I’m back from a nearly two-week European vacation that fell smack in the middle of the playoff hunt. News of distant pennant races trickled through on either end of my journey, but I was totally off the grid for a six-day period while hiking in the majestic Dolomites–no Internet, no newspapers, no TV, and the last thing my wife wanted to discuss when I called her from Rifugio Fanes at a $1 per minute clip was the status of the NL Wild Card hunt.

As such, I was mercifully spared the demise of my Dodgers. Discovering their seven-game losing streak upon returning was no more traumatic than being told that my goldfish died while I was at camp–no tears, just the accompanying solemnity of an imagined, unceremonious flush several thousand miles away. On the other hand, plugging in to discover the misdirected acrimony in the wake of their fade has my blood boiling. Along those lines, getting back into the swing of things isn’t easy; one can read the standings and the game reports for the handful of relevant teams, but two weeks is too long an absence to grasp the nuances of everything that’s gone down. Late rallies and bullpen meltdowns are most viscerally understood in real time or at most within one news cycle. To pick the most obvious example, the Mets had a seven-game lead in the NL East when I left, and even with their postseason odds falling below 90 percent after a huge loss on Wednesday, it was difficult for me to accept their shellshock until tuning in to Thursday night’s game, where if I closed my eyes, I could hear Roky Erickson strumming “I Walked with a Zombie” and know that he wasn’t singing about my jet lag.

So instead I’ll step back a bit and take a macro view. With the season finale of the Hit List on hold until the games actually end (tip of the cap to Marc Normandin for covering for me in my absence), I though it would be revealing to compile a Hit List based solely on second-half results, through Wednesday’s games. VoilĂ :

Rank Team   W-L   dif   HLF
 1   NYA   49-24  111  .628
 2   BOS   41-30  118  .627
 3   COL   42-28   96  .609
 4   PHI   42-28   67  .601
 5   CLE   42-28   49  .573
 6   ATL   36-33   77  .570
 7   NYN   39-32   31  .554
 8   TOR   38-33   42  .551
 9   ARI   41-27   11  .540
10   LAA   39-32   41  .538
11   CHN   39-32   30  .520
12   SDN   38-33   -1  .500
13   TEX   37-34   20  .499
14   WAS   36-35    7  .499
15   DET   35-38  -21  .493
16   LAN   31-38  -17  .492
17   TBA   31-40  -31  .480
18   CIN   35-35  -27  .471
19   MIL   32-38  -16  .467
20   MIN   32-38  -41  .459
21   OAK   31-40  -38  .450
22   SEA   35-38  -46  .449
23   SLN   34-39  -53  .448
24   SFN   32-41  -43  .441
25   KCA   30-40  -24  .439
26   HOU   31-38  -51  .432
27   FLO   26-43  -67  .431
28   PIT   28-42  -44  .425
29   CHA   30-42  -84  .420
30   BAL   29-42  -96  .396

It’s no surprise that the Yankees top this incremental list, given that their second-half record is the best in the majors by 5.5 games. The Bronx Bombers climbed to the second overall spot at the two-thirds mark of the season, and have destroyed opposing pitching at a clip of 6.45 runs per game since the All-Star break. After finishing the first half 7.6 wins below their third-order projection, they’re 5.4 above it in the second half, best in the AL and just 0.1 off from the Diamondbacks‘ continued defiance of gravity. If there’s bad news, it’s that they’re allowing 4.93 runs per game in the second half, something which bodes ill as they cobble together a postseason rotation that may include the injured Roger Clemens at the expense of Philip Hughes, despite Hughes finally appearing to have found his groove.

What’s surprising is that the Red Sox, though they’ve topped the overall list since early May, are wedged in just behind at the second slot here. After starting out 36-16 over the first two months, the Sox went just 44-39 over the next three, culminating with a three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees. But despite signs of wear in the rotation and the bullpen, and the 24-game absence of Manny Ramirez, they’ve gone 14-9 in September. Even in their down months, the Sox were actually outscoring opponents at a good clip (+95 runs from June-August), and for all of the problems with their pitching, they’ve allowed just 4.18 runs per game since the break while cranking out a beefy 5.85.

