Big Hits and Green Grass: The Biggest Hits of 2007 (Part Two)

With a third of the 2007 season in the books, now is a good time to look back at the most memorable moments to date. To do this, we’ll look at the offensive events that caused the greatest upward change in win probability for each team, using WPA and Dave Appelman’s incomparable Fangraphs website. Last week we looked at the West divisions and next week we’ll conclude with the East divisions. Today, we check in with the big hits in the Central divisions.

Even if your team is struggling, hopefully the memory of these hits will put a big smile on your face.

NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals
Juan Encarnacion three-run double (+.382 WPA)
May 31 vs. Colorado
Raise your hand if you predicted, one-third of the way through the season, that the World Series champs would have a worse record than the Rockies. Liars, the lot of you! The struggles in St. Louis weren’t all unexpected, given their aging core and unimpressive regular-season record in 2006. But their slide has been dramatic, to say the least, and it’s hard to imagine a world where they have the opportunity to defend their title in the coming postseason.

That the offensive high point of the year is a sixth-inning double, then, is fitting. But as far as mid-game hits go, this was indeed a big one. With the Cards trailing by a run, So Taguchi, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds loaded the bases against Rockies starter Aaron Cook. With two out, Encarnacion lined an opposite-field gapper into the expansive Colorado outfield that cleared the bases. Strange for a big hit to come in the sixth inning, but turning a one-run deficit into a two-run lead with one swing of the bat is a guaranteed turning point almost no matter when it happens. The Cards went on to win the game, 7-3.

By the way, fans of Albert Pujols should definitely check out his 2006 WPA play log—the man was a clutch god, with four of his hits exceeding this Encarnacion double in terms of WPA.

Milwaukee Brewers
Prince Fielder solo home run (+.375 WPA)
April 23 vs. Chicago

The Brewers have cooled off considerably after their hot start, but they have been a lot of fun to watch this year. If you had to choose between watching a losing team that was full of young guys and a losing team that was full of old guys, I suspect you would choose to watch the young guys. The reason, of course, is that a bunch of young guys have the chance the get better and perhaps do something special, eventually. Few old teams that I can remember show sudden improvements from one year to the next. I could be wrong—I haven’t checked the numbers—but Brewer fans who watched Rickie Weeks, Bill Hall, J.J. Hardy and other young players struggle over the last few years are getting some kind of payoff this season.

One of those young players is Fielder, who makes me feel old only for the fact that he’s the son of a player I watched while I was growing up. And, like his father, he has tremendous power and looks to be a big-time power hitter over the next several years. He hit two home runs in this game, including this game-winning shot in the top of the 12th. Cubs pitcher Rocky Cherry‘s pitch missed its location and hung just enough for Fielder to blast it over the fence.

I’ve watched the video of this home run about five times now, and all I can look at is Fielder’s thighs. They’re enormous. One of his thighs is the size of my torso. Prince Fielder is a big man who hits lots of home runs. I am not.

Houston Astros
Luke Scott two-run double (+.465)
May 3 vs. Cincinnati
(no video)

As in years past, the Astros are off to a slow start. Will they make one of their second-half runs to the playoffs as they did in 2004 and 2005 and almost did in 2006? This A’s fan never discounts the possibility of a second-half hot streak resulting in a playoff berth, but this year’s Astros are a little different than than the previous models. Roger Clemens and Andy Petitte have gone back to the big city. Evil robots have replaced Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio. It seems that nobody in the infield can hit a baseball with any authority. If I were a hack journalist, I might lead a column with “Houston, we have a problem.”

At least the outfielders have provided a semblance of offense. Big ticket free-agent Carlos Lee and fresh-on-the-scene rookie Hunter Pence are gaining lots of attention for their slugging ways. But it is right-fielder Scott who has the big hit of the year, with a quintessential game-changing hit against the Reds. Down by a run late in the game, his double to left field scored Mike Lamb and Mark Loretta. Lead changes always garner some love from WPA. The Astros tacked on another run and Dan Wheeler made the lead stand, as the Astros won 7-5.

