Baseball is weird. Baseball has always been weird, but 2018 baseball seems especially weird.
Coming into this season much ink was spilled discussing the problem of the ‘haves’ (Astros / Red Sox / Yankees / Cubs / Nationals / Dodgers) and the ‘have nots’ (Royals / Orioles / Mets / Padres / Tigers). Although the disparity between the best clubs and the worst clubs is still fairly pronounced, the teams in the middle have made this a much more interesting year than we could have predicted. Despite pretty much unanimous favorites in all the divisions, most races are playing out more competitively than expected.
With the emergence of the Phillies and Braves in the NL East, the Nationals seem determined to keep themselves out of the playoffs. The Diamondbacks and Rockies have kept the Dodgers out of first place most of the season, while the Astros and Cubs are no shoe-ins to win their division either thanks fo the Brewers and A’s. The World Champion Astros are fighting for their lives not to get stuck playing the Yankees in the Bronx in a winner-take-all AL Wild Card game, as they are being chased by an unlikely surging Oakland team. .
The strangest piece of all of this however, is that the surprise contenders in 2018 have pitching staffs that include, and in some cases, are even led, by some very unlikely pitchers.
The Phillies and Braves have outpaced the Nats this entire season, in no small part, thanks to two veteran pitchers most of us would have considered washed-up. The Cubs (and everyone else) passed up on signing Jake Arrieta when his contract in Chicago ended, and the Braves stumbled upon Anibal Sanchez, who had not put together a good season in nearly half a decade.
So far this year, on the surface, Arrieta is putting up a season not too dissimilar from 2017. His ERA is a slightly better 3.33 versus 3.53, as is his FIP, which is 3.95 compared to last year’s 4.16. His walk rate has not changed, though his strikeout percentage has declined from 23.1 percent down to 17.5 percent. Arieta has been a major part of the Phillies National League leading pitcher fWAR. Arrieta has been surprisingly helpful in a rotation that is anchored by youngster Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez, and it’s the pitching that is keeping the Phillies afloat when you consider they rank 11th in the NL in position player fWAR.
Taking a look up the standings of the National League East, the Braves found a diamond-in-the-rough that nearly everyone thought was finished. Anibal Sanchez is 35 years old, and has not posted more than a full win since 2014. Mired by injury and mediocrity, the Twins took a no-risk chance on him, to see what he could do in the spring. They signed Sanchez to a conditional $2.5 million deal, which would be paid to him if he made the Opening Day roster; he did not. Sanchez found himself unsigned in mid-March, with few suitors willing to give him another shot. Then, just a few days after being told he wasn’t making the Twins team, Atlanta took a flyer on him and signed him to a Minor League deal. Sanchez’ contract was selected by Atlanta on April 2nd, but two weeks later, he landed on the disabled list, and missed a month due to a hamstring injury. Rather than give up on him, Atlanta let him take his time to rehab, and as it typical unpredictable baseball bashion, he’s been productive ever since he returned to the rotation.
Since coming off the DL in late-May, Sanchez has started 14 games, and has posted a respectable 3.39 ERA and 3.81 FIP. He is averaging nearly six innings a start, which for someone picked up off the scrap heap, is a valuable commodity. He’s been an effective addition to a young rotation that is still getting used to the cadence of a 180 to 200 inning MLB season.
As surprising as it is to see Anibal Sanchez as a productive member of a contender rotation, he might not even be the most surprising National League contending starter.
Clay Buchholz, who looked absolutely done when Boston sent him packing, is having his best season since 2015. After basically being run out of town in Boston, Clay has proven to be an invaluable part of the first-place-DBacks rotation. Buchholz has posted his best strikeout and walk rates since 2015, and his sterling 2.67 ERA is a far-cry from the double-digit disaster that was his 2017. He’s been a reliable understudy to DBacks’ ace Zack Greinke, and has put together a strong comeback season for a team currently in first place.
One major watch-out for Buchholz as he enters the stretch-run, and likely the playoffs, is whether or not his hard-hit rate starts yielding better results for his opponents. Opposing hitters are putting good wood on the ball, with 36.8 percent of balls hit being categorized as hard-hit, Bucholz’ worst of his career. So far, it hasn’t led to much trouble, but that could quickly change.
In the American League, we largely have the same cast of characters as last season, with one glaring exception in the Oakland A’s. In a division with the defending champs, and a pretending team in the Mariners that recently demoted Felix Hernandez to the bullpen, the A’s have put together an amazing second half, where they have posted a 17-7 record. June 24th, the A’s were 11 ½ games out of first place, and seemed light years away from the playoffs. Today, they are only two games behind Houston, and in-line to take on the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game.
How have they achieved so much success this summer? Easy, with three starters all on the wrong side of 30, two of whom are well into their mid-30s, who haven’t been reliable contributors since 2012 and 2013.
Behind Mike Fiers is 30-year-old Trevor Cahill hasn’t been a reliable starter since 2012, and over the last six years, he’s bounced around more than a beachball at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Since his last decent year (2012), Cahill has played for 10 minor league teams, affiliated with five different parent clubs. That’s a lot of miles over the course of six years, yet he’s come out as strong as we’ve seen him in over half a decade.
Cahill, to his credit, has already put up 1.7 fWAR, has an impressive ERA- of 82 with a FIP- of 78. This season he’s nearly halved his walk rate compared to the last two seasons, and he is limiting home runs, posting his lowest home run rate of his career.
Not to be outdone, journeyman Edwin Jackson, who has played for a record-setting 13 different teams over the course of his career, is putting up his best season since 2013. Jackson has been less effective than Cahill, but for a pitcher who turns 35 in a month, he’s been a nice surprise for the A’s.
Since a decent 2013, Jackson has floated between triple-A and the big leagues, earning his way up to Oakland after signing a minor league deal this past spring. At a meager $1.5 million, his 54 innings of 2.54 ERA has been a breadth of fresh air.
Time will tell whether or not any of these throw-back performances are sustainable going into the fall, but the fact that there are this many comeback starters pitching for contenders is pretty remarkable. No one would be surprised if Clay Buchholz or Trevor Cahill throw a dud in an LDS game, but the mere fact that they’re pitching well enough to help their teams unexpectedly contend should be a pleasant surprise to their fanbases and their front offices.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano