SweetSpot: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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.

video 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.

video 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.

video 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.

video 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.

video 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.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
1:41
AM ET


Check the standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

1. "That's what speed do." A few years ago, Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, talking about his ability as one of the fastest players in the game, coined the phrase "That's what speed do." It's kind of a popular thing for Royals fan to quote although it's never quite caught on on a national level. Hey, it's the Royals. Well, it may be reaching a tipping point after the wheels of Dyson and fellow pinch runner Terrance Gore inspired a dramatic ninth-inning comeback as the Royals scored twice with two outs to beat the White Sox 4-3. Here's Dyson on second base with two outs, running on the pitch, and scoring as the ball bounces to the backstop; love the excited Royals announcers quoting Dyson. And here's Gore on second base after Norichica Aoki doubled. He's also running on the play and scores the winner on Lorenzo Cain's infield hit.

What a turn of events for the Royals, who trailed 3-0 entering the bottom of the seventh. By that time, they knew the Tigers were on their (likely) way to a win over the Twins. Considering Sunday's bullpen fiasco created by manager Ned Yost, it was looking like doom-and-gloom time in Kansas City. So give them credit for coming alive late against the White Sox bullpen. Give Dyson credit for stealing third on his run -- a base that didn't seem all that important to risk with two outs -- especially considering he got picked off second in a similar scenario last week. As I wrote when Dyson got picked off, there are times you can throw the numbers out the window and just say either the player makes a play or he doesn't. Dyson made a big play.

This is one way the Royals have to manufacture runs. They're last in the AL in home runs and last in walks. They're not a good offensive team. But they have speed, ranking first in the league in steals, and FanGraphs rates them as the second-best baserunning team in the majors behind the Nationals (some of their speed advantage is negated by the likes of Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, two of the worst baserunners in the league). It's not a big statistical advantage -- plus-7.8 runs above average entering Monday -- but as Monday showed, there are moments in games where speed can be the deciding factor.

The night got even better when the Mariners lost, so the Royals are two up on Seattle for the second wild card, just one game behind the A's and still 1.5 behind the Tigers. (You know the caveat: The Royals are losing to the Indians in that suspended game.)

2. Kudos to Don Mattingly. The Dodgers' skipper didn't fuss around with Roberto Hernandez, yanking him in the fourth inning of a 2-2 game with the bases loaded. With lefty Charlie Blackmon up, Mattingly went to southpaw Paco Rodriguez. Blackmon doesn't have a huge platoon split, but his OPS against lefties was 70 points lower entering the game. Hernandez doesn't have a platoon split this year but has in the past. With all the extra relievers that September provides, there was no need to keep Hernandez in there as you probably would have before rosters expanded. The player still has to execute and Rodriguez got the groundout. The Dodgers went on to break it open with an 11-3 win, but it was a move that shows Mattingly understands that you can manage September differently from April through August.

Oh ... and the Giants lost, so L.A.'s lead in the NL West is now up to four games.

Oh ... if Hyun-Jin Ryu can't make it back for the playoffs because of his sore shoulder, is Hernandez really the team's No. 4 starter right now?

3. Stephen Strasburg with another gem. Christina Kahrl touched on how the Nationals are winning with roster depth and not on the backs of the heralded duo of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But Strasburg has put together four straight solid starts now, with no walks, 28 strikeouts and just six extra-base hits allowed. His average fastball velocity those four starts: 95.7, 95.6, 95.9 and 95.3. This doesn't look like a guy tiring down the stretch.

One note, however: The past two starts came against the Braves, next to last in the NL in runs; the one before that came against the Phillies (in D.C.); and before that against the offensively impaired Mariners at Safeco. So I'm not quite ready to declare Strasburg has turned the corner from his inconsistent ways. Still, a good sign.

4. Good night, Yankees. Wait, did I write this on Sunday as well? As blog contributor Katie Sharp tweeted after the Yankees' 1-0 loss to the Rays, the Yankees have scored six runs in their past five games, their fewest in a five-game span since June 30-July 4, 1997. By the way, Derek Jeter got the day off. Understandable and needed. Jeter has completely wilted down the stretch, as much to blame as any player for the Yankees' struggles. Over his past 21 games, he's hit .145/.189/.169. And has still been hitting second in the lineup. Shame on you, Joe Girardi, for putting the individual over the team.

5. Tired Hisashi Iwakuma. Felix Hernandez hasn't been quite as dominant of late and Iwakuma has definitely not been sharp. Over his past five starts, Iwakuma has allowed 22 runs in 21.1 innings. On Monday, the Angels pounded him for seven runs in 3.1 innings. The big blow was Albert Pujols' three-run double with two outs in the third -- after Iwakuma had retired the first two batters of the inning. Now two games behind the Royals, the Mariners' playoff odds have dropped to 31 percent -- this after climbing over 50 percent heading into Saturday's game (with King Felix starting). But three straight losses and now it's a tough climb back.

For the Angels, Matt Shoemaker keeps winning, Mike Trout keeps hitting and they've won 11 of 12, averaging 8.2 runs per game in that stretch.

