The Monday Night Madness podcast is back!
Luke Jackson, Matt Castello and I bring on Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus to talk about the World Series. We also talk about Week 7 in the NFL and the opening part of the NHL season and how it has been affected by the NBA lockout.
Listen to our interview with Jay right here:
I do a weekly talk show with a friend of mine, Luke Jackson, on WMUC Sports every Monday from 7-9 p.m. This week, we interview Baltimore Sun Maryland Terrapins beat writer Jeff Barker. We then talked about Terps football, Week 1 in the NFL and the Major League Baseball pennant races.
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To download and listen to our interview with Jeff Barker, click here.
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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.
When Cliff Lee left Texas to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies in the winter, the Rangers’ front office knew their quest to defend the American League pennant had become that much more difficult with a weakened starting rotation. This year though, Texas has gotten good production from their starters, ranking sixth in the majors with a 3.50 ERA. Pleasant surprises in the back end of its rotation from Alexei Ogando (20 starts, 10-5, 2.88 ERA, 1.040 WHIP, 93 strikeouts in 125 innings) and Matt Harrison (20 starts, 9-7, 2.94 ERA, 1.245 WHIP, 80 strikeouts in 125.1 innings) have helped make up for the loss of Lee. However, with the Rangers only two games up on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL West, Texas general manager Jon Daniels knew he had to be aggressive to give his team’s pitching a lift heading into the stretch run of the season.
With no frontline starters on the market this year, unlike when the Rangers acquired Cliff Lee last July, Daniels turned his eye on solidifying a bullpen that ranked 26th in baseball with a 4.35 ERA. He came away with the two best set-up men on the market, dealing pitching prospects Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland for the Padres’ Mike Adams, and sending first baseman Chris Davis and pitcher Tommy Hunter to the Orioles for Koji Uehara. The price was high in both deals, especially Erlin, who was Texas’ fourth-best prospect. However, in return, the Rangers now have two relievers who have combined to throw 96 innings, allowing only 15 earned runs (1.41 ERA) on 51 hits while punching out 113 and walking only 17 batters.
By dealing for Adams and Uehara, respectively, the Rangers effectively make the game into virtually a six-inning affair. If a Texas starter can get through six innings, Rangers manager Ron Washington can turn to a combination of Uehara, Adams, Yoshinori Tateyama (24 games, 1-0, 3.20 ERA, 0.908 WHIP, 27 strikeouts in 25.1 innings) and lefthander Darren Oliver (40 games, 3-5, 2.23 ERA, 1.101 WHIP, 31 strikeouts in 36.1 innings) for the seventh and eighth innings before closer Neftali Feliz (40 games, 0-2, 3.26 ERA, 21 saves, 1.267 WHIP, 27 strikeouts in 38.1 innings) takes over for the ninth.
With no starting pitchers able to go at least seven innings in every single start like Lee was capable of, a struggling bullpen was something Jon Daniels needed to address this trade deadline. The additions of Mike Adams and Koji Uehara instantly provides depth and improves the bullpen to one of the strengths on the team. Their presence should ease the pressure on Texas’ starters, who often had to pitch deeper into games than they would have liked due to an unreliable group of relievers. Combined with Oliver and Tateyama, the Rangers now have one of the deepest and most formidable group of set-up men in baseball to bring the game into Neftali Feliz’s hands in the ninth. The Rangers were not able to acquire a top-of-the-line starting pitcher this July. However, by bringing in Adams and Uehara, Texas will be able to turn out the lights and make games turn into a six-inning affair.
After losing two of three games at home to the punchless Florida Marlins, the Texas Rangers woke up on July 4 in a first place tie with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The defending American League champions had certainly underachieved through the first 85 games of the season, leaving Texas just four games over .500 with a record of 44-41. However, when the Rangers welcomed in the Baltimore Orioles for a three-game series later that night, their season completely changed.
Since that first game against Baltimore, Texas has won 11 straight games, suddenly looking like the well-balanced squad who defeated the New York Yankees with strong pitching and timely hitting in the American League Championship Series last season. During this 11-game stretch, the Rangers have scored 70 runs, averaging 6.4 runs per game, while the their pitching staff has allowed only 24 runs, limiting opponents to 2.2 runs per game.
The Rangers’ bats set the tone early in the streak. Texas scored at least six runs per game in five of the first six games, the exception being a 4-2 win on July 5 against the Orioles. However, the Rangers did not score more than five runs in any of their next five victories. It is their pitching that has kept Texas in the win column during the second part of their streak. At one point during their streak, the Rangers threw shutouts in four of six games. In the past five games, Texas has allowed just two runs.
Texas’ starting rotation has done a terrific job of not letting the Rangers fall behind early in games. The Rangers have trailed only twice, for a total of 10 innings, in the past 11 games. During the win streak, Colby Lewis is 2-0 with a 2.91 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 21.2 innings. Matt Harrison is 2-0 with a 1.27 ERA, 16 strikeouts and two walks in 21.1 innings. Derek Holland has thrown 18 scoreless innings, going 2-0 while allowing only 12 baserunners and striking out 15. C.J. Wilson is also 2-0 with a 3.21 ERA and 15 punch outs in 14 innings.
The Rangers’ bullpen has also done a phenomenal job of shutting the door on opponents in the late innings. Texas relievers have allowed only three runs in 16 innings (1.69 ERA) with Neftali Feliz racking up four saves in the process.
Offensively, Michael Young has stayed hot during Texas’ winning streak, hitting .390/.419/.610 with four doubles, one triple, one home run and eight runs batted. However, a number of Texas bats have heated up along the way to protect Young in the lineup. Mike Napoli (.423/.464/.923 with four doubles, three homers and nine RBIs during 11-game winning streak), Ian Kinsler (.326/.404/.652, six doubles, three home runs and five RBIs) Josh Hamilton (.293/.313/.512, three doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs), Elvis Andrus (.357/.404/.429, three doubles, four RBIs, two stolen bases) and Endy Chavez (.462/.444/.654, two doubles, one home run, five RBIs, two steals) have helped form the deep and dangerous lineup that Texas had lacked until those players started their own fireworks show on Independence Day, a show that has continued throughout the Rangers’ win streak. Texas’ lineup finally looks like it has in years past, with threats at the plate one-through-nine in the order who constantly make the pitcher work.
Since July 4, the Texas Rangers have suddenly clicked after not playing to their potential through the first half of the season. Strong pitching and an offense that is displaying the firepower it is capable of has led the Rangers to an 11-game winning streak. Texas has spread its lead in the AL West over the Angels to four games. The Rangers now head to Los Angeles for a three-game series with the Angels that starts tonight. If baseball’s hottest team can keep it up, Texas can push the Angels even further into their rearview mirror. They may have underachieved through the first half of the season, but this winning streak has the Texas Rangers firing on all cylinders. Just like that, they look like they will be a serious threat once again in the American League come October.
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!