Thursday, July 11, 2013

National League Mid-Season Review

Well, we covered the American League in this space earlier today, so it's time to do a review of the National League before the break for the Midsummer Classic. Is the National League starting to overtake the American? After years of dominance in interleague play and at the All-Star game, the senior circuit is starting to close the gap, and has been producing more young talent, particularly over the past year-plus. And that has shaken things up in the National League, too. Just over halfway through the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have the second-best record in the league, the defending champion Giants are falling apart at the seams, and the consensus choice for best team in the league has been incredibly mediocre. But not everything has changed; the Marlins are still terrible. So who and what has been the best of the National League?

Best Hitter: Carlos Gonzalez - This is not nearly as obvious a choice as in the American League; Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Buster Posey, and David Wright all have strong cases. But Gonzalez has narrowed the gap between his production at Coors and away, and is hitting .302/.367/.613 thus far with a league-leading 24 home runs and 15 steals in 16 tries. He is a big part of the reason why the Rockies look something like a real baseball team again this year after an abysmal 2012 campaign. CarGo's teammate, Michael Cuddyer, is second in the league in OPS but loses 174 points away from Denver. Goldschmidt, Votto, Posey, and Wright are the next four in the league standings. Goldschmidt in particular is intriguing because he came out of virtually nowhere and just keeps getting better, with improvements every year in both his slash line and his counting stats. Also, he's only in his age-25 season.

Best All-Around Player: Yadier Molina - Molina wins this by a nose over Votto. Both are superior defenders, but Votto is a first baseman, and Molina is the best defensive catcher in baseball. That creates a gap that Votto's bat can't quite make up. Once upon a time, you could malign Molina's very average offensive production, but he has worked and worked at it, and this season is hitting .343/.388/.485 in addition to handling the Cardinals' staff and shutting down opposing would-be base-stealers. The 30-year-old Molina is arguably the most important piece of the team with the best record in the National League, and as long as his current knee injury doesn't turn into something more serious, he should be strongly in the mix for his first MVP award at the end of the season.

Best Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw - The National League is absolutely loaded with great starters, but Kershaw is a cut above the rest. He's second in the league in punchouts with 129 (Matt Harvey leads the league with 147) while showing off a 1.89 ERA and 0.904 WHIP, which are numbers worthy of Pedro Martinez. Kershaw is in his sixth major league season, but is just one year older than Harvey. Translation; he might still be getting better, which is a frightening proposition. Hell, he's doing what he's doing this season despite his lowest strikeout rate since his rookie campaign of 2008 (8.39 per nine innings). So it's entirely possible that Kershaw could put on a second-half charge and obliterate the rest of the league. If not, there are almost a dozen other guys who could garner serious Cy Young support: Harvey, Adam Wainwright, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin, Jeff Locke, Gio Gonzalez, and Madison Bumgarner foremost among them.

Best Story: Yasiel Puig - This is the most obvious category in the league. What is there left to be said? Puig gathered some momentum when the Dodgers plunked down $42 million for him, and ever since he got called up he has been terrorizing pitchers and base runners alike, hitting .394/.428/.634 with eight home runs in his first month in the majors. Puig was a mortal lock to win the NL vote for the "Last Man" on the All-Star team until Freddie Freeman beat him, which would have been great for the game, despite whatever garbage bitter veterans like Jonathan Papelbon say. I just hope that "Yasiel Puig" doesn't turn out to be Spanish for "Jeff Francoeur," given that in some respects they are very similar: free swinging hackers with cannon arms and almost no eye for the strike zone (Puig has only 6 unintentional walks against 35 strikeouts). Even if he won't hit .400 all season, he will be a fascinating story on perhaps baseball's most fascinating team in 2013.

Best Rookie: Shelby Miller - It wouldn't be fair to give Puig a repeat appearance here when a) he's been in the bigs for a month and b) the National League rookie crop has four excellent pitchers. Miller gets the nod over Jose Fernandez, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Julio Teheran mainly because he's struck out more batters (112 vs. 99, 93, and 91 respectively). He has emerged as the second-best pitcher on a deep staff for the best team in the National League, with a 2.92 ERA and 1.118 WHIP in 112 innings.

