The Vigilant Month Lies Ahead, NL Playoff Contenders need to avoid the traps of July

First, some "on this date..." sort of history. The following links are how the major leagues have looked through games on June 27 in each of the last five seasons. The great thing about Baseball Reference's pages is that it includes the team's records after that date as well, so we can look at what makes the playoff teams tick, and why the also-rans prove pretenders. 

June 27, 2004

I want to take a close look at the AL Central in this season, as I think this shows where WolfMarauder was coming from in a discussion we had in last night's game thread. Whereas I was saying a team's performance in the first half is usually helpful in predicting the second half, this is a classic example of how that's not always the case. Minnesota, much like the Giants this season, had a start where their solid record seemed to indicate they were playing over their heads. If everything was completely predictable, we'd have expected them to come back to the pack in the second half. Instead they went 51-37, and it turned out that the won/loss record itself was more predictive of what that team was capable of than the runs scored/allowed were. In the NL, the Brewers were 41-34 after sweeping the Rockies at Coors Field to close out June, just 3.5 games back. By the trade deadline at the end of July, they were 50-53 and 16 games behind. The next few weeks will see some teams slip rapidly out of the chase.

June 27, 2005

Huston Street and the A's had actually started their great run of the summer of 2005 right about the time the Rockies started their run this year. On the morning of May 30, Oakland was 17-32, 12.5 games out of first. By June 27, they were 35-40, having gone 18-8 and just sweeping the Giants with a 16-0 slaughter. By the end of the season, they were 88-74, having gone 70-42 over their last 112 games. They wound up seven back after briefly tying for the division lead on September 15th and tiring out down the stretch run. 

June 27, 2006

Look at how the Rockies tanked for the rest of this season after being in a pretty good spot in the first half. The reason was losing 11 out of 12 just before and after the All-Star break where the team went 0-9 in games decided by two runs or less. One bad stretch was all it took to derail everything in what could/should have been the team's first successful season of a longer run, but instead the team proved to be the pretenders that most outside pundits had suspected at this point in the year. They made one more dash to within a couple of games of the NL West lead, but similarly to last night's game for the A's, it was an empty threat.

June 27, 2007

Of course, this was the complete opposite of 2006, where the Rockies were able to stay close long enough to put together the one outstanding run which proved them playoff worthy. But look closely at what happened to Milwaukee this season. On this date the team had a 7.5 game lead in the Central but went on a 3-7 road trip leading into the All-Star break, with their lead already whittled down to 4.5 games. By the time they got swept at St. Louis at the end of July, the Brewers lead had been cut down to one game. Of course they could only play spoiler for the Padres the last weekend of the season. I'm not saying anything, but how many games are the Dodgers ahead of the Rockies right now?

June 27, 2008

Don't tell Mets fans this, but their team didn't actually choke at the end of the season in 2008, they choked in the beginning. A .602 winning percentage in the last three months of the year would have been more than enough had the team gotten off to a start better than 31-34. They're slightly better than that right now in 2009, but looking at the very real threat of getting sifted out of a viable position to rally in the next few weeks due to injury. The lesson at the end of this 2008 season for the Mets and the aforementioned 2005 A's team might be of some concern to the Rockies, though. Sometimes a team can work so hard to catch up to a frontrunner that they "forget" to close out the deal. The 2007 Rockies team didn't have time for this to happen because they caught up on the last day possible, should the Rockies catch the Dodgers somehow this season, they've got to be careful to avoid the let-up in intensity that some teams seem to face.

So let's take a look at right now (well, through yesterday's games at BB-Ref):

June 27, 2009

 

What we know will happen:

 

Some teams will fade, some will surge going forward.


 

 

What we don't know for certain:

 

Which teams are which. This was WolfMarauder's primary point last night. There will almost always be some surprise team making a comeback or run, some powerhouse that falters. That said, not every team is created equal right now. Some are better than others.

