SweetSpot: Tampa Bay Rays

With the news that Jacob deGrom has been shut down by the New York Mets and after watching Yordano Ventura deliver another impressive performance Tuesday night for the Kansas City Royals, it seems like a good time to review the 2014 rookie class. Here's my all-rookie team, based on 2014 performance, not future value.

Catcher: Travis d'Arnaud, Mets (.242/.302/.416, 0.4 WAR)
His overall batting numbers aren't great, but he flashed some of the potential prospect analysts had long seen at the plate, including a .265/.313/.474 line in the second half. More importantly, he stayed relatively healthy, always a problem for him in the minors. The defense is still an issue: His 19 percent caught stealing rate is well below league average -- teammate Anthony Recker was at 41 percent -- and he allowed 12 passed balls and 39 wild pitches, also well above Recker's rates. D'Arnaud is 25, so I'm not sure how much growth there is in him, but if he can match his second-half production over a full season and clean up the defense, he is going to be a solid role player.

Others: Caleb Joseph, Orioles; Christian Vazquez, Red Sox; Christian Bethancourt, Braves; Josmil Pinto, Twins. Joseph has been a huge bonus for the Orioles, filling in for Matt Wieters. Vazquez and Bethancourt are defense-first guys with questionable bats. Pinto allowed 19 steals in 19 attempts and ended up going back to Triple-A for a couple months.

First base: Jose Abreu, White Sox (.316/.382/.582, 5.3 WAR)
Yeah, he can hit big league pitching. Abreu is leading the American League in slugging percentage and ranks sixth in on-base percentage. He's not the MVP of the league -- that's Mike Trout -- but he should finish high in the voting even though he doesn't have much value on defense. Here's one thing I love most about his season: In the first half, Abreu hit .292 with 29 home runs but had an 82-22 strikeout-walk ratio. In the second half, he has hit .352 with six home runs and has a 45-27 strikeout-walk ratio. Should we be concerned about the drop in power? I don't think so. His fly ball rate has dropped about 5 percent from the first half, which could be some fatigue or pitchers just working him a little more carefully, but I like that he has improved his control of the strike zone, showing he's a hitter and not just a slugger.

Others: Jonathan Singleton of the Astros has hit .168 in 356 plate appearances with 133 strikeouts. He walks, has shown power and just turned 23, but .168 is .168.

SportsNation

Which position player would you most want for the next six years?

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Discuss (Total votes: 847)

Second base: Kolten Wong, Cardinals (.252/.295/.396, 2.1 WAR)
The most impressive season, however, may be from Rougned Odor of the Rangers, who has essentially the same batting line as Wong but is three years younger. Wong rates higher due to better defense and baserunning, but Odor is the guy I'd take for the future.

Others: Javier Baez, Cubs; Jonathan Schoop, Orioles; Joe Panik, Giants; Tommy La Stella, Braves. Would you rather have Baez or Odor? Baez is a year older and has hit .164. Odor was rushed to the majors due to all the injuries in Texas with just 62 games above Class A, whereas Baez had 158 games above Class A. Like Baez, Odor is an aggressive swinger at the plate, although with better contact skills. It will be interesting to see how these two develop.

Third base: Nick Castellanos, Tigers (.264/.310/.397, -1.5 WAR)
Wait, negative WAR? That's because he has rated as the worst defensive player in the majors via defensive runs saved, with minus-31. In looking at the numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, Castellanos has been credited with 30 good fielding plays and 37 defensive misplays and errors. The misplays and errors aren't out of line with the best defenders, but the good plays are near the bottom of the list. Josh Donaldson, for example, leads with 75. Castellanos' raw range factor is half a play per game lower than league average. It just looks a guy who doesn't have the range and reaction time to be a good defensive third baseman (not that he can't improve). Anyway, the bat hasn't been anything special, but he's just 22 and has popped 45 extra-base hits.

Others: Yangervis Solarte, Padres; Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks. Lamb should retain rookie eligibility for next season if he sits a couple more games this final week.

Shortstop: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox (.237/.297/.362, 0.3 WAR)
He didn't have the year everyone expected, but he's going to be an excellent player.

Outfield: Billy Hamilton, Reds (.251/.293/.357, 2.5 WAR); George Springer, Astros (.231/.336/,468, 2.0 WAR); Danny Santana, Twins (.314/.351/.469, 3.5 WAR)
Hamilton has plummeted to a .202/.256/.259 line in the second half after showing some surprising pop in the first half. His base stealing hasn't been that electric as he has 56 stolen bases but has a league-leading 23 caught stealings. There have been reports he has had some leg issues, but regardless, he is going to have to improve that percentage and get stronger to get through an entire season. Springer's season was cut short by injury while Santana has been the big surprise as he never hit like this in the minors.

Others: Gregory Polanco, Pirates; Oscar Taveras, Cardinals; Mookie Betts, Red Sox; Arismendy Alcantara, Cubs; Ender Inciarte, Diamondbacks; Kevin Kiermaier, Rays. Those players all used up their rookie eligibility, with mixed results. Inciarte has the highest WAR of any rookie outfielder at 3.6 thanks to a terrific defensive rating.

SP: Collin McHugh, Astros (11-9, 2.73 ERA, 4.3 WAR); Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees (13-4, 2.47 ERA, 4.0 WAR); Yordano Ventura, Royals (14-10, 3.07 ERA, 3.5 WAR); Jacob deGrom, Mets (9-6, 2.63 ERA, 3.0 WAR); Matt Shoemaker, Angels (16-4, 3.04 ERA, 2.3 WAR)
It's an interesting group. McHugh was plucked off waivers from the Rockies; Shoemaker was basically a nonprospect who got a chance due to injuries in the Angels' rotation; deGrom was a second-tier prospect, but nobody expected this; Ventura was a highly rated prospect due to that explosive fastball; and Tanaka, of course, was the prized free agent from Japan. Lesson: Good pitchers can come from anywhere.

Others: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs; Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays; Jake Odorizzi, Rays; Tyler Matzek, Rockies; James Paxton, Mariners; Trevor Bauer, Indians; Shane Greene, Yankees; Roenis Elias, Mariners; Kevin Gausman, Orioles. Many others, of course, but those are some I like.

Reliever: Dellin Betances, Yankees (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 3.7 WAR)
With 135 strikeouts and just 46 hits allowed in 90 innings, he's had maybe the best relief season of any pitcher in the majors -- tied with Wade Davis of the Royals in WAR. With David Robertson a free agent, it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do. Betances is probably more valuable as a 90-inning setup guy than a 70-inning closer.

Overall, I'd rate this rookie class as average in production -- good on the pitching side, weak on the hitting side once you get past Abreu -- but with the potential to be better over the long haul with guys like Bogaerts, Polanco, Taveras, Baez, Odor and Springer having star potential.

My rookies of the year: Jose Abreu and Jacob deGrom.

