SweetSpot: Detroit Tigers

Five things we learned Friday

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
12:09
AM ET
Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at our Hunt for October page.

video 1. Max Scherzer versus James Shields on Saturday could be for all the marbles. Kansas City began Friday just a half game behind Detroit in the American League Central, but they were blown out by the Tigers 10-1. Detroit chased Royals starter Jason Vargas in the fourth inning and joined the Nationals as the only teams in baseball with four players who have driven in at least 80 runs this season when Torii Hunter collected his 80th RBI of the season.

On this night, Victor Martinez joined Miguel Cabrera in the 100 RBI club when he drove in Cabrera in the first inning. That was his 45th RBI since the All-Star break, and he continues to build his case in the American League MVP race.

video 2. The Brewers' chances are slim to none, and slim is packing its bags. Milwaukee took a 2-0 lead into the eighth inning at Pittsburgh, only to see Jonathan Broxton allow a three-run home run to Russell Martin and watch their offense go down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning. The loss was Milwaukee's third straight and 12th in the month of September, and it spoiled a brilliant outing for Yovani Gallardo.

The Brewers needed to sweep this series, and Gallardo was up to the task. He struck out 11 and scattered five hits over seven scoreless innings. Nonetheless, John Holdzkom was awarded the first win of his major league career, and Mark Melancon saved his fifth game in two weeks.

Milwaukee now trails Pittsburgh by 4½ games for the second NL wild-card spot, and the Brewers are in need of a miracle to get to the postseason. The win was the fifth in a row and 12th in the past 14 games for Pittsburgh. The Pirates are still within striking distance of the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central title, but the two teams do not play again during the regular season, and St. Louis will face the Cubs and Diamondbacks in the final week.

video 3. Clayton Kershaw is (somewhat) human. The Cubs began the day with a .239 team batting average, which was fourth worst in baseball, and they had a league-worst 23.9 percent strikeout rate. Kershaw entered the game with a league-best .190 opponents' batting average and a 31.6 percent strikeout rate. The matchup, on paper, could not have looked more lopsided. Kershaw had made 17 consecutive starts in which he threw at least seven innings. He had made 16 consecutive starts in which he did not allow more hits than innings pitched.

Both of those streaks came to an end against the young and free-swinging Cubs lineup. While Kershaw was still able to pick up his 20th win of the season, he allowed three runs and seven hits in five innings of work. Kershaw did not have his usual command of the strike zone, and he threw 59.4 percent (63-of-106) of his pitches for strikes, which marked just the second time this season that he had thrown fewer than 60 percent of his pitches for strikes. His last regular-season start will come Wednesday night in the critical series against the Giants.

video 4. A repeat is looking likely for St. Louis. John Lackey took the mound for the first time in nine days, as his latest start was skipped due to his having a dead arm. In his previous three starts, Lackey had permitted 22 hits and 13 runs in 14 1/3 innings.

On Friday, he looked like the version of Lackey the Cardinals acquired from the Red Sox. He pitched into the eighth inning and allowed six hits and one run while striking out five batters. It was the 13th win in September and sixth in the past seven games for St. Louis. Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn will take the ball in the final two games of the series as the Cardinals look to take advantage of a favorable schedule the rest of the way and repeat as NL Central champs.

video 5. Mariners handling the calm before the storm. Seattle has a tough road next week, as they have a four-game series at Toronto and then host the Angels to wrap up the regular season.

Last week, the Mariners dropped two of three at home to the Astros, and they can ill-afford a repeat this weekend in Houston. Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino were not going to let that happen, as each homered Friday in support of Taijuan Walker in a convincing win over the Astros.

Five Mariners had multiple hits, and both of Ackley's hits were home runs. Seattle is a half-game out of the second AL wild-card spot. A sweep of the Astros this weekend would strengthen the Mariners' odds in the final week, and they started the weekend off on the right note.

Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.

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.


In some fashion, when Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski traded for David Price, he was making a bold statement: This is the year. Playoffs in 2011, World Series in 2012, one Joaquin Benoit pitch from maybe going back to the World Series in 2013. But no championship.

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDavid Price exits, having delivered another disappointment for the Tigers.
In dealing Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson to acquire Price at the July 31 trade deadline, Dombrowski put two valuable chips on the table. He acquired a second ace to go alongside Max Scherzer, knowing Scherzer is almost certain to depart as a free agent after the season. Designated hitter Victor Martinez, having a career season at the age of 35, is also a free agent. Miguel Cabrera is on the back side of his prime years. Ian Kinsler is 32. Torii Hunter is 38 and also a free agent. Justin Verlander hasn't been good this year and there are legitimate concerns that his top-of-the-rotation days are in the past.

In other words, it's possible the Tigers won't be this good again in 2015 or 2016 or 2017, so ... this has to be the year.

That's what was so disappointing about Price's performance Wednesday night. A day after the Tigers suffered a tough, walk-off loss to the Twins, they staked Price to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, and he promptly coughed up three runs in the bottom of the inning as five of the first six batters reached base. Normally a strike-throwing machine, Price fell behind with ball one on four of those six batters. The first two hits came on 1-0 fastballs. He walked Joe Mauer. After a strikeout, Trevor Plouffe hit a 1-1 changeup for a soft liner to center and Kurt Suzuki lined a 2-1 changeup down the left-field line for an RBI double. Give credit to the Twins for some nice at-bats. All the hits came on pitches down in the zone; Price just wasn't fooling anybody.

Even after the Tigers regained the lead, Price struggled. The Twins finally knocked him out after tying it up 4-4 in the sixth -- Price lasted 5 2/3 innings but threw 112 pitches. Price leads the majors in total pitches on the season, but he also leads in innings. Usually when he throws 112 pitches he's gone eight innings, something he's done 16 times this year, most in the majors. Not on this night, on a night the Kansas City Royals would inch closer to the Tigers with a big win over American League ERA leader Chris Sale.

