Obviously, my toxic fandom is just what the Doctor ordered for my new "teams". Pittsburgh lost two out three games to both their division rival Cardinals and the Diamondbacks including a 15-5 blowout with their supposed ace on the mound and three losses in extra innings. Boston is 2-3 this week with a chance to each .500 on the week tonight against the Yankees, I'd wait to post this until after that game is over but it's not entirely likely it will finish until Monday. Lastly, Oakland managed to somehow lose a series to Houston (seriously) but bounced back to take two from Wild Card competitor Cleveland.
I'm not concerned about the Pirates or Red Sox, they're suffering minor bumps in the road that every team endures, but I am slightly concerned with Oakland. With Big Fat Bartolo Colon (that's actually on his birth certificate, no lie) tumbling onto the disabled list, they're going to have to count on Jarrod Parker to lead the rotation, which would be fine if Parker wasn't exactly average. In fact, of their remaining starters only Sonny Gray has been better than average and he's only logged 18 innings. Unlike in Gray's case, it's not a small sample size anomaly for Tommy Milone, AJ Griffin and Dan Straily; they've each made 20+ starts to establish themselves and haven't stood apart. As such the A's will continue grinding away at their bullpen for three or four innings a night and pray that Balfour and co. are still fresh in late September. The upshot of having such a decidedly average rotation isn't that Oakland will fade out of the WC race necessarily, but that the pressure on the offense, defense and bullpen is significantly amplified, reducing their margin of error to near zero.
Actually, I do have similar reservations about the Pirates offense but it's a degree of magnitude smaller. McCutchen alone makes the offense passable and along with the flawed but talented Neil Walker, Starlin Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin there isn't reason for concern yet. Speaking of the supporting cast, Andrew Lambo made his debut this week (I've written about him before). His first week looks bad (1 hit and 1 walk in 10 PAs) but he showed some impressive strike zone judgement seeing 4.2 pitches per plate appearance* and striking out just twice. His lone hit went for a double. I'm thinking he could actually be a key reinforcement for Pittsburgh both in the outfield and off the bench.
I'd like to quickly make some notes about the team's schedules going forward. Oakland's is particularly intriguing/worrisome, they face the Mariners next in a three game series that they'll have to win because after that it's Baltimore, Detroit, Tampa and Texas. After that they have a pretty easy rest of the schedule with seven games against the Twins and another Houston series. After the A's finish that difficult stretch (Bal, Det, etc.) they could be far enough out of it that they'll have a difficult time making up enough ground. So the next two weeks are crucial for the A's.
Pittsburgh's schedule from here on out is basically playing sub-.500 teams with a few series against Cincinnati and St. Louis and one against Texas. Clearly these will be crucial but for the most part the Pirates' schedule isn't much of a hurdle for the remainder. Boston actually does have a tough test ahead of them with 19 of their remaining 36 games against division rivals Tampa Bay, New York and Baltimore along with one series a piece with Detroit and the Dodgers.
We're getting to the point in the season where the schedule is actually a factor for most teams. Back in June it wasn't really a concern because it would basically average out for most teams. Now with about 35-40 games left, the matchups are significant and should be treated that way. Just another fun part of the stretch run.
*Pitches per plate appearance is a stat that will be gaining momentum in both saber and popular media circles in the next few seasons; I think. It seems to be one of those stats that many people ignore but are important to teams, smart teams. Gabe Kapler has talked on Keith Law's podcast about the metric completely unsolicited as a piece of data Boston presented him with often when he worked with their organization, for one example. I personally see it as one of those obvious 'no duh' type metrics that's somehow not really a large part of outsider analysts' discourse. Clearly, the more pitches a hitter sees, it's to his advantage: the pitcher tires, the hitter sees more of the pitcher's repertoire and walks are more common. There's a whole separate debate about whether or not more pitches is a positive, it'll slow down the game when all the Delmon Young level hackers are out of the league. But like a good Coen Brother's movie, the magic is in the build up. I should note that Lambo's 4.2 pitches per plate appearance would rank ninth in MLB, directly behind Joe Mauer and Jose Bautista. Not bad company.