SweetSpot: Houston Astros

Jose Altuve told the Houston Astros he wants to start Sunday's finale rather than sit to preserve his lead in the batting race over Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers.

Altuve enters the day hitting .340, and Martinez is at .337. If Altuve didn't play, Martinez would have to go 3-for-3 to pass Altuve, giving him a .3407 average compared with Altuve's .3399. If he plays the whole game, Altuve risks lowering his average and giving Martinez a better chance to catch him. Of course, if Altuve goes 1-for-1 and then sits down, then Martinez has to go 4-for-4 to catch him.

That's what Jose Reyes did back in 2011 when he won the NL batting title with the Mets with a .337 average. Reyes reached on a bunt single in his first at-bat and then pulled himself from the game, to much criticism. Ryan Braun needed to go 3-for-4 to pass him (he didn't and finished at .332).

But Reyes was hardly unusual in his decision. Bill Mueller of the Red Sox sat on the final day of the 2003 season, pinch-hitting in the eighth inning, and finished at .326, one point ahead of teammate Manny Ramirez (who also sat that day, so it could have been a manager's decision with the Red Sox heading to the postseason) and two points ahead of Derek Jeter, who went 0-for-3. Bernie Williams of the Yankees left the 1998 finale after six innings and a 2-for-2 performance that gave him a .339-to-.337 edge over Mo Vaughn.

One of the most famous "sits" occurred in 1976. Ken Griffey Sr. of the Reds entered the day leading the NL race with a .338 mark, while Bill Madlock -- a guy who obsessed over batting titles (he would win four) -- was hitting .333. With a seemingly safe lead, Griffey was on the bench in Cincinnati when the game began. Sparky Anderson originally had Griffey's name in the lineup, but several teammates urged Griffey to sit. So he did. When asked about the decision, Anderson replied, "Is this for print? Because I have two different ways to answer that."

But in Chicago, Madlock would go 4-for-4 to raise his average to .339 (he was pinch-hit for in the eighth inning). Seeing what had happened in Chicago, Griffey finally entered the game in the seventh but would go 0-for-2 and finish at .337.

Bill James once wrote of Madlock, "Sometimes it seemed like all he cared about was winning the batting title. The last month of the season, if he was in the hunt for a title, the guys in the press box used to run a poll to see who could pick the days that Madlock's hamstring would keep him out of the lineup."

Madlock's last title came in 1983, when he hit .323 for the Pirates, while Lonnie Smith of the Cardinals hit .321. Check out Madlock's final week:

Game 157: Played the entire game
Game 158: Started, played three innings
Game 159: Started, played four innings
Game 160: Started, played four innings
Game 161: Started, played one inning
Game 162: Didn't play

Seems a little weird, doesn't it? Madlock did tear a tendon in his calf muscle in early September and missed some time, and it was clearly an issue all month. But why did he keep trying to play? By then he had accumulated enough plate appearances to qualify for the title (he finished with 530). Maybe he knew of his reputation and didn't want the perception that he was sitting on his lead. Smith made a late run -- he was hitting .314 with a week left in the season -- and went 2-for-4 on the final day to fall just short.

An incident similar to the Griffey-Madlock episode occurred in 1982, when the Royals' Willie Wilson led the Brewers' Robin Yount .332 to .328 on the final day. The Royals were at home, but the Brewers were in Baltimore (needing a win to beat the Orioles for the AL East title), and Yount went three for his first four (two home runs and a triple!) to raise his average to .331 and lead the Brewers to a big win. By then, the game in Kansas City had started with Wilson on the bench. The Royals called Baltimore to keep track of Yount's progress. With Yount possibly getting one more at-bat, the Royals stalled their game to see if Wilson would need to enter. Yount was hit by a pitch in the ninth. Wilson sat and the batting title was his.

In 1986, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly were in a tight race down the stretch, with Boggs leading by four points with six games to go. The Miami Herald reported, "Though the Red Sox have clinched the AL East title, Boggs, 28, says he intends to play every remaining game."

He didn't. He missed the final five games with a hamstring injury. The Red Sox and Yankees played each other the final series, and by the final day, Mattingly had to go 6-for-6 to catch Boggs. "What if I go 5-for-5. Will they pitch to me the sixth time?" Mattingly asked. He went 2-for-5, and Boggs had the title. He was back in the Boston lineup for the ALCS.

These episodes don't even touch on some of the other controversial batting races. Most notably, 1910 between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, when Lajoie caught Cobb by going 8-for-8 -- including several bunt hits -- in a season-ending doubleheader against the Browns, who basically kept their third baseman way back to allow the hits out of spite for Cobb. Then there was 1976, when Royals teammates George Brett and Hal McRae were dueling for the title. It came down to the final inning, and Brett needed a hit to pass McRae (who was on deck). Brett's fly ball fell in front of Twins left fielder Steve Brye and turned into an inside-the-park home run. McRae grounded out, made two obscene gestures to the Twins dugout and had to be restrained from going after Twins manager Gene Mauch after the game, accusing Brye and the Twins of letting Brett's ball drop on purpose. (More on that whole episode here.)

