Categorized | Cardinals, MLB, Royals

Triple Play: Justin Upton, Jonathan Papelbon, Alex Rios

In this week’s Triple Play, we look at the hottest of several scorching Braves hitters, a closer who can’t put nor shut up, the man tasked with replacing Nelson Cruz, and plus more items like our weekly Wainwright Walk Watch and the Ichiro Hit Tracker. Off we go:

JustinUpton

Who’s Hot?

Justin Upton, Atlanta

Welcome back, Justin. It’s been quite a while. Remember in April, when the younger Upton was mashing everything in sight, single-handedly carrying the Braves’ offense (and fantasy teams everywhere)? That was the month he blasted 12 home runs with 19 RBI, scored 22 runs and posted an OPS of 1.136. Fans and analysts nationwide praised the Braves for “stealing” Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the following three months, however, Upton only hit four homers and drove in 29. All the “what was Arizona thinking???” noise quieted. Fantasy owners stopped even trying to deal Upton because he wouldn’t bring back equal value. Well, the April version of Upton is back. Thus far in August, Upton is batting a sizzling .395/.452/1.373 with six homers, 13 RBI, and 10 runs scored. The big difference this time, though, is that Upton has a LOT of support around him in the Braves’ lineup right now (more on that below).

Who’s Not?

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia

Oh, it hasn’t been a pretty season in Philadelphia, has it? They lost Roy Halladay to injury and just never seemed to recover. They have strugged to find competent everyday outfielders and enough starting pitchers. Very little has worked. The motor-mouthed Papelbon has grown frustrated and said “he didn’t come here for this.” Well, after watching Pap’s performance the past two months, it seems safe to say the feeling is mutual – the team certainly didn’t bring the former Red Sox closer to town and pay him $13 million a year to watch him blow saves on a regular basis. In fact, Papelbon has Papelblown six of his past 13 save opportunities. Some of them have been spectacularly bad – take August 1, for example: on a night the Phillies honored Brad Lidge for his blown-save-free 2008 season, Papelbon entered the game after Cole Hamels threw eight shutout innings and immediately surrendered four hits and a walk. What had been a 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 loss that left a sour taste in the mouths of players and fans alike.

Never one to bite his tongue, Papelbon said after the game, “Obviously I want to go in and preserve wins for these starters, man, because that’s what I take pride in. But some nights, you just go back in the dugout and you kind of scratch your head (and think), what just happened?”

Well, here’s what has happened: Papelbon’s fastball velocity has dropped a mile per hour each season since he left Boston (93.8 in 2012, 92.2 in 2013), making him far more hittable. His strikeout percentage has also fallen off a cliff: 34% in 2012, 23% in 2013. On a team with such poor defense as the Phillies, a “power” closer who can’t strike out opposing hitters the way he once could is just asking for trouble. There were rumors that Papelbon was being shopped around before the trade deadline, but there were no takers. Even the Tigers, desperate for a big-name closer to appease manager Jim Leyland, had no interest. For now – and the foreseeable future – it looks like Papelbon and the Phillies are stuck with each other.

Playing the Name Game

Player A: .269/.330/.511, 27 HR, 76 RBI, 5 SB, 49 runs, 123 OPS+

Player B: .279/.331/.427, 12 HR, 57 RBI, 26 SB, 58 runs, 102 OPS+

Player A is the Rangers’ now-suspended right fielder Nelson Cruz. Player B is his replacement, Alex Rios. After failing to make any deals to boost their lineup before the non-waiver deadline, the Rangers finally got their man last Friday, acquiring Alex Rios from Chicago via a waiver claim deal. Two games in, it has looked like a brilliant move. Rios started his Rangers career by going 4-for-7 with a walk, double, triple, three runs scored and two RBI. While Rios doesn’t offer the same power as Cruz, he brings another speed threat to the lineup to complement Elvis Andrus (30 steals) and Leonys Martin (27). With Cruz sidelined for 50 games, the only Rangers hitter with more than 16 home runs is third baseman Adrian Beltre. Don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time a Rangers team had such a dearth of power. I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t done searching for offense.

Team A: 18-5 record since All-Star Break, 2.83 ERA, 14 QS, 5.2 runs scored/game

Team B: 18-5 record since All-Star Break, 2.56 ERA, 17 QS, 4.4 runs scored/game

Team A is the Atlanta Braves. Since the All-Star break, the Braves have turned the National League East division race into a laugher, winning 14 straight games to open a 14½-game lead and turning the Nationals into overly-hyped also-rans. As noted above, Justin Upton has been red hot, but Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson have also been crushing the ball over the past couple of weeks. All four players have driven in at least 10 runs, scored 10 runs and have an on-base percentage over .400 over the past two weeks. After Tim Hudson’s horrific ankle injury, it was widely assumed that the Braves would trade for another starter. It hasn’t happened. Brandon Beachy was activated off the disabled list and stepped right into the void. The results have been mixed, as it typical for a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery, but each start so far has been better than the last. Atlanta also has relied on prized rookie Alex Wood, and he hasn’t disappointed (2-2, 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, three consecutive quality starts entering Sunday).

