Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 10! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (4-2 last week, 40-21 overall) → As Buster Olney proffered on the Baseball Tonight podcast earliest this week, the Giants are official ridiculous. At 40-21 overall, they’re on pace for a 106-win season, and unsurprisingly have the best playoff odds of any NL team (95.7%). And while they’ve largely done it with pitching (they rank 3rd amongst all ML teams in ERA and BAA, and second in WHIP), their offense has kicked it up a notch of late too. Pablo Sandoval, who was hitting .171 heading into a May 10th game against the Dodgers, has been on fire ever since, batting .340 with six homers and a .932 OPS in a 105 plate appearance sample size. Buster Posey meanwhile, looks to be finally getting back to his MVP-level usual at the dish; his two-run homer (his eighth of the year) off reliever Carlos Torres broke a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning yesterday, not only gave the Giants the lead for good, but extended his hitting streak to five games and concluded his second three-hit effort in less than a week. Every single everyday player in fact, now has an OPS+ over 100 (league average). The moral as always: beware the Bay in an even-numbered year.
- Washington Nationals (5-1, 31-28) ↑ Doug Fister‘s stats in the five games he has started since his disastrous Nationals debut: 32.1 innings pitched, 25 hits allowed, 2 walks permitted, opposing batters line of .212/.236/.347, 2.23 era, 5-0 record. Hold on, I’m busy getting flashbacks of my feelings circa 2010 about the robbery of Pau Gasol by the Lakers. What a steal.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (3-3, 32-30) → Jonah Keri did a fantastic job yesterday breaking down the Matt Kemp quandary, and the Dodger’s unenviable outfield problem: in Keri’s words, “They have four outfielders making too much to sit on the bench, and, despite the seemingly impossible math, Kemp is the fifth-best option.” And that doesn’t even factor in the team’s top prospect, Joc Pederson, who is raking at Triple-A at the moment and would immediately be their best defensive center fielder if he were to be called up to the majors. The Giants are now 8 games ahead in the NL West by the way.
- Atlanta Braves (3-2, 32-27) → Congratulations to Craig Kimbrel, who at the tender age of 26, yesterday surpassed John Smoltz as the Braves’ all-time leader in saves, notching no. 155 in a 5-2 win over Arizona. Since debuting in 2010, his 43.1% strikeout rate leads all relievers, as does his 1.41 ERA. During that span, he’s been worth 10.3 WAR (the next highest is Greg Holland at 8.4), and blown just 17 save opportunities. Without question, the best closer in baseball.
- Milwaukee Brewers (3-4, 36-26) →
- St. Louis Cardinals (2-4, 31-31) ↓
- Miami Marlins (4-3, 32-29) ↑
- Colorado Rockies (0-6, 28-32) ↓ Did I, or did I not say regarding Eddie Butler‘s debut, “He’ll be going up against Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Dodgers when he makes his debut at Coors Field on Friday, so perhaps don’t rush out to add him in your fantasy leagues just yet.” 5.1 Innings, 13 base runners, and 6 earned runs later, you can’t say you weren’t warned. The Rockies are in the mire right now, and looking at their upcoming schedule (they’re facing Greinke and Kershaw this weekend, before series vs. Atlanta, at San Francisco, at L.A., vs. MIL, vs. STL, at MIL, at WASH, vs L.A.) there’s not much relief on the horizon. Oh well, Colorado: Contenders, was fun while it lasted.
- New York Mets (3-4, 28-33) →
- Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2, 29-31) ↑ Cannonball coming! Since losing the first game of a doubleheader to the Yankees back on May 18th, the Bucs have walked away victorious in 12 of their last 18 outings. Josh Harrison has been a minor revelation in that time, batting .325/.366.519 while playing some nice defense out in right field, putting some pressure on Starling Marte out in left. Though an excellent defender, Marte has batted just .234 with a .665 OPS this year, and has been banished to the bench by Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for the Pirates’ last three games. With Gregory Polanco presumably on the way in the very near future, could it in fact be Marte most at risk of losing playing time? Just two games behind the Cardinals for second place in the NL Central, and with an extremely favorable schedule over the next month, the Pirates have a real chance to make a push for the postseason at the moment. Playing their best guys would be a good idea (#FreePolanco!).
- Cincinnati Reds (3-3, 27-32) ↓ I’d have laid big money on Johnny Cueto notching another shutout against the hapless Phillies offense yesterday. Instead, it was the Reds who were anemic on O, and Cueto gave up four runs on six hits, walking one and striking out five over five innings in the 8-0 loss. Can we tie this Cincinnati season in a bag, weight it down, and toss it overboard yet? Please?
