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September 21, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Incredibly Strange Races That Stopped Stagnating and Became Mixed-Up Zombies

by Jay Jaffe

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Two weeks ago, I shoveled dirt on the 2011 playoff races and braced for a comparatively dull September full of little more than teams jockeying for position as fans and writers debated award candidates and the inevitable, interminable would-you-rather-face questions. Through the results of September 7, the day my article ran, our Playoff Odds report showed eight teams with at least a 90 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and three more between one and 10 percent. Based upon personnel, run differentials, schedules, and historical probabilities, there was roughly a 1-in-6 chance somebody would upset the applecart.

Like zombies, a few races have risen from their graves and are now staggering around awkwardly, threatening to upend what we thought was the natural order. The casualty count is still undetermined, but in the hinterlands of New England and Georgia, pessimistic souls are hoarding rations, nailing boards to their windows, and stocking up on ammunition in preparation for the worst. Here's how the Playoff Odds changed from September 7 to September 19 (the records inclusive of those dates):

Team

Sept. 7

Sept. 19

Change

Phillies*

100.0

100.0

0.0

Yankees

100.0

100.0

0.0

Brewers

99.9

99.9

0.0

Red Sox

99.9

87.8

-12.1

Tigers*

99.3

100.0

0.7

Braves

97.2

80.7

-16.5

Diamondbacks

96.6

99.6

3.0

Rangers

90.2

99.3

9.1

Angels

9.8

1.1

-8.7

Giants

4.2

3.8

-0.4

Cardinals

2.1

16.0

13.9

White Soxx

0.7

0.0

-0.7

Rays

0.1

11.8

11.7

*Clinched Division
x-Eliminated

The odds of six different teams have moved by about nine percentage points, with two of those teams' chances increasing by orders of magnitude. Collectively, the field's upstarts now have about a 1-in-3 chance of crashing the party. Just what in the name of George Romero is going on?

AL Wild Card
The Red Sox entered September with the best record in the AL at 83-52, which means that since their 2-10 start, they had played .658 ball—a 107-win pace—over nearly three-quarters of the season. They led the Yankees by a game and a half and the Rays by nine. Their lineup was on the verge of becoming whole, with Kevin Youkilis and J.D Drew both amid rehab assignments, while deadline acquisition Erik Bedard had done a solid job of patching the rotation through his first five turns.

Since then, Boston's September has been the stuff of New England nightmares. They began the month much as they began the season, losing nine out of 11, including three to the Rays in Tampa Bay. An 18-run outburst against the Blue Jays on September 13 calmed some nerves, but they turned around and dropped five out of six, including three out of four to the Rays, before another 18-run outburst, this time in the nightcap of Monday's doubleheader against the Orioles, restored some order. Including Tuesday night's loss to Baltimore, they've fallen six games behind the Yankees in the AL East standings and are just two games ahead of the Rays in the wild card thanks to a 5-15 September record.

Injuries have been a huge factor for the Sox. Drew suffered a broken finger and has yet to return, while Youkilis, who had missed two weeks with lower back tightness, was discovered to have bursitis in his left hip as well as a sports hernia; since returning, he's hit just .167/.302/.222 in 43 plate appearances. Those problems pale in comparison to the rotation, which has turned into Disasterpiece Theater. Already down Daisuke Matsuzaka (Tommy John surgery in May) and Clay Buchholz (a stress fracture in his back in mid-June), their rotation became even more depleted once the most minor injuries hit. Josh Beckett left his September 5 start with an ankle sprain and missed a turn. Bedard was scratched due to recurrent knee soreness; pitching through it caused a strained latissimus dorsi as well. Fill-ins Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, and Tim Wakefield have been ill-equipped to pick up the slack, and John Lackey has been beaten like a very expensive rented mule. Through Monday, the starters had posted a 6.87 September ERA, with unsightly walk and homer rates (4.5 and 1.3 per nine, respectively) and an average of just 4.75 innings per turn. Worse, they had delivered just three quality starts out of 19, compared to seven disaster starts (three by Lackey, two by Weiland)—and those stats don't include Bedard's unsightly 2 2/3-inning, four-run start in his return to action on Tuesday. The kicker is that the team has thus far refused to stretch out swingman Alfredo Aceves, who has started four times among his 50 appearances and 105 innings; after Weiland was chased in the opener of Monday's doubleheader, David Ortiz began openly lobbying for such a move. 

As for the Rays, they looked to be playing out the string when they didn't make a major move at the July 31 deadline, when they were just 56-51, and they were still seven-and-a-half games out of the wild card when September began. Since then, they've gone 11-6, including 6-1 against Boston, and went into Tuesday's game having allowed just 3.59 runs per game this month while scoring a robust 4.88. Even so, the performances have been uneven; since delivering 10 quality starts out of 11 from September 2-13, the Rays starters haven't managed one in their last six turns (including Tuesday). Meanwhile, the offense is hitting just .226/.324/.371, with Evan Longoria (.310/.461/.603) and B.J. Upton (.311/.408/.557) the only notably hot hitters. One can certainly make an argument that the Rays would be in better position had they been more aggressive with their promotions of Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore as well as other potential moves, perhaps by as much as three wins.

As noted before, the Red Sox held a considerable advantage when it comes to the remaining schedule, with seven of their final 10 games coming against the Orioles, while the Rays play seven of 10 against the Yankees; going into Tuesday's games, the weighted average record of Boston's remaining opponents was 75-77, while that of Tampa Bay's was 87-65. Still, the Orioles have been no pushovers lately, going 10-10 in September against the Rays, Yankees, Angels, and Red Sox, including taking two of the first three games of their current series.

