The Dirty DozenTwelve storylines to follow in the season's final month
1. The Death of the Pennant Race. It's rare that any sentence referencing MLB Commissioner Bud Selig starts with "Thank goodness Bud Selig had the good sense to do X." But, well ... Thank goodness Bud Selig had the good sense to institute the Wild Card. Through Thursday's game, the smallest lead for any first-place team is 3 ½ games.
But the Wild Card races look far more promising. Riding much improved pitching and defense this season, the Rangers have closed to within 2 ½ games of the AL Wild Card lead. In fact, their pitching and defense has been so much better, that it's been easy to lose sight of the regression in Texas' offense, a surprise given the hitter-friendly environment in which they play.
The biggest recent difference maker has been 23-year-old first baseman Chris Davis. Davis had a huge rookie season in '08, smacking 42 extra-base hits in just 295 at-bats last year, racking up a line of .285/.331/.549. Optimists might've done well to see the huge remaining flaw in his game, though: Davis struck out nearly 4 ½ times more often than he walked, suggesting that his batting eye remained very much a work in progress. That lack of pitch recognition came back to haunt him in the first half of this season, as Davis hit just .202, with 114 strikeouts and just 17 walks. That ugly start led to a demotion to Triple-A, where Davis rediscovered his batting stroke. Called back up in late August, Davis' strikeout-to-walk rate hasn't improved (10:1 since his call-up), but the lefty swinger has done a better job of using the whole field since coming back up, with a .314 average and a pair of homers as his reward. The Rangers' needed another power threat at the bottom of their order if they were going to keep pace with the Red Sox, and they may have found one.
The NL Wild Card race, meanwhile, has been a gem. The Giants and Rockies have traded blows for the past couple months, playing Hot Potato with the lead and flipping between winning and losing streaks. The Rockies and their far superior run differential hold a one-game lead for now. But don't count out the Giants, who have ridden dual ace performances by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, a solid performance by a no-name bullpen and the improbable revival of Barry Zito to the lowest team ERA in the Majors. Even though the Giants' offense lacks punch behind the Kung-Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval, San Fran's pitching should have would-be playoff opponents concerned about a potential first-round upset.
2. Darkhorse MVP candidates, NL Edition. Speaking of Lincecum, Tiny Tim deserves MVP consideration, right there with Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Hanley Ramirez. There's nothing in the rules that says a pitcher can't be the most valuable player for a given team, and there's no question the Giants would be shot without the defending Cy Young winner. Lincecum leads the NL in strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games and shutouts, ranks second in ERA and ERA+ (ERA adjusted for park effects and other factors), and also leads in advanced metrics such as Wins Above Replacement.
3. Darkhorse MVP candidates, AL Edition. A similar story is unfolding in the AL, where Zack Greinke's performance has been every bit as impressive as Lincecum's (if not more so, given the tougher competition he faces in the American League). Greinke has yet to face the Yankees and Red Sox this year, putting a caveat on his record. But if you define "most valuable" as the player who helps his team the most, and not the player who happens to play with a bunch of good teammates, resulting in a good record, then Greinke should be right there as one of the top AL candidates, with Joe Mauer and Derek Jeter offering some of the stiffest competition among position players.
4. The Amazing St. Louis Cardinals. They've so thoroughly dominated the NL Central this season that it's easy to take them for granted. But the Cardinals were anything but a unanimous pick entering this season with the Cubs coming off an impressive division title in 2008 and skeptics wondering, as usual, who'd back Pujols in the Cards' lineup. As is often the case, St. Louis has done more with less again this season. Once again, huge credit goes to pitching coach Dave Duncan, who continues to turn cast-off pitchers into gold. His latest coup de grace is Joel Pineiro, who's gone 14-9 with a sparkling 3.16 ERA despite striking out less than a batter every other inning. Pineiro's used a wipe-out sinker to make his bones, leading the league in fewest homers allowed and fewest walks allowed per nine innings. Combined with big years with co-staff aces Adam Wainwright and a fully recovered Chris Carpenter, as well as a gigantic lift from trade pickup Matt Holliday, the Cardinals have a much better team than the one that carved their way to a World Series title three years ago.
5. Speaking of Pitching Coaches... As great as Duncan has been in his pairing with Tony LaRussa, rumors are swirling that he'll leave when his contract is up at the end of this season. The potential fallout stems from a spat with the front office in their handling of Chris Duncan, the now-departed outfielder who doubles as the son of St. Louis' very good and very frustrated pitching coach.
Another name to watch in Rick Peterson. After 30 years in the game working as a pitching coach and instructor at the major league and minor league levels, Peterson has spent this year working on his 3P Sports consulting business. But the former pitching coach for the A's and Mets and mentor to such star arms as Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson showed this summer that he's still got the touch, working with injured lefty Scott Kazmir to get back on track.
Both Kazmir and the Rays have to be grateful for Peterson's help: Kazmir turned his season around after returning from the DL, while the Rays were able to sell high on Kazmir and acquire three solid prospects from the Angels in trade, including key player to be named later Sean Rodriguez, a potential middle infield star who's demolished Triple-A pitching for the past two years. Peterson's a big admirer of Rays general manager Andrew Friedman and the team's analytical-minded staff, but Jim Hickey is settled in as pitching coach. If Peterson doesn't head to the Gulf Coast, look for him to latch on with another big-league club for the 2010 season.
