— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Divisional Diary: National League East
The NL East at the All-Star Break
Standings through July 11, 2004
You wanted a tight race – you got it!
Is this the division of mediocrity? Uh, sort of? The NL East has certainly had their lunch handed to them by the NL Central, but are doing well against the NL West and the American League. Oh, it’s ugly baseball, but four teams within two games of the division flag makes for exciting baseball for every team.
The Mets have pieced together a nice season so far, albeit just to .500, with excellent pitching, as they lead the league in ERA. The stars have been shaky of late, which has been heavily predicted based on their DIPS numbers – every indication has been that Tom Glavine (7-7, 2.66) and Al Leiter have been very lucky in their ball-in-play distribution, allowing far fewer hits on balls-in-play than one might predict. Sure enough, Glavine has gotten knocked around quite a bit in his last two starts, seeing his ERA jump from a league-leading 2.12 to 2.66. He also gave up a ton of hits in those two outings. Leiter doesn’t quite qualify for the ERA crown, with less than one inning pitched per team game (86.1 IP versus 87 G). He will in his next start, and he’ll suddenly be second in the league.
EARNED RUN AVERAGE
Steve Trachsel does not work that slowly. Sometimes he’s slow with runners on base, but he’s plenty quick most of the time. And he’s posting a nice 3.36 ERA. That’s better than pitching quickly and getting your brains beat in.
Braden Looper has been excellent as the closer, and the pen, while hideous, has been effective. The fourth and fifth starters have been, well, fourth and fifth starters. Jae Seo has one good outing followed by one bad outing.
The Mets traded David Weathers and Jeremy Griffiths to the Astros for Richard Hidalgo. What a steal. Weathers had worn out his welcome, and Hidalgo had a 13-game hitting streak and hit a bunch of home runs. What’s even funnier is the prospect that he was traded because he didn’t get along with Jimy Williams – who is a short-timer in Houston himself.
Ty Wigginton has even been pounding the ball in the last month – he’s now slugging .500. I would never have guessed he had that in him. Kazuo Matsui is hitting well – and as long as he goes the other way with the ball, he should continue to do so – he gets in trouble when he tries to pull the breaking ball thrown down and in to him. If he lays off that pitch, he’ll have a good season – for a first year shortstop.
Piazza is hitting 1.053 OPS as a catcher and a 0.817 OPS as a first baseman. Back to the tools of ignorance. Is it the comfort and/or discomfort of his defensive position? I know what I’d do.
The Mets defense has been terrible. Not all of it – Mike Cameron is absolutely the best defensive center fielder. He’s really incredible. The Mets have had severe defensive deficiencies on the infield. Ty Wigginton at third has the range of whatever his height is. Kazuo Matsui has improved, but he weak-arms throws to first far too often. It almost looks like they don’t run out routine grounders in Japan, so Kazuo isn’t used to throwing the ball hard to first. Okay, second base defense has been fine. Jose Reyes showed up and looks great. Of course, he’s a shortstop, so that’s not a big stretch.
Mike Piazza has taken to catching throws to first with two hands. I wish I were kidding. He’s absolutely brutal. Yes, Mo Vaughn was better. Seriously – think about that. In fact, if Piazza isn’t going to catch, I’d trade him for Frank Thomas. Piazza doesn’t know how to catch throws, he has horrific footwork for finding the bag; he has slow reactions to balls hit at him; he has poor hands for catching balls in the dirt; he has plenty of indecision about which balls he should try to field and which ones he should let go. He’s the worst first baseman I have ever seen. It is well within in the realm of possibility that Piazza would be a better first baseman if he used a catcher’s mitt instead of a first baseman’s mitt. He’s unsure if he has his glove in the right spot and if he actually caught the ball or not.
I apologize for being all gushy over the Mets…
The Braves have decided this won’t be the year they give up the East. Not easily anyway. Three weeks ago, the Braves were shut out by Brad Penny and the Marlins to sink to a 32-38 record. Since that loss, the Braves have gone 13-4, chasing down the Phillies by winning five straight series. In addition, during that stretch they took three of four from the Marlins and two of three from the Phillies.
While Chipper Jones (.741 OPS) still flollops around, J.D. Drew is tearing the cover off the ball. Drew has been very healthy and has posted a 1.062 OPS at the break. He’s hit 21 home runs already, with a career high of 27. Bobby Cox isn’t dumb enough to sit Drew against LHP, and Drew is rewarding Cox with a .993 OPS against them. Andruw Jones isn’t really killing the ball. Marcus Giles has been seriously injured and has been out since May 15. Third base is a dark area of suck. Rafael Furcal is having a nice, but not outstanding, season. The venerable Julio Franco and youthful Adam LaRoche make up a weak-hitting first base platoon. The offense is in dire straits. Wait – the Braves are fifth in runs scored and sixth in OPS. How? The role players have been excellent. Charles Thomas is ripping the ball in his small sample. Nick Green has been solid. Eli Marrero is hitting at a .951 OPS.
Of all the years Bobby Cox won the division, this is the year he’s faced the most injuries and struggling superstars. He’s pulling the right strings thus far. Most teams hit better with runners on base, but the Braves are simply killing the ball, with a team OPS 84 points higher with runners on base (.351/.457).
I shouldn’t leave out Johnny Estrada. The sabermetric world went collectively nuts when Schuerholz got "robbed" by trading Kevin Millwood for "only" Johnny Estrada. Millwood is stumbling around Philadelphia with a near 5 ERA and a 10 million dollar salary, while Estrada is catching in the All-Star Game. This certainly looks like something we didn’t know about.
Their pitching has begun to come around. Russ Ortiz is pitching well, and Mike Hampton has been "Good Mike" a few times. John Thomson isn’t fantastic, but servicable. What has been another Leo Mazzone reclamation project is the resurrection of Jaret Wright. Wright is posting a 3.58 ERA and throwing really hard. His K/9 is 7.5. Horacio Ramirez was the ace before he got injured, but Paul Byrd, signed a couple of years ago, has picked up nicely (2.82 ERA) in his four starts. The bullpen, once again pieced together, has been solid. Smoltz has allowed too many home runs (5 in 41 IP), but the role players, Kevin Gryboski, Chris Reitsma, Antonio Alfonseca and Juan Cruz have all been very good.
Mazzone doesn’t have the Big Three around for people to say "sure, look at the talent he had." The Braves have guys off the scrap heap. It’s an amazing performance thus far.
Jimy Williams was the first NL manager fired this season. Larry Bowa exhaled. The Phillies have gone from solid favorites to just another team pulling a number out of the NL East hat. Without a surge in the second half to put some distance between them and the rest of the "contenders", I don’t expect Bowa to make it through the season. One losing streak that pushes the Phils to three games behind, well, any of the other three teams within a couple of games, and Bowa may get his walking papers.
The Phillies’ slide, or rather lack of dominance, is easy to identify: pitching, pitching, pitching. Randy Wolf has been fine. Not spectacular, but solid. The rest of the staff, including pitchers who were expected to be reliable for the season have simply not done the job.
Much of the talk has been that the Phillies’ new ballpark is "Coors East". I don’t see it. Of course, the sample size and weather makes it inappropriate to use half season park factors, but calculating the park factors tells us this:
Phillies and Opponents at Philadelphia:
48 G, 880.1 IP, 487 runs: 4.98 R/9IP
Phillies and Opponents not at Philadelphia:
39 G, 689.1 IP, 392 runs: 5.12 R/9IP
The Phillies’ pitchers’ road ERA is 4.72, compared to 4.22 at home.
So who is betraying the Phillies? The primary offender is 11 million dollar man, Kevin Millwood. Not only is Johnny Estrada pushing the Braves, Millwood has been terrible. Yes, he threw a no-hitter last year, but he’s posting a 5.15 ERA right now. He’s striking out a good number, but he has allowed home runs like he pitches in Coors East. Brett Myers is just 23, but I thought he showed good skills last season – certainly enough to be league average or better. Um, no. He has gotten rocked. Vincente Padilla hasn’t pitched well (league average), but he’s also hurt now. Eric Milton is cranking out the wins behind some silly run support number, but his ERA, which is being blamed on his park, is much higher than league average. The Phillies’ starters have a cumulative 4.88 ERA.