Chicago Cubs
Ryan Theriot one-run single (+.483)
May 6 vs. Washington

Ah, the Cubbies. Those lovable little losers are stinking up the joint again after having spent more money than…well, suffice to say, if I were John Brattain the analogy would be so apt and funny that you would be laughing right now. Trust me.

In early May, flirting with .500 and in danger of dropping a game to the lowly Nationals, the Cubs rallied in the ninth and won it in the 10th. Both innings had one-out, one-run singles, one that tied the game and the other won it. Which do you suppose WPA judged to be the more critical hit? Theriot’s hit of the year was the game-tying rather than the game-winning hit. WPA absolutley adores tie games, and doles her rewards thusly. Heroes are not made when there is a chance to win, they are made when there is a chance to lose. Profound indeed, but what else do you expect from WPA?

Pittsburgh Pirates
Jason Bay, two-run home run (+.414 WPA)
April 2 vs. Houston

You probably spend your nights kept awake by the fear that Bay will become Brian Giles: an awesome hitter whose best years are spent with the obscurity of the long-losing Pirates. Giles had a practically invisible run of 150 OPS+ between 1999 and 2003 and was then traded for Bay. Since then, Bay has been good for a 135 OPS+ in mostly losing causes. But way back on opening night, when all slates are blank, Bay started the season off right, blasting this extra-innings tie-breaker into the Crawford boxes.

The homer was made possible by a Brad Lidge blown save in the ninth inning. At the time, it was the end of the beginning of the end for Lidge, the beginning of the end coming when Albert Pujols took him deep in the 2005 playoffs. After a few more struggles, Lidge was Foulked out of his closer role and, given the wailing and gnashing of teeth, was done as a useful relief pitcher. Since his poor outing on April 20, Lidge has a 0.71 ERA in 25 innings pitched, with almost 13 K/9 and a 0.79 WHIP. Clearly, he has lost the intestinal fortitude required to close, but at least he can still dominate in middle relief.

Cincinnati Reds
Scott Hatteberg solo home run (+.488 WPA)
April 20 vs Phillies

Hatteberg is one of my all-time favorites, a guy who only got a shot late in his career when teams started focusing on what he could do—get on base—and not on what he couldn’t do—catch, run, throw or hit for power. That’s right, he’s a one-tool player, and he shouldn’t be the everday first baseman on even a notional contender. But he’s an easy guy to root for, a heady player, and he was famously dubbed a “pickin’ machine.” How can you not like this guy?

WPA shows more recognition of the importance of tie games by giving props to Hatteberg for this game-tying home run against Tom Gordon. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, Hatteberg drilled a fly ball into the stands, sending the game to extra innings. It was only the second hit of the game for the Reds, who had been shut down by Jon Lieber and a gaggle of relievers up to that point. The Reds wasted little time thereafter, winning the game on a two walks and two singles in the 10th and tagging Gordon with the loss.

AL Central

Cleveland Indians
Ryan Garko, three-run home run (+.620 WPA)
April 22 vs Tampa Bay

Garko has been quite a revelation for the Tribe this year, so far posting a 140 OPS+. How long it will last is an open question; he has been a little fortunate on balls in play and is walking in just over 5% of his plate appearances. Even accounting for some regression, he’s still a nifty player to have around, particularly in the context of the already strong offensive core the Indians are boasting.

With his team down by a single run against the Devil Rays, Garko took Brian Stokes deep with two on and one out in the top of the ninth inning. The homer put the Indians up 6-4, and Joe Borowski converted the save opportunity with a pefect bottom on the ninght. Poor Stokes has had pretty bad timing with his struggles; he’s given up five long balls and four of them have given the opposing team the lead in the ninth inning or later. Such is the life of the middle reliever: all blame and no credit.

Detroit Tigers
Ivan Rodriguez three-run home run (+.545)
April 8 vs Kansas City

What is remarkable about Pudge is that even as his plate discipline has fallen through the floor over the last few years, he still remains a productive hitter by catcher standards. Since 2005, he has drawn a walk in 3% of his plate appearances. This year, he has drawn only three free passes all year. Despite those cringe-inducing numbers, he’s posted a 96 OPS+ since 2005; even discounting that figure for being OBP-light and recognizing that it’s not the Pudge of 1994-2004, that’s still quite good for a catcher.