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 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.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but is it possible reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen is a little underrated?

Here's what I'm getting at it: Who is the best player in baseball? Most everyone says Mike Trout. Some will say Clayton Kershaw, if you want to consider a pitcher. Maybe a small percentage will suggest Giancarlo Stanton, based on his big season.

And while everyone acknowledges McCutchen is a terrific player, I don't seem to hear his name mentioned alongside Trout's. Why not?

In Wednesday's 6-3 victory over the Phillies, McCutchen went 2-for-4 with an inside-the-park home run as his deep drive to center bounded off the wall and away from Ben Revere (right fielder Grady Sizemore was nowhere to be seen backing up the play). The Pirates maintained their slim 1.5-game lead for the second wild card, and McCutchen has been a big reason for that. Since he missed 15 games in early August with a fractured rib, he's hit .313/.356/.550 with six home runs in 20 games -- all while playing through the injury. With Josh Harrison, the red-hot Starling Marte and McCutchen -- each went 2-for-4 on Wednesday -- the Pirates have as good a top three in the lineup right now as any team in the majors. That offense is good enough to carry this team into the postseason again.

Anyway, back to that compare/contrast exercise with Trout. Their season numbers:

McCutchen: .311/.403/.539, .401 wOBA, 162 wRC+
Trout: .286/.373/.551, .391 wOBA, 164 wRC+

Trout has the advantage in power, while McCutchen gets on base more. The sabermetric stats rate their overall value as hitters pretty similarly, with McCutchen having the edge in weighted on-base average and Trout the slightest of edges in the park-adjusted weighted runs created.

OK, what about defense? The metrics agree neither Trout nor McCutchen has been a top defensive center fielder this year. Trout rates at minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved and McCutchen at minus-8. Ultimate Zone Rating also puts both below average. Both have reputations that exceed the numbers, but this is the second straight season of mediocre defensive metrics for Trout.

Baserunning? Trout hasn't run as much this year, so that advantage has dissipated. He's 14-for-16 stealing bases while McCutchen is 17-for-19. McCutchen has taken the extra base in 42 percent of his opportunities compared to Trout's 59 percent, so overall, Trout holds a minor edge on the bases. Still, there's not a whole lot of difference between what the two guys have brought to the field this year.

Now, Trout does own a somewhat decisive edge in Wins Above Replacement, with 7.0 to 5.3 on Baseball-Reference.com (entering Wednesday) and 6.9 to 5.5 on FanGraphs. Some of that difference is simply due to plate appearances: Trout has played 12 more games and has 70 more at-bats. (Batting second as opposed to third also gives him a few more plate appearances.)

WAR is a cumulative statistic, so I'm not dismissing that advantage of Trout's; those are real opportunities to affect games and create value, and are more opportunities than McCutchen has had. But we're not really discussing value here as much production and ability. Give McCutchen those 70 additional plate appearances, and he edges closer to Trout in WAR.

I think part of the reason McCutchen might be underrated is he doesn't do one thing that draws awe-inspiring reactions: He doesn't hit mammoth home runs like Stanton or play center field like Juan Lagares or dart around the bases like Billy Hamilton. He did have a 31-homer season in 2012, but he had 21 in his MVP season, and he's at 23 this year.

Trout, meanwhile, put up numbers rarely seen from a 20-year-old, and then did it again last year as a 21-year-old. He was the best player in baseball those years. Once you've earned that label, you don't lose it unless you really go into the tank. That's certainly not the case with Trout this year.

However, while Trout leads the American League in both runs and RBIs, he hasn't been quite as good this year (though I'd argue he's still the best player in the AL): The on-base percentage is down from .432 to .373; the steals are down; the defense is arguably down a bit; and his average and walk rates are both down, as his strikeout rate has increased.

Trout is still awesome. But so is McCutchen. Consider this a reminder to give Cutch a little more love when you talk about the best of the best.

Five things we learned Saturday

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
12:15
AM ET
1. Albert Pujols could be a big factor in the American League pennant chase.

Remember Albert Pujols?

Certainly, the 2014 version of Pujols isn't the legendary hitter we saw during his St. Louis years. (His teammate Mike Trout, however, might be the only hitter on earth who resembles that version of Pujols.) On the other hand, the 34-year-old Pujols is quietly having an effective season (.274/.330/.467, .343 wOBA), and he served notice Saturday night that he intends to be a factor in the Angels' drive toward the American League pennant.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltAlbert Pujols notched a pair of milestones (2,500 hits and 1,500 runs) in the Angels' 8-5 victory over the Twins.
In the Angels' 8-5 win over Minnesota, Pujols went 3-for-5 with three runs scored, a double, a home run and three runs batted in. In the process, Pujols reached some personal milestones. He scored his 1,500th career run, a feat accomplished in baseball history by only 69 other players. The homer was Pujols' 25th of the season, which means that he is now one of only 14 players all time to have hit 25 or more homers in 13 different seasons.

