SweetSpot: Milwaukee Brewers

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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?


Will the Royals make the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 21,869)

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.

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.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10

Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Don't go burying the Oakland A's just yet.

Ahh, America: We love to jump on a bandwagon and then crush it as soon as we can. Witness the A's. Remember back on June 21? That was when they beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 10 innings. It was an exciting walk-off victory. They were 47-28 after that win, the best record in the majors, on pace for 102 wins. They had a six-game lead over the Angels and were still weeks from acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. We all loved the A's back then, praising this team that had overcome injuries to two-fifths of its projected rotation, writing our "Billy Beane has done it again" stories.

Then came the trades. Then came the losses. Then came the Angels and the loss of the division lead. Then came those two defeats on Sunday and Monday -- blowing leads in the ninth inning -- and even though the A's were still in the wild-card lead, we were ready to put them 6 feet under. Enter Jon Lester on Tuesday against the White Sox. Considering the somewhat dire straits of the bullpen, the A's needed a big game from their new ace and Lester delivered with eight innings of two-run baseball. The A's piled on seven runs over the final three innings to turn it into an 11-2 laugher, but Lester was the key guy in this one.

Lester has been as good as any pitcher in the American League this year not named Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale. And considering Hernandez has been shaky of late, Lester might be the best starter going right now on any of the playoff contenders in the AL. Meaning: The A's might have blown the division, but if they can hold on to win the wild card and have Lester ready to go, he's still a good bet to get them into the next round.

Of course, one game doesn't mean the A's have suddenly turned things around, but it has to feel good after the previous two defeats (and knowing Sale is on deck to start against them on Thursday). The A's are still in the wild-card lead with 18 games left in the regular season. You can jump back on the bandwagon if you wish. No hard feelings.

2. Drew Storen pretty much locks down the closer job for the Nationals.

A few days ago, following the recent struggles of Rafael Soriano, Matt Williams announced he'd go with a closer by committee. Well, Storen has pitched the past three games, faced nine batters, retired all of them and picked up three saves. He has a 1.29 ERA. See you in the seventh inning, Rafael. Oh, and with two straight wins over the Braves, the Nationals not only got that "unable to beat the Braves" monkey off their backs a little, but pretty much wrapped up the NL East title with a nine-game lead now.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

Petit threw 84 pitches in a complete-game, 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks. How efficient was he?

Oh ... the Dodgers lost, so their lead is back down to 2.5 games.

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

You don't want to read too much into Wacha's rough outing -- six runs, four extra-base hits and three walks in four innings in a 9-5 loss to the Reds -- since he's barely pitched after coming back from the stress fracture in his shoulder. Still, it suggests the Cardinals' playoff rotation -- yes, I'm assuming they win the division -- isn't settled yet, with Wacha and Shelby Miller presumably battling for the fourth spot behind Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

The Brewers lost again, 6-3 to the Marlins, as closer Francisco Rodriguez served up a two-run homer and then a solo shot with two outs in the ninth. Brewers fans were not happy. They've lost 13 of 14. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. The Braves have lost seven of their past 10 and have hit .193 and average two runs per game during that span. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. I mean ... even the Marlins are only 3.5 behind the Pirates.

Yay, wild card?

Five things we learned Friday

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
1. James Shields delivers a gem.

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.

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
1. Michael Wacha will be able to help the Cardinals.

In a bit of a surprise move, the Cardinals started Michael Wacha in a key divisional game against the Brewers even though the second-year righty had pitched just two innings in his one minor-league rehab appearance as he comes back from the stress reaction in his right shoulder that caused him to miss 11 weeks. Most teams won't start a guy until he's ready to go at least 75 to 80 pitches, but the Cardinals were willing to give Wacha 50 pitches and turn it over to the bullpen. And why not? With expanded rosters, Cards manager Mike Matheny had plenty of relievers to work with once Wacha exited after three innings.

The decision paid off as Wacha gave up one run in his three innings, throwing 50 pitches on the nose. He gave up an RBI double in the first inning but settled down and most importantly his velocity was excellent, averaging 95.9 mph on his four-seam fastball. With Adam Wainwright still struggling and Justin Masterson booted to the bullpen, Wacha's return comes right as the Cardinals are ready to put the hammer on the Brewers and Pirates.

The Cardinals held on to win 3-2, handing the Brewers their ninth straight loss and increasing their division lead to a suddenly cushy four games. Wacha should slowly get extended out, throwing another 15-20 pitches in his next start.

