Streaking Braves and Tigers well on their way to playoffs, but what could trip them up?
The Braves and Tigers just keep winning, not only extending their lengthy streaks but doing so against their top challengers in the division. On Wednesday night, Atlanta won its 13th straight game by beating the Nationals, while Detroit won its 11th in a row by downing the Indians. The two teams now have the largest division leads in the majors, and appear to be locks to reach the postseason.
Such parallels only go so far, because the Braves have far more breathing room. Not only do they have the majors' best record at 70-45, they're the only team in the NL East above .500. Having knocked the Nats to a season-worst six games below .500 with this week's three-game sweep, they now lead the NL East by a whopping 15 1/2 games. It would take the worst collapse in major league history, worse than the 1951 Dodgers' blown 13 1/2 game lead, for them to miss the postseason. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds round off to show them with a 100.0 percent chance of winning the division. Their magic number to clinch -- their combination of wins and Nationals losses -- is already at 33. If the Nationals were to play .800ish ball the rest of the way by going 38-10, the Braves could go 23-24 and still take the flag.
As for the Tigers (67-45), they've won 15 out of 16 since losing a pair to the Royals on July 19-20, and while that only expanded their AL Central lead from 1 1/2 games to six, they've effectively neutralized hot streaks by the Indians (eight wins in a row and 10 out of 11) and Royals (nine wins in a row and 13 out of 15). Via that longer stretch, Kansas City actually dropped half a game in the standings. According to the BP odds, Detroit has a 97.6 percent chance at winning the division, a 99.2 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 23.2 percent chance at winning the World Series -- the latter roughly double the chances of the Braves (12.5 percent) and Dodgers (11.4 percent).
No team is ever quite as good as it appears to be while riding such hot play, however. Thus it's worth looking over both streaking squads to identify weaknesses that could trip them up, not necessarily in the regular season but in the postseason as well.
For the Braves, who rank second in the league in both scoring (4.52 runs per game) and run prevention (3.47 runs per game), the biggest concern may be their rotation. The unit leads the league with a 63 percent start rate and ranks fifth with a 3.64 ERA, but it's been destabilized in recent weeks by injuries. Tim Hudson is gone for the year due to a fractured ankle, and Paul Maholm has been out since July 20 due to a sore left (throwing) wrist. Those two pitchers have the highest ERAs and lowest strikeout rates of their original starting five, but at the time of their respective injuries, they ranked first and third on the team in innings. The current starting five (Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood) has exactly one major league season of more than 25 starts and 150 innings under their collective belts, that by Minor last season. By the time they reach October, they'll be in uncharted territory, innings-wise.
Given that, the biggest concern might center around the 22-year-old Teheran, who is living up to his top prospect billing, delivering a 2.96 ERA with an impressive 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.9 strikeouts and 2.0 walks, respectively) through 137 innings. He's on a 195-inning pace; his previous high including both minors and majors is 164 1/3, set in 2011. To get more mileage out of him in October, the Braves may have to slow his pace down, and while the well-timed return of Beachy from Tommy John surgery appeared likely to do just that, the loss of Hudson threw a wrench into those plans. The 26-year-old Beachy moved right into Hudson's vacated rotation slot, but he was rocked for seven runs in 3 2/3 innings by the Rockies in his 2013 debut. He managed 6 1/3 innings and four runs (three earned) against the Phillies last Saturday in his second turn, but he has a ways to go to regain the form that saw him deliver 38 starts worth of 3.07 ERA ball with 9.6 strikeouts per nine in 2011-2012.
Minor is the grizzled veteran of the bunch, at least workload-wise. The 25-year-old southpaw threw 179 1/3 innings last year, and right now he's at 150, putting him on a 215-inning pace. That means that even before reaching the postseason, he'll be nearing a 40-inning year-to-year jump, the kind of thing most teams try to avoid. That said, he's been much more efficient than last year, trimming his pitches per plate appearance from 3.93 to 3.80 and bumping his innings per start from 6.0 to 6.5, but only raising his pitches per start by four, from 95 to 99. In other words, he probably has more headroom than a simple innings jump might suggest. As for Medlen, the 27-year-old righty has equaled last year's total of 138 innings, but with a 3.85 ERA, he hasn't come close to matching last year's 12-start run. On pace to reach 195 innings, he's already shown signs of flagging via a 6.15 ERA and just two quality starts over his last six. The return of Maholm could provide a buffer, but given that he just threw his first bullpen session on Tuesday, that could be weeks away.