The Rays' next ace: Alex Cobb

August, 30, 2014
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Alex CobbAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Rays' Alex Cobb has been among the best pitchers in baseball this month.

To describe Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb’s unusual windup, his pitching coach Jim Hickey has to actually go through the motion as he talks on the phone from his hotel room in Baltimore.

“He has a lot of quirky things going on,” Hickey said with a laugh.

Quirky, but ultimately extremely effective for the repertoire Cobb possesses.

The Tampa Bay starting rotation has jointly teamed to fill the void left by the departure of David Price.

Cobb has come up big almost every time he has taken the ball of late. He’s 9-6 this season, but he is 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA and no home runs allowed in his last seven starts heading into Sunday’s start against the Red Sox. The Rays might be out of the postseason race, but he has the look of someone who is taking his game to a higher level.

Cobb is at or near the top of the list in two notable, important statistics that go hand in hand with his success.

FanGraphs.com tracks a “run value” statistic to measure the effectiveness of the various pitch types. Positive results (strikes and outs) add to the value number. Negative results subtract from it. The more important the game situation, the bigger the reward or debit for each pitch.

Cobb’s changeup, for example, has accumulated 20 runs of value, meaning it is a pitch that has gotten significantly better than average results. The only pitcher with a changeup whose value is greater than Cobb’s is Felix Hernandez (22 runs).

“He can throw the changeup in any count,” said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez, who had to prep his team for Cobb while coaching the Marlins and Astros. “It’s his go-to pitch. He has the ability to pitch backwards in one start [throwing a lot of changeups early in counts], then in the next start, he pitches off his fastball and keeps hitters off balance.”

Pitchers with elite changeups are hard to hit, and Cobb rates best in another stat -- hard-hit rate. Inside Edge, a video-tracking service that provides data to teams and media, charts every batted ball, rating each as hit soft, medium or hard.

Cobb has the lowest hard-hit rate of anyone with at least 80 innings pitched this season. He has allowed hard-hit balls in only 9 percent of the at-bats against him.

In Cobb’s past three starts, he has allowed a total of one hard-hit ball and passed White Sox ace Chris Sale for the hard-hit rate lead.

Pitching is an evolving process, and Cobb has discovered that what works best for him is different from what works for most other pitchers. His windup includes a pause point midwindup and a leg kick that would be best described as nontraditional.

If he hits his checkpoints (as Hickey referred to them), he’s in good position to throw any one of three pitches (fastball, curveball and the changeup) that have a similar spin.

“Most people do a leg kick where they bend their knee 45-degree angle to third base,” Cobb said earlier this week. “I try to reach to the catcher by squeezing my hip. That’s where the pause comes into play. It’s not to distract the hitter. I just want my arm to catch up to the rest of my body. A lot of people have told me that the pause messes with hitters. That’s just a bonus.”

“When he’s at his highest, he needs to be over the rubber,” Hickey said. “His arm is almost forming a C, it needs to feel like his arm is right over his head.

“That translates into a downhill plane. When he’s doing that regularly, you know he’s going to have a good day. You can usually tell from his first pitch or two in the bullpen.”

But getting to this point of 2014 wasn’t easy.

An oblique injury three starts into the season cost him six weeks and was one of several things that vexed the Rays early on.

When Cobb came back, he had a couple of good starts but also had a few in which he got pummeled, and there was a three-start span in which he lasted five innings in each.

“I hit a stretch where I was lost and I had to learn how to pitch all over again,” Cobb said. “Trying to do that while getting out major league hitters is not easy. At the All-Star break, I sat back, but I was still lost, wasn’t comfortable, was still all over the place, and I felt like I had exerted all the different types of problem-solving to try to fix it.

"I was talking with Hickey and Chris Archer, and they said I was too rotational, that the ball was sailing up and over the plate, rather than at a downward angle. I was playing catch before a game in St. Louis and the first ball I threw, it clicked; I threw seven scoreless innings.

"Besides the results, it was a relief to figure out the mechanics again. Now, I feel comfortable. When I throw, if I miss, I know why I miss. I get instant feedback.”

More often than not, Cobb has been right on. His changeup (which he throws more often than any other starting pitcher in baseball) drops similar to a split-fingered fastball, thanks to a grip that is a hybrid of the two pitches, and averages 87 mph (a drop of only 4-5 mph off his fastball). The amount of break on his curveball ranks among the top five in the game (it’s identical to that of Hernandez).

“If you’re a hitter, you can’t see the spin and say, 'That’s a changeup,'" Hickey said in explaining the success of the pitch. "It’s camouflaged. It really bottoms out. With the curveball, it’s the bite -- it has no hump. It comes out on the same plane as his fastball.”

With the Rays having traded Price and James Shields over the past two seasons, the team is ushering in a new era of pitching in which leadership is a tandem effort.

Cobb, Archer, Jeremy Hellickson and currently injured Matt Moore all have taken on important roles. They’ve welcomed in the new guys -- Jake Odorizzi (obtained in the Shields trade) and Drew Smyly (acquired in the Price deal), both of whom have fit in seamlessly.

“Our group adopted the Shields and Price attitude,” Cobb said. “I don’t think we’ve missed a beat because of what those two guys did when they were here. We knew it would be a tough transition.

"We all came up together," Cobb said of Hellickson, Archer, Moore and himself, "so I think it would be odd if one of us said, ‘I’m the leader of the staff now.’ When we have a new guy like Smyly come in, we collectively help him get comfortable.”

Cobb said that the idea of being an ace is more a tag for fans and media to latch on to. The way he has pitched lately, Cobb might hear more talk of that down the road.

“He has the makeup of a leader of a staff,” said one longtime major league scout. “His stuff and velocity won’t wow you, but his pitchability will. Does he have the stuff of Shields or Price? Not yet. But he has the other intangibles to get to that point. I’m a fan of his. He’s definitely going in the right direction.”
1. A big night in the AL Central.

The Royals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins 6-1 ... which came a couple hours after David Price allowed -- not a typo -- nine consecutive hits in the third inning as the Yankees scored eight runs. Most of the hits were not cheapies, either. The inning went:

Single, double, single, double, single, single, single, infield single, single. Four of the hits were ground balls but only two of those were soft. Price became the first pitcher since Bob Forsch in 1989 to allow nine hits in a row. As our friend Jonah Keri tweeted, the Yankees scored more runs that inning than Drew Smyly has allowed in his five starts with Tampa Bay since being traded for Price.

As for the Royals, here's a stat: Before Tuesday, the Twins had lost just two games all season they led heading into the eighth inning. The Royals rallied two nights in a row in the ninth and eighth innings.

2. Speaking of Smyly ... he's good.

You don't want to overreact to five starts, but in those five starts Smyly has allowed just six runs. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday and allowing just two hits in seven innings, he became the second Rays pitcher to pitch at least seven innings and allow two hits or fewer in consecutive starts. Bottom line: For those who think the Rays didn't get enough in return for Price, think again; Smyly is more than just a back-end starter.

