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    Wednesday, May 17, 2017

    Out of the Park Baseball 18: Trying to Build a Playoff-Caliber Core, Part 3

    Out of the Park Baseball allowed me to try their latest release, Out of the Park Baseball 18. For this year’s edition of my review, I wanted to do something different: a multi-part attempt to build a championship core for a rebuilding team to get them to the playoffs. In Part 1, I added Mike Trout to this year’s San Diego Padres and watched them go 68-94. In Part 2, I added Trout and Chris Sale and watched the team miss the second Wild Card in the last week of the season, finishing 83-78. What would my third go-around bring?

    ATTEMPT 3: 2017-B

    As the start of the season rolled around in the 2017-B timeline, the San Diego Padres made a series of shocking moves. On a single day, they managed to trade Manuel Margot for Mike Trout, Jered Weaver for Chris Sale, and Erick Aybar for Manny Machado. Fans didn't question this stroke of good luck, as it considerably brightened their outlook on the coming year.

    Opening Day was a 4-1 loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, with the new acquisitions putting up some mediocre performances. Trout went 2-4 with 2 singles, Machado went 0-3, and Sale gave up 4 runs on 5 hits (2 home runs) and 4 walks with 5 strikeouts in 7.0 innings.

    We end the first month just above .500, at 14-13. That puts us in third place, just three games behind the NL West-leading Diamondbacks and a half-game behind the second place Dodgers. That feels a little disappointing, but it is two games ahead of where the Machado-less Padres of 2017-A were at this point, and they turned okay.*

    *And in a representation of the variance that occurs within any baseball season, it also means that we're six games ahead of the Sale-and-Machado-less Padres of 2017, and three games ahead of the Trout-Sale-and-Machado-less Padres of real-world 2017 were at the end of April.

    Mike Trout is doing his usual Mike-Trout-esque things, hitting .302/.407/.615 (a 185 OPS+) with 7 homers. Chris Sale is only kind of doing Chris-Sale-type things, though (44 K, 2.98 ERA, 125 ERA+, 3.25 FIP in 42.1 IP), and Manny Machado is decidedly un-Manny-Machado-like (.240/.339/.310, 86 OPS+; mediocre fielding stats, although he's playing shortstop now). We also don't really have the backup we did in 2017-A; Yangervis Solarte is playing decently, but not one else is really stepping up yet.

    Our May starts out hot, and we even climb into first place for a bit, but after a few lingering injuries hit our roster, we fall down to 28-28, as well as fourth place. Hunter Renfroe wins Rookie of the Month, while Mike Trout takes the Player of the Month award. He's still posting a 185 OPS+, and has already been worth 3.3 Wins Above Replacement in only 54 games. Manny Machado has rebounded all the way to a .253/.347/.397 line (110 OPS+), and is tied for Wil Myers for second on the team among position with 1.3 WAR. Chris Sale, meanwhile, has seen his ERA (2.72), WHIP (0.87), and FIP (2.63) drop, while his ERA+ (138) and K/9 (98 whiffs in 86 IP) rose, giving him 2.5 WAR. Again, that's not a bad place to be a third of the way into the season. There's no one else really making a strong impression along with those names, but there are some not-bad players, and very few players are looking genuinely awful. I shuffle the bullpen a little and wait to see if anything improves.

    June proves miserable, luck-wise, as half of our lineup goes on the DL at some point or other. Despite that, we finish the month 40-41. It's at this point that I remember to check the expanded standings and realize that we're outperforming our run differential (-51, third-worst in the National League) by quite a bit, so maybe "unlucky" isn't the best word to describe our season thus far.

    We end up sending a pair of players to the All-Star Game, a first in these simulations. Mike Trout was of course named the starting center fielder (the only one on the roster too; the NL Roster is him, Yoenis Cespedes in left field, and six right fielders), while Chris Sale made the pitching staff finally. Trout's OPS+ has fallen to "just" 175 in 376 plate appearances, good for 4.6 WAR. Chris Sale has run his ERA+ all the way to 150, giving him a 3.1 WAR. While Manny didn't make the All-Star game, he's improved on his early-season slump, sitting at a 124 OPS+ and 2.3 WAR. The Padres are basically idling where they have been all year, sitting at 44-45, ten games out of first.

    The National League in 2017-B is weirdly top-heavy though, so we're actually the best record that wouldn't make the postseason if the regular season ended right now (the Nationals and Dodgers are tied for the second wild card, so they'd play one game before the winner moved on to face the Giants in the real Wild Card Game). I guess that's not too shabby of us? Our lineup is actually looking good, between Trout, Machado, Myers, Renfroe, Yangervis Solarte, and Alex Dickerson all playing at above-average levels or better. Our biggest problem is that our pitching staff is so weak; no one is performing egregiously bad, but outside of Sale, no one is doing phenomenal either. Our second best performer is closer Brad Hand, and the only other player who has been worth more than a single Win Above Replacement is Christian Friedrich, who missed the first quarter of the season with an injury.

    For the first time, we have a good showing at the Midsummer Classic. Trout goes 1-3 with a 2-RBI single, while Chris Sale throws a single, seven-pitch inning. Maybe that bodes well for the second half of the season?