2. Cardinals' outfield played some defense.

In the sixth inning, right fielder Jon Jay totally robbed the Brewers' Khris Davis with two runners on base. That wasn't even the play of the game. In the bottom of the eighth, with two runners on and one out for the Brewers, Logan Schafer lined a ball to deep center that Peter Bourjos flagged down. Two great catches, four runs saved. This is what happens when teams lose nine games in a row.

3. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke may have overmanaged just a bit.

In that eighth inning, Aramis Ramirez reached on an error and then Davis singled. Trailing 3-2, Roenicke ran for Ramirez, his cleanup hitter, at second base. As much as you hate to take your cleanup hitter out of the game, you can certainly understand the reasoning there. You need to get that run home. So that wasn't the worst decision. Except ... Roenicke then bunted with the next batter, but Martin Maldonado, pinch-hitting for Lyle Overbay, lined the bunt attempt back to the pitcher. Why run for Ramirez and then play for one run? A runner's speed is less important at third base than at second base. Plus, if you do tie the game, Ramirez's spot is likely to come up again but he'll be out of the game. I can see running for Ramirez, but only if you're going for the big inning.

As it turns, Ramirez's spot came up in the ninth, with two outs and two runners on, against Trevor Rosenthal. Roenicke pinch-hit Jason Rogers for Hector Gomez; Rogers was making just his second major-league plate appearance. He flew out to right field.

I'm not really blasting Roenicke. Without expanded rosters he certainly wouldn't have run for Ramirez in the eighth inning. It shows the ripple effect of moves. I think the error was not trying to go for the big inning when he had a chance.

4. Big win for the Yankees.

On a night the Tigers and Mariners would both win, the Yankees would have dropped another game back in the wild-card standings. Instead, they hit two dramatic home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning off Koji Uehara, with Chase Headley's walk-off blast giving the Yankees the 5-4 win in Derek Jeter's final game at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. Headley has hit a solid .256/.353/.391 for the Yankees in a key trade-deadline pickup (and would make for a better No. 2 hitter than Jeter right now). The bullpen was once again key, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Can the Yankees overcome Seattle and Detroit/Kansas City to win a wild card? I still don't see it. They host the Royals this weekend; maybe they don't need a sweep but a sweep would be nice. After that the schedule doesn't get much easier with Tampa, Baltimore, Tampa again, Toronto and Baltimore. Only a season-ending trip to Fenway looks easy. We finally get a season-ending series between the two rivals in the one year it may not matter.

5. Robinson Cano.

Well, everyone did say he wouldn't get the same attention playing for the Mariners. That, they were right about. He had his first four-RBI game with Seattle, raising his season line to a pretty nice .322/.388/.463. He's second in the AL in OBP, 10th in OPS, fifth among position players in WAR. He's on the short list of American League MVP candidates.

What's wrong with Ryan Braun?

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
From Buster Olney's blog today:
Some evaluators have been stunned in recent weeks by how much Ryan Braun has struggled against fastballs. "Even in situations when he knows it's coming -- everybody knows it's coming -- he can't get to it," one scout said. "It's incredible."

Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Info looked at the recent data, and the numbers reflect what the scouts are seeing:

A) Through Aug. 12, 38 of his 82 strikeouts (46 percent) have come via the fastball. In the past three weeks, a full two-thirds have come against fastballs (12 of 18).
B) Braun hit .311 against fastballs on the outer half through Aug. 12, and has hit just .083 against those pitches since (one hit in 12 at-bats, with seven strikeouts).
C) Braun has hit .213 against all pitches 93-plus mph in the second half, compared to .295 in the first half.

I know what you're thinking: Steroids! Or lack of them. After all, this is two straight seasons now where Braun's numbers have dipped below his career norms and he's only 30. I have my doubts that's the case. Remember, after testing positive for PEDs in the 2011 postseason, Braun led the National League with 41 home runs in 2012. Yes, that doesn't really tell us whether he was taking anything or not taking anything or simply eating a lot of spinach, but he hasn't tested positive again.

Braun's struggles in recent weeks are probably related to the nerve issue in his thumb, apparently the same injury that bothered him last year. "It is ongoing," manager Ron Roenicke told MLB.com on Tuesday. "There's times when he feels really good. You can tell it in batting practice, then he usually takes it into ballgames. But there's times where it's just sore and the swings aren't what he's used to."

