SweetSpot: Washington Nationals

Meet the ace of the Nationals

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
Doug FisterAP Images/Alex BrandonDoug Fister has shown himself to be up to the challenge in 2014 with a 2.38 ERA.

It was a little more than nine months ago in this space that we made a bold prediction that new Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister would be a good sleeper choice for the NL Cy Young Award.

Fister doesn't have the dominance of Clayton Kershaw or the numbers of Johnny Cueto, but you could make a case for his appearing in the No. 3, 4 or 5 spot on the ballot should he continue pitching the way he has.

Fister has been everything the Nationals could have hoped for when they obtained him in a steal of a trade from the Detroit Tigers last winter. He enters Wednesday's start against the Phillies at 12-4 with a 2.38 ERA, the latter of which would rank third in the NL, but for his being a few innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title (which should correct itself after this game).

"Efficiency, groundballs, strikes, strikes and more strikes," Baseball Tonight analyst Dallas Braden said about Fister's success. "He's like a poor man's Roy Halladay."

In between his first start of the season, which came after missing a month with a lat injury (he allowed seven runs to the Athletics), and his most recent start, which came after having a small skin cancer removed from his neck (he yielded four runs to the Giants), Fister had a 1.82 ERA over 17 starts.

Fister’s numbers are similar to those from the first time he was traded, by the Mariners to the Tigers in midseason 2011. He went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and five walks in 70 1/3 innings down the stretch for a team that would lose to the Texas Rangers in the ALCS.

"I don't think there's anything different about him from when he was in Detroit," said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty.

When we made our prediction in December, we cited a few different factors as to why we liked Fister. One was that the Nationals would be a good team and would provide him the support to succeed. They've done so on both the offensive and defensive end. On offense, they've scored 88 runs for him in 19 games (4.6 per game). Defensively, they've done a much better job than the Tigers at turning batted balls into outs.

Opposing hitters had a .299 "reached-base" percentage on groundballs against Fister last season. This season, playing with an infield that rates much better defensively, that has dropped to .244. Similarly, opponents' reached-base percentage on balls hit in the air has dipped from .394 to .316.

Our other theory was that a move to the National League would help him significantly on two fronts -- through the benefit of facing lesser hitters (including the pitcher) at the bottom of the lineup and through the unfamiliarity factor that NL hitters would have with Fister's curve.

Score us partially right on this one.

The familiarity factor came into play, not with his curveball, but with his overall arsenal. Fister has actually cut back on his 12-to-6 curveball in favor of more two-seamers. Though his heater rarely exceeds 90 mph, Fister's 6-foot-8 frame and funky deliver hides the ball well.

Fister's fastball has among the most horizontal movement as any pitcher in the sport. What does that mean in practical terms? Here’s four ways of looking at it.

From McCatty: "Eighty-seven with sink and movement is harder to hit than 95 and straight."

From Braden: "Everything he throws is in, then out of the zone. He has a lot of moving parts in his delivery, but he does a great job of keeping a hitter off-balance."

From "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez: "He pitches to his strengths rather than the hitter's weaknesses."

From a major-league scout: "He gets great extension and finished his pitches. The closed landing makes it look like he's throwing around the corner. All his pitches look the same."

He's been able to command his fastball extremely well. The video-tracking service we use that rates batted balls as soft-hit, medium-hit, or hard-hit has Fister with an 11 percent hard-hit rate on his fastball, best of anyone with at least 100 innings pitched. His 1.1 walks per nine innings ranks best in the National League and third-best in the majors.

And those who do get on base don't go anywhere. Opposing batters are hitting .239 with men on against him. And the next stolen base he allows will be the first he's yielded.

Given that he was out for a month, Fister should be pretty fresh heading into the final month of the season and beyond. He's posted a 2.15 ERA over the last three September/Octobers. Even a bad start for him is now one in which he allows four runs, like his last one against the Giants.

Fister has shown his ace-like status in five games in which he pitched in the seventh inning or later with either the score tied or his team up by one or two runs. In those high-leverage moments against the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Giants, Braves and Rockies, he's faced 16 hitters, retired 14, and allowed no runs.

"Nothing bothers him," McCatty said. "He always seems very relaxed. When he's playing baseball, he's having fun."

And perhaps making a few Cy Young ballots to boot.

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

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

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

2. Brewers' rotation depth is paying off.

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Yankees aren't dead yet.

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

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

Writers for ESPN.com receive a voluminous amount of reader feedback, and much of it comes from fans whose passion outweighs their judgment or even their grip on reality. Readers accuse us of East Coast bias, big-market bias or other personal agendas that require lots of time and energy to decipher. Sometimes it's a challenge to keep track of which teams we ostensibly "disrespect" or enjoy slighting the most.

