ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
5:52
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As some teams gear up for the playoffs, others, to put it kindly, are not. They say that losing can be the best teacher. So, based on the lessons learned, the reflection on 2014 and the planning for 2015 begins … hopefully.

Some of these teams can use as much help as they can get, so feel free to share your thoughts (in comments section below) on what you might do if you were in charge.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
La Russa Speaks, D-backs Must Adjust: Tony La Russa recently spoke out about improvements he'd like to implement. Jeff Wiser examines what La Russa means by "tweaking" position players' baserunning, approach to the strike zone, and play in the field. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24

Colorado Rockies: Rockies' Zingers
Can Corey Dickerson Get Better?: Adam Peterson, with help from Joey Myers of the Hitting Performance Lab, takes a look at one of the bright spots of the Rockies' 2014 season using a video analysis of his swing mechanics to his batted-ball data. Follow on Twitter: @playerTBNL

Series Preview – Cincinnati at Colorado – Aug. 14-Aug. 17: J.J. Buck previewed the games played for Todd Helton's retirement weekend. Combining video clips, stats and tweets, take a look back at what people were thinking going forward into that memorable weekend … because Colorado has had few other reasons for optimism this year. Follow on Twitter: @JBuck610

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Only One Spot to Address for 2015?: It's been another tough season for the Twins, but Nick Nelson suggests they'll have surprisingly few needs entering this offseason. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Can Yankees Pull Off A 1995-esque Run?: Matt Bove compared this year's Yankees team to the '95 club that made a late push into the playoffs to see if that magic can be repeated in 2014. Follow on Twitter: @RAYROBERT9

Pineda's Slider Was Straight-Up Disgusting Last Night: Brad Vietrogoski broke down how Michael Pineda used his slider to shut down the Royals on Monday night. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
Only True Rangers Fans Root for Futility in 2014: Eric Reining talks about how, in a lost season for Texas, you've really got to be a true fan to keep things in perspective and be OK with your team losing. Follow on Twitter: @ericreining
Seattle rookie James Paxton, whom scouts are raving about, pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday night to beat Texas and improve his record to 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA. The Mariners optioned him to Triple-A Tacoma the next day.

Why did they do this? Not because of his excellent performance but because the Mariners felt the starting rotation needed some rest, particularly after Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young all had perhaps their worst outings of the season over the weekend. By optioning Paxton and calling up Erasmo Ramirez to pitch Wednesday, they were able to give King Felix and the others not only one extra day of rest, but two, because Thursday was an off-day. It allowed each starter to pitch on six days' rest as the club heads into an unexpected but refreshingly welcome stretch drive.

[+] EnlargeJames Paxton
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSeattle rookie left-hander James Paxton is scheduled to make his next start Tuesday at Oakland.
Plus, the Mariners were able to do so without Paxton missing a single start. The Mariners will bring him back after Tacoma’s season ends Sunday and rosters expand, then slip him right back into the rotation.

The Mariners have been skillfully utilizing player options much of the season. They have been especially adept at optioning starting pitchers in and out to fill openings in the rotation and allow them to carry an eight-man bullpen that might be the game’s best. Other teams do this as well, but Seattle has an extra edge because their Triple-A affiliate is closer than any other club in baseball -- just 35 miles from stadium to stadium, so flights often aren’t an issue (though trust me, you don’t want to make the Seattle-Tacoma drive during rush hour).

“Instead of a 25-man roster, it’s like a 27- or 28-man roster," Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “It helps when you have guys who answer the bell."

That bell has rung often for Ramirez, who has shuttled between Seattle and Tacoma six times this season -- in April, May, June, July and twice in August. On three of those occasions, he was in Seattle just one day.

How are teams able to do this? Under the rules, players have three option years in which they can be optioned to the minors an unlimited number of times. As long as you are in an option year, the club can call you up and send you down as often as they like.

Normally, a player must stay 10 days in the minors after being optioned, but an exception can be made if his minor league team’s season ends before the 10 days are up. This is the case for Paxton. It also is the case for starter Kevin Gausman, whom the Orioles optioned to their Gulf Coast League team after his solid start Wednesday.

The players association generally doesn’t have any issue with options, but the union is mildly concerned with the Paxton case because it feels the team might have been manipulating the roster a bit. The option also will cut into Paxton’s earnings.

Depending on the contract, a player optioned to the minors can go from earning the pro-rated major league minimum -- roughly $2,700 a day -- to earning a minor league salary, which is considerably less, anywhere from $72 to perhaps $500 a day depending on the player and the minor league level.

In Paxton’s case, the option likely is costing him more than $2,000 a day. On the other hand, Ramirez got his salary bumped up. And Paxton probably won’t mind in the long run if the Mariners reach the playoffs and he reaps a postseason share.

Zduriencik also says there is no “manipulation," and the Mariners are simply following the rules in place. He says the key is communicating with the players.

Oh, by the way, the Mariners optioned Ramirez to Tacoma before their next game. Which was mostly because of his performance -- he gave up 10 runs in just three innings of a 12-4 loss to last place Texas. But as manager Lloyd McClendon stressed, the important thing is not how Ramirez pitched but how the extra rest helps Hernandez and the other pitchers this final month as Seattle battles for its first postseason appearance in 13 years.

"It’s all come together in a good way," Zduriencik said of the frequent options. “Some of it is health related, some of it is opportunity related, some of it is depth related. We have done a good job with the roster and a lot of the credit goes to Lloyd and his staff."

The Rays' next ace: Alex Cobb

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Alex CobbAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Rays' Alex Cobb has been among the best pitchers in baseball this month.

To describe Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb’s unusual windup, his pitching coach Jim Hickey has to actually go through the motion as he talks on the phone from his hotel room in Baltimore.

“He has a lot of quirky things going on,” Hickey said with a laugh.

Quirky, but ultimately extremely effective for the repertoire Cobb possesses.

The Tampa Bay starting rotation has jointly teamed to fill the void left by the departure of David Price.

Cobb has come up big almost every time he has taken the ball of late. He’s 9-6 this season, but he is 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA and no home runs allowed in his last seven starts heading into Sunday’s start against the Red Sox. The Rays might be out of the postseason race, but he has the look of someone who is taking his game to a higher level.

Cobb is at or near the top of the list in two notable, important statistics that go hand in hand with his success.

FanGraphs.com tracks a “run value” statistic to measure the effectiveness of the various pitch types. Positive results (strikes and outs) add to the value number. Negative results subtract from it. The more important the game situation, the bigger the reward or debit for each pitch.

Cobb’s changeup, for example, has accumulated 20 runs of value, meaning it is a pitch that has gotten significantly better than average results. The only pitcher with a changeup whose value is greater than Cobb’s is Felix Hernandez (22 runs).

“He can throw the changeup in any count,” said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez, who had to prep his team for Cobb while coaching the Marlins and Astros. “It’s his go-to pitch. He has the ability to pitch backwards in one start [throwing a lot of changeups early in counts], then in the next start, he pitches off his fastball and keeps hitters off balance.”

Pitchers with elite changeups are hard to hit, and Cobb rates best in another stat -- hard-hit rate. Inside Edge, a video-tracking service that provides data to teams and media, charts every batted ball, rating each as hit soft, medium or hard.