Team B is…..are you ready for this?….the Kansas City Royals. Lost amidst all the Braves hubbub is that Missouri’s other team has been every bit as good as Atlanta since the break. All the Royals have done is: 1) reel off an eight-game winning streak (their longest since 2003); 2) twirl their way through the most successful road trip in franchise history (8-1); 3) take three of four from Boston, generally considered the best team in the AL; and 4) win seven straight series, the longest such streak since 1991.

Since the All-Star break, the Royals’ rotation has been the backbone of their success, with 17 quality starts in 23 games. Ace James Shields has spun five quality starts in that time, while Ervin Santana has four and Jeremy Guthrie three. The unexpected surprise, though, has been 36-year-old Bruce Chen; he has given the Royals five consecutive quality starts since being restored to the rotation on July 12. Kansas City also recently recalled fireballing lefty Danny Duffy to fill a rotation spot as well. Suddenly, Kansas City has one of the deeper rotations in the AL. And don’t forget closer Greg Holland (32 saves, 74 strikeouts in 46 innings, 1.57 ERA, 0.91 WHIP).

First baseman Eric Hosmer also has been terrific, sporting a .362/.392/.489 slash line since Aug. 1. After starting slowly the first two months, he has combined with left fielder Alex Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler to give the Royals an imposing middle of the order. The competition on that July 26-August 4 road trip (White Sox, Twins, Mets) was surely sub-par, but the result perhaps should be taken with a small grain of salt, but one thing is certain: the team is giving its fans reason for serious optimism for the rest of this season and next.

Random Thoughts

  • Wainwright Walk Watch: Once Adam Wainwright started the 2013 season by pitching 37 innings before allowing his first walk of the season, we started a weekly tracker to keep track of how few free passes the Cardinals’ ace hands out this season. He has led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio all season, and it hasn’t been close. In his most recent start, Wainwright lasted seven innings against the Dodgers, allowing seven hits, three runs and two walks while striking out five. For the season, Wainwright has walked only 21 hitters versus 156 punchouts, good for a 7.4-to-1 K/BB ratio (still the best in baseball). His next start is scheduled for Tuesday against Pittsburgh. In his last start against the Pirates on July 31, Wainwright pitched seven innings, allowing four runs and one walk. Given the Cardinals’ recent struggles, this start takes on even more importance than usual.
  • Ichiro Hit Tracker: as noted in last week’s column, 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki is closing in on 4,000 hits in his professional career (including the 1,278 he tallied playing in Japan). As you probably know, only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose have reached 4,000 in their careers. Following Sunday’s game against Detroit, in which he went hitless, Ichiro sits at 3,993 hits. Next up for Ichiro and the Yankees: four games at home against the pitching-challenged Angels, followed by a three-game set in Boston.
  • If it does happen this coming weekend, here’s hoping that the achievement is appropriately noted by Fox Sports and/or ESPN.
  • I, however, am NOT holding my breath.
  • Pittsburgh entered Coors Field last Friday with the best record in baseball, facing a Rockies team that crawled home following a terrible 1-9 road trip that essentially ended their hopes of contending for a wild-card spot.
  • Naturally, the Rockies broomed the Pirates. Because, baseball.
  • Next up for the Pirates: another showdown with St. Louis, which might miss Yadier Molina more than even they expected. Since he went on the DL July 31, the Cardinals are 5-7 and have fallen into second place, three games behind the Pirates.
  • Chris Davis is on pace to belt 59 homers and knock in 153 runs.
  • Miguel Cabrera is on pace to hit “only” 49 homers and drive in 153. He is not 100% and may not be for the rest of the season. Detroit currently has a seven-game lead in the AL Central – nice lead, but certainly not safe. After all, Oakland had a six-game lead on July 29 and watched it fizzle away by Aug. 7. If the Tigers are able to open a division lead as large as Atlanta’s, you have to wonder if they would consider putting Cabrera on the DL  in an effort to get his abdominal injury healed in time for the playoffs.
  • Apropos of nothing, the only other major leaguer with at least 90 RBI entering Sunday was Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (91).
  • News: Stephen Strasburg notched his first career shutout Sunday against the fading Phillies. Views: I half expected the Nationals to shut him down in the 7th to preserve his arm.
  • Random Baseball Statistic Guaranteed to Enrage Brian Kenny: on August 11, 1970, Jim Bunning became the first pitcher to win 100 games in both leagues.
  • Alex Rodriguez popped his first home run of the season Sunday and represented career home run No. 648 (or, 12 shy of Willie Mays). The two runs he drove in give him 1,952 in his career, passing Stan Musial for sixth on the all-time RBI list.
  • That means that A-Rod now has 648 career homers, which is 12 shy of Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time list. He also added an RBI single later in the game, giving him 1,952, which means he’s passed Stan Musial for sixth on the all-time list.
  • In perhaps the ultimate testament to his greatness, Mariano Rivera has blown three consecutive saves for the first time in his career. It took 19 seasons and 937 appearances for it to happen.
  • Still, I expect some dimwitted New York media member to suggest that it’s time to remove the Sandman from the closer role. Mike Francesa, maybe?

Follow me on Twitter: @ccaylor10

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