Unlike some of my more prudent colleagues, I'm enough of a masochist to read the comments at the end of a story, and I've found that few fan bases can discern a hidden motive in a column or a turn of phrase the way Atlanta Braves diehards do. During one particularly rugged stretch last fall, I got taken to the woodshed by Braves fans for failing to include Evan Gattis in my top 3 in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and for writing a story reflecting the industry sentiment that Atlanta's impressive 2013 regular season might not translate into an extended run in October.

Folks who feel strongly enough to defend their team's honor might not believe this, but it's nothing personal. As ball writers, we survey the landscape, weigh the numbers, sprinkle in some gut instincts and make calls based on the information at hand. A lot of times we're wrong. But sometimes the rigors of a 162-game season prove we're not as clueless as we appear.

The endless give-and-take came to mind recently when I dug up ESPN.com's preseason predictions and found that 40 of our 44 so-called "experts" picked the Washington Nationals to win the National League East this season. The consensus was less a knock on the Braves than a prevailing sense that the Nationals were a deeper, more well-rounded and balanced team, and poised for success after a 32-16 late run left them short of a playoff berth in 2013.

It's taken almost five months, but the March prognostications have developed a sense of clarity. As the Braves bounce from winning streaks to losing streaks and try to put together an extended run to escape the wild-card mosh pit, it's becoming evident the Nationals are who we thought they were.

The NL East is starting to have a "foregone conclusion" feel to it as September approaches. The Nats, who've earned a reputation as a puzzling and sometimes underachieving bunch, are putting together a season-defining run under first-year manager Matt Williams. In the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, Arizona’s Jordan Pacheco threw a ball into a camera well to allow Denard Span to score from second base and give Washington a 1-0 victory. It was the Nationals' 10th straight win, tying them with the Kansas City Royals for the longest streak in the majors in 2014.

When Span described the Nationals' recent run of victories as "magical," he wasn't kidding. Washington is the first team since the 1986 Houston Astros to record five walk-off wins in a span of six games.

Shortly after Span received a Gatorade bucket drenching from teammate Anthony Rendon, the Braves took the field in Cincinnati and blew out the Reds 8-0. But they're left with some daunting math. With 5½ weeks left in the regular season, Coolstandings.com gives Atlanta a 1.6 percent chance to win the division and 39.1 percent odds to earn a wild-card spot. Even though the Braves have a 22-10 record against the Nationals over the past two seasons, they face Washington only six more times this year, so they're going to need some help.

The biggest reason to buy stock in Washington right now is its pitching. During the Nationals' 10-game streak, the rotation has a 1.34 ERA and the entire staff has allowed a total of 23 runs. Gio Gonzalez was lights-out with seven shutout innings against Arizona on Thursday. But if the postseason were starting today and Williams were going strictly on merit rather than pedigree, he might have a hard time starting Gonzalez over Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark. Fister (4-1, 0.88 ERA) and Roark (4-1, 2.30) have the best numbers of the group since the All-Star break.

Even though Rafael Soriano has had some hiccups lately, the Washington bullpen has been exceptional as well. Nationals relievers rank third in the NL with a 2.85 aggregate ERA and fourth in opponents' OPS at .628 this season.

"They might have the best pitching staff from 1 through 12 not only in the league, but in all of baseball," said a National League personnel man. "And they have power pitching. It wouldn't shock me if they go very far [in the postseason]."

In hindsight, the Braves had an awful lot to overcome losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in spring training, then watching Gavin Floyd go down with a fractured right elbow in June just when he was hitting his stride. General manager Frank Wren and his group did what they could by signing Ervin Santana in March and picking up Aaron Harang after he was released by the Cleveland Indians. But Julio Teheran has been forced to carry a heavy burden at age 23, and Mike Minor's disappointing performance can be traced back to January, when he got a late start in his training because of a procedure on his urinary tract. All things considered, it's amazing that Atlanta leads the majors with 89 quality starts.

The Braves need all the pitching they can get, with an offense that's middling at best and prone to streakiness. Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman are having fine seasons, but Dan Uggla is gone and it's long past obvious that B.J. Upton will not be giving the franchise anything close to a $75.25 million return on its investment.

September still has the potential for intrigue in Atlanta, as the Braves parry with the NL Central runner-up and the loser of the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants competition for one of the two NL wild-card spots. It's encouraging that Minor has pitched well in his past two outings and Freeman and Justin Upton have been torrid in August. But even if the Braves make it to October, they'll have to advance the hard way, with a one-game playoff and all the minefields that entails. Do the words "infield fly rule" ring a bell?

