- September Schedule: The Astros exited the weekend with a two-game lead in the division with two weeks left to play. The Houston faithful no doubt assume they’ll be able to hang onto the lead for the final two weeks, but what are the odds?
Baseball Prospectus’ Post-Season Odds report says their odds are about 50/50. After all, this is still a division where simply being over .500 makes you a contender, and the year-long “dogfight” is more the result of the teams’ collective dysfunction than any sort of parity the commish would want to tell you about. As such, it ain’t over until the fat lady signs, though for the Cardinals she may have come out for a round of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ as Houston swept them over the weekend to knock St. Louis 5.5 games back.
The Astros’ two-game lead over the Cubs has been built through a strong September showing. In all, Houston’s 10-3 this month, and has yet to lose more than one game in a series. With upcoming trips into Colorado and St. Louis, then finishing out the season against San Francisco and Milwaukee, it’s entirely possible the team could keep that trend up, especially if the Giants go to “rest for the playoffs” mode when the Astros come to town.
- September Sluggers: The big change has been in the offense. The Astros’ September team OPS has been more than 100 points better than its overall total. Conversely, the pitching staff’s ERA has held steady in the 3.8’s.
Richard Hidalgo has led the charge, having easily his best month of the year with a 1400 OPS. Jeff Kent is healthy again and back to his 1000-OPS ways. Other outliers include Geoff Blum, who’s over 1000 (and actually outplaying Morgan Ensberg for a change), and even Brad Ausmus, who’s almost cracked that elusive 700 barrier.
When faced with a jump like that, the first thought is to wonder whether it’s a fluke or if the surge is for real. There are three basic litmus tests to apply in these situations:
- Have a Lot of Home (or Away) Games Helped? Juiced-Up Field typically plays like a big hitter’s park, and the Astros have outscored their opponents by 90 runs at home in 2003, as opposed to 30 on the road. (The pitching staff’s ERA split is actually even.) However, the first 10 games of the month came on the road.
- Has the Schedule Featured Bad Pitching? The Astros have generally faced some cushy staffs this month, but did score 19 runs in three games at Chavez Ravine.
- Have any Scrubs Been Replaced by Real Players? The Astros are essentially playing with the same squad as they have the rest of the year. Blum’s spike has been handy, but Lance Berkman has canceled that, sinking to the 800 OPS level.
The first and second considerations roughly cancel each other out, so all in all, it looks like a bunch of hitters heating up at the same time. If they can carry that momentum into October, they should be able to hold the Cubbies off, and might actually be able to escape the first round of the playoffs for a change.
- Welcome Back: Roy Oswalt, Saturday, Sept. 13: 7 IP, 0 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 8 K, 94 pitches.
- Feast to Famine: Earlier in the year, we pointed out that the A’s had a wealth of outfielders, playing well at the time, and lamented the difficult decisions manager Ken Macha would face when trying to decide which three of these six players to start. Despite the departures of Adam Piatt and Dave McCarty, Ken Macha still faces that same dilemma, only now the choices have soured considerably. Looking at the Oakland outfield’s pre- and post-All-Star break numbers, it’s clear that a once well-performing group has lost some of its pop.
Player Pre-All Star Post-All Star Billy McMillon .283/.397/.415 .250/.330/.475 Jose Guillen .337/.389/.616 .265/.315/.458 Terrence Long .251/.300/.405 .239/.278/.369 Chris Singleton .279/.323/.388 .195/.269/.274 Eric Byrnes .299/.366/.515 .160/.190/.321 Jermaine Dye .160/.235/.227 .212/.333/.333
Nick Swisher can’t get to town soon enough. Since coming over from Cincinnati, Jose Guillen hasn’t provided the power that was expected after his sudden rise to stardom on the wings of three hot months. Jermaine Dye has only had 33 AB since returning to the team earlier this month, so it’s difficult to foresee the odds on him recovering his lost season with some late heroics. Everyone else has regressed to the Mendoza line. After hot starts, Terrence Long, Chris Singleton, and Eric Byrnes have all completely collapsed in the second half.
What’s really staggering about the performance of the outfielders is the fact that despite them, the A’s are enjoying their usual second-half revival. Taking a look at the rest of the A’s lineup, we can see two figures clearly standing above the rest.
Player Pre-All Star Post-All Star Miguel Tejada .245/.298/.427 .324/.388/.535 Eric Chavez .257/.328/.474 .315/.381/.562 Erubiel Durazo .276/.400/.447 .232/.338/.411 Mark Ellis .256/.330/.385 .253/.310/.374 Scott Hatteberg .259/.341/.380 .244/.340/.389 Ramon Hernandez .262/.322/.447 .260/.326/.462
The only improvement in the offense has been the revival of Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada. With Oakland’s two biggest bats looming larger, the A’s have averaged 5.0 R/G, up from 4.6 in the first half. The A’s second-half offensive improvement can be attributed almost exclusively to the left side of the infield, a performance that has overshadowed the decline of the rest of the lineup.