Anyway, it's nice to see Altuve electing to play the finale. Or at least start it. Now, if he goes 1-for-1 and then sits ... well, it won't be the first controversial batting title. [Postscript: He didn't come out, had two hits in his first three at-bats, so yeah, this is awesome.]
With the news that Jacob deGrom has been shut down by the New York Mets and after watching Yordano Ventura deliver another impressive performance Tuesday night for the Kansas City Royals, it seems like a good time to review the 2014 rookie class. Here's my all-rookie team, based on 2014 performance, not future value.

Catcher: Travis d'Arnaud, Mets (.242/.302/.416, 0.4 WAR)
His overall batting numbers aren't great, but he flashed some of the potential prospect analysts had long seen at the plate, including a .265/.313/.474 line in the second half. More importantly, he stayed relatively healthy, always a problem for him in the minors. The defense is still an issue: His 19 percent caught stealing rate is well below league average -- teammate Anthony Recker was at 41 percent -- and he allowed 12 passed balls and 39 wild pitches, also well above Recker's rates. D'Arnaud is 25, so I'm not sure how much growth there is in him, but if he can match his second-half production over a full season and clean up the defense, he is going to be a solid role player.

Others: Caleb Joseph, Orioles; Christian Vazquez, Red Sox; Christian Bethancourt, Braves; Josmil Pinto, Twins. Joseph has been a huge bonus for the Orioles, filling in for Matt Wieters. Vazquez and Bethancourt are defense-first guys with questionable bats. Pinto allowed 19 steals in 19 attempts and ended up going back to Triple-A for a couple months.

First base: Jose Abreu, White Sox (.316/.382/.582, 5.3 WAR)
Yeah, he can hit big league pitching. Abreu is leading the American League in slugging percentage and ranks sixth in on-base percentage. He's not the MVP of the league -- that's Mike Trout -- but he should finish high in the voting even though he doesn't have much value on defense. Here's one thing I love most about his season: In the first half, Abreu hit .292 with 29 home runs but had an 82-22 strikeout-walk ratio. In the second half, he has hit .352 with six home runs and has a 45-27 strikeout-walk ratio. Should we be concerned about the drop in power? I don't think so. His fly ball rate has dropped about 5 percent from the first half, which could be some fatigue or pitchers just working him a little more carefully, but I like that he has improved his control of the strike zone, showing he's a hitter and not just a slugger.

Others: Jonathan Singleton of the Astros has hit .168 in 356 plate appearances with 133 strikeouts. He walks, has shown power and just turned 23, but .168 is .168.

SportsNation

Which position player would you most want for the next six years?

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    18%
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Discuss (Total votes: 850)

Second base: Kolten Wong, Cardinals (.252/.295/.396, 2.1 WAR)
The most impressive season, however, may be from Rougned Odor of the Rangers, who has essentially the same batting line as Wong but is three years younger. Wong rates higher due to better defense and baserunning, but Odor is the guy I'd take for the future.

Others: Javier Baez, Cubs; Jonathan Schoop, Orioles; Joe Panik, Giants; Tommy La Stella, Braves. Would you rather have Baez or Odor? Baez is a year older and has hit .164. Odor was rushed to the majors due to all the injuries in Texas with just 62 games above Class A, whereas Baez had 158 games above Class A. Like Baez, Odor is an aggressive swinger at the plate, although with better contact skills. It will be interesting to see how these two develop.

Third base: Nick Castellanos, Tigers (.264/.310/.397, -1.5 WAR)
Wait, negative WAR? That's because he has rated as the worst defensive player in the majors via defensive runs saved, with minus-31. In looking at the numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, Castellanos has been credited with 30 good fielding plays and 37 defensive misplays and errors. The misplays and errors aren't out of line with the best defenders, but the good plays are near the bottom of the list. Josh Donaldson, for example, leads with 75. Castellanos' raw range factor is half a play per game lower than league average. It just looks a guy who doesn't have the range and reaction time to be a good defensive third baseman (not that he can't improve). Anyway, the bat hasn't been anything special, but he's just 22 and has popped 45 extra-base hits.

Others: Yangervis Solarte, Padres; Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks. Lamb should retain rookie eligibility for next season if he sits a couple more games this final week.

Shortstop: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox (.237/.297/.362, 0.3 WAR)
He didn't have the year everyone expected, but he's going to be an excellent player.