6. Lotsa Lefties. The Phillies are well on their to another playoff berth, led by Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins' Gold Glove (Rollins' bat has been missing in action for most of the season). On the downside, the bullpen remains a growing concern with closer Brad Lidge a shadow of his 2008 self. But a more subtle issue could crop up if the Phillies face a team that mashes lefty pitching. The Phils own a pair of lefty aces in Cole Hamels and trade acquisition Cliff Lee. An NLCS battle with the Dodgers could thus pose problems, with L.A. crushing lefties at a .282/.368/.439 rate. On the other hand, a playoff matchup with the Cardinals could work out perfectly: St. Louis sports an ugly .231/.308/.361 line against southpaws.
CC Sabathia is living up to his role as Yankees stopper.
8. L.A. Story, Part 1. The August 31 waiver trade deadline brought a fair number of last-minute deals for contenders, with the Angels making the most interesting move. Traditionally a team that relies on solid pitching and defense, a bunch of high-average hitters and mediocre on-base and power production, this year's Halos has arguably been the most productive in baseball. With the pitching shaky all season, though, the Angels acquired Kazmir from the Rays. L.A. management liked what it saw of Kazmir after his DL stint, and felt the lefty could also benefit from a reunion with his old pitching coach, Mike Butcher. Kazmir's first start with the Angels Wednesday night was a success: 6.1 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, 8 K. The Halos have to hope for big production down the stretch and in the playoffs, given the bounty of prospects they gave up in return.
9. L.A. Story, Part 2. We'd been urging the Dodgers to acquire Jon Garland from division rival Arizona, so seeing that deal come to fruition was heartening. Garland lacks the upside of an elite starter, or even a rejuvenated one like Kazmir. But he's an effective innings eater who gives the Dodgers exactly what they need: Someone to take pressure off the team's young dynamic duo of Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. Every pitch Billingsley and Kershaw can save now is another one they'll have at their disposal in October - and hopefully for Dodgers fans, for the next 12-15 years.
10. Tiger Trap. All season long, and for his entire Mariners career, the smart folks at USS Mariner had warned that Jarrod Washburn was a decent flyball pitcher who could benefit from a ballpark with deep outfield fences (especially in left-center) and an all-world group of fly-catching outfielders. Even non-Mainers obsessives could see Washburn's great 2009 first half coming, given the favorable circumstances. So when those favorable conditions were changed even a little upon Washburn's trade to Detroit (Curtis Granderson is a solid center fielder and Comerica Park is reasonably friendly to flyball pitchers, but the situation is still not as conducive to Washburn's success), the results were predictable: a big, honking regression to the mean. That the Tigers used their biggest trade deadline bullet to acquire Washburn and not, say, the big bat they needed (the 2009 version of Aubrey Huff, hitting .244/.314/.388, doesn't count) means the Tigers will enter the postseason with what could be the weakest roster of any playoff participant. There's still potential here, with Justin Verlander the type of elite ace who can put a team on his back and a much-improved infield defense helping the cause. But if Detroit makes a deep run this postseason, it'll be a major upset.
11. Lester, Though the Offense May Fester. The decline of David Ortiz, a pullback for Dustin Pedroia and other events have turned the once mighty Red Sox offense into a much less scary attack. At least the Sox should consider themselves fortunate to have Jon Lester. The hard-throwing lefty needs to now be considered a truly elite pitcher, one of the top 10 starters in the game - if not higher. Lester ranks 9th in the AL in ERA and 3rd in strikeouts. One Pitch F/X expert who tracks the velocity, movement and release point of every pitch thrown by nearly every pitcher in the game argues that Lester may have the best approach of any hurler in the game, given the confounding mix of pitches he throws every start.
As leading baseball analyst Nate Silver argued in the book Baseball Between the Numbers, the best proven predictors of playoff success are the same ones traditionalists have argued for years, with great pitching at the top of the list. Lester's pitching like a true ace, and the bullpen remains deep and very good, a few recent missteps notwithstanding.
With Brad Penny and John Smoltz proving that the Sox gave up too soon on them and that the NL is a vastly inferior league, Boston now must hope it can get vintage Josh Beckett back after a five-start stretch in which the big righty allowed 14 homers. We're loath to fixate on small sample sizes, as even Raul Ibanez's multi-month MVP-caliber run for the Phillies early this season has turned to dust. Assuming then that Beckett's recent struggles are just a blip on the screen, the Red Sox could be a dangerous postseason club if they make the big dance, with the potential to win a lot of 3-2 games.
12. Pet Peeve. Every phrase that equates batting average of total hits to being the offensive player. When an announcer says Player X is leading the league in hitting, he really should say batting average, since the league's best hitter may well derive a bigger chunk of his value from power or the ability to draw a walk. Pete Rose may be the all-time Hit King, but he's very far from the best hitter of all-time. When Jeter becomes the all-time leader in hits by a shortstop, that doesn't make him the best-hitting shortstop of all-time (that's Honus Wagner).
At least Yankees fans have the good sense not to equate Jeter's pending passing of Lou Gehrig for the franchise lead in hits with Jeter suddenly earning the title of greatest Yankee hitter of all-time. The Captain is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I recently argued that Jeter's career has been so great that he ranks behind only Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Berra for best Yankees position player of all-time. Let's appreciate Jeter for the great player that he is, and not let hyperbole get in the way.