Welcome to another This Particular Week In Baseball, the only baseball column that cleans your teeth while you read! We here at TPWIB HQ hope you are enjoying this post-July 4 column with all your digits still attached. To the baseballing!
The Indians recently won 14 baseball games in a row, including a 19-inning game as the streak's capper. Since then, they're 1-2, including a 17-1 loss, because baseball has a perverse sense of humor. Still the Indians streak took them from tied for first place in the AL Central to seven games up which, humilation aside, is the important part.
What's interesting about this streak is what it says about the Indians. Every year some team goes on a long winning streak and nothing beyond the obvious comes of it. The longest modern winning streaks were accomplished by two teams that didn't amount to anything in the post-season. The 2002 A's won 20 games in a row and the 1935 Cubs won 21. Neither won the World Series, and the A's didn't make it out of the Division Series. That doesn't mean the Indians won't, it just means that winning 14 in a row is good does guarantee of broader success.
That said, what sets the streak apart is that it wasn't a series of lucky wins. The Indians bookended the streak with one-run wins, but otherwise there was only one other one-run win. One-run wins are typically thought to involve luck, and anyone who has watched baseball will understand the sometimes bizarre ways teams are gifted runs. The Indians won a lot of games, and they won them by a bunch of runs. Cleveland outscored their opponents during the streak 82-27. That's an average of a four run difference per game! There are winning streaks, and then there is just kicking everyone's asses for two straight weeks.
Given what we're talking about, it makes sense that there's going to be at least a one-run difference per game—there are no losses involved, after all. But giving up 1.9 runs a game over 14 games while scoring 5.9, as Cleveland did during the streak, is impressive. The 5.9 is a bit above what the league leading Red Sox have scored per game, but it's not shocking for a small sample of 14 games. It's the 1.9 runs per game that is surprising. The Cubs lead the league in fewest runs allowed at 3.4 runs per game. The Indians blew that out of the water, which gives you some insight into how well their pitching and defense is working when things are firing properly.
It's a small and selective sample, yes, and it's just two weeks. And it's not a promise of future success. But the message it sends is impossible to miss, or misconstrue. Cleveland is for real.
Back To Pitching Injuries
There is nothing more important in baseball than good starting pitching. The Indians are a prime example of that, but so are the Mets, the Cubs, the Giants, and on and on. There's the other side of that too, with the Reds, Twins, Angels, and Red Sox. Bad starting pitching, like old Chinese food left in your refrigerator for a month, poisons everything. Which is all why the recent rash of injuries to premium-grade starters is so concerning.
Most problematic is the Dodgers' loss of Clayton Kershaw. With Kershaw on the mound, the Dodgers have the record of World Series contenders; without him, they play like also-rans. Kershaw is the set of turbochargers on the Dodgers 1987 Chrysler minivan. Without him they're going to have a hard time hauling all those kids up the hill to soccer practice. Or, less metaphorically, they are going to lose about as much as they win, which isn't the recipe for anything promising. Right now he's supposedly only out a few weeks. But it's a back issue and those are notoriously stubborn and difficult, especially for pitchers. The Dodgers have a $227 million roster, and the team's future mostly depends on one man's faulty back. We knew that before the injury, but it's much easier to ignore things when they're merely theoretical.
The Nationals are also in that boat, though not quite to such an extreme. Stephen Strasburg also hit the DL with an upper back issue, but he's already (uh) back, and given that he didn't allow a hit in 6 2/3 innings in his return, the Nats may have dodged a bullet. But with Gio Gonzalez struggling, the injury to Joe Ross, and Max Scherzer's late-onset gopheritis, the Nationals need Strasburg more than ever. For all the everyday dazzlement they deliver, this is maybe the easiest way to appreciate an ace—take him out of the rotation, and then marvel at how big a hole they leave.
This is shaping up to be a very important trade deadline, if also a weird one. There aren't many big-name players likely to move, but there are many contenders/"contenders" that need help. There are buyers' markets and sellers' markets, but this year's trade market appears both unusually tight on talent and full of deluded shoppers. With desperation as the x-factor, it seems likely that players who would otherwise appear unlikely to be moved might have new addresses come August 1.
