SweetSpot: Steve Berthiaume

Shaun Marcum/Randy Wolf/Yovani GallardoUS PresswireShaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo are three-fifths of Milwaukee's rotation.
The Milwaukee Brewers have returned all five rotation starters from 2011, a season that was almost certainly the best in franchise history other than 1982. It's a solid group that puts Milwaukee in position to reclaim its NL Central title. It is not, however, a rotation that should be considered elite or ranked among the 10 best in baseball. I put that out on Twitter last week and Brewers fans came attacking like badgers. Wisconsin badgers, I guess. So I called Tom Haudricourt, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's veteran Brewers beat writer and asked him for some perspective.

"They went so long without any starting pitching to speak of," Haudricourt said about Brewers fans, "and now they finally have some and they want some credit for it."

The Brewers' passionate fan base is rushing to fill Miller Park at a pace that has team officials expecting to exceed last season's franchise-record attendance mark of more than 3 million fans. Those fans vigorously defend reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun as if lab test results showing the presence of exogenous testosterone simply never existed. I realize watching Prince Fielder go 5-for-12 with two home runs to begin his Tigers career may send fans running and screaming into the streets of Sheboygan Falls but let's not bet the bratwurst that this 2012 rotation is a pass into the postseason.

Good versus great can be oddly subjective in baseball but a simple numbers crunch is a fair start. After the wave of Twitter outrage from Brewers fans, ESPN Stats & Information analyst Lee Singer ran some numbers and it turned out my suspicion was correct: Using 2011 Wins Above Replacement totals from Baseball-Reference.com for the five pitchers in each 2012 Opening Day rotation, Milwaukee's group does not rank among baseball's 10 best.

2012 starting rotations according to 2011 bWAR
1. Phillies, 22.5
2. Angels, 18.8
3. Tigers, 17.7
4. Yankees, 17.6
5. Diamondbacks, 16.5
6. Rays, 15.3
7. Red Sox, 14.8
8. Giants, 14.2
9. Dodgers, 13.5
10. Nationals, 12.9
11. White Sox, 11.9
12. Brewers, 11.7

"They're in the top group in the National League," Haudricourt said. "There might be other rotations that individually may rank better in across-the-board stats but this rotation just seems to work well in conjunction with their late-inning bullpen." After watching countless closers either land on the disabled list or implode to begin 2012, the Brewers' duo of Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford seems worth its weight in gold.

Jose Veras, acquired from Pittsburgh for Casey McGehee last December, gives Milwaukee a third reliable reliever. "Ron Roenicke seems really comfortable pulling the starters and giving it to the bullpen," Haudricourt said. "Sometimes your rotation is just better than its stats because of what it does in conjunction with the bullpen. They're very protective in terms of pitch counts -- you won't see any staggering 125- or 130-pitch counts." Indeed, the reliability of that bullpen and Roenicke's willingness to use it is one reason why Milwaukee pitchers posted only one complete game in 2011 but all five Brewers rotation members started at least 28 games and Milwaukee used only six starting pitchers all season.

Last season, Yovani Gallardo allowed more than three earned runs only three times in his last 16 starts. Zack Greinke had a 2.61 ERA over his final 16 starts. Gallardo, however, can't beat the Cardinals, the Brewers' NL Central rival who have now won five of their past six games in Milwaukee. Following last Friday's Opening Day drubbing in which he allowed three homers in a four-batter span, Gallardo is now 1-9 in 13 starts against St. Louis with a 6.24 ERA, including last year's postseason.

Saturday, Greinke continued to be unbeatable in a Brewers uniform at Miller Park. He's 12-0, 2.91 at home for the Brewers in the regular season with 126 strikeouts in 102 innings. He was, however, just 5-6, 4.70 on the road last season. Rotation aces win on the road and they win critical games against big rivals. Greinke said last month that he's "very comfortable" in Milwaukee and called the organization "amazing" but he's a free agent after the season, just hired a new agent last week and if you don't think Matt Cain's new $127.5 million contract just shot Greinke's price through the roof you're kidding yourself.

Shaun Marcum is also a free agent after this season. After going just 3-4 in 11 starts last August and September, Marcum turned in a 0-3, 14.90 postseason. Marcum was acquired from Toronto for top prospect Brett Lawrie, who may be headed toward superstardom with the Blue Jays. The deal could end up rivaling the 1992 trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Matt Mieske and Jose Valentin as the worst in Brewers history. "When they traded for Marcum they had no idea they were going to be able to get Greinke and they didn't have enough starters," Haudricourt explained. "There's no question the trade is going to work out better in the long run for Toronto and the Brewers readily admit that. But they had close to an 'all-in' year, last year and they just decided to go for it. They knew it was going to bite them in the end."

Any organization which goes "all-in" deserves support from its fan base and kudos to the Brewers brass for not simply claiming tied hands. But if that gamble doesn't pay off tension can increase as the window narrows. Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson make up one of the National League's most competitive rotations, one certainly capable of bringing the postseason back to Milwaukee this year. Let's keep in mind, however, that it's a somewhat thin division in a league that fell another step behind the American League this winter.

Steve Berthiaume hosts "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN. Follow Steve on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.

Prediction? ... 'Pain.'

April, 4, 2012
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"Rocky III"'s Clubber Lang was correct in answering "pain" when asked for a pre-fight prediction. Baseball predictions can be painful to sort through, painful to hear and are generally an enormous pain in the neck. Fans look for them, solicit them, overreact to them and, worst of all, horde them like markers later to be claimed at some casino cage of emotional torture and guilt. What is meant to be a harmless exercise somehow gets turned into an angry referendum on imagined media bias or a credibility report card. What fans don't seem to understand is this: Few people dislike predictions more than those who are expected to make them.

I write this as the author of perhaps the worst prediction in recorded history. Yes, I tabbed the Astros to win the NL Central last season, a pick that became to predictions what Disco Demolition Night was to ballpark promotional events. Yeah, I got blown up like a stack of KC & the Sunshine Band records. I wasn't nuts. Actually, I was trying to be a standup guy but like Disco Demolition Night, it blew up in my face. I had written a piece for this website in September of 2010 and felt obligated to remain consistent six months later despite the realization that a moment of bold optimism had deteriorated into a sinking ship. I naively thought, "Well what the heck, it's just a harmless predictions list anyway, right?" BOOM!!!! Here's a link.

[+] EnlargeWandy Rodriguez
AP Photo/Matt SlocumLet's just say Steve won't be picking Wandy Rodriguez and the Astros in 2012.
In every season since 1995 at least one team that finished with a losing record has made the playoffs the following season, with the lone exception being 2005. You can reserve a bit of fun for yourself and try and nail that long-shot pick or you can treat your annual predictions like the SATs. Either approach is fine and in my book the best landing spot is likely somewhere in between. Yet when the predictions come out fans go after them with the grim determination of Clarence Beeks trying to swipe the crop report on oranges in "Trading Places." I've had discussions with many experts in recent weeks about this and discovered one common complaint: Why do fans take these preseason predictions soooooooo seriously?

"Baseball is the greatest game in the world and anybody who actually thinks he knows what's going to happen before the season starts is delusional," said ESPN's Tim Kurkjian. Kurkjian just spent six sweeks on the road and visited the spring training camps of all 30 teams, meaning he was in camp each day -- all day long -- talking to players, coaches, managers and beat writers. Based on that, he should be the most qualified man in America to make 2012 postseason predictions. Yet Kurkjian admitted these picks are nothing more than pure guesswork.

"When people come to you and say, 'Gosh you got your predictions wrong this year,' listen, I've never apologized for that because when these so-called experts get all of our predictions wrong it speaks again to how great the game is that we didn't have it right," he said. "Nobody has it right and nobody ever gets it right completely. That's why I dislike predictions because people think you're an idiot when you get it wrong but you're not an idiot. It just shows you how great the game is when you get it wrong."

The difficulty in predicting 2012 postseason teams is clear: There are divisions in which teams could finish anywhere from first to fourth. You can make a legitimate case for three different teams to win the AL East. There are four teams expected to contend for the NL East, at least three in the NL Central and if you don't think the AL West is essentially a coin flip between the Rangers and Angels then maybe you're the one who doesn't get it.

It's impossible to know yet whether the Rays will hit enough to outdistance the Red Sox and Yankees or if the Phillies can limp through the first few months of the season without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Will Buster Posey recover and lead the Giants? Did the Cardinals do enough to replace Albert Pujols? Tell me Miami will win 93 games this season and I'll believe you. You could also make a convincing case that the Marlins will win just 72 games again.

Here's the critical part and file it under that "It's not the destination but the journey" concept. This abstract presence of the unfolding baseball season -- the realization that the end result is for now hidden but will gradually reveal itself only in brief but glorious flashes over the course of the next seven months -- is this beautiful game's most graceful commodity. It's the sport that is measured not by a clock but a calendar in our drive-thru, RedZone channel culture and nothing in sports beats it ... nothing. "We actually know what's going to happen in the NBA before it starts," Kurkjian said. "The Bulls, the Heat, they're going to play in the finals in that conference. We never know in baseball."