We all loved this trade for the Tigers because we overfocused for the Tigers, but it's fair to ask: How much is Dave Dombrowski sweating right now?



3. The Cubs are worth watching down the stretch.

I mentioned Javier Baez in non-pennant race news on Tuesday, and now we discuss Jorge Soler, the dynamic Cuban right fielder who debuted for the Cubs on Wednesday ... and promptly slammed a Mat Latos fastball for a home run in his first at-bat. Soler is the same physical presence as Baez but his minor numbers suggest a swing with a little more control: He struck out 48 times in 200 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A (hitting .340/.432/.700) compared to Baez's 130 K's in 388 at-bats. That's still a high strikeout rate, so he may face the same initial struggles as Baez. Soler's biggest issue has been staying healthy: He had a fractured tibia last year and had injuries to both hamstrings that forced him to miss most of April and May this year. But with 15 home runs in 62 minor-league games, the power potential resembles Baez's.

Now ... let's hope the Cubs call up Kris Bryant. I don't want to hear about service time and all that. He's ready for the big leagues.

4. Eric O'Flaherty, A's closer, for now.

Oakland's first save opportunity since Sean Doolittle went to the former Braves lefty, who has pitched well in limited action for the A's so far. He gave up a run to the Astros but preserved the 5-4 win. (The A's scored three off Chad Qualls in the top of the ninth, with Sam Fuld hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer.)

Also note: Drew Pomeranz, good outing. Pomeranz didn't replace Jason Hammel in the rotation, but was taking a start to give Sonny Gray an extra day of rest. But he pitched well enough if that Bob Melvin may give him another one.

5. Give these guys Gold Gloves.

1. Alex Gordon.
2. Juan Lagares.
3. Andrelton Simmons.

Maybe the three best defensive players in the game.

Watch out for these spoilers

August, 13, 2014
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Let's take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss some of the teams on the fringes of the playoff races or those that have already made their October reservations at their favorite golf courses.

These teams are usually known as spoilers, but in this Year of Parity it's probable that one of them will actually go into the final week of the season with a chance to win a wild card. These are five teams currently under .500 that I expect to play well down the stretch.

1. Miami Marlins
[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
AP Photo/Joe SkipperGiancarlo Stanton is a big reason why contenders won't want to face the Marlins down the stretch.

We saw what can make them so dangerous on Tuesday, when they beat Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals 3-0 behind new acquisition Jarred Cosart, who pitched seven innings of three-hit baseball. Cosart has a good arm and throws a hard sinking fastball that generates a lot of ground balls -- when he can throw it for strikes as he did against the Cardinals with just one walk. The Astros were willing to punt on him after he had four straight bad starts in July and some perceived attitude problems that he didn't take well to instruction didn't help. Maybe a change of scenery will help; he's just 24 with 32 career starts now, young enough for things to click.

The Marlins are 59-60, and while they're mediocre, they're a young team incentivized to win and they have one of the No. 1 guys in the game who can beat you, Giancarlo Stanton. Witness Monday night, when his two bombs powered the Marlins to a 6-5 win over the Cardinals. They're just 3.5 games out of the second wild card -- thank you, National League -- so they certainly aren't out of the playoff picture. But until All-Star Henderson Alvarez returns, the rotation is shaky enough that veteran Brad Penny started the other day and won his first game since 2011.

Watch out: Braves (six games remaining) and Nationals (eight games).

2. Tampa Bay Rays

Like the Marlins, they're hanging in there at 5.5 games out of the second wild card, although they'd have to pass five teams to secure that position. Still, even without David Price, this could be a team that reels off nine wins in 10 games and suddenly gets right back in the thick of things.

Guess which team has the allowed the fewest runs per game since the All-Star break? That's why you can't count out the Rays just yet.

Plus, Evan Longoria has a big hot streak in him, right?

Watch out: Yankees (nine games), Blue Jays (nine games), Orioles (seven games).

3. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are out of it, but they've arguably been better than their 51-67 record indicates. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at FanGraphs the other day, the Cubs and Royals have basically the same BaseRuns record. What the heck does that mean? Just more sabermetric gobbledy gook? BaseRuns calculates how many runs a team "should" have scored or allowed, given a team's component statistics. Basically, the difference is that the Royals have been clutch and the Cubs have not.

What's that mean over the final weeks? Clutch isn't viewed in sabermetric circles as a predictable and repeatable skill, so it's possible the Cubs clutch up down the stretch and improve their hitting and pitching with runners on base or in close games or what have you.

Plus, the Cubs have some weapons that can beat you. Kyle Hendricks continues to look good in the rotation, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 3-0 on Tuesday. Anthony Rizzo is a power bat in the middle of the lineup -- he hit his 26th home run -- and young guys such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could be intriguing down the stretch. Jake Arrieta had the one blowup start last week but has otherwise been pitching like a No. 1; you don't want to face him. Plus, we may see Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler called up as well.

Watch out: Brewers (eight games), Cardinals (seven games), Pirates (six games).

4. San Diego Padres

The Padres? The team that hit .171 in June? Yes, the Padres. But they can pitch and have gone 14-8 since the All-Star break. In particular, you don't want to run into Tyson Ross, who hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his past nine starts.

Watch out: Dodgers (nine games), Giants (seven games), Cardinals (four games).

5. Houston Astros

Well, I don't know about the Astros, but Chris Carter can single-handedly beat you with one three-run homer. He homered again on Tuesday and leads the majors with 15 big ones since the beginning of July -- five more than Stanton, the No. 2 guy. With 36 RBIs in 33 games, he has delivered a lot of damage lately. The pitching hasn't been very good of late, but the Astros have played well at times this year. Once George Springer returns to join Carter and Jose Altuve in the lineup, there may be just enough offense here to scare up some wins.

Watch out: A's (six games), Mariners (six games), Angels (five games).

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 8, 2014
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So how's that deadline deal working out for your team? Got buyer's remorse yet? Injuries continue to be the underlying ripcurrent across the MLB ocean and this week saw some unfortunate ones, as Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutcheon were both hurt (really, Tony?), and the already injured Cliff Lee was officially shelved for the season. Lesser names -- but still big impact to their teams -- like David Phelps and the newly acquired Allen Craig -- also hit the DL. By the way, what happened to preseason MVP candidate Bryce Harper?

Speaking of bad news, pseudo-doctor Tony Bosch surrendered and plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids. I don't much care to hear any more names. Having just read "Blood Sport" about Bosch and Biogenesis and the infiltration of PEDs throughout baseball, the need for more dirt to be thrown on this great game isn't there for me.

But at least Cubbies fans get their latest peek at their future, with the call-up of Javier Baez. And there's always the feel-good stories like Jose Abreu, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout to bring you back. Lastly, a hearty congrats to A.J. Preller, the new GM of the San Diego Padres. You hirin', bro?

On to the best of the SweetSpot Network this week, touching on some of these issues:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Operation Beanball is the newest embarrassment: After Paul Goldschmidt's hand was broken last Friday, the D-backs, from Miguel Montero up to Tony La Russa, were outspoken about retaliation. As Jeff Wiser explains, the club's conduct is adding insult to injury. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Caleb Joseph is an All-Star: Jon Shepherd delves into the surprising season Caleb Joseph has had, going from unprotected in the Rule 5 draft to, perhaps, being one of the best catchers in baseball. Of course, you know, small sample size. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Zingers in da clubhouse: What's it like to have media access for the first time? Richard Bergstrom literally walks through the Rockies clubhouse, dugout and press box and even talks to a player or two without goofing up too much. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Will Alex Meyer pitch in the majors this year? Twins fans have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the top pitching prospect, but Nick Nelson explains why they may be waiting until 2015. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
Whither the 2015 rotation: Domenic Lanza looks ahead to the Yankees' options for the 2015 rotation. All told, it's not that bad if they can make the moves to land some of the available arms. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza.

McCarthy mixes fastballs brilliantly to tame the Tigers: Brandon McCarthy has pitched well since joining the Yankees in July. Brad Vietrogoski examined his latest start against the Tigers and illustrates just how good he was at mixing his pitches. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
With trade, both Cardinals and Red Sox may have relied on availability heuristic: Let’s take another look at the deadline trade involving John Lackey, Corey Littrell, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. What made the teams’ respective GMs pull the trigger on this particular package of players? Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Watching Nick Franklin: R.J. Anderson breaks down the strengths and weakness of the new Rays infielder. Follow on Twitter: @R_J_Anderson.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
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.


This is the Tampa Bay Rays team I predicted before the season would win the World Series. Oh, they're still missing a few key parts -- Matt Moore is out for the season and Wil Myers is still on the disabled list until mid-August or so after breaking his wrist -- but we're finally seeing the Rays play like the team we've grown to appreciate since 2008.

You know what those teams have been about: starting pitching, defense and enough offense to win 90 games in five of the past six seasons.

For much of the season, the Rays' rotation struggled, beginning with Moore's Tommy John surgery. In early June, the Rays had the worst record in the majors. They were 24-42 on June 10, had lost 14 of 15 and Rays fans must have had visions of Dewon Brazelton and Doug Waechter. On that date, the Rays ranked 22nd in the majors with a 4.10 ERA; the starters ranked 20th with a 4.08 ERA.

Since then, however, the Rays have gone 29-12, including 11 wins in their past 12 games. The pitching staff ranks third in the majors since June 10 with a 2.85 ERA and the starters own a 2.90 ERA, second only to the Padres.

Alex Cobb pitched the latest gem in Tuesday's 5-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers: 8 IP, 3 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 12 strikeouts, 101 efficient pitches in dominating a solid lineup. Cobb was a key to Tampa's playoff run last year, going 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA, his season interrupted by a concussion after getting hit by a line drive. This year, he missed six weeks with a strained oblique, but in his past two starts (10 strikeouts and no runs in his previous outing) his changeup has been dancing and diving again like 2013.

[+] EnlargeAlex Cobb
Brian Blanco/Getty ImagesAlex Cobb's in-season turnaround has helped the Rays recover their ambitions for this season -- and next.
Against the Brewers, eight of his 12 strikeouts came with his changeup. He threw the pitch 44 times, will throw it on any count and the Brewers went 1-for-9 against it. It dives away from left-handers and in to righties and it's a wipeout pitch -- batters are hitting .167 against it this season.

With Cobb back in a groove, the Rays now feature a rotation of David Price, Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, with Jeremy Hellickson, who has made two starts after missing most of the season, back as the fifth guy. Right now, I'd argue it's as good a group as any in the majors.

And it should remain that way. In other words, the Rays need to keep Price.

I get it. We've been talking about Price getting traded ever since the Rays hit rock bottom. They were 15 games out of first place; we should have been talking about Price being traded. We know how the Rays operate; they have to constantly churn their best players for younger, cheaper players. Price is a free agent after 2015, they won't be able to afford him, so they have to trade him. Or so everyone says.

Then they got hot. Now it's clear: They're in the playoff hunt. When the night began, the FanGraphs/Coolstandings playoffs odds that we also run here at ESPN gave the Rays a 7 percent chance of winning the AL East and a 14.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. Those aren't great odds, but those odds are good enough to warrant keeping Price and giving your team a chance. In 1914, we had the Miracle Boston Braves, who went from last place on July 18 to a World Series title. In 2014, why not the Miracle Tampa Bay Rays?

I'd even suggest this: Keep Price -- and Ben Zobrist, another free agent after 2015 -- for next season as well. I think of it this way: What gives the Rays the best chance of winning a World Series this year and next? A team with two of their three best players or a team without two of their three best players? Pretty obvious.

"But the future."

To which I say: Worry about the future when the future arrives. Plus, the Rays are kind of in a unique situation anyway. It's not as if winning 90 games every season has driven their attendance to new levels; they're last in the majors in average attendance this year, they were last in 2013 and they were last in 2012. The Rays don't depend on winning for revenue as much as they rely on revenue sharing, which will come whether the team is good or bad.

The perpetual churn is necessary to keep winning and Joe Maddon and the front office have the pride to stay competitive every year, but does the turnover give the Rays the best chance at winning? Not in 2014 and not in 2015. Plus, there's no guarantee a Price trade will work out or that the Rays won't fall apart in three years regardless of what happens to Price.

It reminds me of when the Twins traded Johan Santana when he had one year left before free agency. That trade ended up not helping the Twins, and in 2008, minus Santana, they lost the AL Central to the White Sox in a tiebreaker game. If they had kept Santana, they probably would've won the division and maybe would have ridden Santana to a World Series title.

The Rays can do that with Price and the other young pitchers behind him in the rotation. Go for it. Try to win now. Imagine that.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
5:34
PM ET
We honored some new Hall of Famers on Sunday (Why just one, Braves?), including the unique and powerful Frank Thomas. The Hall also announced that the eligibility period will be decreased, which can hurt some players and could be a mistake. Meanwhile, the Hall of Very Good remembers Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva). Let's recap the best of the week that was here at the SweetSpot Network, as well as the best from our member sites.

