Wednesday September 17th, 2014

Tuesday night was a banner one in the Beltway region, as both the Nationals and Orioles clinched their respective division titles. Both teams did so by defeating rivals — the Braves and Blue Jays, respectively — who had spent significant chunks of the season’s first half leading their respective packs before fading considerably after the All-Star break. Here's a look back at how the East was lost.

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A few days shy of a year ago, it was the Braves who were popping the champagne corks as NL East champions for the first time since 2005. They won 96 games, and when they jumped out to a 17-7 start this year despite having lost both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to their second Tommy John surgeries in spring training, it looked as though they might repeat. They particularly appeared to have the Nationals' number; after trouncing them 13-6 in last year's series, they took five out of six from them during the season's first two weeks, providing ample fodder for D.C.-area sports talk radio.

That early burst gave the Braves a 3 1/2-game lead over the Mets and four games over the Nationals, but thanks to a seven-game losing streak immediately after it (en route to a 13-16 record in May), they were never able to pull away. Still, they were 52-43 at the All-Star break, tied for first in the East and just one full game off the Dodgers' league-best 54-43 record, though that made them just one of six teams within two games of Los Angeles. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report estimated their chances of reaching the postseason at 64 percent (35 percent for the division, 29 percent for the Wild Card).

Since the break, the Braves have gone just 23-33, and lion's share of the blame can be laid at the feet of their wheezing offense, which dipped from averaging 3.81 runs per game in the first half to 3.30 in the second half. By comparison, the pitching staff actually tightened up slightly, from 3.68 runs per game to 3.63, with both the rotation and bullpen lowering their OPS allowed by a few points and maintaining similar ERAs.

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Among the team's regulars, Jason Heyward was the only one whose offensive performance improved significantly from the first half to the second; he hit .255/.342/.375 before the break and .307/.370/.413 after. Justin Upton improved his OPS by seven points from half to half (from .844 to .851), and while Freddie Freeman shed 54 points, his second-half performance (.284/.393/.431) still produced the team's second-best OPS behind Upton. Beyond that, it's not a pretty picture. Evan Gattis plummeted from .290/.342/.558 to .237/.297/.422, with the three weeks he missed prior to the break due to a bulging disc the likely culprit. Andrelton Simmons went from a batting line that his outstanding glove could easily support (.265/.309/.363) to one it could not (.201/.242/.278).

A bigger problem was the presence of not one, not two, but three replacement-level killers, a pair of whom the team is committed to through 2017 via long-term deals. Start with the continued devotion to B.J. Upton in centerfield (.206/.282/.329 overall, with a 30-percent strikeout rate and a 15-point OPS dip from half to half), a wretched performance that doesn't even take into account his lousy defense (-10 Defensive Runs Saved). That all added up to a -0.9 Wins Above Replacement figure. Deadline acquisition Emilio Bonifacio did little more than match that offense in limited duty, leading to the league's worst OPS (.599) and WAR (-1.2) from that position.

Hacktastic third baseman Chris Johnson, always dependent upon a high batting average on balls in play to prop up his production, has "helped" the team to the league's lowest WAR at the hot corner as well, dipping from a lousy .277/.301/.378 (.360 BABIP) to a miserable .238/.279/.321 (.326 BABIP); he's thrown in -12 DRS en route to a team-low -1.3 WAR. At second base, general manager Frank Wren finally cut bait on Dan Uggla (.162/.241/.231 in 145 first-half PA) despite still owing him around $20 million. But while replacement Tommy La Stella was productive before the break (.292/.371/.357), the league caught up to him and then some (.219/.297/.290 in the second half); the team's combined -0.7 WAR at the keystone is the league's second-worst total.

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Even with those ongoing problems, the Braves were 72-65 through the end of August, six games behind the Nationals in the division race but just 1 1/2 behind the sinking Brewers for the second NL Wild Card spot. With a schedule that included 12 games against the Phillies, Mets and Rangers, the BP odds gave them a 50-50 shot at a postseason berth (four percent for the division, 46 percent for the Wild Card). Alas, they've gone just 3-11 in September, dropping series to Philadelphia, Miami, Texas and Washington (twice) while scoring just 2.36 runs per game. Adding insult to injury, the Nationals clinched the division at Turner Field while knocking the Braves below .500; they could finish with a losing record for the first time since 2008.

