Adam Dunn's one-of-a-kind career

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
10:27
AM ET
This is an ode to the most unique baseball player who ever lived.

That would be the inimitable Adam T. Dunn. And for the past 14 seasons, it’s safe to say he has walked alone.

Then again, he has also whiffed alone. But it was that awesome proliferation of whiffs and walks, in multitudes never before witnessed, that has helped create Adam Dunn’s singular ambiance in the annals of his sport.

“Here’s the thing,” said Dunn's friend and former teammate Ryan Dempster. “It wasn’t just the walks, and it wasn’t just the strikeouts. It was also all those balls that ended up over the fence. So he might be 0-for-0, with four walks, and go up and hit a home run to win the game. Or he might be 0-for-4, with four 'punchies’ [i.e., strikeouts], and go up and hit a home run to win the game. You never knew with Adam, because he was always a threat.”

Yes, he was always a threat, all right. He was a threat to go through an entire game without ever putting a ball in play. He was a threat to go through an entire game without ever hitting a ball that landed on the field he was playing on. He was a threat to hit a baseball that entered Earth's orbit. And he was a threat to make history in ways no one else ever had before him.

Then, after doing all that, said another ex-teammate, Todd Jones, “he’d be back in the clubhouse, playing Xbox and talking Texas football. ... One of the most fun teammates I ever played with.”

[+] EnlargeAdam Dunn
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAdam Dunn, traded to Oakland last month, has 10 strikeouts, two homers and two walks in nine games with the A's.

No doubt. And I think I speak for hundreds of us media types when I say Dunn was also one of the most fun players we ever covered. If you didn’t come away from a conversation with that man laughing, you were taking this sport -- and yourself -- way too seriously.

So if this is it for the Big Donkey, if he’s really about to retire once the Oakland A’s season is, um, done, somebody needs to take a big step back and put this guy’s one-of-a-kind career in its proper, historically warped perspective. And guess what? I volunteer. So get comfortable. Here we go:

Who needs leather?

Here’s our first astounding Adam Dunn tidbit:

More than half the times he came to the plate in a 14-year career, the other team could have sent its fielders out to get lunch -- because their services weren’t going to be required.

By that I mean that, in 51 percent of his 8,280 trips to the plate, the ball never landed on the field. No kidding. Do the math:
  • 2,362 strikeouts
  • 1,313 walks
  • 462 home runs
  • 84 hit by pitch
  • 4,221 journeys to home plate where no fielders were needed


Now we’ve had a few Russell Branyans and Jack Custs who pulled that off in thousands and thousands of fewer plate appearances. But to do it in more than 50 percent of 8,000 trips to the plate? That’s special. The next highest percentage in a career that long is just 46.4 percent, by Jim Thome (whose name you will hear again).

Awesome.

Last inaction hero

Then again, what made that last stellar feat possible is that, once you subtracted all those home runs, you wouldn’t exactly describe the rest of Adam Dunn’s at-bats as “action-packed.” Now would you?

Only four hitters in history managed to rack up more trips to the plate in which the ball never left the batter’s box than Dunn did. Here they come:
  • Jim Thome 4,364 plate appearances (2,548 SO, 1,747 BB, 69 HBP)
  • Barry Bonds 4,203 PA (1,539 SO, 2,558 BB, 106 HBP
  • Reggie Jackson 4,068 PA (2,597 SO, 1,375 BB, 96 HBP)
  • Rickey Henderson 3,986 PA (1,694 SO, 2,190 BB, 98 HBP)
  • Adam Dunn 3,759 PA (2,362 SO, 1,313 BB, 84 HBP)


Just remember that those other four men, all of whom you may have heard of, rolled up those totals in careers that went on for many more plate appearances, from 10,313 for Thome to 13,346 for Rickey. Dunn, on the other hand, achieved all that inaction in anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 fewer trips than they got.

The result: The ball never left the box in an incredible 45.4 percent of his visits to home plate. And yep, that would be a record, among men who came to bat as many times as he did anyhow. C’mon, of course it would.

A true story

But that record is a picturesque reflection of the fact that Dunn was the ultimate master of what we like to refer to as the Three True Outcomes (walk/strikeout/homer). He really should have patented that little expression. Or silk-screened his face onto about a billion Three True Outcomes T-shirts at least.

We actually regret to report that Dunn does not own the all-time record for the most games ever in which a hitter jammed a walk, a strikeout and a home run into the box score. Thome does (with 154 of them). But Adam Dunn has still done it 125 times. And what makes that such a cool number is that it ties him for third (behind Mark McGwire’s 133) with these two names: Barry Bonds ... and Babe Ruth.

So all it will take is one more of those fabled Three True Outcome games in the next three weeks -- and Dunn can honestly say he just passed Babe Ruth.

In something or other.

Lots of trots

We could go on about his walk/strikeout fun for two weeks. But let’s not minimize those 462 home run trots Adam Dunn has made, because all of those homers, added to all of those walks, resulted in way more production than he’s often given credit for. So let’s be sure to recognize that.

• Dunn once ripped off five seasons in a row of 40-plus homers. Only eight other men in history ever had a 40-bomb streak that long or longer. And just three have ever topped it: the Babe (7), Alex Rodriguez (6) and Sammy Sosa (6).

• But what makes Dunn’s streak especially memorable (not to mention amusing) is that he had four consecutive seasons with exactly 40 homers. And who else could possibly do that? Well, according to the Sultan of Swat Stats home run historian David Vincent, no one else in history has ever had four straight seasons with any home run total higher than four. And this guy had four in a row with 40. So this might be the most Adam Dunn stat ever.

• If you’re not into round numbers, you’ll be delighted to know that Dunn also once had a streak of seven straight seasons with 38 homers or more. You know who else had a seven-year streak of 38-plus? That Babe Ruth guy again (from 1926-32). The only longer streak -- ever -- is nine, by Rafael Palmeiro.

• In the first six of those seasons, Dunn also walked 100 times. Want to guess how many men in history have unfurled six seasons in a row of 38-plus home runs and 100-plus walks? Precisely one. Him. For what it’s worth, Barry Bonds’ longest streak was five. Ruth’s longest was three.

• Or let’s put this another way. The only hitters ever to have any six-year stretch that matched or beat the 244 homers and 673 walks Dunn amassed from 2004-09 are (ready?) Ruth, Bonds, McGwire, Thome, Mickey Mantle and Ralph Kiner. Wait. Who?

• We should also mention that several of those home runs are what you’d call memorable. Especially a 535-foot Venus probe in 2004 that, according to eyewitnesses, exited the stadium in Cincinnati, hopped into the Ohio River, nestled itself on a piece of driftwood and then floated to the other side of the river.

“He hit it in Ohio, and it ended up in Kentucky,” laughed Dempster, his Reds teammate at the time. “Just one more thing to add to the legend that is Adam Dunn.”

The CEO of Kmart

But there’s no getting around the fact that the one talent Dunn will forever be known for best -- not entirely fairly, we might add -- is his knack for doing some prodigious swinging and missing. You never needed an air conditioner when he was in town. He could air-condition the whole area code.

• He had more seasons of 140-plus strikeouts (12) than any hitter in history. (Thome is second, with 10.)

• He had almost twice as many seasons with 160-plus strikeouts (11) as anyone else in history. (Ryan Howard, with six, is the only other guy with more than four.)

• And Dunn’s four seasons with at least 190 whiffs would be unprecedented if Mark Reynolds hadn’t come along to match them. (All the other hitters in history have combined for five!)

• Meanwhile, who owns the exalted record for most multistrikeout games in history? Yessir. Adam Dunn, with 681.

• If we up that ante to three, you may not be shocked to learn that Dunn has accumulated more games with three punchouts or more (171) than anyone who ever lived, too.

• And who holds the record for highest strikeout rate by anyone in history who got at least 5,000 plate appearances? Yeah, Adam Dunn (with a whiff every 2.90 at-bats) would be an excellent guess.

So that’s a lot of K’s on the old score sheet. But the best part of all that hacking and missing was that this guy always owned up to every last K. He knew exactly what he was and who he was. He was never going to be Tony Gwynn. He never pretended to be or aspired to be. So he took responsibility for whatever he did, no matter how beautiful, no matter how ugly. And let’s just say his teammates noticed.

“He never took himself seriously, which kept him sane,” Jones said. “He knew he’d hit balls 600 feet. Then he knew he’d swing and miss for a while. Then he’d hit balls 600 feet for a while. So he never worried about either.”

But it says something special about him that Adam Dunn was also first in line to announce, “I stunk” -- as another of his ex-teammates, Aaron Boone, fondly recalled.

“Early in his career, before a day game, we were facing a certain pitcher who will remain nameless,” Boone said. “He says to me, 'If this guy gets me out today, I quit.
I told him not to say things like that, [to] 'be careful.' …

“He proceeded to go 0-for-3, with two strikeouts off this starter, to which, after the third at-bat, I just smiled and raised my eyebrows. He says to me, 'He's still terrible, I'm just WORSE!’”

The sac race

We’d be remiss, finally, not to recount Tim Kurkjian’s favorite Adam Dunn feat of all time -- his three-year pursuit of a mere sacrifice fly.

Yes, friends. Over the course of three seasons -- part of 2003, all of 2004 and the first half of 2005 -- this man went 1,085 plate appearances without hitting a single sacrifice fly. And he even had a 100-RBI season in the middle of it -- making him one of three players since the dawn of the modern sac-fly rule (in 1954) to have a 100-RBI season that didn’t include a single SF.

You’d think that would be impossible. But Dempster has a theory.

“I think his problem,” Dempster said, “is that a lot of Adam Dunn’s sacrifice flies were caught by fans. And they’re not allowed to throw them to the catcher.”

Good point, actually. But there is so much more, of course. There was the season in Washington when Dunn was threatening to hit more homers than his team had wins -- and said: “That’s OK with me, as long as I hit about 85 home runs.”

There was the time, in spring training a few years back, when Mike Schmidt said he couldn’t understand why Dunn strikes out so much. And Dunn’s totally sincere retort to that heinous affront was: “I can’t, either.”

And how can we overlook his mind-boggling 2011 season with the White Sox, the one in which he somehow hit .159, bopped just 11 homers, piled up 111 more strikeouts (177) than hits (66), and managed to accumulate 42 more multistrikeout games (52) than multihit games (12)? It might be The Worst Season of Modern Times.

So the next season, Dunn appeared on our fabulous seamhead edition of "Baseball Tonight" and reported that, at one point, his wife asked him the best question of the year: “Have you ever considered hitting RIGHT-handed?”

And he was pretty sure, by the way, that she was serious. But you know what else is serious? That more people in this sport are truly sorry to see him go than you could possibly comprehend, including just about everyone who ever played with him.

“Someone needs to know,” said Todd Jones, “this isn’t Dave Kingman reborn. ... He’s a middle-of-the-order, back-of-the-plane, buck-stops-here guy.”

“No matter where he played, he was a guy who was a clubhouse favorite,” Dempster said. “I loved playing with him. I loved hanging with him. He’s got a great sense of humor. And most of all, he cared.”

Yes, there has never been anyone quite like him, all right. And the great Adam T. Dunn has the numbers -- and the one-liners -- to prove it.
He’s like the best pitcher in Little League, blitzing fastballs past hitters who are pretty sure they never saw them.

Sprinkling in changeups that disappear in midair.

Spinning sliders that dodge every bat in their path, kinda like Professor Philip Brainard after he invented Flubber.