Oh, and the trade season is upon us (Jake Peavy to the Giants; Kendrys Morales to the Mariners) and plenty of other chatter as the deadline is fast approaching and the Rays won't lose.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Prado once again finds patience is a virtue: Martin Prado is an unusual contact hitter in that he typically has one of the lowest swing rates in the majors. Jeffrey Bellone checks in on Prado's recent success. Follow on Twitter: @JeffreyBellone.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Who is the real Travis Wood? Noah Eisner takes a look at the performance of Wood compared to what we saw last year. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The AL Central in 2015: With the White Sox far out of contention, Nick Schaefer looks ahead to how the division race will look next year. You won't believe this: The White Sox team blog is optimistic about their team's future. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians' best defender is ... Carlos Santana? Ryan McCrystal evaluates Santana's performance at first base, and how he's evolved into one of the more reliable defensive players on an otherwise shaky defensive squad.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies Zingers first-half highlights: From Doctor Who parodies and Hologram John Denver, to swing mechanics and breaking unwritten rules, Rockies Zingers recaps the analysis and silliness from the first half, with features such as Denver comic Adam Cayton-Holland's experience throwing out the first pitch, Jason Hirsh discussing arm care and Maury Brown's opinion on whether the Rockies should be scared of the Dodgers' payroll. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Appreciating the amazing David Robertson: Katie Sharp breaks down just how dominant D-Rob has been this year in his first season manning the Yankee closer throne. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Cashman deserves props for recent moves: Brad Vietrogoski examines the recent trades made by the Yankees and gives Brian Cashman credit for bringing in solid-to-very good value without giving up much in return. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Outfield offensive production rather shabby: Cardinals outfielders haven't produced much at the plate, and to make matters worse, they waste chances when they do actually reach base through poor base running. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
New Phil Hughes meets old Danks theory: The Rays continued their winning ways in the second half by using an unconventional lineup against the Twins' Phil Hughes as Tommy Rancel explains. Follow on Twitter: @TRancel.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Uncertain future for both Price and Lester

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
12:01
AM ET

The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays entered the opener of their three-game series Friday night at Tropicana Field with similar stories: season-long struggles along with questions about how to handle the contracts of their ace starting pitchers.

Boston's honeymoon with its third World Series triumph in 10 seasons quickly waned as they coped with replacing Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew (he re-signed with the Red Sox in late May), as well as dealing with the oft-injured Shane Victorino. Xander Bogaerts (.665 OPS) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.622) have each experienced growing pains in their first full seasons. The offense, as a whole, has been wretched for most of the year, batting a collective .248 with only 79 homers before Friday (both figures 12th best in the American League).

On the mound, the Red Sox's rotation has been wildly uneven as Jake Peavy has seen a return of his gopheritis (AL-worst 20 homers allowed) and Clay Buchholz has yielded nearly 11 hits per nine innings. However, John Lackey has continued his career revival with a 3.47 FIP (his lowest since 2005) and Rubby De La Rosa has shown flashes of promise. Staff ace Jon Lester entered Friday's game with a career-high 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a .238 opponents' batting average and a .638 opponents' OPS.

But Lester is also in the final season of a six-year, $43 million deal, and talks regarding a new contract have now been set aside until the end of the season, at Lester’s request. While he appears willing (and wanting) to remain with the Red Sox, even with a small "hometown discount," the Red Sox's reported four-year, $70 million offer in spring training was likely far lower than what Lester had in mind. So now, with Boston having lost three of four to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Sox sat at 47-55, 6½ games out of the second wild card and 9½ games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. Their playoff odds were at 2.4 percent as of Friday. As such, Lester could be entering the final two months of his Red Sox career, or he might even be traded by the July 31 trade deadline.

On the other side of the field, the Rays came off their fourth consecutive 90-win season with reason for optimism. They'd have a full season of Wil Myers to build on his .831 OPS. Matt Moore, off a 150-inning campaign, would have his innings cap loosened. They would count on growth from Chris Archer, who acquitted himself well over 23 starts, finishing third in the AL rookie of the year vote. Evan Longoria would be his usual self. The division certainly appeared winnable.

However, Longoria has posted a career-low .396 slugging percentage and .728 OPS to this point in 2014. Myers was hitting only .227 when he landed on the disabled list in early June with a wrist fracture. Moore succumbed to Tommy John surgery in April, and Alex Cobb spent the first six weeks of the season out with a side injury. Jeremy Hellickson had elbow surgery in January and just made it back to Tampa three weeks ago. The catchers were hitting a combined .200 (68-for-340) with only 13 extra-base hits for the season. The team hit its nadir June 10 at 24-42 and 15 games out of first place.

It was looking more and more likely that David Price, due for perhaps a $20 million arbitration salary in 2015 before hitting free agency that November, would be dealt sooner rather than later. If so, it would be a bitter pill for Rays fans, as Price is having perhaps his best season ever (career bests of 1.04 WHIP, 8.2 strikeout-to-walk rate, 10 K's and 1.2 walks per nine innings, 3.01 FIP).

Then, the Rays righted themselves and won 25 of their next 36, leaving them at 49-53 and only 4½ games out of the second wild card. Their playoff odds were still only 10.2 percent, but given their track record -- and the mediocrity of the division -- who would count them out? As a result, seemingly the most tradable front-line starter on the market might be staying put a while longer … or Friday night might still possibly be his last start in a Rays uniform.

If it was to be each ace's last start for his respective club, each left a terrific impression on the 23,136 fans in attendance, as well as scouts from no less than 17 teams (as reported by Gordon Edes early in the evening). The Rays went on to beat the Red Sox 6-4 as Price was the crisper and more efficient of the two, mixing fastballs from 92 to 95 miles per hour with changeups and curves that nipped the corners all night long. He did make a mistake in the second inning, leaving a pitch over the plate for Victorino to knock into the left-field stands for only his second homer of the season. Aside from that, he breezed through the first five innings in 60 pitches, yielding only three hits while striking out six without a walk.

Lester nursed that slim lead through four innings before getting touched for a two-run homer by Desmond Jennings with two outs in the fifth. He yielded a single and a walk after that but got Longoria to fly out to left field to escape further damage. He needed 35 pitches to get through the inning, bringing him to 98 on the night.

The Sox got to Price for two runs in the sixth on a double and three singles, but he managed to retire Bogaerts on a fly ball to center with runners on the corners to keep the deficit at one. After Lester finished the sixth at 110 pitches and with a 3-2 lead, Red Sox manager John Farrell turned to the pen. Andrew Miller hit Jose Molina with a pitch to start the seventh, then struck out Logan Forsythe. Miller was relieved by Junichi Tazawa, who hadn't pitched since Sunday. Tazawa faced six batters. The first four of those went walk, run-scoring single, walk, bases-clearing double by Longoria. So much for the pitchers' duel.

Price thus took the mound in the eighth with a 6-3 lead and capped off his final inning of work with the last two of his 10 strikeouts on the night. In all, he threw 114 pitches, 80 of which were strikes. This was his 12th straight outing of seven or more innings, and he's pitched to a 1.07 ERA in his past eight games.

It now seems rather unlikely the Rays will part with Price before next Thursday's deadline. While their offense isn't a juggernaut, the pitching has been good enough, and they're starting to get some of their walking wounded back. The Orioles might still lead the division, but their remaining schedule is tough (only 13 games against sub-.500 teams). Hence, the AL East is still within reach for the Rays, and if they don't win the division, they'd be a tough out in the wild-card play-in game.

