SweetSpot: San Francisco Giants

video 1. Madison Bumgarner says, "Don't you forget about the Giants."

Strange question from my chat session on Tuesday: "Time to blow up the Giants? Keep Posey, Bumgarner and start over?" I mean ... the Giants are holding one of the wild cards and at five games behind the Dodgers remain in shouting distance of the division title.

Anyway, while Clayton Kershaw has owned all the publicity allowed for left-handers on the West Coast, Bumgarner has quietly put together another Bumgarner season. It seems like he must be 30 years old already, but he just turned 25 earlier this month. He's young enough that if you were to bet on one active pitcher to win 300 games, you'd probably bet on Bumgarner; him or Felix Hernandez, I guess.

[+] EnlargeBumgarner
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMadison Bumgarner mowed down the Rockies with his characteristic pitch efficiency.
All that is a way of getting to Tuesday's game. It may not have been Bumgarner's most impressive performance of his career -- he did, after all, pitch eight shutout innings of three-hit baseball in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series as a 21-year-old rookie -- but it was certainly was the most dominant from a pure statistical point of view. Bumgarner took a perfect game against the Rockies into the eighth inning (with help from a great catch in left field by Gregor Blanco and a close call at first base that the Rockies didn't challenge), ruined when Justin Morneau lined a leadoff double into the right-field corner on a 1-2 curveball. It was actually a pretty good pitch, down below the knees, but Morneau managed to hook it just fair with sort of a half swing.

Bumgarner's final line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K's. Similar to Kershaw's no-hitter against the Rockies in which he struck out 15 with just the one runner reaching via error. Bumgarner's Game Score of 98 is second-best in the majors behind Kershaw's 102; unfortunately for Bumgarner, that's kind of par for the course for him -- just behind Kershaw. Although I'm sure Kershaw wouldn't mind owning Bumgarner's two World Series rings.

Bumgarner threw just 103 pitches against the Rockies, never more than 15 in one inning; that's his trademark, efficiency. He's usually able to pitch to deep into games without running up big pitch counts, although Bruce Bochy has taken the reins off a little this season and Bumgarner should sail past his career high of 208.1 innings in 2012. He was able to dominate the Rockies primarily with his fastball -- 30 two-seamers and 42 four-seamers, 57 of those 72 pitches for strikes. Nothing fancy going on here. It was really pitching at its most basic: Move your fastball around all quadrants of the zone, throwing nothing down the middle, mixing in a few offspeed pitches (although eight of his 13 K's came on fastballs).

While the Dodgers remain the heavy favorite to win the West, the Giants do have six games remaining against their rivals from Southern California. Certainly, the Giants' rotation is in scramble mode with Matt Cain out for the season and Tim Lincecum demoted to the bullpen -- at least for one start -- but one hot stretch by the Giants will make late September very interesting.

2. Alex Gordon: Sleeper MVP candidate.

Gordon had the biggest hit of the night in a night of big hits -- a two-run walk-off home run to give the Royals the 2-1 win over the Twins. Our pal Mark Simon writes that Gordon has the combination of offensive and defensive numbers to warrant MVP consideration.

Realistically, of course, Gordon has no shot. As good as he is in left field, the voters aren't going to give that a lot of emphasis. He ranks 18th in the AL in OBP, 21st in slugging, 19th in runs and 29th in RBIs. As we saw the past two years with Miguel Cabrera, the MVP Award is an offensive award ... although if the Royals make the playoffs, that will certainly help him finish in the top five.

3. Pennant fever slow to catch on in Kansas City and Baltimore.

The Royals and Orioles are in first place and played at home on Tuesday. The Astros outdrew both teams.

4. Javier Baez has a lot of growing to do.

In non-pennant race news, the heralded Cubs rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in the Cubs' 3-0 win over Johnny Cueto (Anthony Rizzo with his 30th home run). Baez has seven home runs in 21 games, but has also struck out an astounding 40 times in 90 plate appearances and already has four four-strikeout games. He's hitting .198 with just four walks. The talent is enormous and he's very young, but there's a chance he's more Dave Kingman in the long run or, as a reader compared on Twitter, a second-base version of the Astros' Chris Carter (which would be a valuable player, just not a huge star).

5. Put the fork in the Blue Jays.

Seven runs in the 11th inning? Ouch. The Jays lost 11-7 to Red Sox (they made it interesting with four runs of their own) to fall to .500. They're now 6.5 out of the second wild card with four teams ahead of them. Too many games, too many teams. The promise of early June -- they led the division by six games on June 6 -- is long gone.
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It's another edition of Rapid Fire ... except this time I ask Eric the questions.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
5:49
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With a little more than a month left in the season and many division races still not settled, it's not too early to talk about what might have been, what might still could be, and what kinda is what we thought it kinda is ... or was ... or whatever. Just within the last week, we've had two new division leaders and a slew of injuries to reshuffle expectations. Did I mention that the waiver wire deadline hasn’t passed yet? Yup, it's a changing landscape, and whoever's doing the painting is keeping the 2014 baseball season a little squiggly.

Feel free to chime in on what you think might happen in the comments section below.

And without further ado -- because if we wait too long, these thoughts might go out of date faster than the Tulowitzki-to-Yankees rumors – on to the best of the SweetSpot Network contributing sites from the past week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Roundup: Jackson Trade, Lessons from Saber Seminar: Ryan P. Morrison examines the D-backs' trade for Brett Jackson and discusses a dozen or so nuggets of cutting-edge sabermetrics wisdom from last weekend's Saber Seminar in Boston. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Jon Shepherd takes the Ice Bucket Challenge: Jon Shepherd, whose family has been impacted by ALS, has his take, but highlights the need to secure more long-term funding beyond episodic viral campaigns. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Should the Cubs Pass on Signing an Ace this Offseason?: As we get closer and closer to the offseason, Joe Aiello wonders whether the Cubs should be looking at a nontraditional route when it comes to building their rotation for next season. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
The Evolution (or Devolution) of the Indians Pitching Staff: Stephanie Liscio takes a humorous month-by-month look at the fans' confidence level in the Tribe's starters. Follow on Twitter: @StephanieLiscio

Don't Give Up on Tomlin: Ryan McCrystal analyzes how Josh Tomlin has been a victim of bad defense and bad luck in recent weeks. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Honoring Todd Helton: The Colorado Rockies retired Todd Helton's jersey number, the first Rockies player afforded such an honor. Richard Bergstrom reminisces on his career.

Rockies Bloggers Panel Recording 8/16/14: It was one of the most anticipated panels of the year, filled with bloggers flying into town to commemorate Todd Helton's retirement and a special guest. Members of Rockies Zingers, Purple Row, Rockies Review and Mile High Sports discuss the Rockies injuries and trainers/coaches along with the potential offseason moves. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers


New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Brian McCann's Crazy Reverse Platoon Split: Brad Vietrogoski attempts to explain the flip-flop of Brian McCann's production against right- and left-handed pitching this season. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

What If: The 1994 World Series: Domenic Lanza looked at how the '94 Fall Classic could have played out if the Yanks and Expos had stayed on track as the best teams in baseball that year. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals walk off via hit-by-pitch for second time this season: Jon Jay helped the Cardinals win their second straight game in their final at-bat Tuesday night when he drew a bases-loaded plunking from Reds reliever J.J. Hoover. The Cardinals hadn’t had a walk-off hit-by-pitch in more than 25 years, but now -- including Greg Garcia back on May 13 -- they’ve had two in 2014. Pip lists all of the walk-off HBPs over the last 25 years. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes

San Francisco Giants, West Coast Bias
Giants pursuing Rusney Castillo: Tim Kennedy delves into the Giants' dealings with Cuban player Rusney Castillo. With the possibility of being a contributor to a major league team in 2014, he could certainly help out a Giants ball club fighting for its life. Follow on Twitter: @giantsbaseball

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Replacements: Brandon Land takes a look at the current roster for the Rangers, and why it's unreasonable to have high expectations in a season so rife with injury. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away

We had two plays at home plate on Wednesday, nearly identical in nature, with completely different outcomes and thus apparently different interpretations of Rule 7.13 (2), or as it's better known, the "Home Plate Collision Rule," aka "The Buster Posey Rule," aka "Baseball Used To Be Much Easier To Understand."

The first play came in the White Sox-Giants matchup. White Sox leading 1-0 in the seventh; the Giants have runners at the corners with one out when this play happened. Gregor Blanco is out by, what, six feet? No doubt he's out, right? The ball beat him, White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers slaps the tag on him. Two outs.

Home plate ump Chris Segal called Blanco out. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy threw his imaginary red flag and the call was eventually overturned. The game was tied, White Sox skipper Robin Ventura was ejected, there was still one out and the Giants went on to score seven runs in the inning. The game arguably turned on that call.

The second play came in the Nationals-Mets game, with the Nationals leading 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Eric Campbell bounced to shortstop Ian Desmond, who threw out Matt den Dekker at the plate, with Wilson Ramos applying the tag. Mets manager Terry Collins appealed the call without success, and Rafael Soriano got the next batter to seal the win for the Nationals.

[+] EnlargeTyler Flowers, Gregor Blanco
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY SportsGregor Blanco was tagged out at home plate -- until the call was overturned five minutes later and he was credited with scoring the Giants' first run.

Like Flowers, Ramos set up in front of the plate, his left foot straddling the foul line. Rule 7.13 (2) reads as such:
Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the Umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.


Both catchers had possession of the ball. The rest of the rule is as murky as the fog that sometimes envelops San Francisco. I'm not sure either baserunner had a clear path, but it's not like either catcher had planted their entire body in front of the plate either. And the rule seems to suggest that if the catcher does have possession of the ball, he can block the pathway of the runner anyway.

Yet two similar plays, two different rulings. In the White Sox-Giants game, it took 4 minutes, 55 seconds to finally overturn the call. Sounds like a fun time. Ventura understandably went nuts, with his best Lou Pinella reaction.

"It's a vague rule and it obviously went against us today," Ventura said. "You look at the spirit of the rule of what they're trying to do and what it's actually doing, and it's a joke."

Ventura isn't the first one to call the rule a joke. Just do a Google search. On Twitter, Roberto Guerrero replied to me, "Saw it live and as a Giants fan ... even I was shocked! No bueno."

Not good, indeed. We're over two-thirds of the way into the season and the umpires, the review crews in New York, the players, the managers and us fans have no idea how to view these plays at the plate.

It's a joke. But nobody is laughing.

Remember, the rule was created to eliminate home plate collisions -- the impetus being the Scott Cousins-Posey collision in May of 2011. Watch that play again. Posey wasn't sitting in front of the plate; Cousins went out of his way to lower his shoulder and plow through Posey. The first part of rule 7.13 does prevent runners from doing that; that's a good thing.

The rule could have stopped there; just make the rule, as in college baseball, that runners have to slide. Maybe that gives the advantage to the catcher, but if the idea to prevent collisions and injuries, that's the trade-off.

End of issue? Not necessarily. Because you don't want to allow situations like this one, the most famous home plate collision in history: Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. Fosse was standing several feet down the third-base line as he waited for the throw. Rose had nowhere to go. We want to prevent catchers from doing that. (To be fair, that kind of play, with the catcher so obviously blocking the path of the runner even without possession of the ball, was fairly standard practice for catchers in the 1970s and '80s but has mostly died away in the past 20 years.)

Is there a solution? Or do we just throw up our arms and admit it's always going to be a gray area, like charging in basketball or holding in football?

But it seems like there's a pretty clear way to sort all this out: (A) the runner has to slide and (B) the catcher has to set up in front of the plate, but if in receiving the throw his momentum takes his foot into the runner's path, that's OK. You have to allow a catcher to make a play without forcing him to be Baryshnikov. Of course, I think I just wrote rule 7.13 (2). So why was Blanco called safe?

It is a mess. We're stuck with five-minute delays, controversial decisions and important games being decided in ways that make nobody happy.

Just wait until this happens in the postseason.


We lost a great, incredibly talented actor and comedian when Robin Williams died at age 63 Monday.


In addition to his skills at making us laugh (and cry), Williams was a tremendous baseball fan. He was particularly passionate about his Giants. I remember him on the field talking to reporters before Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. I’ve long since lost my notes from that night, but here’s a notebook item from MLB.com’s Josh Rawitch.


“When they played in Candlestick, where they used to lose balls in the fog, I went to a couple games,” Williams said. “And a lot of times you’d lose players too. You had nipples the moment you walked into the stadium. It was slightly cold.”

[+] EnlargeRobin Williams
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsRobin Williams got Giants fans revved up during the 2010 NLDS.


Williams also fired up fans before an NLDS series in 2010 by mocking his “Good Morning, Vietnam” role and shouting, “Good evening, SAN FRANCISCO!!!!” It worked. Tim Lincecum shut out Atlanta and struck out 14. Williams congratulated him after the game.


John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle remembers another Williams improv at Yankees Stadium before the 2003 World Series.


The baseball connection for which Williams is most famous, however, is the scene in “Good Will Hunting” in which he talks to Matt Damon about the night he met his wife -- Oct. 21, 1975. How does he remember the date? Simple. It was the night of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.


Williams tells Damon he and his friends slept on the sidewalk the night before to get tickets to the game.


“Day of the game,” he says, “I was sitting in a bar, waiting for the game to start, and in walks this girl. Oh, it was an amazing game, though. Bottom of the eighth, Carbo ties it up at 6-6. It went to 12. Bottom of the 12th, in stepped Carlton Fisk, Old Pudge. He steps up to the plate, you know, and he’s got that weird stance ... And bam! He clocks it! High fly ball down the left-field line! Thirty-five thousand people on their feet, yelling at the ball, but that’s not because of Fisk. He’s waving at the ball like a madman. He’s going, ‘Get over! Get over! Get over!!!’ And then it hits the foul pole! Oh, he goes apes---, and 35,000 fans, you know, they charge the field, you know?”


Excited, Damon asks whether Williams stormed the field too. Williams tells him no -- he didn’t go to the game. Damon is incredulous. He had a ticket to the greatest game in Red Sox history. Why didn’t he go?


Because, Williams says, a woman walked into the bar, and he knew in that instant she was the one for him. “And she was a stunner!” So he slid the ticket across the table and told his friends, “Sorry guys, I gotta see about a girl.”


Damon can’t believe it. He asks Williams whether he is kidding.


“No, I’m not kidding you, Will,” Williams says. “That’s why I’m not talking right now about some girl I saw at a bar 20 years ago and how I always regretted not going over and talking to her. I don’t regret the 18 years I was married to Nancy. I don’t regret the six years I had to give up counseling when she got sick. And I don’t regret the last years when she got really sick. And I sure as hell don’t regret missing the damn game.”


There is a pause as Damon thinks this over, understanding it all. And then, Damon says, “Wow. Woulda been nice to catch that game, though.”


“I didn’t know Pudge was gonna hit a homer.”


Rest in peace, Robin. You will be missed.



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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

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

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

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


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

1. Clayton Kershaw

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

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

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

4. Chris Sale

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

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price

SportsNation

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

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,346)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Player of Month: Pablo Sandoval

August, 4, 2014
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You may recall that we recently pointed out San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval's outstanding defensive prowess this season.

As it turned out, much of that success came in July.

Sandoval was a near-unanimous selection by our 10-voter panel for our Defensive Player of the Month award for July. He received nine of the possible 10 votes.



Sandoval finished the month tied with Andrelton Simmons and Alexi Amarista for the major league lead with eight defensive runs saved. Per video review by Baseball Info Solutions, he had 19 good gielding plays (think plays that would earn a "Web Gem nominee") and only one defensive misplay and error (plays that have a negative consequence, whether scored an error or not).

The latter is a remarkable stat. The 19 good fielding plays were seven more than anyone else at the position, and to do that while making only one misplay is amazing.

For comparison's sake, here are how some of the game's other top defenders at the hot corner fared for July:
  • Nolan Arenado: 12 good fielding plays, 5 defensive misplays and errors.
  • Adrian Beltre: 9 good fielding plays, 6 defensive misplays and errors.
  • Josh Donaldson: 7 good fielding plays, 4 defensive misplays and errors.
  • David Wright: 6 good fielding plays, 3 defensive misplays and errors.




In fairness, a number of other good players had very good defensive months. Here are two others we haven’t shone the spotlight on much this season.

Jackie Bradley Jr, Red Sox CF
Bradley edged out Simmons for second place by having the best month of any outfielder. He had seven defensive runs saved in July, which tied for the most among outfielders. He also had six good fielding plays and only three defensive misplays and errors.

Bradley has inched his way near the top of the defensive runs saved leaderboard for center fielders and could be a strong candidate for a Gold Glove Award. His 15 defensive runs saved rank third at the position, second in the American League behind Jarrod Dyson's 16.

He is also beloved by the other primary defensive metric, UZR, which rates him third highest in the outfield in the majors, trailing only Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward.

Alexi Amarista, Padres
Though Amarista placed sixth in our voting, we felt his play merited mention. As noted, he tied Simmons (who placed third in our voting) and Sandoval for most defensive runs saved this month.

Amarista spent much of the month filling in at shortstop for injured teammate Everth Cabrera. Amarista entered this season with only 160 innings played at that position, but in 220 innings in 2014 he has eight defensive runs saved.

Amarista excels at two things, one of which is his conversion rate on turning double plays: He's at 68 percent (17 converted in 25 opportunities when he either fielded a ball or was a relay man in a double-play situation).

The other is that he does a nice job of covering ground. The Padres allowed opponents to reach base safely on only 20 percent of ground balls hit to the left of second base in July, the lowest rate in the majors by far (next best were the Brewers and Giants at 23 percent).

From April to June, the Padres ranked 13th, with a 28 percent rate.

Major League Baseball doesn't give a Gold Glove to utility players, but Amarista has strong qualifications (he could win a Fielding Bible award, which is voted on by Baseball Info Solutions and others, including this author, at season's end). He also has positive defensive runs saved totals this season at third base and center field.

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."
video
All I can say is I hope we get a Tigers-A's postseason series. What a great deadline day, full of intrigue, interesting trades, trades to discuss and argue about, happy fans and dejected fans. The sight of Austin Jackson being pulled from center field in the middle of a game sums up the trade deadline: Anything can happen. We just had two of the best left-handers in the game traded in David Price and Jon Lester -- from two teams that were in the playoffs a year ago. Last year's World Series champ traded two starters from last year's rotation, on top of trading Jake Peavy last week.

Usually, I say the impact of the trade deadline is overhyped and overrated. Not this year.

OK, some winners and losers of this year's trade deadline ...

WINNERS

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWith the acquisition of left-hander David Price, the Tigers now have three Cy Young winners in their starting rotation.
Detroit Tigers: With Price, the Tigers now have a rotation with three Cy Young winners, plus they were last year's American League Central champs. Heck, Justin Verlander is clearly the fifth-best starter on the Tigers at the moment. Yes, Detroit is on the hook for whatever Price will earn in arbitration for next year -- $19-20 million or so -- but I don't think Tigers owner Mike Ilitch cares too much about that. The Tigers get an ace starter for Austin Jackson (free agent after 2015), midrotation lefty Drew Smyly (3.77 ERA) and a minor league shortstop. I'll take that deal. Rajai Davis can slide over to center field, and while the outfield defense will be poor with Torii Hunter and J.D. Martinez in the outfield corners, you can run out a playoff rotation of Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Verlander (or Rick Porcello). The Tigers will be in the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. This may be the year.

Oakland Athletics: I love the Lester trade like I loved Edgar Martinez driving the ball into the right-field corner or Ken Griffey Jr. turning on a 2-0 fastball. It's a beautiful thing Billy Beane pulled off. There is a huge premium to winning the division and avoiding what Joe Sheehan labels the Coin Flip Game, and Lester gives the A's a better chance of doing that, especially when factoring in Jason Hammel's struggles since coming over from the Cubs, and Jesse Chavez hitting a wall as he soars past his professional high in innings pitched. Can the A's replace Yoenis Cespedes' production? Not quite, but the offense doesn't take a huge hit with a Jonny Gomes-Sam Fuld platoon, the two other players the A's acquired Thursday:

Cespedes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .262/.347/.492
Gomes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .264/.370/.440

Cespedes versus RHP, 2013-2014: .241/.278/.436
Fuld versus RHP, 2014: .250/.343/.340

I cheated a little bit there, since Fuld was terrible in 2013. The A's lose power but pick up better on-base guys. It's actually a pretty even tradeoff, assuming Gomes and Fuld play at that level. The A's have other options, as well: Against right-handers, they could put Derek Norris behind the plate, DH John Jaso and play Stephen Vogt in the outfield instead of Fuld. The A's still have lineup flexibility to replace Cespedes, and they picked up one of the hottest starters in the game.

Plus, consider that under Beane, the A's have played 13 postseason games that would have won a playoff series -- and lost 12 of them. Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder started two of those games, but other starters included Gil Heredia, Cory Lidle, Ted Lilly, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily. Now, depending on how the rotation lines up, it could be Lester, Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija or Scott Kazmir, all with ERAs below 3.00 on the season (Samardzija has a 3.19 ERA with the A's). Oakland's future is always going to be uncertain, so why not put all your chips on the table and hope you finally get the lucky card?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester4
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsThe Jon Lester trade gives the Athletics a rotation that's built for October.
Boston Red Sox: Usually, trading a guy like Lester brings in prospects, but the Red Sox have plenty of prospects and young players, so why not bring in a proven commodity such as Cespedes to help in 2015? The John Lackey trade for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly is less certain, given Craig's poor season and Kelly's uncertainty as a starter. But Craig just turned 30 and hit above .300 in 2012 and 2013, so he's a good bounce-back candidate. Kelly isn't a big strikeout guy, but he does have a power two-seam fastball that induces a lot of ground balls. Maybe he ends up in the bullpen, but he'll get a chance to start. The other benefit: The Red Sox currently have the seventh-worst record in the majors, so they'll likely finish with one of the 10 worst records, which means they can sign a free agent this offseason (think Max Scherzer) and not lose their first-round pick.

St. Louis Cardinals: They picked up Lackey and Masterson without giving up prized outfielder Oscar Taveras or Carlos Martinez. Sure, David Price would have been a sexier pickup to line up behind Adam Wainwright in a potential playoff rotation, but Lackey/Masterson is a solid Plan B. Still, the Cardinals have had pretty good results all season from the rotation (fifth-best ERA in the majors), but they weren't sure what they were going to get from Kelly, Martinez or Shelby Miller moving forward. These deals didn't address the offense -- they're next to last in the NL in runs -- but with 10 games left against the Brewers, the division is still theirs for the taking.

Cleveland Indians: I like both trades. They dumped two impending free agents having poor seasons in Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera and got two players who should turn into major leaguers. James Ramsey and Zach Walters won't be stars, but they could be starters or useful bench players. Ramsey was a first-round pick in 2012, can play center field and is having a fine season in Double-A, although he's repeating the level. Walters, hitting .300/.358/.603 at Triple-A Syracuse, looks like a super utility kind of a guy as he's played all three infield positions and the outfield.

Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees: The Orioles and Blue Jays each have six games remaining against the Red Sox, while the Yankees have nine and now won't have to face Lester or Lackey in any of those games.

Seattle Mariners: They added Jackson and Chris Denorfia, much-needed right-handed bats, but Denorfia has been terrible this year, and Jackson is hardly an impact offensive player. It's not that the Franklin-for-Jackson deal is a bad trade, but it could backfire as Jackson has just one more year before free agency. On the other hand, less Endy Chavez is a good thing.

LOSERS

Tampa Bay Rays: They were only 5.5 out of the wild card. Yes, they had to jump over five teams to get into the second wild-card spot, but it was possible. I guess in the end, the Rays simply wouldn't be able to afford Price's contract next year and felt they had to trade him now. I'm just not sure Smyly and Nick Franklin are going to be long-term difference-makers. The perpetual recycling continues, but eventually the trades aren't going to all work out, and the Rays will have to start producing their own talent again.

Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates had the prospects to potentially work out a deal for Lester or Price, but Neal Huntington couldn't pull the trigger. It's a club that doesn't have any gaping holes, but the Pirates missed the opportunity to get an ace. They can still win the Central, but if they fall short ... well, I guess there's always 2015 or 2016 or whenever all the prospects mature.

Los Angeles Angels: They had already shored up the bullpen with Huston Street, Jason Grilli and Joe Thatcher, but now they have to try to catch the A's with a rotation that includes Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs. The Angels aren't worse than they were yesterday, but the A's are better, and the second-best team in the majors may be relegated to the wild-card game.

The rest of the AL Central: Scherzer is likely gone as a free agent, but now the Tigers will have Price in 2015.

San Francisco Giants: They needed a second baseman but didn't get one. The earlier trade for Peavy isn't as inspiring as the Cardinals getting Lackey. The Dodgers still look like the favorite in the NL West.

Philadelphia Phillies: And ... nothing. Enjoy 2015, Phillies fans!
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

Sandoval is Giants' most valuable defender

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
11:44
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SandovalAP Photo/Alan DiazPablo Sandoval has been so good in the field that he can even make plays while blowing bubbles.
If the San Francisco Giants do emerge as the top team in the NL West this season, Pablo Sandoval's defense at third base may be a difference-maker.

Some may find that odd, but if you disregard his girth, study the numbers and watch a little film, it makes sense.

The numbers
Sandoval dropped a considerable amount of weight prior to the start of the season and the dividends are apparent.

Sandoval ranks third among third basemen with 10 defensive runs saved this season, trailing only Josh Donaldson and Nolan Arenado. His 10 runs saved are the most on the team.

This is not the first time that Sandoval has excelled in that category.

In 2011, he ranked second among third basemen in the majors and first in the NL with 15 defensive runs saved. But his total slipped to minus-5 defensive runs saved in each of the past two seasons, with added pounds perhaps playing a role.

"He came into spring training in better condition and that brings out his athleticism,” said Giants bench coach Ron Wotus on Tuesday. “Pablo is someone who has always worked extremely hard on his defense and he pays a lot of attention to detail. He's very athletic for his body type. He's always had the skills.”

Sandoval currently ranks fourth in out of zone plays (OOZ), a stat that can be found at Fangraphs. The past two seasons, he ranked 11th and 12th.

In other words, Sandoval is getting to the balls that others aren’t.

Film review
Baseball Info Solutions does video review of every play of every game, categorizing plays into 30 groups of good fielding plays (GFPs) and about 60 categories of defensive misplays & errors, providing the data to teams and media.

Good fielding plays for third basemen include things such as an outstanding diving stop that merits a Web Gem, starting a double play quickly, or cutting off a ball hit down the line to yield only a single instead of a double.

[+] EnlargeSandoval
AP Photo/David DurochikSandoval has an extremely accurate arm.
Sandoval currently has 46 good fielding plays and 15 misplays and errors.

His good play/misplay ratio of better than 3 to 1 is the best among third basemen. The next closest is Anthony Rendon of the Nationals at 2.2 to 1. The average third baseman has a ratio only slightly better than 1 to 1.

In fact, the only players who are better among regular second basemen and shortstops are Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Cardinals second baseman Mark Ellis.

Watch a little bit of the Sandoval highlight reel and the thing that jumps out is his reflexes. We're taking an educated guess here, but we'd wager that if someone kept track of the rate of a player's successful dives for balls to diving attempts made, Sandoval would be at the top of the list.

"His hand-eye coordination is off the charts," said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Alex Cora. "You can see that in how he hits balls over his head and balls in the dirt. His best tool on defense is that hand-eye coordination, because there's not a lot of time to read the angles of the ball coming off the bat at third base."

Sandoval leads players at all positions with 28 good fielding plays awarded for ground-ball outs on diving stops and charges on slow rollers. He’s also cut back on throw-related misplays and errors from 13 last season to only four so far in 2014.

A pitcher's best friend
Wotus noted that one advantage Sandoval has is that he knows the tendencies of his pitchers, since the likes of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have been with the team for a while. The Giants rank fourth in the majors in turning ground balls into outs (76 percent of the time) and that could be part of the reason.

"When the Braves had their run [with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz], they had the same pitchers going every night, and all their fielders seemed to know exactly where to be," Wotus said.

But the new guys have also learned that Sandoval performs better than he looks.

"I've been very impressed with him," Giants starter Tim Hudson told Jerry Crasnick earlier this week. "Because he's a bigger guy, you don't think he's very athletic by looking at him. But he's pretty agile. He'll get to balls in the hole and some balls down the line. He runs in on the ball pretty well, too. I've been pleasantly surprised with his range and how nimble he is at third."

He probably isn't the only one.
OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?
OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

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

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

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

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

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

4. New stars emerge.

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

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

5. Pitchers continue to dominate.

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

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

6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

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

7. The NL Central race.

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

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

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

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

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

10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

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


The San Francisco Giants needed this one. Matt Cain certainly needed it. The Giants, mired in a bad stretch that had seen them go 7-20 since June 9 and slide from a 9.5-game lead in the NL West to a one-game deficit, had already lost the first two games of a three-game series to Bay Area rival Oakland. Cain entered with a 1-7 record and 4.27 ERA in 14 starts.

The Giants were floundering. Cain is being paid $20 million to do a whole lot better than 1-7.

Even if we all know pitcher wins don't always tell the whole story, that isn't supposed to be the record of a $20 million pitcher. So it was a big game, at least as big as a game in early July can be considered.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIt hasn't been Matt Cain's year, but could he change that in the second half?
Cain -- who knows a thing or two about big-game performances -- was solid, certainly not spectacular. He worked through 105 pitches in six innings, gave up five hits and two runs, including a long home run to Stephen Vogt in the fourth inning. His biggest pitch was probably his final one. Leading 3-2, having just given up an RBI single, he faced All-Star catcher Derek Norris with two runners on. He got ahead with a curveball and threw the signature Matt Cain: A 92 mph two-seamer with late action. Norris grounded out to shortstop.

The Giants went on to win 5-2, moved back into a first-place tie with the Dodgers and Cain got the W, his first since May 15. After the game, Hunter Pence admitted it was "a pretty intense series."

OK. Let's dig into some big-picture questions for the Giants.

1. How good are the Giants? Not as good as their 42-21 start and not as bad as they've been the past month. They're probably about where they should be, on pace for 89 wins. That's about where most people had them projected before the season.

2. Sure, but they lost Angel Pagan on June 15. Right about when the slide started. No coincidence, right? His injury has hurt but one guy doesn't make a lineup. Pagan was having a nice season -- .307/.356/.411 -- but that's not exactly Willie Mays. It is true, however, that Giants center fielders have been a disaster since Pagan went down, hitting .145/.193/.205 since June 15 entering Wednesday's game.

A bigger factor for the offense has been the decline in home runs. Through June 8, they were second in the National League and fourth in the majors with 69 home runs, a great pace for a team that was next-to-last in home runs in the NL in 2013 and last in 2012.

Since June 9, however, the Giants have hit 14 home runs -- the lowest total in the majors. Pence homered on Wednesday. They need more of that.

3. OK, what's been wrong with Cain? I'm not sure anything is wrong. I've been going through his numbers, slicing and dicing and digging deep and there's nothing obvious that explains why he had a 2.93 ERA from 2009 through 2012 and 4.06 the past two seasons. His fastball velocity is the same. Things like swing-and-miss rate and strike percentage and batting average on balls in play are all stable.

But his walk rate is up slightly, especially this year, and he's given up a few more home runs (his home run per fly ball rate is up, although his actual rate of fly balls has been lower the past two seasons than before). That's enough to raise that ERA just a bit.

Why that's happening, I'm not sure. Maybe he's falling behind a little more often. Early last season, he was certainly grooving a few many pitches. This year, he has missed a few starts and twice landed on the disabled list -- first, with a cut on his right index finger suffered while cutting a sandwich and then a hamstring pull. So that could have had an effect. Overall, however, I see no reason why Cain can't be better the rest of the season.

4. What about the rest of the rotation? That's why Cain really needs to step it up. The rotation was bad last year and even this year it's not as good as its reputation. Look, Madison Bumgarner is a terrific pitcher, but he's not Clayton Kershaw and I'd be hard-pressed to say he's better than Zack Greinke. Tim Lincecum is pretty good against the Padres and pretty good at home, but has a 5.82 ERA on the road. Tim Hudson was the savior the first two months and Ryan Vogelsong has been much better than last season. Entering Wednesday, the Giants ranked 21st in starters' WAR via FanGraphs.

5. Didn't you say Brandon Belt could contend for the batting title? Next question.

6. What do they need to do to stay with the Dodgers? Well, if Pagan's back issue is a long-term problem, they'll need to address center field. Without Marco Scutaro, second base has been a problem, with rookie Joe Panik currently being given the opportunity. You know Brian Sabean will make a move; he always does, one of the few GMs that is always willing to trade his prospects for that veteran spare part. Second base is one position that will potentially be easiest to fill -- guys like Aaron Hill, Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and Gordon Beckham could be available.

7. The bullpen ... Yes, they're fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA overall... but they're 28th since June 9. Their true value is probably somewhere between those two rankings. Obviously, Sergio Romo's gopherball issues have been a big problem, leading to his demotion from closer and I'd worry about the ages here -- their top six relievers are all older than 30 -- but the pen should OK moving forward.

8. Last one. What's the best news with the Giants? They play in the NL West.

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