THE SECRET SAUCE
My pals at Baseball Prospectus have a little congeries of stats we call the Secret Sauce. Introduced in the book, Baseball Between the Numbers, to which your humble host contributed a chapter and a little page about the relationship between stats and Stephen King’s “Cujo,” the Secret Sauce ranks teams by how well they do in the three key areas that correlate to winning postseason games. As explained here by sauce-master Nate Silver, they are:
1. A power pitching staff, as measured by strikeout rate.
2. A good closer.
3. A good defense.
I won’t get into how these ranking are derived, because they involve some of those esoteric statistics that I suspect make many of y’all’s eyes glaze over. Still, we can appreciate what the rankings say by looking at some more commonplace measures. Here is how the likely postseason teams fare, in reverse order:
No. 20 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
The Phillies have been strong in strikeouts, both in the rotation, where Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have done their part, and particularly in the bullpen, but the pen has been a disaster overall, accounting for the team’s low ranking here. As of today, Brad Lidge and Charlie Manuel are still trying to figure out what the former’s role will be going forward, which is a problem given that the season is nearly over. You wouldn’t want to say that Lidge has gone Steve Blass on the Phillies, but six walks and two home runs per nine makes a compelling case that he has. The Phillies can at least take justifiable pride in their strong defensive infield of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz.
No. 13 TEXAS RANGERS
The Rangers, second in the American League in runs allowed (4.41 per game; the Mariners lead at 4.36), are third from last in strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests a lot of balls in play. The reason that this is a particularly bad thing in the playoffs is pretty basic: In a regular season game against the Baltimore Orioles, your team might fail to get a lot of strikeouts but nothing happens anyway, because when they hit the ball it goes “piff,” not “boom!” In the playoffs, where the best offenses are usually to be found, balls in play tend to do real damage. Note that AL starters are averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings; Rangers starters are whiffing 5.6.
The Rangers have been solid on defense, with the second-best record in the league of turning balls in play into outs (that’s how they survive the weak strikeout rate). Frank Francisco has been effective, if not a lights-out closer. Neftali Perez’s crazy debut doesn’t enter into these calculations, but you can’t forget about him when talking about the Rangers’ end game.
No. 11 THE LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA, USA
The Angels get knocked down on the power pitching angle, as overall they are a tick below average in strikeouts per nine, and in defense, which has been just average or a little below. Call it the Bobby Abreu Effect. Closer Brien Fuentes leads the AL with 40 saves but has also blown six, and right-handed hitters are slugging .462 against him. None of this is a reason to take the Angels likely, as Jered Weaver and John Lackey, combined with their fine offense, should be able to keep them in at least the first two games of any short series. Still, this is not Mike Scioscia’s usual flavor of team.
No. 10 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals get strikeouts from starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. The rest of the rotation, and even closer Ryan Franklin, allows the opposition to put more balls in play than is typical. Joel Piniero, who would be the third starter in any playoff scenario, gets by on exquisite control (just one per nine innings) and a high groundball rate. Franklin, formerly an unexceptional starter and reliever, leads the NL in saves with 37 and has a 1.67 ERA and it’s deserved — he’s actually done a good job of stranding inherited runners as well as keeping runners off base in the first place. He’s blown three saves all year long. While the bubble could burst at any time, particularly in October, at this point you have to take Franklin seriously. Cards’ defense has been problematic at times, especially at second base, where converted outfielder Skip Schumaker is making a game effort at competence.
No. 6 COLORADO ROCKIES
The Rockies are about average as National League strikeout rates go, in part because Jason Marquis and Aaron Cook drag down the numbers. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa do get batters to swing and miss. The bullpen has also been solid in the swing-and-miss department. The real problem right now is overall depth, with Cook and Huston Street injured. Both are supposed to be back ere long. One potential equalizer for the Rockies is former starter Franklin Morales who (shades of Phil Hughes) has moved into the pen and has been throwing bullets from the left side. When their park is taken into account, Rockies fielders have been solid if unexceptional. Street has converted 33 of 34 saves and has even held left-handed batters in check, a problem for him in the past.
No. 5 DETROIT TIGERS
The Tigers have allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL, just 4.5 per game. Their strikeout rate is roughly average, with only starter Justin Verlander, who leads the league with 230 strikeouts, really jumping out in that department. The Tigers have been an average to slightly above average fielding club, with few standout performances (Clete Thomas has been strong in right field, though he can’t hit like a right fielder) but no truly poor ones either, and overall they rank in the top half of the AL in turning balls in play into outs. Desperation closer Fernando Rodney has blown only one save all year, but walks too many batters for comfort against strong postseason lineups.
No. 4 BOSTON RED SOX
We begin with Jonathan Papelbon. We continue to the staff overall, which is tied with the Yankees for the league lead in strikeout rate, propelled by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Papelbon. We conclude with a defense that has been surprisingly weak. The outfield has been defensively shaky, the infield has lacked a shortstop of any defensive quality until Alex Gonzalez came over, and Kevin Youkilis has had to play too much third base, not to mention a couple of scary games in left field.
