“That’s Amore!” Focusing On Division Leaders
Many divisions are still up for grabs. Other than the Cubs’ 11.5 game lead, each division lead is within seven games or less. In three divisions the lead is only two games or less. Week 18 is upon us, and I want to focus on the sabermetric standings for each division leader. Naturally, the Cubs are leading Major League Baseball in WAR, but what about the other organizations? Will the Orioles, Indians, and Giants hold onto their leads or will they battle Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Louis for the two Wild Card spots?
American League East
Ranked 10th in WAR (15.8) the Orioles have been on a mission. Without a true number one starting pitcher, the Orioles have been able to mimic the Kansas City Royals’ recent success. They’ve relied on a solid bullpen that features American League saves leader Zach Britton. The lefty is on pace to finish the seasons with a sub-1.00 ERA. Meanwhile, starting pitcher Chris Tillman as he’s put together an All-Star worthy season that’s seen him go 14-4 with a 3.50 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 1[22:53] K:BB.
The Orioles currently rank ninth in BABIP (.305), tenth in Hard% (32.7%), and 28th in overall Contact% (75.5%). Their Contact% rank is surprising as they sport the sixth best team batting average (.264), but rank in the top-ten with 913 team strikeouts. The Blue Jays (one game) and Red Sox (three games) are on the heels of the Orioles. If the Red Sox could get better performances out of their starting rotation, they could surpass the Orioles. The Blue Jays are riding high with J.A. Happ, and if Stroman or another starter steps up things could get very interesting. It’s going to be a three-team race to the finish, and the division lead could come down to the final week of the season. Starting to mimic the 2015 National League playoff picture, we could see three teams make the playoffs from the AL East.
American League Central
The AL Central is looking like a two-team battle to the finish. The Cleveland Indians have lead for most of the season, and this can be attributed to their dynamic starting rotation. Other than the Chicago Cubs, no other starting rotation can come close to the Indians one through five starters.
The Indians pitching staff currently sits at 11th with a 11.5 WAR. The addition of Andrew Miller should see them surpass the three teams ahead of them. The teams sits in the top-10 in K/BB (2.84), K% (22.4%), WHIP (1.25), and SwStrk% (10.4%). As dynamite as they’ve been, it is no surprise that the Indians are one of the few teams to have every starter owned in fantasy baseball.
The Indians would’ve received a major boost if Jonathan Lucroy accepted a trade, but they could get a huge boost if Michael Brantley were to return to full health. This team has figured out how to win, and could make a deep playoff push. The Indians have the Detroit Tigers closing in, but the Tigers haven’t gotten the pitching performance we’ve expected. Rookie Michael Fulmer has been phenomenal, but Verlander has been mediocre and Jordan Zimmerman will be hitting the DL after returning for one start. This team has the pitching, and it may take winning the division for any AL Central team to make the playoffs.
American League West
The Rangers hold a convincing lead in the division, but the Houston Astros are heating up. Seattle sits 0.5 games ahead of Houston, but that could change by the end of the week. With that being said, the Rangers will need to be at their best moving forward. After losing Prince Fielder to neck surgery, they filled a void (if you consider Fielder leaving a void) by trading for Carlos Beltran. At 39, Beltran is having a fantastic season, but is already day-to-day with a quad contusion. Minor injuries are always a worry with aging athletes, and the Rangers need production from Beltran. Before acquiring Beltran, the Rangers won the Jonathan Lucroy sweepstakes and solidified their catching position. The All-Star catcher will supply much needed production for a team that received very little from the position.
While I question the Rangers pitching staff, there’s no questioning what this team can do offensively. They currently sit in the top-10 in home runs with 143, fourth in WAR (20.5), and top-20 in Hard% (30.8%) . While the Rangers have a grasp on the division, the Astros won’t go away without putting up a fight especially with potential AL MVP Jose Altuve leading the way.
National League East
The New York Mets’ pitching staff lead the way in 2015. However, 2016 has been a different story as Matt Harvey underwent season-ending surgery while Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz have battled through bone spurs in their pitching elbows. This has left the door wide open for the Washington Nationals to take a commanding seven game lead ahead of the Miami Marlins. Make no mistake, the Marlins will keep the division competitive, but Washington should win this division.