Aside from the thumb injury, there are some other concerns with Braun's production. His chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone is 39 percent, 11 percent higher than last year and well above his career norms of around 31 percent. As a result, his walk rate is his lowest since 2008, down more than 4 percent from last year. Braun has never been the most patient of hitters; you'd think the thumb injury would perhaps create more discipline but instead it seems to have created more of a free-swinger. Of course, some hitters start expanding the strike zone as their bat speed declines, "cheating" on fastballs (see Albert Pujols). Again, however, is the bat slow because of the injury or his age?

Pitchers, of course, have been quick to adapt. Braun is seeing more fastballs in general and more inside pitches. And as Justin and Buster's scout pointed out, he's not hitting that inside heat.

As for the steroids, when Braun does hit a fly ball, he still has the power. Check his percentage of fly balls that have resulted in home runs through the years:

2014: 18.0 percent
2013: 17.6 percent
2012: 22.2 percent
2011: 18.9 percent
2010: 14.1 percent

He's just hitting a lot of fewer fly balls, 7 percent fewer than his career average. For now, I'm chalking this up to the thumb injury. (Here's a more in-depth look at how the nerve issue could be affecting Braun's hitting from Stuart Wallace of Beyond the Box Score.)

As for the Brewers, with Braun struggling and Carlos Gomez out another week or so, it's getting desperate in Milwaukee. They've lost eight in a row and are suddenly three games back of the Cardinals.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
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.
Here are the National League leaders in Wins Above Replacement, via Baseball-Reference.com:

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.)video
So you may have seen Brewers manager Ron Roenicke go off on umpire Mark Ripperger after the Brewers' 3-2 loss to the Padres on Wednesday. Roenicke said the Brewers have had Ripperger before "and he is terrible behind home plate" and admitted he probably should have been tossed from the game in the second inning. Roenicke was ejected after Rene Rivera tied the game with a home run in the ninth.

"He calls pitches that aren't even close," Roenicke said. "The catcher sets up six inches off the plate and he calls them strikes."

What apparently upset Roenicke were the first two pitches to Rivera from Francisco Rodriguez -- both significantly outside, both called balls, setting up a 2-0 fastball that Rodriguez threw down the middle. Roenicke's issue, I suppose, was that those pitches were called strikes earlier in the game.

According to our data at ESPN Stats & Information, Ripperger is actually pretty good at calling strikes -- with a "correct call" percentage of 89.5 on the season, he ranks above the overall average of 88.4. He didn't have his best game on Wednesday, with a correct call rate of 87.2 percent, although I doubt Roenicke could determine such a small number sitting on the bench. Here's the Brooks Baseball plot of Ripperger's called strikes.

Doesn't look like that bad of a game.

I'd add two things:

--Even if Ripperger had made some bad calls earlier, two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, although the one thing players and managers want from an umpire is consistency.

--If there's one team that shouldn't complain about the strike zone, it's probably the Brewers. Thanks to the pitch-framing abilities of Jonathan Lucroy (and backup Martin Maldonado, who is also very good), the Brewers probably benefit from more pitches out of the strike zone called strikes than any other team.

OK, let's go to the data on that one. According to the Baseball Savant web site, which parses PITCHf/x data, the Brewers are fifth in the majors in pitches out of the strike zone that are called strikes -- behind the Padres, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.

In other words, Roenicke better not hope we get robot umps while he still has Lucroy behind the plate. In the end, the Brewers are going to catch more breaks from the umps than their opponents.

Chalk this one up to a manager overreacting after a tough loss.
With the pennant races heating up, I'm thinking of trying this each morning the rest of the season: Sort of a quick-hitting look at some key results from the previous night and what may mean or not mean. Let's see how it goes.

1. Oakland's rotation isn't carrying the A's.

Scott Kazmir got bombed on Sunday night (10 hits and seven runs), although the A's still won the series from the Angels, winning two of three and getting better results from Sonny Gray on Friday and Jon Lester on Saturday. Jeff Samardzija made his first start for the A's on July 6 and Billy Beane later added Jon Lester; nonetheless, the A's are just 22-20 since Samardzija's debut. Don't point fingers just at the offense; the rotation has a 4.00 ERA since then, 17th in the majors and just ninth in the American League. The offense, meanwhile, is fourth in the AL in runs scored since July 6, averaging 4.38 runs per game. True, that's down from 5.0 runs per game through July 5, but good enough if the starting pitching was performing better.