The Phillies have a good bullpen: Ryan Madson, Tim Worrell and Billy Wagner can shut down any opponent, but that does little good when the starters can’t get out of the fifth inning.
The Phillies’ hitting has been good – just not as good as their opponents. That they are seven games over .500 is a tribute to their bullpen.
Jim Thome is giving the Phillies what they want. Placido Polanco is playing well. Jimmy Rollins, after struggling to open the season is back on track. David Bell hasn’t been playing basketball and had a hot streak right before the break. Bob Abreu is an excellent player that doesn’t and never will get the recognition he deserves. Pat Burrell opened the season red hot and has begun his descent. He finished May with a 0.974 OPS. In six weeks, he has dropped 100 points.
Centerfield is a real problem for the Phils. The team sent Marlon Byrd down, and have been playing linebacker Jason Michaels in center. In the games I’ve seen, he doesn’t look too bad, but he doesn’t look real smooth either (his ZR is not good). Without Byrd, Doug Glanville will get far too many PAs for a team hoping to win their division. The offense has plenty of giddyup, but they’ll have to bring Byrd back or find another suitable CF.
The Marlins continue to impress. The offense isn’t dominant, but they are producing just enough to win. Juan Pierre has 21 stolen bases – wow. He’s been caught stealing 14 times. That’s backing up, fellas. Mike Lowell is playing strong and has hit 20 bombs. It’s a tough year to be a third baseman in the NL. What would normally be an outstanding season may just be the third or fourth best year at the position.
The 2003 rookies are the big reason for the Marlins offensive stamina. Miguel Cabrera and Hee Seop Choi are both playing very well. Choi struggled making contact for a while, but his command of the strike zone still made him a valuable player. Now he’s starting to hit the ball more and hard.
Cabrera is simply awesome. He’s level-headed and powerful. He’s like a Gary Sheffield that doesn’t wing the ball into the stands for spite.
The pitching staff has been anchored by Brad Penny and <gulp> Carl Pavano. You may remember Pavano from a Pedro trade. Pavano doesn’t have a big K rate, but his WHIP is low. Brad Penny is a good solid pitcher. Josh Beckett is having blister problems – he came off the DL for one day last week. AJ Burnett though is coming back. Carl Pavano isn’t this good, and with Beckett out, the Marlins pitching staff is going to slide. Dontrelle Willis, while a league average pitcher, isn’t much more than that. That’s not bad at the back end of your roatation, but with the injuries to Beckett and Burnett, that isn’t the back end anymore.
Jack McKeon is doing another good job. Talent-wise, I really don’t think the Marlins are very good – an 88-win team if things go their way, and a 75-win team if they don’t. Nonetheless, McKeon has them in the hunt.
The Expos don’t have a home yet. The Expo offense is terrible. Brad Wilkerson has an 0.818 OPS to lead the team. Then jose Vidro at 0.806. Then it’s Nick Johnson at 0.766. Johnson missed the first 40 games of the season.
This team is going to lose a lot of games. Orlando Cabrera isn’t playing well at all. Shockingly, Tony Batista is terrible. It’s just not a good time to be an Expo fan. The current state of affairs with MLB just stymie any decent player development.
The Puerto Rico experiment has turned sour. The attendance there is not good.
The pitchers, however, are good. Tomo Ohka is a solid starter, but he was dealt a broken arm in mid-June. Livan Hernandez is pitching well, and will probably be dealt to a contender before the season is through. Zach Day, when he isn’t gluing blisters, has good stuff and entertaining. He doesn’t strike out very many guys and has allowed a few home runs, but he’s certainly an up-and-comer. The Expos bullpen is getting good work from Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala.
The Expos can’t score any runs. What Bud Selig has wrought is just offensive.
The division is literally wide open. The team that makes the right (or Wright) move can slip into first. No team is presently strong enough to pull away, so the first team to make the big move may be the team to capture the flag. Everyone should look out: the Braves aren’t giving up the ghost just yet.