It wouldn't be a surprise if Atlanta works a waiver-period deal for a pitcher such as Joe Saunders to eat some innings down the stretch. Beyond that, the Braves did well to add lefty Scott Downs prior to the July 31 deadline to fill the vacancy left by the losses of relievers Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters to Tommy John surgery. Offensively, B.J. Upton has shown signs of life since returning from a DL stint due to an adductor strain, going 12-for-21 in five games to lift his season batting line to a still-ghastly .198/.283/.319. Justin Upton has begun hitting for power again, homering five times this month after doing so just four times over the preceding three. Jason Heyward has hit .311/.415/.489 in 12 games since moving into the leadoff role, jumpstarting the enigmatic 23-year-old rightfielder and shoring up a spot from which the team has gotten just a .309 on-base percentage. If Dan Uggla (.151/.279/.301 in 86 second-half plate appearances) could get going, they'd be firing on virtually all cylinders.
As for the Tigers, who have the American League's best run differential at +144 while ranking first in both scoring (5.11 runs per game) and run prevention (3.82 runs per game), their concerns start with the health of Miguel Cabrera. The remarkable 30-year-old slugger missed seven games and was limited to one or two plate appearances in two others across a recent 11-game stretch. The good news is that he started all three games against Cleveland — his longest stretch of consecutive availability since July 20-22 — and went 4-for-12 with a double and a homer. Even so, he hasn't played a complete game since July 21. The addition of rangy Jose Iglesias to replace the suspended Jhonny Peralta at shortstop could lessen his defensive load, but his situation bears monitoring.
Elsewhere in the lineup, catcher Alex Avila, leftfielder Andy Dirks and designated hitter Victor Martinez have all heated up after subpar first halves, shoring up concersn in the lineup, and Ramon Santiago and rookie Hernan Perez have covered second base well enough to withstand the setbacks experience by Omar Infante as he returns from a left ankle sprain that has sidelined him since July 3. That leaves Austin Jackson as the lineup's biggest question mark besides Cabrera. The 26-year-old centerfielder is hitting just .261/.329/.393 overall, well off last year's stellar .300/.377/.479 showing, and he's at just .198/.235/.358 in 87 PA since the All-Star break while striking out in 28 percent of his plate appearances — a higher rate than in his first two seasons (26 percent) when he struck out a total of 351 times. Though he's ostensibly healthy after missing a month in May and June, one wonders if the right hamstring strain that sidelined him is fully healed.
Detroit's pitching staff has less cause for concern. Anibal Sanchez has delivered a 2.19 ERA in 37 innings over six starts since returning from a three-week stay on the DL due to shoulder soreness, and Justin Verlander has allowed just two runs over 14 innings in his last two turns after yielding 13 in 11 2/3 innings — against light-hitting Royals and White Sox tams, at that — over the two before that. The latter's 3.74 ERA and 3.3 walks per nine are still uncharacteristically high, but with Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello all stepping up lately, the Tigers boast a deep and reliable rotation.
The area that really bears watching is the bullpen, which has been a headache for manager Jim Leyland since last October but appears to be stabilizing. Joaquin Benoit has converted all 14 of his save opportunities thus far, and on Wednesday night allowed just his second run in 22 innings over the past two months. Rookie Bruce Rondon has earned Leyland's trust by delivering 15 innings with a 3.45 ERA and a 17/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio since being recalled in late June, Jose Veras has five scoreless outings since being added in late July, and Jeremy Bonderman marked his return to the Tigers for the first time since 2010 by throwing threw three scoreless innings in relief on Wednesday night; the latter will have to do better than the 16/17 strikeout-to-walk ratio he managed in 38 1/3 innings with Seattle earlier this year. More help may be on the way in the form of Octavio Dotel, who threw just 4 2/3 innings for the Tigers before hitting the disabled list due to elbow inflammation on April 20; he made his first rehab appearance for the team's Gulf Coast League affiliate on Wednesday, the same day that Detroit released Jose Valverde, who was struggling at Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers have more work to do before they can rest easily, but they do look to be a considerably stronger team than the Indians, with an easier road ahead. Detroit holds a 12-3 advantage in the season series between the two teams and has a 34-25 record against teams at or above .500, while Cleveland is just 28-38 against such competition. The two teams have more or less equivalent remaining schedules in terms of quality of opponent (53-59 for the Indians, 53-58 for the Tigers according to the Baseball-Reference Expanded Standings), but Detroit has the edge in home games remaining, 25 to 22, and at 37-19 (.660), it already has the league's best home record. Expect to see the Tigers back in October, quite possibly with the advantage of facing a wild-card winner that has already used its ace.