You may have noticed my absence from this space over the last few weeks. My family and I moved from South Portland, Maine, to Cumberland Foreside, a delightful coastal community where my son and I have far more space to play catch and run around pretending to be Big Papi and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, his favorite players. Internet wasn’t hooked up in the new digs until this weekend, leaving me disconnected from my
legions of multiple(?) readers.
Absence from this blog, of course, does not represent absence from baseball analysis, as I’ve been participating in/following the relatively new High Heat Stats podcast series. I also caught a Portland Sea Dogs game with two fellow bloggers, Dan of Left Field and William of The Flagrant Fan, both of whom put some miles on their cars to join my family in Casco Bay. William and Dan each offered a weekend recap on their sites.
Tonight was supposed to bring the recording of Episode 5 of the HHS Podcast, but it’s been postponed. Having done a little prep work, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share it here, willing to accept the risk of a podcast listener being bored when I share a few insights when we do record. Following are three predictions for the remainder of the 2013 baseball season:
The first is the most timely, as it seemed like a bit of a longshot when I dreamed it up a few days ago, but by the time we record the podcast, it might seem like common sense. The Rays will win the AL East. I say this not just because I’m a pessimistic Red Sox fan, but because the Rays look like a team that can go on a run after the All-Star break.
David Price has an impressive strikeout:walk ratio of 4.58:1, but he has just three wins to show for that excellence. Home run problems and injuries plagued him early on, but he seems poised to resume the dominance that won him the Cy Young Award last year. Matt Moore has been excellent, and Jeremy Hellickson is thriving this year, not just in ERA as he has in the past, but on a fielding-independent basis, so front-line pitching is an obvious strength, but the advantage that may lead this team to the division crown is pitching depth. Young guns Chris Archer, Alex Colome, and Jake Odorizzi have made spot starts this year, and while the former two have struggled with control, each is a highly-touted prospect capable of pitching well in a pinch.
Tampa’s offense is quietly strong too. Tropicana Field suppresses offense to the point where no Ray besides Evan Longoria and perhaps Ben Zobrist strikes fear into the average opposing fan, but they’ve actually gotten strong production throughout the lineup this year, with Desmond Jennings, James Loney, Matt Joyce, Luke Scott, and Jose Lobaton all hitting at least 10% better than league average, per fangraphs’ wRC+.
Boston and Baltimore should continue to hit, but neither has the pitching to sustain long winning streaks. Boston’s entire staff has a 3.91 ERA this year, but a 4.08 FIP suggests that balls-in-play luck has artificially deflated that ERA a bit. Baltimore is just as extreme with a 4.39 ERA and a 4.57 FIP. Among AL teams, only Kansas City appears due for more regression according to this metric.
My second prediction comes in the National League, where the feel-good Pirates will win more than 81 games this year, breaking their streak of losing seasons, but they won’t win 90. Or make the playoffs. I’m loving watching Pittsburgh win every day with great pitching and just enough hitting, but the Bucs exhibit an even more ridiculous ERA/FIP gap (3.15/3.75) than any of the teams in the above paragraph. The entire staff has held opponents to a .265 BABiP, which means there are either some dominant sinkerballers inducing weak contact or they’ve been blessed with three rivers worth of luck, perhaps counterbalancing the last two decades. Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke look like mirages, and the bullpen may be legitimately great, but almost to a man, they’re outperforming career averages, which is hard to sustain over a full season.
On the offensive side, Andrew McCutchen is a beast and may hit even better in the second half, but we’re seeing career years from Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, and Jose Tabata at the same time as Russell Martin’s renaissance. Some of this may represent legitimate progression of a young core, but it’s hard to see all of them hitting at this level through early October. Pirates hitters are striking out in 22.3 percent of their plate appearances, more than every team except the Mets and Astros. Their walk percentage and isolated power have been mediocre, leading one to wonder how they’re scoring enough runs to win at a .600 clip.
The Pirates have the benefit of space between them and the nearest Wild Card contenders. Cincinnati sits 3 1/2 games behind them, while Washington lags by 7 1/2. But both of those teams look better on paper than Pittsburgh. It will probably take something like 88 wins to make the playoffs in the National League this year, which means the Pirates need to finish 35-39 to make the playoffs. I’m not sure they can.
My final prediction is personal. Miguel Cabrera won the AL MVP Award last year, out-balloting Mike Trout despite providing far less value to his team. This year, I predict that Cabrera will deserve the MVP, but he won’t win it.
More than numbers, baseball awards rely on narratives. Cabrera won the triple crown last year, in case you hadn’t heard, the first time anyone won that “award” in 45 years. His Tigers also reached the playoffs, despite the seventh-best record in the AL, and there was a common perception that Cabrera carried the team into the postseason with his clutch home runs. This year, the Tigers are even better, sporting the best pitching staff in baseball and a deeper lineup. They’re likely to run away with the division, a result that depends heavily on Cabrera’s production, but one which is harder for the average award voter to pin on one person.
With two Wild Cards in play, there will almost certainly be some drama in the American League’s other divisions, and plenty of players will have chances to build Cabrera-esque narratives down the stretch. The Orioles’ Chris Davis is chasing Roger Maris’s American League single-season home run record, while teammate Manny Machado is on pace to break Earl Webb’s doubles record while playing some of the best infield defense in the league. Should the O’s steal another Wild Card, those two will be compelling choices. Evan Longoria has been his usual stellar self in Tampa, while Robinson Cano has hit well in New York, propping up a lineup with less firepower than a manual lawnmower. Cano has shrunk from the clutch in recent seasons. If it’s true that clutch hitting is not a skill, he’s probably due for some timely hits this summer, perhaps in the heat of a pennant race.
Out west, Adrian Beltre is adding to a criminally underrated career with another huge season, crushing 20 homers and snaring practically every ball hit between the stands and second base. And let’s not forget the guy who should have won the MVP last season. Mike Trout is hitting .315/.393/.554 with 15 homers and 20 stolen bases in a half season, good for the second-best fWAR (5.1) in baseball. And while his defensive numbers show some regression from his otherworldly 2012, he’s built enough of a defensive reputation to get some bonus points if he keeps up gaudy batting average and stolen base numbers and the Angels make a run at the Wild Card.
I’ll close with Miguel Cabrera’s weighted on-base averages from the past four seasons: .431, .437, .417, .472. That’s right- Cabrera finally picked up an MVP in his weakest offensive season of the current decade. Sure, Miggy hit the cover off the ball in 2012, but his OBP was the seventh-best of his career and his slugging percentage was his third-best. Performance doesn’t win awards; stories do.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.