Monday, September 29, 2014

End of the Regular Season

LA               94-68      ...                Finished with 5 straight wins.
GIANTS     88-74      6  GB          Same record as wild-card foe Bucs.
San Diego   77-85     17 GB          Ready to return to contention?
Colorado    66-96      28 GB          Seems like they start over a lot.
Arizona      64-98      30 GB          Awful start stayed with them all year.

For the first time since 2009, two National League West teams have qualified for postseason play. The Dodgers, who reached the NLCS a year ago, were the preseason favorite and are sitting just about where everyone expected. They face last year's nemeses, the St Louis Cardinals, in the semifinal round upcoming.  The Giants meanwhile are stuck in some weird perceptive limbo, in-between their old role as  Plucky Underdogs and their new one as two-time champions who somehow frittered away a nine-game June lead. You can't go back, only forward, and so the Giants would do well to remember the 2011 Cardinals, a team who started the postseason in a similar spot.

Did the Giants pull an el foldo, or did the Dodgers mount a historic charge? While it's an oddity that both Bay Area teams dominated their leagues at midseason, and that both subsequently lost those leads to their SoCal rivals and wound up qualifying as second-tier wild-cards, the two races aren't that similar. The Giants pulled an epic nosedive right out of first place in three weeks, and while LA certainly took advantage, they hardly ran away with it. Even after thrashing about in the darkness for two full months, the Giants remained close enough to make a battle of it deep into September. By contrast, the Angels simply went off like a delayed Atlas rocket over the summer while Oakland essentially stood still. People point to the Jon Lester trade as the date of the A's undoing, but our take on it is that LAA would have won going away regardless, so hot did they burn. Now we see which of these teams, built to win over the long haul, can best adjust to the short (Short? 43 games is short?) postseason.

All three possibilities for Monday do-or-die playoff action faded yesterday. Pittsburgh lost, giving St Louis the division, and in the AL Central Detroit won, making Kansas City's win irrelevant. Finally, the A's regained their form for at least one day with a shutout win over Texas, and thus Seattle, after denying the Angels their 99th win, head back to the barn empty-handed. No "City of Champions" designation for Raintown this year, even if the blasted Seahawks do repeat.

The Postseason
It all begins tomorrow night (7 PM local time, 8 PM EDT) at Kauffmann Stadium in Independence, Missouri, home of the Kansas City Royals. Expect a frenzied sellout crowd to cheer the Royals' every move as they host the Oakland A's in KC's first postseason game since the 1985 World Series, back when Ewing Kauffmann was very much alive.

Wednesday it's the Giants' turn at PNC Park in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. Madison Bumgarner, winner of 18 games, starts against Edinson Volquez, who has resurrected his career admirably in Pittsburgh (13-7, 3.04 ERA, 15th in the NL and just behind "Bum" at 2.98), The Giants did not face Volquez this year but they remember him well from his Cincinnati exploits.

The LA Angels await the winner of Tuesday's game for a likely 5 PM PDT (8 PM EDT) kickoff on Thursday, while Detroit plays at Baltimore the same day, probably at 1 PM EDT.  Friday the NL series begin, with Washington and LA the hosts, and it's anyone's guess which game will get the prime-time nod, though we lean toward the Dodgers and a 5 PM PDT (8 PM EDT) start against the Cardinals.

There are five California major-league baseball teams, and all have operated in the state since 1969. This year marks the first time that four of those five teams have made the postseason.  On two previous occasions-- in 2002 and in 2006-- three of the five made it. There have been several seasons where two made it, and there have been four California World Series: 1974, 1988, 1989, and 2002. The first two of those matched north and south (A's and Dodgers), we had the Bay Area "Earthquake Series" in 1989, and the "Wild Card" Series in 2002 between our Giants and the then-Anaheim Angels. The closest we've ever had to a "LA Series" was in 2009, where the Angels and Dodgers both reached the LCS, but both lost. 2014 offers perhaps the best opportunity of all for the SoCal fans-- and this year the San Diego Padres are the inevitable odd team out.

