September 2012

A’s have had an amazing season no matter what happens now.

The A’s would be bitterly disappointing if they miss the playoffs. On the other hand, it’s amazing they’re still in contention. They probably couldn’t imagine being in contention with nine games remaining if they’d known they’d get 22 victories from Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Dallas Braden and Bartolo Colon.

GM Billy Beane loves the young arms at the top of his system. He believes they’re going to be the foundation for a staff that will be one of baseball’s best for a good long run. On the other hand, he never expected to count on so many kids in 2012. That he has used 11 rookie pitchers, that they’ve won 42 games is a tribute to their talent, poise and maturity.

They’ve positioned the A’s in a place they never expected to be. If the season ended today, the A’s would fly to Baltimore for the new one-game wild card playoff game. They’ve done it with an offense built around home runs and walks and with a pitching staff carried by the young arms of Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and others.

The A’s have the American League’s best record since the All-Star Break at 43-24. They’ve got baseball’s best record since early June at 64-37. They’ve passed every test and then some.

Now, though, the grind appears to have caught up with the youngsters. Their starters have failed to finish five innings in six of the last eight games. Meanwhile, the Rangers lead the A’s by five games in the AL West. The Angels are just two behind in the race for the second wild-card berth.

No one around the A’s will remember that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year if they don’t make it. No one will mention that the A’s are again doing it with baseball’s second-lowest payroll. It’s a season in which Beane has again done more with less than almost anyone.

Inside Kris Medlen’s pitching clinic

“Maybe one of the best pitchers we faced. He’s got great stuff. Everything is strikes. He mixes his pitches very well. He attacked the strike zone, attacked the hitters.”–Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen.

Kris Medlen’s 14th consecutive victory as a starting pitcher for the Braves was an absolute clinic. He should serve as a reminder to every young pitcher that location and movement is way more important than velocity. To quote Jimy Williams, “The most important pitch in baseball is strike one.”

At the moment, Kris Medlen is baseball’s best pitcher. He’s throwing three pitches for strikes, getting swings and misses on all three pitches, getting outs on all of them. Opposing batters simply have no idea what’s coming. Because Medlen can crank it up to 91 mph, they have to think fastball, which only makes his off-speed stuff that much better.

Let’s go to the numbers:

  • He threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of 29 hitters.
  • He threw 66 of 99 pitches for strikes.
  • He had a 2-0 count three times.
  • He touched 90-91 mph 26 times—15 in the first three innings.
  • He threw 22 change-ups and 18 curveballs.
  • He generated 10 swings and misses—seven on change-ups, two on curveballs and just one on a fastball.

(Medlen has allowed four home runs in 125 innings. That’s .288 home runs every nine innings, the best ratio among pitchers with at least 100 innings.)

(Medlen is 14-0 in 26 starts since May 31, 2009, and the Braves have a 21-game winning streak in his starts. He’s one away from the  Yankees’ 22 straight victories with Whitey Ford on the mound in 1950 and 1953.)

 

Rays pick a bad week to have a bad week

There was a time a few weeks ago when  the Rays looked like baseball’s best team. They had the game’s best pitching staff, and with Evan Longoria back and Bon Zobrist settled in at shortstop, their offense had come to life. And then in a period of a few days, it went away. Let’s go to the numbers:

  • During this 1-6 slide, they’ve scored a total of 21 runs and batted .212, including .186. They’ve hit .153 with runners in scoring position the last 10 games.
  • Sixteen of their last 18 losses have been decided by two runs or less. The Rays have 26 one-run losses, tied with the Tigers for most in the American League.
  • The Mariners (49) and Rays (46) have played the most one-run games in the AL, and the Rays have lost 13 of their last 16 one-run games. Translation: they just needed about one key hit a game.
  • Rays lead the AL in ERA (3.27) and strikeouts (1,225).
  • Rays are last in the A.L. in fielding percentage (.981). The last team to lead the American League in ERA but finish last in fielding was the 1945 Senators, who went 87-67. Rays led the AL in fielding percentage in 2011. The 2005-2006 Angels were the last team to go from first to worst in fielding.
  • The Rays have 147 home runs, but 99 of them have come with the bases empty, including 21 of the last 21. That’s the highest percentage in the majors.
  • In the last 49 games, the Rays have just one home run with at least two men on base. That was B.J. Upton’s 3-run shot against the Rangers on August 29.

