Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 27, 2008
BASEBALL: Sunshine Of Your Glove
It's starting to get far enough into the season that it's worth taking seriously the Rays (now with the best record in baseball at 31-20) and the Marlins (with the best record in the NL at 30-20). What gives? Well, let's note for now three things:
1. It's the defense. I was deeply skeptical in the pre-season of the Rays' ability to turn the corner overnight and become a pitching/defense powerhouse after allowing the most runs in the majors by a wide margin last season and posting the worst Defensive Efficiency Rating (the percent of balls in play turned into outs) in Major League Baseball. I would have been still more skeptical of where they'd be today if you'd told me that Scott Kazmir would miss the whole month of April. But Tampa has done a 180: their DER of .721 is now the best in baseball, up 11% from last season's .650. It's a staggering turnaround that explains how guys like Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson are posting solid ERAs, and Jason Hammel isn't getting pounded, despite weak K/BB ratios (Garza's peripheral numbers are no better than Mike Pelfrey's, but he's 3-1 with a 4.06 ERA).
Really great team DERs tend, I think, to be the kind of thing that are hard to sustain over a full season (the Mets last year being a graphic example of the late-season collapse of an early-season defensive juggernaut). It's a little harder to quantify exactly who is responsible, but a comparison of the Rays by ESPN's Zone Ratings to the top non-Rays fielder in the league at each position suggests pretty strongly that Jason Bartlett has truly lived up to all expectations of turning around the Rays (for the catchers I'm instead listing caught stealing %):
As you can see, Bartlett and Crawford are both leading the league at their respective positions, and Iwamura and Upton are settled in well to their relatively new positions, crucial ones on the defensive spectrum, and Navarro has been solid. (It's also worth noticing the number of A's on this list and the superior quality of the Cleveland outfield).
Florida has not improved as dramatically, but at .696 they are now in the middle of the NL pack rather than dead last, as last season; that's still enough to make a big difference. Presumably the absence of Miguel Cabrera, the most visible change in the defense, has helped, plus Josh Willingham hasn't played since April. Even so, none of Florida's starters besides Scott Olsen has actually been particularly effective (the remaining 6 starters have a combined ERA of 5.22 in 210.1 IP, which is why Florida's only 8th in the league in ERA).
2. A little luck helps. The Rays are 2 games ahead of their Pythagorean record, the Marlins 4. I think the Marlins are in general less 'for real,' and that will be reflected as the season rolls on, but neither team is surviving entirely on smoke and mirrors, and both - especially Florida, with Kevin Gregg and Reynel Pinto - have benefitted significantly from excellent bullpen work, always the hallmark of a surprise team. I don't really regard either Gregg or Pinto as an above-average pitcher, though, so that may not last much longer.
3. Crazy hot bats. I don't think even the greatest enthusiasts about Tampa expected Dioner Navarro, a solid but unspectacular young hitter at age 21-22, to rebound from last season's disastrous .227/.286/.356 to .369/.412/.468 this season, but while he is unlikely to keep up that pace, the lesson is never write off hitters under age 25. The other big-time surprise in Tampa is Eric Hinske, a 30-year-old .256 .336 .439 hitter who batted .204 last season, hitting .257/.342/.529; along with B.J. Upton, those two have been Tampa's most effective hitters. In Florida, it's been more the usual suspects (Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, Willingham, Mike Jacobs) but Uggla's just been insane (.317/.398/.694 and a pace for 123 RBI) and Willingham was hitting .341/.406/.637 before he got hurt. As a rookie, Uggla fell off from .307/.365/.510 in the first half to .256/.311/.449 in the second; we'll see how he holds up this time, but Florida would still not be near the top of my list of teams to hold on to the NL East crown, and with the Mets' early struggles I've been glad to see them leading the pack rather than Philly or Atlanta.