SweetSpot: Cleveland Indians

Five things we learned Friday

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
1:40
AM ET

The big news of the night was the Kansas City Royals clinching their first postseason berth since 1985, ending the longest playoff drought in the majors. (That honor now belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays, last in the playoffs in 1993, when they won the World Series on Joe Carter's home run.) Doug Padilla was on the scene for the Royals' win over the White Sox, so he has that covered, but one quick note about the Royals before we get to five other things we learned on Friday.

The Royals don't have the best starting rotation in the American League -- they're fourth in ERA and that's playing in a pitcher's park with perhaps the league's best defense behind them. But it's a good rotation that has done a nice job of pitching deep into games. Only the Tigers have received more innings from their starters among AL teams. Now, the gap between the Royals and the bottom teams isn't large -- 80 innings -- but they've also thrown nearly 100 innings more than two years ago, before they acquired James Shields. When the Royals made that controversial deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, trading away top prospect Wil Myers, this is exactly why general manager Dayton Moore thought it necessary to add a guy like Shields. He's not the best pitcher in the league, not a Cy Young contender, but he's a durable workhorse who annually ranks among the leaders in innings. He led the AL last year with 228⅔ innings and has thrown 227 this year. He's been exactly what the Royals desired, and maybe it doesn't show up in the sabermetric evaluations, but you have to believe having a staff leader like him has had some effect.

So, congrats, Royals. The wild-card game isn't necessarily much of a reward if you go one and done, but there's always this: The Tigers lost. You're only one game from tying them for the division lead.

1. The Pirates win but suffer a potentially big loss.

The Pirates broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth with the Reds when Jay Bruce misplayed a line drive into a run-scoring, go-ahead double for Travis Snider, but their 17th win in 21 games came with potentially bad news when Russell Martin left the game after drawing a seventh-inning walk, his lingering battle with a sore hamstring getting the better of him. Martin didn't discuss the issue after the game but manager Clint Hurdle said, "Some days are better than others, and today it just seemed to be tougher for him to get loose." Chris Stewart will start Saturday afternoon. For a spell, it looked like the Pirates would tie the Cardinals for the NL Central lead when Arizona led early and almost rallied late, but …

2. The Cardinals win in extra innings to keep their one-game lead.

St. Louis caught a huge, huge break in this one. Leading 6-3 in the eighth, Pat Neshek couldn't hold the lead, and the Diamondbacks appeared to take the lead when Ender Inciarte hit a double over left fielder Jon Jay's head, which would have scored Arizona's seventh run … except the ball bounced into the stands and Didi Gregorius had to return to third base. Neshek got the next batter and Jhonny Peralta eventually delivered the go-ahead single in the 10th. (By the way, Peralta is a worthy top-10 guy on the NL MVP ballot.)

Michael Wacha had another mixed review. He gave up two runs in the first and then nothing else, leaving after 98 pitches and a leadoff single in the sixth, but he still walked three in his five-plus innings. If the Pirates do end up catching the Cardinals to force a one-game playoff, Wacha could potentially be in line to start the wild-card game. Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright will go on Saturday and Sunday.

3. The Oakland A's magic number is down to one.

Scott Kazmir has been the one Oakland starter struggling -- the first-half All-Star has a 5.42 ERA in the second half and owned an 8.58 ERA over his six previous starts entering Friday's game -- but he came up big in a 6-2 win over the Rangers, going seven innings and allowing four hits and just one earned run. Kazmir threw 72 percent strikes, his highest percentage since Aug. 8 and fourth highest of the year, throwing more cutters and fewer sliders than he had recently. "It's been a long time coming it feels like. Just feels good," Kazmir said. Keep an eye on Josh Donaldson's knee. He tweaked it in the third inning and played the rest of the game (he went 2-for-4) but looked hobbled and took it slow on the bases.

The Mariners held on to beat the Angels 4-3 as Fernando Rodney allowed a run in the ninth but recorded his 48th save in 51 opportunities, so Seattle needs two wins and two Oakland losses to force a Monday tiebreaker game.

4. Doug Fister might be the real ace of the Nationals.

Fister threw a brilliant, three-hit shutout in the first game of a doubleheader against the Marlins, clinching the NL's best record for the Nationals and a Division Series date against the wild-card winner. Fister improved to 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. While Fister fanned a season-high nine in this game, he's an anomaly in this age of strikeouts: He has just 98 in 164 innings, but he also has just 24 walks in 26 starts and induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls even though he tends to pitch up in the zone, a testament to the movement he gets on his two-seam fastball and ability to change speeds. Fister isn't starting Game 1 of the Division Series, but he has a 2.98 career postseason ERA in 48⅓ innings.

5. Corey Kluber couldn't keep the Indians alive but did help his Cy Young case.

Kluber finished his season with another dominant effort: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 SO. When Cody Allen closed out the 1-0 win, the Indians were still alive, but they were officially eliminated once the A's won. But Kluber's three-start finish -- 39 K's, including becoming the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 with back-to-back games of 14 strikeouts -- might have pushed him past Felix Hernandez as the Cy Young favorite. The final opposing-batter stats against Kluber's curveball: .091 (19-for-209), with no home runs, 126 strikeouts and five walks. Wow.

Hey, Carlos Carrasco is right

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
5:27
PM ET
Cleveland Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco apologized after criticizing his teammates' defense after Monday's loss.

"You know what? Everything was good. Everything went perfect," Carrasco said on Monday. "We should've made those plays right there. That cost me two runs."

OK, you shouldn't call out your teammates like that in public, at least if you want friends in the clubhouse. On the other hand ... Carrasco was kind of right. The defense didn't help.

Here's the first play, an Eric Hosmer line drive off the glove of first baseman Chris Gimenez. Hit hard but should have been caught. Gimenez hasn't played much first base -- he's that rare breed of catcher/outfielder. Here's the second play, a grounder off the glove off shortstop Jose Ramirez, with the infield pulled in. Again, catchable.

As Stephanie Liscio of It's Pronounced "Lajaway" wrote,
Nothing says critical September game like starting Chris Gimenez at first base. While I hate to nitpick over someone filling in for a player getting a day off, I can't help but wonder if that play in the first goes down differently with Carlos Santana at first. Although, even if they did have a tighter defensive performance, you're not going to win any games with zero runs.


The bigger issue is that Cleveland's defense has been a major problem all season. According to Defensive Runs Saved, the Indians' defense has been 78 runs below average -- worst in the majors. Using a much simpler statistic, Defensive Efficiency -- the percentage of balls in play turned into outs -- the Indians are 25th in the majors. They also lead the majors in errors. No matter how you measure it, it's been a bad defensive team. With league average defense, they could be leading the AL Central.

It's not that surprising that Cleveland's defense has struggled; they were minus-42 runs last year and returned largely the same cast of fielders. The biggest culprits have been third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (-16 DRS), outfielder David Murphy (-14), second baseman Jason Kipnis (-12), third baseman/first baseman Santana (-10), center fielder Michael Bourn (-9) and former shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (-7). Again, none of those numbers should be especially surprising with the exception of Murphy, who always rated well in the outfield while with the Rangers. When the Indians signed Bourn two years ago, it was in part for his range in center field, but he's battled leg issues, is now 31 and has clearly lost a step out there.

(It's this poor defensive support that creates a boost to Corey Kluber's Cy Young case.)

By trading Cabrera, the Indians should improve defensively at shortstop next year, whether it's Ramirez or top prospect Francisco Lindor. Kipnis and Chisenhall, however, are pretty much locked into spots, although there's been some talk of moving Kipnis back to the outfield, where he played in college. Bourn is signed for two more years, but doesn't hit enough to warrant a starting spot if his defense is no longer above average. If Kipnis would be an improvement in center, maybe they move him there, slide Ramirez over to second, make Bourn a fourth outfielder and find a better glove for right field. If you do that, maybe you're stronger defensively at four positions next year.