Cobb has the lowest hard-hit rate of anyone with at least 80 innings pitched this season. He has allowed hard-hit balls in only 9 percent of the at-bats against him.

In Cobb’s past three starts, he has allowed a total of one hard-hit ball and passed White Sox ace Chris Sale for the hard-hit rate lead.

Pitching is an evolving process, and Cobb has discovered that what works best for him is different from what works for most other pitchers. His windup includes a pause point midwindup and a leg kick that would be best described as nontraditional.

If he hits his checkpoints (as Hickey referred to them), he’s in good position to throw any one of three pitches (fastball, curveball and the changeup) that have a similar spin.

“Most people do a leg kick where they bend their knee 45-degree angle to third base,” Cobb said earlier this week. “I try to reach to the catcher by squeezing my hip. That’s where the pause comes into play. It’s not to distract the hitter. I just want my arm to catch up to the rest of my body. A lot of people have told me that the pause messes with hitters. That’s just a bonus.”

“When he’s at his highest, he needs to be over the rubber,” Hickey said. “His arm is almost forming a C, it needs to feel like his arm is right over his head.

“That translates into a downhill plane. When he’s doing that regularly, you know he’s going to have a good day. You can usually tell from his first pitch or two in the bullpen.”

But getting to this point of 2014 wasn’t easy.

An oblique injury three starts into the season cost him six weeks and was one of several things that vexed the Rays early on.

When Cobb came back, he had a couple of good starts but also had a few in which he got pummeled, and there was a three-start span in which he lasted five innings in each.

“I hit a stretch where I was lost and I had to learn how to pitch all over again,” Cobb said. “Trying to do that while getting out major league hitters is not easy. At the All-Star break, I sat back, but I was still lost, wasn’t comfortable, was still all over the place, and I felt like I had exerted all the different types of problem-solving to try to fix it.

"I was talking with Hickey and Chris Archer, and they said I was too rotational, that the ball was sailing up and over the plate, rather than at a downward angle. I was playing catch before a game in St. Louis and the first ball I threw, it clicked; I threw seven scoreless innings.

"Besides the results, it was a relief to figure out the mechanics again. Now, I feel comfortable. When I throw, if I miss, I know why I miss. I get instant feedback.”

More often than not, Cobb has been right on. His changeup (which he throws more often than any other starting pitcher in baseball) drops similar to a split-fingered fastball, thanks to a grip that is a hybrid of the two pitches, and averages 87 mph (a drop of only 4-5 mph off his fastball). The amount of break on his curveball ranks among the top five in the game (it’s identical to that of Hernandez).

“If you’re a hitter, you can’t see the spin and say, 'That’s a changeup,'" Hickey said in explaining the success of the pitch. "It’s camouflaged. It really bottoms out. With the curveball, it’s the bite -- it has no hump. It comes out on the same plane as his fastball.”

With the Rays having traded Price and James Shields over the past two seasons, the team is ushering in a new era of pitching in which leadership is a tandem effort.

Cobb, Archer, Jeremy Hellickson and currently injured Matt Moore all have taken on important roles. They’ve welcomed in the new guys -- Jake Odorizzi (obtained in the Shields trade) and Drew Smyly (acquired in the Price deal), both of whom have fit in seamlessly.

“Our group adopted the Shields and Price attitude,” Cobb said. “I don’t think we’ve missed a beat because of what those two guys did when they were here. We knew it would be a tough transition.

"We all came up together," Cobb said of Hellickson, Archer, Moore and himself, "so I think it would be odd if one of us said, ‘I’m the leader of the staff now.’ When we have a new guy like Smyly come in, we collectively help him get comfortable.”

Cobb said that the idea of being an ace is more a tag for fans and media to latch on to. The way he has pitched lately, Cobb might hear more talk of that down the road.

“He has the makeup of a leader of a staff,” said one longtime major league scout. “His stuff and velocity won’t wow you, but his pitchability will. Does he have the stuff of Shields or Price? Not yet. But he has the other intangibles to get to that point. I’m a fan of his. He’s definitely going in the right direction.”

Five things we learned Friday

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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video 1. Another Friday, another no-hit bid against the Cincinnati Reds

Last week Atlanta Braves starter Mike Minor tossed 7 2/3 innings before the Reds put a hit on the board. Friday, it was Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Edinson Volquez who kept Cincinnati hitless for the first six frames. Volquez, a former 17-game winner with the Reds, was picked up off the scrap heap by Pittsburgh this winter and has been a pleasant surprise. Although his peripheral statistics don't necessarily support his 3.45 ERA, he is unlikely to turn into a pumpkin down the stretch after nearly 160 innings of work this season.

Volquez tied a season high with 114 pitches Friday. He was charged with one earned run on three hits and three walks. He struck out six. He pounded the ground with 10 ground-ball outs. Although he has done a lot of work close to the earth, it is his work in the air that has been the big key in 2014. Last year, opposing batters had a .310 average on fly balls against Volquez. This season, that mark sits at .172. Advanced metrics place the Pirates' outfield in a negative light, but someone is converting those fly balls into outs on a consistent basis.

Despite the lack of knocks, the Reds were able to keep both games close, losing in the 12th inning last Friday and briefly taking a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday before conceding the lead and the game soon after. The wins were important to Atlanta and Pittsburgh as both are still chasing the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card race. In fact, the Pirates' three-game winning streak has them sneaking back into contention in the NL Central as well.

For those interested, the Reds host the New York Mets next Friday at the Great American Ballpark.

2. DeGrom continues strong season

The Mets are in the midst of another lost season, but once again a trio of young arms gives the organization and its fans some hope. They lack the cool nickname of "Generation K," but Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom may be the foundation of a rotation that gets New York's other baseball team back to the postseason. DeGrom, the only active member of the trio, was on the bump Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Without the hype of Harvey or Syndergaard, deGrom has snuck up on most people this season. The lanky right-hander tossed seven strong innings against the Phillies, allowing just one unearned run. Of his 18 starts, deGrom has gone at least six innings in 14 of them. He has allowed three runs or fewer in 13 of those contests.

The rookie boasts a full arsenal of pitches, but Friday night's game plan centered around a mid-90s fastball that he commanded well. It accounted for nearly 75 percent of his pitches thrown Friday, as deGrom honed in on the lower half of the zone to his arm side. The heater was the weapon of choice on 16 of the 22 outs he recorded.

It's been said before, but "maybe next year" for the Mets.

3. Orioles continue to pound away

After taking three of four from the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles were back at it Friday night, blowing out the Minnesota Twins 9-1. Baltimore's pitching staff has been largely mediocre this season, but its offense packs a powerful enough punch to push the O's past the opposition on most nights. The club's .163 ISO -- isolated power measures the ability to hit for extra bases by stripping singles from slugging percentage -- is tops in the AL, trailing only the Colorado Rockies in the majors.

Chris Davis is having a disappointing season after his breakout 2013 campaign, but he hit another home run -- this one a grand slam -- on Friday that gives him seven in August and 24 on the season. While that is a far cry from last year's pace, Davis appears to be getting a bit more into the swing of things even if his average sits below .200.

