Archive for September, 2010

FanGraphs Audio: Justin Merry of Red Reporter

Episode Forty-Seven
In which the guest is getting reds-y to watch postseason baseball.

“Red October” = Actual, Usable Pun Again!
Aroldis Chapman: The Man, the Myth, the Missile
Bold and/or Foolhardy Playoff Predictions
… and other make-or-break propositions!

Justin Merry (a.k.a. Justin Inaz) of Red Reporter and Beyond the Boxscore.

Finally, you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio on the flip-flop. (Approximately 30 min play time.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Uribe Bounces Back

Juan Uribe is eight plate appearances away from topping 1,000 for his Giants’ career. An absurd twist to Uribe’s career has him playing the role of starting shortstop on a playoff team in the year 2010. Absurd in the sense that Uribe very easily could be out of the majors right now. His 2007 and 2008 seasons were downright horrible. Rarely do defensive-first middle infielders nearing the wrong side of 30 continue getting looks when their defense seems to be on the brink of extinction.

Uribe signed a minor league deal with the Giants in January of 2009 to salvage his career. For a man with the reputation as a stranger to conditioning and offense alike, Uribe hit better than he had previously in his career. Perhaps giving flashbacks to his outstanding 2004 season with Chicago in which he hit 23 home runs and contributed a career best ISO as well.

The 31-year-old has not mimicked that performance this season, but his wOBA is a decent .319. One of the main differences between this Uribe and the one that bombed out of Chicago is his willingness to take a walk. Working free passes in nearly 8% of his plate appearances may not seem like a big deal, but Uribe has the finest walk-to-strikeout ratio of his career when combined with a slightly reduced strikeout rate.

His position and defensive prowess fail to translate into great speed. For his career, he only has 39 stolen bases (with 37 caught stealings) and that helps to translate into a .282 BABIP. This year, only a little over 25% of his balls in play are turning into hits. The rate is not out of reach given his recent history and reliance upon hitting balls into the air, but Uribe’s contact skills are probably better than his .246 batting average suggests.

A free agent at season’s end, Uribe could potentially get a multiple-year offer if a team is willing to put his history of portly disappointments behind them.

Rockies Hang Stars Out to Dry

Given that Troy Tulowitzki missed about a full month worth of playing time due to injury this season, the fact that he’s played himself into MVP consideration is quite remarkable. His teammate, Carlos Gonzalez, has consistently put up huge numbers all season long, and as a result he has also been part of the MVP discussion for much of the season and, for a time, he even staked a claim at a triple crown. These two form the base of the Colorado Rockies lineup, and both have been playing above and beyond expectations this September. Tulowitzki has a tremendous .324/.380/.820 line in September so far, good for a .501 wOBA, and Gonzalez barely trails him, hitting .393/.454/.626 this month. Despite this ridiculous performance from the leaders of the team, the Rockies have only gone 14-13 this month, failing to capitalize on struggles from the Padres (12-15) and Braves (13-14) while allowing the Giants (17-8) to completely take charge of the NL West.

Part of the failing here is the pitching. Rockies relievers have a 5.08 ERA this month, and although a 4.35 FIP suggests some poor luck, that’s still well below the NL reliever average (they do have a 3.35 xFIP, but keeping the ball in the yard is such a massive part of relieving that I’m loath to credit the unit for this). Huston Street has been solid (+1.1 WPA, 1.93 ERA, 1.87 FIP), and Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle have performed well too. However, the back end of the bullpen has been miserable. The primary offender is recently acquired Manny Delcarmen, whose -0.6 WPA in September is the worst out of the Rockies pen, and neither his 7.36 ERA nor his 5.13 FIP look any better. Overall, the Rockies bullpen has a +0.40 WPA – a number that looks good, but since the average reliever is better than the average pitcher, that number actually comes out to about .3 wins worse than the average bullpen. The rotation hasn’t been great either, as all the good from Jhoulys Chacin (1.78 ERA, 3.63 FIP) has been more than undone by terrible performances from Jeff Francis (8.38 ERA, 7.95 FIP) and Jason Hammel (6.41 ERA, 4.93 FIP). Those two combine for a -1.04 WPA on the month, and the unit as a whole checks it at a meager -0.41 WPA.

