolutely something to the way we have played together that has lifted us to a higher level than our numbers indicate.”

Along those lines, Perkins also pointed to new manager Paul Molitor’s influence as a big factor in the team’s favor.

“We are so much better prepared in every facet of the game than at any point in my career. The thing that has stood out the most to me — and it comes from his quote in spring training — is ‘Win every 90 feet.’ That’s pitchers preventing stolen bases and baserunners taking extra ones. He watches video with a stopwatch before each game to time pitchers, check looks to bases, etc. His level of preparation has elevated our whole team’s level of prep as well.”

Perkins also praised Torii Hunter, the 39-year-old former All-Star center fielder who has returned to Minnesota and has hit an off-the-charts .358/.446/.679 with runners in scoring position. No one expected the Hack Wilson impersonation, but Perkins claims that Hunter has been a driving force in bringing the team together.

“Torii has a special ability to mold a bunch of individuals and make us a team. He’s the guy after a loss that puts music on to ease the frustration. He’s the guy that puts music on after a win and gets everyone together to celebrate. As big of an impact as he’s had on the field, it has been bigger off it.”

Good luck can sometimes last an entire season. Just look at the 2012 Orioles, who won a lot more games than you’d expect from their underlying stats, largely because they went 29-9 in one-run games. Call the team’s run to the Division Series luck, a tribute to Buck Showalter’s managing, or something else, but it’s still an amazing thing to consider three years later. As the Twins’ schedule gets tougher from here on out, we’ll soon find out if their own success — built on hit clustering, Molitor’s guidance, Hunter’s inspiration, and plenty of je ne sais quoi — can last, too.

No Wainwright, No Problem

Without their injured ace, the Cardinals are still the best run-prevention team in baseball.

3. Houston Astros (34-25, plus-16, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (33-25, plus-55, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (38-20, plus-62, LW: 1)

On May 13, I wrote about the high-flying Cardinals and how, despite losing staff ace Adam Wainwright for the year with a ruptured Achilles, they built an NL Central lead of 6.5 games. Four weeks later, the Cards have become the stingiest run-prevention team in the majors by a sizable margin, with just 2.7 runs allowed per game, in addition to a league-best run differential of plus-62. And nearly a month later, the Cards lead the Central by … 6.5 games.

Like the Twins, the Cardinals have benefited from lots of situational good fortune. Opponents are batting just .205 against Cards pitchers with runners in scoring position. That’s 37 points lower than their RISP results a year ago, and 55 points lower than what they’ve allowed with the bases empty this season. With two outs and runners in scoring position, the results have been borderline illegal, with opponents batting just .159/.255/.226 in those spots. Returning to Cluster Luck, we see that the Cardinals have allowed a jaw-dropping 41 fewer runs than you’d expect from a team scattering hits at a league-average rate.

Unless the entire staff was bitten by a radioactive clutch spider over the winter — or unless #CardinalsDevilMagic is real, as some paranoid fans will swear — we should expect some regression in that department. Combine that with the Pirates playing like a team hungry for a third-straight playoff spot and a Cubs club that’s been inconsistent but still has plenty of talent plus the cash and prospects to pull off a big trade, and the NL Central could start to tighten up as the season goes on.

Still, if you had to pick between Minnesota and St. Louis as the better bet to crack the postseason, your money should be on the Cards. Beyond those lockdown performances in big spots, this is still a team that’s loaded with talent, and they’ve produced the kind of situation-independent numbers that make you feel good about any potential pullback resulting in a fairly soft landing.

For starters, they’ve been fantastic on defense, leading the National League in virtually any advanced defensive metric you can conjure. There’s no sugar-coating Jason Heyward’s poor offensive numbers, and getting him on a one-year rental in exchange for four years of Shelby Miller doesn’t look so hot right now. But Heyward is again chasing down balls in the gap on a regular basis, clocking in as the third-best defensive right fielder in the majors by Defensive Runs Saved and boosting the Cards’ overall outfield D.

The offense has been humming, too, placing sixth in the majors by park- and league-adjusted numbers. The starting eight has four batters hitting better than .300. New(ish) center fielder Randal Grichuk has chipped in with a .488 slugging average. Matt Carpenter is batting a healthy .300/.391/.520 this year and a completely insane .467/.537/.700 with runners in scoring position. Jhonny Peralta looks a lot more like Nelson Cruz than Melky Cabrera on the post-PED suspension front, batting .316/.377/.516 at a time when high-offense shortstops are incredibly rare. Meanwhile, Matt Holliday has reached base in 50 of the 52 games in which he’s played this year and ranks fourth in the NL with a .417 OBP. You’ll rarely see a player age more gracefully during a lucrative, long-term contract than Holliday has, as the 35-year-old left fielder remains one of the game’s best hitters in year six of his seven-year, $120 million deal. If he misses any substantial time after leaving yesterday’s game with a quad injury, it’ll be a big blow for St. Louis’s lineup.

Then there’s Kolten Wong, the team captain on the 2015 Jonah Keri Breakout Brigade.3 Check out Wong’s progression in the third year of his big league career.

2013 and 2014 2015
AVG .236 .307
OPS .640 .832
BB Pct 4.8 7.2
K-BB Rate 3.5-to-1 2-to-1

In particular, Wong has really improved against fastballs. He already has four homers on fastballs in 58 games this year, after hitting just five in the first 145 games of his career.

Vs. Fastballs in 2013 and 2014 Vs. Fastballs in 2015
AVG .241 .359
SLG .345 .563
Chase Pct 30% 25%
AB per HR 46.4 25.8

Finally, the pitching has been very good, even after stripping out the impact of hit clustering. Since Wainwright went down on April 25, Cardinals starters have led the majors in ERA, ranked second in starters’ ERA, and made seven scoreless starts.4 Since the Wainwright injury, Cards pitchers have made 17 starts of at least seven innings (tied for most in MLB) and just five starts of fewer than 5 IP (only the Angels have fewer).

In addition to top-of-the-rotation stalwarts like Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez’s command has improved seemingly every time out, and he’s struck out 10 batters per nine innings this year, establishing himself as one of the best no. 4 starters in the league. As for no. 5, many observers weren’t even sure how much Jaime Garcia would pitch this year, given that he’d made just 16 big league starts over the past two seasons to injuries. But he’s been a revelation since returning to action on May 21, posting a 2.67 ERA and going at least seven innings in three of his four starts.

When you throw 65.4 percent of your pitches for strikes, as the Cardinals’ starters have this year,5 you’re bound to pitch deep into games. And that longevity has enabled the properly rested St. Louis bullpen to flourish. Of course, it has taken a group effort (plus good defense, plus those flashy high-leverage results), but Cards relievers are sporting a stellar 2.03 ERA on the year.

It might be true that it’s better to be lucky than good. But as the Cardinals could tell you, it’s definitely best to be both.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Stats, MLB Power Rankings, Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers, White Sox, Melky Cabrera, Detroit Tigers, Victor Martinez, NL Central, AL Central, Baseball, Minnesota Twins, Glenn Perkins, St. Louis Cardinals, Torii Hunter, Jason Heyward, Matt Holliday

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.

Archive @ jonahkeri