Personally, I'm not crazy over their chances of a deep postseason run. If I'm wrong, Braves fans, please feel free to drop me a note and vent.

Nationals starting to live up to expectations

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15

Do the Nationals have the NL East won? It's worth asking now, because with a six-game lead over the Braves after their latest victory over the Mets on Thursday night, we might end up with the Nats walking away. That would no doubt be especially sweet for Matt Williams in what has already been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster of a season, but as the season nears the three-quarter mark, I would suggest it's remarkable that we've been able to talk about the Braves as a plausible rival this far into the season.

The number of things that people get hung up on about the Nationals is legion, especially as a traditionally sports-crazy town warms to theme of a team that gives it something to talk about day after day. Williams and Bryce Harper, mixing it up with the press and saying stuff that both of them probably shouldn’t? That’s just Fourth Estate hijinks at their best, the stuff of easy headlines and team media relations staff nightmares. They don't add up to much in terms of the things that have been telling us the Nats are going to win all along.

Take the way in which we can fidget over how star players aren't performing up to an ideal. As David Schoenfield wrote last week, Stephen Strasburg has failed to dominate the way you'd expect according to metrics like FIP, but as he pointed out, that's in part because of some easily identifiable problems, like how he’s pitched with men on base. That’s not only something you can diagnose, ideally, it's something you can fix. And, if not, heck, he wouldn't be the first guy with plus stuff and some fly in his statistical ointment. Nolan Ryan had an annoying tendency to have a worse real-world ERA than FIP for some of the same reasons.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIBryce Harper has ripped two homers in a week. Is it time to stop worrying about him this year?

Or take Harper's homering a second time this week on Thursday, leading Williams to say his swing looked more free than it has at any previous point this season. It's easy to fret over the performance this season as Harper has struggled through injuries, as my old Baseball Prospectus colleague Jonah Keri did for Grantland on Wednesday. And here again, that's diagnosable because of the expanding spread of statistical resources we have at our disposal, and, as Jonah noted, against something like what you can suss out of this year's hard-hit average from Harper, you have the rest of Harper’s career to look back on, which generated big projections, big expectations and a lot to look forward to. That didn't go away just because the kid got hurt and played through it, not if the underlying talent is still there. It just means his final season line won't be pretty.

And then there's Ryan Zimmerman's injuries, availability and his eventual position, and Gio Gonzalez doing less well this year, or Jordan Zimmermann's stack of frustrating non-decisions, or the bullpen having a bad week or two since the All-Star break, highlighted by Rafael Soriano blowing a couple of save opportunities. Put all of that together and you have no end of reasons to get worked up and start talking about why this team won't win … except when I look at all of those guys, all of that talent and so many of them parked in the middle of their peak seasons, and I think those are all things they can iron out by October because, once there, nobody's going to remember or worry about what Harper's May looked like if he's right by then, starting now.

All of that talent adds up to a run differential that is pushing plus-100 (at plus-89 so far) and an expected record of 71-48, five games better than they are. That's a pole position, not just a poll position, a level of performance that you might think is pulling them toward where they ought to be. Yet nobody on the Nats is having what I think any of us would call a career year. But they won't need it to win the NL East going away.

In contrast, without getting into the Braves in any depth, by run differential alone -- having allowed four more runs than they've scored -- they're essentially a team that you should expect to play .500 ball (60-61), and they are playing .500 ball (61-60). Is that about what we might have expected after they had to cobble together a rotation on the fly during the spring? Yes, I suspect it was. Is that about where they'll wind up? If they do, I'd consider it a moral victory.

But the Nats? They won't have to settle for that. They'll be winning the victories that count in the standings and living up to what so many of us predicted for them back on Opening Day.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a joke. But nobody is laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just wait until this happens in the postseason.
As I write this, the Atlanta Braves are playing the Mariners in an afternoon game in Seattle. Did you see how the Braves lost their seventh game in a row on Monday? After a hit by pitch and base hit in the fourth inning, Logan Morrison singled to left field. Justin Upton airmailed an ill-advised throw home, allowing the runners to move up to second and third (and Andrelton Simmons exited the game after injuring his ankle on the play). Alex Wood then appeared to work out of the jam to keep the game tied, striking out Mike Zunino and getting Chris Taylor to pop up to second base.

Except Tommy La Stella did this. Austin Jackson added an RBI single and Felix Hernandez took it from there.

That's how things have gone the past week for the Braves.

