Thursday, July 11, 2013

American League Mid-season Review

The All-Star break begins Monday, and just as everyone expected in March, the team with the best record in the American League is...Boston? To be sure, there were plenty of people who felt that the Red Sox would benefit from some decent mid-level veteran signings and a change in leadership from last year's Bobby Valentine disaster.* And here they are, 56-37 through July 10th, enjoying (among other things) a bounce-back year from Jacoby Ellsbury (minus the power), strong pitching from one-time lemon John Lackey (a 2.80 ERA and 3.16 xFIP in nearly 100 innings this year), and David Ortiz raking at age 37 (.331/.412/.636 with 19 bombs), which encouraged the execrable Dan Shaughnessy to accuse him of using steroids with zero evidence. Over in the Central, Detroit leads as expected, but not by nearly as much (50-40, 3.5 games up on Cleveland) as might be expected from a team boasting SIX All-Stars (to be fair, all of them are deserving apart from Torii Hunter). And in the West, relatively star-less Oakland is 54-38, riding an ageless Bartolo Colon (a 2.69 ERA and 4.06 xFIP in 120 innings at age 40 while throwing almost nothing but fastballs) and a cast of relative unknowns to a comfortable cushion over all of their western brethren save Texas. Without further ado, some awards and stories from the first half of the season.

*Valentine was terrible in Boston. That said, I will forever defend his managerial ability by pointing to the 2000 New York Mets. Do you realize that the third-best hitter on that team was Benny Agbayani? That their 3-4-5 starting pitchers were Glendon Rusch, Rick Reed, and Bobby Jones? And that the incredibly volatile Armando Benitez anchored their bullpen? Don't believe me? Look here, and then tell me that Bobby Valentine wasn't a good manager after coaxing 94 wins and a World Series appearance out of Mike Piazza and the Seven Dwarfs.

Best Hitter: Miguel Cabrera - Could it be anyone else? Sure, Chris Davis is having an excellent season with 33 home runs and .310/.389/.690 splits that most people assumed as little as eighteen months ago he could only post in Japan. But Cabrera is, quite simply, the best hitter on Earth. He's hitting .366/.456/.676, pacing the junior circuit in batting average by 35 points and OBP by 44 (Big Papi is second in both categories), and sitting just 14 points of slugging percentage and 4 homers behind Davis. By virtue of Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter being on base a lot in front of him, he's also cashed in 93 base runners, 8 more than Davis and 24 more than third-place teammate Prince Fielder (who of course benefits from having Cabrera on base so often in front of him). Also, it seems like Miggy has been around forever, but do you realize that he's just 30 years old and on pace for career highs in practically everything? Additionally, his OPS differs by a mere 7 points based on whether the Tigers are home or away, and his LOWEST monthly figure in that category is April's .995. If he can catch Davis in home runs, he will in all likelihood join Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams as the only two-time Triple Crown winners, and become the first player to accomplish that (arbitrary) feat in consecutive seasons in baseball history.

Best All-Around Player: Manny Machado - Although Mike Trout still edges him as a hitter (.320/.399/.560 against .318/.346/.485), Machado has made a Trout-esque leap offensively this year, and is a more valuable defender by virtue of a) Trout's move to left field and b) Machado's ability to handle more chances in the infield, including the leader in the clubhouse for defensive play of the year. Also, he turned 21 last Saturday and is on pace to smash Earl Webb's record of 67 doubles in a season, set in 1931 (Machado is sitting on 39). Only the still-strong defense of J.J. Hardy is keeping this young wizard off of shortstop, and he's becoming quite a hitter in a solid Orioles lineup. There's a decent chance that Trout claims this category again by the end of the season, since he's only producing at about 80% capacity of his historic 2012 season. But for now, it's Machado.

Best Pitcher: Felix Hernandez - Poor King Felix is stuck once again on a terrible Seattle team that's currently 13.5 games behind Oakland and is actually outperforming its Pythagorean expectation. A lot of that is due to the 27-year-old Hernandez, who has a 2.69 ERA and 2.70 FIP in 130 innings with 136 strikeouts and just 26 walks. Did you know that he's on track for his sixth straight season over 200 innings, and his eighth straight of over 190? He's just 1.8 WAR behind the Big Unit for most all-time in Seattle history, and again, he's 27, theoretically on the early end of his prime (barring injury). And he's just one of a deep stable of talented pitchers performing well in the American League this year. Max Scherzer leads the league in strikeouts and has won every decision thus far,* Yu Darvish has been spectacular both in the box score and in GIF form, Chris Sale is holding up superbly in his second full season as a starter, Justin Verlander is Justin Verlander, Derek Holland and Justin Masterson have been excellent, and Colon is still getting it done at age 40.

