Wacky Wild Card: NLby Ben Jacobs
September 01, 2005
Last week, I looked at the wild card race in the AL, and it didn't take long for everything to change. When I wrote the article, I considered four teams (Cleveland, New York, Oakland and Minnesota) for one spot. Now, there are five teams fighting for three spots as the Twins have fallen out of the race and the Red Sox and Angels have fallen back to (or even behind) the Yankees and A's.
Luckily, that's not much of a risk in the National League, where the wild card will almost be certainly be won by one of Philadelphia, Florida, Houston, New York or Washington. St. Louis is winning the Central, Atlanta is most likely winning the East and nobody else seems capable of making a run at the wild card.
Heading into action on August 31, the five teams were separated by a total of 1.5 games. The Phillies and Marlins led the way at 70-62, with the Astros and Mets both at 69-62 and the Nationals another game back at 68-63.
Now, let's take a look at who has the advantage among those five teams. All stats are through games played on August 30.
Just looking at the runs scored totals for all five teams, the Phillies appear to be the class of the group with 613 runs, good for fourth in the NL. The Mets are next at 607 runs (5th), followed by Florida at 588 (7th), Houston at 552 (13th) and Washington at 508 (16th).
But those numbers can be deceiving. The Phillies, for instance, have scored 340 runs at home, and only 273 runs on the road, which is tied for the third-worst road production in the league. The Marlins are fourth in the NL in road scoring with 304 runs, and the Nationals don't look quite so anemic on the road, where their 283 runs are good for 9th in the league.
The Mets and Astros look about the same on the road as overall. New York is seventh in road scoring at 298 runs, and Houston has only outscored Colorado with 261 runs away from their cozy dome.
Having looked a little more closely, it seems that the Marlins, not the Phillies, may be the best offensive team in the group. Florida has two black holes in the lineup (third base and center field), but is above average at every other position.
At third base, Mike Lowell (.652 OPS) is almost entirely responsible for the team's .645 OPS at the position. In center field, where the Marlins sport a combined .661 OPS, the culprit is Juan Pierre (.665 OPS).
At every other position but one, the Marlins rank between fifth and seventh in the league in OPS. The only position at which they are great is left field, where they lead the league with a .974 OPS. That's thanks to a combination of Miguel Cabrera (.972 OPS) being great and Barry Bonds not having played this season.
Carlos Delgado (.951 OPS) and Juan Encarnacion (.838 OPS) have also been good hitters for Florida, which just seems to have a pretty balanced lineup that is somewhat masked by playing in a pitcher's park.
The Mets look like the next best offense in the group, despite the fact that theythe worst OPS in the league at both they're getting such bad production from the right side of their infield (worst OPS in the league at both positions) that it would be funny if it wasn't sad.
New York's first-base situation is pretty much summed up by the fact that Mike Jacobs, with all of 25 at-bats at the position, has more than 20 percent of the team's home runs from the position. The Mets have gotten a .661 OPS from their first basemen. Doug Mientkiewicz (.766 OPS in 241 at-bats) has seen most of the time, but Chris Woodward (.582 OPS in 68 at-bats) and Marlon Anderson (.415 OPS in 63 at-bats) have done significant damage as well.
At second base (.630 OPS), it's Miguel Cairo (.646 OPS in 231 at-bats) and Kaz Matsui (.605 OPS in 201 at-bats), with help once again from Anderson (.619 OPS in 59 at-bats).
The Mets are able to counteract that complete lack of production at two positions because they're in the top five in the league in OPS at four other positions (catcher, third base, left field and right field) and because they've had the best group of pinch-hitters in the league.
Third base (.923 OPS) and left field (.858 OPS) should be no surprise, as David Wright (.926 OPS) and Cliff Floyd (.873 OPS) have both been excellent. At catcher (.761 OPS), Mike Piazza (.770 OPS) isn't what he used to be, but he's still better than most other options, and along with the surprisingly-more-productive-and-now-more-important Ramon Castro (.799 OPS), he's given the Mets the third-best OPS at his position.
Right field (.849 OPS) has been about two parts Mike Cameron (.819 OPS) and one part Victor Diaz (.871 OPS). As for the pinch hitters (.817 OPS), the same guy who has killed the Mets whenever he's played the field (Anderson) has a crazy .945 OPS in 43 pinch-hit at-bats, which screams fluke, but they can't take those at-bats away.
The Phillies have pretty much been carried by three players on offense this year. Chase Utley (.897 OPS), Pat Burrell (.905 OPS) and Bobby Abreu (.893 OPS) have combined to help Philadelphia put together the second-best OPS in the NL at both second base (.867 OPS) and right field (.873 OPS) and the fourth-best OPS in left field (.867 OPS).