2. Brewers' rotation depth is paying off.

Who would have thought that it would be Milwaukee's depth in the rotation compared to St. Louis' that could pay off in the long run? Mike Fiers allowed two hits and two runs in seven innings in a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh and is 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA in four starts filling in for Matt Garza. His success isn't unprecedented; remember, he had a solid rookie season in 2012 before collapsing last year. But he had pitched well in Triple-A (2.55 ERA, great peripherals), suggesting he had turned things around. Analysts have had a hard time believing in him due to his lack of fastball velocity but he keep hitters off-balance and has a deceptive delivery. Rookie Jimmy Nelson has been solid in his eight starts (4.15) as well. Meanwhile ...

3. Cardinals may have to reconsider Justin Masterson's rotation slot.

Masterson had another bad start for St. Louis, lasting just three innings in a 7-1 loss to Philly. He's 2-2 with a 7.53 in five starts with the Cardinals (and John Lackey hasn't been great either, with a 5.40 ERA). Among 124 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Masterson is 124th in OBP allowed -- .388. Considering that Adam Wainwright's second-half ERA has risen from 1.83 to 4.70, with a corresponding decline in strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.26 to 1.76, and it's amazing the Cardinals remain just 1.5 games behind the Brewers. The Cardinals may have to stick with Masterson, as there isn't a clear option to replace him unless they want to give Carlos Martinez another shot (unlikely) or rookie Marco Gonzalez, who struggled with his control in three earlier starts.

4. The Nationals are the best team in baseball right now.

I had Washington No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings, over the A's and Angels (who lost ace Garrett Richards for the season). They pounded the Giants 14-6 to win that series. Earlier in the week, they completed a stretch of five walk-off wins in six games and they're 17-5 since Aug. 2. All season, we've been waiting for the Nationals to click; they're finally clicking. If there's minor cause for concern, it's the continued inconsistency of Stephen Strasburg. Coming off back-to-back one-run outings, the Giants knocked him out after four innings and five runs. If you're Matt Williams, how do you line up your playoff rotation? I have to think Strasburg, at best, goes after Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann.

5. The Yankees aren't dead yet.

Brian McCann delivered a dramatic two-out, full-count, pinch-hit three-run homer in the 10th inning to give the Yankees their second walk-off win in three days and their fourth win in a row. The Yankees continue to play above .500 ball despite getting outscored; they're minus-34 runs on the season and they're 12-9 in August while getting outscored 81-77. They have a chance to become the first team ever to finish above .500 in consecutive seasons while getting outscored both years. We can analyze that any number of ways, but the Yankees keep finding ways to win; in shorthand, they win the close games (21-16 in one-run games) and lose the blowouts (10-18 in games decided by five or more runs). This week will be interesting: A seven-game road trip against playoff contenders Kansas City (one game), Detroit (three) and Toronto (three). The playoff odds for the Yankees remain slim -- 8.8 percent to win the division, just 3.3 to win the wild card, so the analytics suggest their best path to the postseason is a Baltimore collapse.

I don't see that happening, but we've all learned never to count out the Yankees when the lineup card suggests they're not very good.

Mike Morse hit a foul ball in Thursday's game in Milwaukee and then this happened: Many arms reach up for the ball, there's a mad scramble, teenagers come crashing down the aisle ... but check out who ends up with the ball.
I admit this one kind of snuck up on me: Wily Peralta became the majors' first 14-game winner in the Brewers' 3-1 victory over the Giants on Thursday (Adam Wainwright later matched him). Peralta has won his past five starts and has pitched well in that span -- 1.64 ERA, .203 average allowed. He fanned a season-high nine batters against the Giants, inducing a season-high 15 swings-and-misses and 25 swings on pitches outside the strike zone.

It seems like a good time for a little Q&A about Peralta.

Who is Wily Peralta?

Signed way back in 2005, we heard about Peralta and his monster fastball for years and the big-boned right-hander finally arrived last year for his first full season, pitching with mixed results (11-15, 4.37 ERA, 183.1 IP, 187 H, 73 BB, 129 SO). The strikeout rate was a little disappointing for a guy who averaged 94.8 mph with his fastball and touched 99, but he made all 32 starts and showed signs that he could develop into a durable middle-of-the-rotation workhorse. He's now 14-6 with a 3.42 ERA in 2014.

