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September 5, 2013

The Lineup Card

Ten Things We'll Be Watching in September

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Miguel Cabrera's Health
There are plenty of auxiliary reasons to keep an eye on Cabrera's medical chart in the final sixth of the season. He has an outside shot of catching Chris Davis in the home run race to complete an unprecedented second consecutive triple crown, and that would obviously be hindered by injuries or the Tigers' need to rest him to avoid injuries. He also will be the AL MVP unless he misses a significant amount of time and Davis or Mike Trout goes absolutely bonkers, though this isn't a huge concern because voters clearly prefer his distribution of skills to that of the better challenger in Trout.

But the big thing is getting him healthy for the playoffs. The Tigers are close to locks to win their division and have been the favorites to win the pennant for most of the season. Things get dicey in October, though, without him. The scary part if you're a Tigers fan is that these aren't really fluke injuries. He wasn't hit by a pitch, he's not making entry into the annals of weird baseball injuries, these are wear and tear on a body that's been through a lot. He's been out this week with abdominal strain, and he's also missed time with a hip flexor strain lower back soreness, all since July 1. Those aren't wonderful signs and can tend to linger.

The Tigers should probably ignore the triple crown race and the MVP race and probably won't have much of a division race, and it will be worth watching to see just how much Cabrera plays down the stretch and how healthy and rested he is when October begins. —Zachary Levine

2. The Call-Ups
As a member of the BP prospect team, I often find myself watching and tracking young players as they break into the major leagues. Sure, it’s fun to watch the young talent get their feet wet and show the occasional flash of brilliance. That’s a large part of why I enjoy covering prospects and tracking their development. But when I write about a player––especially in front of a sizable audience like you, the BP readership––I don’t lose track of him and simply move on to the next player. I follow everyone I cover because I want to be accurate. For example, I’m rooting for Taijuan Walker to make my role 7 grade look good down the line. It’ll not only benefit my reputation, but more importantly, it’ll also give me a lesson on scouting and help sharpen my eye for evaluating talent.

Having said that, September is perhaps the best time to watch these young players at the highest level. Non-contending teams begin calling up players to prepare them for next season––like Seattle and Walker. On the other hand, we see supreme talents like Kevin Gausman, Xander Bogaerts, and Michael Wacha potentially making an impact on a pennant race. I’m able to turn on MLB.tv and find a handful of these players every night in September, and that’s entertainment at its best for someone like myself. By my count, 12 prospects in our mid-season top 50 list will be in the majors this month, including four of the top 10. As I’m writing this, Twitter is freaking out about something Billy Hamilton just did, so give the youngsters a look. You’ll probably enjoy it. —Jason Cole

3. Praying for Chaos
Okay, so we kinda know who the playoff teams in each league will be, and we're just waiting to figure out who will win the NL Central. So, is there no hope for some drama in September. Hardly! It takes a dark side to really hope for this, but...

Suppose that the Reds, Cardinals, and Pirates all finish with the same record and have a three-way tie atop the NL Central and with a record that would make one of them the NL Central champion and the other two the wild cards (which it already looks like will be the case.) There is an established procedure for handling a three-way tie, but the new wild card rules give an extra wrinkle to what might happen. In the first game in the ensuing sequence of tie-breaking games (Reds-Cardinals, just to pick two names out of a hat), let's say that game is a 50/50 shot. If you lose, you end up in the coin flip game... but you get a day off before it, because the winner plays the Pirates (who would have the previous day off) for the right to avoid being your coin flip game opponent (and the NL Central title). Even assuming that game is 50/50, there's a 75 percent chance if you're the Reds or Cardinals that you end up in the coin flip game. At that point, which sounds like the better path? Fighting through two straight days, one against a rested team, on the slim hope of avoiding the coin flip game, or accepting the coin flip game on your own terms. One of those first two teams could completely punt the first game (rest everyone important, send out a bare-bones skeleton crew... remember, 40-man rosters are still in effect!) and then effectively have two days off to prepare for a game against a team that had to play on the previous day or the previous two days. At some point, a tie of this nature is going to at least come close to happening and people will start doing some very uncomfortable math.

If each game is a 50/50 shot, then the Reds and Cardinals have a 62.5 percent of ending up in the division series. What are the probabilities in one game where a well-rested team, more likely to be able to start its ace on full rest, is matched up against a team that's been going max effort for two days and is likely to be starting its third starter or someone on short rest? —Russell A. Carleton

4. The Race to Avoid Chaos
As a reminder for those who slept through 2012, per last year’s rule changes there are now five playoff spots available in each league—three division winners and two wildcard spots—with the two wildcards meeting in a one-game playoff to advance to the divisional series. As of the start of last night’s action, the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Probabilities calculator at MLB.com afforded just five American teams greater than a 15% shot at a playoff spot, with none of those five teams possessing less than 70% odds. In the National League the picture seems even more certain, with five teams possessing a 98% or better shot at a postseason birth, and none of the remaining ten teams being given greater than 1% odds.