The pitching wasn’t good, but one might expect that a Rockies offense powered by the September explosions from Gonzalez and Tulowitzki would be able to overcome those efforts. Indeed, the offense as a unit has a .351 wOBA and was 20 runs above average – a good mark, but when we look deeper, many Rockies players missed opportunities to turn a good month into a special one. Without Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, the rest of the Rockies only posted a .312 wOBA and, with park adjustments, that comes out to a full 12 runs below average (roughly 2 runs below average without pitchers hitting). The primary offenders here are Eric Young Jr. (74 PA, .259 wOBA, -4 wRAA) and Miguel Olivo (72 PA, .273 wOBA, -3 wRAA). Melvin Mora and Ryan Spilborghs did put together solid months, but all together, the team simply couldn’t support the red-hot stars of the team.

Between the two of them, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez were nearly 32 runs above average in the course of only a full month. It’s impossible to ask a pair of players to contribute more to a team. However, the failings all around – from the starting rotation, the bullpen, and the rest of the lineup – were just too much for the Rockies to make another historic run. Now, instead of playing meaningful baseball and competing for a playoff spot this weekend, they will toil for nothing while the Padres, Giants, and Braves race for the final two playoff spots.

Cito Gaston Retires, Dusty Baker Signs an Extension; There Are Still Too Few African-American Managers

Last night was Cito Gaston’s last home game in Toronto, after nearly three decades with the organization. Today, Dusty Baker — Gaston’s teammate with the 1975 Braves, and a fellow protege of Henry Aaron — reportedly agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Cincinnati Reds. The 61-year-old Baker and 66-year-old Gaston are, respectively, the first- and third-winningest African-American managers in baseball’s history, with 2293 wins, three pennants, and two World Championships between them. And yet, in the 35 years since Frank Robinson was named the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball’s history, they’re two of the only African-Americans ever to sit in the manager’s chair.

It is probably not a coincidence that two of the most successful African-American managers ever were both teammates of Henry Aaron’s, and both men have consistently credited Henry Aaron as a mentor. It’s also not a coincidence that both men are in their 60s, and no other active African-American managers are even close to their win total. The second-winningest African-American manager is Frank Robinson himself, a contemporary of Aaron’s. According to a list compiled earlier this year by Gary Norris Gray of the Black Athlete Sports Network, there have been 14 African-American managers in the past 40 years. It’s not a perfect list — he mistakenly put Jerry Manuel in his list of Latino and Hispanic managers, for example — but it’s reasonably comprehensive: Don Baylor, Cecil Cooper, Larry Doby, Davey Lopes (who is descended from Cape Verde, an island off the coast of West Africa), Hal McRae, Lloyd McClendon, Willie Randolph, Jerry Royster, Ron Washington, Maury Wills, Manuel, Robinson, Gaston, and Baker. Of those 14, only 11 ever managed a full season — Royster, Doby, and Wills were midseason replacements who were canned before they ever got a chance to manage their 162nd game — and just nine ever won as many as 200 games, a total reached by 250 other managers in history.

Gaston remains the only African-American manager ever to win a World Series. And yet he had to wait more than a decade, from 1997 to 2008, to be given another managing job — of the 22 managers who have won multiple World Series, he’s the only one that has happened to, with the exception of two former player-managers more than 70 years ago (Bill Carrigan and Billy Southworth). He recently raised eyebrows by comparing himself to Tony La Russa, because they both have two World Series rings, but it probably goes without saying: Tony La Russa wouldn’t have had to wait a decade for another managing job. Gaston isn’t that good, but you can’t win two World Series completely by accident, either. His visibility may have been hurt by all those years he spent in Canada, but that seems like an insufficient explanation for his unprecedented decade in the wilderness. (Interestingly, Frank Robinson had a similar layoff between managerial posts, between his 1991 Baltimore Orioles and 2002 Montreal Expos.)

There are four African-American managers in baseball right now: Washington (58 years old), Manuel (56), Baker (61), and Gaston (66). Gaston is retiring, and Manuel is likely on the chopping block. There are no young African-American managers in baseball, and few active players who are seen as likely managers when they retire. (An exception is Terry Pendleton, who is a strong internal candidate to replace the retiring Bobby Cox. Pendleton is currently Bobby Cox’s hitting coach, as Gaston once was.) Major League Baseball has long acknowledged its desire to improve baseball’s appeal to young African-American players with its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, but it hasn’t done much of anything to improve its own track record with regard to the front office.

