Moneyball 2012: Examining the Indians, Orioles and Pirates
Every year a few Major League Baseball teams never cease to amaze me.
I’m not talking about clubs that are filled with stars on their rosters or even automatic playoff contenders. The thing I love most about baseball is the small market teams that somehow make noise at the beginning of every year. Some fans will call them “Cinderella Stories.” Some analysts will break them down as contenders or pretenders — not understanding the real story behind their rises to the top.
A perfect example of this type of team with more believers on it than star athletes that a lot of people would know was the Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s. However, even those clubs, which had extremely low payrolls, still had big bats and names that made them competitive.
When I look at this year’s group of teams that might fit into that category, three stick out like sore thumbs and are right in the mix to win their respective divisions. We often write these sorts of teams off and don’t believe in them down the stretch, but hey, they sure make the game exciting. So here’s a look at three clubs that are in second place and leaving baseball fans scratching their heads:
For the second year in a row, the Tribe is earning pre All-Star Game hype and should perhaps challenge the Chicago Whitesox for an AL Central crown if all goes well. Last season Cleveland flopped after starting the 2011 campaign with a stellar 30-15 record in its first 45 games. Injuries ended up throwing the Indians out of contention, but now they have came roaring back. And when any fan examines the roster, the first question they would have to ask is, ‘how?’
Budding stars like Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera aren’t producing like they were in 2011 and the Indians actually rank in the latter half of almost every single American League team statistic — hitting and pitching. So again, how are they winning?
I have to believe it’s because this team is filled with a bunch of gamers/grinders, who are truly believing in themselves. It also doesn’t hurt to have one of the best motivational managers in the game, Manny Acta. In addition to a superb coaching staff and an unmatched tuner to win ball games, much of Cleveland’s success could also be attributed to the rise of second baseman Jason Kipnis. The 25-year-old infielder leads the America League in stolen bases (tied with Mike Trout) and is also in the top 10 for RBI with 40. Not bad for a rookie, right?
One would also have give kudos to Cleveland’s bullpen. Closer Chris Perez has majorly improved from last year, earning 20 saves in 21 opportunities so far this season. Perez also has a dominant setup man in Vinnie Pestano, who has 15 holds with a 2,19 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 23 innings of work.
The Orioles are somewhat the opposite of the Cleveland Indians when it comes to team stats. Although Baltimore is near the bottom in categories such as batting average and stolen bases, the O’s rank towards the top in OPS, Home Runs and Slugging Percentage. Where is all of this power coming from? The easy answer is center fielder Adam Jones, who ranks fifth in the American League with 18 home runs and 11th with his 44 RBIs.
Jones deserves a lot of credit, but he has some teammates with a lot of pop in their bats, too. Chris Davis is second on the team in home runs (12) and RBI (31). J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, Wilson Betemit and Nick Markakis also all have more than 25 RBIs.
As far as pitching goes, Baltimore is about in the middle of the pack, ranking sixth in the American League with an ERA of 3.79, which is much better than Cleveland’s team ERA of 4.43 (second to last in the American League). Like the Indians, though, Baltimore’s bullpen is dominant. Closer Jim Johnson, who had to battle for his role in Spring Training, leads the O’s talented staff of relievers with an astonishing 1.26 ERA and has converted 19 of his 20 save opportunities. Baltimore’s setup men have been fabulous in from of Johnson as pitchers like Matt Lindstrom, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and Luis Ayala all hone ERAs lower than 2.00. Mix Baltimore’s bullpen with its power and this team may just sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
The only real surprise team that sits in second place in the National League has to be the Bucos. Oddly enough, it’s the Pirates’ pitching staff that has kept them atop the NL Central standings. Fans certainly can’t blame this squad’s offense for Pittsburgh’s early success as its hitters rank dead last in the NL in batting average (.225) and RBIs (190). However, the Pirates starters and delivers have been this club’s saving grace.
After showing flashes of brilliance last season, Pittsburgh’s bullpen is still one of the best in baseball for yet another year. Closer Joel Hanrahan has proven he wasn’t a one year wonder, converting 17 of 19 save opportunities and owning an ERA under 3.00. In addition to Hanrahan, this team has a handful of other later-game relievers and even a man working the middle of games that aren’t blowing slim leads at the end of games. Veteran Jason Grilli has been superb this year and one could argue that he should be the team’s closer, posting a 1.50 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched.
Rookie Jared Hughes has also been a nice surprise with his 1.78 ERA in a span of 30 innings. Mix that with another veteran, setup man Juan Cruz, who has a 2.01 ERA and this team arguably has the best bullpen in baseball.
And if you thought the Bucos’ bullpen was talented, their starters are holding their own, too, making the lineup irrelevant in this blog. Ace James McDonald, who is actually penciled in as the team’s No. 3 starter. is finally coming into his own with a 5-2 records and a 2.39 ERA in 12 starts. His wins aren’t exactly what one might expect, but that’s only because he hasn’t exactly lasted long in games, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering what Pittsburgh’s bullpen is capable of. The Pirates other young, talented arm is Brad Lincoln. The rigthy has finally proven he was worth a top draft pick way back in 2006 by putting up a 3.12 ERA in three starts this season. The former first round pick also averages about one strikeout per inning, which is something any coach would be happy about.
Yes, the future looks bright for the Pirates starting rotation, but a couple of veteran pitchers are starting to turn heads, too. Starter A.J. Burnett is proving that the New York Yankees shouldn’t have dumped him with his 6-2 record and 3.61 ERA. Veteran Erik Bedard is also making his second coming as a Pirate with a 3.59 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 62 innings of work.
If this was a game of contender or pretender, the Pirates would be my pick of these teams to actually make the playoffs, especially if their hitting comes around. Up until a couple of days ago, this squad went on an 8-2 tear. If we see ever more of that from the Bucos, they could be playoff bound for the first time since 1992. Wow!
If you want to hear even more about these team, don’t forget to check out this week’s podcast of Couch Side where I actually played contender or pretender with this particular trio! Click here to listen to the latest episode of Couch Side Episode 18: The Lone Wolf. And a side note, congratulations to my good friend Cody Werbelow. It looks like the ‘ol Bucos are finally worth a hoot.