Best Story: Chris Davis - Lots of people have written about him now, but suffice to say Davis is an example of why you might not want to give up on guys who have elite ability in their early twenties. Davis was just 25 and had flashed top-notch power (and a poor batting eye) when the Rangers shipped him to Baltimore for a middle reliever. Always one of the hardest-working players in the game, all it seems to have taken was for someone to take that work ethic and channel it properly, focusing more on making adjustments and maintaining his strength throughout the season than on building more strength and trying to hit every pitch 500 feet (which he can still do - he's just become a more disciplined hitter). His 2013 OBP is close to 100 points higher than it was during his last stint in Texas, and he's already clubbed 33 bombs, tying his career high and putting him within striking distance of Brady Anderson's club-record 50 from the 1996 season. It's fun to see a guy with the tools finally figure it out and reach the potential that everyone thought he had, even if it's for another team.

Best Rookie: Leonys Martin - Yeah, I know, right? It's too bad that Machado exhausted his rookie eligibility last season, because I'm not sure that Martin (.292/.342/.440 for Texas) would be the seventh-best rookie in the National League this year. Jose Iglesisas has gotten off to a hot start for Boston (.387/.440/.491) and may eventually pass Martin before the year is up. Boring category in this league.

Biggest Surprise: Oakland - The no-name A's are just a game and a half back of Boston for the best record in the American League, and your average casual fan would be hard-pressed to name anyone on their roster beyond Colon and Coco Crisp. They have played well (+60 run differential) despite a major sophomore slump from last year's Cuban wunderkind, Yoenis Cespedes (an ugly .221/.283/.421 thus far), along with some regression from Josh Reddick (.219/.301/.352). Put it this way; teams with offensive zeros at both outfield corners typically don't lead their divisions at the break. The offense has come principally from third baseman Josh Donaldson, Crisp, and a healthy Jed Lowrie (?!?), while Colon has paced a solid if unspectacular pitching staff that has been healthy, with the same five guys (Colon, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, and Dan Straily) making 87 of 92 starts (Brett Anderson has the other 5). Grant Balfour anchors a six-deep bullpen whose members all have an ERA between 1.72 and 3.44. And with two legitimately bad teams in its division (Seattle and Houston) and the next entry in this post struggling, Oakland is in excellent position for a second consecutive playoff appearance.

Biggest Disappointment: Los Angeles - It looks like the attempt to become Yankees west by buying up as many expensive free agents as possible is not working out well, not when Josh Hamilton is eking out a .229/.289/.422 line and $200 million man Albert Pujols is only marginally better at .252/.329/.435, and the pair have combined for exactly as many home runs as Cabrera (29). Not quite the return on investment Arte Moreno expected for the $237 million he will be paying this pair through 2017. And the rest of the offense apart from Trout and Howie Kendrick (sort of) has not exactly picked up the slack, with only those two accounting for an OPS above .800. And if this team can't hit its way into contention, it's probably not going to pitch its way there; Jered Weaver's early-season broken left arm exposed the lack of depth that the Halos' rotation has. Joe Blanton is second on the team in innings pitched, and sports a 5.40 ERA and 1.523 WHIP in an extreme pitcher's park with two of the best defensive outfielders in baseball behind him. Tommy Hanson's nine starts haven't been any better, and if you dig any deeper, you only come up with the likes of Jerome Williams (4.16 ERA, 1.308 WHIP in eleven starts). With a weak farm system, there isn't much the Angels can do except cross their fingers and hope that a) Weaver and C.J. Wilson stay healthy and effective, and b) that the rest of the lineup gives Trout some more (and more consistent) support.**

**Note: I chose not to write about the Royals' struggles hitting the baseball because I cannot hope to do it as well as Joe Posnanski. Please read up on that if you have not yet.

Biggest All-Star Snub: Evan Longoria - With apologies to Josh Donaldson (the logical choice for a second Oakland player), Longoria is the best player for a second-place team, and recognizable enough star that he has been in multiple national TV commercials. If the point of an All-Star game is to highlight the game's stars, why are three generic middle relievers (and it will be four, thanks to the entire AL ballot for the "Last Man" being full of middle relievers) getting the nod over Longoria? It's just incredibly dumb.

Playoff Picture: Barring the end of days, the Tigers should hold off the pesky Indians and win the Central, because they simply have too much talent for the rest of that mediocre division to catch them. Oakland and Texas are well ahead in the West, and will likely fight to the end of the season for the division title. The East, meanwhile, still has all five teams thinking they can make it to the finish line, even if only two of them can. I would bet on Boston, which has quality starters, a lineup dotted with stars, and the ability to either call up or trade for more help. The Yankees have somehow hung around despite the most un-Yankee-like lineup you have ever seen, and even greatly diminished versions of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez figure to be massive upgrades over the likes of Jayson Nix and David Adams. Tampa Bay can never be counted out, especially if David Price can pitch anything like the 2012 version of himself and give their rotation a serious boost. But I think I'm going to go with Baltimore, which has upgraded from Freddy Garcia to Scott Feldman, gets Wei-Yin Chen back soon, and sports a lineup of guys squarely in their primes, plus one of the top three young talents in the game and only one black hole (second base, currently manned by the crap sandwich of Ryan Flaherty, Alexei Casilla, and a decrepit Brian Roberts).

Coming up next; the National League.