It’s been 35 years since Frank Robinson integrated baseball’s managerial fraternity, and still too little progress has been made. The departure of one of the most successful black managers ever only highlights just how much work is yet to be done.

UPDATE: The above list is not comprehensive. Other African-American managers include Dave Clark, who managed the Astros for 13 games in 2009, as reader timmy! points out.

Analyzing Madison Bumgarner’s Pitches

The San Francisco Giants have one last game before they face their NL division rival San Diego Padres in one last three-game battle before the NL West division crown is decided (cross your fingers for a 163rd game). At this point in the season, with three or four games left on the schedule for most teams, a 2.0 game lead is an unsafe lead or a sizable mountain to climb depending on which team you are rooting for. For San Francisco, Giants fans look at this afternoon’s matchup with the Arizona Diamondbacks as a must-win if they want to put away the Padres for good. If the Giants win today and the Padres lose, San Diego will have to sweep San Francisco at AT&T Park this weekend in order to force a one-game playoff.

This afternoon’s start by the left-handed rookie Madison Bumgarner may be the most important game of the season for the Giants, at least up to this point. A young pitcher (legally allowed to drink less than two months ago) being handed the reins to a pivotal game, Bumgarner has put together quite a fine season, with a 6.71 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, 3.06 ERA, and 3.77 FIP. Bumgarner is looking for his first career win at home today, all six wins being on the road this season.

When Bumgarner was taken 10th overall in the 2007 draft, he apparently only had a plus fastball and little else. Since then, he’s quickly developed two breaking balls and a changeup, putting himself on the fast track to the Major Leagues. According to his pitch type values, Bumgarner’s most effective pitches this season have been his changeup (wCH/C of 2.88 changeup runs per 100 pitches) and his curveball (wCB/C of 1.60 curveball runs per 100 pitches).

Let’s take a deeper look at all four of his pitches and how he has fared against batters this season, looking at both swinging strikes and balls put in play. First up, let’s look at Bumgarner’s fastballs:

You’ll have to click the image to get a closer look. I’ve added the number of pitches Bumgarner has thrown for each pitch type so you can get an idea of the sample size. Bumgarner throws a 91 MPH fastball, and it looks like his fastball gets a decent number of swinging strikes. When Bumgarner throws fastballs to LHH, he goes outside a bit more, rarely throwing inside, while fastballs against RHH go down the middle of the plate. A lot of these fastballs are put in play, which may add to the fact that Bumgarner’s fastball run value is not as high as his breaking ball pitches. Let’s take a look at Bumgarner’s sliders:

Bumgarner has an 85 MPH slider with good horizontal and vertical movement. Looking at where he throws the slider, they seem pretty uniform between RHH and LHH, although it looks like he goes low and inside to RHH quite a bit, which has allowed him to get swinging strikes. Bumgarner faces much less LHH, so it’s hard to tell who whiffs more on his sliders because of the sample size. Let’s look at the curveballs:

Now this looks interesting, although a note of caution should be posted right away when looking at the sample sizes. Still, it’s interesting that Bumgarner locates his 75 MPH curveball all over the strikezone and out of the zone much more against LHH, inducing swinging strikes mostly on low and outside curveballs to LHH. Against RHH, he tends to keep the curveball over the plate or on the outside (which has more horizontal movement than it does vertical movement), sometimes going down below the zone where he’s gotten a few swinging strikes. Finally, let’s look at Bumgarner’s changeup, which has been his best pitch this season in terms of run value:

This L-R usage split is key. Bumgarner has only thrown 23 changeups against LHH all season, but has thrown almost six times as many against RHH. Granted, left-handed pitchers tend to face lineups filled with right-handed batters far more than left-handed, but it’s still quite a wide split. He has gotten quite a few swinging strikes against RHH and locates his 83 MPH changeup down and away, sometimes out of the zone on the outside to RHH or below the zone.

Against the Arizona Diamondbacks tonight, Bumgarner will face a few left-handed batters in Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson, and Adam LaRoche. Look for Bumgarner’s curveballs against these batters, while the rest of the lineup will likely see his changeup once or twice as his punch-out pitch throughout the game.

A Fitting Farewell for Gaston

Last night, the Blue Jays beat the Yankees 8-4 in their final home game of the season. It was also the last home game for legendary Toronto manager Cito Gaston, who is set to retire after the season. Pre-game ceremonies made for an emotional send-off.

It was also an appropriate goodbye to Gaston in a baseball sense. It has been said (I don’t remember by whom) that the plate approach of the 2010 Blue Jays resembles nothing more than every hitter swinging at the first pitch they think they can drive as if he were in the Home Run Derby. Given that the 2010 Jays are (depending on how you round) currently “on pace” to displace the 1997 Mariners with the highest team isolated power in baseball history, it was fitting that the Blue Jays hit three home runs for Gaston’s Toronto farewell, setting a new franchise record for home runs in a season. Travis Snider, wearing an eyeblack mustache in tribute to Gaston, broke the old record with a 400-foot shot to right field to lead off the bottom of the first. In the second inning, catcher John Buck hit his 20th home run of the season with an opposite-field solo homer that just cleared the wall. Aaron Hill finished yet another Derby at the Rogers Centre with a three-run bomb to left in the fifth. The only thing that would have made it better (other than Jose Bautista hitting three more jacks) would have been if all three homers had been solo shots, given the Blue Jays’ power-without-walks offense this season.

Bautista’s big season is in itself an nice accompaniment to Gaston’s retirement, not in how it relates to Gaston’s distinguished career as a manager, but in how it relates to Gaston’s career as a player. The Bautista story is well-known so I won’t go through it again. It has certainly been fun to watch Bautista’s monster shots fly out of the park (unless your team was the victim, of course). After never having put up more than 2 wins above replacement in a season, Bautista current stands at 6.7 WAR for 2010. His .421 wOBA for the year is 82 points higher than the next closest season.

But until last night, I never realized the curious parallel between the playing careers of Gaston and Bautista. In parts of 11 seasons with three different teams (he had two different stints with the Braves), Gaston (who played all three spots in the outfield at different points in his career) accumulated a mere 3.9 WAR. His .313 wOBA (.256/.298/.397) was actually league average for his career (100 wRC+), but TotalZone sees him as as a poor fielder for his career at -63 runs. Gaston never was worth one WAR in a season, and several seasons, despite a decent amount of playing time, ended up below replacement… except for his 1970 season with the Padres. That year Gaston hit .318/.364/.543 for a .400 wOBA (153 wRC+). In 1969, the year before his big season, Gaston hit for a .267 wOBA (.230/.275/.309) in 419 plate appearances. In 1971, the year after, he had a .295 wOBA (.228/.264/.386). His next best season came six years later as a bench player for the Braves, and it was only a .355 wOBA. In no other season did he have a a better than .330 wOBA.

Check out this incredibly difficult to read comparative WAR graph comparing “nth best” seasons by WAR. The green line is Gaston, the orange line is Bautsita. (Click here for a larger version.)

Interesting. If one wants to talk about “seasons out of nowhere,” off the top of my head I can’t think of any more out of nowhere than Gaston’s 1970 given both what came before and after — including Bautista’s. It points out (again) how subject to unpredictability and randomness player performance can be. This isn’t to postulate a Gaston-esque career path for Bautista; I don’t expect him to have a .420 wOBA next season, but I think he’ll do better than the .339 he put up in 2009. I simply think that after looking at Gaston’s monster 1970 against the rest of his playing career, Bautista’s own unforeseeable explosion in 2010 is a fitting tribute to his retiring manager.

Padres Playoff Hopes Rest on Jon Garland

The term “must-win game” is overused to the point of rendering it useless. When fans, panicking over a June slump, call Game 68 a must-win, it tends to lose all meaning. Yet there are still games that a team must win if it will advance to the playoffs. By that strict definition, the Padres are not in a must-win situation tonight. Even if they lose and the Giants win they’ll still be three back in the division with three games against the Giants this weekend. But prayers of a four-game sweep, including Game 163, are not ones that are frequently answered.

Turning to Garland

With their last chance to gain ground before the weekend series in San Francisco, the Padres will hand the ball to Jon Garland. It will be the second time this season he has faced the Cubs. The first was on August 17, when he shut out Chicago through seven innings. That was at Wrigley Field. This time he’ll have a bit more margin for error while pitching at home in Petco Park. But as we know, past performance is no guarantee of future gains — especially when that past performance comprises just one outing.

