— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, September 02, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. East
The N.L. West through August 31st.
SLR = Since Last Re-cap
Per Sam?s description last time out, the Braves have continued to extend their lead by about a game a week. The Phillies are trying to give away the wild card. The Marlins and Expos came charging up to tie the Phillies for the WC. The Mets played the best ball in the division over the last month, but it?s too little, too late.
The Atlanta Braves changed their formula, but the results have been the same. The Braves have not played well lately, but a 14-game lead won?t go away even if you try. Even if they play a mere .500 ball from here on out, the Phils or Fish have to go 27-0. That?s just not happening. The Braves offense has so many pistons firing that when a few start to miss, it isn?t enough to keep them from winning. Rafael Furcal has played back to his level ? he finished May at a very high level (.950 OPS), and had it in hard reverse in June (.592 OPS) and July (.666 OPS). The last month, he has played at a .766 OPS. He managed just 4 walks in August. Andruw Jones provided Braves fans with his standard late-summer swoon. He also just got 5 walks in August. He has struggled to a .189/.230/.411 this month. It?s a pretty regular asb-ab discussion: Colin won?t get too excited over Andruw?s first half "because in the second half he won?t lay off the sliders low and away and have his OPS drop back to a .850 mark." Chipper Jones is quietly, very quietly, having a good season. He chipped in a cool .997 OPS in August, trailing only Gary Sheffield (.340/.416/.670). Many players tire as the season wears on, but Gary Sheffield is still tearing the cover off the ball.
I was watching the Mets-Braves game on Thursday, and Don Sutton and Skip Caray were discussing the NL MVP ? should it be Sheff or Pujols? They both went with "if the Cards make it, then Pujols, if not, Sheff". As they turned back to the game, Javy Lopez comes to the plate, so they mention he should be in the mix, oh, and Bonds should get some consideration too. Nonetheless, Sheffield is having an outstanding season.
Marcus Giles isn?t wearing out anything except opposing pitchers. He has raised his OPS 20 points since the last update, and his BA and OBP are the same. It?s all been SLG. He has hit 7 of his 19 HRs in the last three weeks, and he hasn?t hit one in 10 days. Lopez is still destroying the ball to the tune of .348/.434/.606 in August. What a great season for Lopez.
The pitchers have picked up the pace as the offense slowed. Greg Maddux posted a 2.25 ERA and Mike Hampton was right behind him with a 2.38 mark. They won 9 games in August. Maddux? K/9 rate is up over 6 for the month, so he is showing signs of being back, not just smoke and mirrors. Russ Ortiz has all the wins on the team, even putting a 3-1 mark up in August while tossing to a 4.19 ERA. Not great, but pitching well enough win. The Braves picked up Kent Mercker from the Reds, mostly because (I?m sure) Leo Mazzone thinks he can "fix" him. Mercker pitched against the Mets this past week, and I must say he was throwing harder (92-94 mph) than I recall. John Smoltz went on the fake DL, just to rest according to Braves? doctors. With the insurmountable lead, the Braves decided Smoltz rested for the playoffs was more important than a silly saves record.
I?ll be the first one to mention it ? Smoltz has thrown 61 innings and has a 0.89 ERA. It was a huge deal last year when Chris Hammond posted a 0.95 ERA in his 76 IP, and Smoltz is duplicating that. Smoltz will miss half of September and will probably only pitch a handful more innings. I like the odds of his ERA staying below 1.00. That?s incredible that only 2 (Hammond and Eck) pitchers have had 60 IP with an ERA below 1.00 since 1920 (according to Lee Sinins? magnificent Sabermetric Encyclopedia), and the Braves do it in back-to-back seasons. Feel free to stop and stare.
Tom Petty dropped in on Philadelphia. The Phils have been free-fallin? just to make things exciting. The Phils had a sizable Wildcard lead (3-4 games) and have simply played terribly. They got swept in a four-game set by the Expos, and got snuffed by the Milwaukee Brewers. A nice 1-9 road trip was really testing manager Larry Bowa?s limits. Rolling into Shea this weekend is curing quite a few ills.
What?s the problem? The pitching went in the crapper. The Phils blew an 8-0 lead at Montreal on August 26. That?s emblematic of how the last few weeks have gone. Randy Wolf turned into a pumpkin, posting a gorgeous 10.17 ERA in August. No, that?s not a typo, and no, he wasn?t pitching in Colorado. Worse still, he was anchoring my fantasy baseball league staff. While Wolf was blowing (down the houses), Brett Myers and Vicente Padilla weren?t helping. They each posted 5+ ERAs. Kevin Millwood has pitched very well, although really not getting enough run support. He was allowing 3 runs in 6 innings, but that should get you some wins in today?s run-scoring environment. Even if a starter managed to get to the bullpen, that wasn?t going to be help: Jose Mesa sparkled with a 9.45 ERA, being set up by Turk Wendell?s 7.11 ERA and helped along by Carlos Silva?s 5.50 ERA. Mike Williams didn?t pitch terribly, but it couldn?t be described as good either.
