Fewer than three weeks remain in the 2021 MLB regular season and the postseason races are tighter than they looked like they'd be much of the summer. Hooray for that. More than half the league is within three games of a postseason spot right now.
Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look at the back of a contender's rotation, a pitcher who turned his season around, and one club's terrible defense. Last week we broke down the intentional balk, Jorge Polanco's fine year, and MLB's unlikely hit by pitch leader.
Milwaukee's excellent back of the rotation
The Brewers are all but a lock to win the NL Central at this point and they'll be a tough opponent in the postseason. Their top three starters (Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff) are as good as any top three in the game, and their bullpen is deep and fierce. They also have a certifiable managerial genius pulling the pitching strings in Craig Counsell.
Not be overlooked is the strong work Milwaukee has received from the back of their rotation. Burnes, Peralta, and Woodruff are the headliners, but back-end starters Brett Anderson, Adrian Houser, and Eric Lauer have been dynamite as well. Check it out:
Anderson, Houser, Lauer combined
NL average for SP
Anderson, Houser, and Lauer have collectively been better than league average (Houser and Lauer much more so), particularly at limiting home runs and keeping the ball on the ground. Lauer has been so good the last few weeks (no more than one run allowed in eight of his last 11 starts) that it's safe to assume he'll get the nod as the No. 4 starter in October.
"Every time he takes the ball we feel like we have a chance to win," Christian Yelich told reporters, including MLB.com's Adam McCalvy, after Lauer tossed seven shutout innings against the Phillies last week.
The back of the rotation has been so good (and the division lead is so big) that the Brewers have been able to take it easy on their top three starters this summer. Burnes, Peralta, and Woodruff have started 76 games and only eight -- eight! -- have come on normal rest. Milwaukee has been able to give their starters extra rest consistently. No one has been overworked.
Here are the leaders in starts with five or more days of rest going into Tuesday's games:
The Rays are the next no-doubt postseason team with 99 starts on at least five days of rest. The gap between the Brewers and the next no-doubt postseason club is pretty huge. Having a back of the rotation that strong is a huge advantage and a luxury. It's given the Brewers a big division lead and also plenty of opportunity to rest their horses for October.
"Our success has been with our entire pitching staff," Counsell told McCalvy. "These guys are taking the ball the same number of times that Brandon, Corbin, and Freddy are. It's meaningful. They're pitching good games, they're getting deep into games. That obviously means a lot. They're putting up, most importantly, zeroes. Those lead to wins."
Snell's adjusted approach
The season is not going the way the Padres expected. San Diego invested heavily in its rotation this past offseason, both in terms of dollars and prospects traded, and yet here it is in September, running Jake Arrieta out there and going with a bullpen game seemingly every other day. The Padres are fighting for the second wild-card spot after being a preseason World Series contender.
Blake Snell was among the club's big offseason rotation additions and he didn't hold up his end of the bargain earlier this year. He owned a 5.44 ERA on Aug. 1 and was averaging only 4.4 innings per start. Snell was free from Tampa's short leashes and he was still unable to pitch deep into games. Only eight times in those 19 starts did he complete even five innings.
Since Aug. 1 though, Snell has been among the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Excluding his start this past weekend, which he exited after 11 pitches with a groin issue, Snell has allowed nine runs total in his last seven starts, completing five innings in all of them and seven innings in four of them. Four of his 18 career seven-inning starts have come within the last month.
"He's on an unbelievable roll right now," Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters, including Jeff Sanders of the San Diego Union-Tribune, after Snell manhandled the Angels last week. "He's had some dominant performances all throughout the year, but he's on a really strong run now. Tonight was as sharp as we've seen him all year. To take a perfect game into the seventh, he's on a great run."
Snell is a former Cy Young winner, so putting together a dominant seven-start stretch isn't the most surprising thing in the world. It is notable that Snell has adjusted his attack plan, however. Specifically, he's condensed his arsenal, and has leaned heavily on his fastball and slider over the last month or so. He's put his curveball and changeup on the back burner.