How come his strikeout rate is mediocre?
Peralta has 108 K's in 144.2 innings, with a strikeout rate of 17.8 percent that ranks 64th among 92 qualified starters. His average fastball velocity of 95.6 mph is tied for third among starters with Nathan Eovaldi of the Marlins, behind only Yordano Ventura and Garrett Richards. So why not more strikeouts? Well, for starters, strikeouts more often come from breaking balls or changeups, not fastballs. Peralta is a fastball/slider guy with a changeup he throws about 5 percent of the time. One reason his K rate isn't higher is that along with his upper 90s four-seam fastball he throws a hard two-seam sinking fastball, a pitch that doesn't necessarily register a lot of strikeouts but does generate groundballs. He's seventh among starters with his 56.5 percent groundball rate.

Against the Giants, he got five strikeouts with his slider, showing good downward tilt. That's the closest thing he has to a wipeout pitch.

Is he better than his peripherals suggest?
His FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching -- is 4.19, in part because the strikeout rate isn't higher. But he does make up for that with that excellent groundball rate. He has held batters to a .197 average with runners in scoring position compared to .258 overall, however, so it's possible that number could eventually fall in line with his overall hit rate and his left on base percentage decreases and his runs allowed increases. On the other hand, his rate of home runs per fly ball is fourth-worst among starters, which could be a product of bad luck and pitching in Milwaukee, or a product of pitching up in the zone with his four-seamer. In short: I guess we don't really know if he's better than his peripherals, as we see numbers in both directions. That makes Peralta hard to evaluate simply on the numbers: He's a groundball pitcher who also gives up home runs.

But does he know how to win?
I heard one analyst on Thursday describing Wainwright as a "guy who knows how to win." Well, Wainwright wins a lot of games because he's been a terrific pitcher who pitches deep into games and has a good team supporting him.

As for Peralta and his 14 wins, it comes down to some decent pitching and good fortune.

The old definition of a quality start -- at least six innings and three runs or fewer -- doesn't necessarily hold up as well in this day of lower scoring. I also like to look at we'll call a Felix, in honor of Felix Hernandez's record-setting stretch of such starts: Seven innings or more and two runs or less.

Here's how often major league pitchers get wins in those situations this season:

6+ innings, 3 runs: 33 percent
7+ innings, 2 runs or fewer: 65 percent

Peralta has thrown five "Felixes" this year -- and won four of those. He's won two of the three games where he pitched at least six innings and allowed exactly three runs. But where he's been most fortunate is when he hasn't had a good game: He's won three times when allowing four runs; only Madison Bumgarner and Hiroki Kuroda can match that total.

So does Peralta know how to win? I think you already know the answer to that. He's a young pitcher having a good year with some good luck and it's certainly fun to see him name atop the leaderboard. At least we've come a long way in recent years to understand that just because he's leading the league in wins he's not necessarily a Cy Young contender.

The Giants and Brewers are playing an interesting and important series in Milwaukee. The perception, I suppose, is that both teams are scuffling after playing their best baseball early in the season, and there's definitely truth to that perception. The Giants led the NL West by 9½ games back on June 8 but had gone 19-31 since then entering Wednesday's game. The Brewers peaked with a 20-7 start, meaning they've played under .500 since the end of April. Further, both teams have been hit by rotation injuries: As expected, the Giants announced Matt Cain would undergo season-ending surgery for bone chips; Matt Garza just landed on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

The Brewers won the opening game of the series, setting up a Ryan Vogelsong-Yovani Gallardo matchup for the second game. On paper and computer screens, the matchup favored the Brewers as Vogelsong, while he's had a nice comeback from a disastrous 2013 campaign, has a sizable home/road split with the road numbers including a 4.70 ERA and eight of the nine home runs he's allowed. Gallardo, meanwhile, was coming off two straight scoreless starts.

