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July 3, 2013

On the Beat

Bucking the Losing Trend

by John Perrotto

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The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has become baseball’s parallel universe. On the western side of the state in Pittsburgh, the Pirates look like serious contenders for their first post-season berth—and winning season—since 1992. On the eastern side, the Phillies appear destined to miss the playoffs for a second straight season since winning five straight National League East titles from 2007-11.

The initial reaction is to think the Pirates are flukes. After all, this is a franchise that has often been out of contention by Memorial Day over the past two decades. Yet on the eve of Independence Day, the Pirates’ 51-31 record is the best in the major leagues, and they take offense when people suggest that being 20 games over .500 is fluky.

“Everything that these guys have done has been earned,” said right-hander Charlie Morton, who rejoined the team in middle of June after starting the season on the disabled list while recovering from Tommy John surgery. “I don't see it as 'things are going our way,' or 'we're catching all the breaks.' I see a team that's fighting for every inch and earning every win. I wouldn't classify it as luck. I wouldn't because that would be selling them short about what they've done so far."

The Pirates’ record has been built on pitching and defense, as they are second in the major leagues in runs allowed with an average of 3.40 a game. That has made up for a lackluster offense, which ranks 10th in the NL and 21st in the major leagues; the Pirates are scoring 3.95 runs a game.

The Pirates’ bullpen, in particular, has been outstanding. Closer Jason Grilli has a 0.81 FIP and a 1.26 Fair Run Average, and set-up man Mark Melancon is at 1.58 and 2.15. Six relievers combined to pitch 12 scoreless innings Sunday in a 2-1 win over the Brewers in 14 innings after Morton was forced from the game after two innings because of a lengthy rain delay.

“I feel like they all throw 110,” Brewers left fielder Logan Schafer said. “They've all got good stuff. They know what they're doing, they locate for the most part. They're pretty effective at getting ahead in counts, and I think that's big on their end. “

The Pirates, though, haven’t started scouting opponents for potential postseason matchups just yet. They led the NL Central in July each of the last two seasons but folded both years, going a combined 37-78 from August 1 on. They were 16 games over .500 on August 8 last season at 63-47, but they went 16-36 the rest of the way to finish 79-83.

"We're in a good spot, a good place we want to be, but we've got to keep it going,” first baseman Garrett Jones said. “We’re not celebrating anything yet."

Conversely, Philadelphia isn’t in mourning at this point. However, the Phillies also know the reality of their situation is that more than half of their season is over, yet they are four games under .500 at 40-44, 9 ½ games behind the Braves in the NL East and eight games in back of the Reds for the second NL wild card. The Phillies could be sellers at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline for the second straight season; they dealt center fielder Shane Victorino, right fielder Hunter Pence, and right-hander Joe Blanton last July.

“We need to go on a winning streak or go on a stretch where we win 12 of 16 or something like that,” Manuel said. “That’s what we’ve been lacking. We haven’t played good baseball with any consistency. We’ve been way too inconsistent. That’s the way I kind of look at it.”

When asked prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Pirates at PNC Park what he felt the Phillies needed to do in order to start winning with more consistency, Manuel said some of the members of a young bullpen in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon needed to start pitching better and that the Phillies needed more production from first baseman Ryan Howard, who has a .280 True Average and has contributed just 0.6 WARP.

Manuel proved prophetic for at least one night. Rookie right-hander Justin DeFratus got the biggest out of the Phillies’ 3-1 victory when he came on and struck out Jordy Mercer with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning to preserve a two-run lead. Howard had two hits, including breaking a 0-for-22 slump by singling in the game’s first run in the sixth inning. Yet, games like that have more than the exception than the norm for the Phillies this season.

“There’s still time for us to turn it around but time is starting to run short,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro said. “If we’re going to do it, then we need to start doing it pretty soon.”

---

Here are my picks for the All-Star Game that will be played July 16 at Citi Field in New York. Per MLB rules, each team is represented by at least one player. Unlike MLB, I choose my outfielders by position. Sabermetrics factored heavy into the picks, which is only right, since this site is based heavily on advanced statistical study. If you don’t like my choices, feel free to blame VORP, WARP or any other acronym of your choice. Statistics are through Monday’s games.

AL STARTERS

1B-Chris Davis, Orioles (.380 TAv, 4.6 WARP): It has all come together for the big man in 2013.

2B-Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (.295 2.9): Playing like the Pedey of old now that John Farrell is manager.

3B-Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (.378, 4.9): Davis is likely the only man to keep him from back-to-back Triple Crowns.

SS-Jhonny Peralta, Tigers (.294, 2.5): Lost weight in the winter, and it has paid off in the spring and summer.

C-Joe Mauer, Twins (.305, 2.8): Now back to being the pre-injury Joe Mauer.

LF-Alex Gordon, Royals (.277, 1.9): Cooled off after a hot start but is still the best at his position.