In Davis' void, Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce have picked up the offensive slack. Cruz signed a one-year deal with Baltimore after a difficult time finding work on the open market. His 34 home runs lead the majors. Pearce was once a top prospect in the Pirates' system, but has spent most of his career shuttling between the majors and minors. This season, he has broken out in a big way with an OPS approaching .900 and 16 homers in limited action. He left Friday's game with an abdominal strain. Considering Manny Machado's injury, the team can ill afford to lose Pearce, as crazy as that may sound.

4. Verlander better versus White Sox

The Detroit Tigers have one of the game's top pitchers (Max Scherzer) and traded for another one (David Price) on July 31. Meanwhile, the team's former top hurler was on the mound Friday night, looking to close the gap in the highly contested AL Central race.

Justin Verlander has been off his game for most of this season. His ERA is approaching 5.00 and he has allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2006. Friday's effort was not vintage Verlander; however, it was still encouraging since he is no longer considered the team's top gun.

Facing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, Verlander worked seven innings, allowing one run on nine hits and two walks. He struck out seven batters, throwing 77 strikes in 116 pitches. It was the first time since April 17 that he allowed one run or none in a start.

Despite a recent run of inconsistency, the Tigers are within arm's reach of the division lead. With Anibal Sanchez's future in doubt, Verlander once again becomes a key figure in Detroit's rotation. If he can be just part of what he once was, it may go a long way in the club's quest for a fourth straight division title.

5. Young Cubs on the prowl

The Houston Astros have been painted by some as the poster boys of "process." Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have also been in rebuild mode and, unlike Houston, which may have some sour grapes among its bunch, their organizational tree is starting to bear fruit at the highest level.

Javier Baez was first to capture the nation's attention this summer with his risk-versus-reward approach at the plate. His big swings have left nearly an equal amount of oohs and ughs depending on whether he made contact or not. This week, the club promoted Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to the big leagues. That decision is already paying dividends.

Though he is just three games into his major league career, the 22-year-old Soler has seven hits in his first 12 plate appearances. On Friday, he recorded his first multi-home run game, belting a pair of homers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Soler's first homer was a solo shot in the seventh inning that tied the game at 2-2. Baez put the Cubs ahead 4-2 with an RBI double the next inning, but the big blast came once again from Soler, who smacked a two-run homer to left field. Two innings, two at-bats and two home runs that covered 858 feet. Not bad for the third night on the job.

As exciting as the win was for the Cubs, it was equally devastating for a Cardinals team that is clinging to an NL wild-card spot by the slimmest of margins.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.
Remember way back in 2008, when CC Sabathia was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and made his final three starts of the season on three days' rest, helping the Brewers to their first playoff appearance since 1982?

That seems like a generation ago.

Last September, there were seven starts across the majors made on three days' rest, but all seven came following a relief appearance, and the best guy to do so was Tom Milone of the A's. In fact, there were only 37 starts all season made on three days' rest. The only one made by whom I'll label a "top" starter was Matt Moore of the Tampa Bay Rays. He started on May 31 but pitched only one inning and then started on three days' rest (and lasted just two innings).

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFelix Hernandez is third in the American League in innings pitched (191.0).
This year, we've seen just 28 starts on three days' rest. I'm guessing most of those were similar relief-to-start scenarios. Justin Masterson did start and throw 4⅓ innings on May 18 and then started again four days later. That might be the only "legitimate" start on three days' rest all season. Other than an occasional postseason game, the three-day start is all but extinct.

In just a few short years, we've gone from "can an ace pitch on three days' rest if needed down the stretch to help our team get into the postseason?" to "should we give our ace more rest?"

Take Felix Hernandez. The leading contender for the American League Cy Young Award was scheduled to start Wednesday against the Texas Rangers, but Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon instead pushed him back to Friday against the Washington Nationals, meaning he'll be starting on six days' rest instead of four since Seattle had an off day on Thursday. McClendon said he wants to give all of his starters the two extra days of rest as the team heads into the stretch run. The decision resulted in some controversy and discussion across TV and radio on Thursday, as Erasmo Ramirez was called up from Triple-A and got bombed in a 12-4 loss to the lowly Rangers.

It's also not the first time McClendon has pushed Hernandez back from his regular four days of rest. Back in July, he held him back a day so he'd have Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young -- his three best starters -- lined up to face the A's. That was a strategic decision, and the Mariners did win two of three in that series, although Seattle lost a "bullpen" game 4-2 in the series finale to the Minnesota Twins.

In early August, McClendon gave his starters an extra day, telling Greg Johns of MLB.com, "Every chance I get to give them an extra day, I'm going to do it. I think we've done OK with it. Last time I checked, we had the best pitching in the American League, so why break something that's not broken? Keep doing it. Keep resting them. I want to protect them."

In the first half, Hernandez made 12 of his 19 starts on four days of rest (not including his Opening Day start) and the other seven on five days of rest. But since the All-Star break, Hernandez's days of rest have gone: seven, five, four, five, five, four, five and now six.

I'm not necessarily knocking McClendon for this. As he said, he believes he's helping his staff stay strong. Considering the injury histories of Young (extensive) and Iwakuma (he was never completely healthy in consecutive seasons in Japan), he's not pushing Felix back just to keep Felix strong.

But the side effect is clear: In the end, you're still trading a Felix Hernandez start for an Erasmo Ramirez start, and that's a huge, huge drop-off. At the end of the season, those extra days of rest mean you're going to miss an extra Felix start or two you could have otherwise received.

(For what it's worth, in his career, Felix has a 3.12 ERA on four days' rest, 3.08 on five days' rest and 2.93 on six or more, so the difference is negligible. Now, you or McClendon can take those numbers for what they're worth; maybe they'd be predictive for 2014, maybe not. Throughout the majors in 2014, the numbers are 3.83 on four days, 3.81 on five days and 4.11 on six days, not exactly evidence that more rest helps, which, again, doesn't mean that it doesn't keep the pitchers stronger for the stretch run.)

It's an interesting tactical decision for teams to make. The A's pushed Sonny Gray back an extra day for his Thursday start against the Los Angeles Angels, giving Drew Pomeranz the start on Wednesday. But Pomeranz is better than Ramirez and the A's also get Gray going against the Angels instead of the Houston Astros. Gray is also in his first full season in the majors, and there is some intent to limit his innings a bit.

With Adam Wainwright struggling since the All-Star break, and perhaps a little fatigued after throwing more innings last season than any pitcher in baseball, there has been talk the St. Louis Cardinals will give him an extra day or two before his next start, as six of his past seven starts have come on four days of rest. But the Cardinals don't necessarily have a great option to step in for a spot start.

It's easy to suggest managers need to ride their best pitcher, much like the Brewers did six years ago with Sabathia. Is that realistic? It doesn't seem like it. Even with the strict limits on pitch counts (Hernandez doesn't even have a complete game this year), managers are more cautious than ever in how they handle their rotations.

In the Mariners' case, however, what if McClendon looks up after the final day of the regular season and sees the Mariners one game short of the wild card?
I better write something about Wade Davis since the Royals' setup guy is having a terrific season -- 8-2, 0.77 ERA, five runs allowed with 87 strikeouts and just 28 hits in 58.1 innings entering Thursday. He hasn't allowed a run in his past 25 appearances, a span of 24.2 innings.

