As Major League Baseball enters the home stretch of the 2012 season, playoff races are anything but decided. And if you thought the last night of the 2011 regular season was one of the greatest nights in baseball history, then the conclusion of the current season has the potential to absolutely melt your face.
It’s no coincidence that most of the teams in the playoff hunt have featured a strong performance from some of baseball’s top rookies.
Young players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker and Manny Machado have been vital toward their teams' success and may ultimately dictate whether their franchises reach the postseason.
So, as we look ahead at this weekend's upcoming series throughout the major leagues, I thought that I’d put into perspective just how much each of these phenoms mean to their teams.
MLB Stats: 10-10, 166.1 IP, 3.68 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 3.9 BB/9 (28 GS); 1.0 WAR
(Note: all WAR statistics according to Baseball-Reference.com.)
Moore’s first full season in the major leagues got off to a rocky start, as the left-hander registered a 4.42 ERA and 1.46 WHIP over the first half of the season. Since the All-Star break, though, he’s returned to the form that made him one of baseball’s top prospects heading into the season.
Over his last 11 starts, Moore owns a 2.57 ERA and has held opposing hitters to a .226 batting average. His command has steadily improved, too, and he’s only walked 23 batters in his last 66.2 innings.
Moore will make his next start on Sunday against the Yankees, who have already faced him twice this season and hit him well (.865 OPS) on both occasions.
The Rays currently are four games back in both the AL East and wild-card standings, so this figures to be one of the more crucial starts that Moore will make this season.
MLB Stats: 10-8, 154.1 IP, 3.56 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 0.5 HR/9, 6.6 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 (25 GS); 3.2 WAR
Traded by the Diamondbacks to the A’s this past offseason, Parker has emerged as one of the best rookie pitchers in the game. And let’s be real; I doubt he minded the relocation to the notoriously pitcher-friendly Coliseum.
The No. 9 overall selection in the 2007 draft, Parker began the season at Triple-A and made his A’s debut on April 25. Since then, the right-hander has made every scheduled start and served as the consistent, driving force in the A’s young and inexperienced rotation. This has especially been the case in the wake of Bartolo Colon's 50-game suspension for PED use and Brandon McCarthy's life-threatening injury.
Parker will make his 26th start of the 2012 season on Saturday at home against the Orioles. The last time the 23-year-old faced the O’s—who enter the weekend in a tie with the Yankees atop the AL East—he was tagged for six earned runs on eight hits over five innings at Camden Yards and ultimately received a no-decision.
He also allowed two home runs in that game, which represents a quarter of the overall total he’s allowed this season. He leads all American League pitchers with a 0.5 HR/9 rate.
MLB Stats: .267/.276/.458, 12 XBH (4 HR), 15 RBI, 24 K/2 BB (32 G); 0.9 WAR
The No. 3 overall selection in the 2010 draft, Machado wasn't expected to be called up to the major leagues this season. However, the Orioles gave the 20-year-old an aggressive promotion from Double-A to The Show on August 9.
Not only was he suddenly one of the youngest players in Major League Baseball, but Machado, a natural shortstop, was also asked to play a different position—third base.
As the Orioles expected, his defense has been excellent thus far at the hot corner, as he’s committed only two errors in 97 chances (.979 fielding percentage) and registered a 2.97 range factor per game.
With the AL East and Wild Card still up for grabs, Machado has the potential to be an X-factor for the Orioles as they battle for a playoff berth.
In his first four games, the right-handed hitter posted a 1.500 OPS with five runs scored, five extra-base hits and seven RBI. However, his struggles over the final two weeks of August lowered his OPS to .732 headed into September.
Fortunately, he’s picked up the pace in September and is batting .300/.300/.440 with four extra-base hits and five RBI in 12 games.
MLB Stats: .262/.335/.454, 46 XBH (18 HR), 49 RBI, 13 SB, 103 K/50 BB (120 G); 3.8 WAR
Although he’s been understandably overshadowed by baseball’s best player, Mike Trout, what Harper has done this season as a 19-year-old is absolutely amazing.
After posting an .860 OPS in May, his first full month in the major leagues, followed by a .780 OPS in June, Harper fell into a terrible slump in July. The left-handed hitter batted just .222 with one home run and 22 strikeouts in 25 games, as pitchers began to consistently exploit his weaknesses at the plate.
However, like Trout, Harper’s ability to make adjustments is what makes him a future superstar. Therefore, it’s no surprise that he eventually snapped out of the funk. Over his last 24 games, Harper is batting .319/.374/.648 with 19 runs scored, 29 hits, five doubles, seven home runs and 15 RBI. He’s cut down on the whiffs, too, with 18 strikeouts compared to seven walks.
With Michael Morse battling a wrist and thumb injury, Harper’s ongoing production provides an opportunity for additional rest down the stretch.
Expect Harper to extend his hot streak through the rest of the season, as he’s quickly re-emerged as a contender for National League Rookie of the Year honors.
MLB Stats: .331/.397/.569, 115 R, 163 H, 57 XBH (27 HR), 77 RBI, 45 SB, 116 K/53 BB (121 G); 10.3 WAR
Yes, you read those stats correctly. In his age-20, rookie season, Mike Trout leads all of baseball with a 10.3 WAR, and is a strong candidate to win both the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP awards—and he missed basically the first month (23 games) of the season.
The immensely talented outfielder paces the circuit in runs (115), stolen bases (45) and batting average (.331). More impressive is the fact that he became the first player to eclipse a 10.0 WAR since Barry Bonds’ 10.3 WAR season in 2004.
And according to Bill Petti of FanGraphs.com, Trout is also the most efficient hitter in baseball (surprise, surprise) with a ridiculous 0.209 wOBA-per-swing despite the fact that he only swings 39.8 percent of the time.
With seven wins in their last 10 games, the Angels now trail the Texas Rangers by 7.5 games in the AL West, and it seems doubtful that, at this point, they will be able to catch them.
Therefore, their best chance at a playoff berth will come via the Wild Card, where they trail both the Orioles and Yankees by 3.5 games for the second spot.
If the Angels ultimately reach the postseason, then Trout will assuredly command the honor as the league’s MVP.