    The second half of July ends up being one of our stronger runs, so maybe the All-Star Game was a positive omen? We end the month 56-50, which isn't incredible or anything and doesn't really move us up the standings at all, but after a run of .500 records at check-ins, I'll take it, even if it is just a hot streak that we're going to immediately cancel out with a bad stretch. isn't? Chris Sale wins Pitcher of the Month, helping lead the team to a 18-10 month for San Diego. That puts us as 74-60 for the year, four games behind the Diamondbacks, one game behind the Giants, and one-and-a-half ahead of the Dodgers. The Nationals are the closest non-NL West team to us in the Wild Card standings, sitting another game behind the Dodgers with a month and change to play.

    Sale rode his hot month to a 145 ERA+ in over 190 innings on the year, with a 2.95 FIP, a 0.92 WHIP, and 201 Ks and counting. All of that works out to 5.1 WAR so far. Meanwhile, over on the position player side of things, Trout and Machado have asserted themselves as two of the best players in the league. At 6.6 WAR, Trout is second in the league, just narrowly behind Kris Bryant. He also has 29 home runs, 13 steals, and a .304/.421/.541 batting line (a 166 OPS+). Machado, meanwhile, has been worth 5.2 WAR thanks to a 142 OPS+. He hasn't quite taken to shortstop as well as he has third base, but he's also not bad at it either. Over in non-superstar land, Wil Myers and Yangervis Solarte are still doing wonderful things (3.5 and 2.9 WAR and counting, respectively), Hunter Renfroe is looking above average, and the pitching staff is at least looking competent now. At the very least, it looks like the entire rotation has a chance to finish the year with 2 Wins apiece now.

    Maybe this is finally the year that we make it to October? We have five more series against the three other teams in the West competing for playoff spots (plus two more against the Rockies), so we have some say in how the end of the year plays out.

    Unfortunately, our first series of the month (against Los Angeles) does not go as planned, as we can only take one of three. The next series, four games at home against a mediocre Cardinals team, should be easier, but we can only split that one. We follow that up winning one of three in Arizona, and it looks like we're starting to lose our grasp, but the Dodgers slip as well and we keep a half-game ahead of them. We need to make up some ground in the next two weeks, nine of our next twelve games against last-place teams (the Twins and Rockies, with a three game visit from the Diamondbacks in the middle).

    We end up going six and six in that span, taking two of three from Arizona but putting up a losing record against the last-place teams, of course. At 84-72, we're now looking up at a playoff spot, as the Nationals have climbed a half-game ahead of us. We have six games left, half in L.A. and have in San Francisco (who's already clinched), and we need to make the most of them. Even worse, we only get one more Chris Sale start this year.

    We drop two of three to the Dodgers, meaning we're now a game behind the Nationals. Chris Sale turns in a weak game one performance in San Francisco, but the bats pick him up en route to a 10-4 win. Jarred Cosart looks about the same the next day, but Johnny Cueto stumbles, and we win again, 5-2. Then, in the final game, we pull out a 2-1 win in the tenth, while Washington loses, putting us in a tie for the second wild card. We head to Washington for the playoff, where Chris Sale wins his 21st game of the season, 3-2. That means we'll be heading to Arizona for the Wild Card Game in two days, and more importantly, that we have finally reached the playoffs!

    In the end, all we needed to get there was three of the best players in the game added to a pretty bad roster. Chris Sale struck out 252 in over 230 innings with a 1.00 WHIP, a 2.83 FIP, and a 2.97 ERA (134 ERA+), meaning he'll probably be in the discussion for the Cy Young. Overall, it was good for 6.7 WAR.

    Mike Trout, meanwhile, put up a 8.2 WAR and will be facing off with Bryant for the MVP award. Even with Petco Park supressing his numbers, he managed 36 homers and a .305/.425/.556 batting line (170 OPS+). And Machado got past his slow start to turn in an All-Star-caliber season (even if he was snubbed from the actual team), hitting .289/.357/.494 (133 OPS+) while hitting 29 home runs as a short stop. And Wil Myers even finished strong, mashing 34 dingers with 4.2 WAR (his OPS+ was only 114, however, thanks to a .325 OBP, but he had a .458 slugging percentage to go with it). And more importantly, we didn't have any glaring weakness, even if we only had a few bright spots; only two of our regular relievers were sub-replacement-level, and seven of our eight position player spots and three starting pitchers contributed 2 WAR or more, which was easily enough to back up our big four. That's how to build a playoff roster.

    Post-script: We crushed Arizona 10-2 in the Wild Card game, but Manny Machado injured his leg. Not badly enough to miss time thankfully, but it wasn't a great sign. Unfortunately, Chris Sale looked gassed after his long season and repeated end-of-season starts (the manager, recognizing our flawed rotation, started him in both Game 163 and the Wild Card Game, albeit he only lasted 3.1 innings in the latter, before starting him in Game 3 of the NLDS), which meant that our rotation was very beatable. But hey, we're in a good place for 2018-B, given that we'll be starting with Trout, Machado, and Sale (and maybe Corey Kluber or Justin Verlander, if precedent is anything to go by).

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