But Price has been very hittable over his past five starts, allowing 45 hits in 31 innings. Yes, there was the infamous game against the Yankees where he allowed 12 hits in two innings, but he allowed eight, nine, eight and eight base hits in his next four turns.

That's sort of the tradeoff Price has made the past couple years: Cut down on the walks by pounding the strike zone with fastballs, but sometimes at the expense of allowing more hits. Only four pitchers have allowed more extra-base hits this year, and Price's 25 home runs allowed are fifth-most behind Marco Estrada, Hector Noesi, Eric Stults and Dan Haren -- not four pitchers you usually see mentioned in the same category as Price.

When Al Alburquerque relieved Price and allowed a go-ahead triple, it plated Price's fifth run of the night. The Twins went on to an 8-4 victory, with Price picking up the loss and dropping to 3-4 with a 4.09 ERA in nine starts with the Tigers.

The Tigers are still in first place, a half-game ahead of the Royals (or one game, assuming the Royals lose the suspended game against the Indians that they trail 4-2 in the 10th inning). That sets the stage for this weekend's big showdown in Kansas City, a three-game set after both teams take a day off on Thursday.

The Tigers have a chance to put the Royals away. Will they? Will this be the year?
We're getting close enough to the end of the season to start speculating on who could pitch in the wild-card games. Teams won't necessarily have the luxury of lining up their best pitcher -- two years ago, for example, the Orioles went with Joe Saunders (although they didn't really have an ace that season). Last season, the Rays and Indians used Alex Cobb and Danny Salazar, as David Price had to pitch the tiebreaker game for Tampa Bay.

Let's see how the rotations line up for each team.

Detroit Tigers
David Price: Starts Wednesday, so could then start on Monday on four days' rest. That would line him up for another start on Saturday on four days' rest, if needed, or a start in the wild-card game on Tuesday, Sept. 30, if the Tigers have clinched.

Max Scherzer: The Tigers have an off day Thursday and haven't announced their starter yet for Friday. They could go with Kyle Lobstein, but since they play the Royals it seems more likely they would skip him and go with Justin Verlander on Friday, Scherzer on Saturday and Rick Porcello on Sunday. Or maybe Lobstein is a better choice than Verlander right now. If they stick with a five-man rotation, that pushes Price back to Tuesday and Sunday (if needed).

Anyway, the Tigers have options. Regardless of what they do, they'll have either Price or Scherzer available on full rest for the wild-card game.

Kansas City Royals
Here's how the Royals line up their next four games:

Wednesday: Yordano Ventura
Friday: Jason Vargas
Saturday: James Shields
Sunday: Jeremy Guthrie

They have no off days next week, so at some point they'll have to use Danny Duffy as a fifth starter (well, assuming nobody pitches on three days' rest, which no one does anymore). Duffy could start on Monday or Tuesday. Assuming he pitches on Monday to give Ventura an extra day of rest, the rotation the final week would look like this:

Monday: Duffy
Tuesday: Ventura
Wednesday: Vargas
Thursday: Shields
Friday: Guthrie
Saturday: Duffy
Sunday: Ventura

That would line up Shields to pitch the wild-card game Tuesday. Of course, there's also the possibility of a tiebreaker game Monday. Presumably that would be Vargas, especially since that game would likely be against Seattle and its lefty-heavy lineup.

Oakland Athletics
The A's have built a little breathing room. With no days off the rest of the way, their rotation is set and they have Jon Lester lined up for the wild-card game, as he starts Friday and then next Wednesday.

Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have no off days the rest of the season and their rotation was also thrown a curve when Roenis Elias left Tuesday's game with elbow stiffness.

Felix Hernandez starts on Thursday, which means he would pitch again on Tuesday and then the final Sunday of the season. If they've clinched a playoff spot, obviously they hold Felix back for the wild-card game. If not -- a distinct possibility since they have to make up ground -- Chris Young follows Hernandez in the rotation, followed by Hisashi Iwakuma.

So if the Mariners go down to the wire and have to pitch Felix on Sunday, it would be: Felix in the regular-season finale, Young in a potential tiebreaker game and then Iwakuma (or Young) in the wild-card game.

San Francisco Giants
The Giants have some room to play with, leading the Pirates by 2.5 games and the Brewers by four games. And of course they can still win the NL West.

Madison Bumgarner starts Wednesday and they have an off day on Thursday. Assuming they don't skip a starter, Bumgarner goes on Tuesday and then is ready to go on the final Sunday. If they've clinched, he's ready with a week's worth of rest for the wild-card game.

If Bumgarner is needed on that final day, Tim Hudson follows him in the rotation. Jake Peavy proceeds Bumgarner so he wouldn't be available for the wild-card game.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates have no off days remaining. Their current rotation has Francisco Liriano pitching on the final Saturday and Gerrit Cole on Sunday. If those two have to pitch on those days, that would leave Jeff Locke or Edinson Volquez for the wild-card game (or Locke in a tiebreaker game and Volquez in the wild-card game).

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have an off day on Monday, which gives them an opportunity to tweak Tuesday's starter -- important, because the Tuesday starter would then go again on Sunday. It's Mike Fiers' turn in the rotation, but they could push him to Wednesday and use Kyle Lohse on regular rest on Tuesday. So Ron Roenicke's choice: Who would you rather give the extra start to, Fiers or Lohse? Whoever doesn't get that Sunday start would then presumably go in the wild-card game. Yovani Gallardo would also be available, although it seems unlikely he would start over those two.

St. Louis Cardinals
With a 2.5-game lead over the Pirates, the Cardinals haven't locked up the NL Central just yet. They haven't announced any starters beyond Adam Wainwright on Wednesday and Shelby Miller on Thursday. If Wainwright goes four days between starts, he would pitch again on Monday and the final Saturday. Lance Lynn could go Sunday and next Friday. But that would make both unavailable for a wild-card game. Then again, if they lose four or five in a row and lose their grip on the division lead, they may have to use Wainwright and Lynn to try and win the division.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Obviously, you know who the Dodgers want to start the wild-card game if disaster strikes and the Giants catch them. And, yes, Clayton Kershaw is lined up for that game, starting Friday and then next Wednesday.

Basically: All the teams have adjusted their rotations about as perfectly as possible, including the Mariners with the ability to start Felix on the final day if needed. The Royals probably should have done the same thing with Shields -- although Seattle did so with Felix by holding him back a couple times (including six days between starts once in August). Shields has made 32 starts so far to 31 for Hernandez because of that, so you can't really fault the Royals there. And if they win the wild card (or division), Shields is ready to go on full rest.
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.

SportsNation

Who is your AL Cy Young winner right now?

  •  
    59%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    2%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,935)

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.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
12:51
AM ET
What a night. Two clinchers, a no-hit bid into the eighth inning from the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (for the second time this season), a benches-clearing incident between the Yankees and Rays after manager Joe Girardi went a little crazy when Derek Jeter got hit by a pitch, Jose Altuve breaking Craig Biggio's Astros club record for hits in a season. As always, check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

1. The Nationals clinch the NL East behind Tanner Roark. That's one way of asking: Will Roark be in the Nationals' postseason rotation? He's 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA now after tossing seven shutout innings in the 3-0 clincher over the collapsing Braves. There's nothing fancy about him except he throws strikes, locates his two-seam sinking fastball and four-seamer on the corners and mixes in a slider, changeup and curveball, giving him a five-pitch repertoire. He's in his first full season in the majors, but don't worry about an innings limit here: Roark is 27, turns 28 in early October and still looks strong.

Starting Roark would bump Gio Gonzalez from the rotation, although, depending on the opponent, maybe having the lefty Gonzalez in there instead of four right-handers make sense. There's also an argument that Gonzalez -- despite a 3.79 ERA -- has actually been every bit as good as Roark. The fielding independent pitching numbers (FIP) have Gonzalez at 3.20 and Roark at 3.54 entering Tuesday. That's because Gonzalez has the better strikeout rate -- 9.0 K's per nine innings compared to 6.4 for Roark. But is that a deficiency for Roark? His two-seamer isn't a big strikeout pitch but gets ground balls. Yes, that means relying a little more on defense than Gonzalez does.

The difference in their ERAs stems primarily from results with runners in scoring position: Roark has allowed a .252/.310/.397 line, while Gonzalez has allowed a .281/.348/.465 line.

Of course, Gonzalez is the veteran, which might ultimately enter into manager Matt Williams' decision. Plus, Roark has more experience pitching out of the bullpen, having made 29 relief appearances between Triple-A and the majors last season. Either way, Williams has a nice luxury in that he can have a quick hook with any of his starters in the postseason if necessary.

2. Joe Nathan is starting to remind of 2009 Brad Lidge. Remember that year? Lidge was horrendous all season with the Phillies, going 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and 11 home runs and 34 walks in just 58⅔ innings, and yet, Charlie Manuel stuck with him as closer all season and the Phillies still managed to reach the World Series. Manuel's loyalty finally burned him in Game 4, when Lidge entered in the ninth of a 4-4 tie and gave up three runs.

What does that have to do with Nathan? He hasn't been quite as bad as Lidge but inspires the same level of confidence in Tigers fans right now. After J.D. Martinez hit a dramatic three-run homer in the top of the ninth off Glen Perkins to give the Tigers a 3-2 lead over the Twins, Nathan coughed it up by allowing the Twins to score twice. It wasn't all his fault, although he did get the rally started with a one-out walk to Trevor Plouffe. Kurt Suzuki hit a liner to shallow left-center on which Ezequiel Carrera appeared to get a slow read and missed the diving catch. (Would Austin Jackson have made the play?) The winning run then scored with two outs on Aaron Hicks' infield chopper up the middle. Nathan is 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA and seven blown saves. Again, not quite as bad as Lidge, but still the symbol of a shaky Detroit bullpen.

3. Don't blame Ned Yost! Unfortunately for the Royals, they weren't able to take advantage of Detroit's loss and remained 1½ games behind the Tigers -- or two games behind, counting the suspended game they're losing to the Indians. (Yes, I'm required to mention that every night!)

Yost actually did what he didn't do on Sunday: bring in Kelvin Herrera in the sixth inning. And it worked, as Herrera got the final out to preserve a 4-4 tie. After the Royals then took a 5-4 lead, things were looking good, but Herrera gave up two singles in the seventh, and Wade Davis -- pitching in the seventh for the first time all season -- walked Jose Abreu, pitching him a little too carefully. Conor Gillaspie, after fouling off two pitches, then hit a 2-2, 97 mph fastball for a bases-clearing triple, and Herrera and Davis both saw their scoreless-inning streaks of more than 30 end.

Yost did the right thing. He brought in his two dominant relievers in crucial situations in a close game. On this night, they just got beat. Considering how dominant they'd been, they were probably due. But don't blame this one on Ned.

