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NL Contender Concerns

National League Contender Concerns

While the American League playoff field appears to be set, the National League should provide a fascinating September with eight teams vying for five spots and no division lead currently greater than three games. Here is a look at the eight contenders and a possible concern down the stretch or in the playoffs in a wide open NL pennant race.

Chicago Cubs (81-57): Too Many Lefties?

The 2016 World Series champions have the best record in the NL and are near certain to be in the playoffs in some fashion, though the division lead over Milwaukee has slipped to just three games. The Cubs have perhaps the most established starting rotation of all the contenders with five viable options on the mound. Four of those starters are left-handed however and looking at the current playoff field, many of those teams have feasted on left-handers this season.

The Cubs would likely be comfortable throwing Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, or even Jose Quintana in a big playoff game but only Hendricks is right-handed. Potential foes Colorado, Arizona, St. Louis, and Atlanta all have team OPS marks of at least 40 points higher vs. left-handers than vs. right-handers as the Dodgers and Phillies would be the only NL foes that are at a significant disadvantage vs. the left-handed heavy rotation for the Cubs. Chicago is a deserving NL favorite but they may draw a problematic matchup along the way.

Milwaukee Brewers (79-61): Who will Pitch?

Milwaukee is chasing down the Cubs in the NL Central race despite only two starters having enough innings for the Brewers as qualified starters on the season, Jhuolys Chacin and Chase Anderson. Both have suspicious numbers with Chacin 14-5 despite a 4.45 xFIP and in eight of his 29 starts he has allowed four or more runs including allowing eight or more runs twice. Chacin and to a more significant degree Anderson both have worse numbers at Miller Park. Anderson owns a 2.89 ERA on the road but a 5.01 ERA at home and if Milwaukee ends up in one game wild card draw it will be an interesting decision on who to start.

Junior Guerra looked like the team’s best pitcher in May and June but he owns a 7.62 ERA in his last nine starts. Newcomer Gio Gonzalez hasn’t had a great season and he has zero wins in six career playoff starts and while Wade Miley has been on a roll of late there isn’t much in his career numbers to suggest it is a sustainable pace. Milwaukee’s opponent could also be one of the aforementioned NL teams that rakes against left-handed pitching as well. Milwaukee’s bullpen has seen its numbers deteriorate as the Brewers will likely face a taxing September looking to hold on to a spot.

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St. Louis Cardinals (77-62): Unsustainable Hot Streak?

The Cardinals have put together an epic second half run to climb into the NL playoff picture going 23-9 since August started. With a 1-3 start to September and a decline in recent scoring there are signs that that hot streak is ending as St. Louis clings to the final wild card spot. 16 of the 22 August wins came against teams that wouldn’t make the playoffs right now as the schedule certainly helped the Cardinals climb back into the race.

Four of the final five series will be against playoff contenders although the Cardinals do have 13 of the final 19 games at home. St. Louis has had surprise pitching stars but Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and John Gant all appear to be great overachievers in viewing their ERA against their FIP and as teams have more film and more at-bats against them, the numbers could erode.

Colorado Rockies (76-62): Law of Averages?

All season long Colorado has outperformed it scoring numbers currently 14 games above .500 despite being -10 in scoring differential. Like Arizona, Colorado has a difficult remaining schedule with 13 games against the two division rivals they are fighting with in the NL West race plus drawing the Phillies and Nationals in the final two home series. A Rockies team that has been fortunate going 24-14 in one-run games while just 11-14 vs. the Diamondbacks and Dodgers could have trouble holding on to the division lead.

Colorado only has a winning record vs. Atlanta among the seven other potential NL playoff teams and the Rockies have been outscored by nine runs despite going 18-14 since August started. Colorado has been outscored at home on the season and still has a negative scoring differential in going 25-17 since the All Star break. The Rockies do have a good defense and a capable bullpen while the unimposing starting staff led by Kyle Freeland has figured out how to pitch at Coor’s Field. Colorado would be a very improbable NL playoff threat historically with the current scoring numbers however.

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Atlanta Braves (76-62): Unproven Ace?

