September 2, 2010
Dog Day Aftermath
During the marathon baseball season, the month of August can often be thought of as the league’s Sorting Hat—a time when the playoff contenders separate themselves from the pretenders and position themselves for September’s sprint to the finish. As Baseball Prospectus' John Perrotto has been documenting each week, the playoff races have recently taken on a much clearer shape, with the Yankees, Rays, Twins, Rangers, Braves, Reds, and Padres becoming prohibitive favorites, and the Phillies a better-than-even bet to fill out the post-season dance card. As thrilling as the September race to the wire can (and hopefully will) be, a team’s performance in the dog days of August—after the trade deadline, before roster expansion—can often cement a team’s playoff ambitions as time slowly ticks away on the rivals chasing them.
Now that the calendar has turned to September, and the kids are back in school (or being called up for a cup of coffee), it’s a natural time to paraphrase David Byrne and ask the eternal question: “Well, how did we get here?” What happened to teams, and players, last month to either vault them into the lead or see them fall back into the pack? To get some idea, I’ve compiled the chart below that lists each American League team and its August record, along with its runs scored and allowed both for the month and for the season (through August 31).
Here’s how these August results affected the 2010 playoff races:
AL East: Baseball’s strongest division flexed its collective muscles last month, as each team finished the month above .500. Behind new manager Buck Showalter and a pitching staff that allowed almost 1.5 fewer runs per game than their seasonal rate, the formerly downtrodden Orioles jumped off the mat faster than Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell to post the division’s best record, while the rest of the division pretty much treaded water. The playoff-bound Yankees and Rays remain locked in a meaningless embrace atop the league—exactly the sort of non-race decried by critics of the wild-card format—while the injury-plagued Red Sox lost a little ground and a lot of time, reducing their chances of getting into the show to roughly those of a miracling late-era Deadhead. Boston’s usually dominant offense scored 0.79 fewer runs per game in August than their season-long average, reflecting the loss of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, et al.
AL Central: The Twins posted the league’s best August record and extended their lead on the White Sox by 4 1/2 games, dropping Chicago’s playoff odds to around 10 percent. However, on a run differential basis, the South Siders actually had a better month than Minnesota. Chicago’s oft-maligned offense came alive, leading the AL in scoring, and their starters posted a solid 3.97 ERA, but injuries to J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton and ineffectiveness by the rest of the bullpen led to six blown saves, seven bullpen losses and a collective bullpen RA (calculated like ERA, but including unearned runs) of 5.15 in August, compared to 4.17 for the season. Booking “The Manny Show” for a five-week run at the Ozzie Guillen Playhouse is guaranteed to entertain and will likely help, but sorting out their bullpen mess may be even more critical to keeping Chicago’s guttering playoff hopes alive.
AL West: A case of creeping lethargy overcame the league’s short stack during August, as a listless Texas squad merely watched the calendar flip while maintaining its large divisional lead. The Rangers’ offense sputtered while the starting staff, other than C.J. Wilson (4-0, 2.36 RA for the month) struggled—fans in Arlington certainly expected more from Cliff Lee than his 1-4, 6.98 RA August line. With a playoff berth more or less salted away, the Rangers will need to spend September getting their rotation back in order.
Here are August’s National League numbers:
NL East: The Braves and Phillies spent August watching their divisional rivals fade in the rearview mirror, and while Philadelphia still trails the Braves it has still vaulted to the front of the wild-card pack. The starting quartet of Roy Oswalt (1.53 RA for the month), Roy Halladay (2.51), Cole Hamels (2.79), and Joe Blanton (2.81) have lately been the NL’s best rotation and should strike fear in the heart of any playoff opponent, though the Phillies’ offense has continued to scuffle, posting a .241/.312/.355 line for August. Conversely, the Braves’ offense is clicking on all cylinders, scoring 5.45 runs per game in August. New York entered the month only 6 1/2 games back in the division, but its hapless .233/.303/.329 batting line and 2.82 runs scored per August game ensured another winter of discontent for Mets fans.
NL Central: Much like the AL Central race, the Reds have blown past their divisional rival in St. Louis, but their run differential for the month wasn’t significantly better. The Cardinals’ offense, buoyed by Albert Pujols and his .379/.453/.777 August (a batting line that Walt Berkman would pretentiously describe as “Pujolsesque”), was solid if inconsistent last month but, like their White Sox counterparts, the team suffered a bullpen collapse: St. Louis relievers posted a 5.78 RA in August, compared to 3.90 for the season. The Cardinals' month ended with an ignominious 2-7 record on the road against the weak-sister Pirates, Nationals and Astros that dropped their playoff odds below 20 percent. Meanwhile, the Reds used monster months from Jay Bruce (.333/.409/.667) and Joey Votto (.333/.423/.600) to slug their way to baseball’s best August record and a near lock on the division.
NL West: While the Padres added to their small divisional lead and the Rockies have overcome a non-CarGo offensive slump to stay in the hunt, the big story here is the August collapse of Tim Lincecum (0-5, 8.25 RA) and Barry Zito (0-4, 7.76 RA). Despite solid contributions from Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain and the pen, San Francisco’s staff RA was 5.53 in August, raising the season total to 4.03. The re-animated Pat Burrell (.267/.376/.556) and Pablo Sandoval (.312/.348/.560) has kept the offense afloat, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome a pitching staff giving up a full run per August game above their season average. The Giants still have a shot, but will only go as far as their pitching (this means you, Tiny Tim) will take them.
Here are the top individual performers last month, presented with little comment:
Jose Bautista’s seasonal 355 Isolated Slugging is the highest since Barry Bonds’ .450 in 2004, and the highest non-Bonds score since Jim Thome’s .373 in 2002. Daric Barton has finally started to flash a smidgen of power—if he can get into the low double-digits, he can be a useful Mark Grace type. Kosuke Fukudome’s seasonal numbers (.274/.379/.456) don’t look that bad—because of the big contract, perhaps he’s become underrated.
I’m guessing both the Diamondbacks and White Sox have been happy with the Edwin Jackson / Dan Hudson trade, since each got exactly what they wanted. And if I were asked to make a list of the 10 best starting pitchers in 2013, I’d seriously consider including Jeremy Hellickson.