CF-Mike Trout, Angels (.353, 5.2): A Hall of Famer in the making.

RF-Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (.298, 1.6): Joey Bats has been steady through a tumultuous season north of the border.

DH-David Ortiz, Red Sox (.317, 2.2): Once again, he is the best at his position.

SP-Chris Sale, White Sox (2.89 FIP, 2.3 WARP): His 5-7 record is solely the result of playing for a borderline horrible team.

AL RESERVES

1B-Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays; 2B-Jason Kipnis, Indians; 3B-Josh Donaldson, Athletics; 3B-Manny Machado, Orioles; 3B-Evan Longoria, Rays; SS-Jed Lowrie, Athletics; C-Jason Castro, Astros; C-Carlos Santana, Indians; LF-Nate McLouth, Orioles; CF-Brett Gardner, Yankees; RF-Alex Rios, White Sox; DH-Kendrys Morales, Mariners

SP-Clay Buchholz, Red Sox; SP-Yu Darvish, Rangers; SP-Felix Hernandez, Mariners; SP-Derek Holland, Rangers; SP-Anibal Sanchez, Tigers; SP-Max Scherzer, Tigers; RP-Brett Cecil, Blue Jays; RP-Jesse Crain, White Sox; RP-Greg Holland, Royals; RP-Joe Nathan, Rangers; RP-Robbie Ross, Rangers; RP-Drew Smyly, Tigers

NL STARTERS

1B-Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (.323 TAv, 3.8 WARP): I’m still an old-school holdout when it comes to the importance of RBI, and this guy drives in a ton of runs.

2B-Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (.313, 3.4): Has made a seamless conversion from a four-corner player to a middle infielder.

3B-David Wright, Mets (.325, 4.1): Fitting that the face of the franchise will be a starter in Flushing.

SS-Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (.326, 3.0): Still one of the best all-round players in the game when he can stay healthy.

C-Buster Posey, Giants (.330, 3.3): You can debate the defending NL MVP and Yadier Molina for superiority at this position into infinity.

LF-Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (.304, 2.3): A return to health has brought a return to All-Star form.

CF-Carlos Gomez, Brewers (.308, 2.8): Has become the player everyone expected so many years ago.

RF-Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks (.287, 3.0): Pretty good first half for a guy who came to spring training as excess baggage in his team’s outfield.

P-Matt Harvey, Mets (1.96 FIP, 3.0 WARP): He gives Mets’ fans hope that they are seeing the second coming of Tom Seaver.

NL RESERVES

1B-Joey Votto, Reds; 2B-Chase Utley, Phillies; 3B-Pedro Alvarez, Pirates; SS-Everth Cabrera, Padres; SS-Jean Segura, Brewers; C-Yadier Molina, Cardinals; LF-Starling Marte, Pirates; CF-Shin-Soo Choo, Reds; RF-Hunter Pence, Giants; OF-Jay Bruce, Reds; OF-Marcell Ozuna, Marlins

SP-Homer Bailey, Reds; SP-Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers; SP-Mat Latos, Reds; SP-Cliff Lee, Phillies; SP-Jeff Samardzija, Cubs; SP-Adam Wainwright, Cardinals; SP-Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; RP-Rex Brothers, Rockies; RP-Jason Grilli, Pirates; RP-Criag Kimbrel, Braves; RP-Mark Melancon, Pirates; RP-Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals

---

Scouts’ views:

Orioles right-hander Scott Feldman: “He pitched well for the Cubs, but don’t expect him to have the same results in the American League. Pitching in the AL East is a lot tougher than pitching in the National League. He’ll be OK, but he’s not the top-of-the-rotation guy that the Orioles need to be a serious threat to win it all.”

Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez: “Buyer beware for anyone trying to trade for him. He’s having a really hard time driving the ball, and you can tell the knee injury that kept him out early in the season is still bothering him.”

White Sox reliever Jesse Crain: “He’s having a heckuva year, but he’s never really had to pitch in many pressure situations in his career. I don’t know how he would react if you made him the eighth-inning guy on a team in contention. He might be great, but the lack of a track record would make me hesitate.”

Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro: “If I needed a catcher, I’d trade for him. He’s really matured as a hitter and behind the plate. I think going back to the minor leagues really opened his eyes.”

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley: “He’s not a superstar anymore because age and the knee problems have caught up to him. He’s still an above-average player, though, and he could help someone if the Phillies decide to trade him.”

Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez: “I’d be very wary trading for him if I were a contender. I don’t think he has a whole lot left in the tank.”

Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum: “He’s to the point where he is going to have to accept that his stuff isn’t what it used to be and make the conversion to reliever. His stuff starts to deteriorate real quickly in games. He needs to be used in short stints where he can just air it out for an inning or two.”

Padres right-hander Edinson Volquez: “The Padres are in contention and need pitching yet they are willing to trade him. What’s that tell you?”

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

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