For now the Marlins, Pirates, White Sox, and Yankees are all hovering around .500 but significantly back in their respective divisions. There is still time to make a move up the standings, of course, and that could happen. But the more likely scenario is each of those teams continue to be middling and reach the end of July in roughly the same spot they're at now. In that case, the Yankees might be looking at dealing from their incredibly strong bullpen, the Pirates could deal from their surpassingly talented outfield and solid bullpen, and the White Sox could look to deal just about anyone. It's the White Sox, so you never really know. Or they could all decide they're buyers and throw everything into chaos! I'm not even going to pretend I know what's going to happen, but whatever it is could start happening soon.
Top Three Of The Moment
We're keeping the same order for now here at the TTOTM but with some notice. The Indians are knocking on the Giants' door, and the Nationals aren't too far behind them. Relish the continuity before it's gone.
Remember the Johnny Cueto of last season, the Kansas City Cueto? He was pretty awful, right? When the Giants signed Cueto it looked like a desperation move, or at least a bit of wishcasting by a team that realized, too late, that the old, ace-like Matt Cain was not coming back. Well, so far it's a desperation move that's worked out well. Cueto has jumped his strikeout rate and drastically cut his home run rate, all while keeping the walks at a minuscule level. This is prime Cueto, the guy who was a legit ace for the Reds all those years ago. It's hard to say if he'll keep this up all season and into the playoffs, but either way, this signing looks a whole lot better now than it did when the ink was still wet.
It's tough to keep winning with a starting rotation of Nick Martinez, A.J. Griffin, Chi Chi Gonzalez, C.K. Louis, and Martin Perez. Okay, I made up C.K. Louis, but even so that's a whole lot of mediocrity for a club that is ostensibly the best in the AL. The Rangers are starting out in a good position (way ahead of everyone) but it's tough to see them getting far with guys like that. Maybe conjuring up C.K. Louis isn't the worst idea after all.
The Cubs are here because they have the best winning percentage and an amazing collection of talent. But they, like every other club in baseball, aren't immune to downturns. There's nothing to panic about, in other words, although there is something unsettling about Jake Arrieta's recent struggles. Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award last season over Clayton Kershaw, and anyone that can make a reasonable argument for being better than Kershaw is legit. But Arrieta has taken a step back in terms of command this season, and as a result he's been effective, but not elite. His walk rate has almost doubled, a problem in and of itself but also a byproduct of those command issues. The Cubs are still stacked, and can win in the regular season without last season's Cy winner. They're going to need him when the playoffs roll around, but fortunately they've got a few months before that happens.
Bottom Three Of The Moment
Do you really want to read about the Reds, Braves, and Twins this week?
Bleeeeeeeeeaaaaaaah and how are they so bad at diagnosing their own players' injuries?
I'm guessing not.
The Matchup Of The Year of The Week: Rangers at Red Sox
The Rangers are, as of this writing, the best team in the American League. A while ago they weren't. That title belonged to the Red Sox. Since then, the Sox have mostly focused on trying to get their manager fired and to turn their GM's hair gray. A quick Google Image search suggests that, in this area and only in this area, they've been a huge success!
But as we approach this series, the Rangers are struggling. Their rotation consist of you, me, a stuffed panda, and a shiny clump of last week's Chinese takeout. The Red Sox rotation, on the other hand, consists of three guys who are acceptably decent and uh some other guys who aren't. Luckily for Boston, this series lines up with their three actual starting pitchers participating, while the Rangers are going to have to hope the stuffed panda's changeup is working and that the orange chicken isn't too congealed.
Can the Rangers' bats carry that rotation? Has the first three-fifths of the Red Sox rotation avoided catching a case of crap cooties from the last two-fifths? To find out, tune in Tuesday, Wednesday, and, as it turns out, yesterday. Darned holiday.
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