That doesn't help this year. The Indians had a lot go right with Kluber's monster year, the second-half emergence of Carrasco, Michael Brantley's stellar season that should land him in the top-10 of MVP voting and Yan Gomes putting up excellent numbers behind the plate. In a weak AL Central, it could have been their division.
The Kansas City Royals began their Monday evening of baseball activities by officially losing that suspended game to the Cleveland Indians, although they made it interesting by scoring a run and having the tying run at second when Omar Infante popped out to end the game.

So the Royals headed into the regularly scheduled action two games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and one game ahead of the Seattle Mariners for the second wild card.

Then, in the bottom of the first inning, leading 1-0 after the Indians gifted the Royals a run with some shoddy defense, Danny Duffy was suddenly staring at the bases loaded, no outs, and Royals fans watching with their guts in their throats.

When you've lost for 30 years, a moment like this feels like the moment of the season, at least until the next one tomorrow or the day after that. Remember, Duffy had lasted one pitch in his previous start on Sept. 6 before leaving with shoulder soreness. So when he walked Michael Bourn on five pitches and Jose Ramirez lined a single into left and Michael Brantley singled off Duffy's glove to load the bases, I imagine Royals fans saw three decades of misery flash before their eyes: George Brett's final years; Hal McRae's tirade; the trades of Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye; that first 100-loss season in 2002, soon followed by three more; Runelvys Hernandez; a guy named Eduardo Villacis, barely out of A-ball, called up to start a game at Yankee Stadium (he pitched poorly) and released two weeks later; Dee Brown; Emil Brown; Adrian Brown; a 19-game losing streak; the time Chip Ambres dropped a fly ball to lose the game; The Process; Jeff Francoeur; Ned Yost deciding that pinch hitting Carlos Pena was a good idea.

Yes, when you've lost a lot your brain goes to dark areas with bad thoughts. With the bases loaded, it seemed like everything in 2014 was on the line. Nobody knew that the Mariners were on their way to a 14-4 blowout loss in Toronto, or that Detroit would lose 2-0 to the White Sox.

And then Danny Duffy pitched out of it, and saved the Royals' season.

The key pitch was the first one to cleanup hitter Carlos Santana, a 95 mph fastball up in the zone. Santana had destroyed the Royals on the season: .350 with seven home runs entering that at-bat. He was looking fastball, got his arms extended ... and just missed, sending a pop fly harmlessly into shallow center that second baseman Infante corralled.

Duffy battled Yan Gomes: a fastball at the knees that Gomes thought was low; a sharp-breaking curveball for a strike; a 96 mph fastball fouled off -- yes, Duffy's stuff is as electric as that of any lefty in the game, as evidenced by the .201 average against him entering the game -- and then a curve fouled off. At 2-2, Duffy threw another curve, at the letters, Gomes took it and plate ump Lance Barrett rang him up.

That brought up Mike Aviles, a former Royal. Of course. It was a great nine-pitch duel, Aviles fouling off four pitches with two strikes. Duffy threw four straight curves and Aviles hit the fourth one to right field for the third out.

Disaster averted. A 24-pitch inning that Royals fans should tuck away in their back pockets, to remember if the team goes on to make its first playoff appearance since 1985.

From there on, Duffy was great, holding his pitch count down enough to last six innings with no runs, and hand the ball over to rookie Brandon Finnegan (the 17th overall pick in June from TCU who now has five scoreless appearances in the majors) for the seventh, Wade Davis for the eighth and Greg Holland for the ninth. It was a 2-0 victory and now the Royals are two up on Seattle and just one game behind Detroit. The Indians, essentially needing a sweep to stay in the wild-card race, dropped 3.5 games behind the Royals.

The Royals haven't locked up anything, of course. Royals fans know that. There's still plenty of time for some inappropriate bunting from Yost. But Duffy will get another start, the back of the bullpen is terrific, the Mariners have appeared to hit the wall and there is at least a little breathing room.

So the wild card looks good. And the division title is still up for grabs. Twenty-four pitches to remember.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
1:35
AM ET
Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at the world-famous Hunt for October page.

1. This is how Mariners fans feel right now. Mariners rookie James Paxton was filthy, matching zeroes with Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson into the seventh inning. Then came a one-out single and soft liner to right that Chris Denorfia let bounce past him, Howie Kendrick scoring from first. Then an intentional walk to Erick Aybar for reasons I don't understand. And then, with two outs, C.J. Cron blasted a loud and long home run off reliever Danny Farquhar. Just like that it was 4-0, the Angels clinched a tie for the AL West title (and later won it as the Rangers rallied to beat the A's in the ninth) and the Mariners' wild-card dreams took a hit as they fell two games behind the Royals.

C.J. Wilson was terrific in his own right, allowing just one hit in seven innings, although the Mariners are pretty inept against southpaws. It was the first time Wilson went seven in 14 starts -- and he went five innings or less in half of those 14 starts. So this was a much-needed strong outing from Wilson as the Angels look to line up their playoff rotation, especially with the iffy status of rookie sensation Matt Shoemaker, who will miss his next start with a mild oblique strain. (Shoemaker said on Wednesday that he's feeling better: "The positive part is it feels better every day. It’s not getting worse. They said it’s going to linger for a few days, and hopefully after a few days it will be gone."

The Angels clinched and they're also three games up on the Orioles for the best record in the league. Would you rather face the wild-card winner or the AL Central winner in the first round? I guess that depends on the opponent. Either way, they'll need Wilson to come up big.

2. Here come the Giants! Crazy day in the NL West as the Giants scored twice in the ninth to beat the Diamondbacks 4-2 -- pinch-hitter Matt Duffy delivered a two-run single -- and the Rockies pounded the Dodgers 16-2. Dodgers starter Carlos Frias, filling in for sore-shouldered Hyun-Jin Ryu, allowed 10 hits while getting two outs, apparently becoming the first starter since 1900 to allow that many hits while getting fewer than three outs. Ouch. The big picture: The Dodgers' lead is down to three games and they're suddenly scrambling in the rotation once you get past Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Before their huge series in San Francisco that starts on Monday, the Dodgers travel to Wrigley this weekend for four games and the Giants to San Diego for three.

3. Maybe that Adam Wainwright guy is OK. Is it time to stop worrying about that little dead-arm slump Wainwright was in? Locked into a great duel with Mike Fiers -- who took a no-hitter in the sixth before Wainwright singled -- Wainwright tossed a nifty 102-pitch, seven-hit shutout for his MLB-leading 19th win. Suddenly, he's Mr. Ace again: Two runs in 26 innings over his past three starts.

It was a tough loss for Fiers, who showed some mental toughness with a good outing after hitting Giancarlo Stanton in his previous start. He deserved better. With Matt Holliday on first in the seventh, Matt Adams hit a slow ground ball that bounced through the shift and center fielder Carlos Gomez bobbled the ball, allowing Holliday to score all the way from first when he threw the ball into second base instead of home.

With Pittsburgh winning, the Brewers dropped to 2.5 games behind the Pirates. Milwaukee has one more game with St. Louis before squaring with the Pirates in Pittsburgh this weekend. No matter the results of Thursday's game, the Brewers will essentially be in a "must sweep" scenario against the Pirates.

