The Week’s Work

Stuff from my latest three pieces at Baseball Prospectus:

• In “Conquering the Cubs,” the latest edition of my “Pair Up in Threes” series, I examine the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds, all of whom are atop the Cubs in the NL Central race, a major surprise given that our PECOTA projection had the Cubs at an NL-best 95 wins. Here’s a bit on the Brew Crew:

The Brewers stumbled to a 4-9 start, but since then, they’ve put up the league’s second-best record even with a recent 2-6 skid. Their turnaround largely coincides with the arrival of 41-year-old Trevor Hoffman, the former Padres closer who spent the season’s first three weeks on the disabled list. Since returning, he’s yielded one run in 20 innings, converting all 16 save opportunities while allowing just 13 baserunners, a performance good enough for seventh in the league in WXRL. LOOGY Mitch Stetter and a pair of free-talent pickups who’ve worked their way into meaningful roles, Todd Coffey and Mark DiFelice, are in the league’s top 30 as well. As a unit, the Brewers’ bullpen fourth in the league in that category, a major reason why they’ve exceeded their third-order Pythagenpat record by 4.8 games, the league’s second-best mark. Though they’ve lost five straight one-run games to fall to 10-12 in that category, they’re 16-8 in games decided by two or three runs.

While the rotation’s been shaky (more on that momentarily), the staff as a whole is getting plenty of help from a defense which two seasons ago ranked third-to-last in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Their impressive ranking is nothing new, actually; they were 10th last year with virtually the same lineup, the outcome of a chain of events which saw the arrival of center fielder Mike Cameron, the move of Bill Hall from center to third base and of Ryan Braun from third to left field. The sudden loss of Rickie Weeks for the season hasn’t changed things much; this remains a quality unit that’s been helped by the fact that the pitchers are allowing the league’s third-lowest line drive rate as well as the third-highest groundball rate. Whether they can keep that up remains to be seen, but it’s certainly easier to do so than maintaining a high Defensive Efficiency in conjunction with a high line drive rate.

• In “Another Mile-High Miracle?” (which also ran at ESPN Insider), I examine the Rockies’ 14-5 surge under interim skipper Jim Tracy, and whether the Rockies have enough to contend that they should consider buying instead of selling:

Only a week ago, the rumor mill was abuzz with the future destinations of Brad Hawpe, Jason Marquis, Ryan Spillborghs and Huston Street, but the streak has allowed the Rockies to defer such decisions. To the credit of Tracy and GM Dan O’Dowd, they’ve quickly made moves which help their chances of sustaining some momentum, starting with the replacement of third baseman Garrett Atkins with Ian Stewart, who’s now out of the way of Clint Barmes at second. In a lineup that’s second in the league in scoring but just seventh in EqA (.262) — taking stock of the Rox starts always starts with letting the air out of their offensive stats — Atkins (.210 EqA) has been the lineup’s only real sinkhole; he recently went five weeks without a homer or a multi-hit game, a tough task for an everyday player. Barmes (.270) has been the team’s hottest hitters over the past month (.345/.405/.560). Stewart (.262 with a team-high 12 homers) is hitting .314/.357/.667 this month after fighting through a prolonged slump.

As Joe Sheehan pointed out recently, the Atkins shuffle should bear fruit for a team that’s 10th in the league in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (-1.05 percent below average) and last in raw DE (.677); Atkins is a lousy third baseman, Stewart a natural one, and Barmes is better at the keystone than the latter. Also helping the defense is the recent promotion of Carlos Gonzalez, a toolsy former top prospect with the ability to play center field. He spent the first two months of 2009 in a Triple-A refresher course following his acquisition in the Matt Holliday trade and a none-too-impressive half-season in Oakland (.242/.273/.361 with an 81/12 UIBB ratio). Tracy’s slotted him in left, previously the domain of an unstable but not wholly unproductive cast of righty Spillborghs, lefty Seth Smith and redheaded stepchild Matt Murton.

…When it comes to making any deals, thanks to their streak the team has the luxury of playing both sides of the fence in the six weeks between now and the trading deadline. If they continue to play well, they should have few glaring weaknesses to shore up aside from their bullpen, and may have a spare outfielder to deal if Gonzalez clicks. If this latest burst is simply a mirage, they can gain salary relief and/or restock their larder by flipping Street, and selling high on the none-too-cheap Marquis ($9.875 million this year) and the relatively affordable Hawpe ($13 million total in 2009-2010). Perhaps they can even offload Atkins ($7.05 million); as discussed yesterday, the Cardinals need a third baseman, and the Reds could use one as well to hedge against Edwin Encarnacion’s continued wrist problems.

As an aside, I was sorry to see Clint Hurdle’s recent firing. While by no means a great skipper, he showed a ton of class in leaving the stage, reminding me that the former phenom is the author of one of baseball’s great quotes: “There’s two kinds of people in this game — those that are humbled and those that are about to be.”

• And in the spirit of former Dodger manager Tracy’s revival, I’ll stick with the (ex-)LA theme in excerpting this week’s Hit List:

[#1 Dodgers] The Dodgers continue to sit pretty even as their offense has cooled off in Manny Ramirez’s absence thanks to the strong performance of their bullpen. They’re 37-8 when leading or tied after five innings, second in WXRL and first in Fair Run Average, with Jonathan Broxton leading the league and Ramon Troncoso — who’s saved four games while giving Broxton the night off — ranked fourth. The team is winning more than its share of the close ones: 16-6 in one-run games and 10-7 in two-run games.

[#2 Red Sox] Penny for Your Thoughts: Brad Penny tosses 11 innings against the Yankees and Marlins without allowing an earned run, but even so, he’s only put up a 4.94 ERA and a .465 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage. That’s mainly due to his 40.5 percent groundball rate, about 10 percent lower than last year. With the June 15 deadline for trading last winter’s free agents without their permission having passed and John Smoltz slated to debut next Thursday, Penny’s the subject of trade rumors, but for the moment, the team will cycle through a six-man rotation.

[#8 Rangers] Ruw the Day? Released by the Dodgers in the spring, Andruw Jones exacts a modicum of revenge by homering twice against them — one less than his 2008 total — though the Rangers drop both games and thus the series. Jones is hitting .245/.355/.504 but is just 4-for-30 in June; he’s started in the field just 12 times, none in center, even with Josh Hamilton missing so much time.

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