Outfield: Billy Hamilton, Reds (.251/.293/.357, 2.5 WAR); George Springer, Astros (.231/.336/,468, 2.0 WAR); Danny Santana, Twins (.314/.351/.469, 3.5 WAR)
Hamilton has plummeted to a .202/.256/.259 line in the second half after showing some surprising pop in the first half. His base stealing hasn't been that electric as he has 56 stolen bases but has a league-leading 23 caught stealings. There have been reports he has had some leg issues, but regardless, he is going to have to improve that percentage and get stronger to get through an entire season. Springer's season was cut short by injury while Santana has been the big surprise as he never hit like this in the minors.

Others: Gregory Polanco, Pirates; Oscar Taveras, Cardinals; Mookie Betts, Red Sox; Arismendy Alcantara, Cubs; Ender Inciarte, Diamondbacks; Kevin Kiermaier, Rays. Those players all used up their rookie eligibility, with mixed results. Inciarte has the highest WAR of any rookie outfielder at 3.6 thanks to a terrific defensive rating.

SP: Collin McHugh, Astros (11-9, 2.73 ERA, 4.3 WAR); Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees (13-4, 2.47 ERA, 4.0 WAR); Yordano Ventura, Royals (14-10, 3.07 ERA, 3.5 WAR); Jacob deGrom, Mets (9-6, 2.63 ERA, 3.0 WAR); Matt Shoemaker, Angels (16-4, 3.04 ERA, 2.3 WAR)
It's an interesting group. McHugh was plucked off waivers from the Rockies; Shoemaker was basically a nonprospect who got a chance due to injuries in the Angels' rotation; deGrom was a second-tier prospect, but nobody expected this; Ventura was a highly rated prospect due to that explosive fastball; and Tanaka, of course, was the prized free agent from Japan. Lesson: Good pitchers can come from anywhere.

Others: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs; Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays; Jake Odorizzi, Rays; Tyler Matzek, Rockies; James Paxton, Mariners; Trevor Bauer, Indians; Shane Greene, Yankees; Roenis Elias, Mariners; Kevin Gausman, Orioles. Many others, of course, but those are some I like.

Reliever: Dellin Betances, Yankees (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 3.7 WAR)
With 135 strikeouts and just 46 hits allowed in 90 innings, he's had maybe the best relief season of any pitcher in the majors -- tied with Wade Davis of the Royals in WAR. With David Robertson a free agent, it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do. Betances is probably more valuable as a 90-inning setup guy than a 70-inning closer.

Overall, I'd rate this rookie class as average in production -- good on the pitching side, weak on the hitting side once you get past Abreu -- but with the potential to be better over the long haul with guys like Bogaerts, Polanco, Taveras, Baez, Odor and Springer having star potential.

My rookies of the year: Jose Abreu and Jacob deGrom.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
10:34
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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.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
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1. The Tigers had the biggest win of the night.

J.D. Martinez's magical season continued with a three-run shot to dead center off Cody Allen in the ninth to give the Tigers a 4-2 lead that Joe Nathan then protected. With Allen struggling to throw his breaking ball for strikes, Martinez had to be sitting fastball and he didn't miss. If we did an "All-Surprise Team" for 2014, Martinez would certainly be on it. (Hey, good idea for a blog post!) While it was a big win for the Tigers, keeping them a half-game behind the Royals, it was even more of a crushing defeat for the Indians, who dropped 5.5 games behind the Royals. (Keep in mind that Cleveland leads Kansas City 4-2 in the 10th inning of that suspended game.)

2. Buster Posey: Late entry into the MVP discussion.

The Giants rallied from a 6-0 deficit at Coors Field to beat the hapless Rockies 12-7. Posey went 3-for-4 with three runs and four RBIs and is now hitting .302/.355/.484 thanks to a big second half so far. While Hunter Pence has probably been more valuable over the course of the season for the Giants, if Posey continues his surge and the Giants catch the Dodgers, I can see Posey getting MVP support for the whole "carried the Giants to the division title in the second half" thing that voters love. It would be reminiscent of 2012, when he hit .385 in the second half to win MVP honors.

3. Brewers can't be feeling good.

A 7-1 loss to the Cubs was their seventh in a row -- two to the Cubs, three to the Giants and two to the Padres. Carlos Gomez is still out with a sprained wrist and will miss another week. After another game with the Cubs comes a four-game series at home against the Cardinals. That could be a make-or-break series for the Brewers. Hard to see a rebound coming at this point: After that 20-7 start in April they've been four games under .500.

4. Big night for Jose Altuve's quest for a batting title.

The Astros' second baseman went 4-for-5 to raise his average to .340, eight points ahead of Victor Martinez. The pennant-race implication was that the Astros beat the Angels 8-3 as C.J. Wilson struggled again and got knocked out in the fourth inning. Even his two "good" starts in recent weeks weren't that good as he struggled with his walks. The Angels maintained their lead as the A's lost 6-5 to the Mariners when a late rally fell short, but Wilson's issues are, well, an issue. I know I just wrote that the Angels will win the West, but Angels fan and SweetSpot TV guest host Cary Chow informed me that I was premature with that suggestion.