In addition, Pujols' final hit of the evening was the 2,500th of his illustrious career, and he became just the fourth player ever to have 2,500 hits, 1,500 runs and 500 homers before age 35. None of that, however, likely means more to Pujols right now than the fact that his 2,500th hit was a double that drove in the two go-ahead runs in the ninth inning, a lead the Angels would not relinquish.

Sure, the Athletics had a fun walk-off win against the Astros, but the Angels keep rolling, having won 9 of 11 and 18 of their past 24. The Halos aren't going anywhere.

2. Danny Duffy's injury adds yet another element to the fascinating AL Central race.

You thought the most intriguing division race in baseball couldn't get more interesting, didn't you? Well, you were wrong. Kansas City's Danny Duffy was removed from his start against the Yankees after throwing just one pitch.

Obviously, this looks to be a huge blow to the Royals, in the midst of their first legitimate playoff push since, when? The Reagan administration? After missing portions of the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of Tommy John surgery, Duffy has been outstanding this season.

He's made 22 starts, and despite a pedestrian 8-11 record, Duffy owns a 2.42 ERA that ranks third in the American League (behind Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez).

The Royals say Duffy is just suffering from shoulder soreness; only time will tell whether that's an accurate diagnosis or if there is something more sinister at play. Suffice to say, however, the Royals will find it difficult (impossible?) to replace Duffy in the rotation for the stretch run if he's out for an extended period, since, by some measures, Duffy has been the best starter in the Royals' rotation. Kansas City fans probably shouldn't worry too much, though.

After all, it wasn't long ago that we thought Detroit's acquisition of David Price spelled the end of K.C.'s playoff hopes.

3. The Brewers' slide isn't over just yet.

Milwaukee's free fall in the National League Central was arrested temporarily Friday night, as the Brew Crew snapped a nine-game losing streak. They weren't as fortunate Saturday, as the Cardinals dropped the Brewers 5-3 behind six solid innings from Lance Lynn and homers from Matt Adams and young Oscar Taveras.

Milwaukee has now lost 10 of 11 and 13 of its past 16. The Brewers, as you know, have dominated the division all year, holding first place through the end of August. Barely more than two months ago, they held a 6.5-game lead and were three games ahead as recently as Aug. 17. Milwaukee is now four games behind St. Louis, and even more worrisome is the fact that it's only a half-game ahead of a somewhat resurgent Pittsburgh club (which took a pair from the Cubs) in the NL Central and wild-card standings.

4. The Giants keep the pressure on the Dodgers.

The Giants scored four runs in the first off David Price and cruised to a second straight victory over the Tigers in Detroit. San Francisco is now 78-64, having won nine of its past 11 games. The Giants cooled off substantially after a torrid start to the season, but Bruce Bochy's crew is turning up the heat again. If the Dodgers aren't hearing footsteps, they aren't listening.

Meanwhile, Buster Posey continues to mash the baseball in the second half. Posey reached base four times Saturday, hitting his 20th homer while going 3-for-3 with two runs scored. On the season, Posey's numbers are very good: .310/.361/.494, .370 wOBA. During the second half, however, Posey has been exceptional, hitting .356/.399/.592 with 10 doubles, nine homers and 32 RBIs in 172 at-bats.

5. Corey Kluber is the latest Cleveland pitcher to toss a gem.

Just last night in this space, my colleague Katie Sharp declared that the Indians were still very much in the playoff race thanks to another excellent performance by a Cleveland starter. Different night, same story. Cleveland beat the ChiSox 3-1 on Saturday, and Kluber delivered a superb outing for the Indians, allowing five hits and no earned runs in a complete-game effort. Kluber struck out eight and didn't walk a batter.

Don't look now, but Cleveland is six games over .500 and closer to first place in the AL Central than Oakland is in the AL West. The Indians are four games out of the second AL wild-card spot. Stranger things have happened. This is baseball, after all.

Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Network and Cincinnati Magazine. You can find him on twitter @dotsonc.
1. Mike Trout isn't exactly tearing things up right now.

As late as July 24, Trout's OPS was over 1.000 -- .309/.396/.606. Since then, 37 games, he's hit .227/.298/.413 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs but also with 47 strikeouts. Some of this is just the natural ebb and flow of a baseball season, but some of this is the streakiness that can occur with a hitter who strikes out a lot, which is what Trout has morphed into this season. He's gone hitless the last two games, both losses to the Astros. We've all heard about Trout's difficulties hitting pitches in the upper half of the zone -- he's hitting .151/.329/.253 on such location in 2014 -- and during this stretch, it's not surprising he's seeing more pitches up in the zone, 29 percent of all pitches compared to 24 percent through July 23.

2. Alex Gordon continues to come up big.

Gordon is going in the opposite direction as Trout, hitting .299/.367/.639 with 10 home runs over his past 27 games, during which the Royals have gone 18-9. His two-run shot in the fourth inning staked the Royals to the lead in a 4-1 win over the Rangers and underrated Jason Vargas tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 3.14.

