Oct 01

West Coast? Mid-Atlantic Baseball Rules!

For those of us in the Mid-Atlantic region, this Major League postseason brings something sort of unique. For the first time, at least that I can track these things back, we’re going to see all three area teams in the playoffs at the same time. How unique is it? Seeing that big league baseball has been played in all three of the cities starting around 1886, with a few decades missing with a move from Baltimore to Brooklyn here or a move from Washington to Arlington there, it’s pretty remarkable that it took until 2014 under the warm embrace of Bud Selig to achieve Mid-Atlantic baseball supremacy.

I for one have grown tired over the past few years of the obvious West Coast bias in the sports media, particularly all the sabermetricians, who want to claim with fancy stats that the two best baseball players on the planet, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout, play for a team sort of from an area in or around Los Angeles.1 For the time being, the Mid-Atlantic boasts the reigning NL MVP, two teams that went 96-66, and the growing legend that is Steve Pearce.

Over the years we’ve seen the Pittsburgh Pirates play World Series spoiler to both the Senators and the Orioles, besting Washington in the 1925 Series and beating the O’s in both 1971 and 1979. In 1974 Pittsburgh and Baltimore both lost in their respective Championship Series, but seeing as there wasn’t a team in D.C. from 1972 to 2005, any chance of seeing all three was sort of impossible. Even if you include the Homestead Grays, which you absolutely should, there was never any chance of a three team headline grab (the St. Louis Browns didn’t move to Baltimore until 1954) since the Pirates were ok but nothing amazing in the Grays glory days, and the Senators Series title in 1933 hit between the Grays league titles in 1931 and 1937. If you count the Browns, both St. Louis and the Grays were in world championships in 1944 with the Grays winning theirs and the Browns losing theirs, but why count St. Louis unless you’re desperate and really reaching for technicalities? We can also claim that 1940-42 had both Pittsburgh and Washington equally represented in the Negro World Series since the Grays split the seasons playing in both cities.

If nothing else, the Pirates, Senators, and Orioles gave area sports fans their collective money’s worth in ’33, ’71, and ’79 since each World Series went seven games, the Pirates obviously winning each four games to three.

So, rejoice Mid-Atlantic sports fans. Enjoy the next few days (hopefully longer than Wednesday afternoon) and dream a dream of a World Series with <INSERT TEAM A> vs. the Orioles. We’ll have tales of days long past; war stories of Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson, Roberto Clemente, and Eddie Murray; hunger pains for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Manny’s BBQ, or a crab mac and cheese hot dog; and if Jordan Zimmermann feels up to it, we might just see another no-hitter.

Why not? It’s taken us 128 years just to get to this point so anything’s possible.

  1. They are the two best players in the game at their respective positions, both will win the MVP, and this is really not open for debate.

Sep 30

Buc Up! Volquez, the Pirates, and Playoff Time!

At first I thought Clint Hurdle was crazy. Why start Gerrit Cole on Sunday against Cincinnati, with just the possibility of winning the Central, when you could save him for the very real possibility of facing the Giants on Wednesday? It made no sense. Cole has the dominating presence with youth and the electric arm. Did the Pirates really want their season coming down to an Edinson Volquez start?

For his part, on Sunday afternoon Cole pitched like someone you’d want starting with your season on the line. After allowing a run in the first inning, he pitched an additional six scoreless, allowing four hits and striking out twelve. The Pirates may not have won that game, but Cole certainly wasn’t the reason why. Matching Johnny Cueto this season is no easy feat, but Cole did that for seven innings. Unfortunately, Cueto lasted one inning longer, leaving the game for Aroldis Chapman to close out the ninth.

There are plenty of numbers to support Volquez as the Bucs best starter. His 3.07 ERA is certainly very nice, second only to Vance Worley’s 2.73 in 82 more innings. Also, his ERA of 2.61 in the second half of the season is 13th in the NL while in September he’s been all but unhittable, allowing just 20 hits in 33 1/3 innings while striking out 31. His 1.08 ERA in the month is second in the NL, and he currently has an 18 inning scoreless streak that he brings with him into Wednesday’s matchup.

Maybe Hurdle is onto something here.

See, the Volquez I remember is the one who tore through the NL in 2008 with the Reds, posting a 17-6 record and striking out 206 batters. Then I recall all the times I wanted to kick myself over the years remembering that pitcher as he struggled to stay healthy or couldn’t keep opposing teams from scoring. He had to be the same guy who posted a 6.01 ERA for San Diego last year with a WHIP of 1.67, right?

Not this year.

Along with being what my wife called a “pretty pitcher,” which she explained as his aesthetically pleasing windup, he’s become another Pirates reclamation project joining castoffs such as A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano and being remade like Bucs pitching coach Ray Searage is now the Mike Holmes of MLB.1 In 2014, Volquez posted his best ERA+ since 2008 and the best ERA and WHIP of his career. He also tied 2008 with 14 hit batters and threw 15 wild pitches, which indicates to me he has a lot more movement on his pitches than in the last few seasons and he still has control issues, evidenced by that 3.32 BB/9 ratio, which is ninth worst in the NL for qualified starters. Eh. He’s not a control guy. Never was.

The good news for Volquez and the Pirates is the Giants aren’t really all that patient at the plate, ranking 11th in the NL with a 7% walk rate, or 427 non-intentional bases-on-balls. The Giants have just two players, Brandon Crawford and Hunter Pence, who have topped 50 walks for the season and none at 60+. They also don’t hit a lot of home runs or strike out all the much, which is great for Volquez since he doesn’t strike out that many batters (his rate of 6.54% K/9 is 31st for qualified starters in the NL, out of 43) or allow that many home runs (he’s ranked 18th in NL allowing 0.79 HR/9, just ahead of Cueto).

Volquez is also coming off probably his second most dominant pitching performance of this season last Thursday. He tore through a Braves lineup that looked more like the cast and crew from The Slugger’s Wife than a legitimate Major League lineup, but he struck out a season high 10, with some of those not just Emilio Bonifacio, and allowed just four hits in seven innings while walking just one. His fastball and sinker looked good, both sitting low 90s, with his curve having some real bite to it after those first few innings where it tended to hang all juicy in the middle of the plate.