As for the Red Sox, their climb back to relevancy in the playoff race seems to have petered out. The bullpen has been shaky (their collective .700 OPS is eighth worst in the majors) and the offense just isn't steady enough, even with the return of Victorino. If a playoff contender asks about Lester, and the Sox feel unwilling to commit to "near-market value" on him long term, the Sox might just listen, and retool for 2015.

Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

Rays focused on winning, not deadline

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
3:55
PM ET

ST. LOUIS -- Even with all the trade rumors surrounding David Price, Rays manager Joe Maddon hasn’t pulled Price aside to talk to him about how he should handle the approaching trade deadline.

“I’m really not into that stuff,” said Maddon. “I could only probably hurt that, whatever they are thinking. Furthermore, I’m not the GM. So anytime I’m speaking like that, I’m speaking for a GM, which I’m not that guy.”

The Rays' left-hander (10-7, 3.06) has been the center of trade talks for the past month. With the July 31 trade deadline a week away, Maddon said that instead of getting caught up in all the trade discussion, he’s preparing for each game like it is September baseball.

“Honestly, if you don’t attack it one day at a time, you can get into a lot of trouble,” Maddon said.

Tampa Bay's 3-0 win against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch stadium on Wednesday night marks the team's seventh straight win, matching a seven-game streak in September 2013. If the Rays believe they have a chance to get to the postseason, the landscape of the trade deadline could change.

This is where Maddon’s experience, personality and management style benefit the Rays, because when it comes to a team finding its way into the postseason, he has seen it all.

“I was involved in two really weird moments,” Maddon said.

In 1995 Maddon was the first-base coach for the Angels. On Aug. 1, 1995, the Angels had an 11-game lead in the American League West. What followed was the biggest September collapse in major league history, and the Angels ended up losing a one-game playoff against the Mariners.

“That’s wild,” Maddon recalled about the 1995 season. “A few years ago, [the Rays] were down by nine [games back] and then get there. So I’ve seen it from both sides.”

This year, however, Maddon said the Rays got “into such a horrible hole” early in the season. On June 10, the Rays were 24-42 and last in the AL East.

“It was really weird to watch because we weren’t playing well,” said Maddon, who has managed the Rays to four postseason appearances in eight seasons. “Things were just constantly working against us. We couldn’t hit, we couldn’t make a pitch, our defense wasn’t [good], and everything was just not normal. Why? I have no idea. I can’t say much other than the fact that it is called baseball.”

Then, all of a sudden, Maddon said the team started turning it around and playing better.

“We started playing a more familiar game; hitters started to click, the guys got their swagger back,” Maddon said. “There’s a lot of time left, man. A lot of time.”

What the Rays need most is time. Because being 7.5 games back in the AL East isn’t as big of a challenge as being behind three teams: the Orioles, Yankees and Blue Jays.

A key to how the Rays' season plays out is Price. What can the 28-year-old hurler do, besides not being traded, to help the Rays get into the postseason?

“Everybody needs to continue to do what [they've] been doing,” said Price, who has a 1.72 ERA in his last 10 starts. “Nobody needs to change a thing."

Maddon says Price is a much more mature pitcher right now; he’s pitching better than ever, and he is a big factor in why the Rays' pitching staff has allowed the second-fewest runs (411) in the AL East. Since the Rays' winning streak began on July 12, their pitching staff leads the majors with a 1.33 ERA.

“The difference is he knows what he has and he’s utilizing it better,” Maddon said about the change in Price. “He’s a better pitcher. He’s more self-aware. He knows what he’s got and how to utilize it.”

If the Rays keep winning, they might play their way into making a trade impossible for executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. The remaining schedule provides lots of room for hope. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 17, the Rays have 26 straight games against AL East opponents.

Is a trade now impossible? “My job is only to look at one side of it, and I’m paid to win,” Maddon said. “The bigger picture for me is October, it’s not 2015. So I really -- again, we’ve talked about this -- it’s my job to do my job only.”

Maddon wants the players to do their jobs, and the front office members to do theirs, and he will do his.

“What you are saying is true,” Maddon acknowledged to the media, though. “The more we win, [there is] less probability of a trade occurring.”

Instead of being sellers, maybe the Rays have turned into buyers at the trade deadline.

“I like our team,” Maddon said, recognizing that when David DeJesus, Ryan Hanigan and Wil Myers come off the disabled list, along with the young talent they already have, the Rays will be much stronger. “I’m forced to say the same thing every year at this time: I like our names.

“We have plenty to get this done with what we have on the field. We just have to get everybody playing to their abilities. I think sometimes, people are fooled by all that, having to go out and get something at the trade deadline in order to make them a contender. Sometimes, you’ve got the answers from within and just aren’t getting people the proper opportunity. So we gave our guys opportunity; that’s what we have to do. So I’m here to tell you, man, with the guys we have here, I’m plenty happy.”

Even more than being happy about the makeup of the team, Maddon, who has managed more than half the games in Rays’ history, likes how the team has turned things around.

“Everybody knows I think we can do this,” Maddon said. “I’ve been saying that for a while. I believe we can do this. I really do. I’m not just trying to make it a feel-good story. We can do this. We’ve come from a lot farther back. … So why not us? We’ve done a lot of firsts around here. Why can’t we do another one this year? I firmly believe we are in this, and everybody in our front office knows how I feel. I’m more optimistic than ever right now.”

Rays' long-odds comeback adds latest win

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
11:54
PM ET


On June 9, the Tampa Bay Rays entered play with a record of 24-40. Earlier that day the team's eccentric manager, Joe Maddon, unleashed Bobby Henry, a Seminole medicine man who throws turtles in the air hoping to anger the gods into making it rain, on Tropicana Field in an effort to chase away the bad vibes. Shortly after Henry was done, the Rays lost to the Seattle Mariners 3-0. They lost the next night too, this time 1-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was their 14th loss in 15 games.


Sitting at 24-42 on June 11, the Rays were 15 games behind in the American League East and 11 games out of the second wild-card slot. That evening they fell behind the Cardinals 3-0 and appeared to be on the fast track to another loss.


Perhaps baseball gods are slower to react than the ones who bring rain, but something awoke the Rays’ bats in the bottom of the fourth inning. The offense put together four runs on four hits and two walks to take the lead. They would add on two more runs en route to a 6-3 victory.


Since then, the Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball, with a 24-11 record since June 11. The run has taken them from the worst team in baseball to 4 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners in the wild-card chase. The much-maligned offense has produced the third-best team OPS over the stretch without much in the way of star power. Reigning American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers has been sidelined with a fractured wrist while their franchise player, Evan Longoria, is having his worst season at the plate. In their stead have been players like Logan Forsythe -- traded for this offseason -- and Kevin Kiermaier, a 31st-round pick in the 2010 draft. The latter has been particularly impressive, hitting .306/.360/.553 in 53 games.