3. Derek Jeter is still batting second.

The Yankees beat the Red Sox behind seven solid innings from Hiroki Kuroda and Brian McCann's 4-for-4 performance, but let's address this Jeter issue. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, but his season line is .261/.309/.319. His on-base percentage is below the league average and his power is way below the league average. Why is he still hitting in the second spot, the position sabemetricians have deemed the most important in a lineup? OK, we know why he's hitting second. Joe Girardi doesn't have the guts to move Jeter down in the lineup and Jeter doesn't have the leadership to move himself down. Jeter has started 122 games, 119 of them batting second. Guess which team's No. 2 hitters have scored the fewest runs in the majors? Which team has the second-fewest home runs from the No. 2 spot? The Yankees are 21st in OPS from that spot, and that's only because the non-Jeter No. 2 hitters have gone 26-for-74 (.351), with two of the five home runs.

4. Justin Verlander isn't going to figure things out.

Every time he throws out a decent start, everyone expects that it's a sign he's going to turn things around. In his previous start he had allowed one run in seven innings. But on Wednesday, he gave up seven runs to the Indians. It's September. Among 95 qualified starting pitchers, he's 90th in ERA. Among 131 pitchers with at least 100 innings, he's 117th in ERA. It's time to stop expecting JUSTIN VERLANDER to turn up.

5. Miguel Gonzalez pitching himself into O's playoff rotation.

With his first career shutout, Gonzalez has now allowed two runs or fewer in eight of his past nine starts. Has he solidified a spot in the playoff rotation behind Chris Tillman? Maybe, but the home runs are still a concern. In those nine starts, he's allowed nine home runs, but just 15 runs. As long as they're solo shots, he's OK, but there's some playing with fire here. He's also struck out just 39 in 63 innings. Buck Showalter will have an interesting decision between Gonzalez, Bud Norris Kevin Gausman and Wei-Yin Chen to see who gets left out of the four-man playoff rotation.

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.
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When Garrett Richards, the best pitcher on the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and one of the best pitchers in the league, went down with a knee injury on Aug. 20, the consensus seemed to be: The AL West race is over; the Angels didn't have the rotation depth to survive his loss, especially with veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson not what they once were.

The West is over. Except it's the Angels, who finished off a four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics with an 8-1 win on Sunday, and not the A's, who are going to win the division. The sweep pushed the Angels' lead over the A's to five games, had winning pitcher Matt Shoemaker calling it a "huge series for us in regards to the playoffs," saw Angels fans chanting "Sweep! Sweep!" late in the game and caused normally placid Oakland manager Bob Melvin to call out his team: "They should be embarrassed."
[+] EnlargeShoemaker
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Matt Shoemaker has already come up huge for the Angels in the second half.

It was an energizing four days for the Angels -- they shut out the A's for 29 consecutive innings at one point -- and a demoralizing series for the A's, who finished August with a 12-17 record, their first losing month since May of 2012.

"We don't play like that," a glum Melvin said after the game. "The last three games here were the worst I've seen this team play in I can't remember how long. I feel bad for our fans to have to watch that."

What has gone right with the Angels? What has gone wrong with the A's?

For the Angels, let's start not with likely AL MVP Mike Trout -- who did homer on Sunday -- but the rookie Shoemaker, who continues to excel. Before the season, Baseball America didn't even rate the 27-year-old right-hander as one of the Angels' top 30 prospects. Perhaps understandable given his age, undrafted status coming out of Eastern Michigan and his pedestrian numbers the past two seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake, but the Angels were also rated to have the worst farm system in the majors -- for the second year in a row. How could this guy not be one of their 30 best minor leaguers? Put it this way: Shoemaker wasn't on anybody's radar as a potential key contributor.

But here he is: 14-4, with a 3.14 ERA and 115 strikeouts and 21 walks in 117.2 innings. There's nothing in those numbers that screams fluke: The strikeout rate is very good, the control is excellent, the BABIP isn't abnormal. Does he have an overpowering fastball? No, it averages just 90.6 mph, but he does have an effective splitter that has become a wipeout pitch. That pitch has accounted for 68 of his 115 K's and batters are hitting just .148 against it with one home run.

It's a pitch he initially learned to throw as a 14-year-old. "It just continues to get better," he said after beating the A's with seven scoreless innings. He threw it 30 percent of the time on Sunday, but considering he also mixes in a two-seam sinker, a slider and curveball, he's a five-pitch pitcher with a repertoire that resembles Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, and that has made him tough even without the blazing heater.

Or maybe it's the beard. He has grown a Brian Wilson-esque patch of fur on his chin. Hey, considering he's 7-2 with a 1.67 ERA since the All-Star break, I wouldn't shave either.

Another secret weapon for the Angels is catcher Chris Iannetta, who only has an on-base percentage better than Trout. Or right fielder Kole Calhoun, hitting .299/.346/.476 since June 6 and doing an excellent job setting the table for Trout. Or the bullpen. On Saturday, manager Mike Scioscia started reliever Cory Rasmus, who pitched three innings, and then used seven other relievers. The eight pitchers combined for a 2-0 shutout. It was an effective strategy as the Angels continue to scuffle for a fifth starter, one made possible by Scioscia's confidence in Shoemaker going deep into the game on Sunday.