The NL Cy Young race will be very interesting but more incredible is that the three likely leaders in that race might not be in the playoffs. Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer are on losing teams and while Aaron Nola still has a realistic path to the playoffs the Phillies certainly have work to do to get him there. Add that long time NL Cy Young contenders like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Greinke would all also miss the playoffs as of today’s standings and the NL playoff picture won’t have many proven starters that batters will fear in October.

Mike Foltynewicz won’t win the Cy Young but he could be among the top vote getters actually on a playoff team. A 1st round pick of the Astros in 2010 Foltynewicz will turn 27 as the playoffs begin and while he is just 10-9 his 2.80 ERA and 10.4 K/9 showcase his potential. His strikeout rate is significantly higher than in his past MLB seasons as is his walk rate and a more realistic 3.68 xFIP overshadows his ERA. Since mid-July his ERA is 3.54 with a decline in his strikeout numbers as it isn’t clear he is ready for the big stage in October as his best work was done in the season’s first three months.

Los Angeles Dodgers (76-63): Close Game Failures?

The Dodgers have the top scoring differential in the entire NL yet have been outside of the postseason picture much of the season. Los Angeles owns a marginal 39-35 record home and the 4.7 runs per game scoring average has been built on blowouts. The Dodgers have 25 wins and only eight losses by five or more runs and those 33 games have accounted for more than the +133 scoring differential for the team on the season. The Dodgers are .500 in one-runs games and .500 in extra-inning games and thus is only slightly above .500 since August despite big offensive production.

The bullpen is an easy target but with a 3.85 season ERA it has been a respectable unit and the Dodgers actually own the second best team ERA in all of baseball behind Houston. The Dodgers have blown 26 save opportunities this season for the third most in baseball and the Dodgers have gone 31-32 in games decided by the bullpen. That means the strong rotation simply hasn’t factored in enough decisions as only the Rays (who employ the opener frequently) have had more outcomes determined by relievers. The Dodgers are running out of time for their record to catch up to their production.

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Arizona Diamondbacks (75-64): Brutal September Schedule?

Arizona has recently surrendered the NL West lead they have held for much of the season but the Diamondbacks still look like a serious threat. With Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin, and Zack Godley plus Robbie Ray and Clay Buchholz the starting options for Arizona are formidable while the Diamondbacks have had the NL’s best bullpen numbers this season.

Arizona has likely the toughest remaining path to the playoffs however as only one series remains vs. a team that isn’t in a playoff race. Seven remaining division games with Colorado loom large but the Diamondbacks also have the Braves, Cubs, and Dodgers for a combined 10 games while still having an interleague road series with the Astros as well. The final three games in San Diego provide a favorable finish but that also means if Arizona is on the road for a potential wild card game they could face a long trip on a short turnaround.

Philadelphia Phillies (73-65): No Offense?

Philadelphia is by far the worst scoring team of the playoff contenders actually only outscoring the Mets, Giants, Padres, and Marlins on the season among NL teams. Philadelphia has averaged just 4.2 runs per game while going 20-23 since the All Star break, getting outscored by 24 runs in that span. The numbers are going in the wrong direction as well as Philadelphia has scored fewer than 3.8 runs per game since August started.

Philadelphia has a high-ceiling rotation but in the last four weeks over 24 games Philadelphia has hit .244 as a team with a .711 team OPS. In that span Philadelphia has struck out almost four times as often as it has taken a walk. Philadelphia has really poor recent numbers vs. left-handed pitching while also featuring a 30-39 road record that is by far the worst of the NL playoff threats. That does mean that Philadelphia is an impressive 43-26 at home but the current picture allows for a very slight chance that Philadelphia will get many opportunities at home early in the playoffs.

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Free MLB Pick Monday

#913/914 ‘UNDER 8’ Colorado Rockies (Gray) at Los Angeles Angels (Despaigne) 9:05 PM CT

Odrisamer Despaigne has a 6.35 ERA but a 3.47 FIP this season mainly as a reliever with the Marlins before joining the rotation for the Angels in August. He faced a pair of tough road venues in those outings and this could be his best opportunity for a lengthy outing all season. Despaigne has pitched in 100 games at the big league level with average results and he’ll face a Rockies team with just a .727 team OPS vs. right-handed pitching and a .723 team mark overall the past 25 games.