During his first season in San Diego, Garland has realized a few changes from years past. He’s striking out nearly six per nine innings, a mark that he hasn’t approached previously in his career. The closest he came was 5.23 per nine back in 2002. He’s also walking a ton of batters, four per nine, which is the highest rate he’s realized since walking 4.23 per nine in 117 innings as a 21-year-old. Yet his FIP and xFIP are still within one standard deviation of his career average. So why, then, is his ERA so low at 3.58?

A career-high 52.4 percent ground ball rate has to play into the reason for Garland’s success. Only in 2008, when pitching for the Angels, did he come close to keeping half of his balls in play on the ground. That has helped his tERA, 4.31 against a career average of 5.19. He has also realized good results on balls in play, as his .267 BABIP is his lowest since 2005. His strand rate, 75.4 percent, is also his best since 2005. It’s no surprise, then, that his ERA also approaches his 2005 mark.

The Padres have to be comfortable with Garland taking the hill in a season-making game. He’s had success at Petco this season, a 3.19 ERA in 101.2 innings, and has generally been among the team’s top pitchers. If the Pads continue to play stellar defense, Garland should be just fine.

Offense stumbling

The Padres haven’t had a very good offense all season. At 4.15 runs per game they rank 11th in the NL. That includes a September swoon in which they’ve scored just three runs per game and have scored zero or one runs seven times. In their next four games they will play the Nos. 10 and 9 offenses in the NL, so they’re not at a distinct disadvantage. But they still have to score more than three runs per game in their final four. That’s going to be a rough proposition when facing San Francisco and its No. 2 pitching staff. Thankfully for them, the Cubs have allowed the fourth most runs in the NL, so perhaps tonight they can put up a crooked number in support of Garland and, ultimately, their playoff hopes.

Out of their control

In a way the Padres control their own destiny. If they win their next four games they will, at worst, force a one-game playoff with San Francisco. If the Giants drop the finale to Arizona tonight, a four-game win streak (five counting last night) will put the Padres alone atop the NL West. But, again, banking on sweeping a team that is not only ahead, but has also played better baseball of late, does not always reap rewards.

Before they take on the Cubs at 6:35 EDT this evening, the Padres will certainly be in the clubhouse watching San Francisco play Arizona. If Arizona can defeat Madison Bumgarner, the Padres will move to within 1.5 games of first. A victory on their part would put just a single game between the two teams heading into their weekend series. The Padres, then, would only need to win two of three on the road in order to force a Game 163. If the Giants win, the Padres must then win all three games in San Francisco.

The Braves also present an obstacle for the Padres. A game and a half currently separates the two teams, meaning San Diego desperately needs a win tonight to stay within one game heading into the final weekend. Atlanta plays Philadelphia at home, and while they fight for their playoff lives Philly will be worried about resting up for the NLDS; they already have home-field advantage locked up. While Philly swept Atlanta just last week, the stakes are different this time. Philly won’t lay down for Atlanta, but they also won’t be starting Roy Halladay. It doesn’t guarantee Atlanta anything, but it certainly makes for a match-up more favorable than the last one.

The importance of tonight

While the Padres can retain their postseason hopes even with a loss tonight, a win will go a long way. Here’s the general breakdown.

If the Padres lose tonight, they need:

1) To sweep San Francisco this weekend, whether San Fran wins or loses today.


2) To take two of three from San Francisco and have the Phillies sweep the Braves.

Winning tonight changes that a bit. A San Fran win means that a sweep is still required, but it does make San Diego’s Wild Card hunt a bit easier. In that case they would need to take two of three while Philly takes two of three. And if San Fran loses it means that San Diego has to take only two of three to force a tie.

In any scenario it will not be an easy path to the postseason for San Diego. Their hopes ride on winning, and possibly sweeping, a series on the road against a team that not only has a better record, but also has been playing much better baseball lately. It also means getting help from a team that has nothing left to play for. That doesn’t bod well. But it does make for some excellent September baseball.

Changes In New York

It is widely expected that this weekend will be Omar Minaya’s last stand as the General Manager of the Mets. A disappointing team performance will almost certainly lead to changes in the front office and on the field, with the franchise looking for a new direction. The new guy, whoever he is, will have some interesting choices to make.

