The Notebook continues its season-ending All-Star tour today with a look at the second base spots in both leagues. First base was covered last Wednesday & Thursday. If we had to vote anew for the All-Star teams here’s how I’d see it shaping up…
In recent years I’ve resisted the Conventional Wisdom that this battle is a Yankees-Red Sox battle between Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia. I’ve always felt that Cano’s complete lack of patience at the plate makes him a less valuable offensive threat than his other numbers might indicate, and that Pedroia, while a gritty competitor, isn’t typically All-Star caliber. Even back in midsummer I backed the Angels’ Howie Kendrick for the nod at this spot. But as we hit mid-September, the CW has won the battle. Kendrick has slumped, Ian Kinsler from Texas has too low a batting average and not enough run production given his lineup support is comparable to Cano and Pedroia’s. That leaves the Yankee and the Red Sox player to battle it out.
Pedroia is better at getting on base. His batting average is only eight points behind Cano’s, and with an 81-30 edge in drawing walks, Pedroia is easily on the basepaths more frequently. Cano hits for more power, with a 25-18 home run edge keying a solid advantage in slugging percentage. The difference is defense and Cano has made tremendous strides here. While he used to grade poorly in the defensive metrics, he’s now at the top of the charts for American League second baseman. His run production, including both RBIs and runs scored is decisively better. And on that basis, he deserves the vote as the best in the AL—indeed in all of baseball at second base in 2011.
Milwaukee’s Rickie Weeks had been the clear leader here at the All-Star break and a viable challenger to Cano and Pedroia for supremacy overall. But an ankle injury cost Weeks too much time and with only 416 at-bats, I can’t give him the Notebook vote even though his stats are the best overall. You can’t help your team win if you’re not on the field, and even though it’s not Weeks’ fault, its reality and we have to look elsewhere.
The rest of the NL class isn’t eye-popping, with Chase Utley also missing a lot of time in Philadelphia and Atlanta’s Dan Uggla taking over half the season to really kick into gear. It speaks volumes to the weakness of this position and to Uggla’s extraordinary hot streak that you have to consider him a candidate even though he didn’t produce until July. He’s now got 33 home runs and a .454 slugging percentage, even if his long hitting streak didn’t lift the batting average to a good number. Pittsburgh’s Neil Walker plays the best defense and has an OBP thirty points higher than Uggla’s. But he does lack power and Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips is a more balanced package of skills. Phillips’s on-base percentage nips Walker by six points (.346), he’s popped 14 home runs and ranks well on defense. Phillips moves into the vacuum created by Weeks and Utley’s injuries and earns an All-Star slot.
WOES IN PITTSBURGH & CLEVELAND
Pittsburgh and Cleveland both entered AFC North battles this past Sunday with high hopes for the coming season, albeit for different reasons. For the Steelers, they open every season thinking Super Bowl and a Week 1 game in Baltimore was a chance to get an early lead on their archrival. For the Browns, this was going to be the year they finally broke through and challenged for their first playoff spot since 2002. With a home game against the troubled Bengals, it seemed a tailor-made opener.
Disaster hit both the Steelers and Browns. For Pittsburgh, losing in Baltimore was no big deal per se. You can take it that the Ravens just held serve in winning their home game in the rivalry. But being torched 35-7 can’t be dismissed. The Browns managed to lose a game that even those of us who aren’t really sold on them thought was as close to a lock as you could get. What happened and are the problems going to persist?
Pittsburgh’s secondary was lit up and they failed to establish a running game. There’s no reason to think either of those problems are going to magically disappear, given that problems at defensive back and offensive line were a key concern regarding this team. They won’t fumble the ball away four times like they did Sunday, and that obviously accounts for a lot of the blowout margin of victory. But Ben Roethlisberger also threw three interceptions and if he’s forced into shootout situations by a bad secondary and can’t get any support from a running game, Big Ben might be throwing a few more picks this year. There’s tremendous pressure of the linebacker corps and Troy Polamulu to do it all and that’s a lot to ask.
Cleveland was beaten at the line of scrimmage. They got nothing going in the running game, with Peyton Hillis being shut down and they allowed Cincinnati to establish their own rushing attack with Cedric Benson producing 121 yards. The Browns were another team with problems on the offensive line and the obvious conclusion to take from this is that they haven’t been solved.
Pittsburgh has a home game with Seattle coming up and if they can’t win that one, the season is completely lost before it begins. Cleveland is actually a slight favorite in Indianapolis for Week 2, a sign of how thoroughly the Colts lost respect from linesmakers in the wake of Peyton Manning’s injury and the subsequent rout against Houston. I think that’s stretching it a little and I’m not ready to put the Browns under the gun just yet. But rookie coach Pat Shurmur got on the hot seat a lot quicker than anyone thought possible.
PITT & OHIO STATE STRUGGLING
For our college report we’ll stay in the Pittsburgh-Ohio corridor to check on Pitt and Ohio State, both of whom have problems of their own after two games.
Pitt hired a new coach, Tulsa’s Todd Graham to juice up the offense. The Panthers have opened by struggling to get by Buffalo and Maine. In both cases, their pass defense has been poor. Buffalo’s Chazz Anderson threw for 276 yards, and Maine’s Warren Smith put up 334. Pitt’s punting game has been atrocious, averaging 30 yards or less on gross punting average in these initial two games. While the offense has not been bad, it’s certainly not what was advertised with Graham’s fast-paced attack—one that outgunned Notre Dame in South Bend a year ago, and made the Golden Hurricane a consistent winner.
With the Panthers having struggled in their tuneup games, the schedule gets tough starting Saturday. They go to Iowa, come back home to play Notre Dame and then host South Florida on a Thursday night to start Big East play. Perhaps Pitt will get in the flow of things under their new coach, but right now I’m feeling good about my preseason decision to say they would follow a pattern of underachievement, even with the best talent base in a mediocre conference.
After the offseason from hell and the possibility that probation is in the program’s immediate future, Ohio State has bigger problems on its hands than struggling past Toledo the way they did on Saturday. The Buckeyes did play good run defense against Akron and Toledo, and while that might not sound like much (indeed, it isn’t), it’s still better than division rival Wisconsin who struggled to stop the run against UNLV. More concerning is that Ohio State couldn’t stop Toledo’s passing game and they don’t look to have any explosiveness on their own side of the ball. Joe Bauserman at quarterback isn’t making anyone forget Terrelle Pryor and Carlos Hyde at running back hasn’t conjured up memories of Dan Herron. Remember the glory days when the worst the folks in Columbus had to worry about was being made fun of by the national media for losing to USC or the SEC champ? Those days are long gone.
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