4. Chris Sale can be beat. Which is good news for the Royals because they touched up the AL ERA leader (well, Sale is now second in ERA to Felix Hernandez) after giving up nine hits and five runs in five innings. Lorenzo Cain, who a week ago was batting eighth and is now hitting third (Ned Yost, everyone!), hit a three-run homer in the third inning and then Alcides Escobar torched Sale in the fourth. It was just the third time Sale has allowed five runs and the nine hits are the second-most he's allowed in a game -- the Orioles got him for 11 back on June 23. The Royals are now a half-game behind the Tigers for the division lead and two up on Seattle for the wild, the usual "suspended game against Cleveland" not included.

5. Indians barely alive. Carlos Carrasco tossed a dominant two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout over the Astros. His Game Score of 94 tied for the sixth-highest of the season. Do the Indians have any shot at the wild card? Very slim, as they trail the Royals by five games. But they do have a series against Kansas City next week. Get some help from Detroit this weekend, sweep the Royals and hope Seattle falters and you never know. Because ... baseball.
We probably spend way too much discussing and arguing about awards, but it's fun and fans like to argue about these things, so straight to the numbers. There are, I'd suggest, five reasonable Cy Young candidates in the American League:

 


Pitcher W-L ERA R/9 IP H BB SO HR OPS FIP Felix GS bWAR fWAR
Felix 14-5 2.14 2.47 219.0 160 41 225 15 .551 2.59 20 65.5 6.8 5.8
Kluber 16-9 2.54 2.87 219.2 195 48 244 14 .631 2.47 17 61.7 6.3 6.5
Sale 12-3 1.99 2.31 163.0 116 34 192 11 .543 2.46 11 66.4 6.5 5.3
Lester 15-10 2.45 3.06 205.2 181 46 206 15 .633 2.81 13 60.8 4.3 5.7
Scherzer 16-5 3.26 3.34 207.1 184 58 237 18 .661 2.88 12 59.3 5.6 5.2


(Some of the numbers above: OPS is OPS allowed; FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching; Felix -- named in honor of Felix Hernandez -- is the number of starts a pitcher had where he went at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer; GS is average Game Score; and bWAR and fWAR are from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.)

A few weeks ago, Hernandez appeared to be a Cy Young lock, with that stretch of 17 Felixes in a row, an all-time record. Over his last six starts, however, he has just one win and a 3.03 ERA. OK, that's not bad when your bad stretch still produces a lower ERA than Max Scherzer has on the season. Hernandez's main culprit in this period has been the home run: After allowing seven in his first 25 starts, he's allowed eight in those six, including four in one game to the Nationals.

Still, this little slump has allowed others to jump into the race. Corey Kluber had another outstanding effort on Tuesday, striking out a career-high 14 to earn his 16th win and lower his ERA to 2.54. He has a 1.84 ERA since the All-Star break and his FanGraphs WAR has also edged ahead of Hernandez's. While Hernandez's changeup is regarded with awe, it's time to view Kluber's curve with same level of appreciation, as opponents are hitting .094 against it in 198 plate appearances with no home runs and 113 strikeouts.

Chris Sale leads the AL with a 1.99 ERA, despite pitching in a tougher park for pitchers than Hernandez. He's closing in on Hernandez in both bWAR and fWAR and starts Wednesday against the Royals. The Condor's slider is reminiscent of another tall, slim lefty: Randy Johnson. Opponents are hitting .135 off it with just four extra-base hits (two home runs).

Jon Lester is close behind in ERA, innings and WAR, but he's also allowed 14 unearned runs, so his actual runs allowed per nine is significantly higher than Hernandez's. Scherzer's ERA is higher but he has solid peripherals; keep in mind that his ERA was hurt by that 10-run outing to the Royals -- all earned runs.

One category I like to look at is dominant performances. That's why I like the "Felix" -- if you go seven and allow two runs or fewer, you should win, or you've at least put your team in position to win. It's a better quick-and-dirty method than quality starts (six innings, three runs or fewer), which don't work as well in this era of depressed offense.

As you can see, Lester and Scherzer trail Hernandez significantly in that area. They've been terrific, but I feel comfortable knocking them off the list.

The problem I have in giving Sale the edge over Hernandez is that large gap in innings -- Hernandez has pitched 56 more innings. So why is Sale so close in WAR? The quality of opposition has been about the same (4.35 runs scored per game on average for Hernandez's opponents, 4.28 for Sale's), so it's all about park effects. But Felix has a 2.16 ERA at home and 2.11 on the road. This isn't a Sandy Koufax type of situation, where Hernandez derives an obvious and large benefit from Safeco Field. Maybe Sale has been slightly better on a per-inning basis, but I can't get over that gap in innings and the benefit has created in resting the bullpen.

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That leaves Kluber. He's got the innings, the strikeouts and more wins than Felix. He's faced an easier group of opponents -- 4.09 runs on average -- and his runs per nine innings is still 0.40 higher than Felix's. That's a minor knock against him.

It could come down to wins, especially if Kluber gets up to 18 by the end of the season and Felix remains stuck at 14 or 15. But we probably all know the tough luck Felix has pitched in this year. Hernandez has seven games where's he allowed no runs or zero runs, tied for most in the majors (with Jeff Samardzija and Hector Santiago). Sale has six such games and Kluber four. If we increase the runs allowed to two, Hernandez has had 11 such starts where he didn't get the win, compared to eight for Sale and seven for Kluber.

I still think Felix is the guy. But it's close enough that these final two starts for each pitcher could make a difference.

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
10:12
PM ET
Two weeks to go. Two weeks of gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, pacing-in-front-of-the-TV baseball if you're a Kansas City Royals fan, hoping to see your team make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.

Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.

1. Are the A's safe now?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJon Lester improved his record to 4-3 with the A's.
I think so. Consider where Oakland stood early in Saturday's game, having lost to the Mariners on Friday and then trailing Felix Hernandez 1-0 in the sixth inning. If Seattle holds on to win that game, they would have passed the A's in the wild-card standings. Instead, Oakland won 3-2 in 10 innings as Sonny Gray matched up with King Felix (even going an inning deeper) and then Fernando Rodney walked four batters in the 10th. On Sunday, Jon Lester survived four walks to pitch six shutout innings and the Mariners went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the A's won 4-0.

Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.

Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.

2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?

Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.

Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).

Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?

3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?

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The Royals will definitely get their mental toughness tested after losing three of four to the struggling Boston Red Sox. The Royals led the Red Sox 4-3 on Sunday when manager Ned Yost turned to his bullpen to relieve Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.

4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?

Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.

5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?

Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.

6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?

You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.

7. Key injury to watch this week?

Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.

8. Biggest series to watch this week?

Here are three:

  • Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
  • Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
  • Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
9. Biggest series to watch next week?

Three more for the final week:

  • Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
  • Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
  • Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
10. So ... are we supposed to get excited about this wild-card stuff?

Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.

Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.

I guess that's something to get excited about.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
1:06
PM ET
A couple of scary, horrible moments Thursday night cast a pall across the league as first the otherworldly Giancarlo Stanton was drilled in the face by Mike Fiers and had to be removed from the stadium via stretcher. He suffered multiple facial fractures. Moments later, Chase Headley was hit in the chin with a pitch, also drawing blood. It's a reminder how incredibly dangerous this game can be and how tremendously focused these players are to be willing to stand in there. Here's to hoping for a speedy recovery to both. Buster Olney wonders if it's time to consider protection for hitters. Remember, it took an injury to a star catcher (Buster Posey) to marshal enough support to change the rules, so this could be a similar inflection point.

And hot off the press: the Orioles are losing Chris Davis for the rest of the regular season (and into the post-season) due to testing positive for amphetamines, a tough break for the AL East leaders.

