August 15, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Over the past week, Justin Upton has launched about 1,300 feet worth of home runs into the stratosphere while helping the Diamondbacks reel off six straight wins against the Astros and the Mets to take over first place in the NL West. The 23-year-old slugger has 10 homers since the All-Star break, tied for third in the majors, while the Snakes' overtaking of the Giants stands as the only major upheaval to the standings since the Midsummer Classic. At that recess, four of the divisions (all three in the AL plus the NL Central) featured leads of one game or less, with the widest division lead at 3.5 games and the NL Wild Card gap at four games. Now, just three races are closer than four games, and one Wild Card is practically sewn up, while the other is no closer than it was before.
What follows is a trip around the diamond to identify two players at each position (regardless of league) who have most helped their teams stay close, turn things around, or pull away since the All-Star break, plus the ramifications those performances carry as we head into the stretch run. Admittedly, we're in small-sample theater here, but the performances promise to be entertaining just the same. All stats are from the All-Star break through Saturday unless otherwise indicated.
Catcher: Mike Napoli, Rangers (.435 TAv, 1.5 WARP); Carlos Santana, Indians (.290 TAv, 1.1 WARP)
As for Santana, he started slowly this season, returning from knee surgery; through the end of May, he was hitting just .228/.358/.395—a decent combination of walks and power for a catcher but without many hits. Though short on walks lately, his .252/.314/.505 line since the break has provided some punch at a time when the Indians' offense is flagging; they're scoring just 4.07 runs since the break, down from 4.34 prior. What was a half-game deficit at the break is now two-and-a-half; the Tribe needs all the help it can get to avoid fading away.
First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals (.323TAv, 1.2 WARP); Freddie Freeman, Braves (.325TAv, 1.0 WARP)
As for Pujols, he hit "just" .280/.357/.500 prior to the break and missed 15 days due to a wrist fracture, so it rates as at least somewhat reassuring that he's bashing at a .309/.344/.650clip with a 11 homers in the second half; Sunday night's blast broke a tie with Upton and J.J. Hardy. Sure, you'd like to see more walks, but he's back in the NL lead for homers, so at least some things are right with the world. Were it not for his surge, the Cardinals might be even more buried than they are; they've fallen 5.5 games since the break.
Second Base: Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (.360TAv, 1.7 WARP); Dan Uggla, Braves (.386TAv, 1.4 WARP)
Meanwhile, Uggla's 33-game hitting streak came to an end on Sunday, but what a remarkable run it was. The 31-year-old was hitting .173/.241/.327 after going hitless on July 4, and not long after that, he earned a well-deserved spot on the Replacement Level Killers. Five weeks later, he's reeled off the longest hitting streak in five years, having hit .377/.438/.762 with 15 homers during the streak, including an MLB-high 12 since the break. His overall numbers (.232/.300/.453) still stink, but the Braves can feel a lot better about the production they can expect from him going forward.
Also worthy of mention: the Indians' Jason Kipnis, who has hit .279/.347/.603 with six homers in 75 plate appearances (the minimum I used for a cutoff) since being recalled on July 22, good for a .331 TAv and 0.4 WARP.
Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians (.315TAv, 1.3 WARP); Yuniesky Betancourt, Brewers (.329TAv, 0.9 WARP)
The much-maligned Betancourt—the major league leader in malignment in 2008-2009, when he was a combined 2.0 wins below replacement level in almost 1,200 plate appearances—was the poison pill in last winter's Zack Greinke trade. Worse, he spent the first half poisoning a Brewers' offense that was all too reliant upon just a few bats, hitting a putrid .237/.255/.342. Thanks to a .393 BABIP, he's batting a searing .374/.390/.566 in the second half with a True Average on par with teammates Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder (.331 and .325 since the break, respectively), and he's helped the Brewers open up a 5.5 game lead on the Cardinals. The hot streak won't last, but the division lead might.
Third Base: Ryan Roberts, Diamondbacks (.350TAv, 1.8 WARP); Pablo Sandoval, Giants (.329TAv, 0.8 WARP)
Meanwhile, Sandoval has lately been just about the only player pulling his weight—or hitting it—in the Giants' lineup. Through Saturday, he was batting .327/.377/.554 with six homers since the break, while the rest of the team was flailing and failing at a .222/.268/.318 clip, which explains why they were averaging just 2.8 runs per game before Sunday's five-run outburst.
Left Field: Ryan Braun, Brewers (.331TAv, 1.3 WARP); Matt Holliday, Cardinals (.315TAv, 1.5 WARP)
Center Field: Curtis Granderson, Yankees (.336TAv, 1.8 WARP); Jacoby Ellsbury Red Sox (.345TAv, 1.7 WARP)
Meanwhile, the speedy Ellsbury has added a jolt of power to his game as well. He has slugged .700 in August and is hitting .315/.351/.573 with nine homers since the break; his 20 homers overall not only represent a career high but equal the total he had hit in 1,510 PA from 2007-2010 (shades of Asdrubal Cabrera). Ellsbury ranks second only to Bautista in WARP among AL hitters, thanks in large part to a 16-run edge on Granderson based upon defense; FRAA likes his work (+5.9) but dislikes that of his pinstriped counterpart (-10), and other systems agree; the latter's shallow positioning and adjacency to speedy Brett Gardner may be cutting into his chances afield.
Right Field: Justin Upton, Diamondbacks (.372TAv, 1.5 WARP); Nick Swisher, Yankees (.314TAv, 1.7 WARP)
After suffering through a frigid first two months (.213/.335/.314 with three homers), Swisher caught fire (.324/.421/.575 with 11 homers) in June and July. While he's cooled off in August, he's tied for fourth in the majors in value since the All-Star break—a good time to pitch in, given Alex Rodriguez's absence and Mark Teixeira's uneven performance.
Designated Hitter: Michael Young, Rangers (.339 TAv, 1.2 WARP); David Ortiz, Red Sox (.321TAv, 1.1 WARP)