If you had the Phillies as the team to make a miracle run in September, raise your hand.

The Phillies are toast. You can look it up. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. gave the club every chance to turn itself around, and then he began making changes, trading Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. In Philadelphia, the speculation had begun about how Amaro could get the club back in contention in 2013.

So we went about our business, focusing on the Cardinals and Braves, on the Dodgers and Giants, the usual stuff. It was going to be an interesting September, but the Phillies, well, the Phillies weren’t going to be part of things.

And then something real peculiar happened, and it just shows you how you’ve got to keep paying attention because no one knows anymore. Just a year after the Cardinals and Rays sprinted from far back in the pack to make the playoffs, the Phillies have won 13 of 17 to get within a game of .500 (70-71) and to within five games of an NL Wild Card berth.

They’re still a long, long shot. To be five out with 21 to go is a huge mountain. But the Cardinals and Rays had a huge mountain to climb last September. There were losses along the way that seemed to seal the deal for both teams. But they kept going and played out the string.

Even after five straight division championships, this run might be Charlie Manuel’s finest hour as a major league manager. He has a great core group of guys who know how to win and compete, but Charlie kept things together during the toughest of times. Nice going, Charlie.

It’s all about the pitching. The Phillies have a 2.15 staff ERA this month. They’re only scoring 4.3 runs per game, but are still 7-2. Three of their last four victories have come by the scores of 3-2, 3-2 and 3-1.

Since the All-Star Break, Phillie starting pitchers have a 3.39 ERA. That’s the best in the National League and behind only the Rays and Mariners in the Majors. In the last 27 games, they’re even better, going 13-5 with a 2.99 ERA.

The Big Three of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have been on a great role. Tyler Cloyd, 25, has made two real good starts. Others have chipped in, too. Kyle Kendrick pitched a seven-inning, two-hit start against the Marlins on Monday, and Charlie is using five rookie relievers.

The Phillies play 12 of their final 21 games against teams with losing records, but their margin of error is almost zero. That was true with the Cardinals and Rays last season. If they’d bothered to do the math, they might have given up hope. Instead, they kept going hard without sweating the day-to-day stuff.

If nothing else, the Phillies have made sure they’re not going to be overlooked when he start projecting the 2013 race. They’re back.

“If you stay with it, you’ll hit a streak,” Manuel said. “Baseball is streaks. If you do it at the end of the season, it can be real rewarding. I don’t like numbers. I like to go day-by-day. We might win all 21 of ‘em.”

A’s just keep plugging along and finish with 4 of 7 against the Rangers

The A’s have been baseball’s best team since the All-Star Break. Since ending a nine-game losing streak on June 2, they’re 56-30, also the best record in the Majors in that time.  They’re the only team in baseball that has had both a nine-game losing streak and a nine-game winning streak. They were 13 games behind the Rangers on June 30 and six out on August 25. They haven’t been closer than three games since the second week of the regular season.

Like with the Orioles, there probably was a time when there was skepticism about how good the A’s really were. That doubt is gone. The A’s have the second-best ERA in the American League–they’ve walked one or zero batters in eight straight games–and are the American League’s second-highest scoring team in the All-Star Break.

They’ve hit 77 home runs since the break, second-most in the majors. They’ve got 13 walk-off victories and have won 12 of their last 15 one-run games. Even without Brandon McCarthy, the A’s appear to have enough pitching to get by. If they can get the gap down to three games, they could make the AL West entertaining the last few weeks. The A’s play four of their final seven games against the Rangers.

If it’s all about the pitching, it could be all about the Rays in the AL East.

The Yankees lead the majors with 203 home runs. The Rays have 134. But in their head-to-head match ups, the Rays have out-homered the Yankees 16-14.

If you’re slapping your forehead and wondering how that can be, please stop. It’s all about pitching. The Rays have more of it than almost anyone.

If pitching decides the American League East–and pitching almost always decides these deals–only a fool would bet against the Rays. The Rays had 10 players on the disabled list at one point early in the season, and they were 10 1/2 games behind the Yankees on July 18. they’ve gained 9 back since then.