NL Wild Card
While the Rays' run and the Sox' sag has been the majors' biggest story in recent weeks, the Cardinals' sudden rebound and the Braves' coinciding slide has flown beneath the radar. On September 7, Atlanta (82-60) held a six-and-a-half game lead on St. Louis (76-67), but through Monday, the Braves had lost seven out of 12 while the Cardinals had won eight out of 10, cutting the lead to two-and-a-half games. Counting back to September 1, the Cardinals (12-5 this month) have gained six games on the Braves (7-12).

For Atlanta, the main problem has been pitching; with Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson on the sidelines, they have resorted to starting three rookies (Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, and Randall Delgado) down the stretch, with Julio Teheran taking a spot start in a doubleheader as well. As strong as those youngsters have been over the course of the season, they haven't been able to provide length due to pitch count and innings cap concerns, and with eight starts in that 12-game span, that's a problem. None of the tyros has lasted six innings in any of those starts, and with uneven performances from Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, the team has just one quality start in that span. That in turn has further taxed a bullpen that manager Fredi Gonzalez has ridden hard all season. Through Monday, 23-year-old rookie closer Craig Kimbrel had 77 appearances (second in the league), including 10 in September; two of the three homers he has yielded this year have come in his last two outings, the latter Monday night's walk-off homer by Omar Infante. Though he leads the league in saves with 45, he's up to seven blown saves, two in the past 10 days. Jonny Venters, who leads the league with 82 appearances, took the loss the night before by surrendering two eighth-inning runs to the Mets via two hits and three walks. He has now walked eight hitters in his 10 September appearances totaling 9 1/3 innings. Not good.

As for the Cardinals, they've been getting outstanding starting pitching all month. The rotation has posted a 2.72 ERA in September, with Kyle Lohse's 1.40 and Jake Westbrook's 3.07 representing the extremes. The peripherals back that strong performance; the unit's 7.1 strikeouts per nine are a season high, they're yielding 0.7 homers per nine (with none of the five above 1.0) and walking 2.1 (with three-fifths below 2.0). That translates to innings (6.23 per start, with only three starts lasting less than six innings) and 12 quality starts out of 17. The bullpen has been shakier, with a 4.59 ERA this month due to a swollen homer rate (1.5 per nine), but only twice have they blown a save, and they recovered to win one of those games. Meanwhile, though the offense hasn't been blowing anyone away at 4.35 runs per game, Lance Berkman (.397/.478/.534), Albert Pujols (.394/.440/.636), John Jay (.362/.383/.552) and Rafael Furcal (.299/.382/.507) have been tearing the cover off the ball. Matt Holliday is battling a finger injury, but fill-in Allen Craig has hit a searing .307/.354/.517 this season, and on Sunday bopped two homers in a win against the Phillies.

In all, the Cardinals are seven games over .500 this month despite outscoring opponents by just nine runs, an unsustainable clip. They're 4-2 in one-run games (compared to 19-20 prior), and 5-0 in two-run games (compared to 14-14 prior). They retain some hope because they have a cupcake schedule the rest of the way; the Mets, Cubs, and Astros have a weighted average record of 63-89, while Atlanta's opponents (the Phillies, Marlins, and Nationals) are at 82-69. The gap between the two schedules is probably closer than that because the Phils have clinched and can be counted upon to rest their regulars; Ryan Howard has started just two of six games since they popped the bubbly. Still, Atlanta's injuries and fatigue have opened the door, and St. Louis is playing well enough that they just might squeeze through it.

NL West/Wild Card
I'm including this one among the undead simply because the Giants went into Tuesday night having won eight straight to push their September record to 11-5. The Diamondbacks have barely budged, going 11-6 since the calendar turned, trimming just half a game off their lead; their magic number to clinch is now four.

Indeed, the change in the two teams' Playoff Odds owes much more to San Francisco having cut their wild-card deficit from 7.5 games on September 7 to 3.5 games through Monday:

Date

Div

WC

Tot

Sept. 7

3.5

0.8

4.2

Sept. 19

0.6

3.2

3.8

Before anyone starts running out to place bets on the defending world champions sneaking into the playoffs, note that their record this month owes to a 9-1 mark against the Padres and Rockies, two teams now a combined 35 games below .500. Meanwhile, they've gone 2-4 against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, who are a combined 24 games above .500 (all of them 'Zona's). The Giants' remaining slate comes down to Colorado, LA, and Arizona, with a weighted average record of 78-74, easier than that of the Braves, but harder than that of the Cardinals. In addition, you can chalk up San Francisco's sudden pulse of offense to the past weekend's four-game sweep in Colorado; take that away and their September scoring rate drops from 5.06 runs per game to 3.83, and their run differential from +31 to +12. Don't be fooled.

 Tuesday night's slate wasn't terribly kind to the zombies. While the Red Sox lost to the Orioles after Jonathan Papelbon blew a long save by surrendering a bases-clearing double to Robert Andino, Tampa Bay fell to the Yankees as well, reducing Boston's magic number by one. The Cardinals beat the Mets, but the Braves also won, again whittling their magic number, and the Giants [TK] against the Dodgers in the Tim Lincecum/Clayton Kershaw matchup. The cumulative odds of one of these zombies crashing the party is thus slightly lower than calculated up top, but nonetheless, these teams have managed to keep things interesting later than we expected. Thank the undead for small favors.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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