Mike Lieberthal (.739 OPS) and Todd Pratt (.770 OPS) have also given the Phillies the fourth-best OPS at catcher (.753 OPS). The only areas where the Phillies have really struggled are first base (.760 OPS), where Ryan Howard (.846 OPS) is trying to make up for the disappointment that was Jim Thome (.712 OPS), and at third base (.678 OPS), where David Bell (.648 OPS) just stinks.
The Nationals have been bad at four positions (second base, third base, shortstop and left field) and have gotten no production from their pinch-hitters (.522 OPS). The only reason the Nationals haven't been completely awful is that they're in the top five in the league in OPS at catcher, center field and right field.
At shortstop (.525 OPS, more than 100 points worse than the next-worst team at the position), Cristian Guzman (.508 OPS) has probably been the worst position player in baseball this year, and Vinny Castilla (.717 OPS) doesn't look like a great free-agent acquisition for third base, where the Nationals have gotten a combined .707 OPS.
Second base (.710 OPS) has been a problem. Jose Vidro (.743 OPS) has been hurt and less effective than normal when healthy, and because Jamey Carroll (.602 OPS) just isn't very good. Left field (.723 OPS) has just been a parade of random hitters, as nobody's reached 150 at-bats at the position and each of the six players who have combined for 274 at-bats there has posted a sub-.700 OPS at the position.
Nick Johnson (.882 OPS) was the team's only great hitter until he slumped through August, and Jose Guillen (.868 OPS) is the only player who has consistently produced throughout the season. Brian Schneider (.767 OPS) has at least allowed the Nationals to be one of the better hitting teams at catcher (.729 OPS).
Houston has been great at only one position, and it's the position that was probably the least expected heading into the season. A year after destroying many a fantasy team, Morgan Ensberg (.962 OPS) is having a fantastic season to give the Astros the best production in the league at third base (.949 OPS). Lance Berkman (.882 OPS) is also doing what he normally does, but injuries have limited him to 101 games, and he hasn't quite been able to push the Houston first base position above average in the league.
The only other position where the Astros are in the top five is second base (.793 OPS), where Craig Biggio (.791 OPS) just refuses to disappear. Unfortunately, the holes in the offense are more numerous, as six different players with at least 140 at-bats have a sub-.700 OPS, and two of them—Willy Taveras (.686 OPS) and Adam Everett (.673 OPS)—have gotten more than 450 at-bats.
While it isn't entirely clear which of the five teams really has the best offense, the same cannot be said about the pitching. Houston clearly has the best pitching staff, as the Astros have allowed the fewest runs in the NL (502) and have the second-lowest ERA (3.57) and, unlike three of the other four teams, they do not play in a pitcher's park.
The key to Houston's pitching staff is its rotation, which leads the NL with a 3.50 ERA. More specifically, it's the top three in the rotation. Roger Clemens (1.51 ERA, 184.1 IP), Andy Pettitte (2.60 ERA, 176.2 IP) and Roy Oswalt (2.94 ERA, 195.2 IP) have combined for a sick 2.36 ERA in 556.2 innings.
Those three have been so good that they've completely overshadowed the fact that no other Houston starter has pitched well. The other four guys the Astros have used in the rotation have combined for a 5.72 ERA in 284.2 innings.
While the top three starters have been the bread and butter for the Astros this year, the bullpen has certainly been very good as well, ranking fourth in the NL with a 3.75 ERA. Brad Lidge hasn't been quite as dominant as last year, but he still has a 2.36 ERA with 82 strikeouts and only 20 walks in 53.1 innings.
The ace of the bullpen, however, has been Dan Wheeler, who has a 1.74 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 13 walks in 57 innings. Chad Qualls has posted a 3.23 ERA to give the Astros a nice top trio of relievers to go along with their trio of starters.
The Mets and Nationals look very similar in terms of their runs allowed and ERAs, but the Mets are probably a little bit better because I don't think they're getting helped by their park quite as much as Washington is. New York is fourth in the NL in ERA (3.74) and is pretty well balanced between the rotation (3.71 ERA, good for fifth in the league) and the bullpen (3.85 ERA, good for sixth in the league).
The key, of course, is Pedro Martinez. After a down year in the AL last year, Martinez is thriving in his return to the senior circuit. He has a 2.77 ERA and a miniscule 0.86 WHIP to go along with 182 strikeouts and only 36 walks in 182 innings.
Martinez is not the only useful pitcher the Mets have in their rotation, however. Jae Seo has escaped the minor leagues and, even after a poor effort on August 30, pitched very well with a 1.86 ERA and only seven walks against 37 strikeouts in 53.1 innings. And Kris Benson (3.91 ERA), Tom Glavine (4.06 ERA) and Victor Zambrano (4.07 ERA) have all pitched better than I expected, combining for a 4.02 ERA in 445.2 innings, which is at least a quarter of a run better than I would have expected from that trio.