Let's be honest: Clayton Kershaw is the MVP, the Cy Young, the Everything.
Eight innings, three hits, one run, eight K's. Although Bryce Harper did tag him for a home run, the first he's given up to a lefty all season. Put that one in your back pocket, just in case the Dodgers and Nationals meet in October.

On a certain level, there was always the belief that Bo Porter was a placeholder, a manager to fill out the lineup card, play the young guys, take his lumps and not complain about all the losing. When the front office deemed the rebuilding process complete and the Houston Astros ready to win again, general manager Jeff Luhnow would bring in a different manager -- either one with more experience and a proven record of success or a younger, more sabermetrically inclined manager.

The Astros fired Porter with a month to go in the season; the timing isn't really a surprise, as it gives the Astros an early start over other teams that may be looking for a new manager in the offseason. Why wait to begin the search if you know you're going to fire Porter anyway?

This appears the key section of Luhnow's statement: "What we will seek going forward is a consistent and united message throughout the entire organization. It is essential that as an organization we create an atmosphere at the Major League level where our young players can come up and continue to develop and succeed."

Reading between the lines, I wonder if this is a direct shot at the Mark Appel incident, when the Astros' No. 1 pick from last year passed through Houston this summer for a throwing session on his way to a promotion to Double-A. Several anonymous Astros players voiced their opinion that Appel hadn't earned his way to a major league clubhouse -- even for a throwing session. Considering most Astros players have barely proven anything themselves at the major league level, it seemed a curious thing for a terrible team to get upset about. Even if it was just a couple of opinionated guys in the clubhouse, it came across as a bit of a poisonous culture, with Porter getting some of the blame, fair or not.

While Porter was apparently willing to buy into the front office's sabermetric bent -- the Astros lead the majors with 1,204 defensive shifts (the Yankees are second with 687) -- we also don't know what went on behind closed doors. Maybe Porter privately complained to Luhnow about all the shifts. Maybe he didn't like the front office's overall influence or some of the decisions like having George Springer start the season in Triple-A.

[+] EnlargeBo Porter
Brian Blanco/Getty ImagesBo Porter was 110-190 in his stint as the Astros' manager the past two years.
Or maybe Porter's fate was sealed back in May of 2013, when he embarrassingly tried to replace a reliever who hadn't faced a batter. The opposing manager had inserted a pinch hitter and Porter thought he could then replace his pitcher. A manager who doesn't know the most basic of rules probably isn't the guy you want managing a team in a playoff game.

The Astros weren't going to win the past two years, with or without Porter. Was he ever going to be the long-term skipper? Probably not.

Luhnow's search will obviously begin with a manager comfortable working with young players -- whether that's a veteran retread skipper like Manny Acta or current Mets bench coach Bob Geren or a first-time manager remains to be seen. Last offseason's trend was to hire first-timers -- including Matt Williams, Brad Ausmus, Bryan Price and Rick Renteria, with Ryne Sandberg in his first full season after taking over the Phillies in late 2013. Only Seattle's Lloyd McClendon was a retread.

Luhnow's other mantra, as he said in his statement, is a guy willing to go along with the organizational plan. For the Astros, that means going along with new ways to think about the game -- shifts are just one element of that philosophy. Maybe they go with a recently retired player, like the Tigers did with Ausmus -- Jason Varitek is a popular name that has been thrown out there. A's bench coach Chip Hale interviewed last offseason with Seattle; coming from Oakland, he would probably understand the Astros' sabermetric mindset as well as any candidate.

Regardless, the Astros are on the verge of becoming a .500 team next year and maybe a playoff contender in 2016. This manager is the one they want to be there when they get back into the postseason.
I better write something about Wade Davis since the Royals' setup guy is having a terrific season -- 8-2, 0.77 ERA, five runs allowed with 87 strikeouts and just 28 hits in 58.1 innings entering Thursday. He hasn't allowed a run in his past 25 appearances, a span of 24.2 innings.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, his stuff plays up much better in shorter stints. I thought the Royals made the right decision a year ago to give him one more chance at starting, although Ned Yost waited too long to remove him from the rotation. Now he's one part of that awesome trio of Kansas City relievers, along with Kelvin Herrera and closer Greg Holland, a key reason the Royals lead the AL Central.

Watch out for these spoilers

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
1:11
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Let's take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss some of the teams on the fringes of the playoff races or those that have already made their October reservations at their favorite golf courses.