So keeping in mind that there's no guarantee for any of the following, let's go to the next step,

 

What we can be reasonably confident about:

 

 

Regression

 - the Dodgers will still win more than they lose, but they're unlikely to win with the frequency they have up to this point. Similarly the Nationals will still lose more than they win, but their win percentage should drift a little closer to .500 going forward in 2009.

 

While what the Nationals do might not matter to the Rockies too much (save for the fact we have six games left to play against them) there is, for the moment, plenty of reason to take hope in that point about the Dodgers. The Rockies current run only has made them even with LA when it comes to records since Manny Ramirez's suspension. We were 8.5 games behind them on May 8, we're 8.5 games behind them now. Even so, we can take comfort in knowing that a strong series in Los Angeles this week could actually put the division title back in play, even with Ramirez coming back for them. Of course, the flip side is that getting swept in Los Angeles should finally put a flatline to our NL West hopes for this year, even after all that work by the valiant paramedics to recover a pulse. Regression will hit the Rockies too, they can't sustain the pace they've been on since Tracy took over forever, it's just a matter of who gets hit harder and sooner, the Dodgers or Rockies.

For the moment I'm going to put this aside, I think the end of July will tell us where things really stand with the West if this week doesn't. I'm hoping the Rockies are with striking distance then, but not counting on it.

 

What we can be a little less confident about, but is still probably true:

 

"...I don't sense a lot of activity this year. Too many teams are in the hunt. The Colorado Rockies were out of it, then won 11 in a row. Every club likes to think it can do that and get back in the race."

Brewers GM Doug Melvin to MLB.com's Hal Bodley

Certain teams are faking it at this point, and we can be at least somewhat confident that the Rockies aren't one of them. As the link theoldgrizzlybear gave to Jayson Stark in yesterday's Rockpile points out, while every club likes to think it has a run like the Rockies in them, Melvin's implication in the above quote, that most clubs are deluding themselves in this thought, is true. Runs don't happen to everybody and they seem to happen more frequently with certain teams than others.

To make a surge like that requires more than just a run of good luck, although that certainly plays a big part in it. All the basic elements of a strong baseball team have to be in place. Solid pitching, both starting and in relief, and especially a strong, deep lineup, and a quality bench.

I'm going to posit that while pitching is important for establishing a quality team, scoring typically drives the big streaks. It might be good to remind people that our starting rotation at the end of 2007 was Franklin Morales, Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Fogg and Mark Redman. Two journeymen, two rookies, and Francis. It doesn't take a genius to figure out it wasn't the talent level of our starting pitching that gave us the final push to the playoffs that season, even though these five pitchers did provide quality work. You look at Philadelphia both late in 2007 and 2008 and see the same story, hitting rich, pitching thin.

To further note this, in their last thirty games, the Rockies have scored seven or more runs nine times. The Giants have done this just four times. Meanwhile, the Giants have scored two runs or less seven times in the last thirty games, while the Rockies have done it four times, albeit not once since losing to Houston on June 2 and starting their remarkable run. To put it bluntly, the Giants simply haven't shown the offense to put together a streak like the one the Rockies just did. To this point, we also haven't seen any signs of that kind of surge generating offense from the Reds, Braves, Astros, or believe it or not, the Cubs in 2009. I'm going to keep the Cubs and Giants in the discussion today, but eliminate the other three teams to save myself some work. I'll probably revisit this topic a month from now, and if any of them have legs to stand on then, they'll be included in the next round.

 

Lineups:

 

Here are the ZiPS projected wOBA's for each contending team's primary starters for the remainder of the season, I have put the trailers in italics, and the projected leaders in bold font: 

Position Cubs Mets Phillies Rockies Giants Marlins Brewers Cardinals
Catcher .371 .313 .327 .373 .314 .312 .299 .312
1st Base .367 .362 .401 .389 .318 .342 .416 .455
2nd Base .259 .321 .411 .332 .313 .356 .312 .332
3rd Base .386 .413 .314 .365 .351 .284 .315 .315
Shortstop .284 .367 .338 .355 .314 .412 .334 .315
Left Field .352 .342 .377 .350 .332 .316 .417 .342
Center Field .342 .397 .351 .326 .347 .353 .345 .322
Right Field .381 .347 .364 .389 .340 .355 .346 .359

Chicago Cubs: ZiPS believes that Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley will all bounce back from their first half slumps, and with the return of Aramis Ramirez some time in July, there's substantial reason to see the Cubs as a better team than their current position in the standings would indicate. But there are issues here, particularly with relying too much on Soriano and Bradley, that when added to their current holes in the middle infield and decent competition leave me more doubtful that they've got another playoff run in them in 2009. There is a lack of star level offense in this lineup to begin with, but that's especially true if players continue to underperform. If I had to pick a team expected to perform at a playoff level in 2009 at the beginning of the season that I now thought would be the biggest disappointment, just by looking at the lineups, for me it would be this one, not the Mets.

New York Mets: New York looks like a formidable offense when healthy. Wait. Those last two words of the previous sentence are pretty important right now. Three key components to this offense are on the shelf, and their replacements leave the team vulnerable to the kind of mid-season collapse that hit the 2006 Rockies. But there are other issues at play here, too. While the team won't be at full strength when the Dodgers come to town before the All-Star Break, the Mets could be operating on all cylinders in time for the Rockies visit at the end of July. If you look at that offense at full strength, there's just one real weakness at catcher, and if their backstops get hot. They are definitely capable of an extended run, the question is whether that full health will ever completely come about as a lot of these parts outside of Wright and Reyes are on aging wheels that might fall off at any moment.

Philadelphia PhilliesThe Phillies main issue remains with their pitching staff, everybody can see this, but the offense has proven more than capable of keeping the team afloat so far. This same offense was what drove the Phils dramatic runs to overtake the Mets in each of the last two seasons.

"No one's out there dealing anybody or wanting to part with anybody because the pitchers who are available are, one, hurt, and two, pitching for teams that don't think they're out of the race yet," (Ruben) Amaro told Philled In. "I know because I've asked about every one of them."

From Phillies beat writer Scott Lauber's blog

Colorado Rockies: As with the Cubs, there's a lack of star power (over .400 wOBA) according to the projections, but unlike the Northsiders, the Rockies have the best all around offense among these teams, and make up for it with plenty of depth. I used Ryan Spilborghs' projection in left instead of Seth Smith (.374 projected wOBA) which would make it look even better or Carlos Gonzalez (.293),who would represent a hole unless he outperforms expectations as he's capable of. This won't be statistically satisfactory to a lot of people, but a big issue with the Rockies is complacency. They've shown over the last month what the team is capable of, but why exactly were they turned off in the first place? Jim Tracy has done a great job of motivating them to this point, but they can't afford another lull like the one they started the season with. There will be slow stretches in the second half, the team can't let them turn into extended slump.

San Francisco Giants: The Rockies have scored 129 runs in their last 21 games, the Giants have been on a pretty decent run themselves in that time, going 12-9. Their runs scored? 80. The Giants best 21 game stretch as far as runs scored this season? 97, which they've done twice. Since 2005 at least (that's as far back as I've checked so far) there hasn't been an NL playoff team without at least one 21 game stretch of scoring 120 runs or more. Even the 82-80 2005 Padres team did it. This San Francisco squad is not a team capable of taking off. If they are going to make the playoffs, it will be like a tortoise rather than a hare. I'm not saying it's impossible, I just don't like their chances. If other teams get significantly ahead of them, ahem, I mean you, Rockies, the Giants are going to have a Dickens of a time making up ground.

Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand says that his team hasn't given up on overtaking the Dodgers. "The wild card is not the goal," Rowand said, and Giants GM Brian Sabean agreed, saying, "We've got to find a way to get closer to first place."

