The 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks struck out 1,529 times, or 154 more than any other team. They were tied for 20th in the majors in batting average (.250) and ranked seventh in the National League in on-base percentage (.325) and eighth in runs (713). Pitching-wise, Arizona was even worse. Diamondbacks pitchers compiled a 4.81 ERA, good enough for 28th in baseball. They allowed 210 home runs, the most of any pitching staff and 24 more than the 29th-place Orioles. Arizona was 27th in runs allowed (836) and 26th in hits allowed (1503) while they finished 11th in the NL in walks issued (548) and 14th in strikeouts (1070). The Diamondbacks had 12 different pitchers, all of who accumulated a 4.39 ERA, which was 23rd among major league starting rotations, make a start. The inconsistency in the starting rotation led to an overworked bullpen that was already short on talent. Arizona had a major league-worst 5.74 bullpen ERA, a full run worse than Cubs’ bullpen, which finished 29th with a 4.72 clip. What all of the Diamondbacks’ inabilities added up to was a 65-97 finish, a full 27 games behind the NL West and eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
The 2011 season did not begin with much hope for improvement. After an 8-4 loss to the San Diego Padres on May 16, Arizona found themselves in last place of the West with a record of 17-23. However, from there, the Diamondbacks began their ascent towards the top of the division. Arizona won six straight games to vault themselves into third place, lost once and then won seven in a row to jump into first place. They have not been lower than second place since May 24, and with their current season-long nine game winning streak, have built a six game lead over the Giants in the division. How in the world did Arizona, which had a .406 winning percentage from the beginning of the 2010 season through May 16 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2008, turn their season around to take control of the West and become the story of the season?
Since May 16, the Diamondbacks are 61-36 (.629 winning percentage). The improvement of Arizona’s pitching is the main reason why they have been on such a role. Ian Kennedy, once a talented prospect with the New York Yankees who compiled a 6.03 ERA in only 12 starts with New York over three years, was given a chance by the Diamondbacks to work through his growing pains and learn how to become an effective major league pitcher. Kennedy has responded by leading the NL with 17 wins compared to just four losses. He has a 3.03 ERA, 1.121 WHIP and is striking out 3.29 batters for every walks (7.7 K/9 ratio) in 187.1 innings over 28 starts. Behind Kennedy in the rotation is another young and talented pitcher named Daniel Hudson, who the Diamondbacks acquired as the centerpiece of the Edwin Jackson trade with the White Sox near last year’s Trade Deadline. Hudson has excelled with the chance Arizona gave him, going 14-9 with a 3.61 ERA, 1.241 WHIP and a 3.60 K/BB ratio (6.9 K/9) in 187 innings over 28 starts this season. Thirty year-old lefty Joe Saunders (27 starts, 9-11, 3.82 ERA, 1.326 WHIP, 1.54 K/BB ratio in 172 IP) has been the consistent veteran presence in the rotation while rookie Josh Collmenter (20 starts, 9-8, 3.18 ERA, 1.046 WHIP, 3.67 K/BB ratio in 130 innings) has helped fill out the back of the rotation despite a fastball that averages just 87.4 miles per hour. Arizona has gotten inconsistency from its fifth starters this year, but should they reach the postseason, those four pitchers should give them a formidable rotation for the playoffs.
The Diamondbacks’ bullpen has also played a major role in Arizona’s rise to the top of the West. Three pitchers who were not on the team have helped both manager Kirk Gibson feel comfortable calling for relievers and lower the bullpen ERA from 5.74 a year ago to 3.61 (16th in MLB) this year. The trade of third baseman Mark Reynolds to the Orioles brought back David Hernandez, who has been the Diamondback’s top setup man, going 3-2 with a 2.72 ERA, 1.106 WHIP and 2.28 K/BB ratio (10.0 K/9) in 59.2 innings over 64 appearances. Joe Paterson, who Arizona selected from San Francisco in the Rule 5 Draft, has given Gibson a reliable lefty in the bullpen, going 0-3 with a 2.59 ERA, 1.181 WHIP and 2.17 K/BB ratio (7.5 K/9) in 31.1 innings over 55 games. The final piece of the puzzle to the bullpen’s improvement is J.J. Putz, who the Diamondbacks signed to be their closer this offseason. Putz had only five saves over the past two seasons, but is 2-2 with a 2.61 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, 35 saves and a 4.18 K/BB ratio (8.6 K/9) this year, shutting down opponents in the ninth inning. While Arizona’s bullpen still ranks in the middle of the pack in baseball, it has improved enough, along with its starting pitching and offense, to be a serious contender to go to the postseason.
