Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 5, 2010
BASEBALL: Rays vs Rangers
-Carlos Pena (.196/.325/.407, with 28 HR, 84 RBI on 95 hits, and 87 BB) has to be the first guy in the post-1920 era (i.e., when home runs became a significant part of offenses, rather than random curiosities) to lead a playoff team in homers while batting below .200. In fact, Mark McGwire in 2001 is the only other guy to hit 20 or more homers with a sub-.200 batting average for a playoff team, hitting 29 of them in 299 at bats, but that team had 37 homers from Albert Pujols, 30 from Jim Edmonds and 27 from JD Drew.
(Off topic of the Rays, but Mark Reynolds this season became the first player to hit 30 homers while batting below .200 (.198, 32 HR), and with 211 Ks was a major contributor to the D-Backs' ludicrous 1,529 strikeouts, 132 more than the prior record and 170 per lineup slot - the first team in MLB history to strike out more than once per lineup spot per game).
-The Rays are an unusual offensive team: third in the majors in runs despite being 8th in the AL in OPS, including 6th in OBP, and 8th in slugging and sixth in homers. But don't declare them a superior contact-hitting team: they finished 13th in the AL in batting average and first in strikeouts (the OBP was made up only by leading the league in walks), and they ran themselves into the fifth-most caught stealings in the AL. They didn't do it by bunting runners over, having a below-MLB average number of sac hits. How'd they do it? An MLB-best 172 steals helped (White Sox were second with 160), as did an MLB-best 57 sac flies (not an easy accomplishment when you lead the league in Ks and are in the middle of the pack in baserunners). But maybe the most staggering number: a MLB-low 92 GIDP, 32 below the MLB average; Carlos Pena, despite not being especially fast, hit into just two double plays all year, the fruits of a lot of strikeouts and fly balls. I'd be interested to see how many MLB teams have put more than 2,000 men on base - more than 1,500 of them on first - and hit into less than 100 double plays (the Cardinals did it in 1985). The team batting line of .266 /.368/.422 with men in scoring position undoubtedly helped too, compared to .275/.338/.431 with a man on first and .230/.313/.386 with the bases empty. Good baserunning and clutch hitting may be cliches that are rarely the keys to success, but for this team, that's the answer. Carl Crawford scored 47.2% of the times he was on base, fourth-best in the majors among players with 300 or more plate appearances (behind Tyler Colvin, Drew Stubbs and Cameron Maybin), and Sean Rodriguez scored 46% of the time. Crawford was also one of the Rays who was best with men in scoring position, as you can see here: he hit .359/.400/.538 with RISP; Matt Joyce hit .288/.444/.576, Pena hit .239/.411/.415, BJ Upton .234/.368/.402, Ben Zobrist .276/.358/.408. Neither Crawford nor Pena hit into a double play with men in scoring position all year. The team's propensity to draw walks with men in scoring position was definitely a contributor to its ability to concentrate a lot of runs out of a relatively few baserunners. The downside is, running the bases audaciously and hitting in the clutch are hard things to replicate in the postseason (Bill James looked at this historically in explaining the failure of the 1985 Cardinals, and subsequent teams like the 1987 Cards and the 2001 Mariners have reinforced the point).
-James Shields is one of those rare pitchers who seems to constantly struggle to get a break on balls in play despite good K/BB numbers and not-terrible HR rates. He managed career-best K numbers this year (187 K, 8.3 per 9 IP with a still-good 2.3 BB/9 and 1.5 HR/9, his career worst but usually survivable with a great K/BB ratio), but saw his opposing BABIP soar from .287 in 2007-08 to .311 in 2009 and .344 this year, even as the Rays had the second-best team defense on balls in play in the AL. And while his numbers were spoiled by the notorious 6 homer outing against the Jays August 7, his ERA - 2.99 through May 25 (BABIP .315, 5.07 K/BB) - was 6.01 over the 15 games before that fiasco (BABIP .327, 3.44 K/BB), and 5.88 in the ten starts after it (BABIP .407 3.47 K/BB), so it wasn't just one game, and his troubles with balls in play escalated as the season wore on. You can't be optimistic that, whatever the causes, that tailspin will get worked out overnight.
-Few things illustrate the current success of the Rays and the historical suffering of even good Rangers teams - recall, Texas is the only MLB team that's never won a playoff series - than Joaquin Benoit's 1.34 ERA with Tampa after posting a career 4.79 ERA in eight seasons in Texas. And Benoit didn't even learn a knuckleball the way RA Dickey did (5.72 ERA in Texas, 2.84 with Mets). As much as getting Rafael Soriano healthy at last, Benoit was a huge factor in this season's Tampa pen.
-In fact, the Rangers have only ever won one game in the postseason. Click here to see who the winning pitcher was.
-Vlad Guerrero rallied to hit .311/.351/.491 after September 1 following an ice-cold July and August, so his solid numbers this year weren't entirely the product of his early surge. He still hit far better at home than on the road. (Needless to say, both Vlad and Josh Hamilton need to be healthy and productive for this team to take out Tampa).
-People beat up on Elvis Andrus for having no power (15 doubles, 3 triples, no homers in 674 PA), but nobody should be surprised by this. Andrus is 21 and batted .257/.338/.343 in A ball in 2007, .295/.350/.367 in the Texas League in 2008. He's a fine fielder and baserunner and led the league in sac hits, but it's impressive that he's able to hit enough (.342 OBP) to avoid being a complete offensive liability. Maybe he'll be a decent hitter when he's 25 (his most-similar player according to Baseball-Reference.com is Alan Trammell), but for now, he is what he is.
-The Rangers actually do have a solid if unheralded rotation entering the postseason, with Cliff Lee's 3.98 ERA since joining the team actually the fourth-best behind CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter.
This series is tougher to predict. I see Tampa falling down somewhere along the lines, but not against the Rangers.