The Rays' pitching staff also has picked it up, holding teams to around three runs a game while striking out more batters than any other club in baseball. David Price, the subject of constant trade rumors, has been the tip of the spear. The ace has allowed just three earned run in 31 2/3 innings this month. Any plans to trade Price and/or Ben Zobrist have been put on hold, at least temporarily.

[+] EnlargeAlex Cobb
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAlex Cobb's performance on the mound could be a big part of the Rays' second-half comeback.


On Wednesday night, the Rays met the same Cardinals team they faced when they started to turn things around. This time, Tampa Bay entered the game on a six-game winning streak and winners of 15 of their last 18, including a 7-2 victory over St. Louis on Tuesday.

Alex Cobb has been one of the Rays' best pitchers since joining the rotation full-time in 2013, but oddly enough, he has not been much of a factor during the team's resurgence. In his last five starts coming into Wednesday's game, he carried an ERA above 5.00 and was averaging less than six innings per start.


Locking horns with Lance Lynn, Cobb turned a much better performance on Wednesday. He tossed seven shutout innings while scattering five hits and striking out 10 batters without issuing a walk. The 26-year-old used his fastball and curveball to get ahead of the Cardinals' hitters before turning to his off-speed pitch to end plate appearances. The split-change was responsible for 14 of the 20 outs he recorded (a caught stealing was the 21st), including seven of the 10 strikeouts. St. Louis swung at the pitch a combined 33 times and came up empty on 13 of those swings.


Pitching in a National League park, Cobb was afforded the rare opportunity to contribute offensively. With Yunel Escobar on second base in the second inning, the right-handed pitcher lined an RBI double down the right-field line. It was his first career hit and run batted in. It also turned out to be the game winner.


Cobb was hit by a pitch on his right elbow in his second at-bat. After crumbling to the ground in pain and a lengthy check by team trainer Ron Porterfield, he remained in the game. He took the mound in the bottom half of the fourth inning and didn't miss a beat.

Brad Boxberger relieved Cobb in the eighth inning before passing the baton to the club's new-but-not-officially closer Jake McGee. The righty-lefty tandem affectionately known as "Jake in the Box" has become one of the most potent bullpen duos over the past month. No reliever in the AL posted a higher percentage of strikeouts than Boxberger over the past six weeks (47.1 percent); he added two more punchouts Wednesday. Not far behind him is McGee, the owner of a 99 mph fastball that he commands with ease, who struck out the side in the ninth inning to preserve the shutout.


Even with the current run, the Rays' odds of making the playoffs are long. Aside from still being four games under .500, they are in heavy competition for a postseason spot in a crowded middle of the pack with upwards of six teams vying for one of two spots not held by the Oakland A's, Los Angeles Angels or Detroit Tigers.


But after a clean 5-0 road trip to start the second half of the season, Tampa Bay returns home this weekend for a three-game set with a wild-card competitor and division rival: the Boston Red Sox. Although all of the games will be played under the cover of Tropicana Field's roof, perhaps another visit from the rain man is in order.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.

video

One player won't make or break a team's playoff push, but here is one key guy for each American League club in the second half.

Baltimore Orioles -- Chris Davis
Let's divide Davis' last two years into halves:

Second half, 2012: .269/.337/.530, .338 BABIP, .261 ISO, 32% SO, 8% BB, 31% HR/FB
First half, 2013: .315/.392/.717, .355 BABIP, .402 ISO, 28% SO, 10% BB, 33% HR/FB
Second half, 2013: .245/.339/.515, .309 BABIP, .270 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 21% HR/FB
First half, 2014: .199/.309/.391, .252 BABIP, .192 ISO, 32% SO, 12% BB, 23% HR/FB

I don't know what to make of any of this, except that Davis is probably not as good as the first half of 2013 and not as bad as the first half of 2014. A major reason the Orioles need a better second half from Davis is that among AL players with at least 200 plate appearances, Steve Pearce ranked fourth in wOBA in the first half and Nelson Cruz ranked 11th. Assuming some decline from those two, Davis will have to pick up the slack.


Toronto Blue Jays: Colby Rasmus
Everybody keeps talking about the Blue Jays needing a starter, but from June 1 through the All-Star break only the Red Sox scored fewer runs than the Jays -- and now Edwin Encarnacion is out a few weeks with a quad injury. Rasmus hit .212/.266/.453 in the first half; the 12 home runs were nice, nothing else was. He hit .276 with a .338 OBP last year so there's hope for a turnaround.

New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka
I don't see how the Yankees climb back into this thing with an injury-depleted, makeshift rotation and an aging lineup that is more old than simply disappointing. The slim chance the Yankees have of winning the East or a wild card rests on the ultimate health of Tanaka's elbow. Maybe more importantly, the state of the 2015 Yankees rests on the health of Tanaka's elbow.

Tampa Bay Rays: Evan Longoria
David Price is the important Tampa player to the rest of baseball, but before the Rays pack it in and trade Price, they're going to see if they can get to within four or five games of first place by the July 31 deadline. To do that, they need Longoria to heat up. He wasn't terrible in the first half, but a .386 slugging percentage is well below his .512 career mark entering the season.

Boston Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts
The young infielder was hitting .296/.389/.427 through June 1, outstanding numbers for a 21-year-old shortstop. Then the Red Sox activated Stephen Drew and moved Bogaerts to third base and he hit .140 with 37 strikeouts and five walks through the All-Star break. Did the position change affect his mental state? Is it simply a failure to adjust to how pitchers have attacked? The final two-plus months may tell us a lot about his future stardom.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander
Last year, the Tigers had a Big Four rotation with Max Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. They traded Fister, and Verlander went 8-8 with a 4.88 ERA in the first half, so it's really down to the Big Two, although Rick Porcello's improvement has added a strong third guy in place of Verlander. Among 86 AL pitchers with at least 50 innings, Verlander is 72nd in ERA. He's underperformed his peripherals a little bit -- 4.02 FIP, 4.46 xFIP -- but even the peripherals are a far cry from peak Verlander.

How far has Verlander fallen? In 2011 and 2012 he had 29 regular starts of eight or more innings. Last year he had three. This year he has one. Right-handers are hitting .329/.377/.505 off him; hard to believe that a guy that was so dominant as recently as last postseason has struggled so severely against same-side hitters. The Tigers don't need a strong Verlander to win the division, but they do want to see a guy they can believe in heading into the playoffs.

Kansas City Royals: Yordano Ventura
Well, yes, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas ... but Ventura (7-7, 3.22) is key because the 23-year-old right-hander is already at 103 innings; he threw 150 last year between the minors and his brief major league stint. He's not a big guy and he relies so much on that upper 90s fastball, meaning you wonder if fatigue will be an issue down the stretch. The Kansas City rotation has been relatively healthy this year -- the Royals have needed just six starts from guys outside their top five (although Jason Vargas will miss a couple weeks after undergoing an appendectomy) -- and any chance of winning the wild card will rest on that rotation remaining healthy.

