The third and fourth hitters in a lineup, respectively, are traditionally the most feared batters on a team. There are obviously quite a few exceptions. The Yankees bat Curtis Granderson second when everyone is healthy, and he has 36 home runs and leads the majors with 103 runs batted in this year. Ichiro Suzuki (who, despite a down year, is still the most feared hitter in Seattle’s lineup) and Jose Reyes almost always bat leadoff for the Mariners and Mets, respectively. But for a pitcher, there is nothing worse than seeing a dangerous No. 3 batter step into the box and looking over to the opposing dugout to see another dangerous weapon lurking in the on-deck circle.
Perhaps there is no 3-4 punch in baseball history quite as feared as the Yankees’ Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig duo was from 1926 through 1934 (Gehrig was the No. 5 batter on the 1925 Yankees). On the 1927 Murderers Row team, Ruth hit .356/.486/.772, Gehrig batted .373/.474/.765 and the pair combined to swat 107 home runs and drive in 339 runs. In 1930 Ruth had a .359/.493/.732 batting line, Gehrig hit .379/.473/.721 and the duo combined for 90 homers and 327 RBIs. The very next year, Ruth batted .373/.495/.700 at age 37, his final truly great season, and Gehrig hit .341/.446/.662. They smashed 46 homers apiece and drove in a combined 347 runs with Gehrig driving in 184 of them by himself, the most ever by an American League player in a season. In the nine seasons they batted third and fourth respectively, Ruth and Gehrig combined to drill 771 home runs with 2,748 RBIs. There has been no 3-4 combo that has been feared more or put up better numbers in all of baseball history.
A more modern example of the production Ruth and Gehrig put up from the three and four holes in the lineup, respectively, comes from the 2004 through 2008 Boston Red Sox. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez did not have the same longevity of Ruth and Gehrig, but there were equally as feared by major league pitchers. In 2004, their first season as a 3-4 combo and the year the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought to win the World Series for the first time since 1918, Ortiz hit .301/.380/.603, Ramirez batted .308/.397/.613 and the duo combined for 84 homers and 269 RBIs. The next year, Ortiz had a .300/.397/.604 batting line, Ramirez hit .292/.388/.594 and they combined to whack 92 home runs and drive in 292 runs. In their four and a half years as a 3-4 combo (Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers on July 31, 2008), the duo produced 354 homers and 1,120 RBIs and helped win Boston’s only two modern World Series championships.
No 3-4 combo today comes close to the Ruth/Gehrig standard of excellence. Nonetheless, there are still some very good ones that are very tough to pitch to, despite injuries limiting many of baseball’s most dangerous 3-4 duos this year. Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse don’t match up statistically (combined for 30 home runs and 106 RBIs) with the rest of baseball due to a Zimmerman injury that caused him to miss 58 games, but give the Nationals something to build around with their young and talented farm system. The Phillies have seen a similar problem with Chase Utley missing 51 games with an injury, and as a result, have seen their 3-4 duo combine of Utley and Ryan Howard combine for 36 home runs and 138 RBIs, well below what they normally produce together. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez has missed 46 games this year, but he and Mark Teixeira have still hit 49 homers and driven in 152 runs combined. Kevin Youkilis has missed 21 games for the Red Sox, but has combined with Adrian Gonzalez to blast 40 home runs and bring home 181 runs. The Rangers have lost Josh Hamilton for 40 games, but he and Michael Young have hit 27 homers and driven in 157 runs. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have missed a combined 42 games to injury, but have hit 50 home runs with 145 RBIs. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto and Jay Bruce have stayed healthy, each knocking in 84 runs and combining for 51 long bombs, but have been plagued by Bruce’s inconsistency all year long. However, healthy or not, none of these duos match the Milwaukee’s Brewers 3-4 punch of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
Braun and Fielder have terrorized opposing pitchers together since Braun reached the big leagues in 2007. Their first year together, Braun hit .324/.370/.634, Fielder batted .288/.395/.618 and the pair combined for 84 home runs and 216 RBIs. The 2009 season was another remarkable campaign for the anchors of Milwaukee’s order, combining for 78 homers and 255 RBIs while Braun owned a .320/.386/.551 batting line and Fielder hit .299/.412/.602. In what is likely their last year mashing together in the lineup because Fielder is a free agent at the end of the season, the duo have smashed 53 home runs and driven in 187 runs together, the most production of any 3-4 duo in baseball. Braun is posting career-highs in batting average (.333) and on-base percentage (.404), and is also leading the National League in slugging percentage (.592). Fielder meanwhile, leads the NL in RBIs with 101, is fifth in slugging percentage (.547), and is close to matching career-highs in average (.298) and OBP (.413).