As unhittable as he's been, I just learned this from a comment on a Joe Posnanski story about Alex Gordon's MVP chances:
MoreHRs&LesNorman
August 28, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Joe–Please find video of the two “extra base hits” Davis has given up. The first was hit like a single but hit to left-center. It didn’t get to the wall, but it was enough for a double. The second was an opposite field bloop hit against the shift. Davis has not allowed a ball over the wall, a ball hit to the wall or a ball hit up the line ALL SEASON!!!


Sure enough, Davis has allowed just two doubles, no triples and no home runs. I went to the video.

On July 31, Kurt Suzuki lined an 0-1 curveball down the left-field line that Gordon scooped up before it hit the wall, but deep enough that Suzuki cruised into second.

On Aug. 15, Joe Mauer sliced a blooper right on the left-field foul line. Gordon actually made a diving effort and got there, but the ball popped out of his glove when it hit the turf.

So two doubles, only one struck well. Pretty amazing. I'm sure he's allowed other well-struck balls, of course, but only Suzuki's went for extra bases.

Overall, Davis has allowed a batting average of .139 and a slugging percentage of .149, giving him an "isolated power" allowed figure of .010. I assumed that would be the lowest ever (minimum 50 innings), but it's not. A reliever named Frank Williams for the 1986 Giants had an isolated power allowed of .006. In 52.1 innings, Williams allowed 35 hits -- just one for extra bases, a double. (He also allowed just one stolen bases while nine guys were caught stealing on his watch ... wow.) The Giants thought so much of his performance they traded him to the Reds in the offseason for outfielder Eddie Milner.

(Williams' story is interesting but sad. He started one game in his career ... and threw a shutout, as a rookie in 1984. According to this story by Tom Hawthorn of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Williams' best pitch was a slurve of sorts that he gripped deep in the palm of his hand. You can see from the baseball card photo in that story that Williams threw from a sidearm or three-quarters delivery. He took part in tough-man boxing matches in Idaho in the offseason. After his career ended, he explored his Native American roots, but his life fell apart with drug and alcohol use and the death of his twin brother and he eventually ended up living on the streets of Victoria, B.C., and died in 2009.)

Back to Davis. The lowest isolated power figures going back to 1957, from the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index:

1. Williams, .006
2. Davis, .010
3. Jim Johnson, 2008 Orioles, .016
4. Kevin Cameron, 2007, .023
5. Rob Murphy, 1986 Reds, .024

Nearly all of the pitchers at the top of the list are relievers. The only full-time starter to crack the top 75 is Nolan Ryan, in the 1981 strike season, pitching for the Astros. He allowed 99 hits that year in 149 innings -- just 10 for extra bases (seven doubles, one triple, two home runs). His ISO of .028 ranks eighth.

Davis' comeback from a bad 2013 season is a testament to his mental toughness as well -- he was one of the least valuable players in baseball last year when he went 6-10 with a 5.67 ERA in 24 starts before being mercifully moved to the bullpen, where he had excelled with Tampa Bay in 2012.

Obviously, his stuff plays up much better in shorter stints. I thought the Royals made the right decision a year ago to give him one more chance at starting, although Ned Yost waited too long to remove him from the rotation. Now he's one part of that awesome trio of Kansas City relievers, along with Kelvin Herrera and closer Greg Holland, a key reason the Royals lead the AL Central.
So you may have seen Brewers manager Ron Roenicke go off on umpire Mark Ripperger after the Brewers' 3-2 loss to the Padres on Wednesday. Roenicke said the Brewers have had Ripperger before "and he is terrible behind home plate" and admitted he probably should have been tossed from the game in the second inning. Roenicke was ejected after Rene Rivera tied the game with a home run in the ninth.

"He calls pitches that aren't even close," Roenicke said. "The catcher sets up six inches off the plate and he calls them strikes."

What apparently upset Roenicke were the first two pitches to Rivera from Francisco Rodriguez -- both significantly outside, both called balls, setting up a 2-0 fastball that Rodriguez threw down the middle. Roenicke's issue, I suppose, was that those pitches were called strikes earlier in the game.

According to our data at ESPN Stats & Information, Ripperger is actually pretty good at calling strikes -- with a "correct call" percentage of 89.5 on the season, he ranks above the overall average of 88.4. He didn't have his best game on Wednesday, with a correct call rate of 87.2 percent, although I doubt Roenicke could determine such a small number sitting on the bench. Here's the Brooks Baseball plot of Ripperger's called strikes.

Doesn't look like that bad of a game.

I'd add two things:

--Even if Ripperger had made some bad calls earlier, two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, although the one thing players and managers want from an umpire is consistency.

--If there's one team that shouldn't complain about the strike zone, it's probably the Brewers. Thanks to the pitch-framing abilities of Jonathan Lucroy (and backup Martin Maldonado, who is also very good), the Brewers probably benefit from more pitches out of the strike zone called strikes than any other team.

OK, let's go to the data on that one. According to the Baseball Savant web site, which parses PITCHf/x data, the Brewers are fifth in the majors in pitches out of the strike zone that are called strikes -- behind the Padres, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.

In other words, Roenicke better not hope we get robot umps while he still has Lucroy behind the plate. In the end, the Brewers are going to catch more breaks from the umps than their opponents.

Chalk this one up to a manager overreacting after a tough loss.

Last year, Yusmeiro Petit came within one out of a perfect game -- Eric Chavez hit a 3-2 fastball for a soft line drive to right field -- but now he got his name into the record books anyway, retiring his 46th batter in a row in Thursday's start against the Rockies.

Petit's streak goes back to July 22, when he retired the final batter he faced in a start against the Phillies; it wasn't a good one, as he allowed five runs in five innings. After that start, he was back in a mop-up role in the bullpen, before starting for Tim Lincecum on Thursday.

Here's the play-by-play of all 46 outs:

July 22 versus Phillies
1. Grady Sizemore grounded out to the mound.

July 26 versus Dodgers
2. A.J. Ellis flied out to center.
3. Clayton Kershaw grounded out to shortstop.
4. Dee Gordon struck out swinging.
5. Yasiel Puig struck out swinging.
6. Adrian Gonzalez grounded out to second.
7. Miguel Rojas struck out looking.

July 28 versus Pirates
8. Andrew McCutchen flied out to right.
9. Gaby Sanchez struck out swinging.
10. Neil Walker lined out to center.
11. Russell Martin grounded out to second.
12. Gregory Polanco popped out to third.
13. Brent Morel grounded out to shortstop.

Aug. 7 versus Brewers
14. Khris Davis flied out to deep center.
15. Rickie Weeks struck out swinging.
16. Mark Reynolds flied out to deep center.

Aug. 10 versus Royals
17. Omar Infante popped out to first.
18. Salvador Perez struck out swinging.
19. Billy Butler lined out to center.

Aug. 19 versus Cubs
20. Kyle Hendricks struck out swinging.
21. Chris Coghlan struck out swinging.
22. Javier Baez struck out swinging.
23. Anthony Rizzo struck out swinging.
24. Chris Valaika struck out swinging.
25. Luis Valbuena grounded out back to the mound.