The Diamondbacks’ offense, which was right about average in terms of scoring runs last year, certainly wasn’t the biggest reason why Arizona suffered through a miserable 2010 season. However, in 2011, the Diamondbacks’ most talented players, their outfielders, have stepped up after a disappointing 2010. Twenty-four year old right fielder Justin Upton has cemented himself as a Most Valuable Player candidate, batting .294/.373/.536 with five triples, 26 home runs, 80 runs batted in, 20 stolen bases and an NL-leading 36 doubles. Twenty-four year old left fielder Gerardo Parra is hitting .294/.355/.432 with 15 doubles, seven triples, seven homers and 34 RBIs and 27-year old center fielder Chris Young has posted a .232/.320/.418 batting line to go along with his 29 doubles, 19 home runs, 63 RBIs and 19 steals. The infield and catcher positions have given Arizona just enough offensively to complement its productive outfield, highlighted by catcher Miguel Montero (.276/.346/.458, 31 doubles, 14 homers, 72 RBIs) and third baseman Ryan Roberts (.257/.353/.438, 21 doubles, 17 home runs, 52 RBIs, 16 stolen bases). The Diamondbacks still strike out a ton offensively (1,066 punchouts – 4th-most in the NL), but they have improved on making contact at the plate, been optimistic and aggressive on the basepaths (109 steals – third in the NL) and have hit the ball very hard, as they currently rank sixth in the NL in doubles (239), fourth in triples (31) and third in both home runs (150) and slugging percentage (.413). Similar to their pitching, Arizona isn’t an elite offensive team, but have cut down on their mistakes at the dish just enough to compete in the NL West.
By playing .629 ball since a 17-23 start left them in the basement, the Arizona Diamondbacks find themselves as baseball’s surprise team, six games ahead of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants in the NL West. The question is, will the Diamondbacks be able to hold onto their lead with 25 games to play? Arizona is not an elite offensive or pitching team. They have improved just enough to overtake a slumping Giants team that has baseball’s worst offense. The Giants, who also happen to own the majors’ best pitching staff and only play NL West teams in their remaining 25 games, are 29-18 (.617) against the division, including 8-4 against the Diamondbacks. The two teams’ begin a three-game series in San Francisco tomorrow before playing three more games in Arizona from September 23 through September 25. The Diamondbacks are 30-23 (.566) against their remaining competition, which includes all four of their NL West rivals and three games with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Arizona Diamondbacks have been the story of the baseball season up to this point. They will need to beat the Giants and stay hot over the final month of the season for their magical ride to continue into the postseason this October.
The six pitchers who have started a game this season for the San Francisco Giants have combined for three Cy Young Awards and 10 All-Star Game selections in their respective careers. When looking at the names in the rotation, it makes sense why. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are two of the best young pitchers in Major League Baseball. Barry Zito used to excel across the bay with the Oakland Athletics before he signed with San Francisco. Neither Madison Bumgarner nor Jonathan Sanchez has a Cy Young Award or been selected to an All-Star Game, but Bumgarner, a 22-year old lefthander pitching in his first full big league season, is following in Lincecum and Cain’s footsteps while Sanchez certainly has All-Star ability, but has never been able to pitch with consistency in his career.
That is why it is so surprising that a 34-year old journeyman who last pitched in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006 has been the Giants’ best starter this season. In 120 career major league games (33 starts) before this season, Ryan Vogelsong’s career record was 10-22 with a 5.86 ERA. He had allowed 347 hits while walking 154 batters and striking out 216 in 315 innings (1.590 WHIP). This season, after pitching 2007 through 2009 in Japan and spending 2010 in the minors, he has pitched in 20 games, 18 of them starts, to go along with a 9-1 record, 2.19 ERA (best in the National League among qualifying pitchers), 1.243 WHIP, 103 hits allowed, 40 walks, 86 strikeouts and one shutout in 115 innings, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game in the process. Vogelsong has been a revelation in San Francisco’s rotation and has kept getting better as the season has gone along.