4. Steve Pearce, legend in the making. The Orioles clinched with an 8-2 win over the Blue Jays (good night, Toronto). The big blow was Pearce's three-run homer in the first. What a story he's been. The 31-year-old had spent parts of seven seasons in the majors but never batted more than 188 times. Pearce began the season with the Orioles but appeared in just three games before Baltimore designated him for assignment on April 27. The Blue Jays actually claimed Pearce on waivers, but Pearce had the right to become a free agent rather than accept the claim, which he did. Two days later, with Chris Davis injured, the Orioles re-signed Pearce to a major league contract. He hasn't stopped hitting and is now at .294/.371/.541 with 18 home runs, and he's hitting fifth for a division winner. Just another reason we love this game.

5. Brewers notch big comeback win. In the first of a three-game series in St. Louis, the Brewers tied it in the top of the ninth and won it in the 12th inning. They move up to four games back of the Cardinals and remained 1½ behind the Pirates for the second wild card. Good job by the Milwaukee pen with just two hits over five scoreless innings. Jhonny Peralta nearly tied it with a long fly in the 12th to the warning track, but Gerardo Parra hauled it in and Francisco Rodriguez escaped with a 1-2-3 save.
Via Lee Sinins of the Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, Miguel Cabrera moved into the top 10 for career home runs through his age-31 season.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMiguel Cabrera, 31, has 388 career home runs, good for 60th on the all-time list.
The top 10:

1. Alex Rodriguez, 518
2. Jimmie Foxx, 464
3. Ken Griffey Jr., 460
4. Albert Pujols, 445
5. Eddie Mathews, 422
6. Mickey Mantle, 419
7. Frank Robinson, 403
8. Henry Aaron, 398
9. Juan Gonzalez, 397
10. Miguel Cabrera and Mel Ott, 388

Here's how many home runs each of those players hit after age 31:

Rodriguez, 136
Foxx, 70
Griffey, 170
Pujols, 73 and counting (in age-34 season)
Mathews, 90
Mantle, 117
Robinson, 183
Aaron, 357
Gonzalez, 37
Ott, 123

You can see how Aaron became the all-time home run king: It was what he did in his 30s, not his 20s, that propelled him to 755 career home runs.

What does this mean for Cabrera? It's hard to say. We can draw comparisons between the two other first basemen on the list, Foxx and Pujols, but Foxx played way back in the 1930s, so I'm not sure that helps us out much. Pujols hit 40-plus home runs six times between the ages of 23 and 30, none since, but also went to a tougher home run park and his older years have come in a time of better pitching and expanded strike zones.

But it's also clear, with the exception of Aaron, that none of these players aged exceptionally well. Here's the list of most home runs from age 32 on:

SportsNation

How many career home runs will Miguel Cabrera end up with?

  •  
    7%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    40%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,270)

1. Barry Bonds, 428
2. Babe Ruth, 358
3. Henry Aaron, 357
4. Rafael Palmeiro, 336
5. Mark McGwire, 306
6. Willie Mays, 292
7. Andres Galarraga, 283
8. Jim Thome, 278
9. Reggie Jackson, 250
10. Stan Musial, 248
11. Edgar Martinez, 247
11. Darrell Evans, 247
13. Hank Sauer, 246
14. Raul Ibanez, 236
15. Mike Schmidt, 234

I ran the list down to 15 to get Ibanez on there. Cabrera could match Ibanez's late-career production, right? What if Cabrera hit 234 more home runs? That's an average of 26 per season from ages 32 to 40. That may not seem like a lot for Cabrera, who hit 44 homers in each of the past two seasons, but he's at only 23 this year. He has played through a bad ankle, so it's possible that has affected his output. It's also likely that Cabrera won't be as durable in his 30s as he was in his 20s.

Anyway, 234 more home runs would get him to 622, plus whatever he does the rest of this season. To get to 700, he would have to hit 312, or 35 per season through age 40. That seems like a lot. Remember, as Aaron aged he moved into more favorable hitting conditions -- from Milwaukee to Atlanta -- and then the mound was lowered in 1969, when he was 35. He hit 44 home runs that year and then a career-high 47 at age 37. And let's just say a few of the other names in the top 10 should arguably come with a little asterisk next to their names.

So what do you think? I'd predict Cabrera ends up somewhere just over 600. Given his body type and athleticism, I'm not sure he's going to remain a premier slugger into his late 30s. But he should have enough big seasons left to get him to 600.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
8:46
AM ET
Check out all the playoff odds and upcoming schedules on the Hunt for October page.

1. The Tigers will win the AL Central.

It hasn't always been easy the past three seasons, but after sweeping the Indians, it appears the Tigers will win their the fourth straight division title. It's not over, not with a big series against the Royals this weekend, but 10 of Detroit's other final 13 games are against the Twins and White Sox, so they should finish strong. That said, Sunday's win didn't resolve two major issues the team will carry into the postseason: Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan. Verlander gave up six hits and three walks in 5.2 innings and you have to think he still slots in behind Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello in the playoff rotation, and that's pending the return of Anibal Sanchez, who threw Saturday and is hoping for a return in the final week of the regular season. Nathan earned his 32nd save, but gave up a run on two hits and a walk. Yes, he hasn't blown a save since Aug. 9, but he's also pitched just three 1-2-3 innings in 12 outings since. He's still shaky, to say the least.

2. Jordan Zimmermann looking like Nationals' No. 1 starter.

He tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.83. His next start is Friday and then Wednesday or Thursday of next week after that, giving him plenty of time before the first game of the Division Series. Over his past 10 starts, he's 6-0 with a 2.16 ERA and just eight walks; meanwhile, Doug Fister has had a couple shaky outings lately and Stephen Strasburg remains inconsistent. Look for Zimmermann to draw the first game of the Division Series.

3. Good night, Yankees.

Pitching for the third day in a row, David Robertson didn't have it Sunday night and the Orioles rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 3-2. The Yankees are now five games behind the Royals for the second wild card. It may only take 88 wins to get that second wild but the Yankees would still have to 12-2 to get to 88. Their playoffs odds are now under 1 percent.