From John Perrotto's Weekend Wrap at Baseball Prospectus (subscription required)

Florida Marlins: I know that this is the team in the rearview that's making Mets and Phillies fans more nervous than the Braves right now. It's why I'm including them instead. They have what I'm just going to call an "NL East Lineup" that has a batting star (Mets and Phillies each have two), a couple other solid players, but also significant holes to fill. Should they make a trade for another bat, they have a quality pitching staff and enough components that I really do see them as somewhat dangerous. Right now, though, I consider them a little short. 

Milwaukee Brewers: It's sort of baffling to me that this team is in the position it is, given three well below average lineup slots, but that's what stars the caliber of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder can do, I suppose. I think Milwaukee's good enough to hold up in the NL, better than Florida and San Francisco, but they too are flawed enough that they could fade without trade help.

St. Louis CardinalsIf you want to substitute Mark DeRosa's projected .348 wOBA in any of the positions he plays go ahead. The trade definitely seems like it might provide St. Louis some help on offense (realize that most Cardinal fans wouldn't trust the somewhat decent LF projection for Chris Duncan, for instance) and it makes the Cardinals a bit more tricky to get around, but DeRosa can only play one position at a time, and he's possibly a defensive liability at this point in the infield.

 

Pitching

 

So while I believe that dramatic runs are created by a team's offense, pitching and defense do supply the bread and butter and strength in these categories should, in theory, provide a cushion to fall back on in rough times with slow but steady returns. Think of the offense like stocks, pitching like bonds or CD's. This is how these eight teams rank in a few pitching metrics:

Team ERA FIP S-tRA B-tRA
Giants 3.71 3.88 4.28 4.01
Cardinals 3.86 4.05 4.12 4.93
Cubs 3.94 4.36 3.98 4.38
Mets 4.16 4.25 4.97 4.23
Marlins 4.43 4.12 4.86 4.63
Brewers 4.47 4.63 5.36 4.05
Rockies 4.55 4.10 4.27 4.15
Phillies 4.81 4.88 5.45 4.79

Alright, now this is sort of interesting to me. The Cardinals, who have the worst bullen of the eight contenders according to tRA, gave up one of their more promising young relievers to get Mark DeRosa. Granted Chris Perez wasn't performing that well thus far in 2009 because of a lot of walks, but he was a mildly valuable asset from a position of weakness that they sent packing to shore up their bench.

The Giants pitchers are very good, but not nearly good enough right now to make up for the weakness in their offense. Giving up 3.88 runs a game works on the surface, but if RA is only equal to RS, wins more than half the time are going to be hard to come by. What's more, the starting rotation might be a mirage after Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Randy Johnson (4.87 tRA) and Barry Zito (5.77) both have underlying weaknesses to their pitching lines that foretell trouble ahead, and Jonathan Sanchez has already been replaced. The stellar bullpen has been masking some of that rotational weakness and providing some cover to the offense, but I simply don't think this can last without an upgrade to the lineup.  

The Mets, Phillies, Brewers and surprisingly the Marlins have had relatively weak starting rotations thus far. Florida is seemingly given too much credit in this category, more than maybe they deserve. Milwaukee and the Mets have received help from their pens, Florida and Philly not so much.

The Cubs and Rockies are good enough on paper to compete for the rest of the season with their pitching right now, although knowing who he has, I could understand why O'Dowd would be looking for bullpen help. The Cardinals could also be better with stronger relief and the Cubs are having some bizarre drama with the top of their rotation that's probably just smoke from a blowhard media type, but may bear watching.

 

The Summer Shakeout:

 

Between now and the week following the All-Star break, it's almost a given that there will be some movement that puts a couple of teams now considering themselves contenders out of the running and separation within divisions should start to occur. We're already seeing it with San Diego and Arizona fading from being reasonably close to the non-Dodger NL West a month ago. As we've seen in the month of June with the Rockies, sweeps seem to happen with more frequency. Thankfully for us thus far, they've been in our favor, because as we saw in 2006, when your team gets swept this time of year, the effects down the road can really be a lot more devastating than might be initially realized.

