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September 7, 2009

Prospectus Today

Making a Run?

by Joe Sheehan

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From what I was saying on Sunday:

That's what we might be in for this month; the Rockies and Giants, perhaps the Rangers, and the tiny chance that a division leader will stumble or that a second-place team will go 2007 Rockies or 2007 Phillies on the league.

Which invites the question: What team could go 2007 Rockies (winning 14 of their last 15 to win the Wild Card) or 2007 Phillies (winning 13 of their last 17 to win the NL East) to climb from well out of the races to the playoffs? Those two teams each had the common thread that they did one thing better than anyone else in the league. For the Rockies, it was defense; that year's Rockies were the best defensive team in the NL as measured by Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. For the Phillies, it was their offense, the best in the NL by Equivalent Average.

A team that does one thing better than everyone else seems, intuitively, like a strong candidate to make that kind of run. If you're already the best at one element of the game, you only need to bring the rest of the team up to par or so to have a big advantage. It's comparable to how having a roster with stars and scrubs is easier to upgrade than a roster with a bunch of slightly above-average players. The Phillies' bullpen pitched out of its mind down the stretch that season, helping the team allow just four runs a game over its final 17 contests. Added to that league-leading offense, it was a recipe for a long stretch of wins. Similarly, the Rockies scored at least six runs in 10 of their final 15 games, pairing that with run prevention driven by that great defense. So in looking for teams that could do the same this year, I want to find teams with the best units in the game and see if any of those teams swim in the pool of fringe contenders.

While that's not hard to do, it leads to answers so counterintuitive that the mind recoils. For example, the Braves have the second-best rotation in baseball as measured by Support-Neutral Value, a couple of ticks behind the Giants'. I might argue that the Braves' rotation is, on balance, better than that of the Giants; the Giants have the top two starters in the league in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, but also have been using Joe Martinez, Ryan Sadowski, and now Brad Penny in their fifth-starter's slot. As good as Barry Zito has been relative to expectations, he'd be the seventh-best starter for the Braves. In fact, since calling up Tommy Hanson on June 7, the Braves have gotten exactly one start-by Kris Medlen-from a below-average pitcher. With that kind of rotation, one giving you at least an average performance every single night, the Braves seem like a terrific sleeper candidate for a strong September push.

Then again, the Braves just scored four runs in three games-at home-against the Cincinnati Reds. I've been pimping their shot at the postseason all year long, but after watching most of the weekend series, it's hard to sit here and point to them as a candidate for Rockiedom. The numbers don't lie-their rotation is great, and we're looking for teams with that one great element-but when they're seven games out and hitting like the Padres, even I'm off that bandwagon. Maybe.

Then there are the Rays, who have the second-best offense in the American League, and who spent much of the season as the team with the best third-order record in baseball. (The Braves, by the way, lead the NL East by third-order record. And you wonder why people think statheads don't watch the games.) The Rays are also a tough horse to back, because they've lost eight of their last 11, with the bullpen taking the loss in five of those eight. Joe Maddon has been changing pitchers at a historic rate lately, trying to find the effectiveness he found in last season's group, and it hasn't come. Rays relievers took the loss in all three games of the team's weekend sweep at the hands of the Tigers, including in yesterday's nightmarish 5-3 defeat in which the Rays were up 3-1 heading into the ninth and used five pitchers to get three outs. As ugly as they've looked, you have to acknowledge that the Rays do one thing better-hit-than almost any team in the game. That makes them a threat, just like the Phillies were a threat. Maybe.

Looking further off the board, you find that the Mariners have the best rotation in the AL by Support-Neutral Value, the third-best bullpen by WXRL, and the best defense by PADE. There are some interrelationships there, but essentially, it's a run-prevention juggernaut. It doesn't seem right for a team starting Ian Snell, Luke French, and Doug Fister to have those kinds of numbers, and in fact what you're seeing here is the leftover impact of Jarrod Washburn (5.1 SNLVAR) and Erik Bedard (3.0) on the rotation's cumulative stats. The bullpen is a bit more real, as David Aardsma has arrived five years late and both Mark Lowe and Sean White have been effective. The legitimately strong defense is the team's claim to an '07 Rockies parallel. The Mariners are eight games back in the wild-card race and have a horrific offense, but if you were going to craft a storyline, you could build one around a month of amazing defense, effective pitching, and some kind of Ken Griffey Jr. time warp. The Mariners prevent runs well enough to support that kind of dream.

The other superior unit here is the Brewers, who have the best offense in the NL. At 10 games back in the wild-card race, they're well off the radar, and would realistically need to go something like 21-5 or 22-4 to have a chance. That is, of course, worse by percentage than what the Rockies did a couple of years ago, albeit over two more weeks of baseball. What's amazing here is that the Brewers have that NL-leading EqA despite playing the year with a six-man offense. Brewers catchers, "led" by Jason Kendall, have batted all of .242/.336/.313; Brewers' shortstops, mostly the disappointing J.J. Hardy, have hit .237/.301/.356. Mid-season replacements Casey McGehee and Felipe Lopez have joined Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun to make this unit an offensive juggernaut. The Brewers seem like a candidate to make a run that falls short, like the 2005 Indians, who went 17-2 in cutting eight games off the White Sox' AL Central lead before losing six of their last seven.

So, is there a miracle out there to be realized? The Braves have the pitching but no offense, the Rays have the offense but no bullpen, the Mariners are like the Braves but more extreme, and the Brewers are like the Rays but much further back. This seems like the pool of likely candidates-the Twins are the other team I looked at, despite their not fitting the theme-and as ridiculous as it sounds, I can't help but be drawn back to that Braves' rotation. They have no bad starting pitchers. Their entire rotation, six men, would start ahead of that of at least four teams, and maybe a couple of others. They don't need a ton of runs to win, and there's enough of an core here that they should be scoring more runs. Just walking away from Garret Anderson-the decision to sign Anderson instead of Adam Dunn is the defining mistake of their season-would be a huge help. Even without that, the Braves are the team most likely to ride a wave of great run prevention, like the 2007 Rockies did, to October. The Mariners are the other.

Similarly, the Rays have more than enough pitching talent on hand to support their offense, especially with Wade Davis now on hand. Their bullpen is worn down, but still filled with live arms who can get batters out. They're in roughly the same spot the Phillies were two years ago, and if any team is going to leverage a top-tier lineup with improved relief work to make a miracle happen, it's the Rays. The Brewers' offense demands notice, but the team's deficit in the standings likely leaves them too far out for them to become a story.

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

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