Biggest Surprise: Pittsburgh - Although they've had hot starts the past two seasons, only to fizzle down the stretch and sink below .500, this season looks different. For one, they're currently 54-36, which means they would have to go 26-46 the rest of the way in order to finish under .500 yet again, a finish that would be worse than cellar-dwelling Miami's record thus far. Their offense has improved greatly, with all of their current regulars except Clint Barmes at or above league average in OPS. Pedro Alvarez is hitting home runs, Andrew McCutchen has recovered from a slow start to hit .303/.376/.465, and Starling Marte has seized the everyday job in left field, hitting .289/.339/.458. Gerrit Cole recently made his long-awaited debut and has pitched well for a rookie in his six starts, and Jeff Locke has turned into an unexpected ace. Finally, 36-year-old Jason Grilli is proving that having a Proven Closer (TM) is complete bunk, striking out 61 batters in 38 innings and racking up 28 saves (he had 5 previously in his career). Watch out for the Buccos!

Biggest Disappointment: Washington - The rest of the league must still be high-fiving each other with the Nationals hovering around .500 over halfway through the season. The organization didn't make many friends throughout baseball after shutting down Strasburg last season because they were sure of being in contention far into the future, and then going public with a "World Series or bust" proclamation before spring training. Yes, there have been injuries, and last year's kid glove handling of Strasburg looks strange next to the decision to try and push Bryce Harper through a bout of bursitis, perhaps exacerbating the ailment and costing the Nats their best player for a month. Likewise, Danny Espinosa attempted to play through a shoulder injury, which resulted in him being the worst everyday player in the majors (a brutal .158/.193/.272 in 44 games) until the team mercifully sent him to Syracuse and installed polished rookie Anthony Rendon (.303/.354/.461) in his place. Last year's bench stars (Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, and Steve Lombardozzi) have all come down with a serious case of regression-itis, Ryan Zimmerman is just getting back to full strength after off-season shoulder surgery (which should result in fewer throwing errors), and the regular lineup (minus Espinosa) is finally playing together again for the first time since April after injuries knocked out Harper, Jayson Werth, and Wilson Ramos for long stretches. Good pitching has kept the Nationals afloat, although this year's fill-in starter, Dan Haren, has been an utter disaster, with a 6.00 ERA and 19 home runs allowed.* Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann, however, have been excellent across the board, in particular Zimmermann, who still doesn't strike out a ton of guys but pounds the strike zone and induces weak contact. The bullpen has also been strong, especially now that Fernando Abad has replaced Zach Duke as the token lefty. The Nats still may have a 20-5 run in them that would lock up a playoff spot, but thus far have been unable to keep anything going consistently, and so they must currently rank as a disappointment.

*What would give first, Haren or the Royals' punchless lineup?

Biggest All-Star Snub: Stephen Strasburg - Tough call over Miller, but Strasburg has some of the brightest star wattage in all of baseball, and isn't that what this game is all about? Strasburg's 5-6 record obscures a 2.45 ERA and the usual excellent peripherals (with the caveat that he has been struggling to get lefties out much more than usual this season). Just four times in seventeen starts has Strasburg given up more than two earned runs, and Davey Johnson has even let him pitch into the eighth inning on two occasions (the first two of his career).

Playoff Picture: The Cardinals have the record, talent, and past history all screaming that they are something close to a lock for October. As detailed above, the Pirates look safer every day, but they also have to contend with Cincinnati not far behind them. Atlanta currently sits atop the East, but after that 12-1 start they have been as uninspiring as the Nationals behind them. As for the West, anything is possible, with all five teams within six and a half games of each other. Look a little closer, however, and you will see that San Francisco's pitching has fallen apart, and that San Diego just isn't that good yet, so it probably boils down to a three-team race between Arizona, Los Angeles, and Colorado. I'm going to go ahead and guess that even if Puig stops hitting like Rogers Hornsby, the Dodgers will eventually claim the division. A final five of St. Louis/Cincinnati/Atlanta/Washington/Los Angeles is what I will go on the record with.

Enjoy the break, everybody!