Thing is, the Washington Nationals haven't been much better, having gone 3-6 over their past nine games. The Nationals caught the Braves on June 7 and haven't relinquished the lead -- currently at three games entering Wednesday -- but neither have they managed to pull away. The teams still have nine remaining against each other, including three this weekend in Atlanta. The Braves are 7-3 against the Nationals in 2014 after going 13-6 in 2013, which isn't to say the Braves have the Nationals' number, but at least points to the Nationals having something to prove in those nine games.

A few weeks ago, I believed pretty firmly that one of the wild cards would come from the NL East. I don't think that's the case now. The Braves are three back of the Giants for the second wild, and the Marlins and Mets are proving to at least be competitive -- tougher opponents than the Giants will face in the Padres, Diamondbacks and Rockies. It's still possible the NL Central teams beat up on each other, but the playoff odds lean strongly to two teams from the Central making it.

How does the East play out? The Braves have obviously struggled to score runs (13th in the NL), although Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez continues to confound by hitting B.J. Upton leadoff (although he didn't play Tuesday and hit eighth Wednesday, with Emilio Bonifacio batting leadoff, so maybe this experiment is finally over). La Stella has been hitting second, and while he at least has a decent on-base percentage, he also has no home runs. Sabermetric studies suggest you should hit your best hitter second, yet the Braves have been batting a low-OBP guy leadoff and a no-power guy second. Meanwhile, Jason Heyward has been hitting fifth and Evan Gattis sixth.

Of course, changing your lineup is only a minor thing; it doesn't really have much of an impact on run scoring. What the Braves really need is Freddie Freeman to heat up. He's been solid overall, with a .279/.367/.467 line, but is also hitting just .257 with a .420 slugging since April 20. They need more from their No. 3 hitter.


What happens in the NL East?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,618)

After a hot start, the Braves' rotation has also predictably slowed. Monthly ERAs:

April: 2.32
May: 3.48
June: 3.96
July: 3.76
August: 3.80

As for the Nationals, they had to deal with a lot of injuries early on and now Ryan Zimmerman is out again. That only puts more pressure on Bryce Harper to provide some needed power, which he hasn't done since returning from the DL, hitting .214 with two home runs and 35 strikeouts in 30 games. He's looked as bad as the numbers suggest, and you almost wonder if this is going to turn into a lost season for him. At least he still has seven weeks to turn things around.

The bullpen has had a couple rough outings of late but has generally been pretty solid. I wrote about Stephen Strasburg the other day and he then pitched one of his best games of the year. But Gio Gonzalez is the one starter who continues to be plagued with inconsistent results. With Tanner Roark's rise, Gonzalez's 4.01 ERA stands out as the weak link -- although his peripherals suggest he'll be better than that moving forward.

What happens the rest of the way? Braves fans have been on my case for sticking with the Nationals all season, but I still see Washington's rotation depth and Atlanta's issues at the top of the lineup, plus Mike Minor's struggles, and see the Nationals winning the division.

But the Braves will have those nine games to make up ground. In a sense, they control their own destiny. What do you think?

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

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

Prediction: The A's win the West.

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

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

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

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

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

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

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

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

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

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

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

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

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

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

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

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

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

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

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

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

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

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

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

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

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

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

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

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

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

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

So, my post-deadline picks:

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

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

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

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

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

On Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg was locked in a pitchers' duel with Henderson Alvarez of the Marlins, the game tied 0-0 in the sixth inning. Strasburg had pitched well although he wasn't necessarily dominant -- finishing with four strikeouts in seven innings -- and at this point faced Giancarlo Stanton with a runner on first and no outs.

Strasburg felt good about his fastball on this night and would use it more often than in any other start this season. But Jordany Valdespin had singled sharply up the middle on a 96 mph heater to start the inning, and Strasburg fell behind 2-0 to Stanton, missing with a fastball and a curveball.

He doesn't throw as hard as he did before his Tommy John surgery, but Strasburg still owns one of the fastest heaters in the game; his average fastball velocity is sixth best among qualified starters. He reared back and fired a four-seamer at 96 mph, but right down the middle of the plate. Stanton fouled it off; the look on his face suggested he was thinking he should have clocked that one 500 feet.

Strasburg got away with that pitch but not the next one, a curveball that didn't bite much and hung out over the plate. Stanton drilled it down the left-field line for an RBI double, the only run Strasburg would allow in his seven innings of an eventual 3-0 loss to the Marlins.

A couple of Strasburg's numbers to consider:

1. Among 93 qualified starters, he ranks 72nd in OPS allowed in plate appearances ending with a fastball. Batters are hitting .318/.364/.418 against his fastball, with 10 home runs. Jason Vargas is just above him in OPS allowed; Roberto Hernandez is just below him.

2. Among those 93 starters, when faced with a hitter's count, Strasburg ranks 92nd in OPS allowed, ahead of only Jason Hammel. In 104 such plate appearances, batters have hit .476/.567/.726 off him.