4. Pirates looking good.

With a 7-3 win over the Cubs, the Pirates' playoff odds have now increased to 79 percent. They're three games behind the Giants for the first wild card and home field be important there -- Pittsburgh is 46-29 at home, 33-41 on the road, the second-largest home/road split in the majors behind the Cleveland. Of course, there are still slim hopes of catching the Cardinals, but the Cardinals finish with the Brewers, Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks, so it's going be difficult for the Pirates to make up 3.5 games.

5. Clayton Kershaw with his biggest win of the season.

After the teams exchanged 9-0 and 17-0 blowout wins in the first two games of the series, Kershaw went eight strong innings in a 4-2 win over the Giants -- although his ERA did climb all the way from 1.67 to 1.70. This doesn't look like a man wearing down at the end of the season, as he's pitched at least eight innings in seven consecutive starts. The Dodgers are now up three games and their odds of winning the division are over 90 percent.

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.

Five things we learned Friday

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
2:03
AM ET

The Pirates won to move to 13-4 against the Cubs this season, and the Brewers won their third straight, walking off versus the Reds, as both teams kept pressure on the National League Central-leading Cardinals.

Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule. Here's what else went on Friday night:

1. The Mariners beat the slumping A's.

The A's got closer Sean Doolittle back, but that did little to stop their slide: When Doolittle went on the disabled list with an intercostal strain on Aug. 23, the A's were 76-52 and tied for first in the American League West. They had already lost eight of their prior 12 games and had relinquished a four-game lead on the Angels. With Doolittle shelved, the A's lost 13 of their next 18, which included six blown saves.

What was once a lead-pipe cinch for a playoff spot has become quite precarious, with Oakland now only a half-game ahead of the Mariners for the first wild-card spot. Doolittle returned just in time to help his team battle Seattle in the first of a three-game series at Safeco Field. However, he never got in the game, as Seattle hit three solo homers and the A's went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 4-2 Mariners win.

Going forward, the A's have the vastly easier schedule, but can they restart their offense in time to hold off Seattle?

2. The Dodgers and Giants will go right down to the wire in the roller-coaster NL West.

On June 8, the Giants (43-21) led the Dodgers (33-31) by 10 full games in the division. The teams then swapped momentum, as Los Angeles won 36 of their next 57 and San Francisco lost 36 of their next 56. The Dodgers were up by 5.5 games on Aug. 12, a 15.5 game swing in just over two months. The Giants had trimmed that lead down to two games as they headed into a three-game series at AT&T Park that started on Friday. Matt Kemp came into the game hitting .333/.400/.635 in his past 17 games, while Buster Posey was an obscene .463/.477/.838 in his past 19.

Posey contributed an RBI double in the first inning as the Giants touched up Hyun-Jin Ryu for four runs en route to a 9-0 victory, cutting the Dodgers' lead in the division to one game. Ryu left after that first inning with a recurrence of shoulder irritation that had shelved him for three weeks earlier in the season, and it remains to be seen if he'll be available for his next start. Even after this weekend, these two teams still have a three-game set in Los Angeles that begins on Sept. 22.

3. Royals' infield defense let them down again, and Tigers retook AL Central lead.

On Thursday, Kansas City made three errors on the infield, which led to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox. Those three miscues brought the total errors by Royals infielders (including 21 by their pitchers) to 76 this season. On Friday, Mike Moustakas made his second error in as many nights, and Yordano Ventura threw a wild pitch to allow the Red Sox to score another run.

Eric Hosmer provided the only offense with a two-run homer, and Kansas City dropped a 4-2 decision. Meanwhile, David Price tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run, eight-hit ball as the Tigers routed the Indians 7-2. Detroit is now back in the AL Central lead for only the second time since Aug. 10. Given the Royals' ordinary offense, they have a smaller margin for error (all puns intended) and can't afford to be giving runs (and games) away so easily.

4. The Orioles can take a punch, and then some.

The Orioles had their All-Star third baseman (Manny Machado) for a mere 82 games before losing him in early August for the rest of the season to a knee injury. Their No. 1 catcher (Matt Wieters), off to a career-best start at the plate, went down and needed Tommy John surgery in May. Their starting first baseman (Chris Davis), who despite slumping to a sub-.200 average had still hit 26 homers, just got suspended for 25 games for testing positive for amphetamines. With all this, Baltimore continued its surge toward the AL East title, sweeping a day/night doubleheader from the Yankees in which they yielded only one run over 20 innings.

The sweep pushed the Orioles' AL East lead to 11.5 games and moved them within 3.5 games of the best record in the AL. Since being only one game over .500 after 69 games, they've won 53 of their past 78. Coming into Friday, the O's had used only seven different starters pitchers (fewest in the AL), with five of those amassing at least 20 starts (second-most in the AL). It's not that the starting pitching has been superb all year, as they rank in the middle of the pack in most categories. However, they have pitched much better as a whole since the All-Star break: a 34-17 record with a 3.03 ERA prior to Friday, versus 52-42 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half of the season. The staff's good health has meant they haven't had to rely upon untested, not-ready-for-The Show talent.

5. The Mets finally said "no more hospitality" to the Nationals in Queens.

If the Nationals manage to secure the best record in the NL (they currently lead by a half-game), they can credit their league-best .622 winning percentage at home, as well as their "home-field" advantage in Queens, New York. Coming into Friday, Washington had won 12 straight (and 26 of its prior 30 games) at Citi Field. This season, it had won all four contests in New York, by a combined score of 20-6.