Of course, this is baseball, so that's not the way it worked out. Some random notes and thoughts on the Giants' 7-4 victory …

  • Arguably the game's biggest hit came in the top of the first in the form of Michael Morse's two-out RBI single on a broken-bat grounder up the middle that gave the Giants a 3-0 lead. The Brewers had a shift on but the ball still scooted just past second baseman Scooter Gennett. Morse was a key reason the Giants were so hot early on, as he hit .295/.351/.574 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs through May. He has just four homers since, however, and if he's not hitting home runs, he's not providing a whole lot of value considering his lack of range in left field. The Giants were actually fifth in the majors with 63 home runs the first two months but rank 28th since June 1. More power from Morse will be helpful in catching the Dodgers.
  • Remember when Gallardo had that great start against the Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the 2011 Division Series? He went eight innings that day, allowed one run and struck out nine. One of his best weapons that day was a big curve that he threw 21 times. In 2011, opponents hit .200 against Gallardo's curve, and the pitch looked like it would develop into a huge weapon for him -- he had a strikeout rate of 42 percent with the pitch that year. But he lost some feel for the pitch the past couple years, and it hasn't been quite as effective. This year, that strikeout rate with the curve is down to 29 percent, although opponents are hitting just .198 against it. He still throws the pitch but uses it more often earlier in the count as a change of pace from his four-seamer and two-seam sinker (a pitch he rarely used back in 2011). He didn't have a great game on this night, but he has been a solid starter all season.
  • [+] EnlargePablo Sandoval
    AP Photo/Morry GashSomebody is going to want to sign Pablo Sandoval to add the big guy's big swing this winter.

  • Pablo Sandoval had a big game, going 3-for-5 with a double and a two-run homer in the eighth, adding another diving stop in the field. Mark Simon just wrote about Sandoval's terrific defense in July. Sandoval is a free agent, and it makes you think: Don't the Giants have to sign this guy? Yes, there are flaws in his game and you're always going to worry about the weight, but -- while we've quit dreaming on him repeating that monster .330/.387/.556 season in 2009 -- he's settled into a solid, consistent player. I suspect there will be a lot of interest in him: The Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels and Royals are among the teams likely to be in the market for a third baseman. You don't want to give him six years, but, considering he'll be only 28, a three- or four-year deal seems like a reasonable risk.
  • The Brewers wanted to add a right-handed reliever at the trade deadline, and general manager Doug Melvin said they tried to get Joaquin Benoit from the Padres, and Wednesday's game revealed their lack of a top righty setup guy in front of Francisco Rodriguez, as Brandon Kintzler entered in the eighth inning with a 4-3 deficit and gave up three hits. Sandoval then hit his home run off Tom Gorzelanny. Kintzler has allowed a .307 average; among 164 relievers with at least 30 innings pitched, that ranks 162nd.
  • Brandon Belt had an awful game, going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts. You might remember I predicted that he would contend for the NL batting crown, buying into his scorching-hot second half of last season. OK, so he's had some injuries. If he's the guy hitting behind Buster Posey and Sandoval, he's going to be a key RBI guy. Time to hit.
  • One reason Bruce Bochy is one of the best managers in the game: When Angel Pagan went down, the Giants lacked an obvious choice for a leadoff hitter. Eventually, Bochy settled on Hunter Pence. Instead of trying to find a guy who looks like a leadoff hitter -- see the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez and B.J. Upton -- Bochy simply put a good hitter there. By doing so, Bochy is giving his best hitter an extra plate appearance. I'm sure when Pagan returns -- he had a rehab start with Fresno on Wednesday and may be in the lineup on Thursday -- he'll be back in the leadoff spot, but Bochy would be wise to keep Pence at the top. A lineup that goes Pagan, Pence, Posey, Sandoval, Belt and Morse isn't too bad in this day and age.
  • Jonathan Lucroy, still in the MVP hunt. In fact, if Andrew McCutchen's rib injury keeps him out several weeks, Lucroy may end up as the leading position player candidate ahead of Cutch, Troy Tulowitzki (also injured) and Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins likely not playoff contenders by September).

Let's look at some of the fallout from the trade deadline -- things people said -- and then make some predictions for what happens the rest of the way.

1. The acquisition of Jon Lester makes the Oakland A's the favorite in the AL West.

Prediction: The A's win the West.

The trade for Lester didn't actually upgrade the A's odds to beat the Los Angeles Angels all that much -- using player projection totals and remaining schedule, Baseball Prospectus says the trade increased Oakland's chances a mere 2 percent. The Angels won on Sunday, thanks to a five-run first inning, while the A's were shut down by James Shields in a 4-2 loss to the Royals, so Oakland's lead is one game. Still, I like Oakland's rotation depth. C.J. Wilson's return on Saturday after missing a month was a disaster as he got knocked out in the second inning, Tyler Skaggs just landed on the DL with a shoulder issue and you wonder how the Angels' rotation will hold up after Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver.

