The Weekend Takeaways
I went to my aunt and uncle’s house for dinner on Saturday. My uncle is a huge Cardinals fan, and it’s probably because of him that I’m a baseball fan myself and currently writing these words for your eyeballs. While we sat on the back deck, sippin’ on some beverages, he complained to me about the Cardinals. What?! The nerve, to be dissatisfied with a team six games up in its division, with the best record in baseball by five wins. But then I thought about the specifics of the Cardinals’ situation, and his frustration made more sense.
This team could be entering the post-offense phase of its season. Those alarm bells sounded in early June, when Matts Adams and Holliday went down with quad injuries. But the Cardinals’ June wasn’t much worse than May, from an offensive standpoint, as hot months from Yadier Molina and Jason Heyward buoyed the team.
However, the team’s luck has turned in the early days of July. The Cardinals have won two of their last six games (insert small-sample-size caveat here), and they have only scored 11 runs in those contests. The middle two games of their series against the Padres saw the Cardinals lose 2–1 Friday and win 2–1 on Saturday. In the first game, they wasted seven excellent innings from Michael Wacha by failing to dent Andrew Cashner, squandering a bases-loaded, no outs situation in the fifth and a man on third with one out in the seventh.
While the Cardinals took a 3–1 win on Sunday to split the series with San Diego, keyed by three RBIs from recent call-up Tommy Pham, Matt Carpenter was again absent from the offensive production. His .274 average is resting on his productive April and May; he hit just .190 in June and has yet to break out in July. He had four hits in the four games against the Padres, but all were singles. He did, however, tie Saturday’s game at 1–1 by singling home Pham.
Pham was the one driving the offense on Sunday, with a two-run homer in the third and an RBI double in the fifth. Pham isn’t one with prospect hype—he didn’t appear in BP’s most recent rankings of the Cardinals’ system—but he’s been producing. And with Holliday nearing a return, St. Louis might not have to rely on Pham for long.
But Holliday won’t fix everything. Unless the pitching continues at its current pace—which doesn’t seem likely, with Jaime García going on the DL and plain ol’ regression looming—guys like Heyward and Carpenter need to start producing for the Cardinals to maintain their current cushion over the Pirates. And even if they do, this club looks to be one buying at the trade deadline.
The Cardinals could use a guy like Prince Fielder, for example. After an atrocious, injury-marred opening season in Texas in which Fielder had a slugging percentage of just .360 in 42 games, the bopper is in the middle of one of the best offensive seasons of his career. His .322 TAv, as of Sunday, would be his second-best, behind his 2011 season with the Brewers.
A .363 BABIP and the favorable environment—in terms of both temperature and dimensions—of Globe Life Park have doubtless played into Fielder’s turnaround. He’s on pace for the lowest full-season walk rate of his career, and his ISO is well behind his best days in Milwaukee. But Fielder’s diminished power has been offset by more contact than ever. As of Sunday, Fielder had an 84 percent contact rate, per FanGraphs, and his 70 percent contact rate on pitches outside the zone was more than 10 points better than his total from 2014. Heck, Fielder’s even hitting without batting gloves now. He’s gone full contact hitter.
Reviewing video of Fielder from 2014 and this year yields few clues, apart from some very minor differences in pre-swing hand positioning. At contact, there’s nothing to see. The biggest change in Fielder’s approach has been that of pitch recognition and selection, as Neil Weinberg wrote at FanGraphs. He is swinging more and making more contact, and his stats reflect favorably on that approach. They also have more BABIP interference than any season of his career.
Fielder is hot, though, and the Rangers are just barely keeping their heads above water because of it. They were swept by the Angels this weekend, but it wasn’t for lack of production on Fielder’s part. (No, giving up 33 runs in three games probably had more to do with it.) He had two singles on Friday, another one on Saturday, and on Sunday he hit this dinger off C.J. Wilson.
Speaking of the Angels: They’re playing really good baseball in the wake of Jerry Dipoto‘s departure, which was in no way spurred by him losing to Mike Scioscia in a wrestling match in Arte Moreno’s office to determine whether the front office or dugout had superiority. No way at all did that happen, no sir.
The Angels have won eight of their last 10 games, culminating in that sweep of the Rangers. On Friday, they got 15 hits and scored six runs in the second inning en route to an 8–2 victory. The legend of Chi Chi Gonzalez died an unceremonious, flaming death, as he only lasted 1 2/3 innings and got sent down the next day when the Rangers activated Matt Harrison. Erick Aybar went 5-for-5 for the first time in his career to drive the offense.