Aug. 23 versus Nationals
26. Denard Span flied out to left field.
27. Anthony Rendon struck out looking.
28. Jayson Werth popped out to second.
29. Adam LaRoche flied out to left field.
30. Ian Desmond struck out swinging.
31. Bryce Harper popped out to shortstop.
32. Wilson Ramos lined out to right field.
33. Asdrubal Cabrera grounded out to first.
34. Jordan Zimmermann struck out swinging.
35. Denard Span struck out swinging.
36. Anthony Rendon flied out to deep right field.
37. Jayson Werth struck out looking.
38. Adam LaRoche grounded out to shortstop.

Aug. 28 versus Rockies
39. Charlie Blackmon lined out to right.
40. DJ LeMahieu struck out swinging.
41. Justin Morneau flied out to center.
42. Nolan Arenado flied out to center.
43. Corey Dickerson struck out swinging.
44. Brandon Barnes struck out looking.
45. Jackson Williams struck out swinging.
46. Charlie Culberson struck out swinging.

The streak ended when opposing pitcher Jordan Lyles doubled down the left-field line.

Petit isn't known as a big strikeout pitcher -- although he's striking out batters at a career-high rate this season -- but 21 of the 46 outs came on strikeouts. Not surprisingly, only seven of the outs were ground balls; since grounders go for hits more often than fly balls, a record like this requires strikeouts and fly balls. Plus, of course, excellent command, something Petit has always had.

Anyway, it's a pretty cool achievement. The previous mark of 45 was held by White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, set in 2009 over a three-start stretch, the middle one being his perfect game. The previous National League record of 41 in a row was set by Giants pitcher Jim Barr in 1972. Barr retired the final 21 batters on Aug. 23 and the first 20 on Aug. 29.

One of the fun things about the long baseball season is the crazy, random events that will happen. This is one of those, although in this era of dominant pitching, maybe it's not a surprise that Buehrle's record was broken. But I don't think anyone would have predicted Petit to be the one to do it.
So, these are the National League leaders in batting average entering Thursday:

1. Justin Morneau, Rockies -- .317
2. Ben Revere, Phillies -- .310
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates -- .307
4. Josh Harrison, Pirates -- .304
5. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers -- .304

Five other players -- Matt Adams, Daniel Murphy, Yasiel Puig, Paul Goldschmidt and Denard Span are also at .300 or above, although Goldschmidt will eventually fall off the qualifying leaderboards due to his season-ending injury (as Troy Tulowitzki already has).

Let's be honest here: This isn't exactly Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker dueling it out.

Morneau is a nice story, signing with the Rockies and having a nice season after struggling for years to perform at his usual All-Star level after suffering a concussion in 2010. Of course, hitting .317 or winning a batting title playing for the Rockies is hardly a unique achievement and Morneau hasn't hit .300 in a full season since 2008. Michael Cuddyer, another ex-Twin, won the NL batting title last season for the Rockies at age 34 -- after having never hit .300 before. Six different Rockies have won a total of eight batting titles. To be fair, Morneau isn't just riding Coors Field -- he's hitting .325 on the road and .310 at home.

In Revere's case, it's not so much that it's surprising that he's hitting .300 -- he hit .305 last year and .294 the year before -- it's that he's the perfect example of why batting average is overrated in the first place. He has no power (just one home run and 17 extra-base hits in 480 at-bats) and has just 11 walks. So while's second in the NL in average, he's just 41st in on-base percentage and 63rd in slugging percentage. Players like Revere are kind of what led to the whole creation of sabermetrics in the first place: There's more to creating runs than just getting singles.

Now, players of Revere's ilk have won batting titles before. Ichiro Suzuki won two titles, although compared to Revere he looks like Babe Ruth, and he hit .350 and .372 the years he won. Tony Gwynn had some years where he didn't hit for much power; in 1988, he won a title with a .313 average and just 34 extra-base hits (that's the lowest average to win a title since the mound was lowered in 1969). He also won the next year, hitting .336 with four home runs. Rod Carew won the AL batting title in 1972, hitting .318 with no home runs and just 27 extra-base hits. Matty Alou won the NL batting title in 1966 (.342) while hitting two home runs.

Still, Revere would easily be the "worst" batter to win a batting title. Here are the players with the lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging) to win a batting title:

Ben Revere, 2014: .696
Rod Carew, 1972: .749
Zach Wheat, 1918: .755
Dick Groat, 1960: .766
Tony Gwynn, 1988: .787
Matty Alou, 1966: .793
Pete Runnels, 1960: .795
Willie Wilson, 1982: .796

Those numbers don't adjust for the offensive environment of the season. OPS+ adjusts for that as well as home park. The worst five in this category, via Baseball-Reference.com:

Groat, 1960: 110
Runnels, 1960: 114
Billy Goodman, 1950: 117
Wilson, 1982: 118
Freddy Sanchez, 2006: 119

Revere's OPS+ is 96 -- below league average.

Under this method, Groat qualifies as the worst hitter to win a batting title. He hit .325/.371/.394 that year with two home runs and 32 extra-base hits. The average wasn't a complete fluke as he hit .300 three other times in his career. To show how times have changed, however, Groat also won the NL MVP Award as the Pirates won the pennant. Yes, he played shortstop and was regarded as the team leader (and wasn't a terrible choice with a 6.2 WAR that ranked seventh among NL position players), but the batting title most certainly helped.

Groat winning wasn't as strange as Goodman riding his .354 mark for the Red Sox to second place in the 1950 MVP vote. He was kind of the Josh Harrison of his day, playing all over for Boston, although he played in just 110 games and barely qualified for the title. Phil Rizzuto won the MVP but Goodman (four home runs, 68 RBIs) finished ahead of Yogi Berra, who only hit .322 with 28 home runs and 124 RBIs for the pennant-winning Yankees.

Anyway, if you like to follow the batting races, this year's NL race could certainly end up being one to forget. Although on the bright side it gives Phillies fans something to cheer for (although didn't they want to run Revere out of town last summer?).
1. A big night in the AL Central.

The Royals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins 6-1 ... which came a couple hours after David Price allowed -- not a typo -- nine consecutive hits in the third inning as the Yankees scored eight runs. Most of the hits were not cheapies, either. The inning went:

Single, double, single, double, single, single, single, infield single, single. Four of the hits were ground balls but only two of those were soft. Price became the first pitcher since Bob Forsch in 1989 to allow nine hits in a row. As our friend Jonah Keri tweeted, the Yankees scored more runs that inning than Drew Smyly has allowed in his five starts with Tampa Bay since being traded for Price.

As for the Royals, here's a stat: Before Tuesday, the Twins had lost just two games all season they led heading into the eighth inning. The Royals rallied two nights in a row in the ninth and eighth innings.

2. Speaking of Smyly ... he's good.

You don't want to overreact to five starts, but in those five starts Smyly has allowed just six runs. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday and allowing just two hits in seven innings, he became the second Rays pitcher to pitch at least seven innings and allow two hits or fewer in consecutive starts. Bottom line: For those who think the Rays didn't get enough in return for Price, think again; Smyly is more than just a back-end starter.

We all loved this trade for the Tigers because we overfocused for the Tigers, but it's fair to ask: How much is Dave Dombrowski sweating right now?