No. 2 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Joe Torre’s guys have perhaps the best defense in the game this year, which is a novel thought for those of us used to watching even Tommy Lasorda’s good teams juggle balls. They lead the NL in turning balls in play into outs, receiving fine defensive performances around the infield (though Orlando Hudson has not been at his best) and from center fielder Matt Kemp. Manny Ramirez is the exception that proves the rule. They are third in the NL in strikeout rate, an advantage that doesn’t wholly disappear when you start adjusting for park effects. Starter Chad Billingsley is whiffing eight per nine innings, lefty Clayton Kershaw 10, and closer Jonathan Broxton 13.6. It should be noted that the rest of the pen is not particularly intent on the strikeout, a possible vulnerability. Broxton has blown five saves in 39 chances, which is shaky by today’s standards.
No. 1 NEW YORK YANKEES
I probably don’t have to give you much detail here. The Yankees are tied for the league lead in strikeout rate, have the most reliable closer in the game, and ra
nk third in the league in turning balls in play into outs. The high rankings in all three categories boosts the Bombers to the top of this list.
None of the foregoing guarantees anything, but it’s a reassuring indicator. Historically, teams with large helpings of these qualities have gone far in October. The Yankees haven’t had all of the elements line up in the same place at the same time in quite a few years. In fact, the last time the Yankees came this close to the top of the Secret Sauce list, the year was 1998.
OPENING WITH AN IMPORTANT PARENTING QUESTION
If you’re driving your third grader to school, and you and she are cruising down the road singing “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” are you being a bad parent? It’s good to instill independent thinking and a healthy disrespect for authority, right? Next time, we’ll probably work on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters, and You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. I wonder if there’s a cover by those Australian guys with the colored uniforms …
WANG IS BACK/THE PHILLIES ARE HERE
… And given that he’s going to be hanging in the ‘pen in a long relief role, you’d hope the Yankees won’t actually need him. With the way the Phillies hit and A.J. Burnett’s propensity for high pitch counts, they very well might … This is actually a fascinating series, the champs against the Yankees. That part is obvious. Within it, though, you have some wonderful matchups, particularly Cole Hamels against CC Sabathia on Sunday, some terrific hitters that the Yankees don’t ordinarily see, such as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. Actually, they used to see Ibanez quite a bit; he’s a career .281/.338/.418 hitter against them in 74 games — which is nothing compared to the way he murderized the Nats last weekend. The Yankees also get to see how their new ballpark’s walls do against the team that’s leading the Senior Circuit in home runs. On Saturday, keep an idle brain cell on Andy Pettitte’s reverse split — lefties hit him quite well, which at the very least Howard, who can often be neutralized by southpaws (although he can still hit their mistakes quite a long way), should be right in the game against him.
Finally, keep in mind that the Phillies have played nine games against the Nationals and three against the Padres. That’s 12 of 39 games against less than quality opponents. This will particularly show up in their pitching, which hasn’t been pretty to begin with, looking fairly vulnerable to Yankees’ bats.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Phillies 12, Reds 5: Trying to identify the best hitter in the Phillies lineup is like trying to pick the best Cole Porter song — there are too many choices, and it really depends on which version you’re catching on a given night. My pick is Raul Ibanez, but Jimmy Rollins went 4-for-6 last night and you might pick him, or prefer “You’re the Top.” You could be wrong, though, because the correct answer is also Chase Utley (3-for-4 with a double and a home run) and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” You might not be surprised by this, but in preparing this comment, I burned 20 minutes watching Ethel Merman clips on YouTube, including three and a half minutes of biography narrated in Japanese. My world of free association is strange, but mostly I enjoy it. On the Reds’ side of the ledger, the good news for the day is that Joey Votto isn’t going the way of the vertiginous Nick Esasky. That’s so much more than a consolation prize.
Tigers 4, Rangers 3: It looks more and more like the Rays moved on Edwin Jackson just when he was finally ready to blossom, but that was a move born of financial, not baseball, considerations. The Rangers took six walks and still lost — no doubt they’ve learned their lesson and will never do it again. I’m curious about who told Jim Leyland that Clete Thomas is his No. 3 hitter. Then again, given injuries and Magglio Ordonez’s personal leave, I’m not sure who his No. 3 hitter should be either. Al Kaline? On an unrelated note, it occurs to me (still distracted by YouTube) that if NoŽl Coward had only sung “Mad Dogs and Baseball Players” we would have had a great explanation of the need for night games.
Twins 20, White Sox 1: I can’t even use a football joke, because how did the Sox score one point in a football game? Two points I could have worked with. In anything but a response to yesterday’s rant on the Twins’ No. 2 spot in the batting order, Ron Gardenhire moved Joe Mauer up there and got 3-for-4 with six RBIs, including a grand slam. See what happens when you use your brain for something other than making up dirty pictures?