He’s Aroldis Chapman. And he’s having one of those seasons, a season that really should not be possible -- or even legal -- in a place we like to refer to as “the major leagues.” Basically, we could sum up that season this way:

He. Strikes. Out. Everybody.

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
David Kohl/USA TODAY SportsAroldis Chapman has hit 101 mph or higher 253 times this season, according to TruMedia.

Yeah, well, in truth, if you want to get all technical on us, Chapman hasn’t exactly whiffed every hitter he’s run into this season. But our response to those of you who would make an issue of that sort of thing would be this: He’s sure come closer than any pitcher who has ever lived.

He’s averaging just a tick below two strikeouts an inning. At his current pace, he’ll wind up the season with 101 strikeouts -- and 23 hits allowed. And never at any point has he had a stretch this season where he’s gone more than seven hitters without a strikeout.

Holy punch-out.

“He’s on a different planet,” said his catcher, Devin Mesoraco.

“It’s not fair,” said the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen.

“Scary,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter.

And one more thing: It’s getting downright historic. So let’s take a look at the insane season of the amazing Aroldis Chapman through the eyes of his teammates, the hitters and the hard-to-fathom numbers on his stat sheet.

Number-crunching

Where do we even begin? Well, let’s start by reminding you that, among all pitchers who have ever thrown more than six innings in a season, there has never been a smokeballer in history who averaged two strikeouts per inning.

But with 89 whiffs in 45 2/3 innings this season, Chapman is just about there. That comes to an unfathomable 17.54 strikeouts per nine innings, a ratio never before accomplished and barely even approached. The current record: 16.66, by Craig Kimbrel in 2012.


OK, how about some other crazy numbers:

" Chapman has faced 173 hitters this season, and struck out 89 of them. That comes to 51.4 percent. Of all the other pitchers who have ever reached a mound and worked at least 40 innings, only Kimbrel (50.2 percent two years ago) has ever had a season in which he whiffed half the hitters he pitched to.

" Then there’s Chapman’s ridiculous strikeouts-to-hits ratio. He’s currently at 89 K’s, 20 hits, which comes to 4.45 strikeouts for every hit. Seriously. Only two other pitchers in history have even topped 3.5: Kimbrel, of course, in 2012 (4.30) and Eric Gagne in 2003 (3.70).

" And this stuff goes on every game, you understand. Chapman just ended a streak of 49 consecutive appearances with a strikeout. He’s the only reliever in history ever to have a streak that long. And that was the second time in his career he’s ripped off a streak of 30-plus. No other reliever has ever had more than one streak of 30 or more. He’s also racked up at least two strikeouts in 32 of his 45 appearances, including six in a row, eight of his last 10 and 15 of his last 22. And he hasn’t gone whiff-less in more than two consecutive appearances at any point since (ready?) May 5-15, 2011. That was 222 outings ago.

" Oh, and one more thing: Remember three weeks ago, when Chapman faced four hitters in Colorado, walked them all and exited with shoulder soreness? That’s a sign of impending disaster for some people. It was just a blip on this guy’s radar. In the six outings since he came back, he has faced 27 hitters, striking out 15 of them.

In a season that hasn’t exactly been one long trip to the Comedy Works for the Reds, Chapman has been the No. 1 source of amusement for his teammates. All they have to do when they need a laugh is look into the opposing dugout when he stomps into the game.

“You can see it on guys’ faces,” said his third baseman, Todd Frazier. “They couldn’t get one run to tie it in the eighth. Now they’ve got to face him. It’s kind of demoralizing if you want to know the truth.”

The heat is on

If baseball had never discovered the invention of the radar gun, Chapman's legend might be very different. But whatever. We’ve never, ever seen a radar-gun phenomenon like this dude. And now we have the mind-blowing numbers to prove it.

" According to TruMedia, Chapman has launched 413 of his 809 pitches this season at 100 mph or faster. That’s 86 more triple-digit pitches than all of the other 679 men who have taken a big league mound this year have thrown combined. (In second place is Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera, who’s a mere 323 behind, with 90.)

" OK, let’s keep going. TruMedia tells us Chapman has hit 101 mph or higher 253 times this season. No one else has done it more than 15.

" Want to move the needle up to 102? Chapman has hit 102 or better 111 times. Totals for the rest of the sport: zero.

" He’s also reached 103 or higher 23 times and 104 once, according to TruMedia. And there hasn’t been a game all season where he hasn’t hit 100 at least once.

" Then there’s Pitch F/x, which computes Chapman’s average fastball velocity at 101.21 mph -- the highest by any pitcher in the eight seasons since Pitch F/x has been keeping track. And on Aug. 28, he topped out at 104.53 mph on a scorchball to Paul Goldschmidt, who, somehow or other, foul-tipped it (before, naturally, striking out three pitches later).

Now maybe we make too much of velocity in general. But, um, not in this guy’s case. Heck, even the hitters are up there checking the mph readings. Asked if he ever sneaks a look at the radar board when he’s facing Chapman, Matt Carpenter confessed: “Yeah. I look to see if it’s 104.”

When we laughed, Carpenter made it clear he was serious about that 104 stuff, because “I’ve seen it. I’ve watched him do it.”

“And the worst feeling,” Carpenter said, “is when he throws one and you foul it off, and you go, `Oh man, that was hard.’ And then you look up and you go, `Oh no, it’s 99.’ And you’re like, `Oh no. There’s more there.’”

But that’s the thing. There’s always more there, because it’s not merely how hard Chapman throws a baseball. It’s the way hitters react to it.

“We were talking about this the other day, me and a couple of other guys,” Carpenter said. “There are guys that throw 100. But then there are guys whose 100 miles an hour looks like 125. And that’s what his is like.”

Not that anyone is really sure what 125 truly looks like. But whatever it looks like, Chapman’s catcher concurs that even at these supersonic velocity levels, it feels faster than what the radar board is saying it is.

“You know, you see some guys throw it 98 or 99, and you say yeah, that’s good,” Mesoraco said. “But Chappy’s 98, 99, 103, whatever it is, it’s just different. It’s gets on you a little bit better. He’s got that big leg kick and motion, and a lot of action. So you don’t really see the ball all that well. So he’s just a different animal, that’s for sure.”

A change is coming

But now the truth can be told. It isn’t even the fastball that has caused Chapman’s strikeout numbers to explode this year. It’s his rapidly accelerating feel for his two “off-speed” pitches: the slider and changeup.

The hilarious part of using the word “off-speed” to describe those pitches is that they average 89 mph themselves. But the effect isn’t much different than if they averaged 59. Take a look:

" Here is how hitters have fared against his slider this season, according to Pitch F/x: 90 swings, 43 misses, three hits. So that’s gone well.

" And now here’s the havoc wreaked by his occasional changeups: 20 swings, 19 misses, zero hits. That’s a whiff rate of (cue the laugh track here) 95 percent!

Now these are major league hitters, remember. Not guys who got dragged in off the deck of one of those riverboats out beyond center field. And they don’t have a prayer against those two pitches, because they’re too busy gearing up for 104 mph.

“You know he can throw that fastball,” Frazier said. “But once he figured out that slider and changeup this year, it’s become a whole 'nother ballgame.”

The Aroldis 3-D experience

So now that we’ve broken down what’s made this man’s season the incomprehensibly dominating phenomenon it’s become, let’s get down to the real fun and put the entire experience of facing Aroldis Chapman in full perspective.

For the hitters, it’s about as fun as gall bladder surgery.

Asked to describe what it’s like to try to hit this guy, Andrew McCutchen replied: “I would say, I guess, it’s like trying to catch a fly. You see the fly coming. And you try to catch it. But somehow you don’t. That’s kind of the way I look at it.”

And by “a fly,” by the way, he wasn’t referring to a “fly ball,” obviously.

“No, I mean an actual fly,” McCutchen chuckled. “A bug. A really fast one that hasn’t eaten anything in a while. That’s all I can tell you. Just picture it coming dead at you. So you try to catch it. Next thing you know, you look at it, and it’s not there.

“But sometimes you might,” he went on. “I mean, you might catch it. So that’s kind of the way I look at it. You know the math and all that. When you’ve got a 90 mph fastball, you’ve got four-tenths of a second to be able to hit it. But he’s throwing 101. And he’s 6-6. So you might want to cut that in half. So it’s tough, man. He definitely throws hard. And now he’s throwing sliders and changeups. That should be illegal.”

And that’s coming from a man who has actually avoided the standard levels of embarrassment against Chapman by going 2-for-6, with three whiffs and a walk, against him.

Then again, McCutchen isn’t left-handed. Carpenter, on the other hand, keeps forgetting to learn to switch-hit before facing Chapman. And he isn’t happy about it. He’s 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against him, if you’re scoring at home.

Asked for his best description of what it feels like to dig in against Chapman from the left side, Carpenter came up with the perfect word: “Scary,” he said. “As a left-handed hitter, that’s the best way I can describe it, is just scary. He coils up like a snake, and he throws 100 miles an hour, and it just seems like it’s going to be right by your face. And it might be. He’s a very intimidating presence on the mound. It’s hard to hit, man. It really is.”

No wonder his teammates remain seriously grateful this is everyone else’s problem, not theirs.

“It’s just unbelievable, just to see how he owns that mound and how he understands, `Nobody is going to hit me,’” said Todd Frazier. “He’s determined. He’s not scared of nothing. He’ll come inside if he feels like you’re crowding the plate, back you off a little bit and then come back over, and guys are stepping in the bucket because they don’t want to get hit.”

He then paused for a moment, trying to find a way to sum up what those happy feet of left-handed hitters can look like after Chapman has just pushed them off the plate at like 102 mph.

“It’s like quicksand or something,” he said, finally.

Hey, of course it is, because when you’re facing the one and only Aroldis Chapman, even the ground beneath your quivering feet can’t help but feel a little quicker than normal.
Bet you didn’t know Joe West has a 4.45 ERA this season.

Seriously. That's the truth.

OK, it isn't quite the truth. The truth is that the pitchers who have shown up on the mound when West has umpired home plate this season have a 4.45 ERA.

But the fact that you can actually research this sort of thing, in this day and age, is proof that (A) we can, now, officially, look up everything and (B) stat-a-holics like us have never been happier to be alive.

Most people don't pay much attention to umpire stats. Not unless they pitch for a living. Or they're hopeless analytics analysts. Or they've been known to place a wager or two. But umpire stats have actually been around for almost a decade now. And this just in:

They're fun.

[+] EnlargeKerwin Danley
Brian Garfinkel/Getty ImagesPitchers love it when umpire Kerwin Danley is behind the plate calling balls and strikes.
And fascinating.

So after poring through a bunch of fun and fascinating umpire databases, here come 10 Astounding Umpire Facts you're guaranteed to be sharing with your closest friends on a bar stool near you:

1. There's no place like home for veteran umpire Gerry Davis. We know this because oddsshark.com's umpire page tells us that home teams have gone 20-3 this season when Davis has been behind the plate. Yep, 20-3. That's even a better winning percentage than Clayton Kershaw. Or Mike Krzyzewski.

2. And at the other end of that road, literally, there's Mike DiMuro. Road teams have gone 17-6 when he's worked the plate. Maybe he just has a sympathetic place in his heart for suitcases.

3. But suppose we look beyond only this season. We found more enjoyable home/road data, spanning the past eight seasons, at cleanuphitter.com. It told us that home teams have outscored road teams by an incredible 1.51 runs per game (5.36 to 3.85) during the 143 games in which Mike Muchlinski had the plate assignment over those eight seasons. That’s nearly a full run higher than the average gap of .53 runs per game (4.80 to 4.27). Among all other active umps who worked 200-plus games in that span, only Mike Everitt even had a home-team edge of more than one run per game (5.06-4.00).