2. With John Lackey and Justin Masterson, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central.

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

The Cardinals remain the favorite, according to our playoffs odds, and Lackey pitched seven strong innings on Sunday to win his Cardinals debut, but I'm going with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here's the thing about Lackey and Masterson: The Cardinals' rotation was pretty good before the trades; Lackey and Masterson may be upgrades over what Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez would have done the rest of the season, making the trades important, but they aren't necessarily an improvement over what the Cardinals had received so far from their various starters in those slots. The Cardinals are eighth in the majors with a 3.47 rotation ERA, and I don't expect them to do much better than that moving forward.

The St. Louis offense, meanwhile, is still next to last in the NL in runs scored. In what should be a three-team race down to the wire, the Pirates are my pick. One major reason: Francisco Liriano. In four starts since coming off the DL, he has a 1.96 ERA. He's looking more like the guy who was so good last year. If they can get Gerrit Cole back from his lat strain -- he was scratched from his Saturday start and instead threw a bullpen session -- even better. Note: If the injury to Andrew McCutchen's side that forced him out of Sunday's game proves serious, all bets are off.

3. Even with David Price, Max Scherzer is still the Detroit Tigers' ace.

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

This may be most important decision Brad Ausmus has to make all postseason: Which guy do you line up for two potential starts in the first round? The past two years against the A's, it has been Justin Verlander, and he rewarded Jim Leyland with two dominant efforts. But it won't be Verlander this year. My bet is on Price, who has been more consistent this season than Scherzer and has a 2.03 ERA over his past two starts. The Tigers may play the Orioles and the O's have an OPS of .732 against righties and .695 against lefties, another reason to slot Price in the first game.

4. The Los Angeles Dodgers made a mistake by not getting Lester or Price.

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

Josh Beckett didn't do anything to boost the confidence of Dodgers fans with another poor effort on Sunday; he got knocked out after scuffling through 94 pitches in four-plus innings. In three starts since the All-Star break, he has gone 3.2, 4.1 and 4 innings, respectively. Dan Haren has been even worse, with a 10.03 ERA over his past five starts.

Still, I agree with the decision to hold on to Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. At some point, you need to infuse some youth, and with Pederson heating up again at Triple-A, he may be in the Dodgers' outfield sooner rather than later. The Dodgers will win the West thanks to the best top three in the NL in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

5. The Baltimore Orioles should have added a starting pitcher.

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

Maybe the Orioles lack an ace in the mold of Price or Lester, but good luck getting those guys from a division rival. Plus, there's this: Since June 9, the Orioles have the third-best ERA in the majors and second-best rotation ERA in the American League (3.05). Chris Tillman outdueled Hisashi Iwakuma 1-0 on Sunday in the latest strong effort from a Baltimore starter.

The question: Is there some smoke and mirrors going on here? Since June 9, Orioles starters are 29th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings and 28th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That does make you wonder; on the other hand, the Orioles are a very good defensive teams (fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved) so they do turn more batted balls into outs than most teams. The O's may like to have an ace for the postseason, but they can get there without one.

6. The Seattle Mariners are better after acquiring some bats.

Prediction: The Mariners still don't have enough offense to win the wild card.

Since the All-Star break they've allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors -- 2.88. And they're 6-10. They lost 2-1 on Friday and 1-0 on Sunday. Kendrys Morales has looked terrible since coming over from the Twins, where he also looked terrible. Austin Jackson was a much-needed move for center field, but he and Chris Denorfia aren't game-changers on offense, even above and beyond what the Mariners had. And they can't count on Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma giving up just one or two runs every time out.

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

Prediction: The Washington Nationals win the NL East ... and Strasburg starts Game 1 of the playoffs.

Wait, did somebody write that about Strasburg? He sure looked like one on Sunday, striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves lost their sixth in a row, creating a 3.5-game lead for Washington, its biggest since holding a 3.5-game on June 1.

8. The San Francisco Giants should have picked up a second baseman.

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

Even with a nine-run outburst on Sunday, over the past month the Giants are hitting .231/.290/.342, the second-lowest OPS in the majors (ahead of only the Mariners). A second baseman isn't going to cure this, but Brandon Belt returned on Saturday and that should help. Buster Posey may be heating up, hitting .352 over the past two weeks and that will help. Brian Sabean has made waiver pickups before, so don't count him from getting somebody -- maybe a guy like Luis Valbuena from the Chicago Cubs. As the offense improves, the Giants should solidify their place in the wild-card standings (playing the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks will help a lot also).

9. The Cleveland Indians punted the season in trading Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

The Indians won their third in a row on Sunday on Michael Brantley's 12th-inning home run, and they're just three games back for the second wild card. I'm not predicting them to win it (I'll go with the Toronto Blue Jays), but I'm predicting them to hang in there.

10. The A's are now World Series favorites.

Prediction: OK, I'll go with that. Aren't the A's overdue for some October magic?

So, my post-deadline picks:

AL wild card: Angels over Blue Jays
NL wild card: Giants over Brewers

ALDS: Tigers over Orioles
ALDS: A's over Angels

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

ALCS: A's over Tigers
NLCS: Dodgers over Nationals

World Series: A's over Dodgers ... Jon Lester wins Game 7 and then signs a $175 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Sam Fuld wins World Series MVP honors. Billy Beane announces retirement and says, "I was never really into this sabermetrics stuff anyway."

Brewers bomb Wainwright, and win again

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2

One day after the trade deadline, St. Louis trailed Milwaukee by two games in the ever-competitive National League Central division. The Cardinals, of course, were the preseason favorites in the Central, after advancing all the way to the World Series last October. The Brewers, however, grabbed first place on April 5, and they have surprised most observers by remaining in first ever since. OK, maybe I'm the only observer who is baffled by Milwaukee's success, but that counts for something, right?

Anyway, the Cardinals have tied for the Central lead on a couple of occasions, most recently on July 20, but they've never been able to overtake Milwaukee completely. This, of course, was an unacceptable situation in the eyes of St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, who went to work at the trade deadline, acquiring pitchers John Lackey and Justin Masterson to shore up a rotation that has been OK but has suffered somewhat due to Michael Wacha's bum shoulder.

The Brewers countered with a deadline deal that essentially bet on Gerardo Parra returning to form (which was not a bad bet), but after the flurry of deadline trade activity, St. Louis saw its playoff odds increase more than any team in baseball. These teams have been fighting all season, and there's every reason to believe they will continue that fight over the last two months of the season (with the Pirates trying to get in on the action, as well).

Right on cue, the Cards and Brew Crew began a pivotal three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night. With one of the NL's best, Adam Wainwright, on the mound and an improved roster, it was only a matter of time before the Cardinals began their march to the division title, right?

Not so fast, my friend. With a 7-4 win before a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium, the Brewers made a statement Friday. No, the public relations department didn't literally issue a statement, but Milwaukee did serve notice on the Cardinals that they aren't planning to go away any time soon.

Milwaukee scored early and often against Wainwright, eventually driving him from the game with a four-run sixth that blew the game wide open. Up to this point in the season, Wainwright has been among the contenders for best pitcher in the world (Non-Clayton Kershaw Divison). After giving up seven runs, nine hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings Friday, however, Wainwright saw his ERA jump from 1.92 to 2.26, and he permitted the Brewers to further increase their lead in the division.

On the other side of the ledger, Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta came into Friday's contest with a 12-6 record and an ERA of 3.56. While he wasn't at his best, Peralta pitched an effective 6 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and five hits to win his 13th game, which ties for the National League lead (along with Wainwright and Kershaw, appropriately enough).

A Brewers offense that is second in the National League in runs scored didn't miss a beat, either. Aramis Ramirez was 3-for-5 with a double, homer (his 13th of the season) and two RBIs. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy continued to mash the baseball, with two hits, including a bases-clearing double that drove in three runs and sent Wainwright to the showers in the sixth inning. Ryan Braun had two doubles and two RBIs, as well. If you haven't noticed, these guys can hit.

In the end, St. Louis remains a solid bet to win the NL Central. The pitching should be slightly better the rest of the way, after the trade-deadline acquisitions of Lackey and Masterson. The offense probably will improve as well, thanks to the subtraction of Allen Craig, who has been simply dismal this season, hitting a pathetic .237/.291/.346 with seven homers (.286 wOBA and 81 wRC+; that's bad). It will be interesting to watch young Oscar Taveras as he gets regular playing time for the first time as a big leaguer. If nothing else, he surely won't be worse than Craig has been.

Don't bet against these Brewers, though. I keep waiting for them to falter, but they hit the ball hard, they score runs and they keep defying expectations. That's precisely why we love baseball. With nine more games still to be played between these teams, you should dig in: This could be a fun couple of months in the National League Central.

(And don't forget about the Pirates!)

Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Network.