While the collection of playoff teams appear to be all but set, particularly in the National League, there remains a standings-based story worth checking-in on daily, and that is the three-team race for the NL Central title. This race hits a number of traditional storylines, including the recent champ looking to return to the playoffs (Cardinals), the contender with recent regular season success but early post-season exits (Reds), and the feel good team looking for its first post-season appearance in two decades and first World Series appearance in over three (Pirates).

Additionally, there are substantive ramifications for the two teams that fall short of the divisional title. Not only would those two teams have to jump through the extra hoop of a play-in game for the divisional series, they would in the proves have to burn a starter and, likely, bullpen arms before heading on the road to face a well-rested divisional winner at that winner’s number one starter. A close finish to the NL Central could conceivably result in the play-in game winner matching their number four starter against Clayton Kershaw on the road—not the way you’d prefer to start a five-game series.

At the time of this writing, the Reds trail the first place Pirates by three and a half games, and the Cardinals by a game and a half after taking the first two of a four game series with the Redbirds. Eleven of the final twenty-five days of the season will feature two of these three teams going head-to-head, with the Cards and Pirates meeting this weekend for their last showdown of the regular season, and the Pirates and Reds matching-up for six of the last nine games of the season. Though much of the playoff excitement appears to be lacking from September baseball this year, MLB fans would be wise to turn their attention to what could be an intriguing home stretch for the NL Central leaders. I know that’s where I’ll be looking. —Nick J. Faleris

5. Those Scrappy, Unsinkable Yankees
This season, the Yankees have gotten a combined 116 games and less than one WARP out of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, and Curtis Granderson, a quintet that is costing them over $96 million. The average age of their position players (31.8) is higher than the age of any current Astros position player except Cody Clark, and—in related news—they’ve lost more days due to injury than any team but Toronto. CC Sabathia has a 4.86 ERA. Phil Hughes, who also has a 4.86 ERA, has been demoted to the bullpen. Vernon Wells has hit .226/.266/.315 in over 300 post-April plate appearances. Also, Vernon Wells has had over 300 post-April plate appearances. The Yankees have cobbled together lousy lineups with names you’ve never heard of and names you thought you’d never hear again.

Even off the field and on the farm, the news has mostly been bad: Ownership has overruled or dictated some of Brian Cashman’s moves, many of the team’s top prospects have taken steps back, and the suspended-but-still-playing third baseman has spent most of the second half of the season on the back page of the Post and in open revolt against management. Yet despite all the adversity, New York is still only 2.5 games behind Tampa Bay in both the AL East and the race for final Wild Card spot. Along with the Indians, they’re the best hope we have of a playoff race upset in September.

The Yankees’ success isn’t powered by puppies and rainbows. Yes, they’ve outplayed their Pythagorean record with a little luck, a strong back of the bullpen, and a 23-14 record in one-run games. But they also have by far the league’s highest payroll, which means that even when they’ve had several highly paid players missing significant time, they’ve had several highly paid players healthy.

The franchise’s deep pockets, and its almost uninterrupted string of playoff appearances over the past two decades, makes it difficult to spin the 2013 team as a sympathetic story. But if Sam Miller could make the case that the Yankees were uplifting and inspirational last season, we should all want to watch them now. Don’t tell me you’re tired of seeing Mariano Rivera pitch in the postseason. —Ben Lindbergh

6. Another No-Hitter
If given sufficient capital to start a business, I would found a casino that offered just one type of bet: predict the next pitcher to throw a no-hitter. All pitchers would be about 100-to-1 odds at best. Nobody would ever win. I’d be either a gazillionaire or a poor man. But it would be a thrill.

This is brought up because we haven’t had many no-nos this year. This year there been just two no-hitters: Homer Bailey Tim Lincecum, thrown 11 days apart in July. From 2010-12, there was an average of over five no-hitters thrown per season, including five perfect games, and never fewer than three no-hitters in a season. Perhaps it was the golden age, but pitching is everywhere these days, it seems, with the strikeout more prevalent than ever. And if I had to wager a random bet: two gold coins on Wade Miley. —Matt Sussman

7. From the Minors, to the Postseason Spotlight
In 2002, it was K-Rod for Anaheim. In 1998, it was Ricky Ledee in the Bronx. Every now and then, a kid comes up from Triple-A in mid-season (or much later, as in Francisco Rodriguez's case with the Angels in September '02) and makes himself indispensable to the big-league club for the post-season, during which he proceeds to make a deep impact. Down the stretch, it's exciting to see if some young talent will rise up through the ranks, adding playoff strength to a team almost in the manner of a late-season trade. There are a number of intriguing candidates, but I'll be keeping an eye on the Tigers' Nick Castellanos, not least because because Detroit has a healthy division lead and can afford to give the 21-year-old outfielder ample audition time. —Adam Sobsey

