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.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have scored the sixth-fewest runs (388) and have the fourth-fewest hits (826), tied for fourth-worst slugging percentage (.358), tied for seventh-worst batting average (.244) and eighth-worst on-base percentage (.311) in the majors. The nine players who have hit second for Pittsburgh this year have a combined OBP of .285. Of the 15 players who have had at least 95 plate appearances on the Pirates this season, only Andrew McCutchen (.276) is hitting above .275. In total, the Pirates have scored only five more runs than they have allowed, but they still find themselves one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central with a record of 53-48.
Because of their offensive ineptness besides McCutchen, many figure that Pittsburgh needs to trade for another bat to reinforce their lineup if they want to truly stay competitive in the NL Central race. However, the Pirates may find the answer to their offensive issues coming from their own farm system. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, rated the eighth-best prospect by Baseball America before his rookie season in 2010, has been recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis after completing his rehab from a thigh injury. Alvarez is hitting just .207/.282/.296 with only six doubles, two home runs and 11 runs batted in in 38 games this year in Pittsburgh, but he is an extraordinarily talented player who may be able to regain his footing in the last two months of the season as the Pirates prepare for a pennant race.
Alvarez’s had a decent 2010 season. He batted .256/.326/.461 with 21 doubles, 16 homers and 64 RBIs in 95 games. However, lost in those total numbers is the maturity Alvarez began to show as a hitter towards the end of last season. In his final 28 games of the year, he hit .318/.362/.598 with 10 doubles, six home runs and 27 RBIs. The Pirates certainly expected more of that Pedro Alvarez at the plate going into the 2011 season.
Alvarez’s 2011 numbers thus far certainly show he has disappointed the Pittsburgh brass. Had he not been injured and forced to rehab in the minors, it was likely the Pirates would have sent him there anyway. However, in his 25-game rehab stint, Alvarez flashed his dazzling potential at the plate. He batted .325/.439/.538 with three doubles, four home runs and 15 RBIs. He seemed hungry to get healthy and prove to the Pirates front office that he was ready for another chance at the big leagues.
Granted, major league pitching is much more difficult to hit than what Alvarez saw in the major leagues. However, he absolutely crushed minor league pitching in his rehab assignment. Even including McCutchen, Alvarez is the most talented hitter on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster. He proved last year that he could get hot towards the end of the season. The Pirates may be searching for another bat to bolster their offense as they look to have both their first winning record and playoff appearance in 18 years. They may find all the help they need offensively from right under their nose in Pedro Alvarez.
Why don’t people know more about Andrew McCutchen? Maybe it’s because he plays in small-market Pittsburgh on a team that has lost more than any other team in professional sports history. Maybe it’s because his calling cards are his on-base percentage and defensive value expressed by statistics, which are not household stats in baseball yet (although OBP is very close). It might be because on April 28, nearly a month into the season, McCutchen was hitting .202/.317/.348 with only 7 extra-base hits (four doubles, three home runs), 10 runs batted in, three stolen bases and three times caught stealing in 23 games. Whatever the reason is, Andrew McCutchen is the best player America has never heard of, a player who the fans did not know enough about to vote into the All-Star Game, who then was left off of the Final Vote ballot by Major League Baseball before finally being named as a replacement All-Star by National League manager Bruce Bochy.
In the 66 games after that slow start, McCutchen is hitting .322/.416/.566 with 18 doubles, four triples, 11 home runs, 46 RBIs and 12 stolen bases while being caught just twice. He has led the Pirates, who have suffered through 18 consecutive losing seasons, into first place in the NL Central. It is the latest into a season Pittsburgh has been in first place since July 17, 1997.
Andrew McCutchen does almost everything on a baseball field. He is a legitimate five-tool talent. He can hit for average while also being a disciplined hitter who can get on base by working out walks. At 24 years old, he is developing power at the plate, as he is on pace to hit 25 home runs this year. He may not be a basestealer of Jose Reyes’ caliber, but McCutchen’s speed and baserunning ability allow him to not only steal bases but more importantly, go from first-to-third on a single better than anyone in the game. Defensive metrics, as mentioned above, prove McCutchen to be possibly baseball’s best defensive outfielder. McCutchen also possesses an above-average arm in the outfield that has improved immensely throughout his three years in Pittsburgh. McCutchen’s talents might make him arguably the most valuable player in baseball, as he has the most wins-above-replacement (WAR) than any player in the National League when both Baseball-Reference WAR (5.2) and Fangraphs WAR (also 5.2) are combined.