So, yeah, Hurdle probably did the right thing based on the recent trends. If Volquez can stay effectively wild but not what the hell is happening here wild (he’s walked four or more five times this year) the Pirates should be set up quite nice with the possibility of Cole pitching Friday against the Nationals.

Thank you, Clint Hurdle, for teaching me a lesson on assuming things.

  1. When does Searage become the new rock star of MLB pitching coaches? In my mind, he’s like the new Rick Peterson. Do people appreciate him in Pittsburgh?

Sep 18

Let’s Go Streaking

This New York Mets longest winning streak of the season is four games, which they’ve accomplished on three separate occasions. This surprises me since the Mets are hovering near .500 (73-80, but being outscored by just six runs their Pythagorean record is closer to that of a 76-77 team), and it seems almost impossible to not rattle off a fairly respectable win streak at some point in 162-game schedule. An average winning streak this season is 6.3 wins. Wouldn’t they just luck into one? They played both the Rangers and in the NL East. Nope. Four games. But, that doesn’t even make them particularly special or all that interesting since the White Sox, Twins, and Pirates have also never won more than four games in a row this season (the Pirates somehow achieving this while being 81-70 and in possession of the second wild card spot) and the Diamondbacks having won no more than three games in a row all season (having done so five different times).

This post isn’t about the Mets, though. Not really. If so, peripherally then.

Looking back over the years, through the Mets existence, I noticed that in the two years they won the World Series they led the Majors in that year’s longest winning streak, both at 11 games, so I began wondering if being the best at winning successive games meant all that much for predicting postseason success. There’s logic to it. To make the postseason a team has to win a fair number of games (not every team goes 82-80 like the 2005 Padres or 82-79 like the 1973 Mets and makes the playoffs); teams that win a lot are probably pretty good, and good teams beat up on weaker teams from time to time, stringing together wins; and good teams are probably more likely to win the World Series.

Maybe it’s not a well-constructed syllogism, but it made sense to me. I then decided to limit my search, beginning in 1969 when MLB added the Padres, Expos, Royals, and Seattle Pilots (soon to be the Milwaukee Brewers one year later) and brought the total number of teams to 24, making it more relevant to modern times. I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult to maintain a winning streak when you only play against seven other teams, but I figured an eight-team division didn’t mean all that much for a modern 30-team league. I could have started in 1962 when there were 20 teams, but 1969 was the year of Woodstock, Apollo 11, and the Miracle Mets. Also, 1969 brought us Slaughterhouse-Five, The Godfather (book), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, so that’s where I started.

After all of that, can we schedule the Angels, Nationals, or Royals—there’s a three-way tie between these three for the season’s longest winning streak at 10 games—for a championship parade?

The short answer to that question is no. As with all things Mets, leading the Majors in the longest winning streak and winning the World Series is uncommon and has happened just five times in the last 44 years there has actually been a postseason (nothing to see here, 1994; move along please). The last time a team led the league in consecutive wins and won the Series was in 1991 when the Twins won 15 in a row and beat the Braves in a Series that made legends of Jack Morris and Kirby Puckett. That’s a span of 21 postseasons without the team with the longest winning streak winning the Commissioner’s Trophy.

Here are the five teams that have done this trick:

Season Team Winning Streak
1969 Mets 11
1971 Pirates 11
1975 Reds 10 (Tied with Red Sox)
1986 Mets 11 (Tied with Red Sox)
1991 Twins 15

Hooray! Win Series and Longest Winning Streak

I found it rather amazing that both the 1975 Reds and the 1986 Mets won 108 games, yet each finished with a rather modest winning streak considering.1 Both teams led the league in wins that year, and those were the only two years where a team finished first in all three categories: team wins, longest winning streak, and Series champ. In fact, the team that finished with the best record in the Majors had the longest winning streak only seven times. The last two were the Mariners in 2001 that won 116 games and had a 15-game streak and the 2002 A’s that were tied with the Yankees with 103 wins and won 20 games in a row. Just take a moment to think about those numbers. The Mariners won 116 games and the A’s won 20 in a row. Since 1969, a team has won 15+ consecutive games just five times, and it happened in back-to-back-to-back years with the Braves in 2000, Mariners, and A’s.

Below are the teams that won the most games and finished with the longest winning streak:

Season Team Record Winning Streak
1975 Reds 108-54 10 (Tied with Red Sox)
1977 Royals 102-60 16
1986 Mets 108-54 11 (Tied with Red Sox)
1988 A’s 104-58 14
1992 Braves 98-64 13
2001 Mariners 116-46 15
2002 A’s 103-59 20

MLB Win Leader and Longest Winning Streak

If you wanted to place a bet for one of the current contenders to win the Series based on something as silly as this you’d probably want to put a few dollars on the Tigers who have the third longest streak this season at eight games. In the last 44 postseasons, the champion has finished the season with the second longest streak seven times and the third longest streak seven times. That means of the 88 teams to play in the World Series since 1969, 19 of them, or about 22%, have finished in the top three.

If you’re wondering what are the chances we’ll perhaps see the Nationals play either the Angels or Royals in the Series, bringing together the co-leaders for longest winning streaks, based on this highly scientific method, then you probably won’t be all that surprised to learn that it’s happened twice: 1975 with the Reds and the Red Sox and 1986 with the Mets and the Red Sox. Of course, those two series might have the two most memorable plays in postseason history with Carlton Fisk’s Game 6 home run and the whole Bill Buckner / Mookie Wilson grounder between the legs thing, so if we should happen to see some combination of these three teams, then we can expect something historic (perhaps a Bryce Harper and Mike Trout epic home run derby that sets the stage for a decade of postseason meetings).