3. The Cubs are worth watching down the stretch.

I mentioned Javier Baez in non-pennant race news on Tuesday, and now we discuss Jorge Soler, the dynamic Cuban right fielder who debuted for the Cubs on Wednesday ... and promptly slammed a Mat Latos fastball for a home run in his first at-bat. Soler is the same physical presence as Baez but his minor numbers suggest a swing with a little more control: He struck out 48 times in 200 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A (hitting .340/.432/.700) compared to Baez's 130 K's in 388 at-bats. That's still a high strikeout rate, so he may face the same initial struggles as Baez. Soler's biggest issue has been staying healthy: He had a fractured tibia last year and had injuries to both hamstrings that forced him to miss most of April and May this year. But with 15 home runs in 62 minor-league games, the power potential resembles Baez's.

Now ... let's hope the Cubs call up Kris Bryant. I don't want to hear about service time and all that. He's ready for the big leagues.

4. Eric O'Flaherty, A's closer, for now.

Oakland's first save opportunity since Sean Doolittle went to the former Braves lefty, who has pitched well in limited action for the A's so far. He gave up a run to the Astros but preserved the 5-4 win. (The A's scored three off Chad Qualls in the top of the ninth, with Sam Fuld hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer.)

Also note: Drew Pomeranz, good outing. Pomeranz didn't replace Jason Hammel in the rotation, but was taking a start to give Sonny Gray an extra day of rest. But he pitched well enough if that Bob Melvin may give him another one.

5. Give these guys Gold Gloves.

1. Alex Gordon.
2. Juan Lagares.
3. Andrelton Simmons.

Maybe the three best defensive players in the game.


One of the byproducts of sabermetrics has been the change in how we view managers. For starters, general managers are now the off-the-field face of the organization. There was a time when Earl Weaver had a big role in determining his 25-man roster or Davey Johnson could tell Frank Cashen he wanted a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden on his team. Now the general manager pretty much says, "Here are the players I'm giving you." As a result, we discuss general managers and roster building and the like as much as we discuss in-game decisions. Where we used to rail against managers, we demand that GMs be fired.

Think about this also: We talk about managers in terms of, well, managing. How they manage players and their egos. How they manage the bullpen. How they manage pitch counts. How they manage a young player. How they manage the media.

Less often, we talk about them in terms of strategy and tactics. This picks up in the postseason, of course, as we scrutinize every pitching change and sacrifice bunt and realize nothing Ron Washington does seems to make sense, but the regular season is dissected and analyzed more in a big-picture mindset.

Then sabermetrics piles on and says a lot of the decisions managers make aren't really all that important: Lineup order doesn't matter all that much, one-run strategies are overrated. Even all the shifting we see these days? That's coming from the front offices and the stat nerds, not the manager on the bench.

But then we get games like Wednesday night's at Citi Field between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, a reminder that the big picture consists of 162 little pictures, and some of those little pictures depend on a key decision from the manager. Score a big 3-2 win here for the Braves in their battle for the wild card, with a big tip of the cap to skipper Fredi Gonzalez.

Here's what happened. After Andrelton Simmons made perhaps the defensive play of the season to save a run in the bottom of the eighth, the Braves took that 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
[+] EnlargeCraig Kimbrel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel might be money in the ninth, but a little bit of tactical chicanery didn't hurt the Braves' chances on Wednesday night.

All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel came on and showed some of the wildness that has made him a little less dominant this season (his ERA entering the game was all the way up to 1.76, and he'd blown four saves). Eric Campbell singled sharply to right field on a 3-2 fastball. Matt den Dekker got ahead 3-0 and eventually walked on a 3-2 fastball.

Due up for the Mets: Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada and the pitcher, Flores hitting .224 and Tejada .228. With David Wright and Daniel Murphy both apparently unavailable with injuries, the Mets' bench was thin, so manager Terry Collins didn't really have any pinch-hitting options since he had to save a hitter for the pitcher.

Collins elected to bunt with Flores. That itself is debatable. I would have swung away, my theory being that getting the tying run to third base against Kimbrel is less valuable than against most pitchers because Kimbrel's strikeout rate is so high. Plus, he had just walked a batter and has been wild all season, so who knows what happens if you don't give him an out. I'd rather hope to go 1-for-3 than 1-for-2.

Flores got the bunt down and both runners moved up, bringing up the light-hitting Tejada, who has just 12 extra-base hits in over 300 at-bats. Gonzalez faced a tough decision: Bring the infield in to cut off the tying run but increase the probability of a grounder or line drive going through the infield and winning the game for the Mets, or keep the infield back to at least preserve a better chance of keeping the game tied and sending it into extra innings.

This is a situation in which the numbers can't provide a "right" answer. You could attempt to analyze the probability of Tejada hitting a ground ball (41 percent of the time when he puts the ball in play) against Kimbrel, who allows grounders on 43 percent of his balls in play. But then you have to factor in that Kimbrel didn't look sharp. And you'd have to factor in the odds of Tejada hitting a hard grounder or a slow grounder, let alone a line drive.

Oh, and you have about 10 seconds to make your decision. Good luck consulting the charts there.

Gonzalez had to make a snap decision. Maybe it wasn't that difficult; after all, with Kimbrel you have a good chance of a strikeout anyway, even against a solid contact hitter like Tejada. But it's one with enormous risk, no? Most managers are going to play it safe there; managers, by nature, are risk-averse. If Tejada hits a seeing-eye single through the drawn-in infield, the Braves lose and Gonzalez is vilified by the fans and the media.

I'm guessing that Gonzalez's primary consideration was that Tejada doesn't hit the ball hard. With that in mind, he brought the infield in.

It worked. Tejada hit a slow-roller to third base and the Braves got the out at home plate. Kimbrel then got pinch hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis to fly out to shallow left and the Braves were a win closer in the wild-card standings, one game behind the Cardinals.

Sabermetricians often talk about the "process" -- stick to the right process and things will eventually go in your favor. Sometimes a right decision will backfire and a wrong decision will work. But it's the process that matters.

Well, sometimes it's the result that matters. Fredi Gonzalez went for the win and got it.
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You know what baseball is lacking this season? A bad guy. Who are we supposed to root against? The Red Sox are dead, the Cardinals are scuffling along and while the Dodgers have a huge payroll that fans love to despite, I find it hard to root against seeing Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig in the postseason.

Of course, lurking there, as always, are the New York Yankees. Back in January, after the Yankees had spent nearly $500 million in the offseason to lure in Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, plus a fewer other lesser parts, I wrote that they're still baseball's evil empire. In sports, we need a bad guy, and the Yankees' free agent orgy created another reason to root against them, even after they missed the playoffs last season.

SportsNation

Do you want to see the Yankees make the postseason?

  •  
    44%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    44%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,758)

The Yankees are 68-62, 3.5 games behind the Mariners for the second wild card. They've hung in there despite the injuries to the starting rotation, despite being outscored by 30 runs so far. Still, they're a pretty mediocre team, even with some of the deadline acquisitions. Tanaka was fun, the way he burst on to the scene. The Michael Pineda pine tar incident in April was amusing. But the thing with the 2014 Yankees? They're not in the least bit compelling. Even last year's patchwork squad of Triple-A retreads was sort of intriguing in a train wreck sort of way, amazing that such a depleted roster remained in the wild-card race most of the season.

