Staying up to date on the battles for all the various MLB playoff spots is a full-time job that requires daily attention -- and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this space, for the rest of the season.
The big news: It looked pretty grim for the Yankees for a few minutes there, but they ended up beating Toronto, and the Orioles beat Boston. The Yankees and Orioles are both going to the postseason. They are also tied for the lead in the American League East.
The little news: Texas won one of two against the Angels, and goes into its final three-game series with Oakland only up two games. … The Tigers won, and the White Sox lost again, giving Detroit a three-game lead with three games to play.
Who is in: Well, Texas, Baltimore and the Yankees are in, officially now. Oakland needs one win over Texas to clinch its postseason ticket, but at this point the A’s have to be thinking about a division title, since a sweep over the Rangers would get it done. Any Detroit win or Chicago loss will clinch the Central for the Tigers.
Chicago Choke: On the day when the U.S. Ryder Cup team blew a four-point lead and lost to Team Europe, the White Sox lost for the 10th time in 12 games, and their hope is pretty much gone now. The White Sox were up three games less than two weeks ago.
The Triple Crown: Miguel Cabrera went 0-for-3 with no RBIs. And, well, things are certainly taking an interesting turn. Minnesota’s Joe Mauer had three hits in his first three at-bats against the Tigers on Sunday, and if he had gotten a hit in the ninth he would have passed Cabrera for the lead in batting average. He did not get a hit, but he’s now very close to the title, and he will face Kansas City Royals pitching for three games. Cabrera and the Tigers go to Cleveland, but they will probably wrap up the division on Monday, so those last two games probably won’t mean anything.
Joe Mauer .323
Mike Trout .321
Adrian Beltre .319
Derek Jeter (!) .318
Josh Hamilton 43
Edwin Encarnacion 42
Adam Dunn 41
Quirky stat: We’re going to use WAR again, even though I know how controversial the various versions of WAR can be. But I think the point remains. According to Baseball Reference WAR, Miguel Cabrera is not the MVP of his own team. That version of WAR says that Justin Verlander, at 7.5 WAR, has had a season that is worth a full win more than the season Cabrera has had. Crazy? Maybe. FanGraphs' version of WAR has Verlander and Cabrera almost exactly even, with Cabrera (6.9 WAR) well within the margin of error better than Verlander (6.8).
OK, this is rubbing it in. We get it. WAR does not like Cabrera. WAR obviously downgrades him significantly for his defense and base running and isn’t as in love with his offense as many fans. I tend to see it differently -- WAR is just reiterating how good a season Verlander is having, with relatively little hype. I have a Cy Young vote this year, and so I’m not supposed to say who I am voting for. But I will say that there are several really good candidates, and Verlander is, once again, right there.
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All along, I -- and I imagine many other people across the country -- kind of believed that this Orioles magic show would end at some point. It was a little bit like watching Butler against Duke in that awesome national championship game or Mississippi against Alabama on Saturday. The underdog hung in there for a while, and the longer it went on the more thrilling it was, but in the end we all knew the ending. Right?
On Sunday, there was the first “Holy cow, the Orioles really are going to beat the Yankees” moment. Baltimore was crushing Boston and, at that same moment, Toronto led New York 5-1. If that held, the Yankees would be a game behind the Orioles with three to play. And they would have no control over their own destiny as the Orioles finished their season at Tampa Bay while New York finished theirs at home against Boston.
As it turned out, the Yankees came back and won, and the division remains tied. The Orioles’ magic could still pop and then go to a blue screen like computers do. The Yankees are at home for their last three, and while the Red Sox no doubt would dearly LOVE to knock off the Yankees and ruin their season, they might not be good enough to do it. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is a much better team than the Red Sox, especially at home, and they are still under the illusion that they can make the playoffs (an illusion that would end with a loss or an Oakland victory). So the Orioles have the tougher final series.
Still, who thought they would make it this far? As a friend and huge New York Yankees fan says now, he is legitimately worried. He is finding himself looking at the Orioles like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid looked at the posse that would not get off their trail. He finds himself asking: “Who ARE these guys?”
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The big news: Well, we’re almost out of big news. The Cardinals and Dodgers both won, so the Cardinals have a two-game lead in the wild card.
The little news: Washington lost and Atlanta won, so, for at least another day, the Nationals have not clinched the National League East. Their magic number is one, so it should happen any time now.
Who is in: Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta. The Cardinals’ magic number for the second wild card is two.
A prayer of mourning for Pittsburgh: The Pirates lost to Cincinnati … their dream of a .500 season is over. It will be 20 consecutive losing seasons for the Pirates. I’m told by some Pirates fans that they are calling it “The Curse of Barry Bonds,” who left Pittsburgh after being part of their last winning team. Like all sports curses, I would say that it’s much more likely a long series of bad decisions. I will also say that “The Curse of Barry Bonds” sounds like a pretty good book title.