The pair also has the longevity factor, as they will have been placed as 3-4 batters, respectively, in the Brewers’ lineup for five seasons by the end of this year. They have combined to pound 343 home runs and drive in 1,052 runs in their time as a 3-4 punch. Their production together is the closest baseball has had in a 3-4 duo since Boston’s Ortiz/Ramirez combination, and they are dangerously close to the numbers that Ortiz and Ramirez put up together in the four and a half years they spent destroying opposing pitching in the middle of the Red Sox order. The one thing the Ortiz and Ramirez were able to do together that Braun and Fielder have not is consistently win. The Brewers hold a 9.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and if they hold on, it would be the first time Milwaukee’s 3-4 punch has won a division and only the second time they visited the postseason. In comparison, the Ortiz/Ramirez 3-4 duo won one division but also two World Series titles together, going to the playoffs a total of three times. While it may end this offseason because Fielder is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, the Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder 3-4 punch is the most feared in the majors today – and the best in baseball since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez bludgeoned opposing pitching in Boston’s order from 2004 through the middle of the 2008 season.
After losing two of three games to the San Francisco Giants, the Milwaukee Brewers began their July 25th off-day in a three-way tie for first place with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Central. Milwaukee had been very aggressive in looking for ways to improve a pitching staff that ranked 26th in the majors in ERA (4.58) last season. The Brewers traded for starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum in the offseason and then acquired New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez on July 13 to shore up the back end of the bullpen. However, Milwaukee’s moves had not paid off in the standings, as the upstart Pirates and a Cardinals team that had dealt with injuries to Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright had both stuck with the more talented and healthier Brewers through the first 103 games of the season.
Just like that though, it seemed that everything clicked for Milwaukee while Pittsburgh and St. Louis’ seasons fell apart. The Brewers have won 22 of their last 25 games. In the same span, the Cardinals have gone 13-12 while the Pirates’ season has bottomed out by going 7-18. Suddenly, in a division that one month ago looked like it would be a sprint to the finish, Milwaukee is enjoying a very-comfortable 8.5 game lead on second-place St. Louis.
Over the last 25 games, the Brewers have outscored their opponents 117-63. Their offense, which has the second-best OPS of any NL team but only the sixth-most runs, has taken off, scoring 4.68 runs per game. MVP candidates Prince Fielder, batting .384/.462/.663 with six doubles, six home runs and 23 runs batted since July 24, and Ryan Braun, hitting .348/.398/.573 with six doubles, four homers and 12 RBIs since July 24, have continued to form one of the best 3-4 duos of any lineup in baseball. However, it has been Milwaukee’s role players who have stepped up in wake of All-Star second baseman Rickie Weeks being sent to the Disabled List July 27 with an ankle injury. Since July 24, Casey McGehee is batting .310/.361/.540 with four doubles, two triples, four round trippers and 20 RBIs, Corey Hart is hitting .281/.343/.458 with two doubles, five home runs and 14 RBIs, Jonathan Lucroy has hit four doubles and two home runs while driving in 11 runs and batting .288/.342/.425 and Yuniesky Betancourt has knocked in 18 runs while hitting six doubles and three homers, hitting .278/.294/.433.