These teams are usually known as spoilers, but in this Year of Parity it's probable that one of them will actually go into the final week of the season with a chance to win a wild card. These are five teams currently under .500 that I expect to play well down the stretch.

1. Miami Marlins
[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
AP Photo/Joe SkipperGiancarlo Stanton is a big reason why contenders won't want to face the Marlins down the stretch.

We saw what can make them so dangerous on Tuesday, when they beat Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals 3-0 behind new acquisition Jarred Cosart, who pitched seven innings of three-hit baseball. Cosart has a good arm and throws a hard sinking fastball that generates a lot of ground balls -- when he can throw it for strikes as he did against the Cardinals with just one walk. The Astros were willing to punt on him after he had four straight bad starts in July and some perceived attitude problems that he didn't take well to instruction didn't help. Maybe a change of scenery will help; he's just 24 with 32 career starts now, young enough for things to click.

The Marlins are 59-60, and while they're mediocre, they're a young team incentivized to win and they have one of the No. 1 guys in the game who can beat you, Giancarlo Stanton. Witness Monday night, when his two bombs powered the Marlins to a 6-5 win over the Cardinals. They're just 3.5 games out of the second wild card -- thank you, National League -- so they certainly aren't out of the playoff picture. But until All-Star Henderson Alvarez returns, the rotation is shaky enough that veteran Brad Penny started the other day and won his first game since 2011.

Watch out: Braves (six games remaining) and Nationals (eight games).

2. Tampa Bay Rays

Like the Marlins, they're hanging in there at 5.5 games out of the second wild card, although they'd have to pass five teams to secure that position. Still, even without David Price, this could be a team that reels off nine wins in 10 games and suddenly gets right back in the thick of things.

Guess which team has the allowed the fewest runs per game since the All-Star break? That's why you can't count out the Rays just yet.

Plus, Evan Longoria has a big hot streak in him, right?

Watch out: Yankees (nine games), Blue Jays (nine games), Orioles (seven games).

3. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are out of it, but they've arguably been better than their 51-67 record indicates. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at FanGraphs the other day, the Cubs and Royals have basically the same BaseRuns record. What the heck does that mean? Just more sabermetric gobbledy gook? BaseRuns calculates how many runs a team "should" have scored or allowed, given a team's component statistics. Basically, the difference is that the Royals have been clutch and the Cubs have not.

What's that mean over the final weeks? Clutch isn't viewed in sabermetric circles as a predictable and repeatable skill, so it's possible the Cubs clutch up down the stretch and improve their hitting and pitching with runners on base or in close games or what have you.

Plus, the Cubs have some weapons that can beat you. Kyle Hendricks continues to look good in the rotation, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 3-0 on Tuesday. Anthony Rizzo is a power bat in the middle of the lineup -- he hit his 26th home run -- and young guys such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could be intriguing down the stretch. Jake Arrieta had the one blowup start last week but has otherwise been pitching like a No. 1; you don't want to face him. Plus, we may see Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler called up as well.

Watch out: Brewers (eight games), Cardinals (seven games), Pirates (six games).

4. San Diego Padres

The Padres? The team that hit .171 in June? Yes, the Padres. But they can pitch and have gone 14-8 since the All-Star break. In particular, you don't want to run into Tyson Ross, who hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his past nine starts.

Watch out: Dodgers (nine games), Giants (seven games), Cardinals (four games).

5. Houston Astros

Well, I don't know about the Astros, but Chris Carter can single-handedly beat you with one three-run homer. He homered again on Tuesday and leads the majors with 15 big ones since the beginning of July -- five more than Stanton, the No. 2 guy. With 36 RBIs in 33 games, he has delivered a lot of damage lately. The pitching hasn't been very good of late, but the Astros have played well at times this year. Once George Springer returns to join Carter and Jose Altuve in the lineup, there may be just enough offense here to scare up some wins.

Watch out: A's (six games), Mariners (six games), Angels (five games).
More bizarre news emanating from the 2017 World Series champions: Over the weekend, the Astros promoted Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, from Class A Lancaster to Double-A, despite terrible overall numbers at Lancaster. But he stopped by Houston on his way to Corpus Christi to throw a bullpen session, which angered Astros players. Via Houston Chronicle reporter Jose de Jesus Ortiz and Drew Silva of Hardball Talk, one Astros player said, "It's (expletive) unbelievable," about Appel throwing that bullpen.

In other words: You have to earn your way to the big leagues. Even to throw a bullpen session.

As Ortiz tweeted, "In a sport that prides itself on having guys pay dues, the Astros didn't help perception in clubhouse that Appel is being babied."

Look, the whole "paying your dues" thing in baseball has created a terrible caste system, where poorly paid minor leaguers are forced to eat peanut and jelly sandwiches or unhealthy fast food because they can't afford to eat better, but the system is the system and the Astros clearly ticked off players on the current major league roster.