Quirky stat: One of my favorite baseballisms is when someone says, “Fred Fredders broke out of his 1-for-19 slump yesterday with a two-run single …” Of course, that makes him 2-for-20 over that same timeframe, which, in pretty much, in all ways, is still a slump. So you would have to say that Carlos Beltran is still in a “slump.” He’s hitting miserably since the beginning of July, and going into Sunday’s game he was one for his previous 14. But on Sunday, he went 3-for-4 with two homers, a walk, two runs and five RBIs in St. Louis’ victory over Washington. It was Beltran’s fourth multi-homer game of the season -- only Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera have had more -- but his first since May. A couple of Cardinals fans wrote in to say that “Carlos Beltran is getting hot at the right time.”
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While WAR is our contentious statistic of the month -- it will get its plaque a little bit later -- there’s always room for some screaming about fielding independent pitching numbers. For more than a century now, baseball statisticians have tried to figure out ways to separate pitching statistics from fielding statistics. For the longest time -- and, to some extent, this is still true -- this was done through the concept of “errors.”
The thinking has been that pitchers should get all credit and all blame for runs allowed EXCEPT when a fielder makes an obvious blunder. THAT is not the pitcher’s fault. This is why pitchers are ranked by ERA -- earned runs allowed per nine innings -- rather than just runs allowed per nine. If a fielder messes up, well, you can’t fault the pitcher for that, and so the runs that result from that blunder just disappear from the pitcher’s record. They drift into the ether of “unearned runs,” which really is a concept unique to baseball.
Well, there are those who believe that this unique concept is actually kind of stupid -- in part, at least, because there is no such thing as “Imaginary runs saved by a great defensive play” statistic -- and so they have tried other ways to split the credit between pitcher and defense. A little more than a decade ago, a guy named Voros McCracken noticed in the stats that pitchers tended to have surprisingly little control over whether balls hit in play became hits or outs. This discovery has also been argued about, but it seems at least true that what pitchers certainly have more control over are three other things: (1) strikeouts; (2) walks; (3) home runs allowed.
And so, there have been some statistics -- FIP and xFIP the most prominent -- that measure pitchers by those three categories and basically concede that hits on balls in play are largely a matter of defense and fortune.
Of course, this stat takes us down some strange paths. But, it’s at least an interesting way to look at things.
In the National League Central, for instance, the Cy Young seems to have come down to New York’s R.A. Dickey, Washington’s Gio Gonzalez, Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto and Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw (we’re going to leave Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel on the side because relievers are a whole other thing).
Their basic numbers are like so:
R.A. Dickey: 20-6, 2.69 ERA, 227 2/3 innings, 222 strikeouts, 54 walks
Gio Gonzalez: 21-8, 2.86 ERA, 199 1/3 innings, 207 strikeouts, 76 walks
Johnny Cueto: 19-9, 2.78 ERA, 217 innings, 179 strikeouts, 49 walks
Clayton Kershaw: 13-9, 219 2/3 innings, 2.58 ERA, 221 strikeouts, 60 walks
OK, with just these numbers, you could make an argument for any of the four. Dickey has the most innings, the most strikeouts and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio. Gonzalez has the most wins, the best strikeout-per-nine ratio and he’s pitching for a team going to the playoffs. Cueto has the fewest walks, a competitive ERA, he pitches in the worst pitcher’s park of the lot and his Reds are going to the playoffs. Kershaw has the lowest ERA, and comparable innings, strikeouts and walks to Dickey.
So what do the Fielding Independent Pitching numbers tell us? Well, FanGraphs gives us two different ones that are set up to look like ERA -- FIP, which is the raw version, and xFIP, which attempts to adjust the numbers based on the pitcher’s home ballpark and other variables.
So, first, by FIP:
1. Gio Gonzalez, 2.89
2. Kershaw, 2.93
3. Dickey, 3.24
4. Cueto, 3.28
Well, that’s a big difference. How did Gonzalez move to the front of the line? Well, in addition to having the most strikeouts per nine, he also has, by far, the best home run rate:
Home runs per nine:
1. Gonzalez, 0.41
2. Cueto, 0.62
3. Kershaw, 0.66
4. Dickey, 0.87
Well, wait a minute -- doesn’t Gonzalez play in an insane pitchers’ park where you basically have to hit one of those around-the-world Bugs Bunny fly balls just to hit one out? Well, that’s where xFIP comes in; it attempts to normalize the rates for the ballpark.
And here are the four pitchers by xFIP
1. Kershaw, 3.25
2. Dickey, 3.30
3. Gonzalez, 3.39
4. Cueto, 3.67
Of course, you decide for yourself whether or not you buy into the whole concept of FIP or how much stock to put in xFIP. But it’s interesting. And it seems as if it could help clarify the differences between four pitchers who are very close statistically. And it’s worth mentioning here that the National League leader in xFIP isn’t any of these guys … it’s Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee. I suspect that since his record is 6-8, he won’t get much Cy Young support. But he really is having an incredible year.