East: Things are breaking for the Braves
They say that the interleague schedule doesn’t impact pennant races very much, and they are probably right. But it sure seemed to change the direction of the National League East this year. Consider the NL East standings at the end of May 21, which just happened to be the first day of interleague play:
Tm W L % GB RS RA Pyth% PHI 26 15 .634 -- 224 155 .662 ATL 22 20 .524 4.5 196 175 .552 FLA 22 21 .512 5.0 196 184 .529 WSN 21 22 .488 6.0 183 205 .448 NYM 20 23 .465 7.0 186 180 .515
Now consider each team’s performance in the time since:
Tm W L % GB RS RA Pyth% ATL 30 16 .652 -- 210 162 .617 NYM 28 17 .622 1.5 210 167 .603 PHI 21 25 .457 9.0 186 207 .451 FLA 20 25 .444 9.5 208 200 .518 WSN 18 28 .391 12.0 183 213 .431
Pretty different, wouldn’t you say? The Phillies lost their mojo and the Braves took flight. The Nationals and Mets both played more in line with their previous Pythagorean records (their projected record based on actual runs scored and allowed) and the Marlins continued to underperform. There must have been something in the interleague water.
The AL competition seemed particularly to send the Nationals and Mets in opposite directions. The Nationals were 5-13 against the junior league, including 0-3 records against the White Sox and Tigers. Meanwhile in Opposite Land, the Mets were, yes, 13-5 against the AL, posting 3-0 records against the Indians and Orioles. If you believe in momentum and unfair schedules, you may smell a rat.
As for the Braves, they didn’t even play the AL during that initial three-game set. But their rise in play coincided with the broken schedule, as they ran off a 14-2 streak against Pirates (six games against the Pirates!), Phillies, Reds and Marlins in late May. If you want to find a source for the Braves’ surge, a hero behind the story, well, I could cite lots of win-based statistics and sabermetric rationale, point to their outstanding bullpen, Martin Prado‘s surprising season, the rookie sensation Jason Heyward, Troy Glaus‘ turnaround, Tommy Hanson‘s brilliance, some kid named Kris Medlen. Instead, I’ll settle for pinch hitter Brooks Conrad and a game against the Reds on May 20.
Check out the Win Expectancy graph on the right. The Braves were trailing the Reds, 9-3, going into the bottom of the ninth when Atlanta strung together four singles, a walk and an error that resulted in Conrad stepping to the plate with the bases loaded and his team down three runs. One grand slam homer later, the Braves had the most improbable victory of the half-year and they have been in high gear ever since. Take that, momentum skeptics!
My other Game of the Half-Season is the one on the left. The story isn’t in the graph but in the pitching match-.up. Two saviors faced off in this one: the Nationals wunderkind Stephen Strasburg vs. the Mets’ olderkind R.A. Dickey. The knuckleballer actually outpitched the kid who gives batters white knuckles, but the Nationals also pulled of a nice comeback in the ninth to take the game.
Dickey has been key to the Mets’ resurgence. Since joining the club on May 19 (hmm…), he has gone 6-2 with a 2.77 ERA and made Mets’ fans kind of forget the deep embarrassment that is Oliver Perez‘s contract. Strasburg, of course, has been a revelation, a blazing star, a supernova. He’s posted a 2.32 ERA in seven games and struck out 12.9 batters a game. Every baseball fan alive should pray for his continued health.
As for the Phillies, their turning point seemed to occur May 25-27, when the Mets shut them out three games in a row (Dickey, Hisanon Takahashi and Mike Pelfrey) and they soon fell from their perch atop the division. Before May 20, they were averaging 5.5 runs a game; since then they have averaged 4.0.
Still, the Phillies managed to sweep the Reds in their final four games before the All-Star break, and crazier games I cannot imagine. Three of the four went into extra innings, and two games were 1-0 nailbiters. In fact, to send Philly fans off with a glow, we’ll post a graph of Saturday’s 1-0 extra-inning contest.
Youth will have its day
In five years time analysts and media pundits could look back on the first half of the 2010 season as a turning point in the battle for supremacy in the NL East. The key question is this: Can the Braves and Nationals with strong farm systems and some phenomenal youngsters coming through the ranks usurp the Phillies and Mets, who in the past two years have doubled-down on proven talent?