End-of-Season Notes
The Giants scored 665 runs this year, up from 629 a year ago, and a little better than that, actually, since overall league runs declined about 2% from 2013. This was good enough for fifth in the league, behind the Dodgers, Nationals, and, yes, the Pirates (Colorado led all NL teams with 755). The Cardinals, who plated a whopping 783 a year ago, fell off by 164 runs and still won their division! Considering their team ERA stayed about the same (3.50 to 3.42), and they barely outscored their opposition (619-603), all we can say is it's no surprise their wins fell off from 97 to 90 and their Pythagorean projection is seven games worse than their actual record, and four games behind the Pirates'. The big story in the NL Central this year remains the Milwaukee Brewers' late-season collapse and the void it left behind.

Okay. The Giants, fifth in the league in runs scored, were tied (with the Cards) for seventh in ERA at 3.50. For the first time in what seems like ages, they were below-average in both strikeouts and walks. Encouragingly, they were third in K/W ratio, behind LA and Washington (whose pitchers approached 4:1).  And-- saints presairve us!-- the Giants actually led the league in fewest pitches thrown, both in toto and per plate appearance. Credit Messrs. Hudson, Peavy, and Bumgarner for this amazing turnaround.

Going back to the plate, we see the Giants were below average in homers, walks, and strikeouts. They stole only 56 bases, but were caught only 27 times (both the Rockies and Cubs were caught more than half the time. Just stay put, willya?) You want stolen bases, go to Washington: 109 thefts and only 26 caught; league leaders Cincinnati were nailed twice as often but stole only 13 more. One reason the Cardinals didn't score a lot of runs is that despite a fine .320 team OBP, they were at or near the top in both GIDP and LOB.

Of the postseason teams, Oakland has a huge disparity between expected W-L (99-63) and actual (88-74, same as the Giants). We seem to remember them winning a lot of lopsided games earlier in the season, and they were only 21-28 in one-run games. They outscored the opposition by over 150 runs, more than anyone, including the Angels and Washington, and three times that of the Giants. Either the early-season success seriously skewed their numbers, or they're going to be a postseason dark horse and a danger to anyone if they reach the division series. On the other side, St Louis appears the most vulnerable team, and we expect the Dodgers to defeat them. All the other teams, including the Giants, are about where their run scored/allowed ratio would predict.