On to the best from around the SweetSpot Network this week:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Deep thoughts about Inciarte: Despite being seventh or eighth on the major league depth chart when the season began, Ender Inciarte has put up 2.1 fWAR this season, mostly through outstanding defense. Jeff Wiser investigates. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
The 2008 Chicago Cubs: Great team or overachievers? Chet West takes a break from the less than stellar year that is the 2014 Cubs to look at the last team they sent to the postseason. Follow on Twitter: @chetwest19.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
What holes should the White Sox fill?: James Fegan takes a look at where the suddenly flush-with-cash White Sox should look to throw money at in free agency. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.


Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
Carrasco's historic streak continues: Ryan McCrystal takes a look at Carlos Carrasco's recent hot streak, and how it puts him in some elite company in the Indians' record book. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Back to school special: Juggling sports and school is tough. As kids across the country return to school, Richard Bergstrom polled Rockies players Brooks Brown, Charlie Culberson, Tyler Matzek, Ben Paulsen, Josh Rutledge and Drew Stubbs about what they liked about school and how they were able to balance athletics and grades. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.


Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Could Doug Mientkiewicz be the next Twins manager? If Ron Gardenhire is gone after this season, a former Minnesota first baseman could be positioning himself as the team's managerial successor. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Has Mark Teixeira finally learned to beat the shift? Katie Sharp looks at the BIP trends to see if Teixeira is finally changing his approach. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Should Yankees sign Victor Martinez this offseason? Matt Bove weighs Martinez as a free agent option to help the ailing Yankee offense in 2015. Follow on Twitter: @RAYROBERT9.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
1:14
AM ET
The big story, sadly, was Giancarlo Stanton getting hit by a pitch. In fact, that was a disturbing theme of the night: Mike Trout got hit twice (leading to retaliation from the Angels); Derek Jeter got hit; Starling Marte got hit and had to leave the Pirates' game and Andrew McCutchen nearly got hit in the head. Some ugly stuff all night long.

Here are five other important results from the day and here's the Hunt for October page with standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule.

1. The Yankees were the big winners.

They go from nearly getting no-hit for the first time since 2003 (when six Astros did the trick) -- the Rays' Alex Cobb lost it with one out in the eighth when Chris Young doubled to right-center -- to winning in dramatic fashion when Young hit a three-run, walk-off homer off Jake McGee with one out in the ninth, capping a comeback that had them down 4-0 in the eighth. The A's lost and the Royals lost, so the A's lead over the Tigers for the first wild card is down to one game and the Yankees are now just four games behind the Tigers for the second wild. Hey, you never know ...

2. Carlos Santana is having a better season than you realize.

Remember when Santana was hitting .159 on May 25? That's when he went down with a concussion and missed 10 games. That time off seemed to have cleared his head in more ways than one. Since June 6, he's hitting .278/.394/.534 with 21 home runs and 60 RBIs -- he's tied for second in the majors in home runs since then and eighth in RBIs. He homered in both ends of the Indians' doubleheader against the Twins on Thursday as Cleveland won 8-2 and 2-0 and he's up to .235/.369/.449 for the season with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs while leading the majors in walks. Yes, those first two months count, but he's rebounded to have a solid season at the plate.

3. NL Central race is back on.

Francisco Liriano was great for the Pirates (12 K's, no runs in eight innings) in a 4-1 win over the Phillies and Johnny Cueto was great for the Reds in a 1-0 win over the Cardinals, Cincy's third straight win over St. Louis. The Cardinals' lead over the Pirates is back down to 2.5 games. The schedule still points to the Cardinals -- they have Colorado, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, the Cubs and Arizona the rest of the way, while the Pirates have the Cubs, Boston, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Cincinnati -- but the Pirates are at least putting some pressure on them.

4. Kansas City's defense has a bad day.

The Royals are usually very good on defense but they made three errors and failed to make a couple other plays they should have made, helping the Red Sox to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss. With Danny Duffy out, Royals manager Ned Yost started Liam Hendriks, the former Twin and Blue Jay with the 5.89 career ERA. He wasn't good and got knocked out in the third inning (although the defense didn't help). With a deep bullpen, maybe Yost could have considered being a little creative and turned it into a "bullpen" game, kind of like the Angels have done recently (including Thursday) with Cory Rasmus, even knowing he's only going to last a few innings at most. I'd rather see that approach rather then expecting Hendriks to pitch a good game.

5. At least Scott Kazmir pitched a good game.

Unfortunately for the A's, Chris Sale was better. White Sox 1, A's 0. Those Bob Melvin postgame interviews are getting depressing.

Five things we learned Friday

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
12:41
AM ET
1. James Shields delivers a gem.

Shields has often been mocked for his "Big Game" nickname, but if the past two months are any indication, he might have earned the right to put it on the back of his baseball card.

Shields pitched another gem on Friday night, blanking the Yankees over 8 1/3 innings in the Royals' 1-0 win. He dominated the Yanks' lineup, retiring the first 11 batters he faced and holding the Yankees to just three hits.

With the Royals clinging to a slim lead in the American League Central, Shields was masterful in keeping Kansas City ahead of the Tigers in the division and on pace to snap the franchise's 28-season postseason drought.

Shields has cemented himself as the team's ace over the last two months, posting a 2.26 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP in 12 starts since July 7. In that span, he's allowed more than three earned runs just once, while going at least seven innings in seven of those 12 outings.

Like a true ace, he has also stepped up against the best competition over this two-month stretch, allowing only seven runs in four starts combined against the A's, Giants and Tigers.

With Shields at the top of his game and backed up by perhaps the most dominant bullpen in baseball, the Royals may have found the perfect formula to give their fans a taste of October for the first time in nearly three decades.

2. What might have been for Michael Pineda and Yankees.

The Yankees' playoff hopes are on life support following their brutal 1-0 loss to the Royals, as they wasted another brilliant effort by Pineda and fell even further back in the AL wild-card race.

The Yankees' rotation has been crippled by injuries this season, and perhaps none has been more significant than the four months that Pineda missed this season with a muscle strain in his shoulder.

Pineda has quietly pitched to a 1.80 ERA in nine starts, allowing no more than two runs in each game. The only starting pitcher with a lower ERA and at least 50 innings pitched this season is Clayton Kershaw (1.70).

Given Pineda's excellence on the mound, you can't help but wonder where the Yankees would be in the postseason race if Pineda had been healthy all year. Could they have challenged the Orioles for the AL East crown? Would they be looking up at multiple teams in the wild-card standings?

Some might say the answer is no, given the fact that Pineda can't hit and an underachieving offense has been the Yankees' biggest deficiency this season. Pineda knows all too well about the Yankees' slumping bats -- the team has given him just 16 runs of support during his nine starts.

3. Indians still very much in playoff race.

Although the Indians have hovered near .500 most of the season, they have stuck around in the playoff race by winning games like they did on Friday night against the White Sox.

They got another dominant effort from their starting pitcher, as Indians rookie T.J. House threw one-run ball over seven innings, lowering the rotation's ERA since Aug. 1 to an MLB-best 2.55. And the Indians got another clutch hit in extra innings, as pinch hitter David Murphy drove in the winning run on a base-loaded single in the 10th to give the Indians their AL-leading 11th walk-off win this season.

The Indians know something about September comebacks -- last year they went 21-6 in the final month to claim an AL wild-card spot -- and I wouldn't bet against another rally down the stretch this season, especially after Friday night's dramatic victory.

4. Marlins can play spoiler down the stretch.

The Marlins have a 1 percent chance to make the postseason, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to play for in September. In fact, they might be the senior circuit's biggest spoiler team, with a chance to significantly impact the NL wild-card race.

