1 Lucky Break Each 2014 Playoff Contender Needs to Get to October

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 10, 2014

1 Lucky Break Each 2014 Playoff Contender Needs to Get to October

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    October baseball is still a long way off from even being on the horizon. But with a little over a month of games in the books, we at least have some idea which teams might be in the postseason. 

    Provided they keep doing the things they've done. And get some lucky breaks along the way.

    Which is what we're here to discuss.

    What exactly is a "lucky break?" Solid question, Watson, and here's your answer: I'm defining it to mean something that might not happen but hopefully will.

    While we're defining things, our "contenders" are all teams at or over the .500 mark as of the start of play Friday—i.e. the day I'm writing thisplus one sub-.500 team that I'm using my executive powers as a guy with a column to include anyway.

    Now then, let's take it away.

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs and are current as of the beginning of play on May 9.

Atlanta Braves: Justin Upton Continues to Scoff at His K%

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    Just like last year, Justin Upton is off to a smokin' start. He entered Friday with a .303/.378/.597 batting line and was leading the Braves with a .974 OPS.

    One thing, though: When he's not hitting, Upton is striking out an awful lot. 

    Upton entered Friday with a 34.1 K% (K/PA). That's not only the highest rate of his career, but the third-highest rate among all qualified hitters.

    Which doesn't bode well. In the last 10 years, exactly one hitter has posted a K% over 30 percent and an OPS over .915: Ryan Howard in 2007.

    If the Braves are lucky, Upton will be the next Howard, and their offense will get to keep one of the few rocks it's had to lean on in the early goings.

    If not, Atlanta's offense could find itself firmly entrenched as one of the National League's worst.

Baltimore Orioles: Wei-Yin Chen's FIP Comes True

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    Orioles starters entered Friday with a 4.34 ERA, 24th in MLB. That says they're mediocre. Again.

    But here's the bright side: Things will be better if Wei-Yin Chen's FIP comes true.

    What is FIP? It's short for Fielding Independent Pitching and is one of those stats that says, "Yeah, that guy's ERA is that, but it should be this!" It evaluates pitchers based on just four things: strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs.

    FIP likes Chen a heck of a lot more than his ERA does. While his ERA is a "meh" 4.24, his FIP is a "woah" 2.91. That put him ahead of even Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander among American League starters.

    And it adds up. Chen's strikeouts are up slightly, his walks are down more than slightly and his home runs are down way more than slightly.

    Chen deserves better than his ERA, and he'll get something better if his luck turns around.

Boston Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts Starts Hitting with Men on Base

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    Xander Bogaerts entered Friday sporting a .379 on-base percentage, ranking second among qualified shortstops behind Troy Tulowitzki. 

    The reason it feels like Bogaerts is having a lousy season, however, has to do with how he's only hitting with the bases empty. Whereas his OBP without runners on is .438, it's just .288 with runners on.

    Bogaerts wasn't sure what to say when Joon Lee of WEEI.com asked him about it: “I don’t know what’s been going on. I guess I’m not swinging at good pitches. Pitchers are throwing me a lot of breaking balls and I’m getting a bit of break sometimes with the umpires too so sometimes all odds are against you.”

    But there's another factor that's seemingly at play: bad luck. While Bogaerts' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with the bases empty is .447, it's .250 with men on base.

    One figures that number will come up eventually, and that, much to Boston's satisfaction, the RBI will start to come. 

Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale's Elbow Injury Is Just a Bump in the Road

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    The White Sox's rotation will be much better off when lefty ace Chris Sale returns. Any rotation would be, as Sale is a guy with awesome stuff and awesome numbers to go with it.

    And Sale will return. He's currently on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his left arm, and the latest after a 40-pitch bullpen session this week is that he should be back in a couple weeks.

    But it's Sale staying healthy that worries me.

    You can count me among those who are eternally nervous about Sale's physical well-being. He has the body type of Jack Skellington, after all, and his mechanics don't look like they make it easy on his body.