- San Diego Padres (2-4, 27-34) →
- Philadelphia Phillies (1-6, 25-34) → As much as I like Aaron Nola as a pitching prospect, I’m still struggling to figure out why the Phillies popped him at no. 7 overall in the 2014 Amateur Draft. The LSU junior projects to have one of the quickest progressions to the majors, á la Michael Wacha, which would make sense if the Phillies were in the pennant race this year and needed immediate back-end rotation help, or expected to contend in 2015. Unfortunately, Philadelphia are neither, and having gone 5-12 in their last 17 games, are in imminent danger of being surpassed by the Diamondbacks in these rankings.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 26-37) →
- Chicago Cubs (5-1, 24-34) → After the selection of Kyle Schwarber, a catcher at Indiana, but likely left fielder or first baseman in the majors, as the no. 4 overall pick on Thursday, a trade of some of the Cubs’ ultra-stocked position player crop for some young pitching talent (or perhaps, David Price) has to be on the horizon right?
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 10!
On Friday my 2014 MLB Season Season Preview Series covered the emergence of Padres RHP Tyson Ross, of whom San Diego will be hoping can parlay his post All-Star break surge last season into a full season of domination in 2014. Today, I round out the NL West as my focus moves up the California coastline to San Francisco, who had their own second-half breakout performer in 2013; after having experienced a couple of rough seasons since entering the majors as a much-hyped prospect, Brandon Belt looks ready to become one of the best first basemen in the game.
I first hopped on the Brandon Belt bandwagon by playing simulation baseball when I should have been revising for my exams – Out Of The Park Baseball was just far more interesting to me than Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, as any sane person will attest. Anyhow, with his entrancing 5-star potential drawing my hypothetical GM attention, Belt was always a prime trade target for my many simulated franchises. And such was his top prospect status at the time, he always raked. Accordingly, when the lanky first baseman made it to the majors in 2011, there was one guy across the Atlantic Ocean who joined the thousands of Giants fans in San Francisco in expecting big things. The significant geographic removal however, did not diminish my disappointment when the lynchpin of my fake teams appeared not to be the destined star I, and many Giants fans, had assumed.
Selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, Belt spent two years in the minors, advancing quickly by virtue of his posting a slash line of .343 .457 .596 over 189 games. As a much-hyped rookie in 2011 then, Belt struggled to a .225 batting average in 209 PAs and often found himself relegated to the bench – losing playing time to both over-the-hill World Series hero Aubrey Huff and .233-career hitter Brett Pill. Though 2012 saw Belt’s core statistics improve (he hit .275 with a .360 OBP, though just 7 HRs), his playing time still suffered on account of his platoon splits; manager Bruce Bochy‘s reluctance to provide Belt much-needed playing time against fellow lefties drawing the ire of many internet commenters who saw his development stall while buried on the bench. Without the trust of his manager entering 2013, Belt did little to improve his own situation; stubborn to adjust the approach that had brought him so much success in the minors, he continued to hit poorly – at least by a first baseman’s standards – his batting average falling to .260, and continued to play inconsistently.
The turnaround for Belt came on an otherwise innocuous trip to Philadelphia in late July – which he entered with a 1-19 streak – where at the behest of hitting coach Hensley Meulens, he sought out Phillies outfielder Dominic Brown. Brown had significantly cooled down from his ridiculous 12 HR month of May, but was nonetheless enjoying a undeniable breakout – a fact Meulens had noted when coaching him at the All-Star game, along with the physical similarities of Brown and his struggling first baseman. As reported by Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News, Brown had told Meulens how he had simply changed his grip on the bat, and had seen immediate results. Willing to try something new in attempting to turn around his season, Belt decided to give it a go too, figuring “if it only took him a couple of days, maybe I can do it in a couple of days, too.” Belt spent three days on the bench in Philadelphia working on developing his new swing in conjunction with moving back in the batter’s box; when he returned from the self-enforced absence, Belt was a different player.
In the month of August, Belt hit .350 with a 1.051 OPS; in September and October, .341 with a .910 OPS. Armed with a new, more level swing, he not only successfully lowered his strikeout rate (23.5% in the first half, 19.8% in the second), but more importantly cut his FB% from 43.9 to 38.9. With his home AT&T Park the biggest drain of lefty power across the majors in 2013 per Fangraphs thanks to the cavernous dimensions of right field, Belt started lacing line drives into the gaping space rather than continually sending fly balls to die; his second half line drive rate of 27.7% marked a raise of 6.2% from his pre-break rate. By then end of the season, Belt had pulled his slash line up to .289/.360/.481 while also setting career highs home runs (17), runs scored (76) and RBIs (67). Despite his slow start too, his eventual 139 wRC+ led the team; by statistical measures at least, the man affectionately dubbed ‘Baby Giraffe’ had become the Giants’ best offensive player.
With runs once again expected to be at a premium in San Francisco, the Giants will certainly need their lanky lefty’s breakout to be real if they are to return to the top of the NL West; a stern task in a division which includes the reigning Dodgers, gritty Diamondbacks, and supposedly improved Padres (sorry Rockies fans – it just ain’t happening this year). Slated to be the club’s no. 3 hitter on Opening Day – ahead of the big bats of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, and just plain big Pablo Sandoval – Belt will have every chance to demonstrate last year’s development was legitimate. It might have taken a couple of years to earn the opportunity, but Brandon Belt finally looks poised to lead the Giant’s offense.
They can only hope he produces like he did on my simulation teams.