Check the standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.
1. "That's what speed do." A few years ago, Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, talking about his ability as one of the fastest players in the game, coined the phrase "That's what speed do." It's kind of a popular thing for Royals fan to quote although it's never quite caught on on a national level. Hey, it's the Royals. Well, it may be reaching a tipping point after the wheels of Dyson and fellow pinch runner Terrance Gore inspired a dramatic ninth-inning comeback as the Royals scored twice with two outs to beat the White Sox 4-3. Here's Dyson on second base with two outs, running on the pitch, and scoring as the ball bounces to the backstop; love the excited Royals announcers quoting Dyson. And here's Gore on second base after Norichica Aoki doubled. He's also running on the play and scores the winner on Lorenzo Cain's infield hit.
What a turn of events for the Royals, who trailed 3-0 entering the bottom of the seventh. By that time, they knew the Tigers were on their (likely) way to a win over the Twins. Considering Sunday's bullpen fiasco created by manager Ned Yost, it was looking like doom-and-gloom time in Kansas City. So give them credit for coming alive late against the White Sox bullpen. Give Dyson credit for stealing third on his run -- a base that didn't seem all that important to risk with two outs -- especially considering he got picked off second in a similar scenario last week. As I wrote when Dyson got picked off, there are times you can throw the numbers out the window and just say either the player makes a play or he doesn't. Dyson made a big play.
This is one way the Royals have to manufacture runs. They're last in the AL in home runs and last in walks. They're not a good offensive team. But they have speed, ranking first in the league in steals, and FanGraphs rates them as the second-best baserunning team in the majors behind the Nationals (some of their speed advantage is negated by the likes of Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, two of the worst baserunners in the league). It's not a big statistical advantage -- plus-7.8 runs above average entering Monday -- but as Monday showed, there are moments in games where speed can be the deciding factor.
The night got even better when the Mariners lost, so the Royals are two up on Seattle for the second wild card, just one game behind the A's and still 1.5 behind the Tigers. (You know the caveat: The Royals are losing to the Indians in that suspended game.)
2. Kudos to Don Mattingly. The Dodgers' skipper didn't fuss around with Roberto Hernandez, yanking him in the fourth inning of a 2-2 game with the bases loaded. With lefty Charlie Blackmon up, Mattingly went to southpaw Paco Rodriguez. Blackmon doesn't have a huge platoon split, but his OPS against lefties was 70 points lower entering the game. Hernandez doesn't have a platoon split this year but has in the past. With all the extra relievers that September provides, there was no need to keep Hernandez in there as you probably would have before rosters expanded. The player still has to execute and Rodriguez got the groundout. The Dodgers went on to break it open with an 11-3 win, but it was a move that shows Mattingly understands that you can manage September differently from April through August.
Oh ... and the Giants lost, so L.A.'s lead in the NL West is now up to four games.
Oh ... if Hyun-Jin Ryu can't make it back for the playoffs because of his sore shoulder, is Hernandez really the team's No. 4 starter right now?
3. Stephen Strasburg with another gem. Christina Kahrl touched on how the Nationals are winning with roster depth and not on the backs of the heralded duo of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But Strasburg has put together four straight solid starts now, with no walks, 28 strikeouts and just six extra-base hits allowed. His average fastball velocity those four starts: 95.7, 95.6, 95.9 and 95.3. This doesn't look like a guy tiring down the stretch.
One note, however: The past two starts came against the Braves, next to last in the NL in runs; the one before that came against the Phillies (in D.C.); and before that against the offensively impaired Mariners at Safeco. So I'm not quite ready to declare Strasburg has turned the corner from his inconsistent ways. Still, a good sign.
4. Good night, Yankees. Wait, did I write this on Sunday as well? As blog contributor Katie Sharp tweeted after the Yankees' 1-0 loss to the Rays, the Yankees have scored six runs in their past five games, their fewest in a five-game span since June 30-July 4, 1997. By the way, Derek Jeter got the day off. Understandable and needed. Jeter has completely wilted down the stretch, as much to blame as any player for the Yankees' struggles. Over his past 21 games, he's hit .145/.189/.169. And has still been hitting second in the lineup. Shame on you, Joe Girardi, for putting the individual over the team.
5. Tired Hisashi Iwakuma. Felix Hernandez hasn't been quite as dominant of late and Iwakuma has definitely not been sharp. Over his past five starts, Iwakuma has allowed 22 runs in 21.1 innings. On Monday, the Angels pounded him for seven runs in 3.1 innings. The big blow was Albert Pujols' three-run double with two outs in the third -- after Iwakuma had retired the first two batters of the inning. Now two games behind the Royals, the Mariners' playoff odds have dropped to 31 percent -- this after climbing over 50 percent heading into Saturday's game (with King Felix starting). But three straight losses and now it's a tough climb back.
For the Angels, Matt Shoemaker keeps winning, Mike Trout keeps hitting and they've won 11 of 12, averaging 8.2 runs per game in that stretch.
Some ways of winning you find yourself liking better than you expected. Five and a half months ago, most of us anticipated the Nationals would win the NL East, so now that Washington is on the cusp of clinching, there isn’t any drama. It’s done. For weeks, it’s been a matter of math and shrinking odds.
Admittedly, the Braves made a better-than-expected showing with a cobbled-together rotation, but the Nationals should clinch at some point this week, which provides time to reflect on how and why they did it. This is why I’d argue it has been more fun to actually see them do it than you might've expected from a slam-dunk preseason favorite.
So set aside the guys such as Strasburg and Harper who get the most headlines. If you had to peg the “worst” player in the Nats lineup, whom would you peg? Wilson Ramos? Catchers with an OPS north of .700 don't grow on trees -- not these days. Ian Desmond? Asdrubal Cabrera? Those are both useful players with whom you can win, as the Nats have.
Take Desmond at shortstop, one of the last legacies from the franchise’s Expos incarnation, a third-round pick out of high school in 2004. His prospect status languished as he spent the better part of four years bouncing between Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before he finally broke through with a reminder that, in time, youth will be served. If you look at what he doesn’t do -- generate positive numbers in advanced defensive metrics or walk -- you might underrate him. He’s durable and has already notched his third straight 20-homer season while playing a solid shortstop.
Instead, the Nats are an interesting success story because of their depth and because of the number of guys who put them over the top. It’s even more interesting when you consider how many analysts have been critical of the decisions to sign Werth and LaRoche. Some might still lament getting three years of control of center fielder Denard Span in a deal with the Twins for hotshot pitching prospect Alex Meyer. But in the end, this is a concentration of talent that has used financial muscle via free agency and accumulated value from more than a decade of scouting.
That isn’t the only thing that has worked out well, even if the current management regime can’t claim all the credit. Whether getting Doug Fister from the Tigers or stealing Wilson Ramos from the Twins, there’s plenty to brag about. Betting the upside on Werth in his 30s has worked out well for the Nationals, as David Schoenfield noted recently. Reviewing his seven-year, $126 million deal at the midpoint, it certainly looks much better than the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75 million), a deal many celebrated and a lot of smart folks liked at the time and a deal that has almost no chance of working out, now that Upton’s on the short list of worst regulars in baseball. LaRoche? It used to be fashionable to bash him as a mediocrity; these days he's a solid sure thing the Nats can bet on.
That is not to say the Nationals will have it easy from here on out. They still have important questions to ask and answer -- and two weeks to find answers before they head into October.
Perhaps the biggest question involves their former starting third baseman. As Ryan Zimmerman tries to work his way back from the DL, he went through a full workout Monday at instructional league and will play a simulated game Tuesday. If he can come back in time to get a week or so of everyday play in the majors, the Nats might be able to determine if they can move Anthony Rendon back to second base and start Zimmerman at third or if they’ll have to settle for Zimmerman spot-starting at first, left and -- should they make it -- DH in the World Series. It’s a nice problem to have.
Less enjoyable will be sorting out what they’re going to do with former closer Rafael Soriano. Handed a four-run lead in the ninth inning Monday, he brought the Braves back into the game by allowing two runs to score. Since his latest save Sept. 1, Soriano has allowed six runs and blown two saves in his past 4 1/3 IP across five games. He’s allowed 10 baserunners. He’s giving Nationals fans the willies, and if Matt Williams had any hair left, it would have long since gone grey. Drew Storen came in to clean up the mess, notched his fifth save in five appearances and demonstrated there is no “committee” solution to Soriano’s struggles as a closer -- the job is Storen’s.
The question now might be whether Soriano is worth a postseason roster spot. That might sound extreme, but if he doesn’t show anything in the next two weeks, would you invest the space in keeping him around? They’ll be adding someone from the rotation -- probably Tanner Roark -- to the pen, and with Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett around, it isn’t like they’re short of quality right-handed arms for setup work. It might come down to a choice between Soriano and third lefty Jerry Blevins.
The Nationals will be better off if Soriano can put people’s minds at ease in the meantime. He didn’t Monday night, but thanks to the margin they’ve built to clinch shortly, they’ll be able to afford him the time to get back in gear. Those are the benefits you win for yourself when you deliver on the expectation that you’d win going away -- and then you do.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Harrison is the current leader with a .317 average, and if he does win, I have to think he'd be the most unlikely batting champion ever. (My vote right now is probably Terry Pendleton, who won the batting title in 1991 with the Braves with a .319 mark; in his previous seven years with the Cardinals, he had a .259 average and had hit .230 in 1990.) Morneau, second in the race at .315, sat out Saturday and Sunday with a rib cage strain and is listed as day-to-day, so that could help Harrison.
Harrison has started 103 of the 130 games he's played in. If he wins, he's likely to start the fewest games by a batting champ since George Brett started 113 games for the Royals in 1980 (not including strike-shortened seasons).
In some ways, Harrison is similar to another surprise Pirates batting champ, Freddy Sanchez in 2006. However, while Sanchez started games at third base (99), shortstop (27) and second base (18) that year, he still started 144 games. Harrison is still more of a true utility guy, having started at five different positions, with his 42 starts at third base leading the way.
Harrison wouldn't be in completely unique company, though. In 1950, Billy Goodman of the Red Sox won the American League batting title with a .354 mark while starting at five different positions, mostly in left field (45 games). But he started just 96 games overall and barely qualified for the batting race. MVP voters were so impressed by Goodman's average and versatility that he placed second in the voting that year even though he hit just four home runs and drove in 68 runs. (Among others, Yogi Berra hit .322 with 28 home runs and Joe DiMaggio hit .301 with 32 home runs, yet finished third and ninth in the voting. Ted Williams was injured and played just 89 games ... but still drove in 97 runs and finished 21st in the voting. It's too bad we didn't have sabermetric bloggers back then to debate this!)