On Saturday, the Angels got 13 hits and won 13–0, with Aybar and C.J. Cron supplying a trio of knocks apiece. Then, on Sunday, they got 15 hits and won 12–6. Aybar, who was moved up to the five spot, only had one, but Cron had four himself.
In this recent hot streak, the Angels have been winning low-scoring games, like their 4–2 and 2–1 victories against the Yankees, and one-sided slugfests, like the series in Texas. You know what they say about baseball: If you score a lot of runs and don’t allow a lot of runs, you’re gonna win a lot of games! Well, maybe they don’t say that. I just said it, at least.
Defensive Play of the Weekend
This is Avisail Garcia, leaping at the wall to rob Chris Davis of a game-tying home run in the ninth. Points for the catch, points for the little celebration hop, points for the leverage of the situation. Normally, I slave over which play I’m going to choose for DPOW. I call my mom, I call my dad, I call my sister, I call my pastor, I call my rabbi. I’m not even Jewish! But this one was easy. So thanks, Avisail, for making it so that I didn’t waste everybody’s time.
What to Watch on Monday
On May 18th, Chris Sale had a 4.36 ERA. More concerning was that he had just 44 strikeouts in seven starts. Sale could be erratic, sure, but for him to lose his electricity was something the vastly underwhelming White Sox could not stand.
In the time since, the White Sox haven’t improved their position. They sit in last place in the A.L. Central, 10 games back of first. But Sale, meanwhile, has struck out 10 or more batters in eight straight games, tying Pedro Martinez‘s record from 1999. Sale is scheduled to start on Monday against the Blue Jays, against whom he will try to set a record of his own.
That Pedro season has inspired its fair share of coverage and writings, like this one from Sam Miller on March 17th. He didn’t go undefeated in 1999, but with the support of an excellent offense, he could have come very close. Either way, it was one of the greatest pitching seasons in history. In fact, Pedro both tied and broke the record in the same season. He had a stretch of seven straight 10-strikeout games at the beginning of the season, which tied Nolan Ryan‘s record from 1977, then set his own record with a stretch of games late in the season.
While you can find a full writeup on our sister site, Pedro Martinez Prospectus, Pedro’s eight-game stretch was better than Sale’s eight-game stretch in pretty much every conceivable way. He struck out more hitters (107 to 97); allowed fewer runs (10 to 14); allowed fewer hits (95 to 97); and threw two more innings. Most importantly, Pedro’s season came in a far, far different offensive environment than Sale’s.
What we can learn from this is that Chris Sale this season is worse than Pedro Martinez was in 1999. That’s okay, because every pitcher ever was worse than Pedro Martinez was in 1999. Tonight, Chris Sale will try to be better than Pedro Martinez, at least at one specific thing.
Four of the top five ERAs among starting pitchers belong to right-handers on National League clubs. Nos. one and two are Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer. Makes sense, yeah. The fourth is Shelby Miller. The third, however, is A.J. Burnett, who is 38 years old and had a 4.59 ERA last year. Obviously, this season has been much different for Burnett, who has a 2.05 ERA and 2.60 FIP. But Burnett’s 3.47 DRA separates him from his other compatriots on the ERA leaderboard, who are all under 2.11.
The most startling contrast between Burnett and the rest of the ERA leaders (Dallas Keuchel is the one I haven’t mentioned yet) is his .322 BABIP, which is 73 points higher than the next closest. So Burnett’s been getting a bit unlucky to have it so high, but also lucky to have a fantastic outfield defense behind him to track all those balls down. He also has benefited from pitching in run-suppressing PNC Park, which has helped his 4.2 percent HR/FB rate. Burnett’s rest-of-season PECOTA projection of a 4.28 ERA and -0.2 WARP is unconvinced of his prior success. But still: Not giving up dingers can go a long, long way. Burnett faces the Padres and James Shields at home on Monday, where he will either further cement his legend or have himself declared a fraud and thrown into the Allegheny River after the game.
One of the many underperformances underpinning the Nationals’ lack of runaway success has been that of Ian Desmond, whose average is hovering around the Mendoza line and who has been uncharacteristically erratic at shortstop. He looked out of sorts on Sunday against the Giants, falling in a quick 0–2 hole against Ryan Vogelsong and whiffing at a pitch up at his neck. The ball did get to the backstop, and the runners on first and second moved up, so, well … there was that, I guess. Desmond’s BABIP is down about 40 points from years past, but he’s also walking less, hitting for less power, and just generally kind of sucking. He’ll try to stop sucking, I guess, when the Nationals face the Reds on Monday.