That's exactly it. Nobody knows and a prediction should never be construed as a claim to know. I talk to players, ex-players, writers, broadcasters and columnists, all bright colleagues for whom I have enormous respect and when I ask, "Who you picking for this division?" I get different answers from all of them, as you'll see with today's annual predictions list release. Here on April 4, there really are almost no wrong answers. Except, maybe the Astros.

Steve Berthiaume hosts Baseball Tonight on ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
PujolsMLB 12 The Show MLB 12 The Show contains even more realistic ball action -- like the spin off Albert Pujols' bat.
Each year, Sony Computer Entertainment America and San Diego Studio produces the best sports video game available and each year those developers find a way to make their game better. Tuesday's release of MLB 12 The Show will demonstrate this but even this franchise's most dedicated followers will immediately recognize they are seeing a game they've never seen before. Put away your previous versions of the MLB The Show series: For 2012, the bar has again been raised, and this time with vigor.

The game's programmers have completely replaced last year's code and thus changed the way the baseball behaves with what they call True Ball Physics, which uses actual math for a spinning baseball that ricochets off bases, the pitching rubber and other field surfaces. The spin of the baseball off the bat is now accurate with realistic RPMs and the ball gains or loses energy like a real baseball, resulting in more hit type varieties. Line drives rise or sink and infield chops quickly become difficult to handle. My friend John Totten and I have played countless The Show games over the years, so I asked him for his '12 version impressions after a day of heated, head-to-head competition.

"Hitting a hooking line drive just inside the left-field line was something I had never seen before, and introduced an element of the unknown that I do not recall experiencing often in previous games," he said. "The overspin/underspin of a groundball based on the level of contact was an excellent added subtlety. I was surprised when a groundball did not make it through the infield, especially up the middle. Those balls simply lost pace due to underspin, as they should have. Line drives to the outfield showed tail and hook. In the past, every line drive to the outfield stayed on the same trajectory."

Trust me when I say this; Given the way the ball now spins in MLB 12 The Show, you will value the defensive abilities of your fielders as never before. Outfield defense was especially adventurous and fielding line drives or chasing balls in the gaps and down the lines is more challenging.

[+] EnlargeBraun
MLB 12 The Show Defense is more difficult in MLB 12 The Show, but that doesn't mean you can't get Ryan Braun to make catches like this.
The game acts, looks and sounds unlike the series has before; from completely different bat, ball and glove sounds to the TruBroadcast Presentations, which are available only on the game's PS3 version. The line between watching the video game and watching an actual baseball game has been blurred using new camera angles and audio that realistically simulate a television broadcast. You'll see more reaction shots after pitches and hear a new "buzz" of the ball and "pop" of a catcher's mitt while a bouncing, spinning baseball hitting green grass sounds just as it should.

Among MLB 12 The Show's many other changes I liked was the Swing/Pitch info box, which now pops up automatically after each pitch and remains onscreen until the next pitch, no more pressing L3 every time you want feedback. Baserunners have new situational awareness and react differently when near a batted ball or another player. Bullpen management continues its brilliant evolution. You can now warm up a relief pitcher or simply select Stretch and Toss, which has the pitcher stretch and play catch without getting warm enough to enter the game. You can also save a reliever's energy once he does begin to warm up by selecting Ready and Waiting, which has the pitcher throw a pitch in the bullpen for every game pitch thrown to maintain readiness. No more overheating relievers before they get into the game.

As always, there are new systems with which to pitch and hit the ball. Let me go on record: I hate them. I'm a button man; always have been and always will be. Last year The Show introduced analog batting featuring a stride and swing method. MLB 12 The Show has advanced to Zone Analog Batting, which allows you to control where you swing in the zone with the left analog stick as you step into the pitch and swing with the right analog stick. Sound hard? It is. I hit like a blindfolded Mario Mendoza and gave up. However, if you were a fan of analog hitting in last year's version you'll enjoy it all the more this year.

New as well is Pulse Pitching, an interactive timing mechanic with an interface that consists of a pulsating circle that flashes around the baseball as you are adjusting the desired location of your pitch. With this method you try and hit the X button when the meter shrinks to the smallest possible size around the baseball. This controls the accuracy of your pitches; the smaller the cursor the more accurate the pitch will be, with the speed of the meter's pulsating depending on the game difficulty setting and the pitcher's attributes and performance.

This feature fails for two reasons: First, it gives you a throbbing headache after about two innings of staring at it, but more importantly your opponent can see exactly how close each pitch came to its ideal location as both players see the size of the pulsating meter around the ball. The player who is batting, seeing a wide meter around the baseball as the pitch is being delivered, instantly knows that the command of the pitch will be poor and is therefore given a clear sign that he doesn't need to swing. This is not a factor with the traditional pitching meter but in the case of Pulse Pitching, when both players are focused on the strike zone, it seems the video equivalent of the guy in the white T-shirt in Toronto's center-field bleachers: a giveaway.

MLB 12 The Show has a complete set of visual tutorials for all new methods of hitting, pitching and throwing and it speaks to what has always been The Show series' greatest strength: It never FORCES you to change the way you play the game. Every year, new controls are added or enhanced while always leaving you the option of staying with the buttons and systems that you've always enjoyed, a practice that other sports video franchises, like EA's Madden or NCAA Football has not always followed. My friend Gus Ramsey's annual review of Madden on Bill Simmons' podcast has become one of The Sports Guy's biggest hits.

"Since around 2004 the look of the Madden franchise has been almost the same, but the game play has changed in an effort to make the game more realistic," Gus says. "Sometimes to great success, other times, not so much. In '04 they added the ability to direct the lead blocker on runs, a true challenge of digital dexterity to be sure. In '06 they added the Truck Stick, a departure from the popular R1 juke button. '06 also brought on the hideous Passing Cone, the New Coke of video game experiments. We've also seen the elimination of the sprint button, which left players instinctually pressing the R2 button with no results."

I don’t recall MLB The Show developers ever demanding you change your button options or patterns, always offering new variations but never abandoning preferred methods enjoyed over time. A great lesson for all developers of sports video games: You can offer all the new ideas you want but don't force me to switch my buttons or I'll be forced to stop buying your game.

StantonMLB 12 The Show You won't want to miss seeing Giancarlo Stanton mashing home runs in his new home ballpark.
The Show is a series that strives for authenticity yet pitcher repertoires is one area the developers consistently seem to miss their mark. In 2011 Boston's Daniel Bard threw 68.7 percent fastballs, 24.8 percent sliders and 6.5 percent changeups. Bard's weapons were essentially a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball and a slider. As the numbers prove, he rarely threw a changeup and often limited himself to just the four-seamer or slider in a game's most crucial points. In MLB 12 The Show, however, Bard has FIVE pitches: four-seam fastball, slider, cutter, two-seam fastball and a circle change. Bard admits he'll have to mix in more two-seam fastballs and changeups as he moves from the Red Sox bullpen to the rotation but five pitches for a guy who essentially has relied on two is a swing and a miss at realism. It gets worse.

In 2011, Mariners closer Brandon League threw 67.4 percent sinkers, 21.3 percent split-finger fastballs and 11.3 percent sliders. With two strikes, League went to his splitter a whopping 40 percent of the time. It is his big "out pitch" and one of the effective splitters in baseball; except in MLB 12 The Show, where both League's splitter and sinker don't exist. Nor does the cut fastball of Diamondbacks reliever Bryan Shaw, which earlier this spring Arizona closer J.J. Putz compared to Mariano Rivera's. Last season, 58.3 percent of all pitches thrown by Shaw were cut fastballs. MLB 12 The Show does not include a cutter among Shaw's three pitches, unfortunate for a pitcher who in last season's NLDS spotlight appeared in four games and faced 13 batters without giving up a base hit.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Phillips (MLB 12 The Show)
MLB 12 The Show Watch those tricky hops!
This is not just a pitch selection issue. Cleveland’s Vinnie Pestano last season had an immensely effective combination of 79.9 percent fastballs and 20.1 percent sliders. Pestano's fastball, which is actually a cutter, averaged 92.6 miles per hour and maxed at 95.5 mph. In MLB 12 The Show, not only does Pestano not possess a cutter, his four-seam fastball is just 88 mph. Pestano joked during our Twitter conversation, "Don't know whats more upsetting ... that my 2 seamer is harder than my 4 or my pitching clutch is only 54. #pickitupdigitalme." Pestano's fellow Indians reliever Joe Smith joked, "That's what you get for being a righty specialist."