And…

  • Last five American League teams to finish a season with an ERA as low as the Rays (3.25) went to the World Series: the 1990 A’s (3.18, lost WS), 1989 A’s (3.09, won), 1981 Yankees (2.90, lost), 1979 Orioles (3.26, lost) and 1978 Yankees (3.18, won).
  • Rays ERA would be the lowest ERA by an AL team in 20 years.
  • Rays lead the majors in ERA and opp avg. and the AL in strikeouts. Only one pitching staff since 1968 has led the AL in all 3 categories: 1999 Red Sox.
  • Rays have allowed 104 runs over the past 44 games beginning July 19, fewest by a major league team over any 44-game span since the 1976 Dodgers. They’ve allowed 2 runs or fewer in 25 of those 44.
  • Rays lead the majors with a 2.45 ERA since the All-Star break, including a major-league-best 1.47 ERA by the bullpen.
  • The Rays have won Alex Cobb’s last seven starts. Against the Yankees on Tuesday, he retired 14 of the last 15 batters he faced, including the last 10 in a row.
  • Fernando Rodney is one of six pitchers to have at least six saves against the Yankees in a single season. Danys Baez (2005) and Bobby Thigpen (1990) had seven. Tom Henke (1993), Darold Knowles (1970), Lee Smith (1988) and now Rodney had six.
  • Evan Longoria has four home runs in his last nine games and six in his last 18. The Rays are 19-9 since he returned from the disabled list and have outscored opponents 138-76.
  • The Rays are 32-1`7 with Longoria in the lineup, 43-44 without him.
  • B.J. Upton is hitting .274 with 20 extra base hits and 25 RBIs in his last 31 games.
  • The Yankees have had a lead in seven of their last 10 losses.
  • The Yankees have had six hits or less in five straight games, their longest streak since going six in a row August 30-September 5, 1990.
  • Freddy Garcia has allowed 12 runs in his last 14 1/3 innings.

Yankees slump. Noise ensues.

If you’d tapped Joe Girardi on the shoulder this spring and told him this is how it would play out, he would have signed up for it in a heartbeat. He would not have liked losing Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner, etc. He would not have liked the inconsistencies of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. He would not have liked being forced to use 22 different pitchers.

Still, if you’d told him the Yankees would be spending their 84th consecutive day atop the American League East on September 4, Girardi would have accepted. That’s the bottom line is this whole deal. At a time when the Yankees are getting the full New York treatment from talk radio and the tabloids, the bottom line is that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong.

The Yankees were not poorly constructed. They are not poorly managed. They do not lack heart or character or fight or any of those other ridiculous terms the media tosses around. The Yankees lack healthy bodies.

A-Rod and Teixeira have struggled at times this season. So has Curtis Granderson. It was never in the blueprint to give Andruw Jones 201 at-bats. Raul Ibanez was supposed to get his at-bats as a DH rather than an outfielder. Eric Chavez wasn’t supposed to make 44 starts at third.

In 48 days, their lead in the AmericanLeague East has gone from 10 to one. In that time, they’ve gone 20-24. They’ve averaged 4.5 runs per game. Their ERA is 3.99.

Neither number is particularly good. Neither number is awful, either. The Yankees were always going to rise and fall on Pettitte’s ability to come back strong in September and shore up the rotation behind Sabathia. With Sabathia, Pettitte, Kuroda and Hughes pitching well down the stretch, the Yankees are good enough to make the playoffs.

Analysis can get silly. We look for reasons beyond the obvious. For the Yankees, the obvious is that too many players have gotten injured. That’s why their lead is down to a single game. Down the stretch, the Rays have better pitching. The Orioles have some magic going on.

The Yankees have some uncertainty because their two biggest names–Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter–are 36 and 38 years old. Kuroda is 37, Pettitte 40.

Their production will begin to decline, and perhaps in A-Rod’s case, that decline has already begun. It’s possible to draw up scenarios in which the Yankees miss the playoffs. The Yankees live in a bottom-line world, and that bottom line would be unacceptable. But it’s too early to open that door.

The Yankees have suffered a ridiculous number of injuries, and with 28 games remaining, they’re still atop their division. Until the last couple of weeks, they’d absorbed every punch and handed out a few of their own. It’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out. Regardless, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the roster or the franchise.

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