The Brewers’ pitching staff has also cranked it up a couple of notches over the last 25 games. Milwaukee has allowed only 2.52 runs per game since July 24. To put that in perspective, the Philadelphia Phillies’ vaunted pitching staff has allowed the fewest runs in the majors (405) and gives up only 3.29 runs per game. Brewers’ starting pitches have lost only one decision over the last 25 games. Greinke has been lights-out, pitching up to his potential by going 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA while striking out 37 and allowing 25 hits and 11 walks in 34.1 innings pitched. Yovani Gallardo (3-1, 2.06 ERA with 31 strikeouts, four walks and 25 hits allowed in 35 innings), Randy Wolf (4-0, 2.80 ERA with 16 punch outs, 32 hits allowed and 11 walks issued in 35.1 innings) and Marcum (2-0, 3.58 ERA with 17 strikeouts, six walks issued and 33 hits allowed in 32.2 innings) have all been stellar in putting zeroes up on the scoreboard since July 24 before handing it over to the bullpen.
Milwaukee’s bullpen ranks 17th in the majors with a 3.67 ERA. However, it has been integral to the Brewers’ success since July 24. Over the last 25 games, Kameron Loe (10 games, 0.79 ERA, 10 strikeouts, two walks, five hits in 11.1 innings), LaTroy Hawkins (10 games, 0.00 ERA, four hits, three walks, four punch outs in 10.1 innings), Takashi Saito (10 games, 2.25 ERA, three hits, four walks, four strikeouts in eight innings) and Rodriguez (12 games, 3.18 ERA, 10 hits, four walks, 13 strikeouts in 11.1 innings) have helped Milwaukee bridge the gap perfectly to closer John Axford, who, in 13 games since July 24, has 10 saves and a 0.69 ERA with eight hits allowed, three walks issued and 14 strikeouts in 13 innings of work.
On their off-day July 25, the Brewers woke up to a first-place tie with the Cardinals and Pirates in the Central. Milwaukee had loaded up on pitching to try to make one final playoff run in Prince Fielder’s last season under contract, but their aggressiveness in trading for Greinke, Marcum and Rodriguez had not paid many dividends. Then, all of a sudden, everything has come together for Milwaukee. The Brewers have won 22 of their past 25 games, building an 8.5 game lead on the second-place Cardinals in the Central. Milwaukee has hit well even with injured All-Star Rickie Weeks on the DL and their pitching has been superb. While the Phillies have baseball’s best record, the Brewers have become the biggest challenge to them in the National League. If Milwaukee can continue to stay hot, a team that has never won the Central or a National League Pennant may make history.
We are officially at, or just past (depending on the team), the midway point in the Major League Baseball season. In the sport with the fewest playoff spots, there are so many teams competing for the right to play in October. The lack of playoff spots is one of the many things that makes this sport so special. Just eight of the 30 MLB teams will make the postseason, compared to the 16 playoff teams in both the NBA and NHL and the 12 NFL teams that vie for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Having such few teams make the playoffs creates a strong emphasis on succeeding in the regular season, and as long as baseball’s regular season is, we have the potential to see some very compelling races in August and September. Twenty teams either lead a division or are within seven games of a playoff spot. There is no division separated by more than a four game lead.
A number of surprise teams remain in the mix for a playoff spot. Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit at 41-39, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The Arizona Diamondbacks are two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card race with a record of 44-38. The New York Mets and Washington Nationals are 5.5 and 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card race, respectively.
In the American League, few thought that the Cleveland Indians would spend 80 days during the first half of the year leading the Central. The Indians have stumbled slightly, but are 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers right now. Rookie sensation Michael Pineda has helped the Seattle Mariners come within 3.5 games of the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in the West, even though the Mariners have been outscored by 13 runs this season and have a record below .500, at 39-42. After losing Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency and various trades, the Tampa Bay Rays sit just four games behind the New York Yankees in the East and 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. The Rays are 45-36 despite having star third baseman Evan Longoria play in only 53 games during the first half of the season.
The first half of the Major League Baseball season featured many storylines, but none may be more compelling than the playoff races that will determine the fate of the 20 teams who have their eyes on the postseason. There will be teams who falter down the stretch during the second half of the season. However, with so many teams fighting year in and year out for one of the precious few trips to the postseason, baseball’s emphasis on a strong regular season is unrivaled by any sport. With 20 teams in competition for just eight playoff spots, the next three months of the season will feature postseason races that come down to the wire and show just why baseball is so special.
Scott Kornberg and Ryan Baumohl discuss baseball’s divisional races and league awards at the season’s midpoint, as well as possible trades in today’s podcast: Listen Here!