Smith enjoys The Show series but is used to seeing his digital repertoire miss the mark. In 2011, the real Smith threw 69 percent sinkers and 31 percent sliders. In MLB 12 The Show, Smith's video game version doesn't possess a sinker. He's instead been given a four-seam fastball and a changeup, two pitches he doesn't throw. "With guys who have been around for a few years and the big names in the game they are pretty accurate," said Smith. "Young guys seem to have to 'pay their dues' so to speak before they give them really high ratings. But I would say all in all they do an excellent job."

Agreed. Pitch selection nitpicking aside, MLB 12 The Show is not just a step forward for the series but a broad jump. This year in Road to The Show, your player will begin as a touted Double-A prospect. As of this weekend, the servers were still being tuned so I was not able to sample the game's new Diamond Dynasty mode, but based on advance publicity if you're a fan of EA's FIFA Soccer Franchise's Ultimate Team mode you'll be thrilled with Diamond Dynasty, which allows gamers to create personalized team names, colors, uniforms and fully customizable logos with up to 1000 layers of detail. As for baseball's new 10-team playoff format, the developers tell me they're not ready to make a public comment yet and will address the issue when they feel the time is right, choosing instead to let the game's new features "have their day in the sun."

There may be occasions in which you'd be rightfully content to continue playing a previous year's version of a sports video game rather than committing the cash to buy the new edition. With MLB 12 The Show, this is not one of those years. This is a different game than the series has ever seen and is beyond a doubt its best yet.

Steve Berthiaume hosts "Baseball Tonight" and you can follow him on Twitter @sberthiaumeespn.

The beauty is in the 162 games

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
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It's every day. That's where you find the real beauty of the thing. Win or lose, payoff or no payoff; the reward is found in that continuity. That's the gift of the 162 games. What happened today? Did they win or lose? Did the other guys win or lose? The lead was 3 or 4 just a few days ago ... what is it now, 1 game? Who do we play tomorrow? Where are they tomorrow? Who's pitching? Skip a day and you might miss something, like a three-run home run in the 14th inning or a bases-loaded wild pitch to win the game.

It can be background music or it can be front and center for you every night. Check in for just a few minutes or settle in for a few hours; each time it's an opportunity for redemption or catastrophe. It is storylines that emerge from back story in July to become headlines in September or character development that you've been noticing all summer and plot twists that no one saw coming. Sure, it matters if you win or lose, but it's the idea that baseball can be a daily experience that's really the payoff. In our 140-character culture, that still means something.

"Football is king." Baseball enthusiasts hear that incessantly these days. Those people are missing the point. Football is fast food, once a week, five days spent mindlessly considering which groin pull or knee strain is going to potentially cost you fantasy points this weekend. Football doesn't ask much: Just a few hours of your attention each week, time that can be spent celebrating the other activity that is king in America -- sitting around eating vast quantities of horrible food while watching television. Football is the lowest common denominator.

Baseball asks a lot of you. It requires daily attention, but that turns out to be the reward, and we're seeing that right now in this remarkable finish to the regular season. The Red Sox and the Braves have each seen postseason spots that appeared guaranteed just a few weeks ago now threatened to within one game of extinction. Rays and Cardinals fans who last month might have only checked in for a few minutes now settle in for a few hours. It's been right there for them the whole time.

Monday is a new day and then there are two more games left. After that, who knows? Somehow, once again, it's been a thrilling ride and every one of the 162 games somehow mattered. That's the real beauty of the thing, and there's nothing else like it.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.

Verlander's season warrants MVP award

September, 19, 2011
9/19/11
11:57
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Justin Verlander beat the A's in Oakland on Sunday to improve his record to 24-5, making him the first Tigers pitcher to win 24 games in a season since Mickey Lolich won 25 in 1971, and the majors' first 24-game winner since Randy Johnson in 2002. Verlander is the first pitcher in Tigers history to win 12 consecutive starts and the first in the big leagues since Johan Santana in 2004. Verlander is just the seventh American League pitcher since World War II to record 24 wins and 240 strikeouts in a season and the first since Ron Guidry in 1978. He threw a no-hitter May 7 at Toronto. He's a cinch for the AL Cy Young Award. He should also be the AL MVP.

Yes, wins is a flawed yardstick by which to measure pitching performance, I get it. A pitcher used to be credited with a win. Now it's almost as if pitchers are ACCUSED of wins if they happen to be presented with more than one or two runs of support by their offense. ("Sir ... I accuse you of WINNING games ... J'accuse!" ) The WAR (wins above replacement-level) metric exists, in part, to measure one player's contribution to the win column versus that of another, and in determining the "value" of a most valuable player that worth in the minds of many voters is a currency paid out in victories. Detroit has won 89 games to date and Verlander has led the way in 24 of them. Let's not get too hung up on the idea of simply handing the MVP trophy to the position player with the sexiest sabermetric stats and disqualify the player who is likely having the most superb season simply because he's a starting pitcher.

The last starting pitcher to win the MVP Award was Roger Clemens in 1986. Clemens also won the Cy Young that year, a double that I'm arguing Verlander should repeat. Granted, each year presents its own unique voting landscape but Clemens won his AL MVP with these numbers 25 years ago, numbers that Verlander has matched or surpassed:


Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly was runner-up to Clemens in that 1986 MVP vote. How do Mattingly's '86 numbers line up with the two players currently leading the American League in WAR? If Verlander's 2011 season appears equivalent to, or perhaps slightly better than Clemens' 1986 season and Clemens' numbers were enough to trump Mattingly, one could argue that this year's two leading position player candidates would have to surpass Mattingly's '86 season to beat out Verlander. Granted, this season isn't complete, but Mattingly's .352 average with 53 doubles and only 35 strikeouts in 677 at-bats may trump Jacoby Ellsbury's average and steals as well as Jose Bautista's home run and on-base totals.


In 1986, Clemens won the AL MVP Award easily, collecting 19 first-place votes and 339 points to Mattingly's five first-place votes and 258 points. Mattingly may have had the superior season, but Clemens won the award and it wasn't close. Things have changed since then. From 1987 through 1998, only once did a starting pitcher finish higher than sixth in an AL MVP vote; 1999 was the tipping point in a seismic shift away from starting pitchers' MVP candidacy in the voters' minds. Boston's Pedro Martinez collected the most first-place votes but fell 13 points shy of Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Martinez's '99 performance was perhaps the greatest pitching season of his generation but two writers left him off their ballots completely.


Rodriguez had a career season in 1999, batting .332/.356/.558 with 35 HRs and 113 RBIs. The idea, however, that Martinez's value didn't merit a single voting point on two ballots was outrageous. In November of 1999, New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden, now in the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame, wrote that he felt "compelled to express my embarrassment and dismay" over the results of that MVP vote, but the mentality has lingered. Only four times since 1999 has an American League starting pitcher finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting and never higher than fifth. Martinez's pitching was the elite performance of that 1999 season, as Verlander's has been in 2011.

We're lost in numbers nowadays. They are extremely useful tools and provide a much more thorough means of evaluating performance as well as interesting discussion and insight, but they can't serve as a de facto chart to simply calculate a formulaic winner. Roger Clemens won an MVP award when Don Mattingly should have. Ivan Rodriguez won an MVP award when Pedro Martinez should have. The shifting philosophies have made for queasy stomachs and bogged down the navigation process. Take a step back. Reset your compass. Breathe. Ellsbury, Bautista and Curtis Granderson have all had outstanding seasons. Justin Verlander has had that special season. He's the MVP.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Ian KennedyTony Medina/Getty ImagesIan Kennedy is 19-4 with a 2.99 ERA and ranks seventh in the NL in strikeouts.
This past weekend the Arizona Diamondbacks celebrated the 10th anniversary of their 2001 World Series championship team -- a team led Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who combined to win 43 games that season and were the only two pitchers to receive first-place votes for the National League Cy Young Award, which Johnson won with his staggering total of 372 strikeouts. Now a decade later, a new Diamondbacks Desert Duo of Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson is leading Arizona back to the postseason and Kennedy, the NL's first 19-game winner, is worthy of Cy Young consideration.

The Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers 5-4 in 10 innings Tuesday night. Kennedy's first attempt at his 20th win wound up as his first no-decision since June 27, putting his record at 19-4 with a 2.99 ERA as he looks to his next chance for win No. 20 in a home start next week against the Pirates. The 35 combined wins by Kennedy and Hudson is the most in the National League and trails only the Tigers' 37 wins from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Over his last 13 starts, Kennedy's record is a remarkable 11-1 with a 2.42 ERA. He's 9-0 on the season against the NL West, and the Elias Sports Bureau says, under the NL West's current configuration, only three pitchers have started 9-0 against the rest of the division -- all Diamondbacks: Schilling in 2002, Brandon Webb in 2008 and Kennedy in 2011.

Kennedy certainly isn't flashy but he can be dominant. His 182 strikeouts are seventh in the NL, despite an average fastball release velocity of 90.1 mph, which ranks just 127th among major league starting pitchers. Kennedy wins by pounding the strike zone: 1,728 times so far this season, the fourth-highest total of pitches in the strike zone in all of baseball, behind only Cliff Lee, David Price and Justin Masterson. "He's so good with his fastball that he can pitch strictly off that," his teammate Hudson told me in a text message Tuesday night. "His command to all parts of the strike zone allows him to change eye levels with hitters which then makes his other pitches, which are really good as well, that much better. He's fun to watch."