Snell is also throwing his slider with a little more velocity and a little less break, so it's more like a cutter than a true slider. That has allowed him to throw more strikes with the pitch overall, and when Snell is in the strike zone, he can be untouchable. Whenever he struggles, it's usually because he's nibbling on the edges and running up high pitch counts.
"The slider was harder than we've seen it in the past," Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed told reporters, including MLB.com's AJ Cassavell, after Snell tossed seven no-hit innings against Arizona last month. "When you've got 96-98 with the high release and angle and you throw your offspeed pitches extremely well like he did tonight, it was a tough night for us."
The Padres are hopeful Snell's injury is minor and he'll be able to rejoin the rotation this coming weekend, though nothing is set in stone just yet. If he misses much time, they're in real deep trouble given their place in the standings and the state of their pitching staff. If he does come back though, it looks like Snell has regained his Cy Young form thanks to becoming a two-pitch pitcher.
"That's the best I've ever seen Snell," Angels manager Joe Maddon told Cassavell after Snell shut them down last week. "Good for him. That's the best I've seen him across the board."
Boston's shaky defense
On July 5, the Red Sox beat the Angels to improve to 54-32 on the season, and open a season best 4.5-game lead in the AL East. Boston has the third worst record in the American League since then, and it is now competing with four other teams for the two American League wild-card spots. It's been a rough few weeks for the BoSox.
There are no shortage of culprits during this rough stretch. Boston's rotation has generally been unreliable, the bullpen has coughed up a few too many leads, and the offense isn't breaking games open like it did earlier in the season. Also, the Red Sox have been atrocious defensively. They've been one of the worst defensive teams in baseball this year, if not the worst.
On Monday, outfielder-turned-first baseman Kyle Schwarber botched a routine ground ball and made an error on what would have been the third out of the inning. Instead, it opened the door for the Mariners to score three runs. Seattle, a team the Red Sox are trying to fend off for a wild-card spot, went on to win the game thanks to that post-error rally.
"Like I always say, you give the opposition more than 27 outs, most of the time they're going to take advantage," Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters, including MassLive.com's Chris Cotillo, following Monday's loss. "It seems like right now, whenever we open up the window or the door, whatever you want to call it, they take advantage and we pay the price."
The Red Sox have allowed 77 unearned runs this season, second most in baseball behind the last place Diamondbacks (79). Their 36 unearned runs allowed in the second half are the most in the American League. According to the various defensive stats, Boston ranks among the very worst defensive team in the game this year. The numbers going into Tuesday's action:
- Errors: 101 (2nd most in MLB; Marlins lead with 104 and the Twins are the only other team with more than 90)
- Outs above average: minus-37 (30th in MLB; Reds are next worst at minus-28)
- Defensive efficiency: .658 (30th in MLB; Angels are next worst at .677)
Errors are not the best way to evaluate defense (you can't make an error on a ball you don't get to) but I think we can all agree making the second most errors in the league is a bad thing. You're in position to field the ball and you just don't. Do that more than all but one team in the league, and it's bad. Errors are one piece of the defensive pie.
Defensive efficiency is a fancy way of saying the Red Sox have converted only 65.8 percent of batted balls into outs. The league average is 69.6 percent. The difference between the Red Sox and the league average is one fewer batted ball converted into an out every 26 batted balls or so, which is roughly one every other game. That's pretty significant.
Statcast's outs above average says the Red Sox have below average defenders at three of the four infield positions (Bobby Dalbec at first, Xander Bogaerts at short, Rafael Devers at third) and in one outfield spot (Alex Verdugo) on any given day. This late in the season, you can't change the personnel, so for Boston to improve defensively, the guys on the roster now have to be better. That's the only option at this point.
"We've been struggling defensively the whole season," Cora told Cotillo. "We had some good stretches when we play good defense. When we do that, most of the time it seems like we win games. That's the bottom line. At this level, you have to be good defensively."