There have been two occurrences where the top two teams met in the Series, 1971 with the Orioles and Pirates and 1998 with the Padres and Yankees, with the number two teams (a tie, naturally) meeting twice as well: 1979 with the Orioles and Pirates again and 1995 with the Indians and the Braves.

All in all, we’re more likely to see one of these three teams reach the World Series and lose than win. The team with the longest winning streak has lost the Series nine times, with the Rangers managing to do this in both 2010 and ‘11. The last NL team to do this was the Rockies in 2007 and then the Padres in 1998.

Summary

None of this really surprised me. I didn’t really expect there to be any correlation between a team that happened to catch lightening in a bottle and rattle off a long winning streak and marching through the postseason unopposed. I’d imagine there’s a correlation with quantity of smaller winning streaks (in the 5-7 range) throughout a season that one long winning streak, but I didn’t dig that deeply into it.

I also didn’t look into the shortest winning streak for an eventual champion was, but that would certainly be worth investigating as well.

  1. Modest, here, should be taken in context. Winning 10+ in a row is a difficult thing to do, and since 1969 it’s happened 141 times, or about 3 times each season. In contrast, a team has won 108+ games just six times during that time. Winning that many games is absurd, the mark of a great team, and wouldn’t you just naturally assume a few lengthy winning streaks?

Sep 12

Chris Davis Suspension and the Orioles Chances

Consider me skeptical that the loss of Chris Davis for 25 games is all that debilitating of a blow to the Orioles postseason chances. Sure his 26 home runs from the left side provide a nice complement to the right-handed bomb hitting machine otherwise known as Nelson Cruz, and with Steve Pearce having a career year hitting behind Davis, it gave opposing managers an interesting dilemma in late game matchups. Do you bring in a righty? Now a lefty? Pearce has been a nightmare to left-handers this year, so we better not leave him in now. You could just see Buck Showalter grin, just a little, filling out the lineup card.

Now? Well, the lineup leans a little more right, and if Friday’s makeup game against the Yankees is any indication of Showalter’s thinking then the O’s will feature four straight right-handed batters, with lefties such as Nick Markakis at the top of the order and the possibility of Ryan Flaherty at the bottom. If Jonathan Schoop, another righty, the lineup gets skewed even more so. Davis would have provided a nice contrast, but Pearce will do just fine playing first, and Davis’ line of .196/.300/.404 wasn’t exactly the stuff of legends like when he was last year’s darling.

Where it truly hurts is at third where Davis had been playing regularly of late. Showalter has the advantage of having both Flaherty and Kelly Johnson to play there now, which won’t hurt the club all that much in clinching the East. They’re up 10 with 17 to play and have the opportunity to eliminate the Yankees this weekend (the O’s won Game 1 of their Friday double-header on a walk off two run double by Jimmy Paredes). The photo below, taken about 20 minutes after the game, did not happen:

photoESPN Names Orioles Losers Despite Win (Wacky ESPN)

When it comes right down to it, however, clinching the East hasn’t been a legitimate worry since early August when Toronto lost six of seven (two to Baltimore) and the O’s found themselves up five. Showalter has these Orioles firmly believing in a “one game at a time” mentality, but it’s nearing time the team will clinch the franchise’s first East crown since 1997, sip a little champagne, and ready for whoever comes out of the Central division’s meat grinder.

This could have been the weekend for that, and this 10-game home stand will certainly provide the Baltimore fans a legitimate reason to cheer. Dark clouds have dotted the Baltimore sports scene this week, but things were all sunshine and blue skies for the Star-Spangled Spectacular. Tall ships are in the harbor, President Obama is expected to be in town, and if everyone was celebrating the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore the O’s were going to win this season’s war against the Yankees. The Davis suspension puts a damper on things, the looming gray cloud in the ALDS distance.

Davis may have been struggling, but it’s not as though Johnson has been worlds better with his .210/.292/.353 line with six home runs. Flaherty filled in nicely for J.J. Hardy, and he’s certainly a guy you can trust in the field, but his batting line of .219/.278/.347 somehow makes Johnson look all the more appealing. To be fair, Flaherty has been hitting the ball much better of late, going 8-for-18 in last four games with a 4-for-5 against Boston on Wednesday, but how long is that going to last? Still, Showalter has options, and I don’t see the impact of losing Davis hurting all that much overall. The team is 14-4 without him on the season, and the much ballyhooed “Next Man Up” philosophy seems very real for this club. They’ve withstood the loss of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and Hardy playing with back issues this season that has sapped him of his power. The team will be fine.

What’s the best case scenario for the O’s, however? They have losing records against both the Royals (3-4) and the Tigers (1-5), but wouldn’t you rather avoid the Tigers and their right-handed dominant starting pitching? You certainly would hate to face the never ending stream of power arms the Royals can throw your way in late-inning situations, but if you’re tending to feature right-handed bats, the opportunity to bypass Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez (close to returning apparently) and either Rick Porcello or Justin Verlander.1 Oh, who am I kidding? There’s no way I want any piece of James Shields, Yordano Ventura (how much will he have left in the tank, though), and Danny Duffy when he returns. Duffy absolutely dominated the O’s in an outing in May, going seven innings while allowing just two hits. Once it gets to the seventh, you’re seeing a steady diet of 96-97 mph heaters. No thanks. Not in a five-game series.

I’d rather take my chances against the Tigers and their rotation of Cy Young winners.2

So, yes, Orioles fans the suspension really sucks, and maybe it just seems unfair that the universe is piling on. At least this time, you can feel okay for cheering for a player when he returns, or at least the rest of us won’t cringe because of it.

  1. It just feels weird to write that and be 100% sincere.
  2. Feels even weirder to write that.

Sep 11

Welcome Back, Crawford

There was a time when Carl Crawford was considered vital to a team’s championship hopes, when the Boston Red Sox thought it was a fantastic idea to sign him to a seven-year 142 million dollar contract. That didn’t end well obviously. Crawford called his time in Boston “a scar that I think will never go away,” and Boston moved on pretty quickly without him, winning the World Series the year after trading him.