Kennedy has a good changeup, which he throws about 15 percent of the time, that arrives at an average of 81.1 mph with split-finger action for an effective out pitch. What makes him unique however, is an ability to work up in the strike zone while throwing 70 percent of his fastballs for strikes. Opponents, who hit .268 versus Kennedy's fastball last season, are hitting .231 against the pitch this season while his OPS on the fastball has dropped from .825 to .648. Why do hitters have so much trouble with a 90-mph fastball thrown consistently in the hitting zone? For the answer, I went to Schilling.

"There's a difference between command and control," Schilling said. "Control is the ability to throw strikes, which everybody in the big leagues has to have. Command is the ability to control strikes inside the strike zone and that's a different level and I think he's gotten to where his fastball is multiple pitches for him and if you throw the ball 91 to 93 miles per hour, that can be an incredibly effective pitch if you have other stuff to go with it. He's always had decent secondary stuff, but it's become above-average in my mind because of his fastball command."

Schilling was among the many 2001 Diamondbacks who returned for last weekend's 10th anniversary championship celebration and said the Kennedy/Hudson pairing has helped both pitchers, just as pairing up helped Johnson and himself a decade earlier. "I lived it," Schilling said. "I know what it did for me, it was a huge positive for me. I fed off that. The mentality is, you want the guy to go out ahead of you and throw a two-hit shutout because you're going to go out and throw a one-hit shutout. Early on, I think that they started to get a taste of that and I think as the season has gone on, now that these games are really important, the bar has raised. I think they're feeding off each other at the perfect time for Arizona."

Hudson agreed, saying about Kennedy, "His confidence this year has really rubbed off on me because I see him throw well basically every start and it gives me something to try and out-do or top. Most of the time unsuccessfully but it's still fun to have a friendly competition with him. It's made me a better pitcher." Hudson will attempt to win his 17th game Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium against Los Angeles lefty Clayton Kershaw, who is among Kennedy's chief Cy Young competitors.

Kennedy certainly shouldn't be considered the Cy Young favorite. However, with he and Hudson leading the way, Arizona has won 18 of 21 games since Aug. 23 to run away with the NL West. Now as Arizona gets ready for a postseason run, this latest Diamondbacks Desert Duo may tap into the Johnson/Schilling mojo from a decade earlier for a return engagement in the World Series.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.

Best catcher of 2011? Alex Avila

September, 12, 2011
9/12/11
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Alex AvilaRick Osentoski/US PresswireAlex Avila leads all regular major league catchers in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Hypothetical: There's a major league catcher draft and you have the No. 1 pick; which catcher should you take? For the sake of this discussion, let's say you're drafting a team of current big league players and will draft only one position per round to field a team for the next five years. You have the first pick in the catchers' round. The guy you should take is Detroit's Alex Avila.

Avila has been the best catcher in baseball this season. Among the game's everyday catchers -- let's say those who have started more than 100 games behind the plate -- Avila leads the majors with a .300 batting average, .391 on-base percentage, .522 slugging percentage and .913 OPS. He's No. 1 across the board. Remember, this hypothetical applies to catching actual games, not your fantasy league team, so forget about Victor Martinez or Mike Napoli -- the guy you draft has to actually crouch down and catch for you every day. Avila has done exactly that for the Tigers.

Avila has started 117 games behind the plate and has been remarkably durable. From July 3 through last Saturday, Avila started 57 of 61 games with Detroit going 37-20 in those Avila starts. Only the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero and the Marlins' John Buck have caught more innings than Avila's 1,043. The fact that Avila has been at his best while the Tigers have pulled away from the AL Central field is not a coincidence. Avila has hit safely in 28 of his past 35 games, batting .358 with 11 doubles, eight home runs and 24 RBIs. He's reached base safely in 33 of those 35 games. Somehow, the daily grind of catching nearly every day seems to have fueled Avila's offensive production rather than drained it.

Avila is only 24 years old and turns 25 in January. He's nearly one year younger than Baltimore's Matt Wieters and has arguably moved ahead of Wieters among baseball's young catchers, although Wieters has quietly put together a promising season. Yes, there are other good candidates to consider with your top pick in the catchers draft and the offensive numbers say Avila's other two closest competitors are Montero and Atlanta's Brian McCann. If you then factor in the defensive numbers as well, here's a look at how the top four stack up (SB and CS are defensive stolen bases allowed and runner caught, while DRS is Defensive Runs Saved, via Baseball Info Solutions):



What about the rest of the contenders? Yes, Yadier Molina and Carlos Ruiz are outstanding catchers, particularly defensively. Avila is younger than both those players and gives you more offensive bang for your buck. Yes, that description would seem to apply to both Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, but consider this: How much do you really want your team's offense to depend on your catcher? In other words, can your catcher be too good a hitter?

That notion might seem ludicrous but look at the situation both the Twins and Giants were placed this year. Mauer began the season as a .327 career hitter with three batting titles and an MVP trophy. This year, Minnesota began paying Mauer $23 million per season and will do so through 2018. Mauer has hit just three home runs and already at age 28 the idea of him playing as the Twins' everyday catcher through the life of that contract seems impossible. Can the offense depend too much on a catcher? Ask the Giants. Players who hit at the level of Mauer or Posey very early in their careers demand significant investments if their franchises are going to keep them, perhaps too big an investment considering the dangers of the position. The argument can be made that you want your catcher to produce, but not so much that he leaves a gaping offensive void that cannot be adequately filled should he either face serious injury or wear down from the catching workload.

There are offensive players who can occasionally catch, such as Martinez and Napoli. There are young hitters who catch now but might soon find other permanent positions because their bats are too critical to expose to injury like Posey or Cleveland's Carlos Santana. Some teams get production from the catching position using a combination of players, like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek in Boston. Some catchers are known best as glove men, like Molina and Ruiz. However, when you consider youth, durability and production both offensively and defensively, Avila would be hard to pass up with the top pick in a catchers draft.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.

Twitterview with Daniel Hudson

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
6:49
PM ET
 Daniel HudsonAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDaniel Hudson is 15-9 with a 3.53 ERA through his first 29 starts.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are winning the NL West. After going 65-97 to finish 27 games behind the San Francisco Giants last season, the D-backs have already won 82 games this season and entering Thursday held a healthy seven-game lead over the defending World Series champs. Arizona's pitching has been critical to its success and Daniel Hudson has been an instrumental part of that equation.

Hudson was a fifth-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2008 out of Old Dominion University. Traded by Chicago to Arizona at the July deadline last season, Hudson immediately flourished in the desert, going 7-1 with the Diamondbacks with a 1.69 ERA while allowing just 51 hits in 79.2 innings. This season, Hudson and teammate Ian Kennedy have led the Diamondbacks' rotation on the march to an NL West title for Arizona, where there's a pool in the outfield and several unique slogans that have served as rallying cries.

With Hudson scheduled to pitch Friday against the Padres, one day before the Diamondbacks honor the 10-year anniversary of their 2001 World Series championship team that featured Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, Hudson joined me for an interview via Twitter. As many of his fans followed, we had this conversation. It's the Daniel Hudson Twitterview, in 140 characters or fewer.

Designated Twitter logo

SB: #DBacks won 65 games last year & were 27 back of #SFGiants. Now AZ has won 82 games & leads by 7. What happened?
DH: I think a change of attitude instilled by our great coaching staff and everyone counting us out in spring training.
SB: Counted out in spring training? Was that a sore spot for the team?
DH: absolutely! We had a lot of new faces in spring and everyone picked us to finish last again, so our motto was "why not us?"

SB: What is it like to play for Kirk Gibson?
DH: it's great. His grittiness and feisty attitude has definitely rubbed off on us. We always expect to comeback and win.
SB: Seriously, does anyone in the #DBacks clubhouse ever do the fist-pump imitation of him rounding bases after '88 W.S. HR?
DH: haha, I've never seen anyone do it, but JJ (Putz) and Kelly Johnson made ties for a roadtrip with him from his gillete commercial picture of him sitting in a bath tub talking about how good the deodorant is! Players and coaches all wore them.

SB: #SFGiants had "fearthebeard" last yr. #DBacks have #FearTheRedBeard this yr. Can you explain for East Coast fans?
DH: Ian Kennedy has brown hair, but somehow his beard is all red, not a brown hair in it. 18 wins and his beard got a following.
SB: So his genetic oddity has become a #DBacks rallying cry? With 18 wins it must be working, right?
DH: lol not so much us, but the fans seem to like it. #feartheredbeard signs are hilarious! and yes. When you win 18 games, you have to point at something for your success, and it's definitely the #redbeard lol

[+] EnlargeIan Kennedy
G Fiume/Getty ImagesFear the red beard: Ian Kennedy is in the Cy Young picture with his 18-4 record and 2.96 ERA.
SB: You were 7-1 with #DBacks last year. You're 15-9 so far this year. Why has AZ been such a good fit for you?
DH: coming over with a clean slate and no expectations was a big part of it. I got called up by sox to replace (Jake) Peavy. Tough shoes to fill, and I struggled and got away from who I was as a pitcher. Getting "me" back was big for me and dbacks staff.

SB: You got your first MLB hit & RBI in #DBacks debut last August. Is that why your Twitter avatar is a pic of you hitting?
DH: I was lucky enough to have a dbacks photographer snap a pic as I hit my first HR. So I thought I'd like to show it off haha
SB: It could work as a visualization technique for you: see your avatar pic in your head every time you step into the box!
DH: yep! As long as I don't have to bunt ... I want to swing it!

SB: You played Little League baseball with Justin Upton in Virginia. Who was the better player back then?
DH: Justin. I was (still am) really slow, confined to playing 1B. But I gave him some protection in the lineup!
SB: Did you pitch in Little League -- or just rake as a slow-footed 1B type?
DH: I did both. Usually would pitch until I hit a pitch count limit, then would go play first for a few games.

SB: You were a star pitcher at Old Dominion University. So was Justin Verlander. What's the deal with ODU baseball?
DH: go monarchs! Great baseball tradition. Some really good teams in the 80s and 90s. I wasn't highly recruited out of high school and wanted to go somewhere where I would pitch from day one, and odu gave me that opportunity and I ran with it.

SB: Dan, your Twitter flow was heavy Fantasy Football this week. Is that a big deal among the #DBacks?
DH: Yeah I think a lot of teams do it. It's a lot of fun to go through the draft and whatnot with your friends and teammates and I wanted to brag a little bit because I think my team is awesome!
SB: So you're a Mel Kiper Jr, Jr? Fantasy Football does seem big in MLB clubhouses. Why is that?
DH: I think a lot of guys are football fans, and it's a good way to stay in touch and competitive with teammates in offseason

SB: You play in a #DBacks ballpark that has a pool in the outfield. What's the strangest thing you've ever seen out there?
DH: love the pool! Wasn't there but saw the guy make the diving catch into it during the HR derby. That was awesome!
SB: Do players ever actually hang out in that pool before the park opens or is it just a gimmick for the fans?
DH: for the fans. But the brewers bullpen guys jumped in after conditioning in the outfield one day. It's hot with the roof open

SB: I saw you tweeted a picture of a giant snake at your feet while you were golfing last week. Some kind of omen?
DH: definitely a good omen. Just a fellow diamondback wishing us good luck before we played our series in San Fran!!
SB: Good luck #DBacks from here as well, Dan. Thanks for your time & thanks to all of you fans who followed the Dan Hudson Twitterview!
DH: no problem! Thanks for the questions and thanks to everyone for following!! #GoDbacks #FearTheRedBeard #winthewest

You can follow Diamondbacks pitcher Dan Hudson on Twitter: @DHuddy41.

You can follow Baseball Tonight's Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Zack GreinkePatrick Green/Icon SMI
Zack Greinke is delivering right on schedule in Milwaukee. The Brewers already had offensive firepower and GM Doug Melvin has added the bullpen pieces that will get critical outs late in important games. But Greinke's acquisition in the offseason was the key addition, and now it's his time to deliver in big games, a facet life with the Royals never permitted. He's Bud Fox walking into Gordon Gekko's office, pitching like the dominant ace who arrives with win after win as September becomes October.

In 1984, it worked in Chicago. Rick Sutcliffe had been scuffling with the Indians when he was dealt to the Cubs on June 13 of that season. Sutcliffe went a remarkable 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA the rest of the year, won the NL Cy Young Award and brought the Cubs to within one game of the World Series. Like Sutcliffe, Greinke is the guy expected to lead the rotation.

"I've been that guy," Sutcliffe told me. "I was a guy in Cleveland that was 4-5, and what people don't know was, I was pitching my ass off. I mean, we were a bad team and we were playing against Boston and New York and teams that were better than us and just to be close to .500 was about all I could do. Now all of a sudden, I go over and I've got Gary Matthews and Jody Davis and Ryne Sandberg. Well, that's what's happened to Greinke. All of a sudden, now he gives up three runs in the first inning and he goes back out in the top of the second up 5-3. That's the feeling you get. You don't go out there feeling like every mistake you make is going to cost you the ballgame. You realize you've got a lot of help."

Greinke seems to have arrived at that realization. Acquired in December from his a stagnant existence in Kansas City, Greinke was, in a sense, brought in after the start of the season. He broke a rib in a pick-up basketball game and didn't make his Brewers debut until May 4. He went 6-0 in seven starts from May 9 to June 11 but wasn't dominant, allowing 44 hits in 44 innings over that span with a 4.30 ERA. Run support, precisely what had always been missing with the Royals, was quickly evident: the Brewers scored at least five runs in six of those seven starts and Milwaukee won all seven games. "It's a lot easier to go out there and succeed now than it was for him in Kansas City," Sutcliffe said. "What I see is a shutdown-type guy."

Greinke has been exactly that lately, going 4-1 with a 1.75 ERA in his past seven starts. He's allowed just 36 hits over 46.1 innings with 54 strikeouts and the Brewers are 6-1 in those games. Overall, he's blowing opposing hitters away with 143 strikeouts against just 26 walks. In Friday's win over the Pirates, Greinke induced 20 swings and misses, tying the most he's had in any start in the past three seasons. His curveball, which Greinke noted after the game was as good as it's been, produced seven missed swings; the most for him on that pitch in three seasons. Greinke moved his fastball inside and outside equally, increased his curveball frequency from a season average of 14 percent up to 26 percent and is again showing the form with which he won the 2009 AL Cy Young -- only this time, on a team with postseason aspirations.

It's worked before in Milwaukee, of course.

Like Greinke, CC Sabathia was a former Cy Young winner on a team going nowhere in 2008. Like Sutcliffe, Sabathia was watching things go south in Cleveland, where he was 6-8, 3.83. Traded to the Brewers in July, Sabathia was spectacular, going 11-2, 1.65 with seven complete games in 17 starts. The Brewers won 14 of those starts and went to the postseason for the first time since 1982. Can Greinke dominate down the stretch in Milwaukee, as Sabathia did three seasons ago?

"This is untested waters right now with Greinke as far as the pressure of a game that actually matters late in the season," Sutcliffe said. "You say you pitched in big games? Yeah, you go to Fenway or Yankee Stadium -- it's a big game. But a lot of times, that's in April or May or June; you don't have 200 innings in your arm. What's he going to be like with 200 innings in his arm? Even though he missed the first month of the season, he's going to have a lot of innings and to have those pressure games, where you're going to go out there at times where you don't have your best stuff -- and you've got to realize that you can't pitch like you have your best stuff. Sabathia learned that -- he put a lot of time in improving that changeup. Greinke's going to have to do the same thing."

Greinke has pitched at least 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. He turns 28 years old in October, the same age at which Sutcliffe won the Cy Young in 1984 and Sabathia led the Brewers to the postseason in 2008. He's 8-0 in 10 starts at Miller Park this season. Milwaukee is 44-15 at home and a win over the Dodgers Monday will make the Brewers the first team to win at least 45 of its first 60 home games since the Yankees and Padres both did it in 1998.

Those two teams met in the World Series that year.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Curtis GrandersonAl Bello/Getty ImagesCurtis Granderson has been a star at the plate, but what about his defense in center field?
Can a player, no matter how productive on offense, be voted a league Most Valuable Player if he is rated the major leagues' worst defensive player at his position? This is the test case that Curtis Granderson presents. Granderson is having a monster season at the plate, on pace to set career bests in many categories. He has been the most consistently productive hitter in a Yankees' lineup that is headed to the postseason and perhaps a division title. However, defensive metrics say Granderson is the worst defensive center fielder in baseball. So, can he be the AL MVP?

Granderson is hot. The Yankees begin a weekend visit from the Rays with their center fielder hitting .333 with four home runs, 11 runs and 15 RBIs in 10 games this month. He is batting .275 overall and has already set career highs with 32 home runs and 93 RBIs. Granderson is also just five stolen bases and 18 runs scored away from setting career highs in those categories and his .367 on-base percentage, .583 slugging and .949 OPS would also all be the best marks of his career. He leads the majors in RBIs and runs scored and is tied with teammate Mark Teixeira for second in the majors in home runs, just one behind Jose Bautista. The Yankees are only one game behind Boston for the AL East lead and hold an eight-game advantage over the Angels for the wild card. All of that, based on the voting history for the MVP Award, makes Granderson a strong candidate ... but what about his defense?