This year's team is simply boring. Tanaka was great until he got injured, Ellsbury has been OK, but nobody is having a memorable, MVP-caliber season. It's mostly a roster of past-their-prime vets on the downward slope of their careers. Even the whole Derek Jeter retirement saga has grown tedious. Watching him play certainly isn't that interesting: He's an old, singles-hitting shortstop without any range. Yes, respect the amazing career he's had, but this isn't 1996 or 2004; it's 2014, and he's no longer a captivating player to watch except as a memory.

So I ask: Do you want the Yankees to make the postseason? Is October better with them in it, giving us that necessary foil? Plus one last swan song for Jeter? Maybe the return of Tanaka? Maybe Pineda pitching a playoff game in the cold autumn air with a big blob of pine tar on his neck?

My answer is no. And not because I'm a Yankees hater. There are simply teams with better October stories to tell. Jeter's has already been told, legend intact. I'd like to see Felix Hernandez or Mike Trout or Alex Gordon tell theirs.

Meet the ace of the Nationals

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
2:53
PM ET
Doug FisterAP Images/Alex BrandonDoug Fister has shown himself to be up to the challenge in 2014 with a 2.38 ERA.


It was a little more than nine months ago in this space that we made a bold prediction that new Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister would be a good sleeper choice for the NL Cy Young Award.

Fister doesn't have the dominance of Clayton Kershaw or the numbers of Johnny Cueto, but you could make a case for his appearing in the No. 3, 4 or 5 spot on the ballot should he continue pitching the way he has.

Fister has been everything the Nationals could have hoped for when they obtained him in a steal of a trade from the Detroit Tigers last winter. He enters Wednesday's start against the Phillies at 12-4 with a 2.38 ERA, the latter of which would rank third in the NL, but for his being a few innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title (which should correct itself after this game).

"Efficiency, groundballs, strikes, strikes and more strikes," Baseball Tonight analyst Dallas Braden said about Fister's success. "He's like a poor man's Roy Halladay."

In between his first start of the season, which came after missing a month with a lat injury (he allowed seven runs to the Athletics), and his most recent start, which came after having a small skin cancer removed from his neck (he yielded four runs to the Giants), Fister had a 1.82 ERA over 17 starts.

Fister’s numbers are similar to those from the first time he was traded, by the Mariners to the Tigers in midseason 2011. He went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and five walks in 70 1/3 innings down the stretch for a team that would lose to the Texas Rangers in the ALCS.

"I don't think there's anything different about him from when he was in Detroit," said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty.

When we made our prediction in December, we cited a few different factors as to why we liked Fister. One was that the Nationals would be a good team and would provide him the support to succeed. They've done so on both the offensive and defensive end. On offense, they've scored 88 runs for him in 19 games (4.6 per game). Defensively, they've done a much better job than the Tigers at turning batted balls into outs.

Opposing hitters had a .299 "reached-base" percentage on groundballs against Fister last season. This season, playing with an infield that rates much better defensively, that has dropped to .244. Similarly, opponents' reached-base percentage on balls hit in the air has dipped from .394 to .316.

Our other theory was that a move to the National League would help him significantly on two fronts -- through the benefit of facing lesser hitters (including the pitcher) at the bottom of the lineup and through the unfamiliarity factor that NL hitters would have with Fister's curve.

Score us partially right on this one.

The familiarity factor came into play, not with his curveball, but with his overall arsenal. Fister has actually cut back on his 12-to-6 curveball in favor of more two-seamers. Though his heater rarely exceeds 90 mph, Fister's 6-foot-8 frame and funky deliver hides the ball well.

Fister's fastball has among the most horizontal movement as any pitcher in the sport. What does that mean in practical terms? Here’s four ways of looking at it.

From McCatty: "Eighty-seven with sink and movement is harder to hit than 95 and straight."

From Braden: "Everything he throws is in, then out of the zone. He has a lot of moving parts in his delivery, but he does a great job of keeping a hitter off-balance."

From "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez: "He pitches to his strengths rather than the hitter's weaknesses."

From a major-league scout: "He gets great extension and finished his pitches. The closed landing makes it look like he's throwing around the corner. All his pitches look the same."

He's been able to command his fastball extremely well. The video-tracking service we use that rates batted balls as soft-hit, medium-hit, or hard-hit has Fister with an 11 percent hard-hit rate on his fastball, best of anyone with at least 100 innings pitched. His 1.1 walks per nine innings ranks best in the National League and third-best in the majors.

And those who do get on base don't go anywhere. Opposing batters are hitting .239 with men on against him. And the next stolen base he allows will be the first he's yielded.

Given that he was out for a month, Fister should be pretty fresh heading into the final month of the season and beyond. He's posted a 2.15 ERA over the last three September/Octobers. Even a bad start for him is now one in which he allows four runs, like his last one against the Giants.

Fister has shown his ace-like status in five games in which he pitched in the seventh inning or later with either the score tied or his team up by one or two runs. In those high-leverage moments against the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Giants, Braves and Rockies, he's faced 16 hitters, retired 14, and allowed no runs.

"Nothing bothers him," McCatty said. "He always seems very relaxed. When he's playing baseball, he's having fun."

And perhaps making a few Cy Young ballots to boot.

1. Madison Bumgarner says, "Don't you forget about the Giants."

Strange question from my chat session on Tuesday: "Time to blow up the Giants? Keep Posey, Bumgarner and start over?" I mean ... the Giants are holding one of the wild cards and at five games behind the Dodgers remain in shouting distance of the division title.

Anyway, while Clayton Kershaw has owned all the publicity allowed for left-handers on the West Coast, Bumgarner has quietly put together another Bumgarner season. It seems like he must be 30 years old already, but he just turned 25 earlier this month. He's young enough that if you were to bet on one active pitcher to win 300 games, you'd probably bet on Bumgarner; him or Felix Hernandez, I guess.

[+] EnlargeBumgarner
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMadison Bumgarner mowed down the Rockies with his characteristic pitch efficiency.
All that is a way of getting to Tuesday's game. It may not have been Bumgarner's most impressive performance of his career -- he did, after all, pitch eight shutout innings of three-hit baseball in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series as a 21-year-old rookie -- but it was certainly was the most dominant from a pure statistical point of view. Bumgarner took a perfect game against the Rockies into the eighth inning (with help from a great catch in left field by Gregor Blanco and a close call at first base that the Rockies didn't challenge), ruined when Justin Morneau lined a leadoff double into the right-field corner on a 1-2 curveball. It was actually a pretty good pitch, down below the knees, but Morneau managed to hook it just fair with sort of a half swing.

Bumgarner's final line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K's. Similar to Kershaw's no-hitter against the Rockies in which he struck out 15 with just the one runner reaching via error. Bumgarner's Game Score of 98 is second-best in the majors behind Kershaw's 102; unfortunately for Bumgarner, that's kind of par for the course for him -- just behind Kershaw. Although I'm sure Kershaw wouldn't mind owning Bumgarner's two World Series rings.