In fact, it’s difficult to mention Crawford, whether in print or on television, without also mentioning the eight-player trade that sent him along with Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto to Los Angeles in August of 2012. Even with plenty of baseball still to be played, this sure felt like Crawford’s legacy, for good or for bad, as Boston extricated itself from 250 million in future salary commitments to the one team in baseball insane enough to absorb the cost. The Dodgers true goal, it was understood, was to add Gonzalez. He was the perfect player for their team and would be a big draw at the gate. Crawford? If he played, if he could get healthy, Crawford would make the occasional start on a team with an already crowded outfield and whose top prospect, Joc Pederson, was also an outfielder. Certainly, the Dodgers weren’t going to keep all of these outfielders? Why? My God, was there no limit to what the new Dodger ownership group was willing to spend?

Let the trade rumors begin.

Certainly here’s yet another cautionary tale in signing soon to be 30-year olds to long-term, big money contracts. Since, by his admission, Crawford chased the cash and signed with the Red Sox, the now 33-year old has battled a constant stream of injuries ranging from hamstring strains, ankle sprains, to Tommy John surgery. He’s played in just 367 of a possible 630 games, or about 58% of possible games, and for that coin toss he’s made a little over 200 thousand and change per game played.

In Boston, that kind of no-show was discussed daily by a passionate media, one that Crawford labeled as “the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.” In Los Angeles, he has become largely forgotten with Puig mania, the brilliance of Clayton Kershaw, and the effervescent Magic Johnson still stealing headlines. If ever there’s a better place to sit, catch some rays, and be lost amongst the stars, it’s out in LA. Tired of yet another Dodger no-hitter? Well, here’s a healthy Matt Kemp, and, oh by the way, will the Dodgers now be able to trade the former NL MVP, or should they trade him, and just how much will it cost? What? Puig just flipped a bat so spectacularly on a warning-track can of corn that it lives as an endless stream of animated gifs? Oh, that silly Puig.

Lost in all of this is that Crawford is healthy again and is producing. Maybe he’s no longer the 50+ stolen bases, triple-hitting machine from his youth, but he’s back from a month and a half long stint on the disabled list, or what has become something of his annual June break, and since the beginning of August he’s hit .320/.358/.400 with a pair of home runs and nine stolen bases. He went 4-for-4 in Wednesday night’s game and has gone 9-for-12 in his last three.  Of those home runs, one was a two-run shot to just left of centerfield against the Nationals Tyler Clippard that tied the game up in extra innings. Not fully appreciated in that clip is just how difficult it was to hit that ball, hidden in the shadows while staring into the sun. Chavez Ravine can be murder mid-day to batters.

Well, no one ever said Crawford wasn’t talented . . . just brittle.

The Dodgers currently lead the Giants by 2 ½ games in the West and are percentage points behind the Nationals for the NL’s best record, two games back in the loss column. If they have hopes of holding off the one and overtaking the other they’re going to need every offensive weapon at their disposal. Since August, the Nationals own the best record in the NL at 24-14 and the Giants are 21-15 but leading in runs scored in that timeframe. The Dodgers have held court by going 21-16, but there are reasons for concern.

Puig has just one home run since the Fourth of July, and in those 48 games since he’s hit .269/.363/.411 with 12 RBIs. David Schoenfield on ESPN goes into Puig’s hitting woes in much greater detail, but needless to say, for a team with title or bust aspirations, the Dodgers are going to need every available bat. Dee Gordon has an OBP of just .281 since the beginning of August, making his otherworldly speed a threat but not the game-changer it has been. Hanley Ramirez is working his way back from an oblique strain and has hit just four home runs since June 1st. Oh, and the team has been giving at-bats to Darwin Barney of late. Not many, to be sure, as he makes an occasional spot start or pinch hits, and surprisingly, his OBP with the Dodgers is .391, up from his career of .291, but you get the sense that you know how this is going to end, and the fewer at-bats he sees the better.

On the flip side, Kemp has battled his own litany of injuries, most notably a balky ankle, but he’s put in a solid year at the plate, hitting 19 home runs (five in August) while playing a respectable centerfield. Adrian Gonzalez has provided another professional season at the plate, hitting 22 home runs while driving in 100. Since August he’s hit .325/.377/.561 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs. Heck, even former Met Justin Turner is killing the ball this season, hitting .327/.394/.454 overall and .372/.449/.500 with two home runs since August. Turner won’t see the field much with Ramirez back, but he provided a solid presence at the plate while Ramirez was recovering on the DL.

Then there’s Crawford. After struggling through April, Crawford turned May into his own “Welcome Back” party, hitting .333/.358/.513 through the month, turning on pitches with four home runs hit to right. Then he sprained his ankle, was placed on the 15-day disabled list, and 43 days later he was back to playing catch up. Since his return, however, he’s seen his slash line climb from a season low of .230/.267/.342 to its current .276/.315/.387. His seven home runs on the season are the most since 2011 with Boston and perhaps more importantly, in a sign that his wheels haven’t abandoned him, he has 22 stolen bases (out of 28 attempts), which are the most since his final season in Tampa.

Most promising of all is the work he’s done on fastballs since his return. Up through April, Crawford was hitting a miserable .121 against fastballs, which was something of a problem when pitchers were throwing him the pitch 74% of the time. In May, Crawford began hitting .340 against pitches considered hard (as per BrooksBaseball.net), with the overall percentage of pitches seen to 72.5%. Since August? He’s hit .294 while seeing the pitch now 68.3% of the time. Pitchers are taking notice, adjusting accordingly, and Crawford is still successful. Since August, on pitches considered breaking balls he’s hit an even .500. See curve; hit curve; run around the bases really fast.

With such a small lead in the West, and with six games remaining against the Giants, the Dodgers need everyone to contribute. Even a run or two helps (as pointed out in my previous post on how successful the Dodgers have been when scoring only a run or two), and Crawford’s return to a productive outfielder gives them an edge. The team has 238 million reasons to want to win the West, set their rotation, and play to their overall depth than end up in the crapshoot that is a one game play in.