Let's be clear, Curtis Granderson has not suddenly turned into a center field version of Dick Stuart, the Red Sox first baseman known as "Dr. Strangeglove" who committed 53 errors over two seasons in 1963 and '64. In fact, in 271 chances this season, Granderson has committed only three errors. However, defensive performance these days is hardly measured on such a simplistic scale. One means of evaluation is Defensive Runs Saved, which measures the value of a player in the field by combining his ability to turn batted balls into outs with other essential skills unique to his position. Granderson's Defensive Runs Saved rating is minus-13, the worst among all qualifying major league center fielders.

As with any defensive metric, there is always a subjective element. Video scouts at Baseball Info Solutions review every batted ball and categorize plays accordingly. In this case, does the player get to balls hit to the shallowest or deepest parts of center field? Does he cover the gaps? What is the ratio of his good fielding plays and his defensive misplays and errors? How does his throwing arm prevent or allow opposing runners to advance on the bases? It all adds up to a Defensive Runs Saved number and Granderson's is the lowest in baseball at his position.

By comparison, the Tigers' Austin Jackson, the center fielder who went to Detroit from New York as part of the deal that brought Granderson to the Yankees last season, has 10 Defensive Runs Saved. Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox center fielder who is another strong candidate for AL MVP, has a Defensive Runs Saved rating of plus-13, second only to the Angels' Peter Bourjos' astonishing 20 DRS. Baseball Info Solutions' research shows Granderson has been above average on balls hit to shallow center field but is struggling on medium and deep balls. It's a defensive performance that represents a startling regression considering Granderson had 14 Defensive Runs Saved in 2009 and a career-high 16 DRS in 2007.

MVP votes often turn into debates pitting the "best overall player" argument against the player "most valuable to his team" philosophy. Granderson, while having a wonderful offensive season in a ballpark that seems a perfect fit, is by far the weak defensive link in the Yankees' outfield. Nick Swisher has a Defensive Runs Saved rating of plus-8, meaning he's eight runs better then the average right fielder. Brett Gardner is a Defensive Runs Saved superstar with a rating of 18, the best in baseball in left field. Granderson's minus-13 means he has cost the Yankees 13 runs defensively. If you subscribe to the "player most valuable to his team" theory of MVP voting then defense is certainly an argument against the Yankees' center fielder.

This isn't about bashing Granderson. He's a class act and baseball needs more players like him. What is interesting here is the notion of Granderson as a test case both for the perceived value of defensive metrics around baseball and the overall value of defense to MVP voters. The offensive numbers, the ones in bold type, all scream that Curtis Granderson is a leading MVP candidate. The defensive numbers, the fine print of baseball statistics and to many the most subjective and ambiguous of all, whisper that his candidacy has flows. Lately, it seems that Granderson has been carrying the Yankees. We'll see if his statistics -- all of them -- can carry some AL MVP votes.

(Thanks to Lee Singer of ESPN's Stats & Information Group.)

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek (with mask on)Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesWhen was the last time we saw a little attitude during a Yankees-Red Sox game?
The Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is dead and baseball has helped kill it: Eighteen meetings a year at four hours each has watered down the product to the point of overkill and taken the starch out of things. These games have become overdone and overblown, almost meaningless. Worst of all, baseball has handed the Boston/New York hatred over to the NFL. The angst, spite, resentment and, most of all, the do-or-die stakes that used to symbolize the Red Sox/Yankees feud now thrives as the exclusive property of the Patriots and Jets. Baseball has to get that back and restore the rivalry that came to define the game in the previous decade. When Red Sox and Yankees fans get sick of the Red Sox and Yankees, there's a problem.

There's an MLB television promo featuring David Ortiz wandering around Manhattan in his Red Sox jersey looking for a hug. It's a cute bit but it underscores the point: These two rivals would now rather "hug it out" than fight it out. There are reasons for that. The Red Sox have in large part become the Yankees. The tortured Red Sox fan who went 0-for-86 years and grew up wearing a Yaz painter's hat and watching baseballs fly into the screen above the Green Monster has been replaced by a new generation of people known in Boston as "The Pink Hats."

"The Pink Hats" are the recent arrivals who know Fenway Park not as the site of so many last stands but as the tourist attraction with Monster seats, ballpark sushi and the "Sweet Caroline" sing-along before the bottom of the eighth. They wear pink hats with the Boston B logo, they have food service bring white wine to their seats … they do the wave. They are satiated and comfortable, they've won two World Series in the past seven years and don't have slightest idea who Thurman Munson was. They don't know another reality.

The Yankees have changed, too. Derek Jeter has five World Series rings, 3,000 hits, an HBO special and Minka Kelly. Their new Yankee Stadium is a great place to watch a game; it's comfortable, with fantastic seats and sight lines, but it doesn't have the "grit" of the old place. Their core group of players who grew up as Yankees have a waning presence in the current lineup. Many of the key players on this Yankees team came from other teams: Russell Martin, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and CC Sabathia. Their long-term stake in the rivalry seems minimal, as if they were character actors who didn't appear until three-quarters of the way through the movie. Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte are gone, Jorge Posada will be next and soon after that will come the farewells of Jeter and Mariano Rivera on their way to Cooperstown.

Where's the angst, the bitterness, the brushbacks? Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez don't square off at home plate anymore. The days of Don Zimmer sprinting out of the dugout and bull-rushing Pedro Martinez are over. Everything that created all that animosity -- the lopsided victory parade totals, the good versus evil casting, the very need for the 1978 one-game playoff -- has been dismantled. Both franchises will spend north of $170 million on players and both will likely play in October. You know it and they know it. So why should they beat their brains out against each other 18 times before then?

This is the problem, so let's fix it.

Stop playing 18 times a year. It's way too much. Make the division rivalries -- with all clubs, not just the Red Sox and Yankees -- special again. It's not an event if they play 18 times every season. Secondly and most importantly: add a wild-card spot and make the two wild-card teams in each league face off in a one-game playoff. Right now, teams are perfectly content to accept the wild card as a postseason entry rather than fight for the division title. However, if the AL East runner-up knows it can win 95 games only to have its season snuffed out in a one-game playoff loss to an 86-win team from another division, there is tremendous incentive not to settle for the wild card.

By adding another wild-card team for a one-game playoff, you instantly create a sense of urgency for the Red Sox and Yankees to push to avoid the danger of the one-game trap. Then you've made every regular-season Red Sox/Yankees game a must-win affair and once again the rivalry becomes what it used to be -- must-see TV. An extended wild-card series of three games doesn't nearly create the baseball Thunderdome effect you'd get with a one-game playoff and it cushions the blow of not winning the AL East. Anything can happen in a one-game playoff and anything will be done during the season to avoid playing that game.

The alternative is sitting through 18 four-hour Red Sox/Yankees meetings with none of them really meaning anything. After all, Boston has dominated this season's series, winning 10 of the 12 games so far, and does anyone, anywhere realistically think this is going to damage the Yankees' postseason chances? Of course not, and that point should be the most convincing argument of all that the rivalry is dead and something needs to be done.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.

Podcast: Stats, unis, Molinas and more

August, 5, 2011
8/05/11
5:09
PM ET
Today, Mark Simon and Steve Berthiaume were the hosts of Friday's Baseball Today podcast flit from topics sartorial, historical, statistical and more.

Which teams have classic looks, which ones have gone back to something classic to their team and city, and which ones ought to? Who has been the worst player of the month, and did we just see him get named? Mark and Steve don't see eye to eye on all of these topics, but that's a big part of the fun! Plus reader mail and more in today's podcast.
Derek JeterAnthony Gruppuso/US PresswireThe Yankees feature one of baseball's timeless uniforms.
Bill Parcells once said, "You are what you are," meaning that if your football team's record is 8-8, whatever circumstances you'd dealt with didn't really mean anything; in the end you were a .500 team. It sounds depressingly pessimistic but the attitude is actually something out of a Zen koan; it strips away attachment and perception and zooms in on the core of what you are. That's more of a performance issue but it gets us pointed in the general direction of baseball uniforms.

For that topic, I prefer this: Be who you are. This speaks more about identity in regard to baseball franchises; more specifically the marketing and branding of each team's personality. Be who you are. By that I mean more than just a discussion of which uniforms you like best. This runs a bit deeper. Because fans, more often that not in my experience, have strong connections to a team's particular logo or color choice, the uniforms those teams wear represent a traditional identity, the inner layer of the core.

Too many franchises have become lost in the marketing jungle. In an effort to be current or edgy some teams are sporting homogenized, corporate colors and logos that seem to deny their histories and traditions. A few might have had logos that were at one point considered hokey or outdated. I say, embrace the hokey. Wear it with pride. All thirty teams have colors and logos that represent their one genuine identity with which fans connect. There is a reason why I see so many fans walking around wearing old hats with former logos. There is a reason those who market the game seem to try and manufacture nostalgia at every turn. It's because we've lost some of it in a haze of generic logos or poorly conceived alternate jerseys which only seem to admit that a much larger mistake was made in the first place. Be who you are.