As for the A's, the cop-out excuse is to say they miss Yoenis Cespedes. Maybe he did help provide a certain swagger, but that's not the reason they've struggled in August. Plus, have you eve know an A's team to lack swagger? Look at how their All-Stars have fared before the break and after:

Josh Donaldson: .238/.317/.449 to .314/.427/.529
Brandon Moss: .268/.349/.530 to .183/.318/.254
Derek Norris: .294/.402/.477 to .235/.300/.336
Scott Kazmir: 11-3, 2.38 ERA to 3-4, 6.21 ERA
Sean Doolittle: 2.89 43 IP to 11.2 IP (injured)

Only Donaldson, who has actually played better, has kept up his pace. Moss' struggles have created a power hole in the middle of the lineup, especially when combined with Cespedes' departure. The declines of Norris and Kazmir were predictable to some extent, two guys playing above their heads in the first half. Further, Sonny Gray had a 2.79 ERA before the break and 3.61 after; Jason Hammel has a 6.09 ERA since the break; Coco Crisp is hitting .172/.252/.284. Don't blame this slide on the Cespedes trade (and Jon Lester has been terrific).

Can the A's turn it around and catch the Angels? I don't see it. Yes, we've had teams blow five-game leads in September in recent years -- see the 2011 Red Sox in the wild-card race; the 2007 Mets had a seven-game lead on Sept. 12; and the A's certainly remember the 2012 Rangers -- Texas had a five-game lead over Oakland as late as Sept. 24 but the A's still won the division.

So never say never. But the Angels have the lineup depth with a superstar leading the way (they haven't even needed big seasons from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton); the bullpen is on a roll and deep enough that Scioscia doesn't need his starters to go deep into the game; 12 of the Angels' next 13 games are against the Astros, Twins and Rangers while the A's will have two series against the Mariners. On paper, it's going to difficult for Oakland to make up much ground the next two weeks.

Yes, the Angels' rotation is now depending on a 27-year rookie -- 28 later this month -- leading the way while the A's counter with a deep arsenal of starters.

But that's baseball, the most unpredictable of sports. We thought the A's getting Jeff Samardzija and Lester would be the big story in the AL West. Instead, it's Matt Shoemaker. Gotta love it.
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It's another edition of Rapid Fire ... except this time I ask Eric the questions.
1. The Angels need Bartolo Colon.

Journeyman left-hander Wade LeBlanc, replacing injured ace Garrett Richards in the rotation, was shelled in a 7-1 loss to the Marlins, giving up six runs and getting knocked out in the fourth inning. Do the Angels give him another start? Trouble is, that would come this weekend against the A's. Other internal options don't look much better than LeBlanc: Randy Wolf? Chris Volstad? Triple-A Salt Lake is 57-80, so you know there isn't much help down there. That brings the Angels to Colon. According to reports, Colon cleared waivers, meaning the Mets can trade him to any team. But if the Mets didn't trade Colon at the non-waiver deadline, are they going to be any more interested now?

2. Giancarlo Stanton is still in the MVP race.

He launched a long three-run home run off Cory Rasmus, his NL-leading 33rd -- and became just the 12th player to reach 150 career home runs before turning 25 (seven of the first 11 are in the Hall of Fame and the other four are Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols). He also leads the NL in RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and tops NL position players in WAR. MVP voters historically don't go for players on non-playoff teams, but in a year where the leading candidate may be a pitcher who missed an entire month of action, Stanton needs to be heavily considered.

3. Michael Pineda looked good.

Here's the scary thing about the Yankees: If they do somehow get to the postseason, don't underestimate them. Pineda hasn't been healthy enough to make many starts this year, but when he's been out there, he's been effective. He beat the Royals, allowing one run, five hits and no walks in 6.1 innings, the one mistake a Mike Moustakas home run. In 37 innings, he has a 1.95 ERA. Against the Royals, Pineda averaged 93.9 mph with his fastball (2.6 mph faster than his final start in April before he went on the DL), and in his three starts since coming off the DL he's thrown more 70 percent strikes all three outings. He's not the flamethrower with sometimes shaky command he was as a rookie in Seattle but has turned into a guy who can spot his fastball, with just four walks in those 37 innings. If Masahiro Tanaka returns at 100 percent and with the way Brandon McCarthy has pitched since coming over from Arizona, that trio suddenly looks playoff-caliber.

4. The Pirates suffered a tough loss.

John Lackey allowed just one run in seven innings, but the Pirates actually hit him pretty hard, with seven hits and several hard-hit outs. But the Cardinals turned four double plays behind Lackey (give him credit for inducing the groundballs), turning what could have been another shaky outing into a solid line in the box score. Meanwhile, after Francisco Liriano tossed six scoreless innings, the Cardinals scraped together three runs in the seventh off Jared Hughes, with a walk and some seeing-eye singles. Andrew McCutchen's home run in the ninth made the final score 3-2, but it's one of those games you lose a little sleep over if you're a Pirates fan.