There are many reasons why Andrew McCutchen may not be known as a superstar around baseball, but he is slowly working his way there. At 24 years old, the former first-round pick is living up to his potential as a five-tool player while leading the Pirates in what has been a magical season so far. He is truly one of the game’s most exciting and most talented players, yet only baseball’s most religious fans are familiar with that. Andrew McCutchen is quite simply the best player America has never heard of.
Scott Kornberg discusses the United States women’s soccer team, John Mackey’s death and the first half of the baseball season. Listen HERE!
As expected, the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies have proved to be the three strongest teams in baseball this year. However, the Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays continue to shock (most of) the world by being in contention for a playoff spot. The Rays are currently the furthest out of a playoff spot, just five games behind the Yankees in the American League Wild Card race and six games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. The Diamondbacks are just three games behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League West while the Pirates are just one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. The Indians currently stand 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.
There were two managers who had to be replaced already this year, yet neither was fired. Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez resigned after a horrific 1-18 start to the month of June (the Marlins finished the month 5-23). The Marlins began the month just two games behind the Phillies in the NL East but ended it 14.5 games back. Florida replaced Rodriguez with 80-year old Jack McKeon. McKeon led the 2003 Marlins to a World Series Championship, also taking over the helm in Miami at midseason during that year. Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics from 1940 through 1950 until the age of 87, making McKeon the second-oldest manager in baseball history. Florida was 32-39 under Rodriguez and are 11-8 with McKeon as manager.
The Washington Nationals also had to make a midseason managerial move. Washington was in the midst of an 11-1 run, putting them over .500 for the first time since the team moved to D.C. in 2005 when Jim Riggleman quit on June 23 due to a contract dispute with Nationals’ management over his option for next year. The Nationals tabbed Davey Johnson as his replacement. Washington is 6-8 under Johnson, but was 38-37 with Riggleman guiding the team.
There have also been some notable achievements by players through the first part of the year. Derek Jeter reached 3,000 hits with a home run at exactly two o’clock at Yankee Stadium to become the first Yankee to achieve that milestone. Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander each threw no-hitters within four days of each other, on May 3 and 7, respectively. Liriano walked six hitters and struck out two. Verlander struck out four and walked just one hitter in the seventh inning, beginning a streak of pitching at least eight innings in eight of his next 10 starts. Andre Eithier strung together a 30-game hitting streak that began on the second day of the season. The streak is the second-longest in Los Angeles Dodgers’ history and is the longest in the majors since the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman’s 30-game streak in 2009.
The first half of the season featured many close divisional races. In fact, there is no division separated by more than a 3.5 game lead. There are currently 17 teams, more than half the league, within 6.5 games of a playoff spot. This season is shaping up to have some terrific playoff races that will go down to the wire in September. Here are my predictions from the beginning of the season and how they stack up with what has happened so far this year:
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Chicago White Sox
2. Minnesota Twins
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Cleveland Indians
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Kansas City Royals
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
4. Seattle Mariners
1. Texas Rangers
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland Athletics
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Philadelphia Phillies (Wild Card)
3. New York Mets
4. Florida Marlins
5. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves
3. New York Mets
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Houston Astros
T-1. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
2. Colorado Rockies
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
1. San Francisco Giants
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres
No one in their lineup is hitting over .300. The most wins in a season any of their starting pitchers has ever had is 12. Their closer never had more than nine saves in a single season until this year. Yet, somehow the Pittsburgh Pirates are 45-41, just 1.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central as the calendar turns to July. After 18 consecutive losing seasons, including four straight last place finishes in the NL Central, is this the year the Pirates finally enter back into respectability, and possibly even the playoffs?
The 2010 Pirates had baseball’s worst pitching staff, finishing dead last in the majors with a .282 batting average against, .798 on-base plus slugging percentage against and a 5.00 ERA. Pirates starters threw just 871.2 innings, allowing opponents to hit .297 while posting a 5.28 ERA, all of which were last in baseball. As a whole, Pittsburgh’s staff has not ranked in the top half of the majors in either ERA or BAA since 2004, when they finished 15th in ERA (4.68) and 12th in BAA (.267).