Bumgarner threw just 103 pitches against the Rockies, never more than 15 in one inning; that's his trademark, efficiency. He's usually able to pitch to deep into games without running up big pitch counts, although Bruce Bochy has taken the reins off a little this season and Bumgarner should sail past his career high of 208.1 innings in 2012. He was able to dominate the Rockies primarily with his fastball -- 30 two-seamers and 42 four-seamers, 57 of those 72 pitches for strikes. Nothing fancy going on here. It was really pitching at its most basic: Move your fastball around all quadrants of the zone, throwing nothing down the middle, mixing in a few offspeed pitches (although eight of his 13 K's came on fastballs).

While the Dodgers remain the heavy favorite to win the West, the Giants do have six games remaining against their rivals from Southern California. Certainly, the Giants' rotation is in scramble mode with Matt Cain out for the season and Tim Lincecum demoted to the bullpen -- at least for one start -- but one hot stretch by the Giants will make late September very interesting.

2. Alex Gordon: Sleeper MVP candidate.

Gordon had the biggest hit of the night in a night of big hits -- a two-run walk-off home run to give the Royals the 2-1 win over the Twins. Our pal Mark Simon writes that Gordon has the combination of offensive and defensive numbers to warrant MVP consideration.

Realistically, of course, Gordon has no shot. As good as he is in left field, the voters aren't going to give that a lot of emphasis. He ranks 18th in the AL in OBP, 21st in slugging, 19th in runs and 29th in RBIs. As we saw the past two years with Miguel Cabrera, the MVP Award is an offensive award ... although if the Royals make the playoffs, that will certainly help him finish in the top five.

3. Pennant fever slow to catch on in Kansas City and Baltimore.

The Royals and Orioles are in first place and played at home on Tuesday. The Astros outdrew both teams.

4. Javier Baez has a lot of growing to do.

In non-pennant race news, the heralded Cubs rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in the Cubs' 3-0 win over Johnny Cueto (Anthony Rizzo with his 30th home run). Baez has seven home runs in 21 games, but has also struck out an astounding 40 times in 90 plate appearances and already has four four-strikeout games. He's hitting .198 with just four walks. The talent is enormous and he's very young, but there's a chance he's more Dave Kingman in the long run or, as a reader compared on Twitter, a second-base version of the Astros' Chris Carter (which would be a valuable player, just not a huge star).

5. Put the fork in the Blue Jays.

Seven runs in the 11th inning? Ouch. The Jays lost 11-7 to Red Sox (they made it interesting with four runs of their own) to fall to .500. They're now 6.5 out of the second wild card with four teams ahead of them. Too many games, too many teams. The promise of early June -- they led the division by six games on June 6 -- is long gone.


I'm not sure it was the Pittsburgh Pirates' biggest win of the season, but watching from afar it sure felt like it. It may not even have been Ike Davis' biggest pinch-hit home run of the season -- back on April 5, he hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Reds -- but considering the opponent, the time of the season and how the game unfolded before Davis crushed a three-run shot to center field in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and deliver the Pirates a 5-2 win over the Cardinals, it was one of the blows to remember if this season turns to roses for Pittsburgh.

A few small-picture and big-picture thoughts off this game. ...

1. Andrew McCutchen departed in the sixth inning with discomfort in his left rib, the injury that forced him to recently miss two weeks. He left two innings after making a leaping grab against the wall that preserved the no-hitter Gerrit Cole was working on at the time. He batted one more time after the catch, striking out. Obviously, the MVP candidate isn't at full strength, although he did homer on Monday. Hopefully, this was more precautionary and not a severe re-aggravation. Despite missing the two weeks of action, McCutchen stands a good chance of winning back-to-back MVP honors, especially with a big September that pushes the Pirates into the postseason.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesGerrit Cole flirted with no-hitting the Cardinals, the latest proof he's the Pirates' indispensable starting pitcher.
2. Gerrit Cole looked terrific. In his second start since returning from a six-week stint on the DL with soreness in his right lat (he also missed three weeks in June with a sore shoulder), the hard-throwing second-year righty was dominant, with a no-hit bid until Kolten Wong doubled with two outs in the sixth. He averaged 95.7 mph on his fastball, maintaining the velocity he had in his last start, a good sign that he's healthy.

Leading 2-0 in the seventh, Clint Hurdle let Cole start the inning against Matt Adams, the Cardinals' lefty masher. Cole was at 105 pitches entering the inning, so it was a curious decision in this day in which pitchers rarely go much past 110. Why not bring in a lefty to face Adams to start the inning? By the time Adams doubled and Jhonny Peralta singled, the Pirates were in trouble. Tony Watson couldn't escape the inning as the Cards hit a sac fly and soft looper to center -- reminiscent of Monday's rally when a few seeing-eye singles gave the Cards a late comeback.

3. Ex-Mets great Davis to the rescue. With Pirates fans sensing doom and gloom after McCutchen's departure and the blown lead, Davis entered for Watson with two outs against righty Seth Maness and hit a 2-2 change to deep center -- a definite no-doubter that Davis watched and admired for a split second. Considering Davis is hitting .100 against lefties this year (granted, that's in just 32 plate appearances), it was a little surprising Mike Matheny didn't bring in Randy Choate, although maybe he suspected Hurdle would have countered with a right-handed bat. But considering McCutchen and also Pedro Alvarez (foot injury) had left the game, the Pirates' bench was already thin by then; I doubt Hurdle would have wasted Davis in a tie game.

Anyway, the other option would have been to have Pat Neskek and his 0.86 ERA pitch the eighth instead of Maness, but Matheny figured Maness could get through the bottom of the Pittsburgh order. Maness is certainly a serviceable middle guy, he just hasn't pitched at Neshek's level. You hate to lose games like this without getting your best guys in there. (Neshek had thrown 18 pitches on Monday, didn't pitch on Sunday, threw 16 pitches on Saturday but hadn't pitched in four days before then, so he appeared to be rested enough.)

4. First base and right field. As for Davis, he hasn't provided a ton of power in his platoon role at first but at least he has been getting on base with a .352 OBP. Last year, first base and right field were offensive problems for the Pirates (rectified somewhat late in the year with the additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd) and Davis was supposed to help that production as was rookie midseason call-up Gregory Polanco.

Their first basemen have a .232/.320/.376 line this year versus .264/.346/.422 last year (Garret Jones hit when he played first but not right field); their right fielders are hitting .247/.305/.345 compared to .242/.299/.385 last year and Polanco was just sent down to the minors.

The Pirates are scoring more runs this year (4.24 runs per games compared to 3.91), but it's not because they've upgraded their production from those two spots. Most of that credit goes to Josh Harrison and Russell Martin and a bench that has been more productive (in part because of Harrison).

5. Oscar Taveras needs to start hitting for the Cardinals. Part of the reason for trading Allen Craig in the John Lackey deal was the Cards' faith in their rookie right fielder, but Taveras is still muddling along at .233/.272/.306 with two home runs in 180 at-bats. Considering the Cards are still last in the NL in home runs, they desperately Taveras -- or somebody -- to start popping a few home runs.

Anyway, good game. It's not September yet, but it certainly had that September feel to it. The best part: Same two teams Wednesday afternoon, Adam Wainwright versus Jeff Locke, as Wainwright tries to turn around his second-half slump. The Pirates are 3.5 behind the Cards in the wild-card race, so it's a bigger game for them. Let's hope McCutchen is out there in center field.

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