They played that role on Friday night, handing the Braves their third loss in the last four games and dropping them one game back in the wild-card standings. The Marlins are now 9-8 against Atlanta this season, with two more games left in the season series this weekend.

The Fish then travel to Milwaukee on Monday for four games against the team that the Braves are chasing in the wild-card standings. By the time that series is over, we may have a good idea of who is primed to take the second NL wild-card spot, and the Marlins will have played a huge part in deciding the fate of both teams in the hunt.

5. Brewers put an end to their losing ways.

There is finally something for Brewers fans to cheer about this month, as Milwaukee snapped its nine-game skid with a 6-2 win over the Cardinals at Miller Park.

Mike Fiers pitched another gem and Scooter Gennett drove in three runs, allowing the Brewers to pull to within three games of the Cardinals in the NL Central and reclaim sole possession of the NL's second wild card.

Fiers entered the rotation in the August after Matt Garza landed on the disabled list with a strain in his rib cage, but has hardly been a replacement starter, delivering a 1.94 ERA and a quality start in each of his nine outings.

The Brewers still have five more games remaining against the Cardinals, so there is still plenty of time to catch them in the division race. However, the Redbirds appear to have the easier schedule down the stretch with 16 of their 21 remaining games coming against below .500 teams, compared to 13 for the Brew Crew.

Katie Sharp blogs about the Yankees for SweetSpot network affiliate It's About the Money, and can be followed on Twitter at @ktsharp.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:18
AM ET
1. The NL West race is heating up.

The Giants pounded the Brewers 15-5 to win their sixth in a row. They had two blowouts over Milwaukee but the pitching had its best week of the season, giving up 14 runs in seven games (three of those coming late on Sunday when Tim Lincecum made a relief appearance). After beginning the week five games behind L.A., now they're 2.5 games behind the Dodgers and have just nine games remaining against winning teams -- three against the Tigers and six against the Dodgers (they're 7-6 against the Dodgers). To be fair, the Dodgers are also have nine games left against winning teams (subbing the Nationals for the Tigers), so it appears this race could come down to the head-to-head showdowns later in September. If Buster Posey hits like he did in August -- .336, six home runs -- the Giants, without Matt Cain, with Lincecum banished to the bullen, can catch the Dodgers.

2. The Indians suddenly matter.

Sunday's game in Kansas City was suspended in the bottom of the 10th with the Indians up 4-2 and will be finished later in September when the Royals visit Cleveland, but the Indians are now just 3.5 behind the Royals, 2.5 if they hold on to this lead. As Christina Kahrl writes, the Indians are now stealth playoff contenders, both for the division title and the wild card. Next up: A big four-game series at home against then Tigers, kicking off with David Price facing Corey Kluber.

3. Bryce Harper finally looks healthy.

Harper crushed two long home runs on Sunday, although the Nationals lost to the Mariners (but still won the series). When Harper first came off the DL, either his timing was off or his thumb was still bothering him, but he's in a groove now and looks much better. In his past 23 games, he's hitting .307 with seven home runs.

4. Alex Wood comes up big for the Braves.

Wood's line in a 1-0 win over the Marlins: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 12 SO. His final two outs were strikeouts before he turned it over to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Wood is 10-10 with a 2.92 ERA and the Braves may regret those nearly two months he spent in the bullpen after beginning the season in the rotation (and pitching well). Combined with Mike Minor's resurgence -- four runs, nine hits in 21.2 innings over his past three starts -- the Braves' rotation is once again looking as formidable as it did back in April.

5. The Tigers' defense is still a problem.

The four errors on Sunday were bad enough, but the Tigers are also 29th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. The defense was supposed to be improved from 2013 by moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and acquiring Ian Kinsler and Kinsler has been excellent with 15 DRS. But Nick Castellanos has been just as bad as Cabrera at third base -- if not worse -- with -27 DRS and Torii Hunter's predicable lack of range in right field (-17 DRS) has hurt. Rookie Eugenio Suarez hasn't been great at shortstop. If the Tigers miss the playoffs, defense will be a major reason why.

Indians rise to AL stealth contender status

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
4:47
AM ET


Despite Sunday night’s rain-delayed outcome, one thing has become clear in the AL Central race: The Cleveland Indians are cutting in on a dance many might have anticipated just the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers were invited to. You might have been among those who had already written the Indians off when they checked in at the break at .500 -- and might have been lucky to be even that good, considering they had a negative run differential.

But in their past 30 games, the Indians have gone 19-11, putting themselves right back into the running for the AL Central or a wild-card bid. The only AL clubs who have been as hot or hotter in that time are teams you got to hear about throughout August, such as the Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles and the Royals. The Indians? They’ve been the darkest of dark-horse contenders, slipping back into the field with a month to play.

What have the Indians done to bring themselves back? Run prevention, pure and simple. In the first half, the Tribe averaged 4.4 runs scored per game, and have averaged just less than four runs per game since the break. But on the defensive side, they’ve gone from allowing 4.5 runs per game to 3.2. For this, you can spread the credit around liberally between the defense, the pitching staff and (yet again) manager Terry Francona’s hyper-aggressive use of his bullpen to compensate for a rotation that still struggles to get through the sixth inning.

Who are the heroes on the pitching staff? Corey Kluber you should already know about, but he has been joined by Danny Salazar since the hard-throwing youngster’s recall (4-2, 3.3 runs allowed per nine, 36/11 K/BB ratio in 38 IP). The Indians’ search for arms beyond those two and Trevor Bauer created a new opportunity for Carlos Carrasco to come back from the pen; the hard-throwing Venezuelan has rattled off three quality starts in a row.

But just as it was last year, another big factor in the Indians’ success has been their bullpen. Francona is averaging almost four relievers used per game since the break, and that frenetic turnover has worked. Between closer Cody Allen, set-up men Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison and C.C. Lee, and situational lefties Nick Hagadone, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett, the Indians’ core seven in the pen have allowed just two runs per nine in 107 1/3 IP since the break, while whiffing 102 and walking 23. You can’t ask for much better from a unit, and just as it worked for the Indians last year, it’s working again this year. And that sort of depth means the Indians don’t have to give up on a game in the fifth or sixth inning just because T.J. House or Bauer doesn’t have it. Francona can use a quick hook, control the pace of the game, and bury an opponent with the kind of depth that allows him to play matchups for three or four innings a night.

Breaking it down on defense, you can credit a number of in-season changes for the improved defense. In the early going with Carlos Santana giving third base his best shot, the Indians looked like they might post one of the lowest defensive efficiency ratings ever. But since moving Santana off third base, seeing catcher Yan Gomes overcome a fumble-fingered first month or two, and swapping in rookie Jose Ramirez at shortstop after trading away Asdrubal Cabrera, the Indians aren’t all the way to good, but they’re no longer awful. The biggest net gain has come at short: Translate the difference between Ramirez and Cabrera across a full season using Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved, and the Indians made a 15-run swing, the sort of stretch move teams spend hand over fist to add at the deadline.

These aren’t the only factors, of course. It has been a huge help that the real Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes stood back up. Whether you blame Santana’s struggles or Gomes’ in the early months on their defensive problems, in the second half they’ve been the engines fueling the Indians’ O, with Santana producing an .894 OPS, Gomes at an eye-popping .986. With Michael Bourn already back from the DL and with David Murphy and Ryan Raburn due back soon, you can hope that they and some of the still-struggling regulars -- Jason Kipnis, first and foremost -- can put together a strong final month to help expand the narrow leads the bullpen and defense have had to protect.