This is what Ben is referring to: Entering Sunday's game, Strasburg leads the National League in strikeouts and ranks third in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings, behind only Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw. Strasburg ranks sixth in the majors in strikeout percentage minus walk percentage. The five guys above him are Kershaw, Chris Sale, David Price, Felix Hernandez and Masahiro Tanaka. Three of those guys have an ERA under 2.10, Tanaka was at 2.51 when he was injured, and Price is at 3.11 even though he leads the American League in home runs allowed.

But there's Strasburg with a 3.55 ERA, which ranks 46th among qualified starters.

He racks up strikeouts, limits walks and doesn't give up an unusually high number of home runs. His fielding independent pitching number -- which looks at strikeouts, walks and home runs, factors a pitcher has more control over than hits allowed -- is 2.84, giving him the sixth-largest negative difference between ERA and FIP among starters.

Is it just bad luck? The major league batting average on balls in play is .295, but Strasburg's BABIP against is .350, the second highest among qualified starters (only Edwin Jackson's .353 mark is higher). FanGraphs' version of WAR says Strasburg has pitched with bad luck and values him at 3.1 wins above replacement, 15th among starters. Baseball-Reference values him at 1.2 WAR.

Normally, we would suggest Strasburg has pitched with some bad luck; BABIP often fluctuates year to year, and Strasburg had a .266 BABIP last year. This year, the balls appear to be finding holes.

However, those numbers listed above kind of go hand in hand. When behind in the count, pitchers like to throw fastballs. Strasburg's fastball has been hit relatively hard this season. Thus, when behind in the count, Strasburg has really been hit hard. Of those 104 plate appearances referenced above, 77 ended with a fastball and batters hit .453.

Another set of Strasburg numbers:

Bases empty: .242/.285/.378
Men on: .297/.341/.429

Bases empty: .216/.276/.332
Men on: .258/.317/.385

From 2012 to 2014, opponents have hit .310 against his fastball with runner(s) on base and .268 when the bases are empty.

While it's normal to allow a lower average when the bases are empty, Strasburg's difference is rather dramatic. The overall MLB marks are .245 with the bases empty and .255 with runners on. Strasburg actually throws his fastball a little less often with runners on, so this isn't simply a case of him throwing too many heaters and batters sitting on them. But it could be a case of him trying to hit the corners when the bases are empty, since there is room for error, and grooving too many fastballs with runners on.

The fastball to Stanton is a good example of what may be going on. Stanton fouled it off, but it was not only down the middle but also straight as an arrow with no movement. Big league hitters can hit 96 mph fastballs without movement.

Against the Marlins, Strasburg's fastball command wasn't great. He walked only two batters, but several times his fastball would ride away from left-handed hitters (or, less often, into right-handed batters), often well out of the strike zone. I'm not sure whether this was an attempt to get more movement on the pitch or he was just flying open a bit, causing his shoulder to drag slightly behind and the ball to drift. When behind in the count, however, his fastballs were too often up in the zone and over the plate. He got away with it in this game, but clearly this is when he gets into trouble.

Strasburg's fastball doesn't really have a lot of deception. Hitters seem to pick it up well, and since he throws only (or mostly) a four-seamer, he doesn't get as much action as he would from a two-seam fastball.

It's possible that Strasburg has pitched with some bad luck this year, but there are also indicators that his ERA is higher than his FIP for reasons other than bad luck and bad sequencing.

As the strikeout numbers indicate, when he does get ahead in the count he has deadly wipeout pitches with his curveball and changeup. But his fastball isn't a great pitch. Until his command of it improves or he can more successfully paint the corners or develop a two-seamer with movement, Strasburg won't develop into that ace we keep expecting him to turn into.

Nationals' multiple mistakes prove costly

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29

The Marlins’ comeback to walk off against the Nationals on Monday was one of those happy reminders that you really do have to play the games. With a Miami win expectation that FanGraphs pegged at one or two percent with the Nats up 6-0 after six innings, this is a game the Nationals have to deliver on if they’re ever going to put the Braves away in the NL East race. Instead, sometimes the “better” team winds up demonstrating it really isn’t that much better than everyone else. In football, they’ll talk about the notion of what can happen any given Sunday, but in baseball every day is gameday, and everything -- every move and every outcome -- matters.

Let’s start with Jayson Werth getting thrown out needlessly challenging Giancarlo Stanton’s arm on a leadoff single in the seventh -- again, with his team up 6-0 -- and getting injured on the play. Not too many months ago, Nationals manager Matt Williams was being hailed for old-school wisdom for pulling Bryce Harper out of a game for not hustling. Whatever you make of that, if the side benefit of old-school virtue is having a notoriously fragile regular like Werth hurt himself, maybe the Nats need less, not more of it -- especially if it helps keep their already injury-hampered lineup strong for the stretch.