5. The Mariners' punishing travel schedule may have affected them.

No team will travel more miles this year than Seattle and after playing in Boston on Sunday, they had to fly across the country to host the Rangers. They got shut down by Miles Mikolas, who entered with a 7.48 ERA and tossed eight scoreless innings. This is the kind of series the Mariners have to win against the worst-in-baseball Rangers, so the pressure is on these next two games, and the Mariners already announced that Felix Hernandez will be pushed back from Wednesday to Friday against the Nationals (Wednesday's starter is undecided, although it will likely be Erasmo Ramirez). The long plane ride isn't the only reason they lost 2-0, but it's one obstacle East Coast teams don't have to face nearly as often.
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In Game 1 of the Seattle Mariners-Boston Red Sox series at Fenway Park on Friday, Felix Hernandez allowed three runs in 5.2 innings -- the first time he'd allowed three runs in 18 starts.

In Game 2, Chris Young pitched just 3.2 innings.

In Game 3, Hisashi Iwakuma lasted just 2.1 innings, the shortest outing of his Mariners career.

What arguably has been the league's best trio of starting pitchers had a terrible weekend ... and yet the Mariners swept the Red Sox at Fenway for the first time in franchise history in a series of three games or longer.

Yes, you can credit the reeling Red Sox, now losers of eight straight, for helping out. You can credit the much-maligned Mariners offense that had a dramatic five-run ninth inning on Friday, a seven-run inning on Saturday and 13 hits on Sunday.

Mostly, you can credit the best bullpen in the league. Mariners relievers pitched 15.1 innings in the three games and allowed one run while punching out 21 Red Sox hitters as the Mariners rallied from deficits in all three games. Seattle's bullpen now owns a major league-best 2.38 ERA, which would be the lowest since the 1990 A's had a 2.35 mark. The average major league bullpen has allowed 3.86 runs per nine innings; the Mariners have allowed 2.63. Other bullpens may have better win-loss records -- Seattle's is 19-18, but you have to factor in the Mariners' lack of offensive punch -- but the pen has been a major reason the Mariners currently hold a tenuous grip on the second wild card over the Tigers.

A few keys to the pen's success: good health; expert handling by manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits; and a group that currently runs eight deep, most of whom can crank it up into the mid-90s -- the Mariners' average fastball velocity from their relievers is fourth highest in the majors. Leading the way there is converted starter Brandon Maurer, who bombed out of the rotation early in the year, but has averaged 96.1 mph with his fastball as a reliever while posting a 1.80 ERA.

I'm not a fan of having eight relievers on your roster, but these days, when complete games are few and far between (the Mariners have just one, from Roenis Elias), that depth has allowed McClendon to do some unusual things with his relievers. For starters, he's not afraid of a quick hook with his starters. Mariners starters have gone five or fewer innings in 40 games, the ninth-lowest figure in the majors -- even though Mariners starters have the third-best ERA in the majors. (The Braves have the fewest "quick hooks" with 22.) Obviously, Felix and Iwakuma usually go deep into the game, but knowing his offense doesn't score many runs, McClendon has been careful about not letting the game get away early when the other three starters are out there.

Despite the quick hooks -- which means using multiple relievers in the same game -- McClendon hasn't abused his relievers. According to Baseball-Reference.com, entering Sunday the Mariners had used the same reliever in back-to-back games just 64 times; only the Rangers, Blue Jays and Nationals had done so fewer times. And because he's rarely using his relievers in consecutive games, McClendon often lets his guys go more than one inning. Tom Wilhelmsen has 21 outings of more than one inning, fifth most among relievers, and has compiled a 2.03 ERA in those games, totaling 44.1 innings. Rookie Dominic Leone, who escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the third inning on Sunday with an infield pop-out and strikeout, has 19 such appearances totaling 34.2 innings with an ERA under 2.00. With his philosophy of not using guys on back-to-back days, McClendon hasn't settled on just one eighth-inning guy, with Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar primarily sharing those duties.

McClendon has been conventional in his use of closer Fernando Rodney -- just two outings of more than one inning -- and lefties Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel as LOOGYs, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Rodney gets the glory with the saves and the arrows, but maybe that's a good thing since he gets to enter without runners on base; he's only fifth among the current Mariners relievers in OPS allowed (and just barely ahead of Farquhar).

Counting blown saves from the middle relievers, the Mariners have just 10 -- tied with the Royals for second fewest in the majors behind the Padres -- an impressive figure considering how many close games the Mariners play.

SportsNation

Which playoff contender has the best bullpen?

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    27%
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Discuss (Total votes: 7,110)

The Mariners are one game up on Detroit and you can point directly to the two bullpens as a reason why. Here are four other dominant bullpens that have helped contenders get where they are:

2. Kansas City Royals

The Royals don't have the Mariners' depth with a 3.40 ERA, but they do have the best late-inning trio in the majors in Kelvin Herrera (1.51 ERA), Wade Davis (0.80 ERA) and Greg Holland (1.79 ERA). Jason Frasor was acquired to add a strong fourth guy. The Royals haven't needed the depth -- their bullpen has pitched the second-fewest innings in the majors -- but it will be interesting to see if manager Ned Yost tries to get more out of this group down the stretch as the Royals battle the Tigers for the division crown.