The offense isn?t really a bright spot for the Phils. The big boppers are playing well. Jim Thome hit 9 home runs and had an OPS of 1.006 in August. Bob Abreu got on base (.431 OBP) but lacked power (ISO 0.112). Mike Lieberthal had an OPS of .821, but as a catcher, that?s pretty strong. Pat Burrell started to get off the deck ? and it was mostly power. He slugged .565 with a BA of .224. He managed just 19 hits, but 13 were for extra bases. When these guys hit a bunch of home runs, the Phils should score. Unfortunately, Marlon Byrd with his .302 August OBP is leading off. Byrd needs to get it back on track for the Phils to make the playoffs. Placido Polanco hasn?t had a good August, but his overall season has been more than the Phils could have hoped for. Jimmy Rollins got dropped from the leadoff slot and in the 8-hole has continued to show why ? a nice .659 OPS in August.
The Phils need to take advantage of the weak sisters (and they swept three from the Mets this weekend) because they face the Braves seven more times.
The Marlins are coming! The Marlins are coming! Jack McKeon?s hard-charging Fish caught the Phils and have made the playoffs a strong possibility. How have the Fish done it? It isn?t easy to tell - they just win. The Marlins took a blow this weekend when Mike Lowell got hurt. The mainstream media wants you to believe the Marlins success is due to Lowell?s production, but a look at the numbers says he hasn?t been *that* great. Yes, he will be sorely missed, and the Marlins are trying to get a replacement.
The offense ebbs and flows, with different "moons". The August moon has been Luis Castillo. Castillo has had a smoking August, hitting at a .366/.434/.436. He?s been on base, but has stunk as a base stealer. He and Juan Pierre are 8-for-21 in stolen bases this month. That?s keeping them from being even better. Ivan Rodriguez is having an excellent season, but has been over-shadowed by Javy Lopez? goofy season. The Marlins have an amazing record when you look at the August numbers:
Player Aug. OPS
How did that lineup win any games? I don?t know, but a cursory look at situational scoring helps. With runners in scoring position, the middle of the lineup absolutely rakes: I-Rod has 1.126 OPS and Cabrera sports a 1.082 OPS. Lowell has a .980 with 11 Hrs. Alex Gonzalez jumps to a .808 OPS. That is cashing in from the 8-hole.
When the Marlins get the chance to score, they do. I don?t know if that is a function of their manager or what, but it is impressive. Okay, their Pythags are right on, so it isn?t nonsense.
The pitchers have thrived since the new management took over. Brad Penny and Josh Beckett continue to pitch well. Carl Pavano, who was a big pitching prospect in the Red Sox-Expos trade for Pedro, has pitched very well, going 4-1 with a 3.20 ERA in August. Media phenom Dontrelle Willis has had his hat handed to him in his second trip around the league. Okay, his numbers aren?t Wolf-like, but a August ERA of 6.25 is the worst on the Marlin team. As much as I dislike the closer "position", the pick up of Ugueth Urbina has been huge. He has a 1.42 ERA in 10 appearances. Of course, the Marlins are using him as a set-up guy for Braden Looper (August ERA 4.35). McKeon may want to flip-flop those two guys. Miguel Tejera had been tried in the rotation earlier this season and was awful. He is thriving again in a mid-relief role, with a great August ERA of 0.75. Mark Redman, who is one of my favorite "Who?" players, didn?t have such a good month, but he didn?t allow Hrs and he didn?t walk anyone and he struck out a ton of guys, so I figure he just got DIPSed to death.
The Marlins got their brains beat in on their West Coast swing through Colorado, San Fran and the western part of Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh, going 1-8. The Phils were tanking at the same time, so those losing streaks brought the Diamondbacks, the Expos and the NL Central runner-up (whomever that may be) into the WC chase. The Marlins still have seven games with the Braves and six with the Phillies, so they?ll be able to control their own destiny.
The city of Montreal got a sudden burst of baseball pride as Javier Vazquez and Vlad Guerrero picked up the team and shoved them back into the playoff race. Crowds came to the ballpark and the Expos were winning. Okay, there was a lot of help from the other teams backing up, but the Expos did their part of winning.