Where the Braves at least have three playoff appearances in the previous four seasons to point to as some level of recent success (though they haven't won a playoff series since 2001), the Blue Jays appear headed toward their 21st straight season without a trip to the postseason. Even in a wide-open AL East, this season began looking like it could be more of the same, as the team finished April just 12-15.

The Jays took flight in May, going 21-9 while Edwin Encarnacion went berserk, bashing 16 homers for the month, with Jose Bautista, Juan Francisco and Colby Rasmus combining for 18 as well. Though just 26-22, they took sole possession of first place in the AL East on May 22, and after winning 12 of their next 14 games (a 20-4 run in all), ran their record to 38-24, building a season-high six-game lead in the AL East. Though they quickly regressed, at 47-39, they still led the division by a game through July 2.

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By then, however, the injury bug had started biting. Brett Lawrie hit the disabled list on June 23 due to a fractured right index finger and Bautista missed six games in late June due to a hamstring problem. On July 5, Encarnacion went down with a right quad strain; he missed six weeks. On July 11, Adam Lind was DLed due to a stress fracture in his right foot, costing him a month. The Jays were just 49-47 at the All-Star break, but even so, they were only four games back in the division race and 2 1/2 back in the Wild Card hunt; the BP odds estimated them to have a 27-percent shot at winning the division and a seven-percent chance at a Wild Card. Thanks to an 11-2 run, they finished the month at 60-50, with their odds back up to 60 percent (38/22 split) and their lead over the Mariners for the second Wild Card spot at three games.

But while general manager Alex Anthopoulos limited his trade deadline reinforcements to the acquisition of infielder Danny Valencia, both the offense and the pitching collapsed in August; the team went 9-17 while being outscored by 46 runs, averaging 3.31 runs per game while allowing 5.08. Mark Buehrle, who earned All-Star honors for the first time since 2009 in pitching to a 2.64 ERA in the first half, was torched for a 6.20 mark through his next eight turns, only two of which were quality starts; three times, he failed to last more than four innings. Highly-touted rookie Marcus Stroman, who carried a 3.03 ERA in 11 starts and five relief appearances through the end of July, was rocked for a 6.75 ERA in August, with three disaster starts accompanying his two quality starts. Closer Casey Janssen, whose mid-May return from a lower back problem had bailed out a foundering bullpen, was knocked around for two blown saves and two losses in two and a half weeks.

Meanwhile, the offense wilted in the heat, as the Jays hit just .239/.293/.354 in August, with Bautista accounting for eight of the team's 18 homers. Neither Encarnacion (.170/.241/.340) nor Lind (.268/.302/.366) could get their grooves back upon returning from injury, and Lawrie managed just one plate appearance before straining an oblique. Francisco, who had hit .242/.314/.517 through July, disappeared (.130/.196/.196). By Aug. 15, the Jays' odds were into the single digits; by the end of the month, they were at one percent, and even with one last 10-3 stretch in late August and early September, they’ve never climbed back above five percent. At 77-73, they're five games out of a Wild Card spot, tied with the Indians and four games behind the Mariners.

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While it was a fading offense that knocked the Blue Jays out of first place amid so many injuries, in the end, one of their glaring problems was their lack of reinforcement for the pitching staff. J.A. Happ's 3.50 ERA is the team's lowest mark since the All-Star break, R.A. Dickey has been merely league average, Buehrle's still carrying a 4.96 ERA in the second half while striking out just 4.8 per nine, and Drew Hutchison has pitched to a 5.10 ERA while allowing 1.4 homers per nine. Meanwhile, Janssen’s been cuffed for a 7.58 ERA in the second half, allowing five homers in 19 innings. Had Anthopoulos been more aggressive in July, when both Buerhle and Hutchison were getting beat up for a combined 6.17 ERA, they might still have a fighting chance. They may not have been able to pull off a blockbuster for David Price or Jon Lester, but an experienced arm or two from outside the organization would probably have helped.

As it is, the Blue Jays can at least break their string of two straight sub-.500 seasons while playing the "best record since" Mad Lib (choose one: 81 wins in 2011, 85 wins in 2010, 86 wins in 2008, 87 wins in 2009). It counts as progress, but it could have been more.  

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