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Colorado might not need many runs Monday with Jon Gray on the mound. Gray still owns an elevated ERA at 4.67 but his xFIP is 3.12 this season for one of the better marks in the NL. Since a minor league stint Gray has returned from the All Star break with great numbers posting a 2.83 ERA in six starts and yet to take a loss in that span. He has relied less on the strikeout and has found much better results while going deeper into games.

The Angels have been ice cold at the plate with a .578 team OPS in the past five games, scoring a combined 12 runs in those five games and over the past two weeks the team OPS is only up to .694. The ‘under’ has had a 34-29-3 mark in Anaheim this season and both bullpens are capable. Just as Mike Trout has returned Justin Upton is out of the lineup for the Angels with any long shot hopes up in flames this week with six consecutive defeats for Los Angeles. Expect tired teams that both endured disappointing results Sunday and a pair of capable right-handed options to succeed on the mound.

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Free MLB Pick Wednesday

#953/954 ‘OVER 9.5’ Pittsburgh Pirates (Archer) at Colorado Rockies (Marquez) 2:10 PM CT

German Marquez has been a steady pitcher in the rotation for the Rockies but at home he owns a 6.63 ERA in over 55 innings of work. Foes have batted .303 against him at Coor’s Field with a .913 OPS. Marquez is on a nice six-start run since late June but four of six games came on the road including pitching in a few favorable ballparks. In six of his last 11 starts he has still allowed four or more runs and Pittsburgh has been one of the better hitting teams in baseball in the last month.

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In the past 22 games the Pirates have an .809 team OPS with 5.3 runs scored per game. Pittsburgh has scored at least five runs 13 times in the past 19 games Colorado has allowed 5.1 runs per game so far in August after the pitching staff had a great month of July to climb back in the NL race. In home games the Rockies own a 5.62 bullpen ERA and Marquez has been a high risk pitcher in Denver.

Pittsburgh has a 5.00 bullpen ERA on the road this season and the Pittsburgh debut for Chris Archer was similar to how he has pitched all season, allowing five runs in just over four innings of work. Archer can generate strikeouts but his season ERA is 4.40 and he hasn’t been much more than a league-average pitcher the past three seasons. Left-handers have hit Archer hard this season and Colorado had quality lefties in four of the top seven spots in the lineup last night. Archer also only has pitched at Coor’s Field once, a ballpark averaging 10.6 runs per game on the season.

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Free MLB Pick Saturday

#957 Los Angeles Dodgers (Buehler) -125 over Colorado Rockies (Marquez) 6:15 PM CT

Not much has gone right for the Dodgers this season with a few big injuries but Los Angeles has quietly won 11 of the past 15 games to creep closer to .500. Despite struggling the first two months the Dodgers are just three games out of first place in the NL West and they have a chance to make it just two games with another win over the Rockies after an 11-8 result in Denver last night. The Dodgers have the best scoring differential in the division despite being fourth in the current standings and Los Angeles won last night despite the Rockies going 6-10 with runners in scoring position.

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Both bullpens were heavily taxed yesterday and while Walker Buehler lacks experience he is a high ceiling option on the mound that has proven able to go deep in games with back-to-back seven-inning outings. His ERA is just 2.20 with a better than 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and he has so far lived up to his top prospect billing as a 1st round pick from three years ago. Colorado managed just two hits against him in a mid-May outing over seven innings. First outings at Coor’s Field can be challenging but Buehler looks like the better option on the mound tonight.

German Marquez is actually a few months younger than Buehler despite winning 11 games for the Rockies last season. His trajectory in 2018 remains similar with nearly identical numbers in many categories this season, except for a much higher walk rate. Marquez has been a disaster at home this season with a 7.54 ERA in over 22 innings of work and the Rockies own a shaky 4.78 bullpen ERA the past 10 games.

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June MLB Pitchers to Watch

June MLB Pitchers to Watch

With two months in the MLB season in the books there is enough meaningful data to form stable projections for the coming weeks. A few starters that have perhaps underachieved so far could be in line for improvement in the coming weeks. Here are five pitchers to watch in June as possible play-on starters in the upcoming weeks.