4. And it was interesting to see that Mike DiMuro's home/road balance wasn't just a one-year phenomenon. Over the past eight seasons, there has been almost no difference between the road team's average score (4.56) and the home team's average score (4.54) when he had the plate. Only Hunter Wendelstedt worked at least 200 games over that span and wound up with more runs by the road team (4.51 per game) than the home team (4.44). So the roar of the crowd obviously didn't sway those two guys even a little.

5. If you're pitching and Kerwin Danley is behind the dish, there's a smile on your face as wide as, well, Danley's strike zone. Pitchers working during Danley’s plate assignments have a 2.80 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP this season, according to Baseball Prospectus' umpire page. Both those numbers rank No. 1 for pitcher-friendliness, among all regular umpires.

6. Your top three lowest ERAs among regular umpires: Danley 2.80, Ed Hickox 2.84, Bob Davidson 2.93. And the top three in best WHIP: Danley 1.10, Tony Randazzo 1.12, virtual tie between Hickox and Brian O'Nora 1.13. They figure to be on a lot of pitchers' Christmas card lists.

7. Meanwhile, the Coors Field of umpires -- aka, the plate ump who has inflated the most ERAs this year -- is Chris Conroy, proud owner of a Hector Noesi-esque 4.87 ERA. The top three ERAs on that leaderboard, among regular umpires, according to Baseball Prospectus: Conroy 4.87, Jerry Layne 4.79, Chris Segal 4.60.

8. Another fun number worth checking out is which umpires have the biggest gaps between strikeouts per game and walks per game. The top three pitchers' umps in 2014, by that standard, according to oddsshark.com, are Brian Gorman (12.57 more K's than BBs), Tim Welke (12.24) and Brian O'Nora (11.31). Gorman averages 17.9 strikeouts per game in back of the plate, the most of any umpire who has worked there at least 20 times this year.

9. And who has the smallest gaps between whiffs and walks? The top three hitters' umps this season, using the same standard, are Segal (only 7.27 more K's than BBs per game), Brian Knight (7.41) and Jeff Kellogg (7.52). Segal (13.0 per game) had the lowest strikeout rate of any ump with 20 or more plate assignments. Knight has the highest walk rate (7.17 per game).

10. And, finally, there's everybody’s favorite umpire stat -- ejections. Sadly, they aren't want they used to be, here in the post-replay era. But if you somehow get yourself mixed up in one of those umpire-ejection fantasy leagues -- and we don't recommend it -- you need to know which men in blue have the quickest thumbs. And that answer, according to the ejection-fantasy-league numbers at portal.closecallsports.com, is … Bill Miller with seven (including one in spring training), Dan Bellino six (all while working the plate) and Toby Basner with six (five as a plate ump, one from first base).

Now just for the record, Joe West has racked up only two ejections all season -- not one of them since his May 11 boot of his good friend, Ron Gardenhire. Which only serves as more spectacular evidence that perception and reality can often be two different things when it comes to your favorite members of the umpires' union.

And we now even have the numbers to prove it.
There are many paths a team can travel to October, but in case you hadn't noticed, there are a few juggernauts out there trying to sneak into this postseason in ways almost no one has before them.

So who would those juggernauts be? Thanks for asking. Here they come:

The Royal power outage

RoyalsThe good news is, we know now that the Royals are going to outhomer Nelson Cruz this season. There were times a couple of months ago we weren’t so sure.

But the bad news is, the Royals are still on pace to hit a mere 99.8 home runs this season. So maybe they finish with 100 homers. Maybe they don't. But if they don't, you should know that playoff teams that fail to hit 100 home runs are almost as rare as a day without a Kardashian headline.

Ready for the complete list of American League teams to reach the postseason without hitting 100 home runs in a 162-game season? Here goes:

• Amos Otis' 1978 Royals – 98
• Freddie Patek’s 1976 Royals – 65

That’s the entire list. And perhaps you’ll notice a common theme there -- by which we mean "Royalty."

This is obviously either a Royals thing or a Royals/Kauffman Stadium thing, because the last American League team to appear in the postseason without A) playing in Kansas City or B) hitting 100 homers in a full season was Nellie Fox's 1959 Chicago White Sox, and that is the only AL team to fit those criteria since Roy Cullenbine’s 1945 Tigers.

Will these Royals join that club? Well, if it means anything, they've actually outhomered the Angels (22-18) since the All-Star break and outhomered all but three teams in the American League during their sizzling August. But is this what they really are? Amos Otis and Freddie Patek eagerly await the answer to that question!

And one more thing: One additional amazing Royals note, passed along by Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli: Twice this year, the Royals have fallen seven games behind in the AL Central and twice made up all seven games of that gap to take undisputed possession of first place. Only one other team in history has ever roared from at least seven games behind to occupy first place all by itself two different times in the same season: Dustan Mohr’s 2003 Twins (who caught -- who else? -- the Royals).

OBP-less in Seattle

MarinersThen there are the Mariners, one of the most offensively challenged contenders of modern times.

If the postseason had started Wednesday, they'd have been playing in it as the second wild-card team in the AL. But if you've watched them swing the bats this year, we're betting it definitely wouldn't come as a shock to hear that teams like this almost never show up on anybody's TV screen in October.

Here are just some of their offensive claims to "fame":

• Their .302 team on-base percentage entering Wednesday would be the third lowest by any team in postseason history. The only AL team with a lower OBP on that list -- Jiggs Donahue’s 1906 White Sox (.301) -- played in the dead ball era. And the only NL team in this exclusive club -- Julian Javier's 1968 Cardinals (.298) -- did it in a season in which the major league OBP was under .300 (.299). Amazing.

• The Mariners were also on pace to score just 643 runs this season. The last AL team to score that few runs, over a full season, and reach the postseason: Skeeter Webb’s 1945 Tigers (633, in a 154-game season).

• But let's get away from the raw numbers and consider where the Mariners rank in their league. They're dead last in OPS (.677), and how many teams in history have ever finished last in their league in OPS and made it to the postseason? Exactly one, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: Todd Hollandsworth's 1996 Dodgers (.701). Which means, obviously, that no AL team has ever done that.

• Finally, the Mariners also ranked last in the league in on-base percentage. Elias reports that just one AL team in history has ever done that and gotten to the postseason: Steve Balboni's 1985 Royals (.313).

Then again, that Royals team went on to win the World Series. So just because the Mariners might be trying to do this the hard way doesn't mean they're not allowed to dream. Right?

Viva la differential in the Bronx

YankeesBut we sure can’t overlook the Yankees. They're trying to take a route to the postseason that we're pretty sure Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey and even Scott Brosius would have probably had a hard time comprehending.

The 1927 Yankees once scored 376 more runs than they allowed. The 1936 Yankees scored 334 more runs than they allowed. The 1998 Yankees scored 309 runs more than they allowed.

The 2014 Yankees on the other hand? They've given up 40 more runs than they've scored. And if you're thinking you haven't seen a lot of teams with a minus-40 run differential playing October baseball, uh, good thinking.

According to Elias, exactly one team in history has ever had a run differential that out of whack and reached the postseason. That would be Ryan Klesko's 2005 Padres (minus-42). So no AL team has ever done this.

And, just for the record, the worst run differential by any Yankees team that played in the postseason was plus-57, by the 2000 team. Hmmm. Mr. Steinbrenner, Mr. Torre and Mr. Berra, your thoughts?

In other news …

• The Rangers may not be heading for October, but they're heading for one of the most incredible achievements in pitching history. They're last in the American League in ERA -- but they're first in the league in shutouts (or at least tied with the Rays for first, anyway). So how many teams have ever led their league in shutouts (or tied for the lead) in a season in which they also had the worst ERA in their league? None, of course, according to Elias.

• The Rockies stopped dreaming of contending many weeks ago, but they've never stopped finding new starting pitchers to send to the mound. They're already up to 15 different pitchers who have started a game this season, from Christian Friedrich to Jair Jurrjens to Yohan Flande. And if they can find three more, they can tie the record for most starters trotted out there by any team in the division play era. That prestigious mark of 18 is shared by Rich Loiselle’s 1996 Pirates and Jason Grimsley’s 1993 Indians.

• And one more classic feat by a last-place team: The Red Sox might be last in the AL in runs scored, but they still have the league leader in RBIs, David Ortiz, which understandably prompted loyal reader Rick Malwitz to ask: Is that unprecedented? And the answer, according to Elias, is: not quite -- but almost. The only other team ever to pull that off? Wally Berger’s 1935 Boston Braves. Big Papi had knocked in nearly 20 percent of the Red Sox’s runs this season (92 of 480), but what Berger did in 1935 was even more incredible. He drove in 22.6 percent of the runs scored (130 of 575) by a team that lost 103 games. And that, friends, is a lot of Bergers to go.
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, 300-win teammates, will enter the Hall of Fame together Sunday. And as cool Cooperstown scenes go, you can’t beat that one. But it's also a scene that might cause you to ask:

Who are the next Maddux and Glavine?

Hmmm. Good question.

And it's one I've been thinking about for weeks, ever since a veteran player asked me earlier this season: "Are there any starting pitchers in the game right now who you think are already Hall of Famers?"

And the honest answer, shockingly, is no. Am I missing anyone or anything?

It may be the Age of the Pitcher. And the planet may be as populated as it's ever been by pitchers with spectacular stuff and picturesque ERAs. But are any of them Hall of Famers right now?

I don't see it. Do you?

If we'd asked this question a year ago, there would have been an easy answer: Roy Halladay. Ten consecutive years of domination. Two Cy Youngs. Two no-hitters. Case closed.

And Andy Pettitte was at least in the argument. Eighteen seasons. Not a single losing season. Those 256 wins. And all those Octobers. An excellent candidate, although one with a high ERA (3.85) and an HGH asterisk.

But without those two around to debate, is there a single active pitcher who has done enough, won enough, dominated enough to carve a plaque in Cooperstown?

Tim Hudson? Mark Buehrle? CC Sabathia? Johan Santana (if we can even define him as "active")?

I don't think so. No telling how that might change if CC bounces back or Hudson keeps on doing his thing deep into his 40s. But are they Hall of Famers right now? Sorry. Not for me.

And since the Hall opened its doors nearly 80 years ago, there can't have been more than a handful of times when we could ever have said that.

But that doesn't mean there aren't pitchers in our midst right now who are headed for Cooperstown. They're just not there yet. So here's how I'd rank the guys with the best shot:

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw currently leads the majors with a 1.92 ERA.

1) Clayton Kershaw


It wasn't easy trying to figure out whether to place Kershaw or Felix Hernandez first on this list. But it's hard to go wrong ranking the Best Pitcher in Baseball at No. 1 on any list. So if you don't believe this guy is on a Hall of Fame track, um, you've been watching too many NFL training camp two-a-days.

Two Cy Youngs. Probably should have won a third. And very possibly headed for another one this year, which would give him four top-two finishes in a row. Kershaw also had ripped off six straight seasons with an Adjusted ERA over 130 before he'd even turned 26. Which made him just the third starter with that many seasons that dominating (30 percent better than league average), at that age, in modern history. You may have heard of the other two: Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.

Bill James' Hall of Fame tracker gives Kershaw 27 HOF points already, through age 25. That's more points than any active player that young (or younger) at any position -- and also as many as Felix, who is two years older. Sounds like a fine tie-breaker to me.

