SweetSpot: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
1:38
AM ET


It was a night of missed opportunities. The Cardinals lost but the Pirates couldn't take advantage. The Royals led the Indians but couldn't hold on and dropped further behind the Tigers. The A's and Royals lost. Taijuan Walker finally gave the Mariners a strong pitching effort on a night when their offense couldn't score, and the already desperate Mariners are down to their final breaths. The Giants had their chances against Clayton Kershaw but couldn't capitalize. Here's the Hunt for October page with playoffs odds and each team's remaining schedule.

1. The Pirates were due for a loss. Hey, you can't them win all, which is seemingly what the Pirates had been doing the past two-plus weeks in winning 15 of 18 before a 6-2 loss to the Braves. It still stings considering Jake Arrieta was dominating the Cardinals, meaning a Pittsburgh win would have drawn the Pirates to a half-game behind the St. Louis. A tie isn't out of the question: If the Pirates win three of their final four, they need the Diamondbacks to beat the Cardinals two of three in Arizona. A Diamondbacks team that has lost eight of nine and 15 of 19. Jeff Locke struggled, and if the Pirates do win the division or make it past the wild-card game, he’s a shaky postseason starter. In his past seven starts, he's had two five-walk games (including Wednesday) and a six-walk game. It's possible Edinson Volquez has passed him in the Pirates' pecking order.

2. The Cardinals offense is still a concern. I saw a tweet: The Cardinals are on pace to score 620 runs, which would be the lowest for a playoff team in a nonstrike season since the '73 Mets scored 608. Arrieta crushed the Cardinals, holding them to two hits and an unearned run while striking out 10 in seven innings. John Lackey didn’t inspire confidence after walking four in 6⅔ innings (one intentional). Anyway, that St. Louis offense. It was better in August but has struggled again in September. The month-by-month totals:

April: .246/.314/.368, 3.6 runs per game
May: .266/.333/.367, 4.2 runs per game
June: .236/.301/.361, 3.3 runs per game
July: .255/.318/.389, 3.6 runs per game
August: .268/.341/.384, 4.4 runs per game
September: .248/.317/.358, 3.8 runs per game

They've averaged 3.8 runs, and that's after hitting a robust .297/.364/.474 with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals can win it all, but to do so, it looks like they're going to have to win a lot of low-scoring games. However, this just doesn't look like a championship-caliber offense.

3. The Royals appear headed for the wild-card game. After the Tigers beat the White Sox in an afternoon game -- they got to the Chicago bullpen once Chris Sale departed after six innings -- the Royals led 4-3 in the fifth inning but couldn't hold the lead. Give manager Ned Yost credit for at least having a quick hook with Jason Vargas. After Vargas hit Michael Bourn to lead off the bottom of the fifth, Yost turned to rookie reliever Brandon Finnegan, who had been great in five appearances. But he gave up an RBI double, an infield hit and a run-scoring fielder's choice. So the Royals are two games behind the Tigers with four to play (while remaining tied with the A’s for the wild card; the Royals hold the tiebreaker edge, having won the season series 5-2).

I think the interesting question to consider is how Yost will manage the wild-card game if that's where the Royals end up. He obviously trusts his late-game trio of relievers -- Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland -- but the rest of the bullpen isn't so trustworthy, with the possible exception of Finnegan. But will he try and ride ace James Shields? If there's a big situation in the fourth or fifth inning and Shields is struggling, will he leave in the veteran? Does he bring in one of his best bullpen arms earlier than normal? Does he use Finnegan or Aaron Crow and risk losing the game in the middle innings before even getting to Davis or Holland?

4. We’re going to have a home-plate controversy in October that will make a lot of people angry and lead to columnists writing this is just another reason baseball is dying. The A’s lost 5-4 to the Angels, but this play happened in the fourth inning, not so important at the time but important by the end of the game. Was Josh Donaldson safe or out? Did Chris Iannetta actually apply the tag? Did Donaldson have a path to the plate before Iannetta had the ball? (Oh, Donaldson was eventually called out after a long review.)

video 5. The Dodgers wrap up the NL West and Clayton Kershaw wraps up the MVP. The Dodgers have won 20 of the past 21 games that Kershaw started and 23 of the 27 he started overall. Kershaw is 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. He even tripled in a run while striking out 11 in a 9-1 win over the Giants (the Giants led 1-0 before Kershaw's tying triple in the fifth). Let's not make the MVP debate more complicated than it needs: Clayton Kershaw is the best, and most valuable, player in the National League. There shouldn't really need to be a debate.
On Tuesday, Nelson Cruz of the Orioles hit his 40th home run, saving us from the deprivation of not having a 40-homer guy for the first time since 1982. That year Reggie Jackson of the Angels and Gorman Thomas of the Brewers tied for the major league with 39, and what a pair that was. Dave Kingman of the Mets led the National League with 37. Those three players also ranked 1-2-3 in the majors in strikeouts -- Reggie and Kingman had 156 and Stormin' Gorman had 143, so those guys were playing 2014-style baseball 32 years ago. Ahead of their time!

Reggie had been a free agent that year and George Steinbrenner once said letting Jackson leave was the biggest mistake he ever made. That's not really true. Reggie did have a big season in 1982 but that was kind of a last hurrah. He played through 1987 -- remember that return to Oakland? -- but didn't really provide much value after '82. Of course, 1982 was the Yankees tried to win with speed -- Dave Collins! Jerry Mumphrey! Ken Griffey Sr.! -- and didn't steal that many bases and went 79-83.

While nobody hit 40 in 1982, sixteen players did reach 30. This is kind of interesting: Ten of the 16 were in their 30s. This year, only 10 players have hit 30, even though we have four more teams and generally smaller parks. It’s worth noting that only seven of those 16 players from 1982 struck out 100 times, although it's also worth nothing that four of this year’s 30-homer guys are under 100 K’s – Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz. Speaking of which, Ortiz doesn’t get much credit for how he’s changed his game as he’s aged. This is a guy who struck out 145 times in 2010; even though strikeouts have risen across the sport his have decreased. Anyway, of the top 40 home run hitters this season, only seven have so far struck out fewer than 100 times.

So, yes, it’s a different era. In 1982, the average strikeouts per game was 5.0; this year it’s 7.7. Overall, there are slightly more home runs in 2014: 0.87 per game compared to 0.80 in 1982. While we have fewer 30-homer guys in 2014, teams today have more power throughout the lineup. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the banjo-hitting infielders and Omar Moreno-type outfielders have basically been phased out by players who sell out to hit 15 home runs a year. With so many strikeouts (and give credit to the pitchers as well), offense is down, as we all know: 4.07 runs per game compared to 4.30 in 1982.

That decline in offense has led to many "baseball is dying" stories of late. Yes, offense is way down compared to the steroids-infused 1990s and 2000s but the difference between 2014 and 1982 is about one run every four games. Is that really noticeable until you look at the numbers?

Anyway, the first 40-homer guy was, apropos, Babe Ruth, who cracked the 40-homer and 50-homer barrier in 1920, when he joined the Yankees and swatted 54. Rogers Hornsby became the first National Leaguer to reach 40 when he hit 42 in 1922. That was pretty impressive; only one other player in the NL even hit 20 that year. Once the 40-homer had barrier had been reached, the lowest league-leading total, not including the 1981 strike season, was Nick Etten of the Yankees in 1944 with 22. But that was during the war without many of the regular major leaguers and the baseball was made out of mud or cornstalks or something. Not including World War II, the lowest total is 23 by Ralph Kiner of the Pirates in 1946. He and Johnny Mize both hit 51 the next year, so maybe the NL was still using leftover mushballs in 1946. Could be the case. Owners were cheap back then. From 1971 through 1977, the AL actually went seven seasons in a row without a 40-homer hitter. No wonder Jim Rice beat out Ron Guidry for the 1978 AL MVP Award when he hit 46.

The season with most 40-homer guys is 1996, with 17 (long live Brady Anderson and Toddy Hundley!). There were 16-homer guys in 2000. And the top 10 seasons all occurred between 1996 and 2005. So steroids are bad but baseball is dying because we don't have enough players juicing up and hitting 40 these days. Can't win.

Of course, we have nearly double the teams now as prior to the 16-team circuit that existed before the first expansion in 1961. That year saw eight 40-homer guys between the 18 teams in the majors (including Roger Maris with 61, the only year he reached 40). Plus they played 154 games before expansion, so a 40-homer season now is kind of the same as a 38-homer season in a 154-game season (one homer every four games). Using a cutoff of 38 home runs per season, most years in the 1950s saw five or six guys reach that total, so the rate of 40-homer guys back then was pretty high.

Ruth has the most 40-homer seasons with 11. Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew each have eight. Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. have seven. The most obscure 40-homer guy? Well, probably Cy Williams, who hit 41 in 1923 for the Phillies. That was a long time ago which makes him obscure. The Phillies played in Baker Bowl, maybe the greatest hitter’s park ever, a little bandbox with a short right-field fence. Guys put up crazy numbers there and Williams hit 26 of his 41 home runs at home. Williams led the NL four times in home runs, including in 1927 when he was 39 years old, which I believe makes him the oldest player to lead his league in home runs. According to this bio, after his playing days, Williams retired to his dairy farm in Wisconsin "where he worked as an architect and started a construction business. Some of the finest buildings on Wisconsin's Upper Peninsula stand today as tributes to his architectural talent."

So, thank you, Nelson Cruz, for giving us reason to mention Cy Williams.
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.

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, 23, 2014
Sep 23
1:42
AM ET


Six days of regular-season baseball left. Barring a tie-breaker. Catch the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedule at the Hunt for October page.

1. Andrew McCutchen is a baseball deity, conqueror of enemy moundsmen and lifeblood of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Pirates played their third straight 1-0 game and it was McCutchen's home run that provided the night's lone run in the win over the Atlanta Braves. McCutchen lined a 2-0, 86-mph fastball from Aaron Harang over the fence in left-center -- you don't throw 86-mph fastballs past baseball deities -- in the sixth inning and the Pirates' magic number for clinching a playoff berth is down to two. (Here's the home run call from Pirates announcer Greg Brown. That pitch has to rank up there as one of the biggest meatballs of the season.)

Anyway, kudos to McCutchen for giving us more awesomeness. That home run is only going to help his MVP chances against Clayton Kershaw, if such a chance exists. (I say it does, although Kershaw is the clear favorite.) And kudos to Francisco Liriano for another strong outing. He's 4-0 with a 0.35 ERA in September and it raises the question: With St. Louis still up 2.5 games after their win on Monday, the wild-card game is still the likely destination for the Pirates. Does Liriano draw that game against a Giants lineup that features right-handed boppers Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Mike Morse? Do the Pirates throw Liriano this weekend in hopes of securing home-field advantage for that game and perhaps go with Gerrit Cole against the Giants? These are questions that will soon require answers.

2. The AL Central is back up for grabs. The Kansas City Royals lose the suspended game but then beat the Cleveland Indians 2-0 behind Danny Duffy's escape job while the Chicago White Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 2-0 behind Chris Bassitt. Who? Bassitt was making his fourth major league start and earned his first win. The White Sox's No. 15 prospect before the season, according to Baseball America, Bassitt actually made just eight starts in the minors this season due to a broken hand. He throws a low-90s sinker with a slider he developed in spring training, plus a curve and changeup. Nothing special and the Tigers don't have the excuse of not seeing him before, having knocked him around for five runs on Aug. 30, but they couldn't get to him and Tyler Flowers' two-run homer in the second off Kyle Lobstein held up. Right when we start believing again wholeheartedly in the Tigers, they play a game like this.

3. The Mariners' playoff chances are dwindling close to zero. James Paxton had been great but he wasn't on Monday, as shaky control (six walks in 2⅔ innings) led to a nine-run disaster in the Seattle Mariners' 14-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. It has been an embarrassing three games for Seattle as its starters have allowed 20 runs in 10 innings. The Mariners' playoff odds are now down to three percent. Look at it this way: If the Royals go 3-3 over their final six games, the Mariners have to go 5-1 to tie. They've already announced Chris Young won't make his next start, so they'll likely look at one bullpen game, and that's aside from what Taijuan Walker, Hisashi Iwakuma and Paxton can do in their final starts. The good news: Felix Hernandez on Tuesday, Felix Hernandez on Sunday.

4. The Angels really need Matt Shoemaker. Right when we start feeling good about C.J. Wilson -- he threw seven one-hit innings against Seattle in his previous start -- he records only two outs against the Oakland A's after walking four batters. The Los Angeles Angels are still hoping Shoemaker makes a start this weekend, but Wilson remains inconsistent and Hector Santiago has been hammered his past two starts. Cory Rasmus, who had never started a game above A-ball before being pushed into an emergency starting role the past few weeks, is looking like a possibility to start a division series game.

5. Adam Wainwright wins his 20th game. I think he's over that dead arm period. In beating the free-swinging Chicago Cubs with seven scoreless innings, Wainwright showed why he's such a smart pitcher and not just a guy with a nice curveball. He threw just 42 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, his lowest percentage of any start this season. But with the Cubs hacking away, why throw strikes? The St. Louis Cardinals maintained their 2.5-game lead over the Pirates. Wainwright is next scheduled to go on Saturday, which then lines him up to start Game 1 of the division series on Friday, Oct. 3. There is some risk here: If the Pirates somehow catch the Cardinals, Wainwright would have to pitch the wild-card game (Wednesday, Oct. 1) on three days' rest.


Teams make the playoffs with expected production from their stars, with young players who improve, maybe a couple rookies who step up. But on almost every playoff team, you can find a guy who came out of nowhere to offer a major contribution.

Vance Worley is one of those guys. Where would the Pittsburgh Pirates be without the journeyman right-hander? The Pirates all but wrapped up a wild-card spot with Sunday's 1-0 win over the Brewers, giving Pittsburgh the series victory and moving the Pirates into the wild-card lead with the San Francisco Giants, 4.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. Worley went eight innings and allowed just four hits before a sellout crowd at PNC Park, improving his season numbers to 8-4 with a 2.93 ERA over 17 appearances (16 starts).

Worley wasn't even supposed to be out there on Sunday. Charlie Morton had replaced him in the rotation earlier in the week, but Morton's hernia flared up in his start so Worley was back out there against the Brewers. Worley pounded the strike zone with 63 strikes in 82 pitches, relying on his sinking fastball, a cutter and a slider, with an occasional curve.

[+] EnlargeVance Worley
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesVance Worley was an afterthought, more or less. Now he might be the captain of the All-Surprise Team.

"A little rest was good for me," Worley said after the game. "This is the deepest I've gone into a season the last couple of years, so it gave me some time to get my feet back under me, to gather up some of the energy I used up early in the season."

Worley is a journeyman right-hander because his fastball velocity doesn't light up the radar gun, but this is a guy who has had intermittent success in his four seasons in the majors. Of course, none of that came last year with the Twins, who had acquired him from the Phillies. In 10 starts with Minnesota, Worley got pounded like few pitchers in recent history, going 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA and .381 batting average allowed -- the highest average allowed by a pitcher with at least 40 innings since Mike Torrez in 1984.

With numbers like those, it's no surprise the Pirates were able to purchase Worley from the Minnesota Twins late in spring training. There was no downside for the Pirates, and he started the year in Triple-A before joining the Pirates' rotation in mid-June when Francisco Liriano went on the disabled list. He tossed seven scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins in that game and has been solid ever since.

Worley is one member of what we'll call the All-Surprise Team. Or maybe we can call it the lucky pickup team. Should the Pirates receive credit for Worley turning into gold? Hard to say. The Twins had actually put Worley on waivers and nobody claimed him until the Pirates made the cash deal. In the end, it's still a lot of luck. I'm pretty sure the Pirates didn't envision Worley making 16 starts with a sub-3.00 ERA. Here are some other members of the lucky pickup team:

Steve Pearce, Orioles
Pearce began the season with the Baltimore Orioles (they had originally claimed him off waivers from the New York Yankees in 2012) but only appeared in three games before they released him on April 27. The Toronto Blue Jays actually claimed Pearce, but he had the right to refuse the deal and instead become a free agent and apparently had an agreement to sign back with Baltimore. Two days later, with Chris Davis injured, the Orioles re-signed him. Pearce has responded with 20 home runs in 327 at-bats -- after hitting 17 in 743 career at-bats spread out over seven previous seasons. A new, closed stance has done wonders. Among American League hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, he's fourth in wOBA behind Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez and Mike Trout.

Chris Young, Mariners
Young has faltered a bit of late, including a bad loss in a vital game against the Houston Astros on Saturday, but the big right-hander is 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA. That's one more than he had from 2009 to 2013. That the Seattle Mariners ended up with Young was a result of their own penny-pinching ways. Originally, they had signed Randy Wolf as their token veteran to fill out the back of the rotation. Wolf had made the team out of spring training but the Mariners refused to give Wolf a guaranteed full-year contract, instead insisting he sign a 45-day contract. Wolf refused and the Mariners released him, picking up Young, who had been cut by the Washington Nationals. Now that was a stroke of luck, as Wolf ended up making just four poor starts with the Marlins.

Justin Turner, Dodgers
ESPN researcher Mark Simon wrote about Turner last week. The Los Angeles Dodgers' infielder has hit .332/.397/.467 in 310 PAs while starting games at all four infield spots. The Dodgers signed him as a free agent in February after the New York Mets non-tendered him, apparently because they tired of him not running hard. The Mets saved $500,00 or so, replacing Turner's $1 million salary with a minimum-salaried player. The Dodgers got themselves one of the year's best utility infielders.

Josh Harrison, Pirates
Harrison wasn't a free pickup since he was already in the Pirates' system, but nobody could have projected the 26-year-old to have this kind of breakout season. He entered 2014 with a .250 career average in 575 PAs and actually played more in Triple-A in 2013 than with the Pirates. Now he may win a batting title.

[+] EnlargeTanner Roark
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesFifth starter? Hardly. Tanner Roark has a 2.85 ERA.
Tanner Roark, Nationals
After beating out Ross Detwiler and others for the final spot in the Nationals' rotation, Roark has gone 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA in his first full season in the majors. The 27-year-old has actually been in the Washington system since the 2010 trade deadline, but his production this year was certainly a surprise. Plus, consider how the Nationals acquired him: For Cristian Guzman, whose major league ended that year with a .152 average in 15 games for the Rangers. Think Texas could have used Roark the past couple of seasons?

Matt Shoemaker, Angels
We've written about Shoemaker here before, so you know what kind of season he's put together, helping the Angels surge to the AL West title even after Garrett Richards went down. He's certainly the definition of free talent: The Angels signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan in 2008. But consider this: Before the season, Baseball America rated the Angels' farm system the worst in the majors and Shoemaker wasn't listed as one of the team's top 30 prospects. Thirty. Riding a terrific splitter/changeup, he's 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA.

J.D. Martinez, Tigers
For all the moves the Tigers have made, this has perhaps been the biggest as Martinez has been worth 3.9 WAR with his .320/.363/.570 line with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs. Released by the Astros in spring training, Martinez made some minor tweaks to his swing and the results have obviously been impressive. After a hot start and prolonged slump, he's been red hot again in September, hitting .394 with six home runs. (Note: I missed Martinez upon first publishing the piece. Apologies to Tigers fans!)

Pat Neshek, Cardinals
The veteran reliever pitched OK in 40 innings with the A's last year, but that was also the most he had pitched since 2007. So it wasn't a surprise that teams weren't pounding down his door with offers over the winter. He finally signed a minor league contract with the Cardinals in February, with an invite to spring training. He made the team, pitched his way into a setup role and even made the All-Star team. He's 7-1 with a 1.39 ERA and a 65/8 strikeout/walk ratio.

What do these guys prove? For starters, all the analytics out there can't project every player, and that's a good reminder that players aren't robots, their statistics always predictable within a small range. And as much as we praise front offices for building a winner or criticize them for building a loser, there is still a fair amount of luck involved. It's hard to really praise the front office for any of these performances.

None of these guys may do this again next year, but that's not important now. They did it this year and helped their teams into the playoffs or into contention.

Five things we learned Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Indians barely alive. Carlos Carrasco tossed a dominant two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout over the Astros. His Game Score of 94 tied for the sixth-highest of the season. Do the Indians have any shot at the wild card? Very slim, as they trail the Royals by five games. But they do have a series against Kansas City next week. Get some help from Detroit this weekend, sweep the Royals and hope Seattle falters and you never know. Because ... baseball.

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
8:05
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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.


It's another edition of Rapid Fire ... except this time I ask Eric the questions.

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