Take the Nationals first. In two years’ time, in Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, Washington will have two of the best players in the league. With some leeway in payroll it isn’t hard to see how the Nationals will turn themselves into a contender for their first division title. Let’s face it since starting againsts the Bucs on June 8, Strasburg has almost redefined the word phenom. In seven starts he 3-2 with a 2.32 ERA, 1.8 WAR, 1.99 xFIP (i.e., he’s been unlucky—his BABIP is .328). He’s notched 61 strikeouts already, which is exactly the same as Tim Hudson, except he’s had 18 starts.
If the Nationals will be a force in the future, what about the current division leaders, the Braves. In his last year Bobby Cox has stitched together a compelling mixture of young and old, with Troy Glaus and Billy Wagner being the sort of gray-haired players that GMs should take a punt on. However, as in D.C., the chatter is about another rookie. Although one at-bat doesn’t a career maketh, rewind your memory back to Opening Day 2010. A young kid from Ringwood, N.J., stood over the plate facing Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs. He watched a couple of balls go by before launching a 414-foot bullet into the Braves’ bullpen, becoming the 11th Brave to homer in his first at-bat. Is Jason Heyward the future face of the Braves?
Superficially, his stats might look a shade disappointing: .251/.366/455. Some have even uttered his name in the same breath as Jeff Francoeur when a precipitous drop in batting average in the month of June saw him slump from a .300 player to a .250 hitter. The drop was partly due to his being injured as well as pitchers adjusting to his style. One worrying sign was that his strikeouts spiked: Close to half his Ks came in June.
And finally what about the reigning National League champions? Well, they’ve chosen to go a different route. Acquiring Roy Halladay in the offseason and re-upping Ryan Howard to a mega-contract (although oddly his current deal still had over 18 months to run and it’s not as though the big man will age gracefully) has signaled the Phillies’ intent to compete now and compete hard. Failure to win the division this year will be a setback for the team especially as the Nationals and Braves continue to rise from the ashes.
It isn’t too hard to see how the Phillies get lumbered with old, declining players and struggle to compete without upping payroll a bit more. All ifs and buts for sure, but it’s not impossible that in three years time we’ll be looking back at the summer of 2010 as when the balance of power was shifting in the East.
Central: Dusty’s machine
The last time a team other than the St. Louis Cardinals or Chicago Cubs won the National League Central was 2001, when the Houston Astros took the prize. To find a winner other than the Astros, Cubs or Cardinals requires a trip back to 1995. Have we come full circle from that strike-delayed season?
The Cincinnati Reds were led to their last division crown by Davey Johnson in 1995. They also sat atop the Central when the curtain came down on 1994. Their last full-season division crown came in 1990 when Lou Piniella‘s debut at the Cincy helm resulted in not just an NL West title, but a World Series victory.
The Reds are in their third season under Dusty Baker, the first two seasons resulting in a 152-172 record and second division status. Taking advantage of the weakest division in baseball, the 2010 Reds find themselves eight games over .500 at the break—not quite leveling Baker’s record at their helm—and a scant one game ahead of the ever-present Cardinals.
The first-half charge to the front was led by the Cincinnati offense. Trailing only the Rockies in runs per game, the Reds lead the senior circuit in slugging percentage, are third in on-base rate and first in total hits. While above average in bases on balls, the Reds are getting it done more with power than patience. A team with a BABIP of .312 may be prone to regression, but, with an NL leading wOBA of .341 they can lay claim to best offense in the National League at the break.
Beyond the potent offense, the Reds look mediocre. Fangraphs has them in the middle of the National League pack for team speed and not much better for team defense. Their pristine .990 fielding percentage is offset by a lack of collective range according to UZR, but they remain in the top three in Defensive Efficiency Rating, according to Baseball Prospectus.
Okay, so the picture isn’t clear on the defense, but it’s fair to say this isn’t a speed and defense type of club. The Reds pitching staff has garnered a lot of attention, and—as with most contenders—could hold the keys to their success. Of course, first baseman Joey Votto has been the hitting star of the National League and he and his supporting cast—led by veteran Scott Rolen—may be able to mash their way through the late summer months. While there’s no standout after Votto, the weakest links—Orlando Cabrera and Drew Stubbs—play two of the prime defensive positions. The problem is that Stubbs and fellow free-swinging outfielder Jonny Gomes rank the worst on the club in UZR/150—too small a sample to be meaningful, but Mr. Stubbs may be double trouble.