Roll the statistical parade... Only seven National Leaguers hit above .300 this year, and Justin Morneau won the batting title at .319. Buster Posey was fourth at .311... Hunter Pence's 106 runs scored were second to Andrew Renton of Washington's 111. The Nats' Denard Span was fifth with 94... Posey's 89 RBI were ninth. Pence was next, 'way down at 27th with 74... Brandon Crawford, with 59, led the Giants in bases on balls, lifting his OBP to .324, still bad but not so bad for a .246 hitter. Distressingly, his SLG dropped below .400. He maintained average defensive stats-- good DP, below-average percentage, middlin' range... Cincinnati's Joey Votto, in 220 ABs, had as many walks as did Buster Posey, in 547 ABs. Clearly Buster was carryin' a heavy load this year... Expand Angel Pagan's numbers out to a full season and you get .300 with 31 doubles and 84 runs scored... A question to be answered this offseason: what is Pablo Sandoval's .739 OPS at third base worth? On the defensive side, only three other third basemen played 150 games and "Panda's" range factor was better than all of 'em. The answer to the above question may depend on what, if anything, the big guy does in the postseason...  Andrew Susac's .466 SLG is fourth on the team, and better than every regular except Posey. The others ahead of him are Michael Morse, who's day-to-day, and, yes, Madison Bumgarner, who maybe ought bat about fifth on Wednesday... Certainly we'd rather see Gary Brown, even after only 7 at-bats, leading off instead of Gregor Blanco, and starting instead of Juan Perez or Chris Dominguez, whose OPS is slightly below Matt Cain's... With three homers in 73 at-bats, Adam Duvall certainly has power. It's the 20 strikeouts that are terrifying... Bumgarner was fourth in the league with 18 wins and 219 strikeouts and 217 innings pitched. He was 14th in ERA, 7th in WHIP, and he walked only 43... Good ol' A.J. Burnett of the Phillies walked 96 to lead the league. He kept his wild pitches down to a manageable 9, though; Wednesday's opposing starter, Volquez, led everybody with 15. For that matter, what's with the Buccos and wild pitches? Three of their starters were among the league's top ten in misdirected heaves, with Francisco Liriano slingin' 12 to the backstop and Gerrit Cole contributing 9. Not that these guys can't pitch or anything; Liriano's W-L was unimpressive but his ERA is 3.38 while Cole checks in at 11-5 and 3.65... Anyone miss Zack Wheeler yet? 11-11 for the mediocre Mets, with a 3.54 and 187 strikeouts in 185 innings... How many players have led the league in both runs scored and RBI the same season? Mike Trout just did it, and he's the AL MVP... You want to talk wild pitches, let's bring in the Angels' fine young starter Garrett Richards. Despite missing the last six weeks with injury, he ran away with the MLB crown: 22, count 'em, 22 wild pitches. Of course 11-4, 2.61, 164 K's and a 1.04 WHIP ain't exactly bad. That the Angels made their run without him is all the more amazing. He'd have been a Cy Young candidate... Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59) and Matt Shoemaker (16-4, 3.04) make a fine one-two punch for LA, with C.J. Wilson a decent third option... Justin Verlander took a back seat to teammate Matt Scherzer this year, but can anyone match Detroit's quartet of starters-- Scherzer, Verlander, David Price, and Rick Porcello? All won at least 15 games and only Verlander was above 3.50... Baltimore offers two strong starters, righty Bud Norris and lefty Wei-Yin Chen, both of whom have knocked around the majors for a while without a whole lot of success-- until now... The Oakland-KC wild-card game matches teams with the second- and fourth-best ERA in the AL. The A's offer up graybeard lefties Jon Lester and Scottt Kazmir as well as young Sonny Gray; KC's James Shields, late of Tampa Bay, is ten years old than 23-year-old Yordano Ventura. Both have won 14 with ERAs in the 3.20 range... Oh, let's go and find the outliers! David Price is the hardest-workin' man in baseball, having thrown 3730 pitches to beat out Cincy's Johnny Cueto... Drew Smyly, whom we remember from the 2012 World Series, picked off 7 baserunners this year, tops in MLB... Wanna steal a base in the playoffs? Run on the A's Kazmir, who allowed 18 while catching only two, and only picked off one guy. He's a lefty, too... Get out of the way, dummy! Jon Jay of the Cardinals was hit by 20 pitches this year... Unhitch the trailer, big guy! Albert Pujols grounded into 28 double plays, but Casey McGahee of the Marlins captured the crown with 31. Despite only 438 at-bats, Michael Morse made the leaderboard with 19... Most Likely to Pop Up: Chris Carter of the Houston Astros will put the ball in the air nearly twice as often as he'll it it on the ground. His opposite number is the Phillies' fine young centerfielder Ben Revere, who hit .306, absolutely refuses to draw a walk (13 in 601 at bats-- !) and stole 49 bases while being caught only nine times. He's 26; if he learns some patience at the plate, he could increase his runs scored total (only 71) by at least half... Last year it was Nori Aoki, this year we're looking at (or should we say, picking on) the Reds' Billy Hamilton. Who says Dusty Baker isn't managing here anymore? You couldn't prove it by Hamilton. Despite a .292 OBP, 117 strikeouts against 141 hits, 34 walks in 563 at-bats, and 23 caught stealings against 56 stolen bases (which is significantly worse than just staying put) Hamilton batted leadoff in 137 of 152 games this year. Why? Need you ask? He plays center field, of course! This is not to say Hamilton can't be a valuable player, though he's unlikely to be confused with his Hall-of Fame namesake, "Sliding Billy" Hamilton. In center, though his range is only average, he did throw out ten runners and start three double plays, and with his speed his range is likely to improve with experience. But frgawdsakes he should be batting about eighth. Then, maybe Cincy will score more than 72 measly runs out of the leadoff position, and perhaps win more than 76 games... Speaking of throwing arms, Home Run Derby winner Yoenis Cespedes, traded from Oakland to Boston in the Lester deal, threw out 16 runners from left field in 125 games (he was DH in 22 games). And something's sure goin' on in that Boston outfield: teammate Jackie Bradley cut down 13 runners from center field in only 113 games. They still finished last, pulling a first-to-worst.

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