The first thing he’ll notice is just how many players he will inherit that are going into their final season under contract to the Mets. After next year, Carlos Beltran, Oliver Perez, Jose Reyes, and Luis Castillo will be eligible for free agency. In addition, the club will almost certainly decline their option on Francisco Rodriguez, setting him free as well. Of those five, only Reyes seems like he has any chance of staying in Queens long term, but even that is not a given.

Those guys represent a huge chunk of the Mets committed salaries. For next year, they don’t have a lot of money to spend without expanding the budget, as they’ve already guaranteed $109 million in salaries for 2011, and that doesn’t include arbitration raises for Angel Pagan or Mike Pelfrey. Yet they have only$61 million in guaranteed money for 2012. Next winter seems to be the time when the new administration will really be able to put their mark on the roster with wholesale changes.

The opportunities for change will leave the new guy in an interesting spot. He’s essentially going to inherit a roster that he didn’t put together and that he can’t do much about. There’s just not going to be much flexibility in how the team is constructed for 2011, unless the organization is willing to eat money in order to move Castillo, Beltran, or Rodriguez a year early, and even then, none of them will be in high demand.

Based on the legacy contracts given out by Minaya, his influence will extend even after he’s gone. Mets fans are going to have to be patient with the new guy, who simply won’t be able to work miracles and transform this roster overnight. The 2011 team is what it is. For the most part, they’ll have to ride out this roster for one more year before they can get into the work of building it right. It won’t be a quick fix in Queens.

Venable’s Winning Defense

A quick glance of the FanGraphs page for last night’s Padres-Cubs game suggests that Chris Young, not Will Venable, was the most important contributor for the Padres. Young pitched five shutout innings (still on a pitch count) and allowed only five baserunners while striking out six Cubs hitters, good for +.254 WPA. Venable, meanwhile, was 1-4 with a bases-empty single in the third inning and a stolen base. That drab performance only left him with -.011 WPA on the night. But one of the limitations of WPA as implemented by FanGraphs is the fact that immediate evaluation of defense is subjective and therefore nearly impossible to include in a live updating win probability chart.

 Simply looking at the win probability graph misses two fantastic defensive plays made by the Padres center fielder. The first play came as Alfonso Soriano led off the top of the second for Chicago. Soriano’s blast went deep to center field. The picture (and the video) tells the rest of the story.

Venable’s catch robbed Soriano of at least a double and possibly a home run. According to the WPA Enquirer at The Hardball Times, that means the play checks in at somewhere between +.093 and +.146. Not only should that be credited (at least mostly) to Venable, but that amount should be debited from Young, who was the beneficiary of this fantastic defensive play.

The Padres once again called on Venable to make a play in the top of the third inning. At this point, the Padres had taken a one run lead on a Chase Headley RBI single. With two outs in the inning and a runner on base, Aramis Ramirez hit a ball to deep left center field. Once again, a picture is worth a thousand words (and who knows how many the video is worth).

I feel safe in saying that this one would clearly have been a home run if not for Venable’s catch. The difference in the two situations – top of the 3rd, two outs, nobody on and a one run lead for the Cubs against the beginning of the bottom of the third and a one run lead for the Padres – comes out to +.289 WPA for Venable (and again, -.289 WPA for Young).

The two catches for Venable add up to between +.382 and +.435 WPA. Regardless, Venable becomes the clear MVP of the game for the Padres and Young becomes a goat who received worlds of support from his center fielder. With the 3-0 win, San Diego kept pace with the Giants and Braves, who both notched victories last night. The Padres still control their own destiny, as they will play one of the most intense and important final series of the season this weekend against the Giants. Good defense has been a hallmark of the Padres unlikely contention this season. Last night, it was good defense that effectively saved their playoff lives.

Idle Thoughts on Watching Late-Season Baseball

Entering play today, there are precisely three teams which have neither (a) clinched a playoff spot nor (b) been eliminated entirely from doing the same. Two of those teams, Atlanta and San Francisco, are very likely to make the posteason; the third, San Diego, is less likely, but has a compelling series this weekend against the Giants.

What that leaves us is 27 teams currently occupying a sort of competitive purgatory — playing without any hope of reaching the postseason and, yet, unable merely to concede the remainder of their games. Yes, there are implications for draft position and tickets that’ve already been sold, but, from a competitive standpoint exclusively, those teams are done-ity done done.