Vogelsong has allowed more than three earned runs in a game just once this season, a May 3 start in New York against the Mets in which he allowed five runs on five hits while walking four in four innings. That was just his second start and fourth appearance of the year. Since that game, he has made 16 appearances, all of them starts, with a 1.88 ERA and 73 strikeouts while walking 34 and allowing 91 hits in 100.2 innings. Opponents are posting just a .242/.309/.338 batting line against him and he has gone fewer than six innings in a start just three times during that time.
Some of Vogelsong’s success may be due to luck. He is striking out only 6.73 batters per nine innings and opponents’ batting average on balls in play is .274, below the league average of around .300. However, after four straight years of not pitching in the majors, Vogelsong has also seemed to learn how to become a better pitcher. He is throwing his fastball less (58.1 percent in 2011 compared to his career total of 68 percent) while eliminating his slider from his repertoire and instead throwing a cutter (12.3 percent in 2011 compared to 5.8 percent over his career), curveball (19.3 percent this year compared to a career average of 14.2 percent) and changeup (10.3 percent this season compared to 8.6 percent over his career) more. By relying less on his fastball and more on his secondary pitches, Vogelsong is inducing more groundouts than ever in his career, getting hitters to hit the ball on the ground 1.34 times for every flyball hit, well above his career average of 1.05.
He is also showing more control on the mound than he had in his first stint in the big leagues. In his first seven major league seasons with the Giants and Pirates from 2000 through 2006, Vogelsong struck out 6.2 hitters per nine innings and walked 4.4 per nine (1.40 K/BB ratio). His strikeout rate this year, 6.7 batters per nine, is relatively similar to his career average, but Vogelsong is walking hitters at a much lower rate in 2011, 3.1 per nine (2.15 K/BB ratio). This has been crucial to helping keep extra runners off the bases and preventing runs.
The San Francisco Giants’ rotation is filled with pitchers who have the ability to dominate just about anytime they trot out to the mound. However, it is a 34-year old journeyman, who last pitched in the major leagues in 2006, who has been the Giants’ best starting pitcher this season. Ryan Vogelsong has relied on his secondary pitches to gain more command of the plate and induce a greater amount of groundballs on the mound, leading the NL in ERA among qualifying pitchers. Even better for San Francisco, which holds a slim lead in the NL West over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Vogelsong has been improving as the season goes along. In a rotation filled with bright stars and promising young pitchers, it has been Ryan Vogelsong who has outperformed everybody for the San Francisco Giants in 2011.
After watching the San Francisco Giants acquire All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran and then take two of three games at Citizens Bank Park from the Phillies, Philadelphia general manager Reuben Amaro, Jr. knew he needed to upgrade a team that had lost its title as favorites to win the National League. All of a sudden, talks intensified between the Phillies and Houston Astros and outfielder Hunter Pence was sent north to don the Phillies’ pinstripes in exchange for four prospects.
The price is a lot to pay and will cost Philadelphia in the future, but Amaro, Jr. knows his team is built to win now. Not that Pence cannot help the Phillies in the future; The 28-year old outfielder is a two-time All-Star and is under team-control through the 2013 season. While he is not the kind of hitter Beltran is, Pence has hit 25 home runs in each of the last three seasons and is a career .290/.339/.479 batter. As he has entered the prime of his career this year, Pence is enjoying a career season, batting .308/.356/.471, career-highs in each category, with 11 homers and 62 runs batted in.
The key to this trade is that Pence provides a quality right-handed bat in the Phillies lineup. Philadelphia’s right-handed hitters with at least 100 at-bats this season are batting a combined .252 with a .313 on-base percentage. With the exception of switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, Philadelphia’s best bats come from the left side of the plate in Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. As a result, the Phillies have struggled against left-handed pitching, batting .235/.306/.354 as a team against southpaws compared to .254/.327/.401 against righties. Pence is a career .290/.340/.492 batter against lefties and should help balance the Phillies’ lineup to make them less vulnerable to left-handed pitching.