Sean Manaea – Oakland Athletics: The Oakland left-hander had a huge first month of the season with a 1.03 ERA in six starts including a no-hitter vs. the Red Sox on April 21. In six May starts Manaea posted a 7.18 ERA, allowing at least four runs in each of his six starts. He faced a few difficult matchups in that run but he also saw his strikeout rate plummet. He has also had some tough luck with more than 40 percent of his base runners coming around to score in the month of May. His xFIP in that stretch was just 4.80 as he likely deserved better results in a few outings and historically May and August have been his worst months. His FIP of 4.20 for the season is a bit above his 3.60 ERA but he should return to being an upper tier starter in the coming weeks. His next scheduled starts are at Texas, home vs. Kansas City, home vs. the Angels, and at the White Sox as he should have favorable opportunities to get back on track.

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Jon Gray – Colorado Rockies: Gray won 10 games last season in 20 starts for the Rockies posting a 3.67 ERA. His FIP last season was just 3.18 as many expected even further improvement in 2018 for the #3 pick in the 2013 draft at now 26 years of age. Gray has posted a career best 10.5 K/9 so far this season but he has been burned by a .376 BABIP so far this season. Gray has a 5.68 ERA but his 3.15 FIP is the eighth best mark in the NL among qualified starters as things should turn Gray’s way in the coming weeks. Pitching at Coor’s Field is always a challenge and he has really struggled at home this season where six of his last eight starts have been. The upcoming schedule should offer better opportunities for Gray with his next turns scheduled to be at Cincinnati, at Philadelphia, and at Texas, while his next home start if the current rotation holds would be vs. the light-hitting Marlins in late June.

Luke Weaver – St. Louis Cardinals: As a 23-year old Weaver dominated AAA in the first half of last season before posting a 7-2 record with a solid 3.88 ERA in 10 starts for the Cardinals late last season. An xFIP of 2.93 and a 10.7 K/9 sent expectations soaring for Weaver in his first full season in the big leagues. There have been some growing pains for the 2014 1st round pick with worse numbers across the board this season. His K/9 is down to just 8.2 while his ERA has ballooned to 4.63. Among NL starters he owns one of the largest differences between this FIP and his ERA however with a FIP of 3.72 suggesting that he could return to a similar pace as last season’s success. He has had tough luck with 32 percent of base runners scoring and left-handed hitters have hit .293 against him while there has been a big disparity between his home and road numbers. Weaver will get two of his next three starts at home with the road outing being against a Cincinnati team that is among the worst in the NL as he should have an opportunity to improve his numbers in the coming weeks.

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Jameson Taillon – Pittsburgh Pirates: With a hot start for the Pirates Taillon had incredible numbers through his first three starts with just two runs and nine hits allowed in more than 20 innings. After pitching over his head to open the season, he hit a tough-luck patch to even out his numbers in his final three April starts. Taillon had average results in May with one bad outing inflating his season line, leaving his ERA at 4.53 through the first two months. His FIP is just 3.87 however and he owns a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio. Taillon has dominated against right-handed batters with a .213 batting average against while walking only one right-handed batter in nearly 33 innings of work. Taillon has an extreme gap between his home and road numbers and in June three of his next four starts following a June 1 start in St. Louis should be at home. He also will get to face the slumping Diamondbacks lineup twice if the current rotation schedule holds.

Rick Porcello – Boston Red Sox: Backing Boston will generally carry a premium price tag but Porcello offers a lesser valuation than Chris Sale or David Price and he has been pitching well for the Red Sox with a 3.65 ERA in 12 starts. His season line features a 3.14 FIP and an 8.5 K/9 with both marks better than the results he produced in his surprise 2016 Cy Young season. He is on pace to have his highest groundball rate since 2013 and he has only allowed six home runs in 74 innings of work. Porcello actually has better numbers against left-handed batters this season and he has pitched nearly as well on the road as at home. June has historically been Porcello’s worst month of the season but that career log was mostly built in a disastrous six-start run last June in which he had a 6.63 ERA by virtue of a .361 BABIP. Porcello has had solid numbers since the 2017 All Star Break and he could have a strong month of June for the AL East leaders. His first call this month will be a challenge draw in Houston but then he will be slated to face the White Sox at home before facing manageable road opportunities in Seattle and Minnesota.

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