For those of us who like watching baseball, in general, and who, specifically, dedicate substantial amounts of time to devising systems by which we might adjudge the watchability of a particular contest (see: NERD), this particular time of year raises some questions. Well, one question mostly. This one:

Is there any appeal to watching a team that has either clinched, or been elimated from, a playoff spot?

It’s important to note immediately that we’re not considering team allegiance in this conversation. It’s very likely that people in Boston, for example, will continue to watch Red Sox games — because, well, that’s what you do if you’re a Boston fan. (Mind you, it’s not the only thing you do. You probably also refer to everybody as “guy” and use filthy, filthy language — even around grandmothers and newborns. But those matters aren’t germane to the present effort.)

For the neutral supporter, though, the question remains: is there any reason to watch a non-contending team?

I think we can “yes.” I think we can say it for a number of reasons, probably, but two reveal themselves immediately. For one, it’s still baseball, and watching baseball is, as foreign people are always saying in their foreign-sounding languages, “better than a kick in the face.”

So, that’s one reason.

The other is this: there are still things to learn. For example, consider yesterday’s Pirates-Cardinals game. I previewed it in a white-hot edition of One Night Only; Jackie Moore provided the readership with some equally hot postgame notes on the performances of starting pitchers Young James McDonald and Even Younger P.J. Walters. Yes, the game was meaningless so far as wins and losses are concerned this year, but it’s likely that those two starters and any number of field players — Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez — it’s likely they all contribute, at some level, to future wins. Smart baseball fans care about that type of thing.

So we can say with some degree of certainty that the so-called “meaningless” games we’re talking about — we can say that they have some value, that they’re not meaningless to the curiouser of us.

But that prompts us to ask another question, specifically: is it possible for any of these so-called meaningless games — is it possible that even the most interesting of them could be more compelling than a game featuring a still-contending team?

Consider the Diamondbacks, for example. Or the Brewers. Both teams rate pretty highly by NERD’s exacting standards (a 9 for each). Arizona is young and plays excellent defense. Milwaukee has the best offense in the NL by park-adjusted wRAA. Both teams hit for power, feature modest payrolls, and have scored fewer runs than their Base Runs totals would otherwise suggest. Those are all qualities amenable to the baseball nerd.

The Giants and Braves, on the other hand, feature NERD scores of 4 and 5, respectively — not bad scores, but not great, either. San Francisco runs the bases poorly, they’re on the old side, they feature a slightly below-average offense. Really, a lot of their aesthetic value is in the quality of their starting rotation. As for Atlanta, they also run the bases poorly, they feature one of the league’s poorer Team UZRs, and their HR/FB ratio is below average.

Of course, the difference is that both of those teams (i.e. the Giants and Braves) are playing meaningful games — meaningful in the traditional baseball sense. So while, yes, the Brewers might be more interesting than the Braves in a vacuum, the circumstances presented by a playoff race aren’t very vacuum-y at all.

We’re confronted with a truth, then. Roger Caillois discusses it somewhere in his excellent Man, Play, and Games, but I have no idea where I’ve deposited my copy of said text, nor am I particularly inclined to go looking for it. In any case, I’m almost positive that Caillois writes something like this in it, something like: for whatever its other vrtues, a game that doesn’t incentivize winning — or that features even a single contestant for whom victory isn’t the primary objective — that is, by definition, a less interesting game.

As I very obviously have no intention of reaching something so pedestrian as a “conclusion” in the present work, allow me to end with two notes, as follows:

1. Given the nature of competition and games, it’s unlikely that a game between two eliminated (or playoff-bound) teams — it’s unlikely that said game could be more interesting than one featuring a still-contending team.

2. On the other hand, merely because a team — owing to its place in the standings — merely because a team as a whole lacks incentive to win a game, this doesn’t necessarily apply to all the individual players involved in the game. For example, in the case of the aforementioned Pirates-Cardinals game, we can assume that St. Louis starter P.J. Walters in fact had a great deal of incentive to perform well. As a young pitcher likely to compete for a spot on the 2011 Cardinals, Walters presumably wanted very much to dominate his opponent and impress the major league coaching staff, who ultimately have control over his career and, thus, his livelihood. We might even say that Walters had more incentive to perform ably in yesterday’s game than a veteran player on a contending team.