OK, so maybe Werth’s injury doesn’t have to be the end of the world, because it’s 6-0. Well, sure, except that right field probably isn’t Nate McLouth’s best position, not that he’s much of a center fielder these days, either; his six starts in right for Washington this year are more than he’s made in the previous five seasons combined. But he is the Nationals’ notional fourth outfielder, so in he went. We can probably really only blame him for Garrett Jones’ seventh-inning triple with two outs -- McLouth dove and didn’t even get a glove on the ball. But hey, they were up 6-0, and he hustled, right? Except that scored the Marlins’ first run from first base, then created a second two-out run when Marcell Ozuna’s infield dribbler clanged off Ian Desmond’s glove.
[+] EnlargeRafael Soriano
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyIt wasn't Rafael Soriano's night, but he wasn't the only National with a game to forget.

So let’s go to the ninth inning: Nats still up by three, save situation, closer in -- all very playbook, all very much as it should be. Rafael Soriano had pitched Sunday, but it wasn’t like he’s been terribly overworked of late. But he simply didn’t have it Monday night, generating just one swing-and-miss strike in 26 pitches, and creating trouble at the outset by walking Casey McGehee on four pitches. Wrapped around a lone out, Jones pulls Sori for a double to right, Ozuna plates a run on an opposite-field hit (to right), Jarrod Saltalamacchia pulls a fly ball for a sac fly (to right), and Adeiny Hechavarria triples to right to tie the game. It’s enough to give some of you former Little League right fielders flashbacks to your worst day ever.

Anyway, after a hit batsman, that’s it for Soriano. First and third, lefty Chris Yelich at bat, Williams sensibly brings in lefty Jerry Blevins to get the matchup, and wins it with a strikeout. And then skips the last page of the La Russa playbook by leaving Blevins in to face Jeff Baker. And if you love Jeff Baker for what he is, this is it, this is all he’s for: to face a lefty now and again, and play five or six positions on demand. He has an .858 career OPS versus lefties, .645 against righties. The Marlins had no lefty bat left on the bench; the righty-batting Stanton and McGehee were on deck. This isn’t particle physics, certainly not if you or I get it. This is where you’re supposed to bore the excited few in Marlins Stadium, pause the action (again) and bring in a righty to keep the game alive. Craig Stammen hasn’t pitched in almost a week; what’s the point of carrying seven relievers if you don’t use them?

Williams lets it ride with Blevins, giving Baker his best possible chance to be a hero. Baker executes. Game over, win. Or for the Nats, loss.

Now, sure, we may caution ourselves not to read too much into any one outcome, but sometimes a game in detail can make you wonder, not because it’s “just” one loss. Monday’s loss for the Nationals in one of those games that should have been won. They were supposed to win because they had six runs on the board and Jordan Zimmermann was awesome, because he’s pretty reliable that way -- giving up just two runs on five baserunners in seven innings.

But maybe a night like this goes some way toward explaining why the Nationals aren’t performing as well as their expected record, which is four wins better than their current 57, and five wins ahead of the Braves’ expected record. There were things they had in their control that they failed to do. If the devil’s in the details, it’s interesting to mull these things, especially now when the Nats can’t afford any mistakes heading into what looks like a dogfight with the Braves all the way through the next two months. If they aren’t using their full roster to their best advantage, they need to start. Maybe they do need to be held accountable for doing dumb things on the bases, but perhaps not the same things Williams has voiced his disapproval about publicly. And perhaps they shouldn’t have given a 30-something like McLouth almost $11 million guaranteed for two years after his first good year in five.

It’s certainly more interesting to ponder than the pre-fabricated Nats narratives to explain their failures, like noting Ryan Zimmerman is hurt (again), that Harper hasn’t hit 60 home runs yet/ever/yesterday, or that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t already put Nolan Ryan in the shade. But if the Nationals fall short of making it into October’s action, or have to settle for the one-game play-in, you can bet they’ll have more people to hold accountable than just those usual suspects. And they’ll need to remember games like this one.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?
So Washington third baseman Anthony Rendon says baseball is too long and boring to watch on television and that he prefers to watch the History Channel. Good thing for Rendon that the History Channel does not own the broadcast rights to past seasons.

"Next on the History Channel: The 2009 Washington Nationals strike out 13 times and suffer their 96th loss of the season in a five-hour, 14-inning game against the San Diego Padres."