- Life on the Black: Lest the offense get all the credit, it’s worth noting that Oakland’s arms have been holding up their end of the bargain as well, dropping the team runs allowed from 4.0 to 3.7. The biggest culprit is none other than Ted Lilly, rebounding from his “bust”-status first half to post a 3.57 ERA. His peripheral numbers look similar across the board, with the exception of his HR/9, which has dropped from a ghastly 1.54 to 0.78, amounting to only five long balls in 10 starts since the break. Lilly has credited his positive advances of late to more work with his mechanics and pitching coach Rick Peterson. With Mark Mulder lost for the season, Lilly will have to continue to excel if the A’s hope to win the AL West and make the playoffs.
While it’s hard to imagine Keith Foulke, Chad Bradford, and the rest of the A’s bullpen improving on their first half, they’ve done so. Foulke and Bradford, the mainstays all season, have moved solidly into BP’s top 30 relievers in Adjusted Runs Prevented. In addition, Bradford ranks tops in the league at stranding inherited runners and it’s not even close. Bradford is the best rally killer in baseball right now, an invaluable tool in the chase for the postseason, especially with Oakland’s tendency to post scores that belong more in the 1960s than 2003.
- Second-Half Trends: Here’s how some notable Rangers have been faring since the All-Star break:
- Brian Shouse has easily been the class of the pen since the break. In 19 innings, he’s posted a 1.42 ERA and a 4.3 K/BB ratio. Elsewhere in the bully, Erasmo Ramirez and Francisco Cordero have also pitched well. Ramirez has logged 33.2 innings in the second half with a 2.14 ERA and 3.2 K/BB ratio. Cordero, in addition to notching 11 saves, has a 2.28 ERA and 9.1 K/9 in 23.2 innings.
- Although John Thomson‘s 4.26 ERA in the second half isn’t high-quality by most standards, don’t forget that everything’s bigger in Texas. And that includes ERAs. Thomson, in 80.1 innings, also boasts a respectable 2.6 K/BB ratio. And we’re out of nice things to say about the pitching staff.
- Alex Rodriguez in the second half has been, well, Alex Rodriguez. He’s got a .322/.435/.683 batting line and has been a nifty nine for 10 in the steals department. In a rational universe, he’d be working on his fourth or fifth MVP award.
- Mark Teixeira may once have been on the RoY short list, but a .248/.308/.435 second half has taken care of those aspirations.
- Pitchers are most assuredly adjusting to Michael Young. Prior to the break, he hit a robust .321/.356/.463; since then, he’s been tamed to the tune of .266/.296/.411.
- Futures Market: The Rangers have become famous for their puzzling dearth of quality pitchers over the last several seasons. Although plenty of organizations have superior arms in their systems, the Rangers do have at least three young pitchers who should be on your radar.
- Jose Dominguez: Dominguez, a 23-year-old right-hander signed out of the Dominican in 1999, has shown good command and posted strong K rates at almost every stop. In 2003, he made stops in the Cal, Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues. In 136.2 combined innings, he struck out more than a batter per inning, surrendered only 105 hits, posted a 3.5 K/BB ratio and had a cumulative ERA of less than 3.00. That’s strong work, and he’s the best bet in the farm system to contribute in 2004 as a starter in the majors.
- Kameron Loe: Loe, 22, was a 20th-round selection in 2002 out of Cal State-Northridge. He had a strong showing in the rookie-level Appalachian League, but that’s nothing special for a college-trained pitcher competing against generally younger hitters who are just getting acclimated to using wood. This year, he was dominant in the Midwest and Cal Leagues (5.0 K/BB combined). He’s showing good strikeout abilities and very good control. So far, there’s lots to like, but he’ll need to stay healthy and do it at the higher levels. He’s split his time almost equally between starting and relieving. Obviously, his value is much greater if he can perform as a starter.
- Justin Echols: The Rangers selected the lefty Echols in the 11th round of the 1999 draft out of a Phoenix high school. In the past, he’s posted excellent K rates but struggled with his control. Ditto for 2003. Echols struck out a batter per inning in the Cal League this season, which is commendable, but his control remained problematic. This isn’t all that unusual for hard-throwing left-handers, and he may grow out of it. His lack of a third pitch may confine him to bullpen work at the higher levels, but his devastating slider could mean he’ll thrive as a reliever. He struggled after a late-season promotion to double-A.