Bad teams are boring. That’s a thesis to which we can all subscribe, isn’t it? Sure, it’s interesting when a team invests heavily—almost desperately—in a given season, then falls flat, but for the most part, the trends we track and the decisions we analyze draw our interest because of their impact on the competitive prospects of the teams and players in question. The most criminal thing about the current MLB roster rules is that they discourage bad teams from being competitive, such that hardly anything that happens on the field for those teams merits our attention. Teams not only have incentive to lose more games within a non-contending season, but are saddled with conflicting interests when it comes to promoting promising young players during such a campaign. Young players who would have been in the big leagues 20, 30 or 40 years ago are now stashed in the minors months longer, if their team stinks. And it doesn’t pay to grouse about a manager steadfastly refusing to use his best reliever in a tie game on the road, if we can’t agree that winning that game is actually valuable to the franchise.
That stinks, especially for the hundreds of thousands of fans of bad teams who lose the chance to participate in a national conversation. So consider this a public service, an outreach program to the downtrodden and the disenfranchised of the baseball world. Six teams entered Wednesday’s play with Playoff Odds lower than 10 percent: the Braves, the Phillies, the Reds, the Brewers, the Rockies and the Diamondbacks. (Yes, we’ll have a conversation soon about how the NL and the AL have become so radically disparate, in terms of competitive landscape. But not today.) Without resorting to the cheap, easy stories that force the eyes of the fan bases forward at the expense of any enjoyment of this season (Who will Arizona take with the first pick? Will the Reds trade Cueto? Will the Rockies trade Tulo? Will the Phils trade Hamels?), I want to talk about the most interesting things going on with those six clubs. I don’t promise to deliver hope; some of these are bad things. I merely want to make sure that we spend a little time valuing the games these teams are playing, because buried beneath the mixed messages and the mounting apathy, there is real content, real action taking place, things that will shape the futures of the franchises, but can be discussed in real time, without undue abstraction.
Away we go.
Atlanta Braves: Contact!
In each of the last two seasons, the Braves struck out 22.6 percent of the time. That was good for the second-highest rate in baseball in 2013, and the fourth-highest in 2014. In 2012, they fanned 21 percent of the time, seventh-highest in MLB. This season, though, only the Royals have fanned less often than the Braves. Only the Indians and A’s have made contact on a higher percentage of their swings. And no team has relied less on home runs in order to score runs. The Braves had been above-average in what we term the Guillen Number, or the percentage of their runs that scored on homers, in each of the past two years.
Of course, we know how they did this. Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis—all productive sluggers, but all fairly prolific strikers-out—each found new homes this winter, with the revamped Atlanta front office reshaping and reloading the roster by trading for a passel of pitching prospects and draft picks. The Braves’ big offseason splash was the signing of Nick Markakis, a poor man’s Heyward in all respects, except that he puts the bat to the ball consistently. They made damn sure this year’s team would reverse the organization’s recent trend of whiffing a lot and leaning on power, even if it meant sacrificing some overall talent.
Funny thing, though: everything is going better than they could have hoped. Andrelton Simmons has reemerged as a useful hitter (for a shortstop, at least). Freddie Freeman looks like a stud again. Markakis and trade acquisition Jace Peterson are providing no power whatsoever, but they’re hitting an aggregate .300, with an OBP pushing .380. Atlanta’s team True Average is .269, good for 11th in baseball. They’re trying a whole new team-wide approach to offense, and the early returns are encouraging—especially for the players who make up their long-term core.
Philadelphia Phillies: Chase Utley L
It’s morbid, but some people (and I’m one of them, or have been a time or two) have been known to wonder whether it would have been better for the Hall of Fame candidacy of Dale Murphy to have been struck by a bus and had his career ended at age 31. Murphy had an incredible peak. From 1982-87, he might have been the best player in baseball. He won two MVP awards, and finished in the top 10 in voting another three times. Over that six-season stretch, he was worth 30.5 WARP.
Alas, Murphy played all or part of six more seasons, and was worth 0.5 WARP during that span. He utterly spoiled his legacy by having an ugly, early decline. Chase Utley avoided that fate, at least for a while. Injuries tried to ruin him for us, limiting him to fewer than 120 games in each of his ages 31 through 33 seasons. He bounced back, though, with solid campaigns the last two years, playing plenty, staying ruthlessly efficient and extraordinarily well-rounded. Utley probably wasn’t ever a real Hall of Fame candidate, but he deserved to be.
Suddenly, that all feels very far away. Utley was hitting .127 through Tuesday. He has still drawn a few walks. He has still hit for a modicum of power. He’s not suddenly swinging through everything. But .127 is .127, and at age 36, Utley can’t simply point to bad luck. He’s probably had plenty of bad luck. But .127 is .127. The Phillies stink, and their best player during perhaps their franchise’s greatest-ever run of success suddenly stinks, too. For those who have admired Utley, from near and from afar, this has been a painful start, and it’s impossible to watch the Phillies right now without thinking about it.