Finally, you have to give the Indians credit for doing something that a number of marginal contenders have dared to do at the deadline: They went young instead of borrowing somebody else’s aging leftovers, ditching some of their free agents-to-be into the bargain. Guys such as Justin Masterson in the rotation, Cabrera at short, or John Axford and Vinnie Pestano in the bullpen were no longer among the Indians’ best options at their positions, regardless of whether you considered them a going concern as contenders or using the playing to evaluate their options for next year. Ditching those guys, even without getting much in the ways ready-now returns in the deals, was a clear case of addition by subtraction.

Does that mean the Indians can stay with the Royals and Tigers all the way down the stretch? I don’t see why not. The next two weeks will be critical, as the Indians start an 11-game homestand boasting one of the game’s best home records (39-25), but they start that with this four-game set against the Tigers, a series in which they'll see David Price, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Including those games, they still have seven games against the Tigers, and three against the Royals beyond the one they have to complete because of Sunday’s rain-delayed outcome. It won’t be easy, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Back in the day, Bud Selig waxed bureaucratic on the importance of “hope and faith”; you can bet Indians fans should have some now.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
5:49
PM ET
With a little more than a month left in the season and many division races still not settled, it's not too early to talk about what might have been, what might still could be, and what kinda is what we thought it kinda is ... or was ... or whatever. Just within the last week, we've had two new division leaders and a slew of injuries to reshuffle expectations. Did I mention that the waiver wire deadline hasn’t passed yet? Yup, it's a changing landscape, and whoever's doing the painting is keeping the 2014 baseball season a little squiggly.

Feel free to chime in on what you think might happen in the comments section below.

And without further ado -- because if we wait too long, these thoughts might go out of date faster than the Tulowitzki-to-Yankees rumors – on to the best of the SweetSpot Network contributing sites from the past week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Roundup: Jackson Trade, Lessons from Saber Seminar: Ryan P. Morrison examines the D-backs' trade for Brett Jackson and discusses a dozen or so nuggets of cutting-edge sabermetrics wisdom from last weekend's Saber Seminar in Boston. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Jon Shepherd takes the Ice Bucket Challenge: Jon Shepherd, whose family has been impacted by ALS, has his take, but highlights the need to secure more long-term funding beyond episodic viral campaigns. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Should the Cubs Pass on Signing an Ace this Offseason?: As we get closer and closer to the offseason, Joe Aiello wonders whether the Cubs should be looking at a nontraditional route when it comes to building their rotation for next season. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
The Evolution (or Devolution) of the Indians Pitching Staff: Stephanie Liscio takes a humorous month-by-month look at the fans' confidence level in the Tribe's starters. Follow on Twitter: @StephanieLiscio

Don't Give Up on Tomlin: Ryan McCrystal analyzes how Josh Tomlin has been a victim of bad defense and bad luck in recent weeks. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Honoring Todd Helton: The Colorado Rockies retired Todd Helton's jersey number, the first Rockies player afforded such an honor. Richard Bergstrom reminisces on his career.

Rockies Bloggers Panel Recording 8/16/14: It was one of the most anticipated panels of the year, filled with bloggers flying into town to commemorate Todd Helton's retirement and a special guest. Members of Rockies Zingers, Purple Row, Rockies Review and Mile High Sports discuss the Rockies injuries and trainers/coaches along with the potential offseason moves. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers


New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Brian McCann's Crazy Reverse Platoon Split: Brad Vietrogoski attempts to explain the flip-flop of Brian McCann's production against right- and left-handed pitching this season. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

What If: The 1994 World Series: Domenic Lanza looked at how the '94 Fall Classic could have played out if the Yanks and Expos had stayed on track as the best teams in baseball that year. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals walk off via hit-by-pitch for second time this season: Jon Jay helped the Cardinals win their second straight game in their final at-bat Tuesday night when he drew a bases-loaded plunking from Reds reliever J.J. Hoover. The Cardinals hadn’t had a walk-off hit-by-pitch in more than 25 years, but now -- including Greg Garcia back on May 13 -- they’ve had two in 2014. Pip lists all of the walk-off HBPs over the last 25 years. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes

San Francisco Giants, West Coast Bias
Giants pursuing Rusney Castillo: Tim Kennedy delves into the Giants' dealings with Cuban player Rusney Castillo. With the possibility of being a contributor to a major league team in 2014, he could certainly help out a Giants ball club fighting for its life. Follow on Twitter: @giantsbaseball

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Replacements: Brandon Land takes a look at the current roster for the Rangers, and why it's unreasonable to have high expectations in a season so rife with injury. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away

Buck Showalter: Replay gamesmanship?

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:54
AM ET

The Cleveland Indians' past five games have gone like so: 3-0 win, 4-1 win, 3-2 win, 1-0 loss (12 innings), 2-1 win (11 innings). The 3-2 victory (over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first of a doubleheader) and Friday's 2-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles were both decided on Cleveland's final swing of the bat. Zach Walters and Mike Aviles, respectively, did the honors by way of solo homers.

The narrow victories have pulled Cleveland back into the tail end of the chase for the second wild-card spot, though at 61-60, they'll need to leapfrog the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers and Mariners and make up five games in the standings over their next 41. It's not impossible, though they'll need every last nail-biting win, but the team is so thoroughly a .500 squad that it's hard to imagine them making up the gap. Their run differential (+10) doesn't show a sleeping giant, their roster has more players who are at risk to trend downward (Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Corey Kluber) than upward (Nick Swisher), and their starting pitching, which essentially amounts to "Kluber and pray for a four-day deluge," is not of the quality they'd need to rip off six weeks of hot baseball.

Baltimore, meanwhile, finds itself in the opposite position. Even after Friday's loss, they have a big lead in the AL East, and the three teams behind them with even a quasi-realistic shot at winning the division are the Rays, who traded their ace, David Price, to Detroit; the Yankees, who have four starting pitchers on the disabled list, including their ace, Masahiro Tanaka; and the Blue Jays, who might have a roster capable of doing some damage but don't have the depth to cover for injuries to players such as Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion and consequently find themselves with seven games to make up and not nearly enough time to do so.

Still, whether a team has a clear path to the playoffs or a struggle just to stay halfway relevant, it's more fun to win close, extra-innings games than lose them, which might explain why Orioles manager Buck Showalter appeared to go out of his way to engage in gamesmanship Friday. To set the scene: Kluber had cruised along through seven innings and struck out nine Orioles while allowing four hits and two walks. After catching Chris Davis looking with an absurd 95 mph sinker on the outside corner, Kluber ran another of his filthy two-seamers in on the hands of Adam Jones, who tried to pull back his bunt attempt but wound up taking the ball off his fingers. Jones believed he successfully brought his bat back from the strike zone but neither home plate umpire Dana DeMuth nor first base umpire Ron Kulpa saw things his way.

After the usual back-and-forth that, as we've learned, attends all manager discussions with umpires prior to the men in blue donning headsets and chatting with their colleagues in New York, DeMuth and Kulpa did just that. The call, unsurprisingly, was upheld. Video technology is remarkable and improving every day, but getting a good, close look at the bat as a ball traveling 90-plus mph approaches the hands of the batter, which are themselves in motion? Whatever call the umpires made on the field was almost destined to stand. The standard for overturning a call, remember, is that the replay must provide "clear and convincing evidence," which requires the replay umpires be able to "definitively conclude that the call on the field was incorrect."