Rendon is just one of those unrelenting voices that baseball always hears on this subject. Someone has always been complaining about the length of baseball games since before Jack Norworth wrote the lyrics “I don’t care if I never get back" in 1908. They still do this even though most baseball games are shorter than football games –- and the majority of football games are spent with 11 men standing around in a conference meeting.

Could baseball games be shorter? Of course. The easiest way to tighten games would be to require hitters like Rendon to stay in the batter’s box -– or step back in more quickly -- to resume their at-bats rather than standing outside tightening their batting gloves, staring at the third-base coach for signs, or scanning the stands for pretty women. The same applies to pitchers who take too long between pitches. Just get on with it, guys.

Failing that, how could baseball games be more interesting on TV? A couple suggestions:

Microphone the players –- but don’t tell them: That will provide us with viral-ready video as we eavesdrop on players and hear what they really think about their teammates and opponents. "I like Bryce [Harper], but I wish the guy would stop instructing Matt Williams on his WAR numbers and more about the latest World War II broadcast on the History Channel."

Sexy shots: Football broadcasters fill their many breaks in the action by showing long, sensuous shots of cheerleaders kicking their legs and jiggling their breasts while wearing tight, skimpy tops and shorts. They can’t do this in baseball because the game doesn’t have cheerleaders. But perhaps broadcasters could instead show the players’ girlfriends, wives and, most provocatively, their mistresses. Why, Derek Jeter’s girlfriends could fill all four hours and 23 minutes of the average Red Sox-Yankees marathon.

Amazing non-pennant races: Television viewers flock to reality shows. Take advantage of this by duplicating the “Amazing Race" with a competition in which pairs of teammates must make their own way to the next city on a road trip. Then show snippets of this competition throughout the season. "Rendon and Harper are out of the starting lineup once again because their flight out of Denver was cancelled and they decided to take Greyhound instead. Here they are complaining about how long last night's game took while watching it on TV in the Chattanooga bus station."

And finally ...

Show historic footage while hitters are stepping out of the box: Well, this might appeal to Rendon.

Or better yet, to make broadcasts more appealing, perhaps Rendon should start dating a Kardashian.
Crash Davis: You be cocky and arrogant, even when you're getting beat. That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Right. Fear and ignorance.

Crash Davis: No. You hayseed. It's arrogance not "ignorance."

Yes, it's that time of year to start playing with fear and arrogance. Time to let it all out on the field. Time to start looking at the scoreboard. Pennant races will start to build in intensity. It's the second half, and we open with four great series between playoff contenders. (Pay special attention to that Saturday night Mariners-Angels matchup.)

Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
Friday: Kyle Lohse (9-4, 3.26) versus Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.46)
Saturday: Matt Garza (6-6, 3.69) versus Gio Gonzalez (6-5, 3.56)
Sunday: Yovani Gallardo (5-5, 3.68) versus Doug Fister (8-2, 2.90)

Are we going to see the good Brewers or the bad Brewers? The Brewers have had wide swings all season -- they were 20-7 through April 27, went 10-15 through May 26, then had a 21-10 stretch before going 2-11 heading into the All-Star break, including a brutal four-game sweep at home to the Phillies. They had held sole possession of first place from April 9 until the Cardinals caught them July 12. A victory in the final game before the break put the Brewers back in first, but a one-game lead is disappointing, considering they had a 6-game lead on July 1.

Three Brewers questions:

1. Jonathan Lucroy leads all major league catchers in plate appearances. How will he hold up after an MVP-caliber first half?

2. Will Jimmy Nelson be an improvement over Marco Estrada in the rotation? (Well, he'll certainly allow fewer home runs.)

3. Does Ryan Braun have a monster second half in him?

On paper, the Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East -- FanGraphs' projected playoff odds gives the Nationals an 81 percent chance to win the division and the Braves a 19 percent chance. This irritates Braves fans to no end, who believe everyone keeps overrating the Nationals and underrating the Braves. And maybe they're right. The Nationals have their lineup back and healthy, so no excuses the rest of the season.

Three Nationals questions:

1. Bryce Harper has hit .150 with one home run and two RBIs in 40 at-bats since his return from the DL. What's he going to do?

2. Jordan Zimmermann left his previous start with biceps tendinitis. Will there by any lingering issues in the second half?

3. Strasburg's ERA in the first half was 3.46. But his FIP was 2.72 and his xFIP 2.48. In other words, his base numbers suggest a guy who should have an ERA a run lower. Can he do that the final two-plus months?

Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
Friday: Dan Haren (8-6, 4.23) versus Lance Lynn (10-6, 3.14)
Saturday: Zack Greinke (11-5, 2.73) versus Joe Kelly (1-1, 3.44)
Sunday: Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78) versus Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.43)

Interesting that manager Don Mattingly will wait until Sunday to pitch Kershaw, who last started on July 10. He did pitch one inning in the All-Star Game, but this means he'll have nine days between starts. Compare that to manager Bruce Bochy's approach with Madison Bumgarner, who started on Sunday and will start the Giants' second-half opener. The Dodgers took 3 of 4 from the Cardinals in late June, shutting them out twice and holding them to one run in the third win.

Three Dodgers questions:

1. Where has Yasiel Puig's power gone? Since May 29, he has hit .269 with one home run in 42 games.

2. With Carl Crawford back the DL, who gets the playing time in the outfield and will prospect Joc Pederson eventually be part of that picture?

3. Will David Price move to the West Coast?

Everybody keeps wondering if the Cardinals will pony up for Price and I keep pointing out that the Cardinals need to score more runs. They're 14th in the NL in runs scored and Price isn't going to help that. They also now have to contend with the thumb injury to Yadier Molina that will leave him sidelined eight to 12 weeks; it's no surprise that they've been a much better club when Molina has started in recent years.

Three Cardinals questions:

1. Without Molina, will the Cardinals pursue a guy like Kurt Suzuki of the Twins?

2. Who steps it up on offense?

3. Will Michael Wacha return to the rotation at some point?

Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
Friday: Chris Tillman (7-5, 4.11) versus Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78)
Saturday: Wei-Yin Chen (9-3, 4.15) versus Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01)
Sunday: Kevin Gausman (4-2, 3.29) versus Sonny Gray (10-3, 2.79)

The Orioles have played excellent baseball since May 31, going 26-15 and outscoring their opponents by 40 runs. A lot went right in the first half -- see Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce -- but a lot went wrong with the season-ending injury to Matt Wieters, the struggles of Chris Davis and Manny Machado and the disappointing numbers from Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez. But the O's also seem to have some of that 2012 magic -- they're 9-3 in extra innings.

Three Orioles questions:

1. Will they finally leave Gausman alone and let him stay in the rotation?

2. Davis won't hit .199 in the second half ... right?

3. What happens if Cruz and Pearce slow down?

A's general manager Billy Beane already made what may be the season's blockbuster trade in acquiring Samardzija and Hammel (the team won one of the three games those two have started). They were acquired in large part to help hold off the Angels but that division lead is down to 1 games. On the bright side: After this series, their next nine games are against the Astros and Rangers.

Three A's questions:

1. How will Gray (first full season) and Scott Kazmir (hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007) hold up?

2. Will they make a move to get more offense at second base?

3. Can Sean Doolittle cut down on the wildness and walk one batter instead of two in the second half?

Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
Friday: Hisashi Iwakuma (8-4, 2.98) versus Jered Weaver (10-6, 3.45)
Saturday: Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) versus Garrett Richards (11-2, 2.55)
Sunday: Chris Young (8-6, 3.15) versus Tyler Skaggs (5-5, 4.50)

How good is the Hernandez-Richards showdown on Saturday? The Mariners aren't as good as the A's or Angels, so realistically their playoff race is really with the Royals, Indians and the AL East runner-ups for the second wild-card spot. Obviously, they'll be looking to add a hitter or two -- All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager and the currently disabled Michael Saunders have been the only above-average hitters and they've been relying on ancient Endy Chavez as the leadoff hitter.

Three Mariners questions:

1. Marlon Byrd? Josh Willingham? They've got to do something to improve a league-worst .300 OBP and get some offense in the outfield and/or DH or first base.

2. With Roenis Elias suddenly struggling and Taijuan Walker unproven, will the fourth and fifth rotation spots be a problem?

3. The bullpen led the majors with a 2.39 first-half ERA. Can it hold it together for another 68 games?

Is it just me, or have the Angels been too widely ignored this year? There's a strong case to be made that they're the second-best team in the majors right now, and that's even with some concerns in the rotation and the bullpen. Of course, it helps to have the best player in the game and a deep lineup that led the AL in runs scored in the first half. But they've gone 19-4 since June 20 and they open the second half with a 10-game home stand -- and they're 32-15 at home.

Three Angels questions:

1. Can Richards repeat in the second half? Well, if anything, he seems to be getting better. In his past eight starts, he's 7-0 with a 1.27 ERA and .163 average allowed.

2. Does Jason Grilli establish himself as the setup guy for closer Joe Smith?

3. Will Josh Hamilton deliver more power? He has three home runs in 38 games since coming off the DL.

There you go. We also get Reds-Yankees and Indians-Tigers and others to whet your appetite. We've had four days without a game that matters. It's been too long.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.