SweetSpot: J.J. Hoover

This could be one of those games. Not a momentum game, since that’s a term that attempts to describe mass and velocity of an object, not something that happens in the standings. No, it’s more like one of those games you remember when the season is over and your team has won the division title or reached the playoffs. One of those games that sticks out in your memory, like a first kiss or, if you're a Reds fan, a flat tire.

Allen Craig hit a big grand slam in the seventh inning as the St. Louis Cardinals rallied to beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-6, moving the Cardinals a half-game past the idle Pittsburgh Pirates and back into first place in the NL Central for the first time since July 29. Put this game in your back pocket and check back in five weeks.

The Reds were in command, leading 5-3 heading into the bottom of the seventh. Teams that lead entering the seventh have won 86 percent of the time this season; the Reds were 57-7, an 89 percent success rate. The Cardinals were 7-38 when trailing in the seventh. Odds of them pulling this one out? About 1-in-10.

Craig delivered that one. With one run already in, J.J. Hoover had entered with runners on second and third and two outs to face Matt Holliday. He fired six four-seam fastballs to Holliday, who finally drew the walk on a 3-2 pitch that was low and outside. That brought up Craig with the bases juiced and Craig loves to hit in that situation. He was 6-for-9 this year with two sacrifice flies and a .433 average in his relatively brief career.

[+] EnlargeAllen Craig
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAllen Craig powered this latest Cardinals win, and he has the bat to deliver more.
He’d never hit a grand slam, though.

Hoover reared back and threw another four-seam fastball. The radar guns would clock it at 95 mph.

This is one of those moments that make baseball so great. Craig is one of the best fastball hitters in the game. In fact, his .404 average against fastballs leads the majors. When putting the first pitch in play, he’s hitting .453 -- 14th in the majors -- because, again, he’s a good fastball hitter. Get ahead in the count and you can put him away with offspeed stuff. If you get ahead.

Hoover is a fastball pitcher. He has thrown 971 pitches this season, 726 of them fastballs. His second pitch is a curveball. But Hoover is a fastball guy -- a high fastball guy. Fastball hitter versus fastball pitcher.

Probably would have been a good time for Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco to call for a curveball on the first pitch. Maybe a more veteran catcher -- say, Yadier Molina or Ryan Hanigan -- calls for a breaking ball there, knowing Craig’s killer instinct against fastballs.

Mesoraco set up low and away, but Hoover caught the middle of the plate. Craig lined it over the wall in right, drawing a curtain call from the home fans after the high-fives and smiles in the dugout. A first-pitch fastball to Allen Craig with the bases loaded, the smiles seemed to say, are you kidding?

Craig is kind of the unsung hero of the Cardinals, at least outside of St. Louis. He hasn’t matched his power numbers of a year ago -- in just 21 more at-bats he has nine fewer home runs -- but he’s still been a big run producer, hitting in the cleanup spot most of the season. Manager Mike Matheny kept him there despite Craig not homering until May 4. He has rewarded his manager with 95 RBIs, tied for second in the NL with Brandon Phillips behind Paul Goldschmidt’s 101.

Yes, Craig has had guys getting on base in front of him in the deep St. Louis lineup, including leadoff batter Matt Carpenter, who leads the NL in runs scored. But he has also done his best hitting with men on base. Craig is hitting .317 overall, but .452 with runners in scoring position. While he strikes out 17 percent of the time overall, he cuts that down to 10 percent with RISP -- an approach that suggests he’s cutting down on his swing, looking to put the ball in play more than looking for the home run.

Just as importantly, he has stayed healthy all season after playing 119 games last year and 75 in 2011, when he was a key bench player who hit three home runs in the World Series.

Craig is no longer a bench guy. He's an All-Star and maybe the toughest out in the St. Louis lineup.

Especially if you try to sneak a fast one past him.
ChapmanAP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastCincinnati's bullpen secured the game after Aroldis Chapman failed to close out the Cubs on Friday.
On Friday afternoon, Aroldis Chapman had a rare bad outing trying to finish up the Cincinnati Reds' 6-2 lead over the Chicago Cubs. So bad, in fact, that manager Dusty Baker actually removed his Proven Closer (tm) for J.J. Hoover with the game on the line. Chapman already had allowed three runs when he walked Cody Ransom to load the bases with two outs. Baker -- give him credit here -- took out Chapman and Hoover struck out Darwin Barney to close out the 6-5 victory.

The question: Did Baker learn anything?

Did he learn that there are multiple ways to use a bullpen, ways that can make the Reds' pen a more effective weapon? In fact, on Sunday, with Chapman and Jonathan Broxton both having pitched two days in a row, Hoover earned another save in a 7-4 victory.

That's the way a bullpen should be used: Save Chapman for the close games and tie games; using Chapman with a three-run lead is essentially a waste. Hoover, even if he's the third or fourth guy in the pen, is capable of closing out a three-run lead. Of course, I doubt Baker will change because of two games. He blamed Chapman's poor outing Friday on inactivity.

"He hadn't pitched in three days," Baker said. "If you don't pitch him it's like if you're pitching him too much."

OK. I think I get what Dusty is saying: Being rusty can lead to the same ineffectiveness as being overused. Chapman hadn't pitched in three days, which doesn't really seem like an unusual layoff, but I guess it's a good excuse. But it's that concern that often leads managers to pitch closers in meaningless situations just to get them work. That could be avoided by using your closer for more than three outs, but that is against the Unwritten Rules of Modern Closer Usage. Even though when Chapman was a setup guy, Baker routinely used him for more than three outs.

Hoover actually summed up bullpen usage pretty succinctly Friday: "You kind of train yourself for that as a reliever. All of these [relievers] can handle that situation. That's what makes us a good staff."

Hoover, Broxton, Sean Marshall and Sam LeCure are all good pitchers, as Hoover points out, and capable of saving games if needed.

So, if Dusty is concerned about Chapman not pitching enough, then pitch him more! Tie game in the eighth? Use him for two innings. Extra innings? Let him go two. Chapman has pitched 15 innings in 16 appearances. Even though he's one of the great strikeout relievers in the game's history, the type of pitcher who can get you out of tough jams, only once has Chapman entered with a runner on base this season, and that was when the Reds were already trailing.

I know I pick on Baker a lot, and he's really only one of 30 managers who uses his pen this way. But he's a high-profile manager on a team with World Series aspirations with a unique weapon at his disposal in Chapman. The lefty flamethrower is on pace to pitch 78 innings, many of which will be wasted with three-run leads, and few of which will come to escape tough jams.

Baker can use him in smarter ways. And leave the cheap saves to Hoover.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield