Manager of the Year: In mid-May we noted that the Diamondbacks had survived the worst of it. Randy Johnson was going to be out until the All-Star Break, but Byung-Hyun Kim was about to come off the DL, Curt Schilling was back in the rotation and had thrown two consecutive complete-game shutouts, and Brandon Webb was coming on like a guaranteed Rookie of the Year. We were wrong. It has gotten worse. Since then, Kim has been traded, Schilling has broken his hand, and Webb spent a couple of weeks out of the rotation nursing a tender elbow.
No one could have expected the Diamondbacks to be where they are without Johnson and Schilling. No one could have expected Arizona’s minor league system to keep a team in the playoff race. Bob Brenly has held his team together with nothing but a supply of unprepossessing Sidewinders. Mike Koplove, Oscar Villarreal, Eddie Oropesa, Steve Randolph, and Jose Valverde. This assemblage of utility relievers ranks third in the league in terms of the support its bullpen has given the rotation. Johnson and Schilling were the thunder and lightning that placed the rotation among the three best in baseball. Without them, the Diamondbacks have had to rely on Miguel Batista, Elmer Dessens, Webb and Andrew Good. The rotation ranks second in the NL for Support-Neutral winning percentage.
The luck has gotten worse, but the team has played better. They’re on an eight-game winning streak and if luck evens out over time, Arizona’s going to the playoffs. Obviously, Brenly’s team has been snakebit by injuries. Even the balls are bouncing against them. Other than Pittsburgh, they have had the unluckiest pitching in the league. In mid-May they were 19-21, with a Pythagorean record of 21-19. They were seven games behind the Giants. As of Thursday morning their record is 41-36, one game worse than their expected record of 42-35, and they have shaved two games off the Giants’ lead.
Star Performer: The Diamondbacks’ troika of utility rookies. Bad luck struck the lineup too. Kim was traded for Shea Hillenbrand on May 29 to give the offense some punch, but after only eight games with the club he went on the DL. On June 14, Junior Spivey ripped up his ankle. He isn’t expected back for another few weeks. Tucson came to Brenly’s rescue again. He has been using Robby Hammock, Alex Cintron, and Matt Kata to shore up the holes at second and third.
Hammock has hit .310/.342/.563 as a fill-in at catcher, third, and the outfield. Baseball America rated Cintron as Arizona’s top prospect a couple of years ago, but dropped him down to number 26 this year after a couple of stagnant minor league seasons. He hit .213/.322/.293 in 38 games with the Diamondbacks last year, but something went right over the winter. In 37 games this season, he has hit .319/.360/.565.
Formerly viewed as their shortstop of the future, Cintron has moved into a utility role, shuttling between short, second, and third. During Hillenbrand’s absence, Cintron and Hammock have shared third base duties. When Spivey went down, Kata got called up. Not on the prospect lists, Kata’s tenure as the organization’s next second baseman was expected to last only as long as it took Scott Hairston to get another few hundred at-bats at El Paso. But since his call-up, Kata’s hit .310/.412/.621. It’s only been nine games, but whatever he can to do to keep the offense puffing along until Johnson, Schilling, Hillenbrand, and Spivey return will give him a legitimate claim on a roster spot next spring.
With this crew, the Diamondbacks are still within striking distance of first. With all due respect to the job Jim Tracy is doing–again–with a crappy roster, Bob Brenly has been the NL’s magician of the year so far.
Kansas City Royals
Pennant Fever: Six weeks ago, as the Royals headed into the toughest portion of their schedule, we wrote in this space: “If the Royals are still in first place on June 22nd, you can start taking their playoff aspirations seriously.”
You can start taking their playoff aspirations seriously.
After falling as much as five games behind the Twins, and briefly dipping under .500 on June 5th, the Royals have won 12 of their last 17 games and are back at the top of the AL Central.
And the schedule, which has been their biggest foe over the past month-and-a-half, is now their friend. Starting with Tuesday’s game against the Indians, the final 90 games of the Royals’ season involves just 25 games against teams currently over .500.
Of course, part of their schedule’s weakness is a product of the division they play in, an advantage similarly enjoyed by the Twins. Here is how the two teams’ schedules break down from today on:
# of games KC Minnesota Cleveland 11 19 Detroit 14 13 Chicago 13 11 Anaheim 9 9 Texas 9 9 Seattle 4 2 Oakland 2 4 Tampa Bay 7 0 Baltimore 0 7 New York 6 0 St. Louis 3 0 Milwaukee 0 3
(The Royals and Twins also play nine games head-to-head.)
The Royals have two extra games against the Mariners, and two fewer against the A’s. However, they have seven games against the Devil Rays while the Twins have seven against Baltimore. Overall, this favors the Royals very slightly, but when you factor in the Royals’ three game series against St. Louis this weekend–while the Twins take on Milwaukee–it’s a wash at best.
However, where the Twins have eight extra games against the lowly Tribe, the Royals have one extra game each against Detroit, a pair against the White Sox–and six against the Yankees. This tips the scales in the Twins favor; as favorable as the Royals’ schedule is, the Twins have it even easier.
Overall, the average winning percentage of Royals’ opponents the rest of the way is .436. For the Twins, it’s .427. So despite facing a schedule significantly easier than the one they have fought through to this point, the Royals can’t afford to be complacent at all.
The shame of it is that this pennant race could be decided against the dregs of the division. Thanks to poor planning by the league’s schedules–hey, who figured a Royals-Twins matchup would be so important?–these two teams last meet on August 24th. Yet they each finish the season with an identical mix of games: six against Cleveland, seven against Chicago, and seven against Detroit.
Celebrity Deathmatch, Part II: Four weeks ago, we compared Royals’ rookie shortstop Angel Berroa with the man he was essentially traded for, Mark Ellis. At that time, the comparison did not flatter Berroa, who trailed in OPS, 725 to 693, and had committed 13 errors in 45 games.
A lot has changed in a month. Berroa has hit .338/.386/.662 in June, with six doubles, two triples, and five homers in 77 at-bats. In doing so, not only has he zipped past Ellis on the production scale, he has passed a rookie hitter with far more airplay:
Player AVG OBP SLG Angel Berroa .282 .342 .468 Rocco Baldelli .313 .343 .458
Now consider that Berroa is a shortstop, albeit still an error-prone one, and it’s pretty clear who’s the better Rookie of the Year candidate at this point.
Amazing Game: Thanks to a downpour in New York last Saturday, Fox treated many
viewers in the eastern half of the country to a phenominal 13-inning
game between the Red Sox and the Phillies. What was most notable about
the game was how it reflected a lot of the Phillies season to date.
The game featured strong starting pitching, with Randy Wolf keeping the Phillies in the game against Pedro Martinez. He pitched relatively deep into the game, making into the seventh inning allowing only two runs. Aside from Brandon Duckworth, Phillies starters have regularly gone far into their
starts this season, to the point where the designated long relievers–first Joe Roa and then Hector Mercado–have been ridiculously underused. On Saturday Wolf was helped by some strong defense, with Placido Polanco starting a difficult double play. For the season, the Phillies are third in the National League in terms of Defensive
Efficiency, far above average. Once Wolf left the game, the bullpen was
as inconsistent as usual. Turk Wendell and
Rheal Cormier, written off by many (including us) are
among the top
10 relievers in the majors these days and on Saturday both managed
to work their way out of jams without any runs scoring.
In contrast, Jose Mesa has been horrendous for most of the season,
and once again he was ineffective, giving up three runs in two innings
worth of work. The fact that he got the win demonstrates how
meaningless the stat is, but more troublesome for the Phillies, the
fact that he was their last pitcher moves him one step closer to the 55
games finished he needs to have his option year for next year
automatically picked up.
The offense was similarly inconsistent. While plenty of credit has to
go to Martinez for the way he pitched, the Phillies were far too eager
to swing at early pitches which were nowhere near the strike zone.
While that’s a bad approach in any circumstance it’s especially
problematic when facing a pitcher who everyone knows is going to be a
strict pitch count. On the other hand, the lineup does feature plenty
of potential pop, as shown by Bobby Abreu‘s homer,
Jim Thome‘s pair of moonshots, and
Todd‘s game winning pinch hit homer that snuck over the
center field fence.
Put it all together and what do you get? Well at least for this one
game, a highly entertaining combination. Games like this are far more
effective as marketing the sport than any of the bizarre gimmicks Fox
has come up with and they should be savored when they come along.
Upcoming Schedule: Once today’s game against the Braves is over, the Phillies will have concluded a grueling 22-game stretch (down from 24 thanks to rain)
where every game was against a team whose record at the time was over
.500, although Anaheim and Cincinnati have since slipped slightly below
even. So far over that stretch they have gone 12-9, which is impressive considering that two-thirds of those games have been against
teams with winning percentages over .570. What they have done is to
hold their own against some of the strongest teams in the majors.
Over the next month they face a considerably less potent schedule where the
best record belongs to the Montreal Expos, who are substantially less
potent than the likes of the Mariners and the Braves. While the Braves
are fairly far in front of the Phillies for the division lead, this
part of the schedule represents a chance to put the team right in the
middle of the wild card race.