The Expos pitching has moved them up the ladder. Javier Vazquez, who was dominant during the first two months has gotten his feet back under him and begun to slam the door on opponents. Vazquez threw back-to-back complete game shutouts and followed that up with eight shutout innings against the Phillies. That?s 26 consecutive innings of scoreless ball. He?s about halfway to the record. It could happen. He had a 1.15 ERA in August. The Expos lost Claudio Vargas to tendinitis after two straight poor outings, going on the DL on August 5, but T.J. Tucker came out of the bullpen to make three starts (so far) and has pitched pretty well. Livan Hernandez continues to smear PAP scores. His arm just will not give out. It isn?t even just that he throws a lot of pitches and a lot of innings ? he is good. He?s having an excellent season with a , and with a little luck, he can strike out 15 Braves in the seventh game of the NLCS to lead the Expos to the World Series. Livan had a 1.34 ERA in August. Zach Day had four great starts earlier in the month, but has been battered a little in his last two. One was the August 26 game against Philly, and then gave up 5 to the Marlins in 5 innings. He is still pitching well, but is having trouble with the long ball. Tomo Ohka has been the weakest link, and he still has three quality starts out of five this month. The entire rotation has been outstanding. The problem has been closer Rocky Biddle. He has made a dozen appearances and has a 1-4 record and 5 saves. He has pitched 11.1 innings, allowing 4 home runs and 5 walks while striking out only 3. Having more HRs and walks allowed than strikeouts cannot be good. And it hasn?t been for Biddle. Only two of his four losses were blown saves and they were one-run games, but his K rate is terrible. He may be tired.
The bats have been steady. I was concerned about Vlad?s back, but he doesn?t seem to be phased. He is killing the ball - .343/.417/.706 in August. Brad Wilkerson is hitting well (.956 OPS) with a ton of walks. Jose Vidro is playing well too. These three are doing enough to win, and from time to time, Orlando Cabrera and Wil Cordero get a big hit. Frank Robinson must be paying attention to OBP because he moved Wilkerson to leadoff and has a nice lineup construction going on. He?s even trying Wilkerson in CF (29 games this season). The pick up of Todd Zeile has been good. No, Zeile isn?t a great third baseman or a great hitter, but he?s been more than adequate, posting a .727 OPS. Most importantly, it decreased Jamey Carroll?s time at third. At least for the stretch run.
The Expos have to beat the Marlins and Braves to make the playoffs. They have more games with the Mets and Reds, so they have a favorable schedule. The Expos in the playoffs may be enough to get me to Montreal. Ron, you got extra floor space for me and Szymborski?
Meet the Mets! Meet the Mets! Step right up and greet the Mets! The Mets are pretty much a completely different team since opening day. Well, since last season. They start four or five rookies almost every night, and sadly, start Joe McEwing every night too. The last three weeks saw some excellent play out of the Mets. The change in personnel has made the defense better and hasn?t made the offense worse. Mike Piazza came back and thanks to my pleadings in my Dialed In columns, Art Howe alternates pitchers better and doesn?t mind using David Weathers as a two-inning closer (How about that, Walt!?).
Nothing says annoying like Tony Clark hitting well for your team. That means more playing time. He has good August numbers, but most of it came in the first week (5 of his 6 home runs). He has played in left field some as well. The Mets had the best record in the division the last three weeks, but that is not due to these guys: Joe McEwing .540 OPS, Jeff Duncan .341 OPS and Timo Perez .581 OPS. Duncan (rookie starter number one) purportedly plays a good centerfield, but I watch and I think he does a poor job of positioning himself. He?s been up for some time and doesn?t appear to have bothered learning the tendencies of the opposing hitters. His hitting has really been atrocious and he?s supposed to be fast, but he doesn?t bunt enough. Why complain about him so much? He might be on the team next year and should show some growth. Joe McEwing simply provides the rest of the league some entertainment. I might consider him a mole if he weren?t so bad before he got here.
Jose Reyes (rookie starter number two) has been spectacular. He plays good defense and is hitting a ton. He hit two home runs in the same game, one from each side of the plate, in a cherry 3-1 win over the Braves on August 25. He hit .355/.408/.509 in August. That?s robust for a 20-year old. No one expects that to stay there, but if he keeps his average above .300, he?ll start getting some ROY notice. Jason Phillips (rookie starter number three) had another good month with a .842 OPS. That?s a catcher playing first base. I don?t know if catching every day or every other day will decrease his productivity significantly, but an .842 OPS out of your catcher is really strong. Ty Wigginton (rookie starter number four) has been the third baseman since Opening Day. The last three weeks have seen him perform like Steady Eddie. He had .728 OPS in August, right in line with his season. He hasn?t had as much power as his build and position would lead you to believe. Mike Piazza came off the DL on August 14 and has been as good as ever with a .946 OPS. He is chasing Carlton Fisk?s record for career HRs as a catcher, so any move to first base is on hold until he gets that mark. He homered on Aug 26-27 to close to within four of the record (351). Cliff Floyd was smoking hot in the week (12 hits in 19 ABs) before he was shut down for the season for bone-shaving surgery.
The pitching staff has been great. Tom Glavine had a 1.95 ERA, Al Leiter had a 2.10 ERA, and Steve Trachsel had a 2.16 ERA in August. That?s 104 IP. Jae Seo and Aaron Heilman (rookies five and six) haven?t been so good. The bullpen has been very good since the exorcism. Mike Stanton has been mediocre, but Howe may have removed the closing responsibility from him. David Weathers, Grant Roberts and John Franco are all performing well.
The Mets are getting plenty of tryouts and some rookies are up to the task and some are not. With the playoffs a foolish pipe dream, spoiling someone else?s party is all they have left.