3. Atlanta Braves

No surprise that the Braves would rank high with closer Craig Kimbrel once again crushing in the ninth inning. Like the Mariners, they don't usually have any margin for error considering their lack of runs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has had to mix and match more than McClendon as David Carpenter and Luis Avilan haven't repeated their outstanding 2013 campaigns, but Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro have been solid in supporting roles and James Russell recently came over from the Cubs to give the Braves a lefty presence.

4. Los Angeles Angels

For the season, the Angels are just 14th in the majors with a 3.45 bullpen ERA (before their Sunday night game), but the bullpen you see now isn't the one that was there in April. General manager Jerry Dipoto has rebuilt much of the pen, with the likes of Huston Street and Jason Grilli joining rubber-armed Joe Smith, and since June 1 it has a 2.85 ERA and since July 1 a 2.32 ERA.

5. Baltimore Orioles

You can consider the A's here, except closer Sean Doolittle just went on the DL, or the Yankees, who have a strong back-end duo with Dellin Betances and David Robertson, but I'd go with the Orioles. Buck Showalter's pen didn't have a set closer back in April, but Zach Britton has run with the role (2.04 ERA, 27 saves in 30 chances) and the pen has picked up momentum as the season has progressed. It's no coincidence that the O's began pulling away in the AL East as the bullpen started dominating -- it has the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the majors since June 1.



Losing Richards changes Angels' season

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
11:59
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Here are six names: Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards. These are the only pitchers to start a game for the 2014 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. It’s a small list that is an example of good health and good luck. For context, the Texas Rangers have relied on 13 different starting pitchers, seven more than the Angels, so far in 2014.

The Angels' barely-larger-than-necessary catalog of starters also helps explain some of their success this year. Where that current success ends up this season will be seriously challenged the rest of the way, because in the bottom of the second inning during Wednesday night’s game in Boston, the Angels' rotation suffered a potentially devastating blow. Boston Red Sox third baseman Brock Holt hit a grounder to first baseman Albert Pujols; as Richards ran to cover first base, his left knee buckled. He fell to the ground in pain and had to be carted off the field. The severity of the injury is not yet known, but Angels fans would do well to withhold optimism.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Richards
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaGarrett Richards' knee injury looked ugly from the moment he went down near first base.
The descriptor "ace" is tossed around a lot, and, although coming into the season Richards might not have been considered a major league ace -- or even a staff ace -- he has performed like one this season. Richards leads the Angels with a 2.53 ERA and a 2.59 FIP. He's striking out nearly a batter per inning and is walking fewer than three per nine. In terms of WAR, his 4.5 mark is more than double that of Weaver's second-best 2.0. Richards is also among the best pitchers in the American League. He has the fifth-best ERA in the AL and has pitched 31 percent better than league average.

With Richards hurt and Skaggs out for the year for Tommy John surgery, the four known occupants of the Angels rotation are Weaver, Wilson, Santiago and Shoemaker. Who will fill Richards' spot should he miss a significant amount of time is unclear, but the potential names currently in the organization are uninspiring. In June, the Angels acquired Wade LeBlanc off waivers from the New York Yankees. LeBlanc has pitched only 7⅓ innings in 2014; he pitched 55 last season between the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros for a 5.40 ERA.

Another possibility is Randy Wolf, whom the Angels signed in late July. Wolf is with his fifth organization of 2014, as he was signed and released by the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks, Marlins and Baltimore Orioles before signing with the Angels. The 5.26 ERA Wolf posted while with the Marlins resembles his 5.28 ERA from 2012, the last time he pitched in the big leagues before this season.

The final possible in-house replacement for Richards is Chris Volstad. Volstad spent 2013 with the Colorado Rockies, posting a 10.81 ERA in eight innings of major league action. That is, of course, a small sample size. The 4.94 ERA Volstad produced in more than 700 big league innings is a larger sample that's equally frightening in a playoff race.

Looking around the big leagues, there are quality starting pitchers who might be made available through a waiver deal, such as Jorge De La Rosa and Bartolo Colon, assuming the Oakland A's can't block the Angels with their own claim.

Richards' absence will be felt most in the playoff race. The Angels currently sit 1½ games ahead of the A's. It's entirely possible the division will be decided by a single game, and it's also entirely possible that losing Richards for the year will cost the Angels at least a win or two. As things now stand, it looks like second place in the American League West will earn one of the two wild cards, but that will come with an enormous disadvantage. An injury such as this one highlights how important it is to make it to the playoffs via a division title rather than a wild card. If the Angels finish in second place, they very well might be tasked with a one-game playoff against the Detroit Tigers, or maybe the Kansas City Royals, who would trot out James Shields to pitch, or perhaps Felix Hernandez and the Mariners. And the Angels would have to play that game without their own ace to send to the mound in a must-win game.