2) Felix Hernandez


Still only 28 years old, with one Cy Young trophy in his den, a second in his sights this year, two more top-four Cy Young finishes and 121 wins, while pitching every season of his career for non-playoff teams.

Felix obviously isn't there yet. And playing for one of the most offensively challenged teams in history over the last few years is going to hurt him with the win-centric crowd. But he ranks third among all active pitchers in ERA (3.11), third in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and fourth in Adjusted ERA (130).

You can also make an argument he's pitching better now than he's ever pitched. So his arrow keeps pointing upward, if he can just stay healthy. Did you know that going into this year, he'd already accumulated more of those Bill James HOF points (27) than Buehrle (25), a man with 196 wins?

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander has pitched 200 or more innings in each of the past seven seasons.

3) Justin Verlander


Guess who entered this season with more of those Bill James HOF points than any active starter? Verlander's the man, with 50. And James has written often that it takes 70 to get a guy into the Hall of Fame argument and 100 to make him a lock. So when any player reaches 50 points by age 30, as Verlander had, he's well on his way.

I think Verlander has all the hardware he needs already -- an MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award to call his own, plus three other top-five Cy Young finishes and six All-Star appearances already. So he's put himself in perfect position -- as long as this season turns into just a blip on his radar screen.

If it turns out to be an indicator he's already in his decline phase, on the other hand, it's been a fun ride. Just not one that's leading him to upstate New York.

4) CC Sabathia


If CC's deteriorating knee cartilage is going to make it impossible for him to ever be the same again, it's hard to see how he makes it onto that Cooperstown stage -- even with 208 wins, a Cy Young, four more top-five Cy Young finishes and 13 straight seasons of incredible durability and dependability.

He came into the season with 43 HOF points. He's 34 years old. And he probably needed only two or three more good to excellent seasons to seal his case. But does he have any good seasons left? Only his orthopedist knows for sure.

5) Tim Hudson


I'm including Hudson on this list because I admire his body of work and the tenacious way he's gone about competing and reinventing himself through the years. He's also your official Active Wins Leader (213). And he's 95 games over .500 (213-118), which places him in the top 10 in winning percentage (.638) among all 100-game winners in the last half-century.

There are still voters who weigh stuff like that heavily. Unfortunately, if you look beyond that won-lost column, you have a guy who has never won a Cy Young (but did finish second once), has made just four All-Star teams in 16 seasons, and whose 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings don't allow him to fit the modern definition of "domination."

Bill James had awarded Hudson 33 HOF points coming into this season. And that ranked him fourth among active pitchers (behind Verlander's 50, CC's 43 and Cliff Lee's 36). At age 39, there's almost no shot he can climb high enough to reach the Cooperstown stars. But neither can Lee, who is a few weeks away from turning 36. And Hudson actually has a significantly higher Adjused ERA (124) than Lee does (118). So he at least ought to land in the top five.

My Next Five


6) Cliff Lee

7) Adam Wainwright
8) David Price
9) Tim Lincecum
10) Chris Sale

Want to make your case for Buehrle, Zack Greinke or even Jose Fernandez? Go ahead. Disagree with any of this? Tweet at me. Email me. Curse at me. That's the fun of debates like this. Especially on weekends like this one, when we get to type that magical dateline, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.
Once again this season, it hasn’t been safe to make a sandwich. Or walk past a parked car. Or get caught outside in a hailstorm. And you know what that means ...

It’s time to “honor” the most creative baseball injuries of the half-year that was. So keep your health insurance cards handy. Here we go:

Fifth prize: Pablo Sandoval, Giants

This was a Pablo Sandoval mishap that’s been waiting to happen. He just missed two games (July 6 and 7) because of a swollen left elbow. OK, that could happen to anybody. Ah, but how did his elbow get so swollen? He got hit in the elbow by a pitch. And obviously, that could happen to anybody. But here’s where this starts getting more Panda-esque: He got hit in the elbow by a pitch that he swung at. And that’s the creative, hack-a-matic Sandovalian flair that earned him a place on this distinguished list.

But wait. There’s one final twist to this saga. As loyal reader Raven Deerwater made sure to pass along, Sandoval wasn’t even awarded first base for getting hit by this pitch. His prize was -- what else? -- a strike. Because he swung. Then, even more spectacularly, Brandon Belt got thrown out trying to steal second on the next pitch to end the top of the first inning, whereupon Sandoval left the game. So here’s how we’d sum up this little calamity: he managed to get hit by a pitch, but not record a plate appearance, meaning he got hurt appearing in a game he technically never appeared in. Or something like that. Now that’s what you call a creative injury.

Fourth prize: Drew Pomeranz, Athletics

Man meets chair. Man punches chair. Chair wins by unanimous decision. We’ve heard that one before, right? Well, the latest guy to get sucked into the old man-punches-chair scam is A’s pitcher Drew Pomeranz. He wasn’t feeling really upbeat -- for good reason -- after the Rangers bombarded him with eight runs in 3 2/3 innings June 16. So on his way back to the clubhouse, he came upon a seemingly innocent wooden chair, just sitting there, inviting him to release his frustrations. His brain (or whatever emotions were overriding his brain at the time) said: “Show that chair what you’re made of.” Then his right hand, which was assigned to inflict that damage, said: “Ouuuucccchhhh,” possibly because he’d just fractured it. Next thing Pomeranz knew ... (A) he was on the disabled list, (B) the A’s were going out and acquiring his temporary replacement (Brad Mills) for a buck, (C) the A’s were going out and acquiring his more permanent replacement (Jeff Samardzija) in the official "trade of the year" and (D) he had a distinct feeling they weren’t leaving a light on for him when he got healthy. So Chair 1, Human 0. Lifetime record of all chairs punched in stadium runways: Undefeated. Still.

Third prize: A.J. Ellis, Dodgers

[+] EnlargeJosh Beckett
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesIf we could only turn back the hands of time: A.J., watch out for that catcher's mask on the ground!
No-hitters are always a cause for celebration. Getting hurt while expressing that jubilation? Never a cause for celebration. And the most recent player who could tell you all about it is Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. He was a darned happy guy, for a few moments there, after Josh Beckett’s no-hitter May 25, even though he didn’t happen to catch that gem (since it fell on his day off). But that happiness turned out to be fleeting, we regret to report. After the final out, he was just following the standard post-no-hitter playbook by sprinting toward the infield with his teammates and leaping into the air (which was the only thing available to leap into). But then he made a big mistake -- by coming back to earth. Where he landed on a catcher’s mask. And not even his own. It was the mask of Drew Butera, who caught Beckett that day and fired his mask into -- you guessed it -- the air after the final out. But the mask also returned to earth, where it waited for Ellis to land on it. And one sprained ankle later, Ellis was heading for a big ice pack ..'. and then the disabled list ... and then this exalted injuries of the half-year list. Oops.

Second prize: Felix Doubront, Red Sox

Last year it was Clay Buchholz, forcing his way onto this list by cradling his 2-year-old daughter in his arms, then falling asleep and irritating the AC joint near his collarbone. This year’s mandatory Bizarre Red Sox Pitcher Mishap might or might not top it, depending on whether you’re a joy-of-parenthood person or a car person. But you decide. In May, Felix Doubront headed for the disabled list with a strained left shoulder. And how’d that happen? No, not from throwing those 965 pitches he’s launched this season. That would never earn a guy a spot in a column like this. The culprit, according to manager John Farrell, was a car door, no doubt planted in Doubront’s path by a bunch of Yankees fans, which he then bumped into and bruised his pitching shoulder. Later that day, Doubront tried pitching against the Blue Jays, didn’t have his usual stuff and then fessed up about his earlier little automotive malfunction. He spent the next month on the disabled list. No word on what charges were filed against the car.

First prize: Matt Cain, Giants

Would it even be possible to write these rollicking injury of the year (or half-year) columns, season after season, without the Giants? They’ve turned inventive injuries into a true art form -- led by two-time "Injury of the Year" champ Jeremy Affeldt, whose misadventures while barbecuing and hugging his son have been well documented in this space. But luckily, Affeldt inspires his teammates, even in seasons when he doesn’t make this list himself. So it’s time to salute this year’s most innovative injury (so far) -- the ham and cheese sandwich that attacked Matt Cain. All right, to be technical, it wasn’t the ham, the cheese or the sandwich itself that assaulted Cain. It was the knife he was using to finish off that sandwich. Cain told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman that he’s managed to successfully make sandwiches, and cut them with a knife, many times. But with this one, he “went to cut it, to make it fancy in triangles.” And, alas, the knife cut more than his fancy this time. He was slicing away when he dropped the knife, tried to catch it and learned an important lesson: Knives are sharp. That’s why they’re used to cut fancy triangles in sandwiches instead of, say, fingers. Or sledgehammers. The bad news is: Cain wound up on the disabled list. The good news is: Hey, he won first prize!

Special minor league citation: Jesse Biddle, Reading Phillies

The 22-year-old left-hander had to miss a start in May because of headaches. From getting hit in the head by an ice pellet. During a hailstorm. We are not making this up. And we can prove it -- without even calling Jim Cantore to the stand to testify. Luckily, Jesse Biddle tweeted about it!



Now really, wouldn’t this injury be more believable if it happened to, ohhhhhh, David Freese?
So what do you think: Is a player with this set of credentials a Hall of Famer?

We're talking about an active player who is (or will be):

• His franchise's career hits leader.
• The owner of the second-most Gold Gloves of any active player at his position.
• The only active player at his position who has won an MVP award.
• About to crack the top five for most extra-base hits in history by someone who plays his position.
• A man with a unique set of offensive and defensive credentials that is unprecedented in the history of his position.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
AP Photo/Kim Johnson FlodinJimmy Rollins, 35, is playing in his 15th season with the Phillies.
So, let's ask again. Is a player like that a Hall of Famer?

Well, that player is Jimmy Rollins, and the answer is no. Or at least not yet.

But the point is, this is a guy we're going to have to give some thought to -- any day now, in fact, when he passes Mike Schmidt and becomes the career hits leader in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies. (He's now just four away.)

And that'll be a fun discussion, too, because Jimmy Rollins has had a fascinating career. Fascinating.

For a decade and a half now, the town he plays in has spent almost as much time focusing on all the stuff he hasn't done -- doesn't walk enough, doesn't keep the ball on the ground, doesn't always run as hard as Chase Utley, yada-yada-yada -- as all the incredible stuff he has done. But this just in:

I've looked at the careers of everyone who has ever played shortstop in the major leagues -- and we've never seen a player quite like this man. Ever.

So what exactly has made Rollins so different? Let's take a look:

The 400 SB/200 HR Club


Rollins' totals: 433 stolen bases (and an 83 percent success rate), 207 homers.

So what other shortstops will you find in that 400/200 club? Um, you won't find any. Not unless Derek Jeter (349 SB, 257 HR) has 51 stolen bases in him over the next four months, anyway.

And I find that kind of amazing. Not that there's anything defining about the 400/200 club. But it does show us that Rollins has brought a power/speed package to his position you very rarely see. Right?

The 200 HR/2,000 Hits Club


Rollins' totals: 207 homers, 2,231 hits.

Only 36 men in history whose primary position was shortstop hung around long enough to get 2,000 hits, according to Baseball-reference.com. But when you add in the power to make 200 home run trots, you get a much more exclusive group:



Cal Ripken Jr. is a Hall of Famer, Jeter can start writing his 2019 speech and not only is Rollins going to blow past Miguel Tejada's numbers, he has brought speed and leatherwork to the table at a level Tejada never did -- and without any performance-enhancing drug stains.