While Hunter Pence certainly does not have the pedigree of Carlos Beltran, who was recently dealt to the Giants, he certainly will have a large impact in Philadelphia. On a team that has struggled hitting lefties on the mound, Pence provides a solid right-handed bat for manager Charlie Manual to place right in the middle of the lineup. The addition of Beltran may have shifted the power in the National League to San Francisco, but dealing for Pence makes it a very close call as to who the favorite is to win the National League. Both teams have the two best starting rotations in baseball, Philadelphia with a 2.98 ERA and San Francisco with a 3.20 ERA. Meanwhile, the Giants have baseball’s most effective and deepest bullpen (2.81 ERA), featuring three lefties while the Phillies do not necessarily know what they will get from their bullpen (3.44 ERA) on a consistent basis. While neither lineup is dominating, Philadelphia certainly has the advantage there, especially with Pence providing a quality right-handed bat.
Both franchises have indicated their desire to win now in the last few days, respectively sending prospects for a player who has been an All-Star multiple times. After meeting in the National League Championship Series last season, the arms race for a World Series berth has continued between the Giants and Phillies this season. While the Atlanta Braves do have a very good team this season, the two favorites in the National League reside in San Francisco and Philadelphia. The Giants have staked their claim to NL supremacy with the acquisition of Carlos Beltran. The Phillies answered by trading for Hunter Pence. The move that works out better will determine the National League’s best team.
The San Francisco Giants have scored 373 runs this season, the third-fewest in the major leagues. They rank 24th in hits (849) and slugging percentage (.360), 26th in batting average (.241) and 27th in on-base percentage (.306). They have scored only 15 more runs than they have allowed. In comparison, the Boston Red Sox have scored 136 more runs than they have allowed. While the Philadelphia Phillies’ vaunted rotation gets more publicity, the Giants pitching staff has baseball’s lowest team ERA (3.09), batting average against (.228) and on-base plus slugging percentage against (.639). Knowing that he can put his pitching staff up against anyone’s in the majors, San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean needed to address one of the gaping holes in the Giants’ lineup to defend their World Series crown and fend off the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are three games behind them in the National League West. With the acquisition of Carlos Beltran, who will bat third in the order, Sabean did just that, immediately upgrading a weak order and making the Giants the favorites to win the NL pennant.
Beltran instantly becomes the Giants’ most dangerous bat in the lineup. The switch-hitting outfielder is a genuine star, a five-time All-Star who has won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers in his career. He has enjoyed four seasons with at least 25 homers and 25 steals. He had a 40-home run year in 2006. In 22 career postseason games, he is a career .366/.485/.817 hitter with 11 home runs and 19 runs batted in, including his .435/.536/1.022 batting line with eight homers, 14 RBIs and six stolen bases in 12 games with the Astros in the 2004 playoffs. Beltran adds an air of legitimacy to the San Francisco lineup, a potential Hall of Famer with a postseason resume that can only help the Giants in October.
At 34 years old, Beltran is quietly having another good season. He leads the NL with 30 doubles and is batting .289/.391/.513. No Giant has reached 10 home runs yet this season, and as a team, San Francisco has hit only 66 round-trippers. Beltran has hit 15 this year, playing in spacious Citi Field for the Mets. Only one Giant, Aubrey Huff, has driven in at least 40 runs this season. Beltran has 66 RBIs of his own. Beltran should help ease the burden on Pablo Sandoval (.298/.344/.485, nine HRs, 36 RBIs), Nate Schierholtz (.283/.325/.439, seven HRs, 37 RBIs), Cody Ross (.252/.341/.367, seven HRs, 30 RBIs) and Huff (.239/.294/.362, nine HRs, 47 RBIs) in the middle of San Francisco lineup immediately.
The San Francisco Giants’ starting rotation and bullpen forms the deepest and most dominating pitching staff in the majors. However, a porous offense made a repeat trip to the playoffs, let alone a second consecutive World Series championship, a question. The Giants have found the answer to some of their offensive woes in Carlos Beltran. Beltran’s talent as a hitter and his postseason pedigree should immediately pay dividends for San Francisco. While he cannot transform the Giants offense overnight, he becomes the San Francisco’s most dangerous hitter, a power threat in the middle of the order who should help ease the pressure on the rest of the Giants offense. Now that the San Francisco lineup finally has a dynamic bat in the middle of the order, the Giants have to be considered the favorites to repeat as NL Champions. Carlos Beltran will have a massive impact on the San Francisco lineup, one that may just well push the Giants over the top again towards a World Series championship.
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.