At Lancaster, Appel had a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts, allowing 74 hits and nine home runs in 44.1 innings. For a supposedly polished college pitcher who was the No. 1 overall pick, Appel should be dominating Class A pitchers, even in a hitter's heaven like Lancaster. Early on, Appel suffered from tendinitis in his right thumb and recently the Astros reported he'd been pitching through a wrist problem that required a cortisone shot. Maybe that explains some of the numbers; but he's healthy enough to pitch and has been lit up.

Maybe the Astros just figured they needed to get Appel out of Lancaster. His last start was a good one -- five hits, seven strikeouts, no walks in six innings -- but he'd been roughed up for 20 hits and 14 runs in six innings over his two previous starts. Those two starts came in Lancaster; the last one was in Stockton. Still, you can't defend the promotion based on performance.

Chris Rodriguez of Baseball Prospectus wrote a scouting report on Appel last week:
Appel's struggles are not simply explained by his delivery or command. What many other sources have noticed and written about Appel is his lack of pitchability. Appel's stuff is good; in his July 10th start, Appel's fastball touched 96 mph a couple times, sitting mostly 91-95. Early in his start, it was 94-96 mph. As the start progressed he seemed to tire, and kept pitching out of jams using mostly his slider and changeup. The fastball velocity dipped, and in his last inning sat only 91-93 mph. Most of the 13 hits off of him that evening were off his fastball, which was flat and up in the zone. He made no adjustment with his tempo throughout the game, keeping the same pace, which made it very easy for the opponent to time. He also made no adjustment with his pitch sequence, going to his fastball every time he was behind in the count, which was often a flat 93 mph get-me-over offering. He rarely attacked. It seemed he was simply going through the motions, and he didn’t show any emotion on the mound or in the dugout once he was removed from the game. While it's not a requirement to show some fire, when you pitch like you're scared of the opponent it doesn't look good.


Not the kind of report you want to read about the guy drafted one spot ahead of Kris Bryant.

This is simply the latest questionable episode to rock the Astros' world, from the public leak of internal trade discussion notes to the failed negotiations with this year's No. 1 overall pick, Brady Aiken. Really, going back to the handling of George Springer -- starting him in the minor leagues to save on service time after offering him a low-ball seven-year, $23 million contract -- it's been a bad year for the Astros. The big league team had started to play better when that Sports Illustrated cover appeared, but has gone 10-25 in its last 35 games.

There is a potential trickle-down effect of the Springer, Aiken and Appel situations: The Astros are arguably developing a bad reputation among players. When the team is ready to compete and may need to sign free agents to fill out holes on the roster, will players want to play there? Sure, in the end money talks and the Astros will have money to spend considering the youth on their rosters, but they may find it difficult to attract players (let alone keep their homegrown stars if they feel they've been mistreated by the organization).

Investing in analytics is a nice story, especially for us numbers geeks. Tanking, while despicable, may prove to be a smart strategy. But before we praise the Astros, let's see if their "new way of doing things" actually works.




Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

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One player won't make or break a team's playoff push, but here is one key guy for each American League club in the second half.

Baltimore Orioles -- Chris Davis
Let's divide Davis' last two years into halves:

Second half, 2012: .269/.337/.530, .338 BABIP, .261 ISO, 32% SO, 8% BB, 31% HR/FB
First half, 2013: .315/.392/.717, .355 BABIP, .402 ISO, 28% SO, 10% BB, 33% HR/FB
Second half, 2013: .245/.339/.515, .309 BABIP, .270 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 21% HR/FB
First half, 2014: .199/.309/.391, .252 BABIP, .192 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 23% HR/FB

I don't know what to make of any of this, except that Davis is probably not as good as the first half of 2013 and not as bad as the first half of 2014. A major reason the Orioles need a better second half from Davis is that among AL players with at least 200 plate appearances, Steve Pearce ranked fourth in wOBA in the first half and Nelson Cruz ranked 11th. Assuming some decline from those two, Davis will have to pick up the slack.


Toronto Blue Jays: Colby Rasmus
Everybody keeps talking about the Blue Jays needing a starter, but from June 1 through the All-Star break only the Red Sox scored fewer runs than the Jays -- and now Edwin Encarnacion is out a few weeks with a quad injury. Rasmus hit .212/.266/.453 in the first half; the 12 home runs were nice, nothing else was. He hit .276 with a .338 OBP last year so there's hope for a turnaround.

New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka
I don't see how the Yankees climb back into this thing with an injury-depleted, makeshift rotation and an aging lineup that is more old than simply disappointing. The slim chance the Yankees have of winning the East or a wild card rests on the ultimate health of Tanaka's elbow. Maybe more importantly, the state of the 2015 Yankees rests on the health of Tanaka's elbow.