So, while I don't believe in any magic Hall of Fame numbers, if Rollins is in a group with only Jeter and Ripken, he's in tremendous company.

The 2,000 Hit/4 Gold Glove Club


Rollins' totals: 2,231 hits, four Gold Gloves.

Ready for the shortstops who are on this list? There are only six:



Two players in that group -- Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio -- are already in the Hall of Fame, with Jeter right over the horizon. Many, many people think Alan Trammell ought to join them, and Omar Vizquel may not get there, but he has a heck of a case.

And then, there's Rollins.

The offensive quality he has in common with Smith, Vizquel and Aparicio is that they could all flat out steal a base. But here's what they don't share: Those three hit fewer home runs combined (191) than Rollins has hit by himself.

So the only two really similar players to Rollins on this list are Jeter and Trammell. I don't think anyone would argue Rollins has had a better career than either of them. But here we go again: He's hanging with special players, no matter what combination of stats you want to use to measure him.

The Whole Package


OK, now let's add this all up. You can find shortstops who have more hits than Rollins and shortstops who have piled up more homers and extra-base hits.

You can find shortstops who have swiped more bases and shortstops who have won more Gold Gloves. But …

You won't find a single shortstop in the history of this sport who has done all the stuff he's done:

An MVP trophy … and four Gold Gloves … and more than 2,200 hits … and more than 200 homers … and nearly 800 extra-base hits … and closing in on the most hits in the history of his franchise. (The only other active players who can say they hold that last distinction, on their current clubs, by the way, are Jeter and David Wright.)

And we haven't even mentioned that this is a man who has also strung together the longest hitting streak (38 games) of the last quarter-century … is one of four players who ever lived with a 20-homer, 20-steal, 20-double, 20-triple season … has stayed healthy enough to play at least 140 games at short in 11 different seasons, a total reached in the last 30 years by only Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel and Cal Ripken … has started an All Star Game … and has led his league in runs, steals and triples.

Not a single other shortstop who ever played baseball has done all of that. Not one. So what are we supposed to make of that?

Now, being a unique player doesn't make you a Hall of Famer. That's for sure. And Rollins' wins above replacement (WAR) totals (43.2) certainly don't scream "Hall of Famer" at you, even though four HOF shortstops (hey there, Phil Rizzuto) had fewer.

And, as I've already made clear, I no longer believe there is any set of magic numbers that makes any player an automatic Hall of Famer. Him included.

But the most fun part about all monumental baseball milestones is they give us a reason to stop and reflect, to think and argue, to assess what we think matters and what we think doesn't.

So when you look up and find a player like this ascending to the top of the hit list of a franchise that has been around for 132 seasons, it's an excellent reason to launch the conversation.

Well, I don't think Rollins would be a Hall of Famer if he retires tomorrow, but if you want to talk about it, aw, what the heck. Bring it on. And bring all these amazing numbers along with you.
I'm still trying to figure out how Yasiel Puig lasted until the fifth pick in our Franchise Player Draft. Unless we're now deducting points for speeding tickets, the lowest he should have gone, in a sane world, was second.

But that was out of my control. I picked 27th. What is within my control is being able to document that this man's first year in the big leagues was unlike pretty much anything we've witnessed in our lifetimes.

And I can actually prove that -- with Five Astounding Yasiel Puig Anniversary Facts:

• 1. This is Puig's stat line over the first calendar year (and 157 games) of his big league career:

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillYasiel Puig leads the Dodgers in nearly all the major statistical categories this season.
.326/.405/.559/.964/30 HR/71 XBH/191 hits/16 SB

Wow.

I've looked at every player who debuted in the past 50 years. Nobody matched or beat every number on that line over his first 157 games. Yep, I said nobody. Not Mike Trout or Albert Pujols or Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera. Nobody. So we'll have to break up this comparison into sections.

• 2. If we drop stolen bases from the criteria, the only hitter in the past half-century to match or better Puig was that Pujols guy. His first 157:

.333/.408/.621/1.029/37 HR/87 XBH/191 hits

So it's Puig and Albert. Pretty good group.

• 3. If we forget the whole slash-line concept, the only hitter in the past half-century who even piled up 30 homers, 71 extra-base hits and 16 steals in his first 157 games was Braun (with 47 HR, 94 XBH and 16 SB).

What about Trout, you ask? He had the homers (32) and the steals (48). But he didn't get to 71 extra-base hits (67). And oh by the way, Trout also didn't match any number on Puig's slash line (.309/.374/.535/.909).

• 4. OK, let's simplify this even further. You know how many other players in the history of baseball have even reached 191 hits and 30 homers (regardless of any other numbers) in their first calendar year in the big leagues? Only four, according to the Dodgers. Another stellar group:

Chuck Klein 1928-29 (232 H, 42 HR)

Hal Trosky 1933-34 (193 H, 33 HR)

Pujols 2001-02 (196 H, 37 HR)

Braun 2007-08 (204 H, 47 HR)

• 5. And, finally, let's just zap the whole concept of First Year in the Big Leagues. Whaddaya say? And let's compare Puig to everybody in baseball over the past calendar year. Here's what you'll find:

Precisely one other player in the entire sport has put up a .326/.405/.559/.964/30 HR line since Puig arrived in the big leagues. You've heard of him.

That would be Cabrera:

.330/.414/.590/1.004/37 HR

And Trout just misses -- at .324/.437/.559/.996/28 HR.

So how great has Yasiel Puig been? Oh, only historically great. And MVP great. And can't-take-your-eyes-off-him great.

In other words … I just wish I'd have had that No. 2 pick!

Appreciating Albert Pujols

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
9:11
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There may be 25 other members of the 500 Homer Club. But there's only one Albert Pujols. Just because Sir Albert had two rough, injury-riddled seasons after arriving in scenic Orange County, did we all get amnesia or something? How did we somehow seem to forget what an amazing and historic career this man has had?

Well, that's the best part of what happened Tuesday night in Washington. It's the best part about round numbers like 500 home runs because they remind us to stop and pay attention. They remind us to take stock of the man who just met the milestone. And when we take stock of Pujols and the path that led him to home run No. 500, you know what we find?

We find a guy who did so much more than just make home run trots. That's what.

How does Pujols compare with the rest of that 500 Homer Club? It's an incredible thing to behold. Let's take a look:

The .300/.400/500/.600 Club


This is one of my favorite sets of numbers because it provides us with one of the most exalted groups of hitters who ever lived. You need:
  • .300 batting average or better.
  • .400 on-base percentage or better.
  • 500 home runs or more.
  • .600 slugging percentage or better.


Here are the three men in history who get to hang out in this clubhouse:
  • Ted Williams .344/.482/521/.634
  • Babe Ruth .342/.474/714/.690
  • Jimmie Foxx .325/.428/534/.609


And that's all, folks. Ever heard of them?

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesPujols took a curtain call after hitting No. 500.
Well, the truth is that Pujols doesn't quite make that cut. But by only one-thousandth of a percentage point. Here's his personal slash line: .321/.409/500/.599.

Uh, that'll still work. Because here's the thing: Even if we lowered the slugging percentage cutoff to below .600, to whatever The Pujols Line is at any given moment, there would still just be those three men and Pujols.

So maybe the .300/.400/500/.599 Club doesn't have quite the same ring to it as .300/.400/.500/.600. But it's just as rarefied a group.

Now one more thing: I understand that Williams, Ruth and Foxx all had those numbers at the end of their careers, not in the middle. But I've taken a look at the entire 500 Homer Club. And nobody except those three had Pujols' slash line at the time of his 500th. Not even Barry Bonds, who finished his career at .298/.444/762/.607.

So the moral of this story remains the same: Lots of men have hit baseballs over many, many fences. Only the greatest hitters who ever lived have been the all-around offensive forces that Pujols has been. And that's a fact.

Not Your Average 500-HR Man


But suppose we take all those other numbers out of this and focus just on batting average -- which isn't a measure of power at all but merely of a man's ability to hit baseballs where nobody with a glove is standing.

At .321, Pujols has the fourth-highest average in the entire 500 Homer Club -- trailing only those same three men from the previous list: Williams (.344), Ruth (.342) and Foxx (.325).

And just to answer the next logical question, that ranking doesn't change, even if we take final career average out of the equation. He still owns the fourth-best batting average, at the time of his 500th homer, in history. The next-highest, according to Baseball-Reference.com, is .314 -- by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Manny Ramirez.

So is it safe to say there's nothing "average" about Pujols' average, except that word itself?

The Most Striking Stat Of All


Wait. We almost "missed" the coolest stat in Pujols' entire collection. And that's that this man has hardly "missed" at all, especially compared with the rest of his generation: 500 home runs -- but only 843 strikeouts.

In an age when strikeouts have become more common than the seventh-inning stretch, how astonishing is that stat? Well, let's tell you exactly how astonishing. That comes to 1.69 strikeouts for every home run. And you know how many members of the 500 Homer Club can beat that? Exactly one: Ted Williams (1.36).

Now we know that Ted, of course, was a freak. But if we invite in the rest of that 500-homer group, from across the eras, we'd still find only three others with ratios better than two strikeouts per homer. Here's that top five, which, I'm guessing again, won't require you to Google any names:


Whoa. But what do you say, just for further perspective, that we compare Pujols with the other big sluggers of his time. The next man down on the active career homer list is a fellow named Adam Dunn. This isn't fair. But for amusement purposes only, here's how Dunn stacks up against Pujols:


Heh-heh-heh. Get the picture? But even if we take Dunn and the suspended-in-animation Alex Rodriguez (3.17) out of the conversation, Pujols is still whiffing about half as much as the other active members of the 400 Homer Club -- if that:


So in a world where every other masher roaming the planet is shopping at Kmart two or three times a day, Pujols remains a mind-warping anomaly. He still has never struck out 100 times in a season in his career -- 500 homers later.

Five More Fun Pujols 500-HR Facts


• At 34 years, 96 days old, Pujols is the third-youngest player in history to reach 500 homers, trailing only A-Rod (32 years, 8 days) and Foxx (32 years, 337 days).

• Just seven men in history reached 500 homers in fewer at-bats than the 7,390 it took Pujols: Mark McGwire (5,487), Ruth (5,801), Harmon Killebrew (6,671), Sammy Sosa (7,036), Foxx (7,074), Mickey Mantle (7,300) and Mike Schmidt (7,331).

• Only six other hitters whose primary position was first base have hit 500 homers: McGwire, Foxx, Willie McCovey, Rafael Palmeiro, Eddie Murray and Jim Thome.

• Pujols is the 14th right-handed hitter to join the 500 Home Run Club. He needs 34 more to crash the top 10.

• The pitcher who has allowed the most home runs to Pujols? That would be Ryan Dempster (eight). The pitcher who has faced him the most times without serving up a homer? That would be Bud Norris (*41*). The Cy Young who had nightmares about him? That would be Randy Johnson, against whom Pujols hit .452, with six homers. And the active pitcher who should never be allowed to face Pujols again? That would be Kevin Slowey (two plate appearances, two homers).

Jose Fernandez, one of a kind

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
11:31
AM ET

The latest episode of baseball's most entertaining reality show -- the Amazing Ace, starring the one, the only, the relentlessly effervescent Jose Fernandez -- will roll into Atlanta on Tuesday night.

If you have a dish, a cable box, a laptop, an iPhone or some other mobile device that can reel in this must-see slice of baseball life, here’s our advice: Carve out the time and watch this guy do his thing.

There's nothing like it -- because there’s no one quite like Jose Fernandez appearing on any big league mound in North America these days.