What's even stranger about that vote is the voters seemed to hold Fenway Park against Red Sox hitters -- fair enough, as the Red Sox hit .335 at home, .269 on the road -- because shortstop Vern Stephens led the league with 144 RBIs and finished even lower in the voting than Williams. Yet they didn't hold it against Goodman, who hit .376 at Fenway, .336 on the road.
Goodman was just 24 that year, and while he never won another batting race, he did prove to be the real deal, as he hit .300 in his career. During his Red Sox career, he still primarily remained a full-time utility guy, more or less, except for one year where he started 143 games at second base.
As for Harrison, one thing he's done this season is blister fastballs, hitting .357/.390/.594. He also has the 11th-best wOBA against fastballs among qualified hitters. (In fact, McCutchen ranks eighth and Neil Walker 10th, so don't throw too many fastballs to the Pirates.) Most hitters struggle with two strikes, but Harrison has hit .245 -- that doesn't sound great, but it's 12th in the majors.
By the way, despite not being a full-time player all season, Harrison ranks ninth among NL position players in WAR. He won't finish second in the MVP voting, but he's a legitimate top-10 candidate.
He was close, so achingly close, to turning this game over to his vaunted three-pack of relief pitchers. Yet in the sixth inning of an 8-4 loss to the Red Sox, his team’s fifth defeat in seven games, Yost witnessed a collision between the reality of the situation and the rigidity of his bullpen deployment. During a moment when urgency should have trumped orthodoxy, Yost declined to break from routine. His decision cost his club.
"It's frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead," he said. "That was frustrating."
In the postgame postmortem, the obvious follow-up was asked. Why not just use Herrera in the sixth inning then?
"Because I had confidence in Aaron Crow," Yost said. "That's why. Aaron Crow's inning is the sixth inning. Kelvin's is the seventh."
Note that Yost didn't say that Herrera was tired, or that he's worried about overusing him and Wade Davis, which doesn't really seem to be an issue considering Herrera has thrown a modest 62.1 innings and hasn't allowed a run since June 24 and Davis has thrown 64.1 innings and hasn't allowed a run since June 25. Both Herrera and Davis hadn't pitched since Wednesday and Herrera has thrown 47 pitches in September, Davis 62 pitches in September. So, no, it wasn't a fatigue issue.
It was a managing issue.
Crow had allowed nine home runs on the season; Herrera had allowed 10 runs and Davis five. But ... hey, the sixth inning is Aaron Crow's inning. And now Crow has allowed 10 home runs, after serving up the game-deciding grand slam to Daniel Nava.
Not to keep picking on Yost since I already hammered for this move, but that quote blew me away. It's frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead. When even the beat writers -- who have to try and maintain a good relationship with the manager -- are ripping a move, you know it was a bad one.
This is Yost's 11th season managing in the major leagues. He's never managed a postseason game. I wonder why.
Utility man Justin Turner is having a terrific season, one that's been arguably as valuable as that of Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez or any others among the team's notable names. He's among those responsible for the team holding the No. 4 spot in ESPN.com’s MLB Power Rankings.
A recent blog post critiquing Wins Above Replacement used Turner as its punchline for the reason to knock the stat. He was tied for the Dodgers lead in that stat a few days ago (with 3.3 WAR), though he's since been slightly surpassed by Puig and Gonzalez after not playing the last two days.
But when you consider that WAR is a tool designed to objectively evaluate a player's performance over a specific time period and then look at Turner's numbers, his value makes much more sense.
In a time in which offensive numbers are in significant decline, Turner's .326/.393/.449 slash line is impressive. If we lower the batting-title qualifier to 250 plate appearances, Turner ranks second in the NL in batting average and sixth in on-base percentage.
Turner had a rep as an at-bat battler in his time with the Mets. This year, he's winning a lot more of those battles. He ranks sixth in the NL in pitches per plate appearance and is slash-lining .330/.476/.433 in plate appearances lasting five pitches or longer, all way better than the major-league norms.
Good fortune has definitely played a role in some of this (his .396 batting average on balls in play is the highest in the majors). After hitting only .194 on ground balls for the Mets from 2011 to 2013, Turner is hitting .333 (36 for 108) on grounders this season.
But even if we removed a dozen groundball hits from his ledger to even things out, he’d still be hitting a solid .280 and we'd be ignoring his spike in line-drive rate from one usually in the low 20s to a solid 26 percent (he ranks 33rd in the NL, but is hitting them at a better rate than, among others, Buster Posey).
Turner has also handled one of the game's toughest jobs, pinch-hitting, with success, netting 10 hits and seven RBIs in 26 pinch-hit at-bats. That's one reason he rates first on the team in Win Probability Added, which measures context-based performance.
He's performed best in close games, hitting .331 in 139 at-bats in which the teams were tied or within one run of each other. His six go-ahead or game-tying hits in the seventh inning or later lead the team. Kershaw can thank him for the two-run eighth-inning homer he hit that gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead over the Padres, netting Kershaw his 15th win of the season.
Turner's batting value is supplemented by his doing other things just a little better than average, and a little can go a long way statistically over a long enough time period.
Turner is 6 for 7 stealing bases, takes extra bases at a modest rate, and avoids baserunning mishaps and hitting into double plays. He rates as the Dodgers fourth-best baserunner this season behind speedsters Dee Gordon, Carl Crawford and Chone Figgins.