However, the 2011 Pirates staff has been much more effective. Pirates pitchers rank eighth in ERA (3.39), tied for 15th in BAA (.254) and 12th in OPS (.703). Pittsburgh has no dominant starting pitchers, but Paul Maholm (18 starts, 5-9, 3.08 ERA, 1.129 WHIP in 114 innings), Kevin Correia (18 starts, 11-6, 3.74 ERA, 1.230 WHIP in 113 innings), James McDonald (17 starts, 5-4, 4.40 ERA in 92 innings), Charlie Morton (15 starts, 7-4, 3.63 ERA in 91.2 innings) and Jeff Karstens (15 starts, 7-4, 2.55 ERA, 1.074 WHIP in 98.2 innings) have given the Pirates many quality outings to form a solid one-through-five in the rotation.
The Pirates’ bullpen has been one of the best in baseball. Ranking seventh in ERA (3.15), 11th in innings pitched (252.1) and 14th in opposing OPS (.679), manager Clint Hurdle has done a very good job of placing his relievers in situations that play to their strengths. Jose Veras (43 games, 2-2, 2.50 ERA, 1.034 WHIP, 40 strikeouts in 39.2 innings), Chris Resop (42 games, 3-2, 3.46 ERA, 1.205 WHIP, 50 strikeouts in 39 innings), Daniel McCutchen (35 games, 2-1, 2.09 ERA, 1.233 WHIP in 43 innings) and rookie lefthander Danny Moskos (20 games, 1-0, 2.30 ERA in 15.2 innings) have all set-up save situations well for All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan (39 games, 0-1, 1.37 ERA, 0.941 WHIP, 33 strikeouts in 39.1 innings). Hanrahan has relied on his slider much less in 2011, throwing it 14.9 percent of the time this season compared to 38.7 percent of the time in 2010. Instead, he is using his blazing fastball almost exclusively, throwing it on 85.1 percent of his pitches with an average speed of 97 MPH this season compared to 61 percent last year. The new formula is working, as Hanrahan has recorded 26 saves this year, more than he had in his first four seasons combined in the big leagues.
Pittsburgh needs to keep getting the good pitching it has received this season to stay competitive in the Central. The Pirate lineup has very little pop in it besides the bat of Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting .291/.390/.494 with 22 doubles, three triples, 12 home runs, 46 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases. The Pittsburgh lineup ranks 21st in batting average (.246) and on-base percentage (.314), 22nd in the majors in both hits (702) and runs scored (333), 23rd in home home runs (56) and 26th in slugging percentage (.361). Young and talented players like 25-year old second baseman Neil Walker (.258/.324/.385, 8 homers, 55 RBIs), 24-year old third baseman (currently rehabbing at Triple-A Indianapolis) Pedro Alvarez (.208/.283/.304, 2 home runs, 10 RBIs, 42 strikeouts in 36 games) and 22-year old outfielder Jose Tabata (.265/.351/.354, 3 homers, 14 RBIs, 14 stolen bases) need to start hitting to their potential.
The case of Alvarez, rated the No. 8 prospect by Baseball America before the 2010 season, is particularly perplexing because of the way he hit towards the end of last season. In his last 54 games of the 2010 season, he hit .285/.351/.505 with 15 doubles, 9 home runs and 43 RBIs. The Pirates expected more of the same in 2011, but Alvarez was a major disappointment before injuring his quad on May 19. Once he returns from injury, Pittsburgh will need Alvarez to start to hit towards his potential and continue to progress towards being a potential star.
With their 5-1 victory over the Houston Astros last night, Pittsburgh is four games over .500, the most they have been this entire season. The last time Pittsburgh was this far above .500 this late in the season was on September 19, 2005. In fact, the Pirates have only been four games above .500 just twice since 2005, with the other time being on April 26, 2009.
Their recipe for success has been no secret. Pittsburgh will need to sustain its good pitching throughout the second half of the season to continue to be a threat to the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds in the Central. However, with pitchers who largely pitch to contact, opposing hitters’ batting average on ball in play indicates that the Pirates’ staff has been lucky throughout the first half of the season. Veras (.216), Resop (.290), Hanrahan (.262), McCutchen (.269), Karstens (.240), Correia (.272) and Maholm (.253) all have BABIPs well below the league average of .300. While the Pirates have young talent and their organization is certainly taking a step forward towards respectability this season, it is unlikely that Pittsburgh continues to float above .500 and fight in the Central unless the Pirates either suddenly start hitting better or are able to continue to get lucky on balls hit in play throughout the second half of the season. While they have been a great story up to this point, statistics say it is unlikely that the Pirates will continue to be a postseason threat over the final three months of the season.
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.