Indians 8, Royals 3: It’s not that Carl Pavano outpitched Zack Greinke, it’s that the Royals aren’t serious. How else to explain consecutive losses out of the bullpen by Horacio Ramirez and Sidney Ponson? You’d be better off throwing darts at your Minor League rosters — right down to the rookie leagues — and calling up whoever you land on than foisting these retreads on the fans and your players, who are presumably making a serious effort to, y’know, bring some glory back to your once top-of-the-line franchise.
Rays 6, Athletics 5: Fun to see Adam Kennedy put a little spark into the A’s lineup, and a bit sad and desperate, too … Ben Zobrist is now 4-for-11 with three home runs as a pinch-hitter. Also, scratch another ballpark concept for the Rays. This one was sunk due to location issues rather than financing; the latter battle hasn’t even been fought as of yet. In that sense, the delay is good for the Rays. They can hope that flush times return before they nail down a new spot. And good luck with that.
Rockies 9, Braves 0: Aaron Cook is the Wang of the West, and if he pitched elsewhere more would know it (4.14 career ERA in 457 career innings). Beyond the whole not-scoring thing, it was a disastrous night for the Braves, as promising pitching prospect Kris Medlen appeared to go mental in the fourth inning. The bullpen heaped it on after that, with Todd Helton slamming a slam off of Medlen’s immediate relief, but the real worry is not that failure but that of a kid suddenly forgetting how to pitch.
Nationals 5, Pirates 4: In this reenactment of the 1925 World Series, a rookie named Stammen plays the part of Walter Johnson, except not nearly as good, and Nick Johnson steps in for Joe Judge — and that’s as appropriate a comp as you’ll find, as Judge even tended to miss 30 games a year on various injuries. All it took for the Nats to enjoy their reversal of fortune was a taste of Gorzelanny, as the Pirates got nostalgic for the kind of losses they suffered in that distant time known as last year.
Diamondbacks 4, Marlins 3: A nice start for Max Scherzer, who hasn’t won as many games as he’s deserved. Chad Qualls saved his 10th game, striking out the side. Qualls has a chance to make the All-Star team, which would be appropriate given that though he has rarely occupied the glamour role in a bullpen, he’s one of the most consistent relievers in baseball. The Marlins got a great start out of Andrew Miller, and Dan Uggla hit another home run, but Mark Reynolds took the bullpen deep and that was that. Twelve home runs now for Reynolds, and he’s actually hitting them more often on the road. Go figure.
Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 1: Wake up, Dorothy! Wake up! As John Lennon sang, the dream is over — he don’t believe in Jays, just him, Yoko and him. Patchwork pitching and an overachieving offense can only keep on for so long before the other guys, with their real pitchers and home run hitters, start to chip away. In other words, the Jays are the Potemkin village of baseball. It says something that Jon Lester hasn’t been able to pitch at all lately, but he had no problem keeping the Jays off the board. Meanwhile, Peter Gammons reports that the Red Sox might be talking with the Nats about the aforementioned Nick “The Joe Judge” Johnson as a way of bumping David Ortiz out of the lineup. That would be bad news for the Yankees indeed.
ers 4, Astros 3: Lance Berkman and Cecil Cooper got tossed arguing a close play at the plate. It’s good to see some animation out of Houston that goes beyond one frame-per minute Hanna-Barbera-style motion hieroglyphics.
Cardinals 3, Cubs 1: Important divisional game, both teams showed up, with the difference coming down to Albert Pujols. The Cubs just don’t have the fire power right now, not with Aramis Ramirez out, Derek Lee looking old, and Milton Bradley apparently taking the year off. On the other hand, Yadier Molina batted cleanup for the Cards last night, so we really are down to the great man theory of history here. In baseball, one player cannot carry a team to a pennant over the course of a season. One game is a different matter. Even then, we haven’t discussed Adam Wainwright, who held the line for 8 2/3 strong frames.
Padres 3, Giants 2: If things persist, the 2009 Giants may well go down in history as the worst offensive team of the modern era, worse even than these Padres, whose ballpark holds down their hitting (though even without it they would still be miserable). We’re talking worse than some expansion teams. They don’t have to make it worse, though, by maintaining Brian Wilson as their closer, a job he’s clearly not up for … The Padres fail at another attempt to move Jake Peavy, succeed in throwing away Jody Gerut, which isn’t the same thing as far as payroll is concerned. You’d wonder if Adrian Gonzalez would be the next out the door, but his contract is actually rather modest by the standards of baseball (not so modest by the standards of, say, your salary or mine, but you knew that).
Angels 3, Mariners 0: The limp to the finish in the AL West is going to be one of the more fascinating things to watch over the rest of the year. The Rangers are strong but limited, the Angels are limited but are generally smart about the way they do things, and they’re getting healthier. As in the AL East, whoever upgrades fastest bestest is going to win this thing. Does Arte Moreno have the dough to take on the poison pill in Peavy’s contract? It’s not clear that he has the prospects, but after the White Sox debacle, prospects may no longer be the main concern.