The Nationals pitching staff has gotten the job done as they have three pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Tanner Roark) in the top-10 for wins. If we look deeper, Strasburg (169) and Scherzer (198) both sit in the top-four of MLB strikeout leaders. Of course, their lineup has produced equally impressive numbers as the team sits fourth in Hard% (33.4%), ninth in runs scored (522), fifth in home runs (147), and seventh in Contact% (79.6%). This is coming from a team with the defending NL MVP who is currently slashing .233/.374/.438 with 20 HR and 57 RBI. Where would this offense be without Daniel Murphy?
While the Nationals have a solid lead in the division, the Marlins currently have the second Wild Card spot. It’s a shame the Mets pitching staff wasn’t 100% healthy, or they could’ve made a deep run. Look for the Nationals to run away with this division and for Daniel Murphy to have another major impact in the playoffs. Hopefully, for Mets fans, 2017 will feature a healthy starting rotation of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and the return of promising, young arm Zack Wheeler.
National League Central
Only the Chicago Cubs have a double-digit (11.5) lead in their respective division. They’ve had a choke hold on the division since the start of the season, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down. While the defending NL Cy Young Award winner, Jake Arrieta, has hit a speed bump, the rest of the rotation has stayed consistent. Number five starter Kyle Hendricks could be in the race for the 2016 NL Cy Young Award. The Cubs rotation sits first in WPA (9.59 [Win Probability Added), fifth in SwStr% (10.7%), and first in wins (69). Let’s not forget, the front office made sure no lead would be lost by adding arguably the best closer in baseball by acquiring Aroldis Chapman.
The offense has been one of the most potent in Major League Baseball. Their 24.9 WAR leads MLB and is 1.2 ahead of the Boston Red Sox. The North Siders’ offense sits second in plate appearance (4,321), 13th in home runs (134), third in runs (556), third in RBI (528), 17th in Hard% (31.2%), 10th in BABIP (.304), and 25th in Contact% (76.5%). Their low Contact% is directly correlated to their 940 team strikeouts that place them eighth in MLB. This offense is easily the best I’ve ever seen, and much of the praise needs to be directed towards Joe Maddon. He was born to coach this team, and he may finally lead them to their first World Series since 1908.
While the Cubs run away with the division the questions becomes can the Cardinals catch up with the Dodgers and Marlins? The Cardinals entered Monday one game behind Miami for the second Wild Card spot. I know the Cardinals will keep it close, but will this be one of the few seasons St. Louis misses the playoffs?
National League West
The National League West has been, and will continue to be, a two-team race from the start. The Giants have the edge over Los Angeles, and could push farther ahead while Clayton Kershaw remains on the disabled list. The Dodgers don’t have a fall back guy like they did in previous seasons with Zack Greinke. Not having their ace is hurting the Dodgers, and that was apparent as they looked for help at the trade deadline. The opposite can be said of the Giants as they’ve stayed healthy with a rotation consisting of Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardizja. While Bumgarner and Cueto have been dominant, the opposite can be said of Samardzija.
Everyone is aware that the Giants win in even years, and that fallacy has to be accepted until proven otherwise. The Giants solid pitching staff sees them fourth in wins (63), fifth in ERA (3.73), fifth in Whip (1.22), 13th in LOB% (73.8%), and have given up the third-least Hard% (29.6%). This team is consistent, and 2016 has been no different. Come playoff time, they have to be considered early favorite to win it all.
The Giants offense has been no slouch, coming in with the third-best WAR at 20.6. A team with Buster Posey can never be taken lightly, and they’ve been just as consistent as their pitching staff. On the season, the Giants have sat in the middle of the pack (23rd) with a 29.9 Hard%, fourth-best Contact% at 80.7%, and fifth-lowest SwStr% at 8.9% which ties them with the Washington Nationals. While the Dodgers are only a game out, I can’t see them surpassing the Giants. However, a one-game playoff between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins would be pretty exciting.