Here's a list, a subjective one to be sure, of those who embrace their true identities and carry on tradition by wearing them proudly and those who have lost their way and hopefully will soon hear their true selves calling from an overlooked closet in a back room somewhere.

THE TRADITIONALISTS: Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Royals, Phillies, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Giants, Rockies and Dodgers.

This group is the creme de la creme; the ultimate in uniform and logo identity. Their franchise logos are simple and timeless. Their uniforms are professional, classy, almost elegant. One can imagine that their current caps, uniforms and logos will stay as they are for another hundred years. From older ones like the Yankees and Tigers to newer editions like the Royals and Rockies, this group has found who they are, and their logos and colors are part of that identity.

THOSE ON THE CUSP: Rays, Orioles, Indians, White Sox, Twins, Angels, Rangers, A's, Mariners, Marlins, Nationals, Pirates, Reds and Diamondbacks.

This group is close with only small details still to be ironed out. Have you noticed Matt Wieters' Orioles catching helmet? It's got the old white front cap that reminds one of the O's World Series teams of 1979 and 1983. It's intended to. Same for Joe Mauer's Twins catching helmet. Minnesota's move back to the classic TC caps and the brilliantly huge "Minnie and Paul" shaking hands logo at Target Field is a perfect example of what this post is intended to be about. That logo, maybe it's hokey and a bit 1960s-ish, but it's who the Twins are and that makes it great. It would be nice if the Angels would follow suit and go back to their former blue and red look with the lower case a logo, circa the Brian Downing and Bob Boone teams of the mid-1980s, a look they've revisited a few times this season. The Nationals resurrected the Senators old "Curly W" logo and colors and furthered that identity this year. For better or worse that logo is baseball in Washington. Be who you are.

The Indians, Rangers, Pirates and Reds are all just about where they should be, although despite years of hanging on in Cleveland the Indians' Chief Wahoo logo is still objectionable. The A's and Marlins have found a way to make interesting color choices work for them while the Rays did a wonderful job of tossing out ugly colors and logos and have remade themselves virtually in their infancy. The same can be said of the Mariners and Diamondbacks who likely just need a few more years to establish their true selves after questionable starts. The White Sox could probably be included in "The Traditionalists" group, but in some far off place it feels like they should go back to the red-and-white look worn by Dick Allen and Bill Melton in the early '70s.

THE OFFENDERS: Mets, Blue Jays, Brewers, Astros and Padres.

The Mets are one step away from jumping up to "The Traditionalists" group: all that's left is for them to do away with those awful black jerseys and hats. The Mets have a classic logo and a beautiful clean, blue pinstripe look that would be among the best in the game -- if they'd stop polluting it.

The Blue Jays. Everyone on the team should be dressed like Ernie Whitt or Garth Iorg. Toronto won two World Series with its old Blue Jay bird logo and the light blue and white colors with the split lettering. Be who you are. Their current look is awful. Joe Carter jumped around the bases in a unique and classic look that needs to be brought back. When I look at Jose Bautista wearing number 19 at the Rogers Centre I should see Otto Velez at Exhibition Stadium.

The Brewers' current logo is the absolute worst example we have of a generic, watered-down marketing mistake. The old Barrelman logo that used to be on the side of County Stadium was a classic. The ball in the glove logo of the 1982 AL pennant-winning team speaks even more to the point: that is who the Brewers are. My key point here is that this is not about living in the past or simply yearning for nostalgia. Those logos and looks were the Brewers' real identity, what made them special. I see those logos on hats and tee shirts in the stands every time I watch the Brewers. Their current uniforms and logo might as well say ACME on them. The Twins went from a sterile, indoor field with a weird modern logo to a sparkling new outdoor stadium with their former and true logo placed high above center field as a proud badge of honor. The Brewers have done the complete opposite.

There is nothing wrong with the Astros' current look, it just falls under the corporate homogenization heading. Either go back to the classic Jose Cruz crazy horizontal stripes or -- if that's just too much for your eyes -- then the Rusty Staub/Jimmy Wynn look with the lettering across the chest over the comet, either one. That's who the Astros truly are. Regardless, they should always have orange hats with the star and the classic H logo. Attention incoming ownership: Be who you are.

The same thing goes for the Padres. The Padres are lost. Baseball in San Diego is supposed to be colored brown and gold. Nate Colbert and Dave Winfield wore brown and gold. There were several versions of this look over the years -- pick one. In 1971, Enzo Hernandez had only 12 RBIs in 618 plate appearances while wearing brown and gold. In 1984, Steve Garvey and Kurt Bevacqua rounded the bases with arms raised after big postseason home runs wearing brown and gold. The Padres should never be blue. For better or worse, the Padres and baseball in San Diego should be colored brown and gold. Be who you are.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN
John Lackey and Daisuke MatsuzakaGetty ImagesJohn Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are two free-agent acquisitions that haven't panned out as the Red Sox had hoped.
The Red Sox turned an uncomfortable ballpark relic into a tourist attraction cash cow, stamped their brand across New England through their regional sports network ("the Nation Station") and in less than a decade transformed their national identity from century-long sad sacks into corporate profiteers. They have money -- lots of it -- but haven't always spent wisely. Investments in scouting and development enabled Boston to trade three of its top prospects to San Diego for Adrian Gonzalez, who looks like the AL MVP this season. The Red Sox then spent another $154 million to keep Gonzalez in Boston through 2018. Gonzalez, however, appears to be the exception and not the rule when looking at the current regime's history of personnel investments. A spotty record of free-agent signings has come back to bite Boston before and may again in 2011.

JOHN LACKEY -- 5 YEARS, $82.5 MILLION. To say he's been a disappointment would be an understatement. After a 14-11, 4.40 debut with Boston in 2010, Lackey has regressed. He's 9-8 with a 6.23 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .303 against him. He's given up at least seven hits in 12 of his 18 starts, including seven of his past nine. Lackey's stuff is getting pounded. He's allowed 37 hits in 25 innings over his past four starts, but thanks to Boston's powerhouse offense Lackey is remarkably 3-0 in those four starts. His body language and mound hysterics when things go badly has been troubling and his near-total lack of effectiveness creates genuine concern about Boston's postseason rotation with Clay Buchholz possibly out for the season with a stress fracture in his back. Boston owes Lackey $15.25 million for each of the next three seasons after 2011.

J.D. DREW -- 5 YEARS, $70 MILLION. As a disappointing free-agent signing, Drew was Lackey's mirror image, but in terms of body language, his polar opposite; nothing fazed Drew. Red Sox fans were used to Kevin Youkilis slamming batting helmets or Trot Nixon toppling over right field walls. But there was Drew, seemingly unconcerned as he hit a parade of routine groundballs to second base, content to take ball four rather than swing away with a key run standing on second base, or out of the lineup again with another hamstring twinge. Red Sox fans accustomed to Sam Kinison's act at the Fenway Comedy Club instead got Steven Wright. Despite this, Drew has contributed. He's been an underrated defensive right fielder. His Boston résumé includes several clutch postseason hits, and his Wins Above Replacement with the Red Sox is 13.6. In 602 games in Boston, Drew has averaged .264 with 16 homers and 57 RBIs. His Red Sox OPS is .826. However, it's the $70 million figure and the placid exterior that will always define Drew's stay in Boston. He's batted just .219/.317/.305 in 77 games this season, creating a season-long search for another outfielder. In total, Drew's Red Sox contract may be a wash in terms of market value, but that doesn't change the fact that Boston has gotten almost nothing for its $14 million in this final year of the deal.

MIKE CAMERON -- 2 YEARS, $15.5 MILLION. When the Red Sox DFA'd Cameron on June 30, GM Theo Epstein could only tell The Boston Globe, "I'll take the hit on this one. When it doesn't work out you have to stand up and say that it didn't work out. We're not going to sugarcoat it." Cameron was signed prior to the 2010 season and given Jacoby Ellsbury's center-field spot, with Ellsbury shifting to left. The new outfield plan had to be scrapped almost as soon as it began. Ellsbury got injured and played only 18 games. Cameron would play in just 48. This season, Cameron looked every bit his 38 years of age, hitting .149 and finishing 3 for his last 38. Cameron and Drew were supposed to be a right-field platoon. Now Cameron is with the Marlins and Drew is injured, which has given Josh Reddick the chance for a breakthrough season. In this case, Boston's investment in player development filled a hole left by a failed decision to commit to Cameron.

BOBBY JENKS -- 2 YEARS, $12 MILLION. Jenks was supposed to be a key bullpen piece; the seventh-inning bridge to Daniel Bard in the eighth and then Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. Jenks' experience as the White Sox's closer was also considered insurance should Papelbon struggle. Instead, Jenks has blown his two save opportunities and has a 6.32 ERA and 2.23 WHIP in just 19 appearances. He's currently on the DL with a mid-back injury, for which he had a cortisone shot on July 28. Jenks' washout has left a hole in the Boston bullpen that still hasn't been filled. The Red Sox had other middle-relief options this winter. Jesse Crain got three years, $13 million from the White Sox; Matt Guerrier, three years, $12 million from the Dodgers; Scott Downs, three years, $15 million from the Angels. Boston chose a two-year deal for an overweight Jenks who had lost his closer's job in Chicago and it's been a disaster.