The Mets got off that schneid by jumping on Gio Gonzalez for three first-inning runs and outlasting the Nats 4-3. The Nationals still have two more games at Citi Field this weekend, with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann scheduled to start.

Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
Victor MartinezRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsVictor Martinez is second in the American League with a .333 batting average.

It seems like the idea of Victor Martinez as an MVP candidate picked up a lot of momentum in the past few days. It's not the craziest of ideas but … well, it's a little out there, and I say that with full appreciation of Martinez's year at the plate.

Martinez is hitting .333/.404/.568, and there's an argument he's been as good as any hitter in the game. In the sabermetric statistic wOBA (weighted on-base average), he's tied with Andrew McCutchen for best in the majors. In the park-adjusted wRC+ (weighted Runs Created Plus), he's tied with Jose Abreu and Mike Trout, just behind McCutchen. In the more conventional stats, he's second to Jose Altuve in the AL in batting average, first in on-base percentage and tied for sixth in RBIs.

Martinez has received a lot of attention for his rare combination of power and contact ability. He has 30 home runs and just 39 strikeouts, giving him the lowest strikeout rate in the majors among qualified hitters at 6.8 percent. That's certainly a rare skill these days. Here's a good read from August Fagerstrom at FanGraphs, pointing out Martinez not only makes contact but is adept at making contact outside the strike zone -- he makes contact on 89 percent of the pitches he swings at that aren't even strikes.

As the chart in that piece shows, Martinez is extreme not just in his ability to connect with those pitches but to connect with power. August writes:
Here’s one more little Victor nugget before we go: Martinez has hit seven home runs off pitches outside the strike zone this year. Of those seven, four have come in an 0-2 count. No other player in baseball has hit four home runs off any pitch in an 0-2 count this season, ball or strike. Look up. The second gif came in an 0-2 count. The fourth gif, even though the broadcast displayed it incorrectly, came in an 0-2 count. Even when you get ahead of Martinez 0-2 and throw him a good 0-2 pitch, he can still do damage against you. It's not over until it's over.


Now, Martinez's skill is certainly unique. The last player to hit at least 30 home runs while striking out 50 or fewer times was Albert Pujols in 2006 (49 home runs, 50 strikeouts). Since the mound was lowered in 1969, it's been done just 15 times, including three times apiece by Barry Bonds and Don Mattingly. If you factor in the league strikeout rate, Martinez's home run-to-strikeout ratio looks even more impressive.

That's fun stuff, but it doesn't make Martinez's production any more valuable. And that's where we have to point out he's still a designated hitter trying to win the MVP award, and that's a tough proposition to argue for. He's started just 32 games in the field -- 30 at first base and two at catcher.

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The fewest games started in the field by a nonpitcher MVP was Don Baylor of the Angels in 1979, with 97. And Baylor isn't really a precedent because he was a bad MVP choice, an RBI guy on a playoff team. The closest a full-time DH has come to winning was David Ortiz, who finished second to Alex Rodriguez in 2005. The voting was actually pretty close -- 331 points to 307 -- although A-Rod was clearly more valuable considering he had slightly better triple-slash stats, played a good third base and stole 21 bases (A-Rod led in WAR, 9.4 to 5.3). Edgar Martinez finished third in 1995, behind Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle, and actually had a higher WAR than either two. Ortiz's wRC+ in 2005 was 157, below Victor Martinez's 163, while Edgar Martinez's was a sky-high 182, easily best in the majors that year.

Speaking of WAR, this is where it's hard to build a case for Martinez. Baseball-Reference has him at 4.6 WAR, 18th among AL position players. FanGraphs has him at 3.9, 20th among AL position players. You have a player with no defensive value and is one of the slowest runners in the league (he's rated as one of the 10 worst baserunners in the AL with minus-5.3 runs on the bases via FanGraphs), so you basically have to hit like Barry Bonds circa 2001-2004, or at least Edgar Martinez in 1995, to be in the MVP discussion if you're a DH.

Martinez has been one of the season's biggest surprises and best stories. In this day of flailing sluggers and strikeout-prone singles hitters, he's a joy to watch. But he's not one of the AL's five best MVP candidates.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
1:13
AM ET
Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Dayton Moore had a dream: It was trading for James Shields and having Shields pitch a big game in September against the Tigers with a division lead on the line, and after Shields tossed seven scoreless innings, the Royals' general manager could stand up and puff out his chest a little bit and say, "See? This is why we needed James Shields."

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio"Big Game James" lived up to his name, as James Shields gave the Royals a win they had to have.
After losing the first two games of the series, the Royals won the finale 3-0 as Shields delivered a huge, huge win for a playoff-starved franchise trying to win the AL Central. You don't want to say a sweep would have been devastating; it's too early in September for that, and we can't assume any psychological effects. Still … big win. Shields gave up a leadoff single but then picked off Ian Kinsler and retired 18 in a row, until Torii Hunter singled with one out in the seventh. Miguel Cabrera then walked to set up the key moments of the game with Kansas City leading 2-0.

Manager Ned Yost eschewed using Kelvin Herrera (28 consecutive scoreless appearances) or Wade Davis (31 consecutive scoreless appearances) and left in Shields, who was at 92 pitches. Up stepped Victor Martinez, who has been maybe the best hitter in the game in 2014. He swung at a first-pitch changeup and hit a fly ball to deep center -- the hearts of Royals' fans missed a beat, or three -- but Jarrod Dyson flagged it down, and Shields then fanned J.D. Martinez on a 2-2 changeup, pumped his fist and roared off the field.

"You don't earn a nickname like 'Big Game James' for nothing," Yost said postgame. "Games don't come much bigger than this."

The "Big Game James" nickname is actually pretty lame (he has a 4.98 ERA in six career postseason starts), but there's no doubt he backed it up in this contest.