8. The Race for the Unqualified Batting Title
It’s September and all eyes are on the standings and the stats page. We’re wondering who will make the playoffs (even if most of it is a foregone conclusion) and we’re wondering who will win the awards. Growing up, winning the batting title was maybe the biggest accomplishment for a player, at least through my adolescent eyes. Now we know a bit more about player value (thanks, BP!), but the batting title is still a thing. Last year, Miguel Cabrera won it in the AL by hitting .330 and Buster Posey won the NL title by hitting .336. But here’s the thing: they didn’t really win it.

They didn’t?

Nope. The guys with the highest batting average in the National League were Aneury Rodriguez and David Hernandez. Seriously. Both hit 1.000, which you’ll agree is higher than .33whatever. Oh sure, you can start yapping at me about sample sizes and “qualifying” and whatever else you kill-joys want to yap about, but I’m not listening because I know bigger batting averages are better batting averages.

This year Cabrera is again getting press for hitting .355. Big deal. J.R. Murphy is hitting 1.000, and last time I checked (which was grade school), is much, much higher. In the National League Corey Brown and Zach Duke are each hitting 1.000 leaving Braves third baseman Chris Johnson’s .331 in the dust. IN THE DUST, SON.

But, oh! If Duke, Murphy, or Brown has to bat between now and the end of the season, his batting title will be on the line! If Murphy bats again and doesn’t get a hit, his average will drop 500 points and he’ll fall behind Josmil Pinto of the Twins who is hitting .667 but is 6-for-9 on the season. The intrigue!

So you ask me what I’ll be watching the rest of the regular season? Like you, I’ll be watching the standings, and the race for the awards, but mostly I’ll be watching the one race that matters: the race for the batting title, the REAL batting title. —Matthew Kory

9. Mike Scioscia's Pythagorean Defiance
On the final day of the 2012 season, the Angels lost 12-0, which capped a lost season but which otherwise didn't seem to matter. Except that, with the 12-run loss, the Angels managed to lower their pythagorean win total to 88.498. Or, rounded, to 88. If they had scored one more run, or allowed one fewer, their pythagorean record would have rounded up to 89 wins. Which is how many games they actually won. Which would have ended Mike Scioscia's streak of beating his run differential, which is now a sort of incredible nine years long.

Run differentials aren't nearly the final say in analysis, so there's no real reason to care about this, except that it's curious and it upsets the natural order. That gives us two options: Figure out how Scioscia does it, or root against him doing it, unexplained, forever. The second option is much easier! This year seems like the year to snap his streak. The Angels have won 64 games; they "should" have won 66. It'll be hard for them to beat this; a series of one-run wins, a bunch of ugly blowouts. I'm not putting it past them; them suckers have done it before. —Sam Miller

10. The American League Rookie of the Year Race
It was clear that we had been spoiled by Mike Trout’s historic rookie season. No player from the 2013 rookie class was going to come close to even sniffing Trout’s 2012 campaign, but the group as a whole has held its own, particularly in the National League. Yasiel Puig versus Jose Fernandez will be a heated debate for the NL Rookie of the Year, while Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller, and Hyun-Jin Ryu have all turned in fine rookie seasons.

The tone in the junior circuit is much different, as the dearth of rookie breakouts is considerably more pronounced. The current leader in WARP among AL rookies is … Nick Franklin. The shortage of AL ROY options stems largely from the lack of full-time regulars, as J.B. Shuck is the only rookie-eligible player to total more than 400 PAs.

Jose Iglesias is in the discussion simply because of his hot start with Boston and his propensity for churning out highlight-reel plays. Detroit’s mid-season acquisition is hitting an empty .319 through 341 plate appearances and has become a fixture on Baseball Tonight thanks to his entry for defensive play of the year.

If there was ever a season for a mid-season call up such as Wil Myers to win the award, it would have been this year. A month ago, it appeared that Myers was on his way to lapping the competition, but he has since cooled off, hitting .235 with four home runs since the start of August.

Cody Allen and Danny Farquhar are tops among AL rookie pitchers in WARP, while the only starting pitchers with double-digit starts and an ERA under 4.00 are Chris Archer and Martin Perez. Archer’s 3.14 ERA and 1.12 WHIP leave him as the best bet among the hurlers to take home the award.

The Rays duo of Archer and Myers are the likely co-favorites with less than a month to go, but nobody has exactly broken away from the pack. This is an award that can easily be won with a strong September. —Chris Mosch

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Reworking WARP: The Un... (09/05)
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