Cincinnati Reds: The Rookie Starters
Of the five starters in the Reds’ current rotation, three are rookies: Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias and Anthony DeSclafani. We had Lorenzen third and DeSclafani sixth on the team’s top-10 prospect list entering this season, and Iglesias (whom the prospect team elected not to treat as a prospect for those purposes) was sixth on their top-10 25-and-under talents list. With Cueto gone no later than the end of this season; Mike Leake also an impending free agent; and Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos both traded, there was no reason for Cincinnati not to take a leap of faith with these young arms. Still, they deserve some praise for taking it. Every Reds game offers Reds fans something important to watch, even though they’re not staying in the race with the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates.
This audition should not only help acclimate them all to the majors in a relatively low-pressure setting, but give the front office some information with which to work as they make some difficult decisions later this year. Should the team re-sign Leake? Can they realistically go forward with a rotation including this trio and still-looming top prospect Robert Stephenson, or will some veteran arms need to be mixed in? Happily, the Reds have given themselves plenty of time to decide.
Milwaukee Brewers: Craig Counsell
This is where it’s sometimes noble to buck convention. The Brewers show little regard for the success cycle. Doug Melvin refuses to cede ground and throw a team in the tank, even when it’s fairly clear they’re not destined for greatness. That’s how they ended up in the hole they’re in, but it’s also why the rest of their games should be watchable and interesting.
Look, there’s no player a Brewers fan should be attaching themselves to right now. Literally everyone on the roster is a trade candidate, and the only pieces that even feel like possible building blocks are Jean Segura and Khris Davis. If Melvin can find the right deals, a half-dozen or more Brewers could be in other places by August 1st.
However, that won’t translate into a feeling of listlessness and emptiness for Milwaukee, quite the way it will in other places. One reason is Melvin’s attitude. Another is the hiring of Counsell, whom the organization views as a long-term managerial project, and who figures to somewhat reinvigorate a clubhouse Ron Roenicke might have had trouble keeping up through all the early downs. You’ll be able to scout Counsell this season, because he’s the type who will make decisions and manage people as though the playoffs hang in the balance, even though they don’t. His tendencies, his poise and his in-game tactical sharpness should all be on clear display. Brewers fans should watch those tedious dugout cutaway shots as closely as any fan base in the game.
Arizona Diamondbacks: The No-Slider, No-Cutter Zone
Did you know that Diamondbacks pitchers throw both the fewest sliders and the fewest cutters of any pitching staff in baseball? No? Did you know that they rely more heavily on their changeups than any other team in the league? Didn’t think so. Because you only tune in when Archie Bradley is pitching, or when Paul Goldschmidt is batting. Me, too, for the most part (though I do love checking in on Ender Inciarte).
That’s all true, though, and it throws a couple of things into sharp relief:
1. This organization’s rigidity when it comes to allowing pitchers to use sliders and cutters, which we heard whispers of from Brandon McCarthy, Ian Kennedy and Trevor Bauer after they left town, is no myth. In fact, it’s now more or less a mandate, and the team has moved from simply ordering the marginalization of those offerings to actively selecting pitchers who don’t throw them.
2. Some things—even very quirky things, idiosyncratic things one might think were totally unique—can carry over despite a regime change in an organization. Maybe it’s just serendipity, Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa sharing Kevin Towers’s feelings about these pitches. But I greatly doubt it. That’s fascinating.
Keep an eye on your second-favorite Diamondbacks pitcher (because we all have a different second-favorite) next time he’s on the mound, and take note of how they approach plate appearances differently because of the strictures within which they operate, arsenal-wise. It’s educational baseball. (It also might be a disastrous policy, or a brilliant one. I lean toward the latter, but I just don’t know. It certainly bears watching.)
Colorado Rockies: Why is no one afraid of these hitters?
Last season, only 10 teams saw a lower percentage of opponents’ pitches go through the strike zone than did the Rockies. That makes sense. Coors Field is no place to make mistakes over the heart, and what’s more (to me, the real point here), the lineup is full of dangerous hitters. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez don’t have to be healthy for the Rockies to field a decent big-league lineup. Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson and Justin Morneau are competent hitters, and sometimes look like much more.
None of those guys are gone, but opponents’ timidity is. The Rockies are seeing more pitches inside the zone than any other team in baseball this season. They’re being aggressive within the zone, too, and are right about in the middle of the pack in terms of the frequency with which they will chase pitches. It’s a mystery why pitchers seem to have decided not to fear anyone in the lineup. Tulowitzki has two walks in 108 plate appearances. Two! And it’s not because he’s suddenly an inveterate chaser. He’s just being drilled with strike after strike.
This might be a small-sample thing. I can’t think of why it would be, but I can’t explain this in any other way, either, and the sample size is sitting right there as an excuse. Watch the trend closely, though. It’s bizarre.
There you have it. None of these teams are coming within a 10-game winning streak of the playoffs this season, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. Don’t ignore them, and don’t just click over when Billy Hamilton or Aroldis Chapman or Andrelton Simmons are doing the things that make them so sexy. Their teams deserve a little closer observation than that.