"He's probably the best pitcher I've ever seen," said his Marlins teammate, closer Steve Cishek. "The most competitive, for sure. He's a lot of fun to watch."

We should probably mention that the opposition doesn't always agree with the "fun" part of that review. You can ask Brian McCann all about it some day. But when the rest of us lay eyes on the Marlins' mesmerizing, 21-year-old ace, here's what we see:

Energy. Confidence. An irrepressible joy in doing what he does. And, ohbytheway, maybe the best stuff in baseball.

So we asked the men around him to tell us their favorite stories of a guy who, just 32 starts into his career, already has ripped off 26 starts allowing two earned runs or fewer (including 13 in a row at one point). And 27 starts allowing five hits or fewer (including 17 in a row). And five double-figure strikeout games (including back-to-back 13-K and 14-K games last summer).

Here are some of those tales:

[+] EnlargeJose Fernandez
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesLook out, LeBron. Jose Fernandez is becoming a beloved figure in South Florida.
Jose the base stealer

After Fernandez reached base in a recent start against the Brewers, Marlins manager Mike Redmond saw his ace dancing off second, acting like a guy ready to burst into a Billy Hamilton impression any minute.

"He was on second, and he started to fake like he was going to steal third," Redmond said. "And I said, 'Wait. When a guy's hitting, you've got to stay put out there.' And he was like, 'Well, I was going to steal third. They're giving it to me, and I'm just going to take it.' And this was with two outs. So I said, 'That's not your job. You're not a base stealer.' And this is like in the middle of the game. We're sitting on the bench, and we're having this conversation, and I'm just laughing."

Is that an indication, we asked, that Fernandez thinks there's nothing he can’t do?

"You have to be careful when you talk to him and say, 'You can't do something,'" Redmond chuckled, "because if you tell him, 'Hey, you can't throw this guy a changeup because he's really good at hitting a changeup,' he's going to want to throw him nothing but changeups to try and get him out, just to show you that he can really get him out with changeups.

"When we played the Rockies, we talked about not throwing [Justin] Morneau a lot of changeups. And he ended up throwing about six or seven changeups to him. … So you have to be careful of what you say he can't do."

The 92 mph changeup

When most guys throw a pitch 92 miles per hour, it’s their fastball. Possibly their best fastball. When Jose Fernandez hits 92 on the gun, that’s an off-speed pitch.

"There was one pitch," said his catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, "where he was facing [Chase Headley] and he threw a changeup. And Headley went, 'Damn, that was a nasty sinker.' And I didn't want to tell him it was a changeup."

The more Saltalamacchia thought about that exchange, the funnier it got. But he still isn't sure whether he should be happy a hitter was that confused about that pitch or worried that his ace was throwing his changeup way too hard.

"I didn't know how to take that," Saltalamacchia admitted, "whether it was a compliment or a bad thing."

But either way, it did fit right in with Fernandez's whole approach to pitching -- and life.

"From the get-go, the guy is pedal on the metal, and he doesn’t let up," Saltalamacchia said. "He's excited. You know how between innings, the umpires give you 2 minutes and 30 seconds [before resuming play]? Well, he's on the mound with like a minute and a half left. You're thinking, like, 'Take your time.' But he hits the gas pedal and he's going. You can't slow him down. You don't want to slow him down. It's just his tempo, and how he works."

The home run off a tee

And then there was the day that Fernandez sucked in a bunch of Marlins position players with a friendly wager -- that turned out to be (what else?) a giant setup.

"He kind of hustled some guys last year … betting them that he could hit a home run from home plate off a tee," Cishek said. "And everyone was like, 'There’s no shot.' That's pretty tough to do, right? Now I don't know. I'm not a hitter. But I would imagine it's really hard to do, because all the hitters were like, 'There's no chance.'

"So he got people to jump in on it. And sure enough. First swing. Hit one out of our big park. We all just went nuts. Little did they know that he was practicing all day. … It was hilarious just watching him. I was watching him practicing, trying to figure out the angle and everything. So then, when he went in the locker room, to try and get people on board and they bit, it was great."

And what, we asked, was the moral to that story?

"Don't trust anything Jose says," Cishek said, laughing uproariously. "If he says he can do something, take his word for it."

The pregame show

When most pitchers are gearing up to start a game, they withdraw to their own silent planet. Not Jose Fernandez.

"He's unique," Redmond said. "He's not the kind of guy where you come in and he's sitting at his locker with his game face on and you can't talk to him. I mean, he's hitting in the cage, he's bunting in the cage, he's in my office, he's sitting on the couch, he's talking to me about a couple of hitters. Then he's out, and he's back in. He's joking with the guys. He's all over the place. So he's unique. I never played with a guy like that, man. And that's how he is every day. … Just that day that he gets the ball, he can't wait. He just really loves to pitch."

But when Fernandez pops into the manager's office before a start, Redmond confessed, he often isn't in there to talk about pitching.

"It could be about hitting," Redmond said. "He'll want to swing at the first pitch all the time, because he thinks that's the pitch that he should be hitting every time. So he'll be like, 'Come on, Red. You've got to turn me loose first pitch.'"

For the record, Fernandez has come to the plate eight times this year -- and swung at the first pitch in half those trips. He has put none of those hacks in play.

The award

Last January, Fernandez was invited to attend the New York baseball writers' dinner, to accept his NL Rookie of the Year award. So naturally, a delegation from the Marlins' front office went with him, and occupied a large table in the ballroom.

So as general manager Dan Jennings recalls it, after Fernandez accepted his award at the podium, he returned to his team's table and told everyone around him: "I want to be up there again next year, too."

And that, of course, could have meant only one thing. He was planning to win the Cy Young this time around. Right?

"Well, I don't think he'll be rookie of the year again," Jennings deadpanned. "He's got that box checked."

The fire

We tried to get a report on what opposing hitters say to their buddies on the Marlins after they reach base against Fernandez. But that turned out to be tougher than we'd envisioned.

"Every once in a while, somebody will say something like, 'That's the best stuff I've ever seen,'" said Greg Dobbs, who started 47 games at first for the Marlins last year. "But there haven't been many [of those conversations] -- because there weren't very many guys who got over there. He doesn't give up many hits, you know."

Yeah, good point. Fernandez actually had a higher batting average last season (.220) than the hitters who faced him (.182). But as that shouting match with McCann last year illustrated, Fernandez's flamboyance has been known to light an occasional fire in the other dugout. So his teammates often have some explaining to do -- that their ace doesn't mean any harm. He merely has only one speed on his transmission.

"I don't want to change who he is or what he's doing, but he's young," Saltalamacchia said. "You can see that in the way he handles certain things. He wants to be great. There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you've got to understand what the situation is, and when to back off, and when to kind of get going. But right now, he's just kind of got that 100 miles an hour [pace]. And I can't say that's not a good thing, because it obviously works for him."

Cishek echoed that, shaking his head as he said: "Man, he's just in your face. The way he acts out there, he's really not trying to show people up. He just really wants to shut every single [hitter] he sees down. When he gives up a hit, he's mad at himself. For goodness sakes, if we're shagging in BP, he likes to power-shag out there. If he drops a ball, he's screaming at himself and everything. He's just a perfectionist."

So this is not a guy who even realizes he's firing up the opposition. He's just so talented, so confident and so driven, he expects to strike out about 20 every night.

"Oh, he definitely thinks he could," Cishek said. "I'm telling you. If he gives up a hit, say in the first inning, he's just blown away. He's like, 'Man, I can't believe I just gave up a hit.' That’s what it seems like anyways."

You can understand, then, why he might rub a few hitters the wrong way. But he's becoming a more beloved figure in South Florida every time he goes out there. Look out, LeBron.

"My kids have been around him, this is the second year now," Redmond said. "And my boys woke up Opening Day and they were like, 'Dad, we can't wait to watch Jose pitch tonight.' We’re talking about 13- and 11-year-old kids. And they couldn't wait.

"He's got a lot of people that love him. You see that when he pitches in Miami. The crowds are electric. A lot of people come out to watch him. Like I said last year, he brought a lot of excitement to Miami when we really needed it. And we still need that."

And one thing they've learned about Jose Fernandez in his first 32 trips to a big league mound: If it's excitement you're in need of, he's just the man you’re looking for.
"If he stays healthy, I don't see any reason why he can't be the best hitter of all time."

-- Justin Verlander, on Miguel Cabrera


The Best Hitter of All Time, huh?

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMiguel Cabrera, who has 2,002 hits and 366 career homers, is playing in his 12th season in the majors.
Justin Verlander uttered those words 10 days ago, on the day Miguel Cabrera signed the biggest contract in the history of North American professional sports -- and only a week before Cabrera joined the prestigious 2,000 Hit Club.

At the age of (gulp) 30.

So let's think about this, seriously. Is it actually possible that Miguel Cabrera could wind up some day as The Best Hitter of All Time?

Well, there are a bunch of ways to look at that, obviously. So let's consider a few.

Can he catch Pete Rose?


That was Torii Hunter's prediction on the day Cabrera signed that contract: "Pete Rose? He can definitely get there -- and with power," Hunter said.

Uh, wait a second. Miggy turns 31 in a week and a half, and he isn't even halfway to Rose yet, you know. He'd still need another 2,254 hits to get to 4,256. And you don't exactly need both hands and both feet to count up the men who have gotten that many hits after reaching Cabrera's age.

That list contains precisely three names: Rose, Sam Rice and 19th-century hit factory Cap Anson. Miggy already has outhomered the three of them combined.

Here, according to baseball-reference.com's awesome Play Index, is your leaderboard in that department -- Most Career Hits, Starting With Age 31 Season:

1. Rose (1972-86), 2,532
2. Rice (1921-34), 2,350
3. Anson (1883-97), 2,272
4. Honus Wagner (1905-17), 2,043
5. Paul Molitor (1988-98), 1,988

Rose and Anson played to age 45. Rice hung around to age 44. Wagner stuck with it through age 43. Is Cabrera going to do that? Is he going to be healthy enough to do that? Is he going to be motivated enough to do that? Get back to us in a decade, OK?

Incidentally, here are the only six men in the division-play era to get within 500 hits of 2,200 after reaching Cabrera's age: Molitor, Ichiro Suzuki (1,824), Omar Vizquel (1,805), Craig Biggio (1,781), Carl Yastrzemski (1,716) and Dave Winfield (1,711).

Can he catch Barry Bonds?


For the record, Cabrera (366 homers) isn't even halfway to Bonds' home run total (762), or even halfway to Hank Aaron's 755, for that matter. Miggy would need 396 to catch Bonds, 389 to tie Aaron. You think that's happening? I don't.

Here are the only three men to hit 389 home runs or more starting with their age-31 season, according to the Play Index. You may have heard of them.

Bonds, 470
Babe Ruth, 405
Aaron, 389

What's interesting here is that the three greatest home run hitters of all time had about the same number of home runs at this age that Cabrera has -- or fewer. Aaron had exactly 366 through his age-30 season. Ruth had 309. Bonds had 308. So clearly, this isn't out of the question. But I'd still take the under. How 'bout you?

Can he catch Hank Aaron?


One more Cabrera prediction from Torii Hunter: "You're talking about a guy [who can get] 4,000 hits and 600-plus home runs. I mean, who does that? Is he human?"

So who does that? Nobody does that. Thanks for asking.

The only two members of the 4,000 Hit Club -- Rose and Ty Cobb -- hit 277 home runs put together. So the gold standard in the Lots and Lots of Hits and Homers Club is Aaron, naturally. You were expecting maybe Juan Pierre?

