Troubles in Paradise? Analyzing Warning Signs for Baseball’s Top Teams

Baseball fans are an eternally pessimistic bunch (looking at you, Mets fans). No matter how good a team is, we all know that somehow, some way, something will go wrong, and our favorites teams will lose the World Series because of it.

For some fanbases like the Yankees and Brewers, things look great right now–but every team has weaknesses and warning signs that point to potential trouble down the road. Here are the things your favorite team needs to watch out for:

Boston Red Sox: Left-handed Pitchers

Andrew Benitendi
Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi is hitting just .209 against lefties.

The resurgence of the Red Sox offense has been one of the underappreciated stories of the 2018 season. After a year in which the Red Sox finished in the bottom five in both home runs and slugging percentage, they’ve vaulted to the top of the league in most offensive categories. They’re second in home runs and runs scored, fifth in on-base percentage, and first in batting average. New manager Alex Cora brought his contact-heavy approach to the Red Sox, and it has paid dividends. Boston puts the barrel on the ball and avoids strikeouts, making them a tough lineup to work through.

The Red Sox offensive renaissance is real, but unbalanced. The lineup has raked against right-handed hitters, posting a .272/.338/.489 slash line — easily the top lineup against righties in the majors. Southpaws have done a much better job of shutting down the Red Sox, though. The team is collectively batting just .243 against lefties, and their slugging percentage is nearly 100 points lower against southpaws.

The news isn’t all bad for Red Sox fans. None of the top teams in the American League have a lefty-dominant rotation that could silence the Red Sox lineup for a full series. The wildcard here could be Cole Hamels; if a contender like the Yankees or Blue Jays pick up the veteran left-hander, the Red Sox might have a tougher run through the American League.

Cleveland Indians: Bullpen

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is back on the disabled list with right-knee inflammation.

Oh, man, that bullpen. Last year the Indians bullpen was the best in the majors with a 2.89 ERA. It was perfectly constructed. Andrew Miller was the elite lefty fireman for high-leverage, potentially multi-inning situations. Bryan Shaw was the durable workhorse who could pitch clean innings day in and day out. Cody Allen was the lock-down closer at the back end.

This year? The Tribe bullpen has posted a 6.06 ERA and provided -0.5 fWAR. Ouch.

It’s easy to blame the troubles on the departure of Bryan Shaw, who’s dependability took a lot of pressure off the other arms in the pen. However, Shaw’s departure doesn’t explain the wholesale decrease in production from the bullpen. The more crucial loss from last season is pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who departed to become the manager of the New York Mets.

Being in a non-competitive division gives the Indians time to tinker and fix the problems among their relief corps. The bullpen still has talent; it’s up to new pitching coach Carl Willis to figure out how to use it.

Seattle Mariners: One-Run Games

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners
James Paxton’s no-hitter in Toronto has been the highlight of Seattle’s season thus far.

While they might not be able to catch the Astros for the AL West crown, the Mariners have jumped out to a 33-20 record and have a solid grip on the second wildcard spot. The fact that they’ve remained competitive after numerous injuries and the loss of their star second baseman, Robinson Cano, due to a PED suspension, is remarkable.

The secret to the Mariners’ success? Their stellar record in close games. In games decided by one run this season, the Mariners are 16-8. Five of their games have gone to extra innings, and the Mariners have won all five.

You could argue the trite line that their record in one-run games mean the Mariners “have the clutch gene” or that “they know how to win.” Maybe they do, but I’d rather look at the underlying numbers–the Mariners are a slightly-above average team on offense and defense, and a below-average defensive squad. The law of averages suggests that the Mariners’ record in close games will revert closer to .500, and they’ll drop in the standings as a result.

Philadelphia Phillies: Road Games

Rhys Hoskins
The Phillies need to get Rhys Hoskins going; he’s batting just .229 on the season.

The Phillies were a dark horse candidate to make the postseason this year after acquiring Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana in free agency. So far, so good for the Fighting Phils, who are currently 29-22 and just one game out of first place in a crowded NL East.

Philadelphia has thrived on home-cooking so far this season; they’re just one of three teams that have yet to lose double-digit games at home this season (Boston and New York are the other two). All that success at home has helped them keep pace in the East despite an underwhelming record on the road. They’ve only won two series on the road all season–just one if you don’t count the series in Baltimore, where they only played one game due to poor weather. The Phillies have found themselves in a competitive division with the Nationals and Braves; if they want to keep pace and have a shot at the wildcard, they’ll need to improve on the road.

Milwaukee Brewers: Starting Pitching

Chase Anderson
“Ace” Anderson? Yeah, not buying it.

I really don’t want to poke holes in what the Brewers are doing. They’ve gone 8-2 in their last ten games, and have surged out to the NL’s best record and a 4.5 game lead on the Cubs. The additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain have propelled the offense, and the bullpen led by Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress have been lights-out.

While the bullpen has been great, the starting rotation has been less than impressive. Their starting rotation has posted a 4.21 ERA, second-worst among division leaders (the Rockies have a 4.25 mark). No. 1 starter Chase Anderson has an ERA of 4.42; second-line starter Zach Davies is at 4.74. Believe it or not, the best pitcher to start a game for the Brewers has been Wade Miley — and he’s been placed on the 60-day DL.

A dominant bullpen can be a force in the postseason…as long as you have the lead. A good starting rotation would go a long way to help with that.

The National League West: Offense

Justin Turner
Maybe with Justin Turner back from the DL, the Dodgers offense can start to put runs on the board.

One of the Rockies, Giants, Dodgers, or D-Backs is going to have to win this division. But none of their offenses give me hope. Only the Dodgers are in the top half in runs scored–and they’re 14th. The Giants are the only NL West team in the top-half of the league in on-base percentage. The Rockies and Diamondbacks are both in the bottom-five in offensive efficiency, per Fangraphs.

The Dodgers probably have the best chance to turn it around. Justin Turner is back at the hot corner, and while Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig have struggled so far this season, they have enough talent to turn it around. Someone’s got to put runs on the board at some point, right?

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