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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

#910 Arizona Diamondbacks (Walker) +105 over Los Angeles Dodgers (Ryu) 8:40 PM CT

Arizona finished 25-17 against left-handed starters last season and the Diamondbacks will be up for the first meeting with the Dodgers this season, finishing 11 games behind Los Angeles in NL West standings last season. The Dodgers are just 2-2 on the young season after splitting four games with the Giants at home and the road opener will be a challenging matchup with Arizona getting an off day Sunday while the Dodgers had a late night contest.

Hyun-Jin Ryu made just 24 starts last season with up-and-down results. He had a 3.77 ERA but was just 5-9 despite pitching for the team with the best record in baseball. Ryu had a FIP nearly a full run higher than his ERA and he had worse numbers on the road while allowing six runs in four innings at Arizona.

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Taijuan Walker was a steady pitcher for Arizona last season with good strikeout numbers and only six runs allowed in three starts vs. the Dodgers spanning nearly 17 innings of work. The Dodgers had five left-handers in the lineup last night against a right-handed starter and Walker held left-handed batters to just a .225 batting average last season.

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MLB Top Contender Concerns

With double-digit game leads in their respective divisions and record setting paces it is easy to project a World Series matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros. Both teams deserve to be the clear favorites in their leagues but here are a few concerns for baseball’s top contenders with the second half of the season underway.

The best regular season team doesn’t usually win the World Series: With 103 wins the 2016 Chicago Cubs had the top record and baseball and they went on to win the World Series as well in dramatic fashion to snap a long run of futility for the franchise. The Cubs were the first National League team to post the best record in baseball and also win the World Series since the 1986 New York Mets however and only the 1995 Atlanta Braves in a strike-shortened season joins those two NL teams having the top NL record while also capturing the World Series. A handful of American League teams have accomplished the feat but it is not the norm with the Cubs being only the sixth team overall to pace baseball and win the World Series since the Mets in ’86.

Wild Card Winners are dangerous: The change to a one-game wild card matchup in the 2012 season put more emphasis on winning the division and less value on being the wild card with a one-game do-or-die situation for those squads. While being in a wild card spot is less desirable in the current format, being the team that wins a wild card game can be a springboard to a great postseason run. In 2014 the Royals won a wild card game and kept playing until Game 7 of the World Series. In 2016 the Blue Jays were wild card winners and then also advanced to the ALCS. The 2014 Giants were World Series champions starting from a wild card spot while the 2012 Cardinals and the 2015 Cubs also won division series matchups from the wild card spot, upsetting the NL’s top seeds. Based solely on records, right now the #2 seeds in each league would be at an advantage over the #1 seeds as the current Central division leaders that would be the #3 seeds are weaker teams than the top wild card teams. Subjectively the Indians and Cubs could emerge in the Central title spots to change that equation but should the Brewers, Twins, or Royals win a Central division title, undoubtedly that will be a preferable draw for the East division winners than the wild card winner that the Dodgers or Astros would likely end up facing in the division round.

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The Dodgers reliance on left-handed pitching: Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, and Rich Hill have amazing numbers with a combined 32-6 record with great strikeout rates and ERAs. Having three excellent left-handed starters in the rotation is a luxury any team would love to have but in the potential NL playoff landscape it may create less than ideal matchups for the Dodgers. The Dodgers had the NL’s best team OPS vs. left-handed pitching in the first half of the season at .819 but the next five teams on that list are five of the six teams in contention for NL playoff spots with the Cubs (.802), Nationals (.793), Braves (.790), Brewers (.779), and Rockies (.779). Only Arizona struggles against left-handed pitching among the potential postseason opponents for the Dodgers and the Dodgers could wind up needing to beat two of those teams to reach the World Series. The Dodgers are good enough to out-slug any of those teams in a short series but the pitching advantage that Los Angeles might appear to have could be overstated in a short series. Against those five teams that excel against left-handed pitching Los Angeles is only a modest 14-10 as the amazing record this season has been built on going a combined 32-3 vs. a marginal grouping of squads (Reds, Royals, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, and Padres). Despite the Diamondbacks struggling vs. left-handed pitching they have actually out-scored the Dodgers despite losing six of the 10 meetings this season.

Houston has struggled against the AL’s top teams: Houston has put up incredible scoring results to pull away with a huge lead in the AL West, creating little urgency for the team to make aggressive moves at the trade deadline. Houston is 25-9 vs. the Mariners, Rangers, and Athletics, outscoring those division rivals by 68 runs in 34 games. Against teams the Astros might actually see in the postseason the numbers are troubling however, going 1-2 vs. Boston and 1-5 vs. Cleveland this season. Houston is 5-2 vs. the Yankees but they only outscored New York by two runs combined in those seven games. Houston has a +169 net scoring differential on the season but they are +118 runs in games decided by five or more runs as they have poured on meaningless runs on several occasions in contests that were already in hand yet rarely have suffered a lopsided defeat. Houston has also gone 7-0 in interleague action drawing marginal Atlanta and Miami squads from the NL East as the path to the great record has been favorable so far and the team hasn’t been in a lot of tense close games in the late innings similar to what may be ahead in the postseason.

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Recent playoff demons for the Dodgers: Since winning the 1988 World Series the Dodgers have lost 10 of 14 playoff series that they have been involved in, going 22-37 in the individual playoff games including losing in the NLCS four times in the last nine years. Kershaw will unfairly shoulder some of the blame for the recent playoff failures and it is true that his postseason ERA is 4.55 in 89 innings and he was shelled in both of his critical NLCS Game 6 starts, allowing 12 runs in nine innings in 2013 and 2016. Wood owns a 4.91 ERA in his four playoff outings, Hill owns a 4.50 ERA in four playoff outings, Kenta Maeda had a 6.75 ERA in last season’s playoffs, and Brandon McCarthy has never pitched in the postseason as there will be questions for the starting staff in October. That concern is also making a big assumption that this quintet of starters with a lengthy injury history will be active on the playoff roster.

Playoff Inexperience for the Astros: Houston was deemed ahead of schedule with a run to the wild card game in the 2015 season, going 86-76 in the regular season. The Astros bested the Yankees in that game and then took a 2-1 ALDS lead on the Royals. Inexperience showed as Houston crumbled and lost the series, blowing early leads in all three games they lost in the series including notably losing Game 4 with the series on the line despite a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning. Given the huge division lead and a current 10.5-game edge over the AL’s #2 team Houston isn’t likely to have an overly meaningful game the rest of the regular season and will have to jump into October playoff intensity against a team that will have some momentum off a wild card game win. Add that star shortstop Carlos Correa is likely to be out until late in the regular season and this is a team that might get a wake-up call in the playoffs against a team that plays its way into the postseason despite the gaudy regular season numbers for Houston that will have been built mostly in early season action.

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