Climbing above the .600 mark in Hit List Factor are two latecomers to the playoff picture, the Phillies and Rockies. Amazingly,both have played themselves into contention with rotations that as September began could charitably be described as decimated. The former lacked Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, and for the most part Cole Hamels due to injuries, and have gotten pitiful stretch-drive performances from Adam Eaton (6.97 ERA) and Jamie Moyer (5.52). The latter lost Aaron Cook and Jason Hirsh for the year and have given critical September starts to Mark Redman, Elmer Dessens, Ubaldo Jimenez, and that cousin of yours who had to be reminded not to eat the paste.

We can see how several notional contenders sabotaged their chances by playing sub-.500 ball and being handily outscored in the second half, a dishonor roll that includes the Tigers, Dodgers, Brewers, Mariners, and Twins. With the exception of the Dodgers (-5.3 wins below their third-order projection, the second-largest shortfall in the half), their records are pretty solid representations of their recent quality of play; the Mariners are actually three games ahead of that projection, as if you thought things couldn’t get much worse for them. The Cubs haven’t been a whole lot better; they’re above .500 and atop the NL Central in part thanks to exceeding their third-order projection by 4.7 games, third-most in the majors.

The Diamondbacks are in a class by themselves. There’s plenty of appropriate hubbub about the fact that they may make the playoffs–possibly carrying the league’s best record–while also having a negative run differential, which would make them just the sixth team to do so. But they’ve been in the black since the break, and while they’ve spend most of the year ranked around 19th on the Hit List, they’re a top 10 team here.

Hope springs eternal among some of the also-rans. The Rangers have played above .500 and outscored the opposition handily since the break, though their Hit List factor is dragged down by sub-.500 showings in the second-order (run element) and third-order (quality of competition) departments. The Nationals are in the same boat, though to a slightly lesser extent. The Reds have been the second-best team in the woeful NL Central since the break because, well, somebody had to be, and the Devil Rays are several steps up from their usual basement dwelling. But the cake-takers for second half showing among those without a playoff prayer are the Blue Jays, who’ve allowed an MLB-best 3.89 runs per game in the second half; the Indians (3.96 runs per game) are the only other team below 4.00. I’ve created international incidents by berating the Jays for their lineup’s 750-OPS-flavored blandness, but the team’s ability to develop that most precious commodity, homegrown pitching talent, certainly bodes well for their future.

Finally, in the sub-basement of the standings, below even the pitiful Pirates and White Sox, are those scourges of the second half, the Orioles. They’re allowing 6.06 runs per game since the break-the Marlins (5.97) are the only other team above 5.60-though they apparently lead the league in towel-throwing.

September Heroes and Villians, National League

Sound the appropriate small-sample-size alerts if you must, rail against the lack of park adjustment in the raw stats, and chastise me for pulling out the cheat sheet. It’s still fun to pick over the pitching and hitting stretch-drive leaders and trailers among the contenders. Since the AL playoff picture has essentially been sewn up for the past few weeks, we’ll limit our focus to the NL teams who came into the second half of the month entertaining some hope of reaching the playoffs, with a 25-inning minimum for pitchers (stats through Thursday). Since there isn’t much middle ground between a top and bottom 10, we’ll just run the whole slate:

Pitcher           Team    IP     ERA    K9   BB9   HR9
Yovani Gallardo    MIL   33.0   1.36   8.5   3.0   0.3
Chad Billingsley   LAN   30.0   1.50   9.3   3.6   0.3
Carlos Villanueva  MIL   30.0   2.10   6.3   4.5   1.2
Pedro Martinez     NYN   28.0   2.57  10.3   2.3   0.0
Franklin Morales   COL   25.0   2.88   7.2   2.2   0.4
Jake Peavy         SDN   39.1   3.20   8.5   2.3   0.9
Josh Fogg          COL   27.2   3.25   5.9   4.2   0.3
John Smoltz        ATL   38.0   3.31   9.9   2.4   1.4
Tim Hudson         ATL   34.2   3.38   5.5   2.1   0.8
Jeff Suppan        MIL   31.1   3.45   5.7   2.3   0.6
Ted Lilly          CHN   31.2   3.69   7.7   1.4   1.1
Brad Penny         LAN   30.0   3.90   3.9   3.3   1.2
Tom Glavine        NYN   30.2   4.11   3.8   2.1   1.5
Kyle Kendrick      PHI   26.0   4.15   4.8   1.0   1.7
Brandon Webb       ARI   32.1   4.18   6.1   2.5   0.6
Carlos Zambrano    CHN   29.2   4.25   7.3   5.5   0.6
Chuck James        ATL   25.0   4.32   6.8   1.1   2.5
Jeff Francis       COL   31.2   4.55   7.7   3.4   1.1
Kyle Lohse         PHI   27.2   5.20   6.2   2.9   1.0
Jason Marquis      CHN   32.2   5.23   5.2   2.2   0.6
Doug Davis         ARI   25.1   5.33   7.8   3.9   1.1
Derek Lowe         LAN   27.1   5.93   8.6   4.6   1.7
Rich Hill          CHN   27.2   6.18   8.1   3.6   1.0
Chris Young        SDN   27.0   7.00   9.0   4.7   1.0

Even with last night’s loss, rookie Yovani Gallardo has risen to the occasion in impressive fashion amid the heat of the NL Central race. Teammate Carlos Villanueva, whose August bullpen fizzle (13 earned runs in a ghastly 8 1/3-inning stretch) played no small role in knocking the Brewers out of first place, but has likewise thrived since being pressed into rotation duty due to injuries. Pedro Martinez has been all the Mets could have reasonably hoped for, putting up a line that was close to vintage (7 7 3 2 1 8 on 105 pitches) on Thursday night, but getting zero help from his offense. Rookie Franklin Morales has come up huge for the Rockies, reeling off a string of 20 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings that’s played no small role in the team’s 11-game winning streak. Among fellow Rox, Josh Fogg appears to have outpitched Jeff Francis, but closer inspection shows the former has just two quality starts out of five, while the latter has four out of six, with his cumulative ERA distorted by an eight-run shellacking on September 13.

Towards the bottom of the scale, Chris Young’s troubles go deeper than this past month; since returning from back and oblique problems at the beginning of August, he’s put up an 6.33 ERA and just three quality starts out of nine. Likewise, Derek Lowe’s troubles run deeper than just September. Arguably, the worm turned on the Dodgers’ season when Lowe was shelled by the Mets on July 19, departing after just three innings. In tossing a rare inning of relief before his next start, Lowe tweaked his groin, and from there it was all downhill. By the next time he made it through six innings, the Dodgers had fallen from first place, 12 games above .500 to third place, three games above .500 and six behind the NL West leaders. Elsewhere, we see that Cub Rich Hill has run out of gas, while Jason Marquis has turned back into the guy who slogged through the Cardinals rotation last year with an unsightly ERA.

Turning to the hitting leaders and trailers, with a 75 plate appearance (AB+BB) minimum:

Player            Team   PA  HR    BA   OBP   SLG   OPS
Matt Holliday      COL   97  12  .356  .442  .816  1258
Prince Fielder     MIL  105  11  .349  .472  .767  1239
Chipper Jones      ATL   94   7  .388  .474  .725  1199
James Loney        LAN  106   8  .408  .453  .745  1198
Todd Helton        COL  111   4  .385  .478  .615  1092
Moises Alou        NYN  100   4  .417  .446  .646  1091
Kevin Kouzmanoff   SDN   95   3  .407  .474  .616  1091
Derrek Lee         CHN  107   6  .367  .436  .633  1069
David Wright       NYN  108   6  .337  .423  .621  1044
Alfonso Soriano    CHN  120  12  .298  .336  .693  1029
Ryan Braun         MIL   96   9  .312  .354  .667  1020
Rickie Weeks       MIL  110   8  .247  .420  .588  1008
Mark Teixeira      ATL  102   7  .326  .404  .598  1002
Garrett Atkins     COL  104   5  .372  .433  .564   997
Aramis Ramirez     CHN  105   8  .295  .374  .621   995
Kelly Johnson      ATL   78   1  .197  .275  .268   543
Ryan Theriot       CHC   99   0  .209  .270  .275   545
Mike Cameron       SDG   84   3  .139  .276  .278   554
Andruw Jones       ATL   90   2  .207  .277  .305   581
Brian Giles        SDG  110   4  .189  .300  .347   647
Jose Reyes         NYM  113   2  .216  .298  .353   651
Brian McCann       ATL   91   1  .253  .312  .349   661
Jacque Jones       CHC   78   0  .301  .342  .370   712
Carlos Ruiz        PHI   79   2  .250  .346  .368   713
Luis Castillo      NYM   98   0  .282  .374  .341   715
Geoff Blum         SDG   77   2  .254  .312  .408   720
Russell Martin     LAD   83   1  .270  .345  .378   724
Adrian Gonzalez    SDG  110   4  .243  .288  .437   725
Eric Byrnes        ARI   99   2  .269  .330  .398   728
Jeff Francoeur     ATL   99   2  .275  .337  .396   732

Matt Holliday’s case for an MVP vote starts here; he’s been hitting at an unreal clip this month while the Rox have made their surge, and he’s climbed to fourth in the league in VORP. That doesn’t mean he’ll walk off with the award, not when mainstream favorite Prince Fielder–who’s only seventh in VORP–has been nearly as hot while becoming the youngest player ever to reach 50 home runs in a season.

Fellow Brewer youngsters Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks have been en fuego as well. The former is making a strong Rookie of the Year case while blasting 33 homers in a shortened stint, though his defense (-17 FRAA) continues to be problematic, as last night’s loss showed. The latter has hit .273/.452/.523 since returning from a wrist injury in early August, providing a bittersweet “if only he’d been healthy all year” caveat to the Brew Crew’s NL Central hopes. Despite their fade, the Mets are getting strong work from another MVP candidate in David Wright (who’s second in VORP), not to mention a 30-game hitting streak (snapped on Thursday night) from 41-year-old Moises Alou.

On the other side of the coin, the Mets’ double-play combo rank among the trailers, though there’s a world of difference between Jose Reyes’ struggles and Luis Castillo’s characteristically limited contributions; his September OPS actually represents an improvement on the .277/.336/.327 performance he carried into the month. Four Braves have hobbled their team’s noble effort to stay afloat, with Kelly Johnson taking a bit of shine off an otherwise excellent campaign, and Andruw Jones providing a bitter ending to an already disappointing walk year, one that will cost him tens of millions in the free agent market. The Padres‘ outfield figures prominently here, with the unit’s last man standing, Brian Giles, accompanying now-injured Mike Cameron. Speaking of Giles, his absent brother Marcus figures prominently here with the presence of replacement mediocrity Geoff Blum, another player who’s actually hit better in September than before.

All of this reminds me that somewhere on my to-do list for an Unfiltered post is a context-adjusted ranking of the Carl Yastrzemski-flavored chart I ran in It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, showing the best September hitting performances of all time and accompanying the chapter excerpted here. Ranked simply by OPS, Yaz’s 1967 performance-.417/504/.760-is only 17th-best, but 14 of the players ahead of him come from the post-1993 era of inflated offense, distorting the relative values of those performances.
That’s a problem for another day, however. Right now I’m going to don my TiVo remote holster, boil some coffee, and prepare for what promises to be an exciting final weekend of the regular season. My picks? Mets, Padres, Rockies, Cubs, if you’re asking.