Turner is also fielding a little above average, most notably when filling in for Juan Uribe. He has five Defensive Runs Saved in 393 innings at third base, which doesn't quite match Uribe’s contributions, but it is close enough so the drop off is small.
The Dodgers didn't play Turner in their last two wins over the Giants and he may be a bit of a forgotten man as the season winds down. But his season shouldn't be. He may not be as valuable as Kershaw, but he's exceeded expectations as much as anyone in the game.
When the 2014 schedule was planned last year, I wrote how the schedule-makers hosed the West Coast teams in general and the Mariners in particular.
How bad has it been? The Mariners’ schedule has them flying more miles than any other team this season, including five separate trips to the East Coast to play the five American League East teams and six trips to the state of Texas.
Now, with their postseason hopes on the line, they begin another demanding road trip this week, when they must virtually circumnavigate the continent, playing 11 games in three cities (Anaheim, Houston and Toronto), three time zones (Pacific, Central and Eastern) and two countries (U.S. and Canada). When they finish the road trip in Toronto, they fly back across the country and play their season-ending series in Seattle against the Angels, without a day off.
Robinson Cano, playing home games on the West Coast for the first time in his career, says the extra travel makes a big difference. He noted that the Mariners' trip to Anaheim after Sunday’s home game was one of the shortest flights the team makes this season, yet it’s about the same length as the longest trip the Yankees make to play a division opponent.
“For me, it’s tough this year, because I’ve never been in this division,” he said. “But I know now what I’m going through. Next season will be easier.”
Next season should be easier for Seattle too, because the schedule is fairer and more reasonable, with fewer cross-country trips (just three to play AL East teams) and more West Coast trips. (Their interleague opponents are the National League West teams.)
As bad as this final long road trip is for the Mariners, it’s possible that it’s actually good for their postseason hopes. On the one hand, it involves significant travel, no off-days and four games against the team with baseball’s best record (the Angels). On the other hand, Seattle is a combined 19-12 against the Angels, Astros and Blue Jays, with a winning record against each one.
More importantly, the Mariners are significantly better on the road than at home this season. They are 14 games above .500 on the road and two games under .500 in Seattle. They are 4-8 at home since mid-August. They are averaging nearly one run per game more on the road than at Safeco Field, while their ERA is virtually the same. In fact, the Mariners have been held to two hits at home six times this year, most since the 1978 Giants.
So maybe this last trip benefits the Mariners. The Angels had won 10 consecutive games until they lost to the Astros on Sunday; maybe they’re due for a bad streak. And the Blue Jays could be officially eliminated from the wild-card race by the time that series rolls around.
Whatever happens, Seattle can’t let all the mileage in the air distract it from what it must do on the field to reach the postseason for first time in 13 years.
“One thing as player is you can’t let that get into your mind and get mentally tired for those flights,” Cano said. “You just have to not put that thought in your mind. If you let it affect you mentally, it will get your body tired too.”
1. The Tigers will win the AL Central.
It hasn't always been easy the past three seasons, but after sweeping the Indians, it appears the Tigers will win their the fourth straight division title. It's not over, not with a big series against the Royals this weekend, but 10 of Detroit's other final 13 games are against the Twins and White Sox, so they should finish strong. That said, Sunday's win didn't resolve two major issues the team will carry into the postseason: Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan. Verlander gave up six hits and three walks in 5.2 innings and you have to think he still slots in behind Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello in the playoff rotation, and that's pending the return of Anibal Sanchez, who threw Saturday and is hoping for a return in the final week of the regular season. Nathan earned his 32nd save, but gave up a run on two hits and a walk. Yes, he hasn't blown a save since Aug. 9, but he's also pitched just three 1-2-3 innings in 12 outings since. He's still shaky, to say the least.
2. Jordan Zimmermann looking like Nationals' No. 1 starter.
He tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.83. His next start is Friday and then Wednesday or Thursday of next week after that, giving him plenty of time before the first game of the Division Series. Over his past 10 starts, he's 6-0 with a 2.16 ERA and just eight walks; meanwhile, Doug Fister has had a couple shaky outings lately and Stephen Strasburg remains inconsistent. Look for Zimmermann to draw the first game of the Division Series.
3. Good night, Yankees.
Pitching for the third day in a row, David Robertson didn't have it Sunday night and the Orioles rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 3-2. The Yankees are now five games behind the Royals for the second wild card. It may only take 88 wins to get that second wild but the Yankees would still have to 12-2 to get to 88. Their playoffs odds are now under 1 percent.
4. Pirates looking good.
With a 7-3 win over the Cubs, the Pirates' playoff odds have now increased to 79 percent. They're three games behind the Giants for the first wild card and home field be important there -- Pittsburgh is 46-29 at home, 33-41 on the road, the second-largest home/road split in the majors behind the Cleveland. Of course, there are still slim hopes of catching the Cardinals, but the Cardinals finish with the Brewers, Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks, so it's going be difficult for the Pirates to make up 3.5 games.
5. Clayton Kershaw with his biggest win of the season.
After the teams exchanged 9-0 and 17-0 blowout wins in the first two games of the series, Kershaw went eight strong innings in a 4-2 win over the Giants -- although his ERA did climb all the way from 1.67 to 1.70. This doesn't look like a man wearing down at the end of the season, as he's pitched at least eight innings in seven consecutive starts. The Dodgers are now up three games and their odds of winning the division are over 90 percent.
Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.
Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.
1. Are the A's safe now?
Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.
Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.
2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?
Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.
Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).
Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?
3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?
Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.
4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?
Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.
5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?
Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.
6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?
You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.
7. Key injury to watch this week?
Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.
8. Biggest series to watch this week?
Here are three:
- Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
- Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
- Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
Three more for the final week:
- Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
- Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
- Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.
Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.
I guess that's something to get excited about.
1. Cleveland is probably not going to make the postseason.
The Cleveland Indians' position is tenuous, opening the night 4 1/2 games out of both first place and the wild card. They had a favorable pitching matchup, getting to face easily the Detroit Tigers' worst starter, Kyle Lobstein, and they jumped out quickly on Michael Brantley's two-run homer in the first. Danny Salazar, who has not lived up to the promise of 2013, or the potential of his potent fastball, gave the runs back in the third, though he picked off Ian Kinsler to end Detroit's rally (after coming very close to picking him off earlier in the at-bat).
Victor Martinez victimized Salazar with a homer an inning later, giving Detroit a one-run lead. Cleveland fans could be forgiven if they never want to see Martinez again -- he'd hit .349/.455/.698 against the Indians coming into the game, and this was his seventh homer against his division rivals this season. Still, the Indians worked their way back with two in the next half-inning, taking the lead, which they held all the way to the eighth, when Bryan Shaw, who leads the league in games pitched but who hadn't allowed an earned run in his last 9 1/3 innings (eight appearances), hung a slider that Alex Avila belted to right for his 11th homer of the year. Tigers closer Joe Nathan allowed the potential tying run to get into scoring position in the top of the ninth but made the lead stand up.
Given the Indians' playoff odds, games against pitchers of Lobstein's ilk are the ones they have to win. Of their 14 remaining games, just four (Sunday's bout against the Tigers and a three-game set hosting Kansas City) are against contenders. Still, if they lose their final contest against Detroit, you might well start the 10 count. Fortunately for their chances, they'll face the weirdly-not-good-anymore Justin Verlander on Sunday rather than Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello. The Indians have beaten Verlander twice already this year, and bloodied him a bit even when they've lost. They should have no fear.
2. The Cubs can beat the Pirates after all.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drew a Chicago Cubs team this weekend that is tough to read because the Cubs have turned over much of their roster by making trades and calling up youngsters. It's not clear, though, whether it's a better Cubs team even with Javier Baez (.174/.229/.387 despite nine homers in limited action), Arismendy Alcantara (.214/.265/.370), Jorge Soler (who actually is hitting -- .356/.367/.733 -- but had the night off), and the rest. The Pirates face Boston, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Cincinnati the rest of the way, so even their non-contending opponents are no slouches, which means they need to beat the Cubs. They'd done fine at that so far, winning six straight back to June 21. But the Pirates couldn't hold it together against Cubs starter Felix Doubront, who has pitched exceedingly well since coming to Chicago in a trade with Boston, and the mighty boomstick of Baez, who smashed an early two-run homer to left that seemingly got out of the yard in about 0.4 seconds.
Pittsburgh retained its hold on the second wild card spot for now, but the Pirates would be advised to take it right to Jacob Turner in the series finale on Sunday. The last thing they want is to be in a weak position when they host a Milwaukee team that may finally be waking from its slumber come next weekend.
3. The Royals are making their duct tape team work.
The Kansas City Royals' starting lineup against the Boston Red Sox finished the game with just three players slugging over .400, and two of those are at .411 (Lorenzo Cain) and .408 (Salvador Perez). With Billy Butler having fallen into a well, Alex Gordon is the only flat-out threat in the lineup when Josh Willingham does not start, as he did not on Saturday. Somehow, the lineup, which featured Alcides Escobar's .307 OBP in the leadoff spot, was good enough to rack up seven runs against Rubby De La Rosa and Matt Barnes. (Steven Wright's knuckleball did hush the Royals' bats for three innings.)
The Royals have the worst run differential of any of the 80-plus-win American League teams at just +24, a number more befitting a team with around 75 wins, like the Indians or the Yankees. Still, half of the team's remaining games is against the mediocre (putting it charitably) White Sox. Smart money this late in the season is usually on the team with the division lead, but when that lead is just a half-game, and when the Royals are also positioned to take a wild-card spot even if they come up short in the AL Central, it would be understandable if Royals fans started making plans to be at the ballpark in October.
4. Milwaukee can't get two-hit by the Reds.
If Johnny Cueto were on the mound for the Cincinnati Reds and he threw a two-hitter, you'd tip your cap and move on. If Homer Bailey or Mat Latos did it, same story. This year, you might even give that same deference to Alfredo Simon. But the Milwaukee Brewers can't allow David Holmberg, a big lefty with underwhelming stuff and no record of missing bats in the majors or minors, to go six innings with just two hits allowed while they are making a playoff push.
This isn't deep stuff, but Milwaukee really picked the wrong time of year to stop scoring runs. The Brewers have put five or more runs on the board just once in their past 13 games, twice in their past 18. This isn't a team that relies on run prevention. If they're not scoring, they're not winning.
5. The Cardinals took care of business all the way up to the ninth inning.
(And won anyway, despite a horror-show final frame in which Sam Freeman and Pat Neshek nearly combined to give up St. Louis' entire four-run lead to the Colorado Rockies.)