Tampa Bay Rays: Evan Longoria
David Price is the important Tampa player to the rest of baseball, but before the Rays pack it in and trade Price, they're going to see if they can get to within four or five games of first place by the July 31 deadline. To do that, they need Longoria to heat up. He wasn't terrible in the first half, but a .386 slugging percentage is well below his .512 career mark entering the season.

Boston Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts
The young infielder was hitting .296/.389/.427 through June 1, outstanding numbers for a 21-year-old shortstop. Then the Red Sox activated Stephen Drew and moved Bogaerts to third base and he hit .140 with 37 strikeouts and five walks through the All-Star break. Did the position change affect his mental state? Is it simply a failure to adjust to how pitchers have attacked? The final two-plus months may tell us a lot about his future stardom.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander
Last year, the Tigers had a Big Four rotation with Max Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. They traded Fister, and Verlander went 8-8 with a 4.88 ERA in the first half, so it's really down to the Big Two, although Rick Porcello's improvement has added a strong third guy in place of Verlander. Among 86 AL pitchers with at least 50 innings, Verlander is 72nd in ERA. He's underperformed his peripherals a little bit -- 4.02 FIP, 4.46 xFIP -- but even the peripherals are a far cry from peak Verlander.

How far has Verlander fallen? In 2011 and 2012 he had 29 regular starts of eight or more innings. Last year he had three. This year he has one. Right-handers are hitting .329/.377/.505 off him; hard to believe that a guy that was so dominant as recently as last postseason has struggled so severely against same-side hitters. The Tigers don't need a strong Verlander to win the division, but they do want to see a guy they can believe in heading into the playoffs.

Kansas City Royals: Yordano Ventura
Well, yes, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas ... but Ventura (7-7, 3.22) is key because the 23-year-old right-hander is already at 103 innings; he threw 150 last year between the minors and his brief major league stint. He's not a big guy and he relies so much on that upper 90s fastball, meaning you wonder if fatigue will be an issue down the stretch. The Kansas City rotation has been relatively healthy this year -- the Royals have needed just six starts from guys outside their top five (although Jason Vargas will miss a couple weeks after undergoing an appendectomy) -- and any chance of winning the wild card will rest on that rotation remaining healthy.

Cleveland Indians: Nick Swisher
The Indians finished the first half at .500, pretty remarkable considering the number of awful performances they received: Swisher hit .208 with a .288 OBP, Carlos Santana hit .207, Justin Masterson had a 5.51 ERA before finally hitting the DL with a bad knee, Ryan Raburn hit .199, Danny Salazar pitched his way back to the minors and Jason Kipnis' numbers are way down. So there's some second-half upside here, especially from Swisher, who shouldn't have lost his skills overnight at 33.

Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale/Jose Abreu
The White Sox aren't going anywhere so it's all about Sale chasing a Cy Young Award (that may be tough even though he leads the AL in ERA and WHIP as he's pitched 50 fewer innings than Felix Hernandez) and Abreu chasing 50 home runs.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer
Mauer hit .271/.342/.353 in the first half with two home runs. He has four more years on his contract after this one at $23 million per year. Was it just a bad three months? Is it the concussion he suffered late last season? The Twins figured that with his .400-plus OBP skills, he'd remain one of the best players in the game, even moving to first base. But after being worth 5.3 WAR last year, he's been worth 0.7 this year. A singles-hitting first baseman doesn't have a lot of value.

Oakland Athletics: Jeff Samardzija
He doesn't have to be the staff ace, not with Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray around, but he's under fire to prove his first half with the Cubs was a true improvement. Remember, he had a 4.34 ERA with the Cubs in 2013. Most importantly, Billy Beane acquired Samardzija and Jason Hammel to help the A's win the AL West -- but a red-hot Angels team narrowed the deficit to a mere 1.5 games at the break. Considering Gray is in his first full season and Kazmir hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007, Samardzija will be expected to be a workhorse for Oakland, the guy who goes seven or eight innings every start to prevent the bullpen from getting burned out.

Los Angeles Angels: Josh Hamilton
I could point to Garrett Richards, who pitched like an ace in the first half, but I think he'll pitch close to that level in the second half; he's the real deal. So let's turn to Hamilton, who hit .295/.373/.449 in the first half with five home runs in the 46 games he played. The good news is this:

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2012 chase rate: 42.5 percent
2013 chase rate: 37.5 percent
2014 chase rate: 36.1 percent

He's continued to cut down on his free-swinging ways. The bad news is that he's struck out 52 times in 36 games since returning from the DL, with just three home runs. With Mike Trout crushing it and Albert Pujols on pace for 34 home runs, having a third big power threat would add even more to a lineup that led the AL in runs in the first half.