In the bullpen, the names would make you think things are worse than they really are. Braden Looper isn't a great closer, but he has a respectable 3.23 ERA despite the fact that he scares you by not striking anybody out. Roberto Hernandez has been very good, with a 2.72 ERA that's backed up by his 53-22 strikeout-walk ratio in 56.1 innings. And Aaron Heilman has a very nice 2.83 ERA with 52 strikeouts and 13 walks in his 47.2 innings out of the bullpen. Juan Padilla also has an excellent 1.96 ERA since getting called up in mid-July, but I wouldn't get too excited about him since he only has 10 strikeouts and seven walks, although he did dominate Triple-A this year.
Washington's 3.74 team ERA is third in the NL, and the Nats have gotten a 3.82 ERA (sixth in the NL) from their rotation and a 3.56 ERA (third in the NL) from their bullpen. Livan Hernandez was supposed to be the ace of the staff, but while he's got a solid 3.87 ERA, he's really only been the third-best starter for Washington.
John Patterson has been the real ace with a 2.50 ERA, 147 strikeouts and 51 walks in 158.1 innings, and Esteban Loaiza has bounced back from last year with a 3.57 ERA in 171.2 innings.
Tony Armas has had a typical season for him, with some promise, some injuries and a 4.53 ERA in 97.1 innings. Otherwise, the Nationals have filled in here and there with 11 different pitchers getting turns in the rotation.
The bullpen has been much more consistent Washington, and there's no question who the dominant presence is there. Chad Cordero has simply been lights out, with a 0.95 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 66.1 innings. His strikeout-walk ratio of 56-15 is very good, and he's limited batters to just 46 hits and a .187 batting average and .482 OPS against him.
Amazingly, Cordero is one of four Washington relievers with at least 55 innings pitched to post an ERA below 3.00 this season. The others are Hector Carrasco (2.13 ERA in 55 innings), Luis Ayala (2.55 ERA in 70.2 innings) and Gary Majewski (2.91 ERA in 65 innings). A quartet like that pretty much assures you of at least a top-three bullpen.
Florida has the biggest discrepancy between the two facets of its pitching staff among the five teams. The Marlins are sixth in the NL with a 3.89 ERA, but their rotation is fourth with a 3.67 ERA while the bullpen is only 10th with a 4.37 ERA.
In the rotation, it's not just the big three, either. While Dontrelle Willis (2.61 ERA), A.J. Burnett (3.07 ERA) and Josh Beckett (3.62 ERA) have combined for a 3.06 ERA in 514.1 innings with 12 complete games and eight shutouts, they have had help. Brian Moehler has posted a solid 3.91 ERA in his 22 starts, and even Jason Vargas (3.22 ERA) and Scott Olsen (3.32 ERA) have pitched well in the 10 combined starts they've made.
The bullpen, on the other hand, is a different story. Todd Jones has been fantastic with a 1.20 ERA in 60 innings, but the only other pitcher with at least 20 innings out of the bullpen to post a sub-4.00 ERA is Jim Mecir (3.00 ERA in 39 innings).
Guillermo Mota, who was supposed to be the closer, has a 4.25 ERA in 59.1 innings, and the 10 pitchers who have passed through the revolving door of relievers have combined for an 8.46 ERA in 94.2 innings. The Florida bullpen hasn't been terrible, but the riffraff that have passed through has prevented it from being a good one.
Looking at the numbers, Philadelphia seems to be exceedingly mediocre at the run-prevention phase of the game. The Phillies rank ninth in the NL in runs allowed (599), ninth in the NL in ERA (4.32), ninth in the NL in starters' ERA (4.30) and ninth in the NL in bullpen ERA (4.34). However, of the 1,208 runs scored in Phillies games this year, 55 percent have been scored in Philadelphia, so their ballpark may have something to do with their less than stellar stats.
The Phillies would be in serious trouble if Brett Myers (3.55 ERA in 172.1 innings) hadn't picked this year to step up his game and they hadn't gotten nice production out of Robinson Tejeda (2.87 ERA in 13 starts).
The four pitchers who were supposed to give the Phillies a relatively stable and above average rotation—Randy Wolf (4.39 ERA), Vicente Padilla (4.67 ERA), Cory Lidle (4.75 ERA) and Jon Lieber (4.87 ERA)—have all been mediocre-to-bad and have only combined to throw 523.1 innings, or an average of 130 innings apiece.
The bullpen has had three strong pitchers and quite a few sub-par or very bad pitchers. Billy Wagner has done what he was supposed to do last year with a 1.65 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 62 strikeouts and 15 walks in 60 innings. Helping him out have been Aaron Fultz (2.25 ERA in 60 innings) and Ryan Madson (3.31 ERA in 73.1 innings).
Thome and Wolf, two players the Phillies thought would play big parts in their season, are out for the rest of the year. Thome's loss may not be that big a deal because he wasn't hitting this year anyway, and Howard has played well since coming up to the majors. Wolf was having the best year of the four starters who have been disappointments for the Phillies, but they've played without him for almost three months now.
Lidle is also on the DL, but he should only miss a couple starts. Eude Brito, who has pitched twice out of the bullpen but was nothing special at Triple-A, will fill in for him.
The Astros have been without Jeff Bagwell since early May, but he may be ready to return this weekend. If he can hit like he has in the past, that's a big boost to a terrible offense. If he hits like he was hitting before going on the DL this year (.759 OPS), it's not that great. When Bagwell returns, Berkman will likely return to the outfield full-time and Orlando Palmeiro (.828 OPS) and Chris Burke (.657 OPS) will probably see less time.
Houston also should get Brandon Backe back soon. Backe, who has been out since late July, hasn't been very good this season (4.93 ERA), but he has been better than some of the other guys Houston has been throwing into the back end of the rotation.
The Marlins are relatively healthy right now. Mecir should be back soon, which will help since Florida has been without its second-best reliever since he went down in early August. Other than that, they're pretty much only missing Nate Bump (4.03 ERA, but out for the season).
The Mets have recently lost two regulars for what appears to be the rest of the season. Cameron got hurt in that ugly collision with Beltran and probably won't be healthy by the end of September, and Piazza broke his hand and may also run out of time in the season to make a comeback.
The good news is that both guys are getting outhit by their replacements. Piazza's backup was Castro, who followed up Tuesday's game-winning three-run homer with another homer in a losing effort Wednesday. Cameron was replaced by Diaz, whose OPS of .871 is 50 points higher than Cameron's. So, the biggest problem with these injuries appears to not be a loss of production, but rather a loss of depth.
The Mets have also been without Mientkiewicz since early August, but he wasn't hitting much and he should be back soon anyway.
The Nationals may be without Ryan Drese for the rest of the year, but he only had a 4.98 ERA since joining the team. Ryan Church (.833 OPS, injured last week) and Junior Spivey (.720 OPS with Washington, out since early July) both hope to return before the end of the season.
Houston has without a doubt the easiest schedule remaining. The Astros have five games left against the Cardinals and seven left against the various teams in the NL East, all of whom have winning records. The remaining 18 games are all against mediocre or worse teams, with four left against the dreadful Pirates.
To get a better understanding of how favorable it is that the Astros only have 12 games left against winning teams, the Nationals have the next fewest games left against winning teams with 23. The Astros also don't have a ridiculous home/road split, with exactly half of their remaining 30 games at home.
The Mets have 14 of 30 games left at home, and they play 26 games against winning teams, including four against the Cardinals. But everybody in the NL East has a brutal September and the Mets are the only team that gets to close at home with four games against the Rockies, who are 19-46 away from Coors.
Washington, as I mentioned before, has 23 games left against winning teams, and three each against the Padres and Giants. The Nationals also play 19 of their remaining 29 games at home, the only team of the five with more games left at home than on the road.
Philadelphia plays 13 of its 29 games at home, with 26 of them against winning teams. The lone series against a losing club is a three-game set at Cincinnati.
And then there's Florida, which certainly has the most difficult schedule. The Marlins play 17 of their 29 games on the road, and all 29 of them are against winning teams.
Just I quickly eliminated the Twins in my look at the AL, I'm going to quickly eliminate the Nationals here. They're not far out of first, but there are four teams ahead of them. So, even if you thought all five teams were exactly even in strength, Washington would have less than a 20-percent chance of winning.
Since I think the Nationals are actually the weakest team in the group, my guess for their chances of winning are significantly lower than that, maybe even less than 10 percent.
I'd also say Florida is in trouble, because while I like the makeup of their team fine, they have a ridiculously hard schedule and they didn't do much with the ridiculously easy portion of the schedule they just finished.
The Phillies are the next team I'd eliminate, even though they're in first at the moment. The have some good hitters and some good pitchers, but they're not as good a hitting team as they appear to be and while they're not as bad a pitching team as they seem, neither are they particularly good at pitching.
The Mets are intriguing for a couple reasons. First, they seem to have the most balanced roster of any of the five candidates. And if Mike Jacobs can continue to give them nice production at first base, then they're in even better shape.
Second, if there's any player on any of these five teams who seems particularly capable of lifting his performance level significantly from the level at which he's been playing all year, it's Carlos Beltran. Beltran's posted a .756 OPS this season, but he's perfectly capable of having a month with a 1.000-plus OPS.
Houston, however, seems to be the best bet to win the wild card. Although they have the worst hitting of the group, they also have the best pitching. And they should be getting two players back from injuries who could help them in the final month. And of course they have the easiest schedule remaining.
Ben Jacobs can be reached via e-mail.
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