Shelby Miller, not so unlike Danny Salazar, has disappointed relative to his massive expectations and excellent 2013 pitching line. His 3.83 ERA coming into Saturday's game is fine, but he hasn't missed bats (5.9 K/9) and has generally pitched more like a No. 4 starter than the front-line stud the St. Louis Cardinals hoped they could slot in alongside Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha to form the top of the rotation.
Miller may be waking up, though. Arbitrary endpoint alert! Since July 31, he's posted a 3.00 ERA, though he still struck out just six men per nine over that period. Saturday was more of the same: six innings, five hits allowed, just one run, and five strikeouts. Not dominating, but winning. That period coincides with a change to his pitch mix: Over the first four months of the year, Miller was throwing about 70 percent four-seam fastballs, but he's dropped that to 60 percent in August and September. If going away from his high-velocity fastball to pitches with more bend is what he needs to be a reliable postseason starter for the Cardinals, they'll surely take the explosiveness-for-effectiveness trade-off.
Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beaneball, the Oakland Athletics' blog on the SweetSpot network.
The Pirates won to move to 13-4 against the Cubs this season, and the Brewers won their third straight, walking off versus the Reds, as both teams kept pressure on the National League Central-leading Cardinals.
Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule. Here's what else went on Friday night:
1. The Mariners beat the slumping A's.
The A's got closer Sean Doolittle back, but that did little to stop their slide: When Doolittle went on the disabled list with an intercostal strain on Aug. 23, the A's were 76-52 and tied for first in the American League West. They had already lost eight of their prior 12 games and had relinquished a four-game lead on the Angels. With Doolittle shelved, the A's lost 13 of their next 18, which included six blown saves.
What was once a lead-pipe cinch for a playoff spot has become quite precarious, with Oakland now only a half-game ahead of the Mariners for the first wild-card spot. Doolittle returned just in time to help his team battle Seattle in the first of a three-game series at Safeco Field. However, he never got in the game, as Seattle hit three solo homers and the A's went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 4-2 Mariners win.
Going forward, the A's have the vastly easier schedule, but can they restart their offense in time to hold off Seattle?
2. The Dodgers and Giants will go right down to the wire in the roller-coaster NL West.
On June 8, the Giants (43-21) led the Dodgers (33-31) by 10 full games in the division. The teams then swapped momentum, as Los Angeles won 36 of their next 57 and San Francisco lost 36 of their next 56. The Dodgers were up by 5.5 games on Aug. 12, a 15.5 game swing in just over two months. The Giants had trimmed that lead down to two games as they headed into a three-game series at AT&T Park that started on Friday. Matt Kemp came into the game hitting .333/.400/.635 in his past 17 games, while Buster Posey was an obscene .463/.477/.838 in his past 19.
Posey contributed an RBI double in the first inning as the Giants touched up Hyun-Jin Ryu for four runs en route to a 9-0 victory, cutting the Dodgers' lead in the division to one game. Ryu left after that first inning with a recurrence of shoulder irritation that had shelved him for three weeks earlier in the season, and it remains to be seen if he'll be available for his next start. Even after this weekend, these two teams still have a three-game set in Los Angeles that begins on Sept. 22.
3. Royals' infield defense let them down again, and Tigers retook AL Central lead.
On Thursday, Kansas City made three errors on the infield, which led to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox. Those three miscues brought the total errors by Royals infielders (including 21 by their pitchers) to 76 this season. On Friday, Mike Moustakas made his second error in as many nights, and Yordano Ventura threw a wild pitch to allow the Red Sox to score another run.
Eric Hosmer provided the only offense with a two-run homer, and Kansas City dropped a 4-2 decision. Meanwhile, David Price tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run, eight-hit ball as the Tigers routed the Indians 7-2. Detroit is now back in the AL Central lead for only the second time since Aug. 10. Given the Royals' ordinary offense, they have a smaller margin for error (all puns intended) and can't afford to be giving runs (and games) away so easily.
4. The Orioles can take a punch, and then some.
The Orioles had their All-Star third baseman (Manny Machado) for a mere 82 games before losing him in early August for the rest of the season to a knee injury. Their No. 1 catcher (Matt Wieters), off to a career-best start at the plate, went down and needed Tommy John surgery in May. Their starting first baseman (Chris Davis), who despite slumping to a sub-.200 average had still hit 26 homers, just got suspended for 25 games for testing positive for amphetamines. With all this, Baltimore continued its surge toward the AL East title, sweeping a day/night doubleheader from the Yankees in which they yielded only one run over 20 innings.
The sweep pushed the Orioles' AL East lead to 11.5 games and moved them within 3.5 games of the best record in the AL. Since being only one game over .500 after 69 games, they've won 53 of their past 78. Coming into Friday, the O's had used only seven different starters pitchers (fewest in the AL), with five of those amassing at least 20 starts (second-most in the AL). It's not that the starting pitching has been superb all year, as they rank in the middle of the pack in most categories. However, they have pitched much better as a whole since the All-Star break: a 34-17 record with a 3.03 ERA prior to Friday, versus 52-42 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half of the season. The staff's good health has meant they haven't had to rely upon untested, not-ready-for-The Show talent.