Aaron is the only player in history to finish with more than 3,500 hits (3,771) and more than 500 homers (755). And Stan Musial (3,630/475) and Yastrzemski (3,419/452) are the only other men to come close.

So here's the deal: To finish with Aaron's career numbers, Cabrera would need another 1,769 hits and another 389 home runs. Think that's easy enough? Guess again.

You know how many hitters have accumulated that many hits and homers after reaching Miggy's age? Not a one. Here's the 1,500-Hit/300-Homer From Age 31 On Club:


And that's that. Close calls: Bonds (1,499/470) and Andres Galarraga (1,503/293).

So what Cabrera would need to do, when you get right down to it, is to basically replicate the second half of Aaron's career -- only better. But in case you never noticed before, the first half of Cabera's career has been eerily similar to the first half of Aaron's career, if you pick the right columns on the old stat sheet anyway.

Check out their numbers, through their age-30 seasons (meaning Cabrera's stats this season aren't included, because he'll play most of this year at 31):


So is Miguel Cabrera really going to wind up as The Best Hitter of All Time? Don't bet the beach house on it. But the more you look at those Hank Aaron numbers, the more you think that fun little Justin Verlander prediction isn't as out of whack as you might have thought the first time you read it. Now is it?

Wild Pitches


Fun stuff from Week 1:

• "Injury" of the Week: Carlos Gonzalez had to leave the Rockies' game Wednesday in the sixth inning, after, um, swallowing his wad of chewing tobacco and, um, not feeling so hot. Just one more reason not to chew, kids.

• Special K of the Week: Yu Darvish became the fastest pitcher ever to reach 500 career strikeouts Sunday (doing it in 401.2 innings, in just his 62nd start). Best I can tell, the slowest, among all starters in the expansion era, was Vern Ruhle (1,405 innings, over 188 starts and 325 total trips to the mound).

• Box Score Symmetry of the Week: As loyal reader Brian Pollina pointed out, all eight Red Sox who played the full game Sunday went exactly 1 for 4. How cool was that? It's just the eighth time in the last 100 years any team has done that, by the way.

• Home Run Machine of the Week: The Diamondbacks are going to get hot and mess up this note. But just so you know, nobody has ever hit 50 home runs for a team that didn't win 50. But Mark Trumbo has five homers. And the Diamondbacks have two wins. Just sayin'.

• On the other hand … Wade Miley had a three-hit game for the D-backs on Sunday. He's a pitcher. Allen Craig has two hits all year (in 22 at-bats). He's one of the best hitters alive. Just sayin'.

• RBI Machine of the Week: Chris Colabello drove in six runs in a game. Chipper Jones never drove in six runs in a game. Ever.

• Hit Machine of the Week: Emilio Bonifacio had accumulated exactly one four-hit game since the 2009 All-Star break. He had a four-hit game and a five-hit game just in the first two games of this season. Baseball is awesome. Isn't it?

• Off the Hook Note of the Week: Felix Hernandez punched out 11 Angels in six innings on Opening Day, but was in line to be the losing pitcher when he departed. Then the Mariners did something miraculous: They scored two runs in the top of the seventh and turned him into the winning pitcher. Just so you know how tough it's been being Felix, he hadn't made a single start in which he left trailing and got a win out of it since Sept. 18, 2009. That was 136 starts ago, if you're counting.

• E-pidemic of the Week: As loyal reader Tom Wilson reports, the Rays' Brandon Guyer inspired a two-for-the-price-of-one sale Friday. Two swings. Two Rangers errors. In one at-bat. Here's how: First, he hit a foul popup that Prince Fielder dropped. That was one E. Then Guyer hit a chopper to third. Adrian Beltre bobbled it and threw late. That was E No. 2. Two errors on two swings. In one AB. You don't see that much.

• Ya Never Know Notes of the Week: OK, who saw this coming: The first multihomer game of the season came from Alejandro De Aza. … Gio Gonzalez hit a home run before the Yankees hit one. … And Victor Martinez stole a base before Billy Hamilton stole one. Gotta love baseball.

• Sprint Champ of the Week: Finally, scouts at Thursday's Mets-Nationals game clocked Bartolo Colon at 7.8 seconds "running" down the first-base line after a ground ball to short. And history was made. "Slowest time I've ever gotten since I've been doing this," said one scout. "But it really wouldn't shock me if he broke that record again before the season's over.”

Jose Reyes injured -- again

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
9:59
PM ET

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jose Reyes’ brand-new healthy season was fun while it lasted.

All one-half inning of it.

Not only did he not make it through the first game, not only did he not make it through the first inning, he didn't even make it all 90 feet up the first-base line in his first at-bat of the season Monday.

I want to be there and help my ball club. I want to help my ball club for 150 games, or even 162 games. So it's painful, and disappointing for me, because I put in so much work in the offseason. And now, I feel like I don't do anything.

-- Jose Reyes
Reyes fired a sinking line drive to center (which was about to be turned into a spectacular out by the Rays’ Desmond Jennings). He started to accelerate. And then his left hamstring had other ideas.

So here we go again.

For Jose Reyes. And for a Blue Jays team that has been waiting for more than a year now for him to turn the key in their ignition and lead them to the kind of AL East glory that has eluded them for two decades now.

Reyes can’t stay healthy. They can’t stay healthy. And it is starting to wear on both of them.

“Last year, I only played 93 games,” a distraught Reyes said Monday night. “I want to be there and help my ball club. I want to help my ball club for 150 games, or even 162 games. So it’s painful, and disappointing for me, because I put in so much work in the offseason.

“And now,” he said, almost in disbelief at what had just happened to him, “I feel like I don’t do anything.”

He had tweaked this same hamstring with a week left in spring training. At the time, he said it was no big deal. And when his manager, John Gibbons, was asked back then what his level of concern was about his leadoff man, Gibbons replied: “Zero.”

But by Monday evening, the manager wasn’t at ground zero anymore.

“We said last year he was the one guy we couldn’t afford to lose,” Gibbons said. “And then sure enough, bam.”

The big “bam” arrived last year just two weeks into the season, when Reyes severely sprained his ankle on an awkward slide into second base. But “bam” time arrived a lot quicker this year. One at-bat. One trip up the line. Bam.

[+] EnlargeJose Reyes
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioJose Reyes injured the same hamstring in the final week of spring training.
Reyes missed the Blue Jays’ final five games in Florida, came back and played five cautious innings in each of the two games in Montreal, then reinjured the hamstring in the same place Monday. Now he’ll be shut down, and told not to do anything, for at least a week. And then he’ll start over, trying to build himself back to health.

Sound familiar?

This is Reyes’ ninth trip to disabled list in his career. It is his fifth just because of hamstring issues alone, although his first since 2011. He knows the drill. And he’s tired of it.

“God give me this talent to run,” he said. “And that’s the worst thing that you can get, is to pull a hammy.”

So even when he returns, will the real Jose Reyes return with him? After he came back from last year’s injury debacle, he was thrown out six times in only 13 attempts to steal second base. Two years ago in Miami, he once went more than a month without trying to steal because his legs didn’t feel right.

So what now? Uh, we’ll get back to you on that. But this isn’t good.

And then there’s that Blue Jays team he plays for. They had so many health disasters to deal with last year that they managed to put their projected lineup on the field for only three games all season. They didn’t even make it through the first inning of the first game this season.

“I mean, that’s baseball, man,” Gibbons said. “The train keeps rolling. You’ve just got to deal with it.”

But the AL East madhouse kicked in on Opening Day. And for the Blue Jays, it couldn’t have gone worse. They walked eight batters, hit two more, threw a wild pitch, committed two errors on one play and got manhandled by David Price and the Rays 9-2.

None of that was Reyes’ fault. At least they noticed that.

“Look, we have to find a way to win,” said Opening Day starter R.A. Dickey, after walking six hitters for only the second time in his career. “Without him, without Jose, without whoever else goes down throughout the year, you’ve got to find a way to win. It starts on the mound, and, Jose in the game or not, I didn’t give us a chance to win. That has nothing to do with Jose.”

But that here-we-go-again feeling is one they know all too well. And fighting that feeling -- while navigating the insane minefield of the AL East -- seems a lot harder now than it had felt 24 hours earlier.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Gibbons said. “But it’s never easy. … So we’ll find out how good we are. That’s what it comes down to.”
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It’s hard to remember now that when spring training started, we actually doubted Justin Verlander.

Bad idea.

He was coming off the dreaded “core surgery.” He was behind the rest of the pitching staff. We wondered if he’d be ready for Opening Day. We wondered if he’d be the same guy.

Bad idea.

How could we ever have doubted? How could we ever have wondered? What were we thinking?

The Tigers’ ace went to the mound Wednesday for his fourth start of spring training. It looked a lot like the other three. By which we mean: domination.

One soft hit allowed in 6 1/3 innings. Zero runs. One walk. Seven strikeouts. What else is new?

So in those four starts he made this spring, he never did get around to allowing a run. Not a one. In only one of the four starts did he even give up more than one hit.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsJustin Verlander, Detroit's Opening Day starter, didn't allow a single run in 20 innings this spring.
All told, he pitched 20 innings. He gave up eight hits. He struck out 17. Those poor, defenseless humans who had to bat against him hit .127.

So what would he have said, we asked him, if we’d told him going into spring training that he’d do all that this spring?

“Good,” he said with a laugh.

So that was really what he expected of himself, even coming off surgery?

“It’s what I always expect,” he said simply.

Even after surgery, he never, ever doubted he could be the same guy?

“I don't think you can allow yourself to doubt,” he said. “When doubt creeps in your mind, that leads to failure. You have to look on the optimistic side of things.”

Do those words sum up the greatness of Justin Verlander, or what? Doubt and failure are incomprehensible to him. And unacceptable. It’s what he is. It’s who he is.

He’s 31 now. He has a Cy Young award and MVP trophy in his hardware shop. He is in the second year of the second-largest contract ever awarded to a major league pitcher (seven years, $180 million). And he’s determined to live up to it. This year. Every year.

When someone suggested Wednesday that for the Tigers to be great, he has to be what he’s always been, Verlander made it obvious he never considered not being what he’s always been.

“I don’t think you go into the season with doubt,” he said. “That’s why I worked so hard. After surgery, I worked my butt off to get back. And this spring has been encouraging.”

Encouraging? It’s been amazing. He may not be whooshing the baseball up there at 100 mph anymore. But his command of everything in his repertoire has been ridiculous. He rolled up five of his seven strikeouts on off-speed stuff Wednesday. And he’s been a strike-throwing machine all spring.

So if there were questions six weeks ago about whether surgery would limit him in any way, you don’t hear those questions anymore. Not from Verlander. Not from his manager, Brad Ausmus, either.

“I don’t think the surgery is going to have a major impact on his ability to pitch,” Ausmus said. “I know I’ve spoken to him about it, and he’s completely comfortable about it. He says he doesn’t even think about it anymore. At one point, I was concerned about him making a pickoff throw to second. And I asked him about it. And he said, 'Oh, I’m fine.’ He said, 'I don’t even think about it.’ ... Just the way he had to turn, I was concerned. But my concerns were immediately laid to rest.”

A month ago, Ausmus had said he was convinced that if Verlander could just build up his pitch count this spring, he could “will himself to be Justin Verlander.” And now, it’s clear. That’s exactly what he did.

Asked Wednesday about the strength of that will, Verlander smiled.

“I’m very competitive,” he said. “I’m determined to pitch to my capability.”

Well, 20 scoreless spring innings later, it’s time to ask ourselves again: Why did we ever doubt him?