Arms of all ages
While the fifth slot has been a revolving door—awaiting the return of Edinson Volquez—the Reds rotation has been solidified by a pair of youngsters and a pair of veterans. Co-aces to date are 24-year-old Johnny Cueto and 22-year-old Mike Leake, the latter with only a few games of Arizona Fall League experience before Opening Day. Can they hold up the rotation down the stretch? The veteran presence is represented by Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang; only Arroyo has been reliable on the mound.
The bullpen is led by 35-year-old closer in Francisco Cordero and 40-year-old set-up wizard Arthur Rhodes. Coco leads the league in saves, but he has not been solid. Rhodes had a scoreless inning stretch for the ages, but is in the process of coming back to earth. The supporting cast is made up of middle relievers who, as they say, are middle relievers for a reason.
Sizzle or fizzle?
The pressure is on for the Reds. Reinforcement from Edinson Volquez or even Aroldis Chapman—if he figures things out in Louisville— could give the staff the bump it needs to win the race against the Cardinals. All eyes will be on Leake, Cueto and Votto to see if they can lead the Reds back into the winner’s circle for the first time in 15 years.
West: Is San Diego the best of the best?
In considering the National League’s West Division over the first half of 2010, two significant stories stand out. The first isn’t a surprise, but the second emphatically is.
A theme continues
The first major theme is that the NL West is proving to be the top division in the league. This is no surprise given that it was the league’s strongest in 2009, posting an NL-best extra-divisional winning percentage of .533. This year’s extra-divisional NL West performance of .534 (on a record of 151-132) is just more of the same. And as you may recall, in last year’s Hardball Times Annual book we asserted that the division’s impressive 2009 performance would likely be sustained, owing to its wealth of up-and-coming young talent.
To be sure, the West’s advantage over the NL East thus far in 2010 is a slight one. The East’s record against other divisions is 145-129, for a .529 percentage, just a hair behind the West. And NL East teams have a slightly better Pythagorean record than their West division counterparts, at .534 to .526.
But in head-to-head competition between NL West and East over the first half, the Westerners have prevailed, 50 wins to 44 (.532). So while the difference between them isn’t great, it is fair to say that the NL West has indeed been the league’s best so far in 2010.
The Padres surprise
And the second big story, the surprising one, is all about who’s performed as the best team in the league’s best division: the San Diego Padres.
I’m quite certain that no one saw this coming. I sure didn’t, and when I sat down recently and talked baseball with that peerless authority on All Things Padres—THT’s own Geoff Young—and asked him if he expected this ball club to be nearly this good, he candidly admitted he’s as stunned as all the rest of us.
It is the case that the Padres were a hot team down the stretch in 2009, going 37-25 (.597) over their final 62 games. But let’s not forget that they’d been a dismal 38-62 (.380) up to that point. So while it was reasonable to perceive San Diego as a team on the rise, it was less than prudent to expect them to sustain something close to that final-two-months-streak pace over the first half of 2010. You’d think the “real” Padres would be closer to midway between those 2009 extremes.
But here they are, sitting in first place at the 2010 All-Star break. The Padres are doing it with authority: Their Pythag record is a game better than their actual, and they’ve occupied the division’s top spot at the completion of 71 of their 88 first-half game days.
The roster that’s done all this winning is essentially Adrian Gonzalez and a bunch of guys most of us have never heard of. (Remember all those Adrian Gonzalez trade rumors in the off-season? Funny how we don’t seem to be hearing them these days.) But, of course, if they keep playing like this, the no-name Padres won’t remain anonymous much longer.
The team’s primary strength is its young pitching depth. San Diego’s ballpark is the most pitcher-friendly in the major leagues, but the glittering stats this staff is compiling are no illusion. Closer Heath Bell was the only Padres pitcher on the 2010 NL All-Star team, and he’s a real good one, but two of his teammates perhaps more worthy of particular attention going forward are 22-year-old starter Mat Latos, and 26-year-old reliever Luke Gregerson. If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with these hurlers, or with this ball club in general, it’s time.