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter, Dana DeMuth, Ron Kulpa, Ed Hickox
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesWhile Orioles manager Buck Showalter pleaded his case with the umpiring crew in the eighth inning, Corey Kluber and the Indians waited.
All of this took a handful of minutes -- minutes Kluber had to stand around, tossing a ball with his teammates, waiting for them to end. Showalter, though, was not satisfied when DeMuth relayed New York's answer. He stayed on the field and chatted something less than amiably for minutes more. He even pulled a "start to walk back to the dugout but then turn around and continue arguing" move, perhaps to squeeze every last second out of the delay. As Cleveland's broadcast team grew ever more indignant, and as Indians manager Terry Francona stared on impatiently from the top step of his dugout, DeMuth, bafflingly, failed to give Showalter the heave-ho. The replay rules could not be clearer on this point:

Once Replay Review is initiated, no uniformed personnel from either Club shall be permitted to further argue the contested calls or the decision of the Replay Official. Onfield personnel who violate this provision shall be ejected.


Whatever Jedi mind trick Showalter had in his back pocket worked, though, and the umps let him stay in the game.

To be fair, we can't read Showalter's mind, and I, at least, can't read his lips. Perhaps he had a legitimate argument and felt honestly aggrieved by the outcome of the play. (Jones certainly did, as he barked at the first-base umpire after grounding out weakly once the game finally resumed.) Perhaps none of this was intended to ice a hot pitcher on a relatively cool Cleveland night. But Showalter has a history of delaying games to ice pitchers. And of psyching out hitters. And of throwing bulletin-board material at an entire slate of division foes.

Kluber had just thrown his 111th pitch of the night, so regardless, he was not long for the mound. Although he gave up a single to Nelson Cruz, who eventually came around to score the tying run, he had just retired Jones on a filthy breaking ball and handed the Cleveland bullpen a simple task: Prevent the slow-as-molasses Cruz from scoring from first with two outs. That Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were unable to do that can no more be put on Kluber than it can on Showalter.

Still, Showalter's non-ejection is one more annoyance in this first season of the expanded replay era, one more wrinkle to be ironed out. Fortunately, the answer is simple: Strictly enforce the rule requiring ejection for further argument. There's no reason not to; arguing about the results of a replay with the on-field crew, who have no input in the replay process, is pointless, as futile as reasoning with the lamppost you just ran your car into. Managers truly committed to the cause might holler and scream and delay the game via the histrionics accompanying an ejection anyway, but at least they pay the price for doing so. Given the outcome in Cleveland, what's to stop Showalter from pulling the same stunt again?

Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.
Last week, after Corey Kluber dominated the Mariners with an 85-pitch shutout, I rashly tweeted that Kluber is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the game. That seemed to stir things up a bit on Twitter, and Giants fans were especially angered when I suggested Kluber is better than Madison Bumgarner. Kluber came back on Monday with another solid effort, allowing one run while striking out seven in 7.1 innings, improving his record to 12-6 with a 2.55 ERA.

But is he one of baseball's top 10 starters right now?

[+] EnlargeCorey Kluber
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHe's been very, very good. But is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in baseball right now?
How do you even measure such a thing? We can take the easy way out and just look at wins above replacement for the season.

FanGraphs
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.8
2. Corey Kluber: 5.0
3. Jon Lester: 4.7
4. Clayton Kershaw: 4.5
5. Chris Sale: 4.2

Baseball-Reference
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.5
2. Clayton Kershaw: 5.2
3. Corey Kluber: 4.7
4. Johnny Cueto: 4.6
5. Chris Sale/Max Scherzer: 4.5

By WAR, Kluber isn't just a top-10 starter, but a top-five starter. Even ignoring how much you believe in WAR, the question is: Do you buy into Kluber's four-month streak as a true breakout performance? How much emphasis do we place on history? Zack Greinke won a Cy Young Award in 2009. Should that matter as to how we evaluate him now? Scherzer won the Cy Young Award last year when he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League. How much should that matter as to how we evaluate him in August 2014?

Bill James actually devised a method to answer this question a couple of years ago. He wrote:
Everybody starts out with a ranking of 300.0, and you can’t go lower than 300, even if you pitch badly. If you’re at 300, you’re unranked; you’re only actually on the list if you have a current score higher than 300. There would typically be 150 to 180 pitchers who are, at the moment, ranked. Pitchers never actually pitch badly enough that they would rank below 300 (if it were possible to do so) for more than two or three starts, because if you pitch that badly, you lose your position in the rotation.

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

a) Mark down his previous ranking by 3%, and

b) Add 30% of his Game Score for the start.

We base the rankings on Game Scores, which means that we ignore wins and losses, but give weight to innings pitched, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, walks and strikeouts.


James also adjusted for park effects, inactivity (if a pitcher doesn't pitch, his overall rating goes down) and postseason play, which he factored in. Anyway, his site unfortunately doesn't update the rankings, so I don't know how Kluber would rank. So I'll just wing my own top 10.

1. Clayton Kershaw

The best pitcher in baseball, and I don't think anybody is really arguing this. Hernandez ranks higher on the WAR lists because Kershaw missed April, so he doesn't have as many innings.

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

Similar in many ways -- veteran right-handers (it seems weird to call Felix a "veteran," but he has been around a long time) having their best seasons.

4. Chris Sale

He's 10-1 with a 2.09 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 20 walks in 116 innings. Incredible numbers. He has cut his home run rate from last year, even though he pitches in a good home run park. I'm not knocking Wainwright when I say this: Sale is better. But he did miss time earlier this year and I think we have to give Wainwright extra credit for his durability.

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price

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Is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in the game?

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,346)

I'm not completely comfortable ranking Price this high -- he's ninth in FanGraphs WAR and 25th in B-R WAR. He has 189 strikeouts and just 23 walks but has allowed 20 home runs, and he goes from a good pitcher's park with a good Rays defense behind him to a better hitter's park with a below-average Tigers defense behind him. It's possible that change will reveal that he did benefit from pitching in Tampa. Or it may not reveal anything. But Price has been good a pitcher for five years, and his new approach of pounding the strike zone has basically turned him into a harder-throwing version of Cliff Lee.

OK, now things get a little murky. Let's start with Kluber versus Bumgarner, because that got a lot of feedback on Twitter.

I know Bumgarner has been a solid pitcher for several years. He has come up big in the postseason. But in comparing 2014: Kluber has the better ERA, the better FIP, the better strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, a lower home run rate, a higher ground ball rate, the lower batting average and OPS allowed, has pitched more innings and has done it in a DH league while pitching in a tougher park with a lousy defense behind him. I can't rate Bumgarner ahead of Kluber.

(By the way, Bumgarner's career high bWAR is 3.8, achieved last year. A lot of that is park effects. Giants fans will point out that Bumgarner has a better ERA on the road in his career than at home, but that's not the way park effects work. Bumgarner still has the advantage of pitching half his games in a pitcher's park.)

Jon Lester? Hmm. Lester is a No. 2 starter having a No. 1-level season. But he had a 3.75 ERA last year and 4.82 the year before. FanGraphs and B-R differ on his value -- FanGraphs ranks him third overall while B-R ranks him 22nd. Kluber, by the way, had a 3.85 ERA last year with excellent peripherals. If you give Lester a little extra credit for his postseason last year, I'll reluctantly give him the nod, although I think his track record works against him just as much as Kluber's lack of track record works against him.

Scherzer is similar to Lester, except his No. 1 season came last year. He's been nearly as good this year, even though his BABIP has once again bounced up:

2011: .314
2012: .333
2013: .259
2014: .316

One reason Scherzer's BABIP is usually high is that he does pitch up in the strike zone, unlike a lot of pitchers who pound the zone at the knees. Of course, the other reason is the lousy Tigers defense. (Take note, Mr. Price.)

Johnny Cueto? I'm not quite sure what to do with Cueto, giving his history of injuries. But we're talking best starters right now, and Cueto has been healthy and effective all season and he has always been effective even when he has missed time.