2. Angels keep rolling: They beat up on the hapless Rangers and lowered their magic number to nine with their seventh win in a row. Remember when Garrett Richards went down Aug. 20? He was 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, and the Angels led the AL West by 1½ games. The Angels have the second-best ERA in the AL since Aug. 21. Rookie Matt Shoemaker improved to 15-4 and allowed just one run in 6⅔ innings.

3. A's bullpen blows another: Jeff Samardzija pitched seven scoreless innings but left with a 1-0 lead after 116 pitches, only to see Luke Gregerson cough it up with two runs as the White Sox won 2-1. Who does manager Bob Melvin trust in that bullpen right now? With Detroit and Seattle also losing, Oakland didn't lose ground on those two teams, but they seem to find a new way to lose every night.

4. It's not too late for Toronto: The Blue Jays won their fourth in a row by crushing the Cubs 11-1 for the third game in a row. They outscored Chicago 28-3 in the series. The Jays are now 3½ behind the Tigers for the second wild card, but the schedule gets tougher the rest of the way: Tampa Bay, at Baltimore, at the Yankees, Seattle and Baltimore.

5. Don Mattingly moves Yasiel Puig to leadoff: Trying to get his slumping star out of a long power drought -- Puig hasn't homered since July 31 and has just two since the end of May -- Mattingly moved Puig up to the leadoff spot.

"There's always stuff going on with different guys, but Yasiel basically got us to this point, and everything we've tried to do so far is to try to get him going, take the pressure off, the same we'd do for anybody," Mattingly said before the game. "It's time to get him rolling. It's no secret that we have a big series coming up [in San Francisco], and hopefully, he plays well tonight and keeps it going the rest of the year."

Puig went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, but Dan Haren pitched seven scoreless frames in a 4-0 win. Let's see if the leadoff idea -- which I kind of like -- continues Friday against the San Francisco Giants after an off-day.

Pickoff of the season dooms Royals

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
12:06
AM ET


God knows the Kansas City Royals have found a lot of unique ways to lose ballgames over the past 25 years.

But Tuesday night, in arguably the biggest game the franchise has played since winning the 1985 World Series, the Royals found yet another way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

OK, maybe they weren't going to win. But trailing 4-2 in the top of the ninth to the Detroit Tigers, in a game the Royals needed to win to maintain their lead over Detroit in the AL Central, they had two runners on against a sweaty Joe Nathan, the proverbial case of "on the ropes." Nathan was taking a long time between pitches, the home fans had grown quiet and the Royals had the meat of their order up with no outs.

Norichika Aoki was at second base, pinch runner Terrance Gore had entered at first base. No. 3 hitter Alex Gordon, the team's hottest hitter, stepped in. Nathan fell behind with two fastballs, but fought back to strike out Gordon on a foul-tip 3-2 slider.

Now things got interesting. Royals manager Ned Yost inserted speedster Jarrod Dyson to run for Aoki. Was that move necessary? When Dyson's run isn't the important one? Well, maybe Yost had something up his sleeve. Consider the circumstances:
  • Salvador Perez, the hitter, had grounded into 21 double plays -- or 18 percent of all his potential double-play opportunities. That makes Perez one of the most likely hitters in the majors to ground into a double play. Of hitters with at least 50 double-play opportunities, Casey McGehee had the highest percentage entering Tuesday's action, at 23 percent. Perez ranked in the top 20.
  • On the other hand, Nathan doesn't throw a lot of ground balls, 42 percent of his balls in play, a little below the major league average of 47 percent.
  • However, Nathan is also pretty easy to steal on: As ESPN colleague Mark Simon pointed out, baserunners had been 10-for-10 stealing against Nathan this season and 44-for-46 going back to 2006. I'm pretty sure Yost didn't know this, but Nathan also had one pickoff in his career.
  • Dyson and Gore are burners. Dyson was 33-for-39 in stealing bases on the year and was 20-for-22 in his career attempting to steal third. He'd been picked off three times this year. The rookie Gore had one steal but was 47-for-54 in the minors.


So that's the setup. And ... Nathan picked off Dyson (in a play officially ruled a caught stealing, even though Dyson was caught as he stumbled back to second base) and Perez struck out on a slider six inches off the plate and the game was over.

Royals fan and Grantland contributor Rany Jazayerli tweeted that he thought putting in Dyson made sense:


I guess the question is: Did Yost telegraph his intention so obviously by inserting Dyson after Gordon had hit? Maybe so. But as Rany pointed out, getting two runners into scoring position had enormous value for the Royals, both by avoiding the double play and giving Perez a chance to tie the game with a single. You also have to weigh the odds of the chance of a caught stealing/pickoff versus a double play. The odds of a double play, given Perez's season numbers and Nathan's ground-ball tendencies, were less than one in five. Dyson's caught stealing/pickoff percentage is 22 percent -- a little higher, but you have to figure it's a better percentage against Nathan.

You also have to factor in that Nathan didn't look sharp, so the benefit of risking an out wasn't worth it against a struggling pitcher. Overall, however, if Yost did indeed call for the double steal, the math says it was an acceptable decision.

(From postgame tweets, Yost says he did not have a double steal on for that particular pitch, but that Dyson had a green light to steal. The problem with that description is that it doesn't tell us what Gore was going to do -- it would be up to him to read Dyson, which doesn't necessarily mean he'd attempt to steal second -- and he's the guy you're trying to get into scoring position. If Gore doesn't steal second, Dyson stealing third is pointless. So I don't really buy this explanation from Yost; it doesn't explain what he wanted the more important runner to do.)

