SweetSpot: Miami Marlins
Dan Szymborski on ESPN Insider writes:
Assuming each win above replacement costs $6 million in the free-agent market this offseason, and with 5 percent yearly overall salary growth, plus taking into account that Stanton would have been arbitration-eligible the first two seasons, ZiPS values a 13-year contract for Stanton at $316 million on the open market, not too much below that $325 million figure.
Grantland's Ben Lindbergh writes that Stanton's age separates this contract from some of the other mega-deals:
Stanton turned 25 earlier this month. If, against the odds, he plays out the contract as it's currently structured, he'll be 37 when it ends. Compare that to other mega-contract ending ages: Alex Rodriguez will have turned 42 by the close of his current 10-year contract. The Angels will be paying Albert Pujols through his age-41 season. Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera will be 40 in the final guaranteed seasons of their deals, and Joey Votto will have turned 40 before the Reds' obligation is up. Stanton signed the longest contract ever, and he'll still be significantly younger when it's over than the players you probably thought of when you mentally compared Stanton's contract with others of a certain size.
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs/Fox Sports didn't have a problem with the Marlins topping $300 million:
So Stanton's worth a big average annual value, and he's young enough to be worth a long commitment. Put those together, and factor in that there's more money in the game than ever, and reaching the $300 million mark isn't a challenge.
Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus writes on the Stanton signing under the headline "When $325 million is an easy decision."
So the sabermetric community, from what I can tell, is united. The contract makes sense. Yes, the analytical community just agreed with Jeffrey Loria.
There is the other side. Jerry Crasnick presents one angle that I agree with: The Marlins' window to win is probably three years, maybe four, because once guys like Jose Fernandez, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich start getting expensive, they'll probably hold a fire sale, one that may or may not include Stanton.
Joe Posnanski, while not necessarily criticizing the contract, points out that Jason Heyward -- the much-maligned Heyward, at least in some circles -- has produced a higher WAR than Stanton. Along the same line, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs estimates Heyward's next contract (he's a free agent after 2015) will be in the $200 million range -- with his 2015 performance dictating which side of $200 million he'll fall on. Will a team pay for Heyward's defense the way the Marlins just paid for Stanton's offense? We'll see, but I'll take the under on the $200 million.
Here's a question: Would Stanton get a $325 million contract in free agency right now? I'm not sure that he would. What's interesting about many of the highest total value contracts given out is many of those players never tested free agency. The Yankees extended Alex Rodriguez for $275 million after 2007 after he opted out of his 10-year, $252 million deal, but he never really tested the free-agent waters (and wouldn't have received $275 million). The Tigers extended Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander before they hit free agency. Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez never became free agents. The Reds gave Joey Votto $225 million.
From the list of the 20 highest total value contracts on Cot's Baseball Contracts, only seven were given to true free agents: The first A-Rod deal, Albert Pujols to the Angels, Robinson Cano to the Mariners, Prince Fielder to the Tigers, Mark Teixeira to the Yankees, Manny Ramirez to the Red Sox and Masahiro Tanaka to the Yankees.
So A-Rod's $252 million deal with the Rangers, way back in 2001, remains the highest total value given to a free agent. Sam Miller's piece included a tweet that said in today's dollars, that $252 million would be worth more than $400 million. (I'm not sure what that figure comes from; I put $252 million from 2001 into an inflation calculator, I get $336 million in today's dollars.) Anyway, whatever the numbers, I do know this: Giancarlo Stanton, as great as he's been, is no Alex Rodriguez (which, in many ways, is a good thing).
Age 20: Rodriguez 9.4 WAR, Stanton 2.8 WAR
Age 21: Rodriguez 5.6 WAR, Stanton 4.1 WAR
Age 22: Rodriguez 8.5 WAR, Stanton 5.5 WAR
Age 23: Rodriguez 4.7 WAR, Stanton 2.3 WAR
Age 24: Rodriguez 10.4 WAR, Stanton 6.5 WAR
Maybe Stanton will be "worth" $325 million. But that doesn't mean it will be a great contract for the Marlins.
And he may be worth it.
The big difference between Stanton and the players who have signed baseball's biggest contracts is age: Stanton will play the 2015 season at age 25. So the reports that Stanton and the Miami Marlins are discussing a 10-year, $300 million contract or a 12-year, $320 million deal takes him through what should be his peak seasons -- but not too far beyond. A 10-year deal would take him through age 34, a 12-year deal through age 36. Compare that to these other $200 million-plus contracts:
Alex Rodriguez: 10 years, $275 million (2008-2017)
Annual average value: $27.5 million
Hey, A-Rod did help the Yankees win the World Series in 2009! Rodriguez signed this deal after winning MVP honors in 2007 when he hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs. Since then, he's hit .279/.369/.498 while averaging 23 home runs and 78 RBIs per season, not including his 2014 suspension. Enjoy the next three years, Yankees fans.
Miguel Cabrera: 8 years, $248 million (2016-2023)
AAV: $31 million
Cabrera's extension doesn't kick in until 2016 and runs through his age-40 season, with team options for 2024 and 2025 that are guaranteed with a top-10 finish in the 2023 MVP vote. When he'll be 40. After hitting 44 home runs in 2012 and 2013, he dropped to 25 in 2014. Whether it was because of the surgery he had after the 2013 season or the beginning of his decline, we'll have to see.
Robinson Cano: 10 years, $240 million (2014-2023)
AAV: $24 million
The first year produced positive returns for the Mariners, although Cano managed just 14 home runs. A big positive for Cano has been his health -- he's averaged 160 games per season since 2007. But A-Rod had averaged 159 games per season from ages 25 to 31, so there's no guarantee that Cano will continue his Cal Ripken-like durability.
Albert Pujols: 10 years, $240 million (2012-2021)
AAV: $24 million
Pujols' annual WAR since 2009: 9.7, 7.5, 5.3, 4.8 (first year with Angels), 1.9 (injured), 3.9. He'll be making $30 million in 2021.
Joey Votto: 10 years, $225 million (2014-2023)
AAV: $22.5 million
Votto signed his extension in April of 2012. In the previous three seasons, he hit .318/.418/.565 while averaging 30 home runs and 100 RBIs; from 2012 to 2014, he's hit .306/.439/.500 while averaging 15 home runs and 51 RBIs as he missed significant time in 2012 and 2014. After playing just 62 games in 2014 due to a quad injury and hitting .255, Votto has a lot to prove in 2015 ... and beyond, considering there are still nine years left on this deal.
Prince Fielder: 9 years, $214 million (2012-2020)
AAV: $23.8 million
Fielder was a little younger than these guys when he signed, but after two years the Tigers happily traded him to the Rangers, throwing in $30 million in cash, as well. Fielder promptly went on the DL for the first time in his career and played just 42 games after surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck.
(There have been two other $200 million contracts: Rodriguez originally signed with the Rangers in 2001 for 10 years and $252 million and then opted out after seven years; Clayton Kershaw's deal with the Dodgers last offseason is for seven years and $215 million.)
* * * *
The interesting thing about the six deals above is that four of them went to players on the left end of the defensive spectrum -- with Cabrera's move to first base, four of the six players signed to these $200 million deals are now first basemen. To retain value at that position you have to hit and hit big, and in the cases of Cabrera, Pujols and Votto, continue to do so into your late 30s. Cano obviously has more value as a second baseman but if his range diminishes to unacceptable levels, at least he can move to third base or first. Bad first basemen can only become DHs.
In Stanton's case, he brings two major positives on why a $300 million deal may work out for the Marlins: We mentioned his age; but he's also a good defensive right fielder. Even though he's a beast of a human, Stanton moves pretty well out there and has a good arm. His defensive metrics have always been solid: plus-7 defensive runs saved in 2014 (that's seven runs better than an average right fielder) and plus-26 for his career; Ultimate Zone Rating has him at plus-15 in his career.
So he's a solid defender, at least right now. The day will come when he becomes a defensive liability but that may not come until the final couple of years in the deal. Even if that's the case, he can move to first base where his bat will still play.
There is one big risk here for the Marlins: Stanton had knee surgery in 2012 and missed time in both 2012 and 2013. While he was healthy in 2014 (until the late-season injury when he was hit in the face with a pitch), there's the chance that his knees force a move to first base earlier than otherwise anticipated. That hurts his value, let alone if it leads to DL stints or other missed time.
Still, if a deal is reached, Stanton is a good bet to earn the mammoth salaries he'll be receiving. Buster Olney writes why the injury risk means it will be difficult for Stanton to turn down such a deal. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs explains why Stanton may actually be worth more than $300 million.
Most Valuable Player voting is often about the narrative that develops during the long march of the season as much as the numbers -- in some cases the narrative may be more important than the numbers. In the American League, there was really only one narrative to consider this season: Mike Trout. He was the obvious choice and the voters made him just the 18th unanimous MVP winner and the first in the AL since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.
In the National League, there were season-long debates between Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton and then Andrew McCutchen -- who made a late push, hitting .347 with five home runs in September as the Pirates surged into the playoffs. There were those in the analytical regions of the Internet pushing for Jonathan Lucroy, who had a terrific offensive season as a catcher for the Brewers while getting recognition as one of the best pitch framers in the business.
Stanton and McCutchen were great; just not great enough. Kershaw collected 18 of the 30 first-place votes, placed second on nine other ballots and easily outdistanced the runner-up, Stanton.
It's easy to see why. Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. At one point, the Dodgers had won 20 of 21 games he started. He was the best pitcher in the majors in 2013 and he got better in 2014, improving his strikeout/walk ratio from 4.46 to 7.71. After his one bad outing of the season -- he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings to Arizona on May 17 -- he posted a 1.43 ERA over his final 23 regular-season outings. That start against the D-backs was his only one all season in which he allowed more than three runs. The numbers were so juicy that even though he pitched just 198 innings in 27 starts, the voters couldn't deny him MVP honors.
The debate heading into the MVP vote was whether Kershaw could overcome the pitcher bias existent in MVP balloting; no NL pitcher had won MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968, and Justin Verlander's win in 2011 was the first for a starting pitcher in the AL since Roger Clemens in 1986 and just the second since 1971.
The advanced metrics tell us Kershaw was the most valuable player in the NL in 2014. He led the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR at 8.0, topping Cole Hamels (6.9), Lucroy (6.7), Stanton (6.5) and Anthony Rendon (6.5). He led in FanGraphs WAR at 7.6, topping McCutchen (6.8), Rendon (6.6), Lucroy (6.3) and Stanton (6.1).
But Kershaw didn't win because of those metrics. He won because of the narrative. He won because he went 21-3. (He actually had a higher WAR in 2013 but finished seventh in the voting as he went just 16-9.) He won because he was clearly the most dominant player in the league.
Even if he was a pitcher.
The past two American League MVP races were hotly contested debates between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout -- well, hotly contested in cyberspace. When the voters in the Baseball Writers' Association actually got around to turning in their ballots the results weren't close at all: Cabrera received 22 of 28 first-place votes in 2012 and 23 of 30 in 2013.
Trout's obvious advantages in advanced metrics, defense and baserunning were trumped by Cabrera's Triple Crown and RBIs and the fact that Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs and Trout's Angels didn't (although Trout's team actually won more games in 2012).
Anyway, in 2014, Cabrera didn't put up the monster offensive numbers, the Angels had the best record in the majors and Trout led the league in both runs scored and RBIs. The writers couldn't mess it up this year.
The ironic part of Trout's win -- he became the third Angels player to win after Don Baylor in 1979 and Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 -- is that by the advanced metrics that us stat guys love, Trout had his worst season:
2012: 10.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.1 FanGraphs WAR
2013: 8.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.5 FanGraphs WAR
2014: 7.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 7.8 FanGraphs WAR
Now, that 7.9 WAR was still the best in the league, making Trout the obvious choice on top of his conventional numbers. The main reason for the decline in WAR was a drop in defensive and baserunning value. In 2012, he was credited with 21 defensive runs saved (which Baseball-Reference uses) while that figure has been -9 the past two seasons. He's also declined in FanGraphs' defensive metric, ultimate zone rating (-8.4 runs). His steals have dropped from 49 to 33 to 16.
Of course, Trout didn't win because of advanced metrics. The fact that Victor Martinez -- who started 116 games at designated hitter -- finished second in the voting shows the voters still place an emphasis on offensive numbers while essentially ignoring the value of things like defense, position and baserunning. Martinez had a terrific season, but he wasn't the second-best player in the AL. On the other hand, it was nice that the voters recognized the great season that Michael Brantley had by putting him third in the voting even though the Indians didn't reach the playoffs.
Otherwise, it was scattershot results in the voting, as expected. Martinez did receive 16 second-place votes, but seven different players were placed there on the ballot. Ten different players received third-place votes.
Anyway, I have the feeling this won't be Mike Trout's only MVP award.
Trout league's best player?
Shoemaker pleasant surprise
Yet steamrolled by Royals
Lost Manny, Matt, Chris but still
Ran away with East
In playoffs shouldn't dampen
League's best rotation
The Bison is back
But Clayton couldn't kill Cards
Donnie gets last chance?
Death of Taveras
Casts pall on terrific year
Still class of Central
Undermined starting pitching
Now replace V-Mart
Who needs walks, homers?
An "abundance" of bunting
Outfield defense ... whoa!
Cespedes got dealt
Team's offense dried up with it
Beane's "stuff" didn’t work
Three titles -- five years
Can they keep Panda?
Burning Cole last game
Trying for division tie
Might have cost Play-In
Cano did his thing
Felix, Hisashi duo
Not quite good enough
Kluber conquered all
But rest of staff slogged through year
Michael Brantley ... star!
Jeter’s farewell tour
Now A-Rod longest-tenured
Not your dad's Yankees
All five starters had
Double-digit wins, but four
Had ten-plus losses
Led till late August
Won nine all of September
Lucroy's framing tops
Shutout 16 times
NL's next to last runs scored
Let's just watch Kimbrel
DeGrom great story
Wheeler looked good, stayed healthy
Harvey's back, Big 3!
Last in all slash stats
No-hit by Timmy ... again
Front office rebuilt
Despite losing Fernandez
Can they sign Stanton?
Friedman, Maddon gone
Price dealt for cheaper prospects
Has their window closed?
Votto hardly seen
But Mesoraco burst out
Cueto stayed healthy
Abreu? Real deal
Chris Sale's elbow still attached?
Thank you, Konerko!
Top prospects galore
Renteria won't see them
Maddon works magic?
Vets went untraded
Amaro kept job somehow
Get used to last place
Bradley, Bogaerts ... meh
Buckholz saw ERA triple
Lester will be missed
Altuve a star
If only they could have signed
1st rounder Aiken
Hughes K'd 1-8-6
Is that allowed on their staff?
Mauer's bat slumping
Given multitude of hurts
Washington bowed out
Tulo missed 70 games
Fast start, then crash, burn
Gibson, Towers done
Can Hale, Stewart make team rise
Like a phoenix? Eh!
Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- That guy wearing the Marlins jersey behind the plate at the World Series? He doesn't just wear it to the games. I was riding in the shuttle to the rental car lot at Kansas City’s airport Monday night when I looked to my right and saw him sitting one passenger over . . . and yep, wearing his Marlins apparel among several fans in Royals and Giants gear.
His name is Laurence Leavy and he’s a Miami lawyer specializing in workers' compensation. He’s a Marlins season-ticket holder and such an enormous fan that he drives a car specially painted in vibrant Marlins colors with a Billy the Marlin logo.
Leavy became a social media sensation last week at Games 1 and 2 while sitting behind home plate in his Marlins orange in the middle of a sea of Royals blue. He says people come up to him asking for photos. Parents tell him their children want to dress up as him for Halloween. He says followers to his @Marlins_Man Twitter account soared from 175 -- mostly his friends -- to more than 13,000.
“It’s an accidental thing. It will be over in a week,” Leavy said of the attention. “You know the phrase: ‘Your 15 minutes of fame?’ It will be over and I’ll be happy. I had people writing me letters, saying, ‘I’m so-and-so’s agent and we can sign you up and make this really big.’ I had marketing guys call, and I’m like, ‘Guys, I don’t want that.’ I just want to go games and have fun.
“That’s the good part of this story. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. My addiction is sporting events.”
Is it ever. Leavy attends sporting events all year round, all over the country. He has seen dozens of World Series games and says he has attended every possible event he’s wanted to see . . . although he does still regret trading his ticket to the 1980 Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to go see bobsledding instead that day.
How much does he spend on tickets?
“A lot. It varies from year to year, but I spend a lot. A lot,” Leavy said. “I saved up to, like, buy a house and have a wife and kids, and it just never happened. So I decided a while ago to just go out and make myself happy. I said, ‘Why don’t you go out and see in person these games? Why don’t you just go to the Yankees-Red Sox game? Why don’t you go to the Dodgers-Cubs? Why don’t you just go do this stuff?’
“So I did it. I wasn’t trying to be discovered. I went to the Yankees game three years ago in the playoffs and I was the only one wearing orange in the entire stadium. And I wasn’t discovered.”
He was this time.
Naturally, this World Series will not be the end of his sports odyssey.
Cam Newton sent Leavy a text message inviting him to the Carolina Panthers game on Thursday. Not that he’ll necessarily go to that game because someone else asked him to sit courtside at the Cleveland Cavaliers season opener the same night. And Florida State invited him to go to their game against Louisville that night as well.
Leavy still wasn’t sure which he would pick, but to find out his choice, tune in and look for him in the crowd. He’ll be the one wearing orange.
Former major infielder Jeff Huson once said this to my ESPN colleague Tim Kurkjian about facing Randy Johnson: "What was the worst thing that Michael Jordan could do to you? He can go dunk on you. He could embarrass you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you."
That's the fear major league hitters have to block out every time they dig into the batter's box. They've honed their skills to beat the best pitchers in the world, but they've also learned to bury that fear into the deepest recesses of their brains.
Then we see a frightening incident like the one on Thursday, when Giancarlo Stanton got hit in the face with an 88-mph fastball thrown by Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mike Fiers, and we're reminded of the potential damage any one pitch can do, reminded of the tragic career of Tony Conigliaro or what might have been with Dickie Thon or what happened to Ray Chapman back in 1920.
Stanton, of course, has been one of the brightest lights in a somewhat desultory major league season, his mammoth moon shots a thing of joy. After a first-pitch fastball at the knees from Fiers in the top of the fifth inning, which Stanton took, Fiers threw another fastball, catcher Jonathan Lucroy setting up on the inside corner of the plate, trying to keep the big guy from gets his arms extended. Fiers doesn't throw hard but comes with an overhand delivery, a deceptive delivery that hides the ball, one of the keys to his success despite mediocre stuff. Stanton, who stands well off the plate, started his swing as the ball kept riding up and in and for some reason failed to react to the movement of the pitch and took the pitch on the side of his face.
He lay motionless at the plate for several minutes as medical personnel attended to him, with blood clearly visible in the dirt around home plate. Fiers, visibly shaken up, stood on the mound, his hands on his head, despondent over the pitch. It was clearly an accident, as most of these pitches are. Just a pitch that got away and a batter who didn't dive out of the way. It is, unfortunately, part of the game.
Obviously, we can only hope Stanton is OK, that the ball didn't get him in the eye. As of this writing, the only medical update we have is he had a laceration on the left side of his face, but he was carted off the field and taken to a nearby hospital, an eerie silence at Miller Park stating the gravity of the situation.
The game nearly took a turn for the worse. With Reed Johnson finishing Stanton's at-bat (the pitch to Stanton was actually called a strike, as umpire Jeff Kellogg ruled Stanton had swung at it), the first pitch to him from Fiers was also up and in -- like Stanton, Johnson didn't seem to pick up the movement and started to swing -- and appeared to hit him on the hand (it was ruled that Johnson, too, had swung). The Marlins charged the field, with a pushing and shoving match ensuing as Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee went a little crazy. The next inning, the Marlins predictably hit Carlos Gomez, who thankfully kept his cool and the matter seemed resolved, at least for this game.
For all the talk about home-plate collisions, the bigger danger epidemic in baseball that can lead to injuries is hit batters -- heads, wrists, hands. For all the talk old-timers love to revel in about Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson throwing at hitters -- which they did (Drysdale led his league five times in hit batters) -- batters continue to get hit by pitches at much higher rates than back in the 1960s.
Look at the rates through the years:
1964: One hit batter every 177 plate appearances.
1974: One hit batter every 192 plate appearances.
1984: One hit batter every 240 plate appearances.
1994: One hit batter every 142 plate appearances.
2004: One hit batter every 102 plate appearances.
2014: One hit batter every 112 plate appearances.
HBP rates peaked in 2001, at one every 99 plate appearances, with general declines after that (although 2014 is up slightly from 2013). Two theories you often here about the increase in hit batters is that "pitchers haven't learned to throw inside" or "pitchers don't throw inside in college because of the aluminum bats" and thus aren't used to doing it in the majors.
I don't think that's the case at all. First of all, hit batter rates decreased drastically from 1964 to 1984, at the same time the rates of college pitchers entering the game were rapidly increasing. HBP rates in the early '90s were up a bit from 1984, but still not higher than 1970s levels. They really started to escalate in the mid-'90s; from 1990 to 1995 the rates had jumped from .20 per game to .30 per game, a 50 percent increase in five years.
What happened in those years? More home runs, more offense, more hitters crowding the plate, more hitters diving out over the plate because they had the power to crush the ball to the opposite field. As offense jumped throughout the '90s, so did the rate of hit batters. Sure, some of that was probably applicable to retaliation effects after home runs, but my theory puts the hitters mostly at fault here. It's pretty simple: If you stand closer to the plate you're more likely to get hit by a pitch.
Take Stanton. He's been hit by just four pitches this year, even though he gets pitched inside regularly. But he doesn't get hit often because he's well off the plate.
Also, if the theory is that young pitchers don't know how to throw inside, check out the list of pitchers with the most hit batters: Charlie Morton, Justin Masterson, Edinson Volquez, Bud Norris, R.A. Dickey, Jeremy Guthrie, A.J. Burnett, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Alfredo Simon, James Shields. Those are all veteran pitchers. Leake is the youngest and he's been in the league five years. Some of them are even known as pitchers with great control -- Guthrie, Cueto, Shields. It's not a young pitcher problem. It's a crowding the plate problem.
I don't see things changing, however. It's a power game we live in right now and hitters are going to continue diving over the plate to hit home runs. Henry Aaron was hit 32 times in his career; singles-hitting Jon Jay has been hit 18 times this year, most in the majors.
It's a different game. A more dangerous game.
Shields has often been mocked for his "Big Game" nickname, but if the past two months are any indication, he might have earned the right to put it on the back of his baseball card.
Shields pitched another gem on Friday night, blanking the Yankees over 8 1/3 innings in the Royals' 1-0 win. He dominated the Yanks' lineup, retiring the first 11 batters he faced and holding the Yankees to just three hits.
With the Royals clinging to a slim lead in the American League Central, Shields was masterful in keeping Kansas City ahead of the Tigers in the division and on pace to snap the franchise's 28-season postseason drought.
Shields has cemented himself as the team's ace over the last two months, posting a 2.26 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP in 12 starts since July 7. In that span, he's allowed more than three earned runs just once, while going at least seven innings in seven of those 12 outings.
Like a true ace, he has also stepped up against the best competition over this two-month stretch, allowing only seven runs in four starts combined against the A's, Giants and Tigers.
With Shields at the top of his game and backed up by perhaps the most dominant bullpen in baseball, the Royals may have found the perfect formula to give their fans a taste of October for the first time in nearly three decades.
2. What might have been for Michael Pineda and Yankees.
The Yankees' playoff hopes are on life support following their brutal 1-0 loss to the Royals, as they wasted another brilliant effort by Pineda and fell even further back in the AL wild-card race.
The Yankees' rotation has been crippled by injuries this season, and perhaps none has been more significant than the four months that Pineda missed this season with a muscle strain in his shoulder.
Pineda has quietly pitched to a 1.80 ERA in nine starts, allowing no more than two runs in each game. The only starting pitcher with a lower ERA and at least 50 innings pitched this season is Clayton Kershaw (1.70).
Given Pineda's excellence on the mound, you can't help but wonder where the Yankees would be in the postseason race if Pineda had been healthy all year. Could they have challenged the Orioles for the AL East crown? Would they be looking up at multiple teams in the wild-card standings?
Some might say the answer is no, given the fact that Pineda can't hit and an underachieving offense has been the Yankees' biggest deficiency this season. Pineda knows all too well about the Yankees' slumping bats -- the team has given him just 16 runs of support during his nine starts.
3. Indians still very much in playoff race.
Although the Indians have hovered near .500 most of the season, they have stuck around in the playoff race by winning games like they did on Friday night against the White Sox.
They got another dominant effort from their starting pitcher, as Indians rookie T.J. House threw one-run ball over seven innings, lowering the rotation's ERA since Aug. 1 to an MLB-best 2.55. And the Indians got another clutch hit in extra innings, as pinch hitter David Murphy drove in the winning run on a base-loaded single in the 10th to give the Indians their AL-leading 11th walk-off win this season.
The Indians know something about September comebacks -- last year they went 21-6 in the final month to claim an AL wild-card spot -- and I wouldn't bet against another rally down the stretch this season, especially after Friday night's dramatic victory.
4. Marlins can play spoiler down the stretch.
The Marlins have a 1 percent chance to make the postseason, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to play for in September. In fact, they might be the senior circuit's biggest spoiler team, with a chance to significantly impact the NL wild-card race.
They played that role on Friday night, handing the Braves their third loss in the last four games and dropping them one game back in the wild-card standings. The Marlins are now 9-8 against Atlanta this season, with two more games left in the season series this weekend.
The Fish then travel to Milwaukee on Monday for four games against the team that the Braves are chasing in the wild-card standings. By the time that series is over, we may have a good idea of who is primed to take the second NL wild-card spot, and the Marlins will have played a huge part in deciding the fate of both teams in the hunt.
5. Brewers put an end to their losing ways.
There is finally something for Brewers fans to cheer about this month, as Milwaukee snapped its nine-game skid with a 6-2 win over the Cardinals at Miller Park.
Mike Fiers pitched another gem and Scooter Gennett drove in three runs, allowing the Brewers to pull to within three games of the Cardinals in the NL Central and reclaim sole possession of the NL's second wild card.
Fiers entered the rotation in the August after Matt Garza landed on the disabled list with a strain in his rib cage, but has hardly been a replacement starter, delivering a 1.94 ERA and a quality start in each of his nine outings.
The Brewers still have five more games remaining against the Cardinals, so there is still plenty of time to catch them in the division race. However, the Redbirds appear to have the easier schedule down the stretch with 16 of their 21 remaining games coming against below .500 teams, compared to 13 for the Brew Crew.
Katie Sharp blogs about the Yankees for SweetSpot network affiliate It's About the Money, and can be followed on Twitter at @ktsharp.
Here's an interesting nugget from ESPN Stats & Info ... players who led the NL in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage the past 40 years and whether they won the MVP Award:
2014: Giancarlo Stanton (?)
1995: Dante Bichette (no)
1993: Barry Bonds (yes)
1989: Kevin Mitchell (yes)
1986: Mike Schmidt (yes)
1981: Mike Schmidt (yes)
1980: Mike Schmidt (yes)
1977: George Foster (yes)
Bichette played in Colorado and finished second in the voting to Barry Larkin.
Does this mean there's a good chance for Stanton to win, even though momentum seems to be swinging in favor of Clayton Kershaw? Keep in mind that a pitcher hasn't won NL MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968.
Let's see if the same precedent holds true in the American League. AL leaders in home runs, RBIs and slugging, past 40 years:
2012: Miguel Cabrera (yes)
2007: Alex Rodriguez (yes)
1997: Ken Griffey Jr. (yes)
1995: Albert Belle (no)
1990: Cecil Fielder (no)
1988: Jose Canseco (yes)
1978: Jim Rice (yes)
Belle finished second to Mo Vaughn in a close vote (eight points) and Fielder finished second to Rickey Henderson in another fairly close vote (31 points).
I would say, based on this history, Stanton still has a chance at MVP honors. His biggest detriment, however, may not be Kershaw but the bias against players from non-playoff teams.
His best chance would seem to be to finish with a flourish, lap the field in homers and RBIs, have Kershaw throw a mediocre start or two and hope that a couple voters who are anti-pitcher leave Kershaw off or down the ballot (like with Pedro Martinez in 1999). If the two essentially split the first-place votes but Stanton is first or second on all the ballots, he could win the vote.
Clayton Kershaw: 7.3
Jason Heyward: 6.3
Giancarlo Stanton: 6.1
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.7
Troy Tulowitzki: 5.5
And here the NL leaders in WAR via FanGraphs:
Clayton Kershaw: 5.9
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.6
Giancarlo Stanton: 5.5
Hunter Pence: 5.4
Jason Heyward: 5.2
Andrew McCutchen: 5.2
Kershaw leads both sites in WAR so the statistical consensus is that he's been the best player in the National League, even though he missed a month of action back in April. He's 16-3 with a 1.73 ERA, so while he may not get to 200 innings he's been so dominant that he still has the highest WAR.
But ... no National League pitcher has won the MVP Award since Bob Gibson in 1968, so Kershaw still has to overcome that bias against pitchers. Plus, he could slump in September and lose a couple games (unlikely, I know, since he's allowed more than three runs in a game just once, but I guess it could happen). Stanton's Marlins aren't going to make the playoffs, and MVPs usually come from playoff teams (see Miguel Cabrera versus Mike Trout). Lucroy has certainly been terrific, although lacks the big power and RBI numbers MVP voters usually favor, plus the Brewers aren't a lock to make the playoffs.
Enter Heyward, under-the-radar MVP candidate. Based on WAR, he's been one of the best all-around players in the league. Not that he's gotten recognition as such.
Of course, he has no chance of winning; in fact, I'd be surprised if he even finishes in the top-10 in the voting. He's hitting .272/.354/.391 with 11 home runs and 54 RBIs and right fielders slugging under .400 don't get MVP support. Heyward's value comes with his defense. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved for its defensive component of WAR and Heyward leads the majors with 33 runs saved above average. Only Juan Lagares of the Mets is at +30, and only four other players are at +20 or higher. FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating for its defensive component and Heyward leads all fielders there as well, at +26.4 (only Alex Gordon and Lagares are at +20 in UZR).
So those defensive metrics agree that Heyward has been the best defensive player in baseball and that he's saved a lot of runs. Those runs saved are worth about three wins -- so more than half of Heyward's value has come with his glove.
Yes, it's easy to dismiss one-year defensive numbers. Or perhaps wise to use them with caution. Last year, Carlos Gomez had 38 DRS and Gerardo Parra 36, and this year those players rate at 0 and +1, respectively.
But Heyward has always rated as a top defender -- not quite at his 2014 level, but he's averaged +21 DRS per 1,200 innings in his caree, compared to his rate of +34/1,200 innings in 2014. There's no reason to write off the metrics as a one-year anomaly.
What makes him so good? He doesn't have Roberto Clemente's arm (although he does have nine assists), but he has great instincts and range. Let's use an old-school fielding stat: Range Factor, which is simply putouts + assists per nine innings. Heyward has averaged 2.55 plays per nine innings compared to the league average of 2.06 for right fielders. Based on this simple math, he's made one extra out every two games compared to an average right fielder -- 0.49 per nine innings. He's played 1,157 innings so far in right field (128.5 games worth), so that's about 64 extra outs he's made above an average right fielder, let alone a subpar one.
Imagine if we added 64 hits to Heyward's résumé: He'd be hitting .399.
Now, evaluating Heyward's defense isn't quite that simple. Maybe the Braves throw a lot of fly balls (not really; they're 12th in fly ball percentage) or have an unusual number of starts made by right-handed pitchers, thus facing more lefties who hit the ball to right field (not really; the Braves are 20th in games started by right-handers). So there doesn't appear to be any team quirk that has allowed Heyward to make a high number of plays. He just makes a high number of plays.
In digging deeper into the DRS numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, we see Heyward also makes few mistakes. He has just one error and his total of 15 Good Fielding Plays - Defensive Miscues & Errors is +15, second only to Nick Markakis' +16 among right fielders. Heyward's arm has saved two runs -- nothing special there, although not a liability. It's all about running down fly balls.
Should we believe the numbers? The metrics agree on Heyward's performance on defense in 2014. Maybe you don't think one Heyward has been one of the most valuable players in the National League but I'm inclined to believe he has been.
(Although Kershaw would get my vote right now.)
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.
Let's take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss some of the teams on the fringes of the playoff races or those that have already made their October reservations at their favorite golf courses.
These teams are usually known as spoilers, but in this Year of Parity it's probable that one of them will actually go into the final week of the season with a chance to win a wild card. These are five teams currently under .500 that I expect to play well down the stretch.
1. Miami Marlins
We saw what can make them so dangerous on Tuesday, when they beat Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals 3-0 behind new acquisition Jarred Cosart, who pitched seven innings of three-hit baseball. Cosart has a good arm and throws a hard sinking fastball that generates a lot of ground balls -- when he can throw it for strikes as he did against the Cardinals with just one walk. The Astros were willing to punt on him after he had four straight bad starts in July and some perceived attitude problems that he didn't take well to instruction didn't help. Maybe a change of scenery will help; he's just 24 with 32 career starts now, young enough for things to click.
The Marlins are 59-60, and while they're mediocre, they're a young team incentivized to win and they have one of the No. 1 guys in the game who can beat you, Giancarlo Stanton. Witness Monday night, when his two bombs powered the Marlins to a 6-5 win over the Cardinals. They're just 3.5 games out of the second wild card -- thank you, National League -- so they certainly aren't out of the playoff picture. But until All-Star Henderson Alvarez returns, the rotation is shaky enough that veteran Brad Penny started the other day and won his first game since 2011.
Watch out: Braves (six games remaining) and Nationals (eight games).
2. Tampa Bay Rays
Like the Marlins, they're hanging in there at 5.5 games out of the second wild card, although they'd have to pass five teams to secure that position. Still, even without David Price, this could be a team that reels off nine wins in 10 games and suddenly gets right back in the thick of things.
Guess which team has the allowed the fewest runs per game since the All-Star break? That's why you can't count out the Rays just yet.
Plus, Evan Longoria has a big hot streak in him, right?
Watch out: Yankees (nine games), Blue Jays (nine games), Orioles (seven games).
3. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are out of it, but they've arguably been better than their 51-67 record indicates. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at FanGraphs the other day, the Cubs and Royals have basically the same BaseRuns record. What the heck does that mean? Just more sabermetric gobbledy gook? BaseRuns calculates how many runs a team "should" have scored or allowed, given a team's component statistics. Basically, the difference is that the Royals have been clutch and the Cubs have not.
What's that mean over the final weeks? Clutch isn't viewed in sabermetric circles as a predictable and repeatable skill, so it's possible the Cubs clutch up down the stretch and improve their hitting and pitching with runners on base or in close games or what have you.
Plus, the Cubs have some weapons that can beat you. Kyle Hendricks continues to look good in the rotation, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 3-0 on Tuesday. Anthony Rizzo is a power bat in the middle of the lineup -- he hit his 26th home run -- and young guys such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could be intriguing down the stretch. Jake Arrieta had the one blowup start last week but has otherwise been pitching like a No. 1; you don't want to face him. Plus, we may see Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler called up as well.
Watch out: Brewers (eight games), Cardinals (seven games), Pirates (six games).
4. San Diego Padres
The Padres? The team that hit .171 in June? Yes, the Padres. But they can pitch and have gone 14-8 since the All-Star break. In particular, you don't want to run into Tyson Ross, who hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his past nine starts.
Watch out: Dodgers (nine games), Giants (seven games), Cardinals (four games).
5. Houston Astros
Well, I don't know about the Astros, but Chris Carter can single-handedly beat you with one three-run homer. He homered again on Tuesday and leads the majors with 15 big ones since the beginning of July -- five more than Stanton, the No. 2 guy. With 36 RBIs in 33 games, he has delivered a lot of damage lately. The pitching hasn't been very good of late, but the Astros have played well at times this year. Once George Springer returns to join Carter and Jose Altuve in the lineup, there may be just enough offense here to scare up some wins.
Watch out: A's (six games), Mariners (six games), Angels (five games).
The Marlins’ comeback to walk off against the Nationals on Monday was one of those happy reminders that you really do have to play the games. With a Miami win expectation that FanGraphs pegged at one or two percent with the Nats up 6-0 after six innings, this is a game the Nationals have to deliver on if they’re ever going to put the Braves away in the NL East race. Instead, sometimes the “better” team winds up demonstrating it really isn’t that much better than everyone else. In football, they’ll talk about the notion of what can happen any given Sunday, but in baseball every day is gameday, and everything -- every move and every outcome -- matters.
Let’s start with Jayson Werth getting thrown out needlessly challenging Giancarlo Stanton’s arm on a leadoff single in the seventh -- again, with his team up 6-0 -- and getting injured on the play. Not too many months ago, Nationals manager Matt Williams was being hailed for old-school wisdom for pulling Bryce Harper out of a game for not hustling. Whatever you make of that, if the side benefit of old-school virtue is having a notoriously fragile regular like Werth hurt himself, maybe the Nats need less, not more of it -- especially if it helps keep their already injury-hampered lineup strong for the stretch.
OK, so maybe Werth’s injury doesn’t have to be the end of the world, because it’s 6-0. Well, sure, except that right field probably isn’t Nate McLouth’s best position, not that he’s much of a center fielder these days, either; his six starts in right for Washington this year are more than he’s made in the previous five seasons combined. But he is the Nationals’ notional fourth outfielder, so in he went. We can probably really only blame him for Garrett Jones’ seventh-inning triple with two outs -- McLouth dove and didn’t even get a glove on the ball. But hey, they were up 6-0, and he hustled, right? Except that scored the Marlins’ first run from first base, then created a second two-out run when Marcell Ozuna’s infield dribbler clanged off Ian Desmond’s glove.
So let’s go to the ninth inning: Nats still up by three, save situation, closer in -- all very playbook, all very much as it should be. Rafael Soriano had pitched Sunday, but it wasn’t like he’s been terribly overworked of late. But he simply didn’t have it Monday night, generating just one swing-and-miss strike in 26 pitches, and creating trouble at the outset by walking Casey McGehee on four pitches. Wrapped around a lone out, Jones pulls Sori for a double to right, Ozuna plates a run on an opposite-field hit (to right), Jarrod Saltalamacchia pulls a fly ball for a sac fly (to right), and Adeiny Hechavarria triples to right to tie the game. It’s enough to give some of you former Little League right fielders flashbacks to your worst day ever.
Anyway, after a hit batsman, that’s it for Soriano. First and third, lefty Chris Yelich at bat, Williams sensibly brings in lefty Jerry Blevins to get the matchup, and wins it with a strikeout. And then skips the last page of the La Russa playbook by leaving Blevins in to face Jeff Baker. And if you love Jeff Baker for what he is, this is it, this is all he’s for: to face a lefty now and again, and play five or six positions on demand. He has an .858 career OPS versus lefties, .645 against righties. The Marlins had no lefty bat left on the bench; the righty-batting Stanton and McGehee were on deck. This isn’t particle physics, certainly not if you or I get it. This is where you’re supposed to bore the excited few in Marlins Stadium, pause the action (again) and bring in a righty to keep the game alive. Craig Stammen hasn’t pitched in almost a week; what’s the point of carrying seven relievers if you don’t use them?
Williams lets it ride with Blevins, giving Baker his best possible chance to be a hero. Baker executes. Game over, win. Or for the Nats, loss.
Now, sure, we may caution ourselves not to read too much into any one outcome, but sometimes a game in detail can make you wonder, not because it’s “just” one loss. Monday’s loss for the Nationals in one of those games that should have been won. They were supposed to win because they had six runs on the board and Jordan Zimmermann was awesome, because he’s pretty reliable that way -- giving up just two runs on five baserunners in seven innings.
But maybe a night like this goes some way toward explaining why the Nationals aren’t performing as well as their expected record, which is four wins better than their current 57, and five wins ahead of the Braves’ expected record. There were things they had in their control that they failed to do. If the devil’s in the details, it’s interesting to mull these things, especially now when the Nats can’t afford any mistakes heading into what looks like a dogfight with the Braves all the way through the next two months. If they aren’t using their full roster to their best advantage, they need to start. Maybe they do need to be held accountable for doing dumb things on the bases, but perhaps not the same things Williams has voiced his disapproval about publicly. And perhaps they shouldn’t have given a 30-something like McLouth almost $11 million guaranteed for two years after his first good year in five.
It’s certainly more interesting to ponder than the pre-fabricated Nats narratives to explain their failures, like noting Ryan Zimmerman is hurt (again), that Harper hasn’t hit 60 home runs yet/ever/yesterday, or that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t already put Nolan Ryan in the shade. But if the Nationals fall short of making it into October’s action, or have to settle for the one-game play-in, you can bet they’ll have more people to hold accountable than just those usual suspects. And they’ll need to remember games like this one.
When Tim Lincecum hung a slider in the zone like it was a piñata, Miami Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee didn’t just call it candy, he took it yard for his second home run of the season, breaking a 58-game homerless streak. It’s an amusing data point in what has been a fascinating season for the 31-year-old veteran.
Keep in mind, before this year many thought McGehee was done. After putting up an .859 OPS as a rookie followed by an .801 OPS with 62 extra-base hits for the division-winning 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, he struggled to a .632 OPS across the next two seasons, playing his way out of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York. It earned him a trip to the Japanese leagues with the Rakuten Eagles last year. There, he cranked out 28 homers while hitting .292/.376/.515, or more closely resembling the guy who’d been a contending team’s power source.
Almost by reflex, McGehee’s unusual breakout season has led to observations that he can’t keep doing this. Equally confident have been the assertions that his BABIP (at .369 before Sunday’s action) has to go down. It’s an entirely safe assertion; regressing toward the average is normal when you look at all players on the macro level, while a massive change in an individual player’s performance level most definitely is not.
Except that it’s adding up to enough time that you have to give the guy his due. He’s hitting .390 in July, which means if regression is supposed to be a law like gravity, McGehee can fly.
Dive a little deeper into McGehee’s numbers, and you’ll see he’s doing more things differently at the plate than just hitting singles and drawing walks instead of homers and whiffs. He isn’t making mistakes when he offers on pitches: Whereas he used to be closer to the MLB average of missing on 15 percent of his swings, this year he’s below 10 percent, ranking in the top 10 in the National League. His rate of striking out looking is at a career-high (and NL high) 56.4 percent, almost 10 percent higher than the guy ranked second (Troy Tulowitzki) and that isn’t really the sort of thing you associate with a hitter getting plinky and just trying to poke singles, is it? Between that seeming passivity and the increased walk rate, you’ve got two things going on in McGehee’s at-bats that you might more associate with Adam Dunn, not a guy with an outside shot at a batting title.
You don’t have to be a Marlins fan or even a Casey McGehee fan to enjoy this, although as someone who was in the press box the day McGehee ripped three home runs in one game off Edwin Jackson back in August 2011, it’s particularly fun to consider. If anything, McGehee’s transformation into a very different kind of player at the major league level reminds me of Carney Lansford becoming more of a singles hitter late in his career, in his age-31 season. Lansford shed much of his power, seeing his ISO halved from .166 in the pumped-up ’87 season to just .081 while hitting .331 in the first half of the 1988 season (earning his first and only All-Star appearance), that before slumping terribly in the second half to appease the BABIP fairy. Then he hit .336 in 1989 to show that he really could do this late-career reincarnation as a singles hitter. Lansford had hit lots of singles before (hitting .336 in the strike-shortened ’81 season), but seeing him deliver at that level more consistently while his power went away that dramatically was odd then.
Almost as odd as McGehee’s power outage has been this season while hitting lots more singles. But unlike McGehee, Lansford's walk rate dropped, which you would have expected since he was seeing less than three pitches per plate appearance back in 1988. What McGehee is doing is thus different, because it's a battle in the batter's box that he's waging differently, watching more pitches, drawing more walks, but making contact when he chooses to.
Which, when you get right down to it, is more than a little fun to see happen. Here’s hoping that McGehee keeps it up, whether in a Marlins uni or wherever he might get sent if they ever do deal him down the stretch, because if he does hit all year long, it'll force us to think about how much we know about what players can do when they set their minds to it.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.