Cleveland Indians: Nick Swisher
The Indians finished the first half at .500, pretty remarkable considering the number of awful performances they received: Swisher hit .208 with a .288 OBP, Carlos Santana hit .207, Justin Masterson had a 5.51 ERA before finally hitting the DL with a bad knee, Ryan Raburn hit .199, Danny Salazar pitched his way back to the minors and Jason Kipnis' numbers are way down. So there's some second-half upside here, especially from Swisher, who shouldn't have lost his skills overnight at 33.

Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale/Jose Abreu
The White Sox aren't going anywhere so it's all about Sale chasing a Cy Young Award (that may be tough even though he leads the AL in ERA and WHIP as he's pitched 50 fewer innings than Felix Hernandez) and Abreu chasing 50 home runs.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer
Mauer hit .271/.342/.353 in the first half with two home runs. He has four more years on his contract after this one at $23 million per year. Was it just a bad three months? Is it the concussion he suffered late last season? The Twins figured that with his .400-plus OBP skills, he'd remain one of the best players in the game, even moving to first base. But after being worth 5.3 WAR last year, he's been worth 0.7 this year. A singles-hitting first baseman doesn't have a lot of value.

Oakland Athletics: Jeff Samardzija
He doesn't have to be the staff ace, not with Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray around, but he's under fire to prove his first half with the Cubs was a true improvement. Remember, he had a 4.34 ERA with the Cubs in 2013. Most importantly, Billy Beane acquired Samardzija and Jason Hammel to help the A's win the AL West -- but a red-hot Angels team narrowed the deficit to a mere 1.5 games at the break. Considering Gray is in his first full season and Kazmir hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007, Samardzija will be expected to be a workhorse for Oakland, the guy who goes seven or eight innings every start to prevent the bullpen from getting burned out.

Los Angeles Angels: Josh Hamilton
I could point to Garrett Richards, who pitched like an ace in the first half, but I think he'll pitch close to that level in the second half; he's the real deal. So let's turn to Hamilton, who hit .295/.373/.449 in the first half with five home runs in the 46 games he played. The good news is this:

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2012 chase rate: 42.5 percent
2013 chase rate: 37.5 percent
2014 chase rate: 36.1 percent

He's continued to cut down on his free-swinging ways. The bad news is that he's struck out 52 times in 36 games since returning from the DL, with just three home runs. With Mike Trout crushing it and Albert Pujols on pace for 34 home runs, having a third big power threat would add even more to a lineup that led the AL in runs in the first half.

Seattle Mariners: Taijuan Walker
We know the Mariners have to improve the offense, but that's most likely going to have to come via a trade rather than internal improvement. We know Hernandez is great and that Hisashi Iwakuma remains a hidden gem. Chris Young had a terrific first half -- remember the whole Randy Wolf controversy, which basically allowed Young to come to Seattle in the first place? -- but Roenis Elias has struggled of late. That means Walker needs to find some consistency. As bad as the offense has been, Seattle has basically punted the fifth spot in the rotation all year with Erasmo Ramirez (4.58 ERA in 11 starts) and Brandon Maurer (7.52 in seven starts). If Walker lives up to his hype, he'll be a big improvement.

Houston Astros: Jon Singleton
We've seen George Springer flash his potential. Now it's time for Singleton to start doing the same.

Texas Rangers: Rougned Odor
There's not much to watch with the Rangers in the second half, but Jurickson Profar's injury forced Odor to the majors earlier than anticipated. He's held his own so far but a strong second half could lead to an interesting position battle next spring with Profar.
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.

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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.


On June 10, the Tampa Bay Rays lost 1-0 to the Cardinals, their third straight game getting shut out. They dropped to 24-42, the worst record in baseball, 15 games out of first place in the AL East.

The David Price trade rumors heated up. The Rays were going nowhere. Price is a free agent after 2015 and the Rays won't be able to afford him. They would obviously trade him in the midst of this lost season.

Then the Rays started playing better, going 18-9 entering Wednesday night and, as the Blue Jays collapsed, found themselves nine games back of the Orioles. Just close enough that trading Price can't be assumed as a foregone conclusion if the Rays continue to shrink that deficit before the July 31 trade deadline. Hey, the Rays are known for their hot stretches of play -- they went 21-5 last July, for example -- and this is franchise that was caught the Red Sox for the wild card back in 2011 after being 8.5 games behind in September.

So the eternally optimistic Joe Maddon keeps saying the Rays aren't out of it. That he believes in his team. The odds are slim and the Rays know this. Entering Wednesday, FanGraphs' playoff odds gave the Rays a 3.1 percent chance of winning the division and 4.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. Clay Davenport's site gave the Rays a 7 percent chance of winning the division and 14 percent chance of making the playoffs.

The Rays have run their numbers. Maybe their own internal odds are more optimistic or more pessimistic. But I would guess the Rays have a number on where they have to be on July 31: Maybe it's five games back or six or seven. If they're at that number, they keep Price; if they're not there, they trade him.

So one win could be huge. Not just for the Rays, but the rest of baseball, or at least the rest of baseball interested in acquiring Price.

The Orioles had already lost when the Rays took a 4-2 lead into the ninth inning against Kansas City, three outs from trimming that lead to eight games. Alex Cobb had pitched 6 2/3 innings and Maddon then burned through Grant Balfour, Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger to get the next four outs. Maddon has been a little flexible with his bullpen of late. McGee had gotten the last three saves, but Boxberger and Balfour also have a save this month.

Anyway, McGee had thrown 26 pitches on Tuesday so he was pulled in the eighth after giving up two hits. Boxberger threw 10 pitches to get out of the inning. Maddon went to Joel Peralta for the save. But he gave up a single and a one-out walk to Eric Hosmer, and Maddon turned to a pitcher named Kirby Yates, a 27-year-old right-hander with 10 appearances in the majors.

I know nothing about Kirby Yates. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He'd been the closer the past two years at Triple-A Durham and turned himself into a prospect with some dominating numbers: He'd allowed one run in 25 innings there this year and had pitched well enough in his 10 games with the Rays, 15 strikeouts and three walks. Maddon had used him as mop-up guy; only one of his appearances had come in anything resembling a close game.

But he here was trying to get his first career save. As I said, Maddon is an optimist. He'll trust anyone on his 25-man roster. He gave the ball to Yates to face All-Star catcher Salvador Perez. Yates threw an 0-1, 91 mph four-seam fastball that Perez lofted into the left-field corner and just over the glove of a leaping Brandon Guyer and just over the wall for a three-run homer. Royals win 5-4. Big win for Kansas City.

So here's my point: One win could be the deciding factor on what the Rays decide to do on July 31. The Rays are an organization that studies the numbers. The numbers -- the standings and the playoff odds -- will determine their decision.

It's possible that Salvador Perez just changed the entire David Price trade dynamic. Which in turn could influence the entire season, depending on where Price goes and what he does.

Keep that in mind -- and remember Kirby Yates -- if Price is pitching for the Cardinals or the Dodgers or some other team in October.

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