Early in the year, the Royals tabbed David Riske to protect a 2-0 lead against the Tigers. The first two Tigers reached, and Pudge came to bat in a classic bunt situation: no outs, down by two, runners on first and second. Jim Leyland must keep a copy of The Book with him the dugout; he allowed Pudge to swing away and Riske’s pitch ended up over the fence in left-center field. The Tigers took the lead and won the game, shocking perhaps the Royals but not their long-suffering fans.

Minnesota Twins
Justin Morneau three-run home run (+.383 WPA)
May 8 vs Chicago

It’s no surprise that reigning MVP Morneau isn’t hitting quite like he did last year. Awards are often won on peak performances of very good players; that they decline somewhat in the following year is only natural. Morneau hit .321/.375/.559 last year and is “only” hitting .279/.352/.554. A-ha, says the bright sabermetrician, Morneau isn’t the only one not hitting as he did last year—offense is down around the league, and when viewed in context, Morneau has gone from a 140 OPS+ to a 139 OPS+. But the astute observer will notice that the change in offensive environment is mostly in the power department: the league OBP has dropped 3 points from last year (from .337 to .334) while the league SLG has dropped 19 points (from .434 to .415). We can adjust for the relative importance of getting on base versus hitting for power using a metric such as GPA. Morneau’s GPA last year was .309, this year it is .297. So we’re right back to where we started.

But yes, Morneau has not only maintained but improved upon his power stroke, and was it ever on display against the White Sox. He hit two homers, the second of which was a tie-breaking, game-winning shot in the bottom of the tenth. White Sox pitcher Nick Masset‘s pitch floated over the plate and stayed up. Morneau absolutely destroyed it, sending it way into the upper deck at the Metrodome.

Chicago White Sox
Juan Uribe one-run double (+.507 WPA)
May 12 vs Kansas City
I recall watching a White Sox game earlier this year and White Sox television announcer Hawk Harrelson described Uribe thusly: “Everywhere he goes, all he does is hit.” Nevermind the fact that he’s only been with two teams during his career, Uribe also has a career line of .255/.296/.427. That’s pretty decent power from your shortstop, but the rest leaves a lot to be desired. This year he is sporting a .604 OPS, good for sixth on the 2007 AL OPS-futility list. He has a good glove, though; from 2003-2007 Mitchel Lichtman rates him as the best fieldeing shortstop not named Adam Everett.

But in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the tying run at first base, Juan Uribe hit a long opposite field drive that bounced off the top of the wall, bringing in the tying run. It was almost the game-winner, too, as it bounced off the top of the wall and back onto the field. Hawk Harrelson even started his signature catch phrase, “You can put it on the board…yes!” but stopped two words in when he realized the ball was still in play. As with other late game-tying hits, the win expectancy framework credited Uribe with many WPA points.

Kansas City Royals
Esteban German three-run home run (+.416 WPA)
May 2 vs Los Angeles of Anaheim

The Royals have been on the wrong side of this list thrice already, having given up the season’s biggest hit to the Rockies, Tigers, and White Sox. But they’ve given their fans at least this one memory: German’s three-run shot against Ervin Santana in the bottom of the seventh put the Royals up 3-1, a lead they would not relinquish as they went on the win the game. Angel fans must have seen this coming; Santana was pitching on the road where his career ERA is 6.90, as opposed to his home ERA of 2.98. He must have a really comfortable bed.

German was a curious prospect, posting great on-base numbers at every level of the minors and blazing speed to boot. He looked like a classic scrappy utility man a la Chone Figgins, but never got much of a chance with the Oakland A’s. He didn’t make much of his small opportunities either, until he found himself in Kansas City last year and exploded for a .326/.422/.459 line. This year, he’s down to .252/.355/.374, with similar walk, strikeout, and line drive rates as he showed last year. What happened? Oh, BABIP, though art a cruel mistress: his batting average on balls in play have come back in line with his line drive rates.

Next week, a look at the big hits in the AL and NL East divisions.

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