The Royals found a way to lose, with a manager at the helm who has made some questionable decisions in the past. Who can forget the Carlos Pena pinch-hitting appearance in a crucial game last Sept. 10, in what I termed the worst-managed inning of the season. Fair or not, Yost is on the hot seat for every little decision these days.

Anyway, in the end it was Dyson who got picked off, not Yost. Heck, Ian Kinsler was basically standing on second base, so it really was terrible baserunning. In the end, Nathan and the Tigers made a play and won the game and now they're tied for first place ... and keep in mind the Royals are losing 4-2 in the 10th inning of that suspended game against Cleveland.

These two teams are at it again on Wednesday. It will be the biggest game the Royals have played since 1985.
With the A's, Royals, Mariners and Tigers separated by just 1.5 games in the standings, there's the juicy possibility of a four-way tie, however slim: The Royals and Tigers tie for the AL Central title while the A's and Mariners also finish with the same record.

So, as a reader asked in today's chat, what happens if this happens?

Luckily, MLB has a plan! It's actually not so complicated:
1. Two tiebreak games will be played on Monday, Sept. 30 (tentatively). One will feature the two Clubs tied for the Division to determine the Division Champion, and the other will feature the other two Clubs outside the division to determine one Wild Card Club. Home field advantage in each game will be determined by the rules above for a two-team tiebreaker.

2. A third tiebreak game will be played on Tuesday, Oct. 1 (tentatively) between the loser of the game to determine the Division Champion and the loser of the game between the two Clubs outside the division to determine the second Wild Card Club. Home field advantage in the game will be determined by the rules above for a two-team tiebreaker.


So the Royals and Tigers would play for the division title. The A's and Mariners play for one wild card. The losers of the two games then play each other for the second wild card.

As far as home-field advantage in those games, the Tigers have already locked up the season edge over the Royals, leading 10 to 4 with five games remaining. Seattle leads Oakland 9 to 7 with three games remaining.

And what happens if, say, the Indians end up as a fifth team in the mix? That's a good question, since MLB does not lay out plans for a five-team tiebreaker.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
10:34
AM ET
1. The A's can't get Sean Doolittle back soon enough.

For the second day in a row, the A's blew a ninth-inning lead, as Tyler Flowers of the White Sox homered off Eric O'Flaherty with two outs to tie the game and then homered again in the 12th off Jesse Chavez to win it. Doolittle threw a bullpen session on Monday and will face hitters on Wednesday, hoping for a return at the end of the week. The A's have now lost six games they've led heading into the ninth inning (the major league average is three) and their wild-card lead is down to one game over Seattle and 1.5 games over Detroit. Brandon Moss hasn't homered since July 24, a span of 113 at-bats during which he's hitting .159. Maybe it's not exactly desperate times in Oakland, but it's starting to feel like desperate times.

2. Even when he's mediocre, King Felix is pretty good.

Felix Hernandez scuffled through six innings against the Astros, walking four for the second time this season and giving up five hits. But he kept the Astros off the board in getting a no-decision. The Mariners broke open a 1-1 tie in the eighth on Brad Miller's two-run triple to win for the sixth time in seven games. Still, Felix hasn't been quite as dominant over his past five starts, as he's allowed seven home runs and has a 23/9 strikeout/walk ratio in 31.2 innings. He'll face the A's this weekend and the Mariners will hope to see the Felix who had that memorable 17-start stretch where he went seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer each outing.

3. Big night for the Pirates.

With a 6-4 win over the Phillies, combined with losses by the Brewers and Braves, the Pirates increased their lead for the second wild card to 1.5 games over those two clubs. While Jeff Locke pitched seven solid innings -- three hits, one run, nine K's -- it's the Pittsburgh offense that remains underrated. They're third in the NL in runs (just two behind the Nationals for second-most) and second in wOBA. Last year's Pirates were all about pitching, defense and Andrew McCutchen, but this year's lineup runs much deeper. Starling Marte has been huge of late. Since returning from a concussion on Aug. 5, he's hit .342/.402/.575 in 32 games, with 15 extra-base hits, getting on base and adding power from the leadoff spot.

4. Javier Baez is going to have to some interesting projections for 2015.

Baez went 0-for-4 as the Cubs lost 8-0 to the Blue Jays ... although he did strike out just once after whiffing 10 times in his previous three games. His batting average in 34 games is down to .165 and he has 62 strikeouts in 140 at-bats. Yes, he's just 21. Yes, the raw power is off the charts. But 62 strikeouts -- with just eight walks -- in 140 at-bats? That's crazy terrible. That's not even Mark Reynolds territory. Not surprisingly, among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Baez has the highest swing-and-miss percentage at 42.9 percent. Astros rookie George Springer has the second-highest at 41.1 percent. Springer, however, has hit .231/.336/.468 compared to Baez's .165/.209/.350. The big difference? Baez has a chase rate on pitches outside the zone of 40.6 percent compared to Springer's 23.3 percent. Again, Baez is three years younger than Springer, so he has time to learn the strike zone; but if he doesn't, pitchers are going to continue exploiting his aggressiveness.

5. Victor Martinez is the best hitter in the game right now.

After going 3-for-5 as the Tigers pounded the Royals 9-4 in the first game of their big series, Martinez leads the majors in wOBA, just head of Jose Abreu, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. In the park-adjusted wRC+, he's also first. He's hitting .337. He has power (already with a career-high 30 home runs). He rarely strikes out (just 39 K's in 570 plate appearances). Obviously, he doesn't have much defensive value as he's started just 30 games in the field, 28 of those at first base, but shouldn't he be a factor in the MVP voting? Not saying he should win, but he's a good top-five candidate. Oh ... doesn't Tuesday feel like a big game for the Royals? Jason Vargas versus Max Scherzer. Should be a fun one.

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