November 27, 2022

SHL Expansion One: Halfway Home

February 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Just past the midway point of the SHL’s inaugural season, here is a recap of first half highlights and lowlights in the Expansion One division.

Most Valuable Batter: Mike Napoli, Angels. Off the top of the head, this is the single most remarkable individual development in the whole SHL. In three years with Anaheim (2006-2008), Napoli hasn’t really even established himself as the starter, splitting time with Jose Molina and, more recently, Jeff Mathis. His numbers, though, have been good: an on-base percentage over .350 each season, and declining strikeout numbers from year to year. He’s a good player. So is everyone in the Historical League.

Who would have expected, though, that his OPS of 1.024, would be not only the best mark for a catcher, but the second best in the entire league? Better than Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Aaron, Bonds, any of them. Only Carlos Delgado has better triple slashes. Napoli’s greatest strength is his slugging percentage of .625, also second in the league to Delgado. He’s got 25 extra base hits in 200 at-bats exactly, which means that he’s getting to at least second base once every eight at-bats. The Angels don’t look good right now, but Napoli is the surprise story of the year. 

Honorable mentions: Rafael Palmeiro is doing his best to carry an unexpectedly impotent Rangers offense. After a torrid April, though, he declined a bit in May before tanking (.245/.315/.346) in June. Darryl Strawberry is back in all his mid-1980’s glory, with 17 home runs and 59 runs batted in. For the Angels, Mark Teixiera has a line of .317/.391/.543 and 14 home runs, one fewer than Napoli.

Most Valuable Pitcher: Tom Seaver, Mets. In all honesty, this division doesn’t have a most valuable pitcher. Seaver has 110 strikeouts, most except for Nolan Ryan (Angels and Rangers varieties), and he’s given up fewer walks than the Express. Opponents are hitting just .235 against him, and he’s won seven games. On the other hand, Seaver has also lost seven games. Neither his ERA (3.57) nor his WHIP (1.24) are outstanding, but among starters in Expansion One, there’s not much else by way of competiton.

Honorable mentions: The class of the division really lies among the relief pitchers. Houston’s Dave Smith has the lowest WHIP at 1.10, and teammate Billy Wagner has 41 Ks in 31 innings. John Wetteland only has eight saves as the Rangers’ closer, but he has managed to strike out 25 while walking only six. Jose Arredondo and Troy Percival have both been strong for the Angels. Among starters, Fergie Jenkins has the best record at 6-1, but his secondary stats—82 hits in 68 innings, with just 35 strikeouts and a .299 batting average against—tell a different story.

Most Room for Improvement: Nolan Ryan, Astros. The case against Ryan is uncommonly strong because we can easily compare Astro Ryan (ages 33-41) against Angel Ryan (25-32) and Ranger Ryan (42-46). In particular, consider his strikeout, walk, and home run numbers:

Angels: 8.56 K/9; 6.75 BB/9; 12 HR in 124 IP

Rangers: 9.59 K/9; 4.56 BB/9; 11 HR in 116.1 IP

Astros: 7.70 K/9; 5.94 BB/9; 11 HR in 97 IP

For Houston, he’s striking out fewer batters while giving up an equal amount of walks and more home runs, all in fewer innings pitched. He’s also given up the most hits for Houston (118). His record stands at 3-9, and he’s completed only one of 17 starts. If Nolan Ryan doesn’t start pitching more like, well, Nolan Ryan, the Astros will almost surely come up short in their pursuit of the Mets.

Speaking of the Mets, catcher Mike Piazza has wildly under-performed in the first half of the season. His line of .240/.290/.357 probably wouldn’t be enough to keep him in the lineup if backup Gary Carter were hitting any better. He has fewer total bases than five of his teammates, and only 29 RBIs despite hitting in the heart of the batting order.

Dishonorable mentions: The Astros’ double play combination of Miguel Tejada and Jeff Kent has been doubly disappointing; neither has an on-base percentage over .300. Of all the underachieving Rangers, Juan Gonzalez is the worst, with just six home runs in 200 at-bats. The Angels must have expected more from Frank Tanana, who was 1-6 with a 5.71 ERA before being shuttled down to the sticks.

Second Half Call-Up to Look Forward To: Bret Saberhagen, Mets. New York’s Triple-A roster is absolutely stocked, and Sabes is the best of the bunch.  In 143 innings, he’s struck out 138, walked 22 and given up only 120 hits. Any way you slice it, those numbers are absolutely devastating; allowing him to replace Johan Santana (1-6, 7.36 ERA) in the lineup would be as dramatic an upgrade as you can make.

Honorable mentions: Staying with the Mets, Bobby Bonilla is slugging .599 with 21 home runs; Mookie Wilson is hitting .366, and Roger McDowell has an ERA of 0.38 in 47.2 innings. Obviously, those three plus Saberhagen are deserving of a call-up, even if they can’t play every day. The Rangers have Alfonso Soriano and his 18 home runs waiting in the wings, and the Astros could call upon outfielder Jose Cruz. As argued in this space previously, Cruz would help diversify the Houston offense for the stretch run. Los Angeles has options in the corner outfield positions, as both Don Baylor and Fredd Lynn have killed Triple-A pitching in Salt Lake City.

Projected Finish: By all means, this division is New York’s to lose. They’ve got the best line-up and the best pitching staff, and if those should fail, they’ve got the best minor league talent to boot. Their lead stands at two games over the unthreatening Astros, and they’ve already tackled a plurality of their road games. Look for the Mets to take this one going away, ideally with a late push from Saberhagen, Bonilla et al.

Houston’s in second place right now, but it’s not clear what they’ve done to deserve it. They’ve been overly reliant on home run hitting, and are bound to go cold eventually. The pitching has been very weak, and there’s little depth in the system. This is a third place team at heart, but could sink to fourth depending on the Rangers and Angels.

The Rangers make an interesting counterpart for Houston—they, too, have an offense predicated on home run hitting, but so far they haven’t connected. They’re 25th in the league in slugging, but signs are that they’re heating up. Alex and Ivan Rodriguez both posted good numbers in June, and the team had its first month at the .500 mark. The Rangers might up having a mirror image of Houston’s season, with the bats doing their talking in the second half. Sitting just four games out at the moment, that puts them well within striking distance. It’s more likely that they’ll replace the Astros in second place by season’s end.

The wild card in this division might be the Angels, who have underperformed on their Pythagorean winning percentage by four games, about as large a gap as there is in the league. That, in the context of being just six games out, is cause for optimism. On the other hand, they’ve played a full two thirds of their schedule thus far at home. That points to a grueling second half full of extended road trips; they’ve got only five home games in July, and six in August. Even if they start playing like the numbers say they ought to, it will be extremely difficult for them to climb out of the cellar with that many days on the road. 

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