    Sale also doesn't have the cleanest injury history. He needed a rest in 2012 due to a sore shoulder and another in 2013 with shoulder inflammation. It was hardly surprising that he finally developed an arm issue. 

    Given the shakiness of the White Sox's Sale-less rotation, they're going to need his health to behave when he returns. Otherwise, it will be difficult for them to see their rise from the depths through to the end.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki Makes It to 150 Games

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    Nobody in the National League is even close to rivaling the season Troy Tulowitzki is having.

    In addition to entering Friday slashing .407/.510/.761 with nine home runs, Tulo is also playing the daylights out of the shortstop position. It's no wonder he's leading the Senior Circuit in WAR.

    Tulowitzki has an MVP-caliber season going, which isn't a big surprise. He's always had that level of talent. If he's able to stay on the field, maybe this will be the year he finally wins an MVP.

    But staying on the field could be the hard part. Tulo last played in 150 games in 2009 and has played in just 173 games in the last two full seasons due to injuries. 

    Colorado had better invest in some injury-bug repellent. It's had it out for Tulo in recent years, and the Rockies can't have it biting him again. They have a Cinderella season to finish, darn it.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander Keeps Ignoring His xFIP

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    Justin Verlander entered Friday with a Verlander-like 2.68 ERA, good for ninth-best in the American League among qualified starters. He also began the day with a solid 2.96 FIP.

    But xFIP doesn't like Verlander nearly as much.

    That would be Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, and it's best thought of as a more pretentious version of FIP. It also focuses on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and homers, but it replaces a pitcher's homers total with an estimate of how many home runs he should be allowing.

    Verlander entered Friday with a 4.35 xFIP. And that makes sense, as he'd given up one homer all year despite a career-high fly-ball rate. In light of that, both his homer rate and his ERA should be higher.

    If the Tigers are lucky, Verlander will continue to outperform his xFIP and be, well, Justin Verlander. If not, they're going to have issues.

Los Angeles Angels: Josh Hamilton Picks Up Where He Left off When He Returns

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    Before he injured his thumb on a foolish slide into first base on April 8, Josh Hamilton appeared to be in the early stages of a renaissance. 

    Not only was he slashing .444/.555/.741, he was looking good doing it. After going haywire in 2012 and 2013, Hamilton's plate discipline was looking a lot better. Small sample size be damned, he truly looked like a hitter reborn.

    If the Angels have their way, Hamilton will get back to being this guy when he returns from the DL in a few weeks. If so, they'll have an impressive trio of hitters in him, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.

    But this is where the Angels should be crossing their fingers. The long layoff could disrupt the good rhythm Hamilton had going. If that doesn't happen, any lingering weakness in his thumb could sap his power.

    Beyond these concerns, there's this one: This being Josh Hamilton, you just ever know.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Dee Gordon Keeps Hitting Like Someone Other Than Dee Gordon

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    Suddenly, Dee Gordon can hit.

    Despite entering 2014 with a .256/.301/.312 batting line in the majors, Gordon entered Friday slashing .338/.369/.444. And in hitting like he has, he's given the Dodgers some needed stability at leadoff.

    The Dodgers will take it while it lasts, but it's how long this can last that's the question.

    There's always something fishy about a guy who couldn't hit before suddenly being able to hit like gangbusters. And in Gordon's case, much of his success is stemming from his .386 BABIP. Even for guys like him who have speed to turn grounders into hits, sustaining a BABIP that high isn't easy.

    If Gordon's BABIP does come down, he won't be a viable leadoff option for very long. So if I'm the Dodgers, I'm hoping like heck that he can keep his BABIP above .390.

    Which, for the record, is something only nine players have done in the last 10 full seasons.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton Makes It to 150 Games

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    Giancarlo Stanton is in the middle of the season we've been waiting for him to have, as he entered Friday slashing .294/.385/.610 with an NL-high 11 home runs.