The Rockies have a relatively easy patch of schedule between when they get back from this week's Dodgers series and when they leave for the Citi-Field matchup with the Mets at the end of July. The Dodgers have a harder road in front of them so the West could see some tightening. It's certainly important, however, that the Rockies use from now until the trade deadline to pass the NL East and Central leaders and get as much separation as possible. Both the Brewers and the Cardinals face the Dodgers next month as well as each other, so those teams could either spread the damage all around or drive one or more teams out of the picture. The Giants have the dreaded ten game post All-Star road trip that has seemingly tripped up so many would be contenders over the last five years, and with it ending at Coors Field July 24-26, the Rockies could be in a position to put San Francisco's thoughts of contention to rest. 

 

Bottom line:

 

Colorado currently has the best offense/pitching balance of these eight teams. Ooh, big surprise, this is a Rockies blog and I came to that conclusion. How homerific of me. Really though, it's hard to see it any other way. If you've got substantive arguments that point to another conclusion, I'd like to hear them. The reason the Rockies compete against the AL while most of the NL does not, clues us in that this team is constructed well. That said, I think the team has a smaller likelihood of getting significant help via trade than just about anybody else given the budget and Dan O'Dowd's approach as GM.

I think the Mets and Phillies lineups are capable of getting hot and producing major runs to pull out in the second half, but don't like the chances for the other five non-Rockies contenders outside of Milwaukee (see below) to put that kind of hot stretch together. I think the Giants could slowly bludgeon their way into the playoffs with good pitching, but the Cubs have too many teams to pass to be able to do the same right now. If Chicago still wants to compete in 2009, I really think they need to trade for more offense. They have both the young players and money to do so.

Philadelphia and New York are interesting cases. Troy Renck's right that the Mets are flawed, but so are the Phillies, and both in a relatively severe way when it comes to pitching. Both should have the money to be much better than this, and they have the payrolls to suggest they ought to be better, but the teams just seem inefficiently built when it comes down to it. As with the Cubs, these teams have resources, so we'll see who they acquire, but right now, I don't think the Rockies finish behind either team in the standings. The Mets current injury situation pushes the Phillies to the favorite role for the division title if they weren't already there before by virtue of their record and defending victor status.

I look at the Brewers and see the same pitching issue as the two main NL East teams and Milwaukee has deeper holes in the lineup at catcher and the middle infield, so I would think this would preclude them from the teams capable of big streaks. You look at what they did between April 22 and May 19 of this season (a 21-5 record in that stretch) and it proves the lie of that statement, however. Chemistry and some luck helps, I guess. The question, similar to the one we have with the Rockies is whether that team is capable of doing it again. The Cardinals are steady and Albert Pujols gives them something that the Giants or Cubs don't have right now, while they are getting close to the same kind of pitching performance that those two teams have. Right now, especially after the DeRosa trade, I think St. Louis is the favorite in the Central.

At this point, I'm regretting including the Marlins. They're just not as substantive on close inspection, and it's probably a testament to the weakness of the NL East this year that they are deemed the threat that they are. I would be very surprised if they stay a challenger for a playoff spot into August.

Right now if I'm guessing, I think the NL division leaders at the end of July are the same they are heading into the end of June, with the Central division being most in play, while the West could be surprisingly close to most observers outside of Colorado at the end . Besides Florida, look for San Francisco to fade over the next month as well, but if they don't it's probably a sign of destiny and we should lock ourselves in fallout shelters to protect ourselves from having to deal with Giants fans, who carry unpleasant side effects when they're winning.

 

While I see real weakness with those two teams, I wonder if my thoughts about the Cubs are more a hunch than anything substantial. I do feel that they and the other five teams, Colorado, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia and New York, should still be well within a safe contention buffer at the end of July, but the Yankees sweep shows how vulnerable the Mets may be right now, and New York could conceivably be put out of the running before they get back to full strength if the Phillies go on a run and the WC stays ahead of the NL East.

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