For Crawford, now back to “[having] that feel, that free-spirit feel,” if his performance in last season’s playoffs is any indication, the more games the better since he and the Dodgers are going to be dangerous when they get there.1

  1. Quotes for the post were taken from this Obnoxious Boston Fan article.

Sep 09

Dodgers Dangerous When Scoring Little

With about three weeks to go in the season, the race for home field advantage in the NL is about as settled as the Nationals closer situation. On any given day, the best record either resides in Los Angeles or in DC, but here comes St. Louis or how about the hard-charging San Francisco squad? The one thing I know for certain is that the Mets will not win all of their remaining games to finish near Sandy Alderson’s prediction of 90 wins for the season and muscle their way into one of the wild card spots.

Consider me a realist.

If the best record does come down to just a game or two, we may see sunny Hollywood warm our television sets this October, and if the Dodgers do manage to lead the Senior circuit in wins it might be because of their amazing ability to win games where they’ve scored just one or two runs. Currently, on the season, the Dodgers are 13-32 in games where they’ve scored two or fewer runs (with a league low four shutouts, a bit of quick math has LA at 13-28 when scoring one or two), and though that doesn’t sound like a particularly impressive record, their .289 winning percentage in such games is the seventh best in the last twenty years and the best in MLB since Toronto’s .319 in 2007.

First, I’ll explain why exactly I chose two runs as my demarcation as opposed to one or three or…you get the idea. Currently, teams average around 4.1 runs per game, so a low scoring game would naturally fall below the average. A starter allowing three earned runs in 6+ innings is considered a quality start, not an exceptional one, so I didn’t consider a record when scoring three or fewer to be all that interesting. Mostly, though, scoring two or fewer runs and winning is a difficult thing to accomplish and it seemed interesting.

Here are the top 10 dating back to 1995:

Season Team W-L Win %
2002 Atlanta 14-28 .333
2004 St. Louis 10-21 .323
2007 Toronto 15-32 .319
2001 Seattle 8-18 .308
2005 Chicago White Sox 15-34 .306
1996 San Diego 13-31 .295
2014 Los Angeles Dodgers 13-32 .289
2013 Oakland 14-35 .286
2006 St. Louis 11-28 .282
2006 San Diego 14-36 .280

Top Seasons by W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs

I could probably remove both the 2004 St. Louis and 2001 Seattle teams from the list since both were well below the median of 44 for teams scoring two or fewer, but it won’t particularly matter for our fun, and, honestly, why should they be penalized for being better than my arbitrarily picked scoring threshold? That being the case, the current Dodger team sits a slight tick above median, so no peculiarities in sample size.

How remarkable is their record in these games? Over the last twenty years, the median winning percentage for a team scoring two or fewer is a miniscule .124, which works out to somewhere in the vicinity of 5-6 wins per 44 games. I use median since I’m eliminating the outliers, but honestly the average is .129, the same 5-6 win range, so we’d expect an average team to have a record around 6-38. So, if the Dodgers and Giants battle for the West (and the battle for home field advantage) ends up being decided by just a game or two, a few extra wins (or seven) might just end up being the reason why.

Of course, the one glaring weakness in an assessment such as this is that I’m assuming that all teams are treated equal. Wouldn’t it be natural to assume a better team would win more games where they score only one or two runs (and how many times would we expect the better teams to even score only one or two runs)? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve classified teams either at or above .500 and those below .500. It’s simple, and I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary to break teams further into tiers.1

Separating teams as either winners or losers does make a difference. The median winning percentage for a team that finished the year at or above .500 is .150 with the median games played at 40. Sub .500 teams win at around .105 with the median games played at 47. So, not surprisingly, bad teams score two or fewer runs more often than good teams and lose those games more often.

Under those circumstances, we’d expect your typical team to go 7-37 (6.6 wins) in those 44 games with the Dodgers playing just north of two deviations above median. What they’re doing, while not exactly earth shattering, is still pretty impressive considering what we’d expect from the typical Major League team.

If you’re looking for an updated table that reflects the above .500 clubs I’m sorry to disappoint you. The table would look exactly like the one listed above since every one of those clubs finished above .500. In fact, the only team to crack the top 20 with a sub .500 record would be the 1998 Orioles (79-83) who won those low score games 26% of the time. After the O’s, the next sub .500 team is the 2010 Dodgers (80-82) at 24.

How are these Dodgers so successful in low scoring games?

Having the greatest pitcher on the planet starting for you certainly helps as Clayton Kershaw has gone 5-2 in these sort of games.2 Zack Greinke has suffered to a record of 0-5 in these games with the Dodgers scoring two or fewer in eight of his starts with two shutouts while Hyun-jin Ryu is 3-4. Also, the Dodgers pitching staff is really good with the team ranked fourth in the Majors with a 3.28 ERA. The starters have been phenomenal, leading the Majors in ERA at 3.12 and FIP, first in WHIP at 1.14, and second to the Rays in total strikeouts at 811. The bullpen has been fairly pedestrian in terms of runs allowed, ranking 18th in ERA at 3.65, but they’ve blown just 12 saves, fourth fewest.

Other than that, what’s there to say? The team has an innate ability to work to the score? Somehow they’ve mastered close and whenever situations? They pitch well, play in a pitcher’s park, and play in a division with similar clubs.

Speaking of those divisional foes, the Dodgers have the most games where they’ve scored two or less against San Diego, where they’ve gone 5-4 in those games. Against San Francisco they’re 1-5. Their record against other NL contenders of note is 1-3 vs. St. Louis and 0-2 against Washington.

In case you were wondering, here are the top 10 in such games for this season.

Team W-L Win %
Dodgers 13-32 .289
Angels 8-26 .235
Marlins 9-34 .209
Rays 11-43 .204
Cardinals 9-39 .188

Top 5 W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs for 2014

And, considering that postseason games tend to be lower scoring games3, it might be a good idea to look at the top contenders for a postseason berth and see how they’ve performed in these games.