    And the Marlins have certainly benefited. They entered Friday's action a surprising 20-15, putting Stanton at the top of the waiting list for the MVP if Troy Tulowitzki falters and/or is bitten by the injury bug again.

    But here's the thing about that: Stanton is another guy who has to somehow avoid the injury bug.

    Stanton has had it almost as tough as Tulowitzki in the last two seasons, playing in only 239 games due to assorted leg injuries. Given his troublesome history in that department and the fact that his legs have to support a superhero upper body, the Stanton injury watch is perpetually at DEFCON 4.

    If Stanton makes like it's 2011 and plays in 150 games, the Marlins stand to benefit from his best season yet. If his legs act up on him again, their hot start to 2014 could very well go "pluh."

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun's Health and Production Somehow Hold Strong

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    Ryan Braun is having a weird season. 

    The numbers are good, as Braun is slashing .318/.361/.591 with six home runs in only 22 games. But that, of course, has been when he's been able to play.

    Right now, he's on the shelf with an oblique strain. In addition to that, he's battling a lingering thumb injury that forced him to sit a game in early April.

    Then there's the weirdness. While Braun's numbers are good, they've sort of come in bunches. He had a three-homer game against the Phillies on April 8 and went 5-for-10 with his other three homers on April 19 and 20 against Pittsburgh. Take these three games away, and his season is nothing special.

    Where does all this leave the Brewers? Shoot, I'm not sure what else to say besides "hoping for the best."

New York Yankees: CC Sabathia's xFIP Comes True

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    Speaking of weird seasons, let's talk about CC Sabathia.

    His velocity is down. We all know that, and it's not a good look. Neither is Sabathia's 5.75 ERA. Between that and his velocity loss, you want to look at him, point and shout, "Dooooooomed!"

    But you know what the weird part is? Sabathia's pitching itself has actually been mighty impressive.

    He's working on his best K/BB ratio since 2007 as well as his best ground-ball rate ever. And at 2.89, he has an xFIP (the one from the Justin Verlander slide) that ranks sixth among American League starters. All he needs is for his home run rate (1.55 per nine innings) to drop, and he'll be elite again.

    The xFIP metric says it should happen. And if it does, the Yankees will have their old ace back.

Oakland A's: Sonny Gray's Regression Isn't *Too* Bad

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    I love me some Sonny Gray. That he looks like he's fresh out of Little League makes me feel old, but anybody who has a mid-90s fastball and knee-buckling curveball is OK in my book.

    There's just one thing I'm not sure about: that Gray is as good as his 1.91 ERA.

    I'm partially trusting FIP and xFIP, as they have Gray down as more of a 3.00-ish ERA guy. That makes sense given that his K/BB ratio is a mere 2.50 and his 0.38 HR/9 rate is probably too low. Some regression is in order.

    But then, there's also how Gray's probably lucky to have a roughly average (for an AL'er) strikeout rate despite a below-average 8.1 swinging-strike percentage.

    So maybe more regression is in order rather than just some. If the A's can't have the "none" option, I'm sure they'd take the latter over the former. 

San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum's xFIP Comes True

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    Tim Lincecum is in the same boat as CC Sabathia. 

    Lincecum's 5.55 ERA makes it look like he's continuing his trend of going from "really good pitcher" to "really not-good pitcher." But like Sabathia, Lincecum's rock-solid 3.34 xFIP has other ideas.

    Also like with Sabathia, you can see where the metric is coming from. Lincecum's K/BB is higher than it's been in years, which is largely thanks to how he's working with the best strike rate of his career.

    This is a reinvented Lincecum. And as xFIP will vouch, he would look a lot better if it wasn't for so many dastardly dingers (1.51 HR/9).

    Maybe xFIP will be right about Lincecum. His hard stuff will have to become much less hittable than it has been—see some disturbing numbers at Brooks Baseball if you dare—but, well, maybe it will be right. 

Seattle Mariners: Robinson Cano's Power Reappears

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    Robinson Cano's debut season with the Mariners could be going worse. He entered Friday batting .289 with a .345 OBP, which are acceptable numbers.

    What's not an acceptable number is Cano's .370 slugging percentage. He came to Seattle with a career .504 slugging percentage. Power like that would be nice.

    Cano's track record says the Mariners should get it, but I'm not so sure.

    For one, Cano has never hit more ground balls than he has this year. That's bad, as ground balls don't go for extra-base hits very often. Nor do they go over the wall. 

    In addition, BaseballHeatMaps.com has Cano's average fly-ball distance this year at 272.95 feet. That's down from 291.67 last year. That's an alarming drop.

    Good luck, Mariners.

St. Louis Cardinals: Shelby Miller Continues Overachieving

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    Shelby Miller owns a 3.20 ERA. By that measure, he's the fourth-best starter St. Louis has used in 2014.

    In reality, he's by far the worst starter the Cardinals have used this year.

    Next to his 3.20 ERA, Miller has a 5.65 FIP and 4.61 xFIP. Both numbers recognize that it's absurd that his ERA is so low in light of how far his strikeout rate has dropped and how high his walk rate has climbed.

    The latter is particularly concerning, as there's not a qualified starter elsewhere in MLB that has a higher walk rate than Miller.

    The Cardinals will be covered in the event that Miller's luck catches up with him. Joe Kelly won't be injured forever, and they have Carlos Martinez in the bullpen. Still, it sure would be easier on them if Miller keeps finding ways to keep getting away with pitching murder on the mound.

Texas Rangers: Prince Fielder's Power Reappears

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    Remember all that stuff we said about Robinson Cano? You can take that and apply it to Prince Fielder too.

    The .351 OBP Fielder entered Friday with what could be a lot worse, but his .354 slugging percentage is nothing like the .527 career mark he came into the year with. 

    And like with Cano, Fielder's power outage is no fluke. He lost some power last year, and this year he's hitting a ton of ground balls and having a hard time driving the ball when he does get it in the air. BaseballHeatMaps.com has Fielder's average fly-ball distance at 284.17 feet, down from 293.74.

    The bright side: The swing Fielder obliterated a home run with on Thursday night might be the best swing he's taken all year. Maybe he has more swings in him like that one and has just been saving them for some unknown reason.

    The Rangers hope so.

Toronto Blue Jays: Mark Buehrle Continues Keeping the Ball in the Yard

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    We could make this discussion about xFIP, but there's no need to do so. This discussion can be simpler.

    It's all about the lack of home runs that Mark Buehrle is giving up in 2014.

    Buehrle came into '14 as a guy with a slight home run problem. In 2012 and 2013, he gave up a little more than one home run every nine innings, with over 10 percent of the fly balls he gave up clearing the fence (a little thing called HR/FB).

    But this year? Just one home run, which makes little sense. Buehrle's fly-ball rate isn't down that much, and he's working with low-80s velocity on his "fastball." He's basically become Jamie Moyer.

    The Blue Jays will take the strange lack of home runs as long as it lasts. It's only going to last all season if they're lucky.

Washington Nationals: Doug Fister Stays Healthy

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    The Nationals entered Friday with the 10th-best starting staff in MLB, as determined by ERA. By WAR, they entered with the sixth-best starting staff.

    Impressive stuff, especially once you consider that one of their best pitchers has had nothing to do with it.

    That would be Doug Fister, who WAR rated as one of MLB's 10-best starters between 2011 and 2013. If he's anything close to that good upon his return from injury, Washington's rotation could be unstoppable.

    But it could be hard for him to stay healthy. 

    A lat injury sidelined him for the first month-plus of the regular season, but before that, he battled an elbow issue in spring training. A couple years ago, he missed time with a bad groin and two intercostal injuries. In 2010, Fister was out for a bit with shoulder fatigue. 

    Point being: The Nationals must hope they've already gotten their fill of Fister's iffy health this season.