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Contenders and Pretenders: Cardinals soar while Phils plunge

David Rosenblum
Jaywood Uk | Flickr

As baseball’s reign as the preeminent sport in the national consciousness comes to an end, it is important to take time to appreciate how beautiful, exciting and unpredictable Major League Baseball has become. However, the beauty of the game is exemplified by the unsung heroes who perform out of their minds for their clubs, the rookies who are just happy to be on the field fulfilling dreams, and the teams who resurrect their season while bringing excitement back to the fans. As autumn playoff baseball approaches, now is the time to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Contenders: The St. Louis Cardinals

In a division with the reigning National League MVP in Christian Yelich of Milwaukee, and a Chicago Cubs team which, at one time, inspired whispers of a dynasty, somehow it is the Cardinals who are in first-place in National League Central. Looking at their roster, the Redbirds do not have a star-studded squad. There is no instantly recognizable superstar player that can turn a game on its head. However, what they do have is efficiency. The Cardinals are conservative in a time when the game is explosive.  

The Redbirds are terrible at hitting, compared to the rest of the league, possessing a low slugging percentage of .409 and an on-base percentage of .320, both amongst the bottom-five in the league. The Cardinals’ offense has scored 590 runs this season, averaging 4.6 runs a game. In comparison, only the Padres, Giants and Marlins have created less runs per game in the National League. 

Although the Cards’ hitting could be seen as a bizarre hallmark of ineptitude, there is a player who could only be described as the heart and soul of St. Louis — Kolten Wong. Wong, who leads the Majors in wins above average for second basemen, is batting .272 with a .356 on-base percentage, while amazingly striking out a mere 68 times in 458 plate appearances. Wong’s ability to reach base, put balls in play, and fight in at-bats has proven vital to the Cards’ push for the postseason. 

Even more vital, however, is the pitching. Even though the rotation does not put up remarkable stats, they are subtly stingy, as they rank in the top five in runs allowed per game, giving up 4.18 runs per game and earned run average, accumulating a 3.94 ERA. Three of the Cards’ five starters rank in the top 25 in ground-ball rate, including 13-game winner Dakota Hudson, who leads the Majors with a 58% ground ball rate. However, one exception to this trend is the emergence of bullpen stud Giovanny Gallegos, who has a strikeout rate of 35%, relying heavily on his fastball and slider. As a result, batters are hitting a measly .155 against Gallegos. 

This season, the Cards have found their rhythm, and are riding the momentum to October baseball. 

Pretenders: The Philadelphia Phillies

When the Phillies emerged victorious in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes last offseason, many Phillies fans and neutrals saw this team as a definite playoff team, with a chance to compete for the World Series in October. The lineup was stuffed with talent, such as Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, Andrew McCutchen and J.T. Realmuto, in addition to a rotation was led by National League Cy Young Award finalist Aaron Nola. Fast forward five months and what seemed like a certainty is now slowly crumbling before the eyes of the Phils and their fans. A season that started with so much promise is now hanging on by the edge of a knife. 

Individually, the Phils’ batters have had good seasons. Hoskins has become more patient at the plate, leading the Majors with over 100 walks on the season. In addition, Hoskins is hitting for power, mashing 25 home runs and possessing one of the highest slugging percentages on the team with a .476 mark. 

At catcher, Realmuto is batting for a decent average at .272, with a .472 slugging percentage, as he currently leads all Phillies’ batters with 2.1 wins above average. However, patience is a problem, as he has been struck out over 100 times while walking less than 40. Andrew McCutchen had his season cut short due to a torn ACL in June and Herrera is suspended for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy. 

That leaves Harper, who is having a decent season, batting .254 with a .373 OBP and a .493 slugging percentage. He currently leads the team with 27 homers and 92 runs batted in. However, he has amassed 1.1 wins above average this season. For a player who has the title of superstar and is being paid like the transcendent talent he is, his stats leave a lot to be desired. 

Meanwhile, the pitching has been putrid. The Phils have no consistency in the bullpen, as two of their better relief arms in Juan Nicasio and Jose Alvarez have allowed batters to hit over .300 on batted balls in play this season, while the majority of the rotation possess losing records. The one bright spot is Nola, who has 12 wins with a 3.53 ERA. However, his pitches are less effective, as batters are hitting for higher averages than last year on his two bread and butter pitches, the slider and the fastball. All in all, the expectations for the Phillies this season have not been reached so far, and they only have a month to recover their season.

Contenders: The Oakland Athletics

Out on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, one can find players that were acquired on the cheap and were considered reclamation projects by other teams’ executives. Everybody is a rogue in Oakland, and people are always genuinely surprised when they do well, especially last year. This is a team that made the American League playoffs with 97 wins. As an encore, the A’s are now competing in a three-horse race for two wild card spots, along with the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays. The A’s, under-the-radar talent is exemplified by two players in the lineup and two players in the rotation exemplify Oakland’s commitment to bargain hunting. 

Oakland’s third baseman, Matt Chapman, and shortstop, Marcus Semien, generate the most wins above average in the Majors, generating 4.1 and 3.6 WAA respectively. Chapman has evolved into a mainstay at the hot corner, only committing eight errors along with a .980 fielding percentage. At the plate, Chapman hits the ball hard, averaging an exit velocity over 90 miles per hour, while hitting 27 homers and driving in 92 runs. He also gets on base fairly often, as does his teammate Semien. Semien is batting .272 with a .358 on-base percentage, both career highs. Semien also excels in the field, leading the league in assists at the shortstop position. 

While the hitting is decent in Oak-town, the pitching has been excellent, possessing a 4.06 ERA and surrendering only 4.28 runs per game, both sixth lowest in the game. Two unforeseen stars of the staff are Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson. 

Fiers, the new-found ace of the staff, has earned 12 wins along with a 3.46 ERA. Second to only Justin Verlander in terms of opposition batting average of balls put in play, Fiers’ biggest weapon has been his curveball. Painting the upper-inside and lower-outside corners, opposing batters have only been able to hit .191 against the pitch. While Fiers relies on his curve, Brett Anderson relies on his slider to get the batters out.  

Anderson, who has 10 wins, is not a strikeout pitcher, but he generates ground balls at an extremely high 53.1% rate. In addition, opposition hitters are only batting .272 on balls in play against Anderson, making him an efficient pitcher and the perfect complement to Fiers. 

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