Team W-L Win %
Dodgers 13-32 .289
Angels 8-26 .235
Royals 10-41 .196
Cardinals 9-39 .188
Orioles 8-35 .186
Indians 8-37 .178
Pirates 7-38 .156
Braves 8-44 .154
Mariners 7-44 .137
Tigers 6-37 .140
Athletics 4-34 .105
Nationals 4-38 .095
Brewers 4-43 .085
Giants 4-45 .082

Playoff Contenders W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs for 2014

There doesn’t seem to be a discernible skill in winning these types of games. The Athletics are 4-34 this season but had one of the best seasons of the last 20 years in 2013 when they went 14-35. Although, then again, the Atlanta Braves appear quite a few times above the .150 line where we’d expect good teams to win, and the late 90s early aught Mets come in around 17 and 19, proving there was a little miracle happening then.

So, to be thorough, here are the top five teams over the last two decades:

Team W-L Win %
Braves 154-702 .180
Dodgers 175-813 .177
Padres 174-881 .165
Giants 146-755 .162
Angles 121-644 .158

Top 5 W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs since 1995

  1. I could. I could go back through the last 20 years and find the average winning percentage of playoff bound teams, etc., etc., but this is supposed to be goofy fun, and honestly, what’s the point?
  2. If you needed another reason to believe he’s the greatest going, doesn’t that sort of stat say it all? When he’s had to dominate because the Dodgers haven’t scored many runs, he does.
  3. This is absolutely true by the way. Since 1994 (just kidding, a little lockout joke) 1995, Major League teams score about 4.77 runs per game, with the average 4.7 and the median 4.77, while in the postseason those numbers drop to an average of 4.2 and a median of 4. The average is significantly higher because there a few 23-7 and 19-8 scores in there. Anyway, that works out to somewhere between a 10.6 to 16.1 percent drop in scoring. None of this explains what teams score vice what we’d expect them to score based on their seasonal performance, but that’s another post, hopefully coming soon.

Sep 06

Record Shutouts? Another 2014 Fail.

Much has been made this season about the record pace of shutouts and the overall trend of diminished offense coupled with increased strikeouts. The last two decades have been ugly in terms of at-bats ending in a whiff as every year since 1995 is listed in the Top 20 for total strikeouts, K/AB, and K/PA. In fact, the years from 2014 through 2008 are ranked one to seven in highest percentage of K/AB and K/PA. ’14 has sort of hit its nadir with at-bats ending in a strikeout 22.5% of the time.

Have all those patient at-bats, waiting for the right pitch to hit, led to more runs? Before answering that, have all those patient at-bats led to more walks, which in turn by conventional wisdom (it is a television commentator staple to say that walks always come back to bite a pitcher) lead to more runs?

The short answer is no, not really. 2014 is near the bottom for BB/PA, with batters walking just 7.69% of the time, currently ranked 92nd of all seasons since 19141. 2013 was ranked 83rd and 2012 was 81st. In fact, the 1990s showed pretty well in terms of walks per plate appearance (2000 was 6th, ’99 was 10th, and ’95-96 were 16th and 17th respectively), but nowadays batters have the same old approach but pitchers are winning more battles. As you might expect, runs per game are down to the lowest they’ve been since 1981. Removing the Dead-ball era from our returns, 2014 is the 22nd worst season for runs per game with teams scoring a paltry 4.10 runs per, only slightly up from 2013 when it was 4.17.

Is this the year, then? Are we finally going to supplant the dead-ball era season of 1915 as the dead-ballsiest season ever? Will, with just the right sort of San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays ineptitude (both tied with being shut out 17 times this season) 2014 go down as the best of the worst?

No, damnit.

Currently, there have been 297 shutouts this season, and at the present rate of one shutout every seven games (7.05% of the time) and with 323 games remaining, give or take a play-in game or two, 2014 will likely finish 9th or 10th all-time with around 315. That will, however, give the years from 2010-14 a firm lock on the top 12 spots, which is just the sort of negativity that writers across our good nation love to gripe about.

Just for goofs, here’s the current top 15 seasons for shutouts (with total games2 and SHO/G):

Season Games Shutouts SHO/G
1915 3728 359 9.63
1972 3718 357 9.60
1914 3758 357 9.50
1968 3250 339 10.43
2013 4862 331 6.81
2010 4860 329 6.77
1976 3878 325 8.38
2011 4858 323 6.65
1971 3876 315 8.13
2012 4860 310 6.38
1978 4204 305 7.25
1969 3892 300 7.71
1992 4212 298 7.08
2014 3886 297 7.05
1973 4212 293 7.54

Top 15 Shutouts in a Season

And, if you’re wondering what teams have been shut out the most and fewest time this season, I have that very thing for you too.

Team Times Shut out Rank
San Diego Padres 17 1 (tie)
Tampa Bay Rays
Seattle Mariners 15 3
Boston Red Sox 13 4 (tie)
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Philadelphia Phillies
San Francisco Giants
Chicago White Sox 7 23 (tie)
Kansas City Royals
New York Yankees
Pittsburgh Pirates
Cleveland Indians 6 27 (tie)
Miami Marlins
Los Angeles Dodgers 4 29
Los Angeles Angels 3 30

Top (Worst/Best) Teams by Shutouts

  1. All stats here gathered using baseball-reference.com Team Finder tool
  2. Halve the number for individual games played. Since there are two teams, and two opportunities for a shutout, the number just looks huge.

Sep 06

Rafael Soriano Struggles Again

On Friday night Rafael Soriano blew another save, and by all accounts Nationals manager Matt Williams has seen enough. In the postgame press conference, Williams said, “We’ll address it, yeah. We need to address it.” If you’ve listened to Williams at all this year, a staunch supporter of his veterans in all situations, this is akin to saying Soriano will soon join Terrance in the bleachers to keep the crowd energized.