Richards' injury also forces us to re-evaluate the trades that general manager Jerry Dipoto made at the non-waiver deadline. The contrast between Dipoto's strategy and A's GM Billy Beane's is glaring: Dipoto reinforced the Angels' bullpen by acquiring Joe Thatcher, Jason Grilli and Huston Street, while Beane hoarded many of the available starting pitchers in Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel. At the time, Dipoto's moves appeared to shore up a critical piece in preparation for a playoff run. Now, however, the Angels are left with a deep bullpen, four starting pitchers and a stark reminder that good health and good luck are fleeting.

Eric Garcia McKinley blogs about the Rockies for the SweetSpot network affiliate Rockies Zingers. You can follow him on Twitter at @garcia_mckinley.

Pitching carrying first-place Angels

August, 17, 2014
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Much attention has been paid to Oakland this season for its play on the field and its acquisitions off the field. The A's have been atop the ESPN Power Rankings for eight consecutive weeks. They've revamped most of their starting rotation by trading for Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. And the A's are one of three teams in baseball with at least 70 wins -- but they're now the only one not leading its division.

After defeating the Texas Rangers 5-4 and watching Atlanta defeat Oakland 4-3, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim now boast the best record in the American League West and the best winning percentage in all of baseball. The victory over Texas was the club’s fourth consecutive win, while Oakland's loss to Atlanta was the A's fourth consecutive defeat.

The most recent time the Angels held as much as a share of first place, it was on the first day of the 2013 season -- a season that went horribly wrong and was highlighted by the foot troubles of Albert Pujols and the disappointing play of Josh Hamilton.

The 2014 Angels roster was still talented enough for them to be considered a decent favorite to contend for a playoff spot in the American League, but most pundits pegged the Oakland Athletics to repeat as AL West champs for a third consecutive season. Oakland kicked off the second half of the 2014 season with a win against Baltimore that put them 24 games over .500, at 60-36 -- two and a half weeks after beginning the revamping of their pitching staff. After a 13-1 win against the Astros on July 24, the A's were 25 games over .500.

Despite the Athletics' hot play and the notable roster makeover, the Angels remained just two games off the pace as they, too, went through their own roster reshaping. While Oakland could dangle the carrot of a highly regarded prospect such as Addison Russell to bring in help, the Angels’ farm system lacked that kind of token to offer teams to get help. The Angels have the fourth best team-weighted on-base average (wOBA) this season at .319, and the 3.81 ERA by their starting pitching staff is in the top half of the league. The issue was with a bullpen that had one of the worst ERAs in the league at 3.89 and a relief pitcher in Ernesto Frieri, who was not getting the job done.

General manager Jerry Dipoto made a series of small moves to shore up the leaky pen by acquiring Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher, Vinnie Pestano and, finally, Huston Street to take over the closer role. Since the All-Star break, the bullpen had posted a 2.24 ERA heading into play on Saturday night. Street closed out Saturday night's win in Arlington and gave young hurler Matt Shoemaker his 11th victory of the season and the team its 14th win since the break. That, in and of itself, is impressive, considering how ice-cold the Angels’ offense has been since the break.

The team’s .279 team wOBA and .229 batting average are the worst in the American League and the third worst in baseball since the break. MVP candidate Mike Trout is hitting .234/.317/.439, Pujols is hitting .245/.33/.415, and Hamilton is hitting .214/.278/.347 in the second half. Only Kole Calhoun and David Freese have batting averages over .250 since the break, and nobody on the team has an on-base percentage over .340 during that time.

The Angels' 14-12 second-half record has come while playing a very tough schedule. Each game in the second half of July came against playoff contenders (Seattle, Baltimore and Detroit). They opened August against one of the hottest team in baseball in Tampa Bay and then took on their crosstown foes for four games before the schedule gave them a break. The Angels looked that gift horse in the mouth and dropped two of three to Boston and narrowly avoided a sweep to the last-place Red Sox by stealing the middle game of that series in 19 innings. The Angels then swept Philadelphia in two and have now taken the first two games in this three-game set against Texas.

From Arlington, the Angels travel to Boston for a four-game series before returning to the West Coast for a crucial three-game set in Oakland. The two teams at the top of the American League West face each other seven times this month and will not see each other again until the final week of the season in a three-game series at Oakland.

The Angels are being carried by their pitching these days, as the offense has cooled off from where it was earlier this season. Los Angeles will need the offense to heat up in a hurry to take full advantage of the head-to-head matchups against Oakland, given that they won't see them again for another three weeks. In between those series, the schedule sets up quite favorably for the Angels as it includes five games against Houston, four against Minnesota and six more against Texas.

The stars are aligning nicely for the Angels, who look to win the American League West title for the first time since 2009. The rebuilt bullpen and the performance of the starting pitching staff is now carrying the load for the Angels, but they'll need a complete team effort to ultimately best an Athletics club whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

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

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

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


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

1. Clayton Kershaw

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

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

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

4. Chris Sale

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

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,346)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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