Three 'real' stars of spring

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Jeff Keppinger hit .412 last year in spring training. Philip Humber had a 1.73 ERA. You can file both of those under: "It's Only Spring Training."

But here are three star players whose spectacular springs have caught the attention of scouts and belong in another file: "The Real Deal."

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Jose Bautista, OF | Toronto Blue Jays

He's your Grapefruit League home run leader (with five). He came into Monday leading the Grapefruit League in slugging (at .778). He's smoking every pitch he sees, at the rate of .356/.455/.778. And the more you see it, the more real it looks. That's great news for a guy whose 2013 season was marred by a hip injury.

"He's been locked in from day one," said one scout Monday, with zero hesitation, when the conversation turned to the Blue Jays' masher.

But by "locked in," we're not just talking about those baseballs Bautista has been pounding into the palm trees. We're talking about a return to the approach that made him one of baseball's most feared hitters in 2010-11, when he was whomping 97 home runs, with more walks (232) than strikeouts (227) and a 173 OPS+.

Over the past two years, as the strikeouts have inched upward and the walks have inched downward, Bautista has found himself seeing more junk and chasing it. So this spring, he's gone to work on fixing that glitch.

"Just working on staying on the ball a little bit longer," said his new hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer. "Sometimes, he can get vulnerable to the breaking stuff. He's a tremendous fastball hitter. So we're trying to make a few adjustments with his approach, to give him a little bit better chance, especially with two strikes. That's really the biggest time, when you don't want to just sell out to a fastball, to where you're vulnerable on the secondary stuff."

So what has stood out all spring is that Bautista has put up a series of tough at-bats, and has seemed intent on taking more pitches the other way when the right side of the infield is open, as it so often is in this shift-aholic age he now lives in.

"He's working on it right now," Seitzer said. "I told him, 'There are going to be points in time in the game where you've got that shift on, and we've got a guy on second base with two outs, and as good as you are at handling the bat and shooting that thing that way, just do it. It's a freebie right there.'"

And how conscious has Bautista been of perfecting that approach? In a game Saturday against the Tigers, he reached base four times -- on two walks and two singles to right. If he keeps that up, his hitting coach thinks he's headed for a tremendous year.

"He's very mentally tough," Seitzer said. "He's disciplined. He's put up these numbers before. And I don't see why he can't do it again."

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Cliff Lee, LHP | Philadelphia Phillies

On the way to his first Opening Day start since he was in Cleveland, the Phillies left-hander has unfurled five excellent starts, including 11 eye-popping innings (allowing just six hits) against the Red Sox in his past two trips to the mound. Lee is also tied with Lance Lynn for the NL lead in spring strikeouts, with 19 in 19 2/3 innings.

Now it isn't exactly we-interrupt-this-program news that Cliff Lee can pitch a little. But again, this isn't about numbers. This is about approach, and some scouts and Phillies coaches worried that Lee was becoming too reliant on his fastball last season, despite his gaudy stats. That hasn’t been the case this spring.

"He’s back to mixing all his pitches, the way he needs to," said one scout. "He’d gotten too predictable. It was fastball, fastball, fastball, cutter, fastball, fastball. He’s got to use his curve and his changeup more, and he can do it. Otherwise, his fastball is in the strike zone too much, and it gets hit."

"He's really used his change well this spring," said another scout. "I've seen that change a lot, and it's an important pitch for him."

Actually, according to FanGraphs, Lee threw that change on 15.9 percent of all pitches he tossed up there last season, the second-highest percentage of his career. But his curveball use has declined from nearly 11 percent in 2011 to just 7.8 percent last year.

Not coincidentally, Lee's success with that pitch has also declined. It was his best pitch in 2011, when opponents hit just .133/.165/.162 against it, with no homers allowed on any of the 367 curves he threw. But that opponent average has increased the past two seasons, to .193 in 2012 and .236 in 2013.

So this spring, says Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, Lee has been "fairly deliberate about using his curveball a little bit more, depending on how it's feeling for him that day."

McClure said he and Lee "have talked about the perception the hitters have, of using that pitch as part of his arsenal. But the thing about the curveball is, it's a feel pitch. So I think if you throw a few early, you have it later in the game. So he's been mixing it in pretty well."

But McClure wants to make one other thing clear: Cliff Lee isn't broken. So nobody is trying to fix him.

"You look at his stats," McClure said with a laugh, "and it's hard to say to him, 'Hey, you need to completely change.' Are you kidding? But he might be able to use this pitch to offset [all those fastballs] a little bit, depending on the feel for it that he has that game."

Well, we've seen Lee do that before, with Cy Young results. So if he commits to it this year, it could lead him right back to that Cy Young conversation. And whether the Phillies are in a race or in July "sell" mode, a Cliff Lee Cy Young bid would be fine with them.

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Jose Fernandez, RHP | Miami Marlins

All the Marlins' favorite phenom has done this spring is remind us how incredibly dominating he was last year, as a 20-year-old jumping all the way to the big leagues from the Class A Florida State League. So how dominating was he? Here's a little refresher course:

• Fernandez had a season last year that ranked No. 1 among all rookies in the live ball era, in adjusted ERA (177), opponent average (.182), opponent slugging (.265) and opponent OPS (.533). And yes, we said all rookies. Over the past nine decades. Yikes.

• Another way to look at it: His team went 18-10 when he pitched -- and a terrifying 44-90 when anyone else started.

• He was the first rookie starter with a WHIP under 1.00 (0.98) since baseball lowered the mound in 1969. Yeah, the first.

• And here's the topper: He actually had a higher batting average (.220) than the other teams' hitters had against him (.182). Ridiculous.

Well, nothing much has changed for Fernandez this spring. Opponents are hitting .196 against him. He's struck out 16 in 15 2/3 innings. And other than a three-run, four-hit fifth inning the Cardinals put together against him in his most recent start, he's allowed seven hits to the other 56 hitters he's faced, punching out 15 of them.

So what are we seeing here? We're seeing one of baseball's shooting stars ascend to a level very few pitchers ever reach. And he's 21 years old.

Clayton Kershaw may have established himself as baseball's best starter. But is he the favorite to win yet another Cy Young this year? Not when he's pitching in the same league as Jose Fernandez.

When we casually observed to one scout who covers the Marlins that it wouldn't surprise us if Fernandez made a run at the Cy Young this season, the scout replied, just as casually: "I expect him to."

Wait, we asked. How can anyone expect Fernandez to win the Cy Young, when Clayton Kershaw is still alive and well?

"Look, Kershaw is what he is," the scout said. "He's great. But this kid is special."

Special enough that here's one thing we know for sure: His brilliant spring isn't a mirage. It's a portent of more awesome things to come.

Tigers searching for answers

March, 22, 2014
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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The latest blow was Bruce Rondon, now headed for a Tommy John surgery operating room near you and done for the season.

Before that was Jose Iglesias and those pesky stress fractures in both shins, which have put his 2014 season in peril.

And lest we forget, even before that was left fielder Andy Dirks, out for several months following back surgery last month.

Down they’ve all gone this spring for those injury-ravaged Detroit Tigers, one after another, all before their new manager, Brad Ausmus, got to manage a single game that counts.

It’s left the Tigers calling around, hunting for last-minute reinforcements at all three spots. And it’s creating doubts around the sport about the Tigers’ seemingly perennial status as favorites in the AL Central.

But one thing it hasn’t done, in case you’re wondering, is cause the manager to wonder why he thought taking this managing job was such a great idea last winter.

[+] EnlargeBruce Rondon
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesReliever Bruce Rondon (Tommy John surgery) is the latest significant injury for the Tigers.
"No. No. No. Not at all," Ausmus said Saturday. "It’s part of the game. You’ve got to roll with the punches a little bit. If I bury my head in my hands, it’s not going to make Rondon or Iglesias come back any sooner. We’ve got to find a way to get through it. And, hopefully, we find some guys who step up and fill the voids."

That’s what any manager would say at a time like this, of course, but finding actual answers to these questions is the hard part. And even with the season nine days away, Ausmus admits this is still a team that doesn’t have those answers. So how big a concern are these latest injuries? Let’s take a look:

Bottom of the order: Two years ago, Alex Avila was the Tigers’ primary No. 8 hitter. Jhonny Peralta was their most frequent No. 7 hitter. But the days when this team had that sort of lineup depth are over -- at least for now.

Barring a late trade or free-agent addition, the Tigers appear to be looking at a lower half of the order that includes some combination of Avila and Austin Jackson in the 5-6 slots, rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos in the No. 7 hole, followed by their left fielder (likely a Rajai Davis/Don Kelly/Tyler Collins combo plate for the moment) and the shortstop (tentatively looking like a hodgepodge of just acquired Andrew Romine, splitting time with either Danny Worth or Hernan Perez).

While Ausmus says that injuries haven’t had a major impact on that lineup depth, "because Iglesias was going to hit ninth anyway," lineup depth "could be" a concern, he admitted.

Asked if he’d at least settled on Jackson and Avila mostly hitting fifth and sixth in some order, Ausmus replied: "That area of the lineup is probably the most in flux, really. There may be a situation where it changes, depending on who the opponent starter is. I would prefer that be a situation where someone hits in that spot, or those spots, and excels and we can leave them there. But they’re not etched in stone."

Jackson has had a big spring (.442/.478/.767, with only four strikeouts in 46 plate appearances), but it’s Avila (.263/.364/.316) whom Ausmus singled out as being a pivotal figure in the construction of this lineup.

"We’d like to see Alex bounce back," the manager said. "I think he’s a much better hitter than he showed last year. … He’s had some good at-bats [this spring]. He’s had some normal spring training at-bats. He’s had some good at-bats against left-handed hitters, which is good to see. I’m hoping that Alex bounces back."

One bright spot in that mix is Castellanos, who has hit. 373, with seven doubles and two home runs in 51 at-bats, and has had scouts raving all spring about his quick bat and polished approach. The hope was that the Tigers could hit him down in the order and keep the pressure off him offensively. But it wouldn’t be a shock if they rewrote that script in a hurry if Castellanos keeps hitting.

The bullpen: The Tigers were already poking around for bullpen help --– particularly an upgrade on Phil Coke as the primary situational left-hander -- even before Rondon went down. But other teams say they’ve stepped up that hunt in recent days, since Rondon blew out his elbow ligament with no warning whatsoever.

For the moment, the seventh and eighth innings would now appear to fall into the hands of Al Alburquerque (11 strikeouts and just one run in six innings this spring) and that ghost of Yankees past, Joba Chamberlain (3.00 ERA, but with a 1.83 WHIP and still-diminished velocity) this spring. But Ausmus says that will be a work in progress early on.

"You just deal with it," the manager said. "You can’t dwell on it. You’ve got to find another solution. And the truth is, we’re going to need someone to step up to fill the role, and we’re not sure who that person is going to be. … It’s like the 5- or 6-hole in the lineup: I hope someone grabs it and runs with it."

One name to watch: 28-year-old right-hander Evan Reed, claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins last April, who has hit 97 miles per hour and racked up 12 strikeouts, while allowing just three hits in 11⅓ innings this spring.

But the real good news has come from Joe Nathan, who hasn’t allowed a run all spring and is being depended on more than ever to put an end to the Tigers’ ninth-inning dramatics of the past couple of seasons.

So at least this team isn’t looking for a closer anymore. But they’re as likely to make some other addition -- a left-handed-hitting outfielder, another bullpen arm and possibly even shortstop Stephen Drew -- as any contender in baseball over this last week of spring training.

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