Much has been already said about Soriano’s 6.98 ERA since the All Star break, but that’s just a number. A low number, really, if you consider just how awful Soriano has looked in all but a handful of his outings. We can play magic with arbitrary timeframes, but if we select July 28 as our starting date in a game against Miami when Soriano surrendered a three-run lead that was about as bad as an outing could be, Soriano has allowed 14 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings, equating to an 8.22 ERA. In those 17 games, he’s allowed 22 hits, five walks, and struck out 15, which comes more from the quantity of batters faced than the quality of pitches made. Batters are hitting .328/.387/.537 in that time with an absurdly high .380 average on balls in play. Is that luck? The only unlucky part of that statistic is that line drives weren’t hit directly into upraised mitts. There was one time I was afraid for Adam LaRoche’s life when a liner off of Travis Snider’s bat nearly decapitated him.

These aren’t Texas leaguers or seeing-eye grounders. These are baseballs screaming through the field like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

I don’t know if Soriano is through as a closer. Baseball history is littered with successful closers who suddenly lost whatever it was that made them unique and special. For the rarity of Mariano Rivera, there are dozens of closers such as Bobby Thigpen or Jim Johnson whose stuff just went away seemingly overnight. Eric Gagne won the Cy Young in 2003 (no, seriously, it’s true) and then had but one good year left in the tank. Perhaps it’s the physical toll of gearing up for 15-20 pitches a night or the psychological toll of having the game come down to your arm night after night after night. Francisco Rodriquez was K-Rod, then he wasn’t, then he reinvented himself, but no one would claim that he’s the same guy that pitched so brilliantly in his burgeoning flower of youth.

I do know that Soriano’s arm now looks dead. There’s no life in his fastball, and his slider sort of spins lazily to the plate. If he threw mid to high 90s he could get away with just one usable pitch, but when you regularly hit 91 and have been living middle of the plate and up you’re going to get pasted.

Before the All Star break, Soriano had the numbers to back up the chatter about his possible inclusion on the NL squad. He had a WHIP of .811, allowing just 19 hits and 11 walks in 37 innings while striking out 36. He had 22 saves with an ERA of 0.97 (FIP of 2.42). Batters were hitting just .153/.222/.226 with a BABIP of .207 (indicating that he was more than just a little lucky and would regress). But if you take a look at his zone profile from BrooksBaseball.net, you can see a pitcher begging to be hit hard:

soriano_preAllStarSoriano Zone Profile pre-All Star Break

That image represents the pre-All Star break Soriano. Notice that there’s an awful lot of red in the middle of the plate.

soriano_postAllStarSoriano Zone Profile post-All Star Break

He still throws mainly middle of the plate, though now he’s been throwing more up and in (a lot of those are him overthrowing).

In the press conference, Williams went on to say:

We’re certainly going to have to take a hard look at it, Williams said. It’s not an easy decision. None of them are. But we want to be able to close those games out. Sori understands that, he’s been around the block.

Do the Nats have viable options in house? Tyler Clippard has been a popular name to add to the mix, but he hasn’t exactly shined in his few chances to close. In fact, he’s blown three saves just since the middle of August, all on game-tying home runs where he left a pitch hanging like ripe fruit in the middle of the plate. He was lights out in the eighth inning, so perhaps Williams should do the right thing and leave Clippard just where he is. Matt Thornton is a possibility since he has the upper 90s fastball that can just humiliate a batter, but he’s the one competent left-hander Williams has in the pen. Eventually, in the playoffs, the Nats will need to get past Adrian Gonzalez or Freddie Freeman.

Drew Storen is a more viable option, but I still have flashbacks to his attempt to close out the Marlins on July 30.

Williams has to do something, and it sounds as though he knows it too. I say this with the utmost confidence and despair that if Soriano closes games for the Nats come postseason time the Nats will not make it to the World Series. I’d love to see him find his inner Keith Foulke and gut his team with diminishing stuff to a Series title, but at this point, with a month left to play, it’s hard to bank title hopes on an act of God.

The players are saying the right things, backing their guy. You’d expect nothing less. These are men accustomed to success, to always being able to rely on ability and hard work to get through the inevitable ups and downs of the season. Sometimes, though, even when you really dig deep, there’s just nothing there.

The Nats have a seven game lead, which should be plenty to hold off the Braves, barring a 2007 Mets or 2011 Braves like collapse. After living through the 2007 season, suffering through every one of those losses and smarting still with every Cole Hamels quip, I can never quite say it’s time to celebrate. Good enough for the East was fine when the team was struggling through injuries, but with this lineup, and those starters, the Nats should be laser-focused on winning the first title in franchise history.

We can only hope they’re not the best for eight innings at a time.

Aug 31

Mountaineers, Mettle, and Stickum

Games like Saturday’s WVU opener are called moral victories.  Mettle was tested.  Lessons were learned.  Even if that moral victory seemed more like a Pyrrhic one as WVU starters dropped to the Georgia Dome turf like they’d eaten a bad platter of Chick-fil-A grilled nuggets, they hung with the Nick Saban led Tide in a game WVU entered as 26 ½ point underdogs.  They lost by 10?  Hey, they gave Alabama a spirited fight!

Ugh.  Moral victories still feel like losses the day after, and maybe they were underdogs entering the game, but someone forgot to tell WVU and Clint Trickett because the senior quarterback looked confident throughout.  He moved the ball around, found open receivers, and finished 29-of-45 with 365 yards passing and a touchdown.  Trickett guided Dana Holgorsen’s high-octane offense against an Alabama defense unprepared for the frenzied pace, and if the opening drive set a tone for this game, it proved that when WVU moves down the field it really moves.  It also set a tone of coming up short, of opportunities lost, and with one, or two, or four fewer drops maybe the moral victory is a real one instead.

In consecutive drives in the third quarter Mountaineer receivers dropped passes that either would have extended the drive or, in the case of Shelton Gibson, given Holgorsen a decision on a fourth and short a long field goal.  Early In the fourth, Elijah Wellman came within inches of bringing WVU within three but Trickett missed the wide-open fullback and the ball glanced off Wellman’s fingertips.  Even Daryl Worley’s interception of Alabama quarterback Blake Sims came with a “what if,” as a holding penalty on the play cost the Mountaineers the chance to start inside Alabama’s 35.