DAISUKE MATSUZAKA -- 6 YEARS, $52 MILLION. Add the $51,111,111 posting fee to the contract and it adds up to a mistake that cost Boston more than $100 million. Constant battles over Dice-K's preparation and routine were either clashes of culture and tradition or simple belligerence. He was the antithesis of everything American fans are told is smart pitching: content to work slowly, nibble and hand out bases on balls rather than pitch to contact. He drove people nuts. His career in Boston is already over. Out for this season due to Tommy John surgery, his recovery course won't have him back until next September, when his contract ends. For their $100 million-plus investment, the Red Sox got a return of 49 wins, a 4.25 ERA and 1.40 WHIP and another free-agent mistake that's created a rotation hole this year.

CARL CRAWFORD -- 7 YEARS, $142 MILLION. We don't know if Jose Reyes will get "Carl Crawford money" this winter but we do know that last winter, Carl Crawford did. We certainly don't yet know if he'll be worth it. Crawford hit .155 in April. What's followed has been a mixed bag: .304 in May, .278 in June, .250 in July. After five seasons of at least 50 stolen bases in Tampa Bay, Crawford's speed game has yet to arrive in Boston. You get the feeling that when Crawford's confidence in his batting stroke settles in, the chaos he created on the bases will return. His key for this season is likely health; Crawford recently missed 24 games with a hamstring strain and then last week reportedly needed an injection for a left elbow strain.

The free-agent decisions creating questions about this season in Boston are hardly without precedent. Edgar Renteria was signed to a four-year, $40 million dollar contract prior to 2005 and spent one disastrous season on Fenway Park's infield committing 30 errors, more than his previous two seasons in St. Louis combined, and had to be dealt the following winter. Eventually, the Red Sox paid Julio Lugo $36 million to play the position. Lugo batted just .247 over his first two seasons in Boston while his defense was an erratic adventure. He was essentially given away to the Cardinals while Boston spent a season-and-a-half paying Lugo's contract. The Red Sox made the emotional decision to bring Mike Lowell back after their 2007 World Series win, with a three-year, $37.5 million contract that yielded an average of .274, 13 HR and 58 RBIs as Lowell gamely limped through his final three seasons, the last of which saw Lowell able to make only four starts at third base because of injuries.

Deep pockets and a well-stocked farm system make all of these free-agent mistakes affordable. This Boston front office has done a great deal right. As with Gonzalez, it traded promising prospects for Josh Beckett and then paid big money to keep him. It picked up David Ortiz after he'd been released by the Twins and again, paid to keep him. The Red Sox have developed their own franchise cornerstones like Dustin Pedroia, Youkilis, Ellsbury and Jon Lester, plus Buchholz, Bard and Papelbon. Defensive whiz Jose Iglesias could take over at shortstop next year. First, the Red Sox need to overcome the stream of free-agent mistakes still in play this season.

(Justin Havens of the Baseball Tonight research force contributed to this post. Follow Justin on Twitter @jayhaykid.)

Follow Steve Berthiaume at Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone. What's different today? Not much, actually. In the American League the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers are still going to make the postseason, as will the Braves, Phillies and Giants (probably) in the National League. This we knew and still know. A few teams did nothing at the deadline. Some teams punted on 2011 and collected prospects, which is great but amounts to zero for the next two months. Some contenders picked up marginal pieces that will serve as mortar between established franchise bricks. Heath Bell, B.J. Upton and Hiroki Kuroda didn't go anywhere. So where do we find the biggest alterations as we scan the baseball landscape here on August 1?

[+] EnlargeKoji Uehara
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThe Rangers acquired Koji Uehara, whose 7.75 K/BB ratio is best among all AL relievers.
THE AL WEST. The Rangers have won the division. Not only that, they made themselves a team that will be very difficult to beat in the postseason. While the Angels did nothing, Texas instantly turned every game into a six-inning affair with the acquisitions of Koji Uehara and Mike Adams. Uehara simply gets people out. He's been under the radar in Baltimore but his 7.75 K/BB ratio is best among all AL relievers and his 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings is fifth-best among AL relievers. In his 92 innings of work over the past two seasons, Uehara has struck out 119 and walked only 13. Adams was the eighth-inning piece of a Padres relief corps that fell just one win shy of carrying San Diego and its anemic offense into the playoffs last season. Now, a Rangers bullpen that had been weakened by Alexi Ogando's move to the rotation and was lagging near the bottom of the American League rankings, is instantly one of the best in baseball.

THE INDIANS. On May 23 Cleveland was 30-15. Injuries then shot holes in its offense but instead of saying, "Well, we gave it a shot" and promising a brighter future, GM Chris Antonetti dealt part of that future to the Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez. They're in it -- not for later, but for right now. That's the biggest change in Cleveland: the attitude and approach to THIS season. Yes, it's a gamble. Accuscore simulated 10,000 seasons and projected the Tribe's postseason chances as increasing from 16.9 percent to 22.7 percent with the Ubaldo acquisition. Yes, there are concerns. The Rockies have insisted Jimenez is healthy despite an average fastball velocity that dropped from 96 mph in 2009 and 2010 to 93.2 mph this season. In Colorado, Jimenez went from the ace who finished third in the NL Cy Young voting to the Ferrari that's always in the shop. His mechanics were a mess and he went 0-5, 5.86 in his first nine starts this season with a 1.52 WHIP. He's been inching closer to his previous form lately: 6-4, 3.48 combined in June and July with 71 hits and 73 strikeouts in 72.1 innings. With Ubaldo in the rotation and rookies Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis debuting in the infield there is juice again in Cleveland, which begins August only 1 game over .500 but just 2.5 games back in the AL Central.

THE CARDINALS' DEFENSE. It's been, to be kind, poor this season: a -25 Defensive Runs Saved mark that ranks 12th in the NL. Replacing Ryan Theriot at shortstop with Rafael Furcal is a start. At the time of his acquisition from the Dodgers, Furcal had a -2 Defensive Runs Saved rating in 304.1 innings. Theriot's DRS in 743 innings was a staggering -14, worst among shortstops in 2011. Furcal had a +7 mark over the previous three seasons combined. Yes, the trade of Colby Rasmus to Toronto actually does make St. Louis better defensively in center field as well. Rasmus' Defensive Runs Saved rating was -1, meaning his defense had cost the Cardinals one run compared to an average center fielder. Jon Jay, who now figures to get the bulk of the work in center, had 10 Defensive Runs Saved split between all three outfield spots, including +6 in centerfield. Jay's +10 DRS ranks tied for eighth-best among all major league outfielders.

HUNTER PENCE. He's gone from a virtual one-man show in Houston to an ensemble cast in Philadelphia where he got a standing ovation as he ran out to his new right field position at Citizens Bank Park Saturday and another one when he strolled up for his first at-bat in a Phillies uniform. Here, he'll simply blend into the team's personality and not be the face of the franchise on the media guide cover. Pence is the right-handed bat Philadelphia's lineup has been crying out for all season; the Phillies' OBP against left-handed pitching is just .308, tied for 24th in the majors. Their .356 slugging percentage against lefties ranks 25th. The Phillies' corner outfield defense has been horrific with Domonic Brown and Raul Ibanez combining for -18 Defensive Runs Saved. Since 2010, Pence ranks fifth among all right fielders with 12 Defensive Runs Saved. Pence's role on the team and his fit in the Phillies' lineup represents the biggest change in the NL East. Yes, Michael Bourn is a great addition to the Braves, but Atlanta's biggest question is arguably the health and production of Chipper Jones, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla. If those three aren't active contributors to the Braves' offense it marginalizes the trade for Bourn. There are no such concerns in Philadelphia.

THE ASTROS. Not only did Houston deal Pence, Bourn and Jeff Keppinger at the deadline, GM Ed Wade came up with a surprise last-minute punch line by sending the Astros' two young corner infielders, Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson, down to Triple-A. That makes five starters gone from the roster in less than two weeks. The Astros didn't take a step backward, they took a step back off the edge of the Grand Canyon. The only major league player they acquired at the deadline, Jordan Schafer from the Braves, is injured and won't be able to play for about 10 days. Still more Astros could be on the next bus out of Houston. Wandy Rodriguez is owed at least $25.5 million over the next two seasons and could still be moved through waivers. The same goes for Brett Myers, who's owed at least $14 million after this year. The Astros have picked up 10 players and prospects while trimming payroll to get ready for new ownership to come in and take over. From the very top of the organization to the very bottom, the Astros are essentially calling a do-over.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.

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