Seattle Mariners: Taijuan Walker
We know the Mariners have to improve the offense, but that's most likely going to have to come via a trade rather than internal improvement. We know Hernandez is great and that Hisashi Iwakuma remains a hidden gem. Chris Young had a terrific first half -- remember the whole Randy Wolf controversy, which basically allowed Young to come to Seattle in the first place? -- but Roenis Elias has struggled of late. That means Walker needs to find some consistency. As bad as the offense has been, Seattle has basically punted the fifth spot in the rotation all year with Erasmo Ramirez (4.58 ERA in 11 starts) and Brandon Maurer (7.52 in seven starts). If Walker lives up to his hype, he'll be a big improvement.

Houston Astros: Jon Singleton
We've seen George Springer flash his potential. Now it's time for Singleton to start doing the same.

Texas Rangers: Rougned Odor
There's not much to watch with the Rangers in the second half, but Jurickson Profar's injury forced Odor to the majors earlier than anticipated. He's held his own so far but a strong second half could lead to an interesting position battle next spring with Profar.
OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.

2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.

Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.

[+] EnlargeHallion
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHas instant replay helped? The answer, at least from players, isn't all positive.
3. Confusion over new instant replay rules.

Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."

4. New stars emerge.

Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.

Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.

5. Pitchers continue to dominate.

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Even with all the injuries, offense has still gone down -- if only slightly -- to 4.14 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 4.12 in 1992. We enter the break with 21 qualified starters holding an ERA under 3.00, and that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.

Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.

6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.

7. The NL Central race.

With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP PhotoHaven't seen much of Mike Trout's strikeout face lately.
8. The Dodgers catch the Giants.

On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.

9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?

On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.

10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.


It's the award-winning Rapid Fire! Today, Eric and I discuss the Angels' rotation, more replay confusion, Jose Altuve's chances of winning the batting, Manny Machado and the Orioles and whether Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award and more!
Via Jon Heyman and Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken has an "elbow ligament issue" and the Astros are now trying to sign him to a discounted bonus.

Further proof: Rebuilding is difficult.

It's been a mixed year for the Astros. The positives:
  • Slightly better on-field major league product. They're on pace for 65 wins after going 51-111 last year.
  • The emergence of George Springer as a potential star.
  • Jose Altuve leads the AL with a .337 average and 38 steals. Remember, he's just 24, so if this improvement is for real, the Astros will have a top leadoff hitter for the foreseeable future (he's signed to a team-friendly deal through 2019).
  • Dallas Keuchel has had a breakout performance in the rotation.
  • Collin McHugh was claimed off the scrap heap and the Astros may have found a legitimate major league starter (3.28 ERA through 14 starts with solid peripherals).
  • Jarred Cosart has been OK, at least good enough that he looks like a back-end starter. The Astros may have hoped for more, but Keuchel, McHugh and Cosart at least provide a group to build a rotation around.
  • Top prospect Carlos Correa looked like one of the best players in the minors, hitting .325/.416/.510 as a 19-year-old in the California League.
  • They have the worst record in the majors -- which means they're in line for the first overall pick for the fourth year in a row. (Yes, in a twisted way that's good news.)


OK, now the bad ...
  • Correa broke his leg in late June and will miss the rest of the season.
  • Pitcher Mark Appel, the top overall pick in 2013, has been a complete disaster, with an 8.91 ERA at Class A, allowing 49 hits and eight home runs in 32.1 innings and spending time in extended spring training. Remember, this guy was drafted as a college senior because he was supposed to be a polished, major-league ready starter. He was selected over, among others, Kris Bryant, the second overall pick who has 30 home runs in the high minors. I was dubious about the Appel selection for one obvious reason: He didn't get that much better between his junior and senior seasons at Stanford and he was fairly hittable for a top college prospect. It's certainly too early to write him off, but unless there is some unknown injury issue he has bust potential. The Astros are going to spend many years second-guessing their decision to pass on Bryant.
  • Aiken's possible elbow issue.
  • Jonathan Singleton has hit .168 since his call-up with 46 strikeouts in 32 games. He's flashed that power potential and is young, but the strikeouts are a concern.
  • Jason Castro has failed to follow up his All-Star season with similar numbers.
  • Guys like Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Villar, potentially part of Houston's future, have been awful.
  • The organization was embarrassed by the information leak about its internal trade discussions.


So it's been a mixed year. The farm system is still deep but I don't see any of the club's other top prospects -- Michael Foltynewicz, Lance McCullers, Domingo Santana, Vincent Velasquez, Rio Ruiz -- having taken a big leap forward.

Springer recently made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the declaration "Your 2017 World Series Champs." As this season has proven, however, it's still hard to outsmart everyone else on your way to the top. You still need a lot of good luck along the way. The Astros may be great in 2017 ... or they may not. I don't think 2014 has answered questions about the Astros' future just yet.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.

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