Garrett Richards is another young starter having a breakout season. While Kluber relies on command and a wipeout curve, Richards has upper 90s heat and a deadly slider. Their numbers:

Kluber: 2.55 ERA, .233/.277/.341, 26.7 percent K rate
Richards: 2.58 ERA, .195/.267/.259, 24.7 percent K rate

Kluber rates a little higher in WAR because he has pitched 12 more innings and Richards benefits from a pitcher's park. Tough call here. Like Kluber, Richards doesn't have much of a track record before this season. There's no denying his stuff. Richards has the fourth-lowest BABIP allowed among starters at .258 (Kluber's is .309) and a low rate of home runs per fly ball (third-lowest among starters). I think those numbers indicate Richards has pitched in more good luck than Kluber this season. But I could be wrong; his stuff is nasty.

OK, where does that leave us? With apologies to Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Hisashi Iwakuma, the injured Masahiro Tanaka and maybe a couple of others, the top 10 starters in the majors RIGHT NOW:

1. Kershaw
2. Hernandez
3. Wainwright
4. Sale
5. Darvish
6. Price
7. Cueto
8. Lester
9. Kluber
10. Scherzer

Including Richards, you could rank the final four guys in any order, really. If you want a longer track record, go with Lester and Scherzer. If you like raw, unhittable stuff, go with Richards. If you think postseason history matters, go with Lester. If you like 28-year-olds out of nowhere with curveballs that make major league hitters weep in frustration, go with our man Corey Kluber -- one of the 10 best starters in the game.

Let's look at some of the fallout from the trade deadline -- things people said -- and then make some predictions for what happens the rest of the way.

1. The acquisition of Jon Lester makes the Oakland A's the favorite in the AL West.

Prediction: The A's win the West.

The trade for Lester didn't actually upgrade the A's odds to beat the Los Angeles Angels all that much -- using player projection totals and remaining schedule, Baseball Prospectus says the trade increased Oakland's chances a mere 2 percent. The Angels won on Sunday, thanks to a five-run first inning, while the A's were shut down by James Shields in a 4-2 loss to the Royals, so Oakland's lead is one game. Still, I like Oakland's rotation depth. C.J. Wilson's return on Saturday after missing a month was a disaster as he got knocked out in the second inning, Tyler Skaggs just landed on the DL with a shoulder issue and you wonder how the Angels' rotation will hold up after Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver.

2. With John Lackey and Justin Masterson, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central.

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

The Cardinals remain the favorite, according to our playoffs odds, and Lackey pitched seven strong innings on Sunday to win his Cardinals debut, but I'm going with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here's the thing about Lackey and Masterson: The Cardinals' rotation was pretty good before the trades; Lackey and Masterson may be upgrades over what Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez would have done the rest of the season, making the trades important, but they aren't necessarily an improvement over what the Cardinals had received so far from their various starters in those slots. The Cardinals are eighth in the majors with a 3.47 rotation ERA, and I don't expect them to do much better than that moving forward.

The St. Louis offense, meanwhile, is still next to last in the NL in runs scored. In what should be a three-team race down to the wire, the Pirates are my pick. One major reason: Francisco Liriano. In four starts since coming off the DL, he has a 1.96 ERA. He's looking more like the guy who was so good last year. If they can get Gerrit Cole back from his lat strain -- he was scratched from his Saturday start and instead threw a bullpen session -- even better. Note: If the injury to Andrew McCutchen's side that forced him out of Sunday's game proves serious, all bets are off.

3. Even with David Price, Max Scherzer is still the Detroit Tigers' ace.

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

This may be most important decision Brad Ausmus has to make all postseason: Which guy do you line up for two potential starts in the first round? The past two years against the A's, it has been Justin Verlander, and he rewarded Jim Leyland with two dominant efforts. But it won't be Verlander this year. My bet is on Price, who has been more consistent this season than Scherzer and has a 2.03 ERA over his past two starts. The Tigers may play the Orioles and the O's have an OPS of .732 against righties and .695 against lefties, another reason to slot Price in the first game.

4. The Los Angeles Dodgers made a mistake by not getting Lester or Price.

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

Josh Beckett didn't do anything to boost the confidence of Dodgers fans with another poor effort on Sunday; he got knocked out after scuffling through 94 pitches in four-plus innings. In three starts since the All-Star break, he has gone 3.2, 4.1 and 4 innings, respectively. Dan Haren has been even worse, with a 10.03 ERA over his past five starts.

Still, I agree with the decision to hold on to Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. At some point, you need to infuse some youth, and with Pederson heating up again at Triple-A, he may be in the Dodgers' outfield sooner rather than later. The Dodgers will win the West thanks to the best top three in the NL in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

5. The Baltimore Orioles should have added a starting pitcher.

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

Maybe the Orioles lack an ace in the mold of Price or Lester, but good luck getting those guys from a division rival. Plus, there's this: Since June 9, the Orioles have the third-best ERA in the majors and second-best rotation ERA in the American League (3.05). Chris Tillman outdueled Hisashi Iwakuma 1-0 on Sunday in the latest strong effort from a Baltimore starter.

The question: Is there some smoke and mirrors going on here? Since June 9, Orioles starters are 29th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings and 28th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That does make you wonder; on the other hand, the Orioles are a very good defensive teams (fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved) so they do turn more batted balls into outs than most teams. The O's may like to have an ace for the postseason, but they can get there without one.

6. The Seattle Mariners are better after acquiring some bats.

Prediction: The Mariners still don't have enough offense to win the wild card.

Since the All-Star break they've allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors -- 2.88. And they're 6-10. They lost 2-1 on Friday and 1-0 on Sunday. Kendrys Morales has looked terrible since coming over from the Twins, where he also looked terrible. Austin Jackson was a much-needed move for center field, but he and Chris Denorfia aren't game-changers on offense, even above and beyond what the Mariners had. And they can't count on Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma giving up just one or two runs every time out.

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

Prediction: The Washington Nationals win the NL East ... and Strasburg starts Game 1 of the playoffs.

Wait, did somebody write that about Strasburg? He sure looked like one on Sunday, striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves lost their sixth in a row, creating a 3.5-game lead for Washington, its biggest since holding a 3.5-game on June 1.


8. The San Francisco Giants should have picked up a second baseman.

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

Even with a nine-run outburst on Sunday, over the past month the Giants are hitting .231/.290/.342, the second-lowest OPS in the majors (ahead of only the Mariners). A second baseman isn't going to cure this, but Brandon Belt returned on Saturday and that should help. Buster Posey may be heating up, hitting .352 over the past two weeks and that will help. Brian Sabean has made waiver pickups before, so don't count him from getting somebody -- maybe a guy like Luis Valbuena from the Chicago Cubs. As the offense improves, the Giants should solidify their place in the wild-card standings (playing the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks will help a lot also).

9. The Cleveland Indians punted the season in trading Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

The Indians won their third in a row on Sunday on Michael Brantley's 12th-inning home run, and they're just three games back for the second wild card. I'm not predicting them to win it (I'll go with the Toronto Blue Jays), but I'm predicting them to hang in there.

10. The A's are now World Series favorites.

Prediction: OK, I'll go with that. Aren't the A's overdue for some October magic?

So, my post-deadline picks:

AL wild card: Angels over Blue Jays
NL wild card: Giants over Brewers

ALDS: Tigers over Orioles
ALDS: A's over Angels

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

ALCS: A's over Tigers
NLCS: Dodgers over Nationals

World Series: A's over Dodgers ... Jon Lester wins Game 7 and then signs a $175 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Sam Fuld wins World Series MVP honors. Billy Beane announces retirement and says, "I was never really into this sabermetrics stuff anyway."

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