On Sunday morning the narrative became how Alabama dodged a bullet, how the team and newly crowned Tide quarterback Sims overcame the plucky team from Morgantown, and how the playoff system almost received its first test.  During the broadcast announcers Dave Pasch and Brian Griese focused more on the relationship between Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin than the team giving Alabama a lesson in confidence and fearlessness.  WVU wasn’t a team just happy to be there on the big stage.  They were a team with the self-assurance that they belonged there on a weekly basis.

Of course, when you win three of the last five national championships, the story is your story unless someone steals the headlines.  Unfortunately, the story of the Mountaineers was one of a 4-8 squad from 2013-14, as ABC reminded us on a regular basis.  They were the team that had struggled in its transition to the Big 12, going 6-12 in conference play since joining for the 2012-13 season.  Maybe, Pasch and Griese would tell us, this year WVU would make for a tougher opponent, as though they were the Butterbean to the Evander Holyfield’s of the FBS world, the opponent who put up just enough fight to be entertaining.  Unfortunately for WVU, a few too many dropped passes cost them the knockout blow.

In the end, WVU had no answers for the combination of a 240-pound wrecking ball made human Derrick Henry and speedster T.J. YeldonAmari Cooper caught everything in sight while Sims evaded pressure and made the plays he needed to.

Did WVU belong on this big stage?  More importantly, have the Mountaineers made us believe that they’re ready to take up residence on the stage for good?  I don’t know what the rest of the season will bring, if Oklahoma, Baylor, and Kansas State are for real for real, but on Saturday afternoon the lights of the Georgia Dome reflected just as bright off the Mountaineers white helmets as they did for Alabama.

Aug 29

Can I Get an Average Starter Please?

When I noticed that the Mariners had recalled Erasmo Ramirez to pitch Wednesday against the Rangers, I realized that Jordan Zimmermann would be facing the likely AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez tonight.  With a trip to Los Angeles right after the Seattle series, there’s a remote chance that Zimmermann would also pitch against the likely NL Cy Young winner as well.  That Clayton Kershaw is schedule to pitch next Tuesday night against Doug Fister1 didn’t make me stop wondering how often a pitcher has started against both Cy Young winners during the same season and how did the poor sap fair?

Limiting my search from 2013 through 1997 (the first year of interleague play) I quickly found out that a pitcher starting against both Cy Young winners was uncommon but not exactly rare.  In the past 17 years, there have been exactly 24 times when a pitcher started against both award winners (with an additional six in 2003 when a starter appeared in a game featuring either Roy Halladay or closer Eric Gagne).  Filed under crummy luck, Jarrod Washburn, Livan Hernandez, and Ryan Dempster have each had it happen during two different seasons, but both Washburn and Hernandez pulled off the trick in 2003 with Gagne and Halladay.  In 2012, we had the only occurrence during this time when both eventual Cy winners started against one another when R.A. Dickey tossed a complete game 1-hitter against David Price and the Rays.  Price lasted just five innings that game, allowing seven earned.

Below is a table with the years and number of times it’s happened:

 

Season Occurrences Pitchers
2013 0 N/A
2012 3 CC Sabathia

Chien-Ming Wang

Cole Hamels

2011 1 Jered Weaver
2010 3 Carl Pavano

Mat Latos

Tim Wakefield

2009 1 Russ Ortiz
2008 2 Cha-Seung Baek

Livan Hernandez

2007 1 Edwin Jackson
2006 2 James Shields

Jarrod Washburn

2005 0 N/A
2004 0 N/A
2003 6 Adam Bernero

Darrell May

Jarrod Washburn

Jeff D’Amico

Livan Hernandez

Mark Buehrle

2002 2 Kirk Rueter

Rodrigo Lopez

2001 1 Ryan Dempster
2000 3 Javier Vazquez

Kent Bottenfield

Matt Perisho

1999 4 Mike Thurman

Ryan Dempster

1998 1 Brian Meadows
1997 0 N/A

Occurrences Pitcher Faced Both Cy Young Winners

Not surprisingly, the record when facing both award representatives isn’t all that encouraging.  I didn’t include 2003 since the starters didn’t really face off against Gagne and since closers shouldn’t win the Cy Young because, well, they’re closers.  I’ll just pretend that year never happened.  It was a different time then, and Gagne saved 55 games with 137 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings.

For all non-Gagne closed seasons, the starters were a combined 10-25 with 14 no decisions.  Collectively, their ERA was 4.17 while they allowed 299 hits in 304 2/3 innings.

Out of all the starters listed above, Mike Thurman faired the best.  He went 2-0 in 1999 against both Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, scattering 10 hits across 14 1/3 innings while allowing just two earned runs.  That year, Johnson and Martinez had a combined record of 40-13 with 677 strikeouts between them.  Defeating just one of them is impressive enough (Johnson was in the midst of winning four Cy Young awards in a row and 1999 was definitely the least impressive of those seasons.  Of course, if you consider a 17-9 record and 364 strikeouts unimpressive then I have nothing else for you), but to defeat both of them in the same season deserves a mention in Cooperstown right next to their plaques.2

Nobody actually pitched against both pitchers in back-to-back starts.  Chien-Ming Wang and Cole Hamels in 2012 and Russ Ortiz in 2009 faced off against each in two of three starts.  Jered Weaver in 2011 had the pleasure of pitching against Kershaw in back-to-back starts, going 1-0 with a no decision.

Good luck to Zimmermann if he should be fortunate enough to pitch against both in the Nats next two series.  He’s going to need it.

  1. Whatever.  Last Sunday Hernandez wasn’t supposed to pitch against the Nationals at all.
  2. That neither has been enshrined yet is only a formality.  If the voters decide that Johnson and Martinez shouldn’t be first ballot Hall of Famers, I’m through with baseball for good.

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