5. The Mets finally said "no more hospitality" to the Nationals in Queens.
If the Nationals manage to secure the best record in the NL (they currently lead by a half-game), they can credit their league-best .622 winning percentage at home, as well as their "home-field" advantage in Queens, New York. Coming into Friday, Washington had won 12 straight (and 26 of its prior 30 games) at Citi Field. This season, it had won all four contests in New York, by a combined score of 20-6.
The Mets got off that schneid by jumping on Gio Gonzalez for three first-inning runs and outlasting the Nats 4-3. The Nationals still have two more games at Citi Field this weekend, with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann scheduled to start.
Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
Dunn had played 1985 major-league games over 14 seasons and none of them in the playoffs, the most among active players. The wait to make the playoffs has made his wait to reach the big show -- a relatively short four years and 343 games in the minors -- seem like a flash. So the potential to finally play baseball rather than golf in October was one of the reasons why the big slugger, who announced recently that he plans to retire after the season, approved his trade from the White Sox to the A's on Aug 31. Despite the A's recent swoon, they still have a 92 percent chance of making it into baseball's postseason tournament, according to coolstandings.com (which we use on ESPN).
But Dunn's not the only veteran with a decent chance of fulfilling a playoff dream. Several seasoned players stand a better than even chance of seeing October action for the first time: The Royals’ Scott Downs and Josh Willingham, the Orioles' Nick Markakis, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Dodgers' Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm and the Nationals' Scott Hairston.
Some of those players have come close. Dunn's best previous opportunity came after the Reds traded him to the Diamondbacks in August of 2008 to help them chase the Dodgers. But the 44-game rental wasn't enough as Arizona fell two games short of the NL West title. Four years later, Dunn's White Sox led the AL Central for most of the second half of 2012 but faltered in the season's final week and finished out of the money by three games.
Markakis, on the other hand, has actually played for a team that made the playoffs. It's just that injury prevented him from playing during the postseason. With less than a month remaining in the Orioles' wild-card season of 2012 season, C.C. Sabathia broke Markakis' left thumb with a pitch, sidelining the right fielder for the team's wild-card game and five Division Series games.
Willingham is a different story. Despite playing for five different clubs in his 11-year career, he hasn't come close to the playoffs. Heading into this season, Willingham's teams have languished with a .438 winning percentage and finished an average of 20 games back of their division leader. So when he came over from the last-place Twins to the first-place Royals on Aug. 11, he was in unfamiliar territory. If the Royals do hold on and win the Central, though, Willingham isn't a sure thing for the playoffs: He only recently returned to the lineup after having been out since Aug. 29 with a sore back.
Willingham's Kansas City teammate Bruce Chen broke in with the Braves when fall ball was as much of a certainly on their schedule as spring training. Chen was part of the NL East title-winning clubs in 1998 and 1999, but didn't make the playoff roster. He played most of the 2014 season with the playoff-hunting Royals, but found out last week that the Royals designated him for assignment, shelving his playoff dream after 16 seasons.
Players can use their beleaguered teammates' pursuit of the playoffs as motivation. Markakis' outfield mate Adam Jones claims the team is "still [angry] about" Sabathia's pitch. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no stranger to teams rallying around long-suffering stars: He managed the Yankees in 1995 when the team won their final 11 of 12 games and 26 of 33 to at last take Don Mattingly to the playoffs in his final season. And this year, Mattingly’s Dodgers team includes pitcher Jamey Wright, who is in his 19th season but only last year saw the the playoffs (with Tampa Bay).
But if the A's plan to use Dunn’s quest as a rallying cry for their own, the Cardinals and Pirates will have to look to motivators other than helping forbearing teammates realize a dream. That's because those NL Central contenders simply don't have many veterans who haven't played October baseball. Their longest-tenured players without playoff experience are Peter Bourjos and Ike Davis, respectively, each 27 years old and in only his fifth major-league season.
Given a reprieve from a playoff-less career, Donnie Baseball went out with a .440 OBP and .708 SLG in the Bombers' five-game 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners. As Mattingly later said, "I would have been disappointed had I not gotten at least that one chance to play in the postseason, because you really wanna see how you handle it. And I did get that chance."
It’s a swan song that Adam Dunn would like to emulate this year. Will he -- and others -- get the chance?
Longest-tenured vets who have never appeared in postseason for playoff contenders
Athletics -- Adam Dunn, 14 seasons in majors
Royals -- Scott Downs, 13 seasons
Braves -- Aaron Harang, 13 seasons
Dodgers -- Kevin Correia, 12
Blue Jays -- R.A. Dickey, 12
Nationals -- Scott Hairston, 11
Mariners -- Felix Hernandez, 10
Brewers -- Zach Duke, 10
Orioles -- Nick Markakis, 9
Tigers -- Rajai Davis, 9
Angels -- Chris Iannetta, 9
Yankees -- Brandon McCarthy, 9
Indians -- Scott Atchison, 8
Giants -- Yusmeiro Petit, 7
Cardinals -- Peter Bourjos, 5
Pirates -- Ike Davis, 5
Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.
And hot off the press: the Orioles are losing Chris Davis for the rest of the regular season (and into the post-season) due to testing positive for amphetamines, a tough break for the AL East leaders.
On to the best from around the SweetSpot Network this week:
Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Deep thoughts about Inciarte: Despite being seventh or eighth on the major league depth chart when the season began, Ender Inciarte has put up 2.1 fWAR this season, mostly through outstanding defense. Jeff Wiser investigates. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.
Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
The 2008 Chicago Cubs: Great team or overachievers? Chet West takes a break from the less than stellar year that is the 2014 Cubs to look at the last team they sent to the postseason. Follow on Twitter: @chetwest19.
Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
What holes should the White Sox fill?: James Fegan takes a look at where the suddenly flush-with-cash White Sox should look to throw money at in free agency. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.
Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
Carrasco's historic streak continues: Ryan McCrystal takes a look at Carlos Carrasco's recent hot streak, and how it puts him in some elite company in the Indians' record book. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC.
Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Back to school special: Juggling sports and school is tough. As kids across the country return to school, Richard Bergstrom polled Rockies players Brooks Brown, Charlie Culberson, Tyler Matzek, Ben Paulsen, Josh Rutledge and Drew Stubbs about what they liked about school and how they were able to balance athletics and grades. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.
Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Could Doug Mientkiewicz be the next Twins manager? If Ron Gardenhire is gone after this season, a former Minnesota first baseman could be positioning himself as the team's managerial successor. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.
New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Has Mark Teixeira finally learned to beat the shift? Katie Sharp looks at the BIP trends to see if Teixeira is finally changing his approach. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.
Should Yankees sign Victor Martinez this offseason? Matt Bove weighs Martinez as a free agent option to help the ailing Yankee offense in 2015. Follow on Twitter: @RAYROBERT9.
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.
Here are five other important results from the day and here's the Hunt for October page with standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule.
1. The Yankees were the big winners.
They go from nearly getting no-hit for the first time since 2003 (when six Astros did the trick) -- the Rays' Alex Cobb lost it with one out in the eighth when Chris Young doubled to right-center -- to winning in dramatic fashion when Young hit a three-run, walk-off homer off Jake McGee with one out in the ninth, capping a comeback that had them down 4-0 in the eighth. The A's lost and the Royals lost, so the A's lead over the Tigers for the first wild card is down to one game and the Yankees are now just four games behind the Tigers for the second wild. Hey, you never know ...
2. Carlos Santana is having a better season than you realize.
Remember when Santana was hitting .159 on May 25? That's when he went down with a concussion and missed 10 games. That time off seemed to have cleared his head in more ways than one. Since June 6, he's hitting .278/.394/.534 with 21 home runs and 60 RBIs -- he's tied for second in the majors in home runs since then and eighth in RBIs. He homered in both ends of the Indians' doubleheader against the Twins on Thursday as Cleveland won 8-2 and 2-0 and he's up to .235/.369/.449 for the season with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs while leading the majors in walks. Yes, those first two months count, but he's rebounded to have a solid season at the plate.
3. NL Central race is back on.
Francisco Liriano was great for the Pirates (12 K's, no runs in eight innings) in a 4-1 win over the Phillies and Johnny Cueto was great for the Reds in a 1-0 win over the Cardinals, Cincy's third straight win over St. Louis. The Cardinals' lead over the Pirates is back down to 2.5 games. The schedule still points to the Cardinals -- they have Colorado, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, the Cubs and Arizona the rest of the way, while the Pirates have the Cubs, Boston, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Cincinnati -- but the Pirates are at least putting some pressure on them.
4. Kansas City's defense has a bad day.
The Royals are usually very good on defense but they made three errors and failed to make a couple other plays they should have made, helping the Red Sox to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss. With Danny Duffy out, Royals manager Ned Yost started Liam Hendriks, the former Twin and Blue Jay with the 5.89 career ERA. He wasn't good and got knocked out in the third inning (although the defense didn't help). With a deep bullpen, maybe Yost could have considered being a little creative and turned it into a "bullpen" game, kind of like the Angels have done recently (including Thursday) with Cory Rasmus, even knowing he's only going to last a few innings at most. I'd rather see that approach rather then expecting Hendriks to pitch a good game.
5. At least Scott Kazmir pitched a good game.
Unfortunately for the A's, Chris Sale was better. White Sox 1, A's 0. Those Bob Melvin postgame interviews are getting depressing.
Former major infielder Jeff Huson once said this to my ESPN colleague Tim Kurkjian about facing Randy Johnson: "What was the worst thing that Michael Jordan could do to you? He can go dunk on you. He could embarrass you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you."
That's the fear major league hitters have to block out every time they dig into the batter's box. They've honed their skills to beat the best pitchers in the world, but they've also learned to bury that fear into the deepest recesses of their brains.
Then we see a frightening incident like the one on Thursday, when Giancarlo Stanton got hit in the face with an 88-mph fastball thrown by Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mike Fiers, and we're reminded of the potential damage any one pitch can do, reminded of the tragic career of Tony Conigliaro or what might have been with Dickie Thon or what happened to Ray Chapman back in 1920.
Stanton, of course, has been one of the brightest lights in a somewhat desultory major league season, his mammoth moon shots a thing of joy. After a first-pitch fastball at the knees from Fiers in the top of the fifth inning, which Stanton took, Fiers threw another fastball, catcher Jonathan Lucroy setting up on the inside corner of the plate, trying to keep the big guy from gets his arms extended. Fiers doesn't throw hard but comes with an overhand delivery, a deceptive delivery that hides the ball, one of the keys to his success despite mediocre stuff. Stanton, who stands well off the plate, started his swing as the ball kept riding up and in and for some reason failed to react to the movement of the pitch and took the pitch on the side of his face.
He lay motionless at the plate for several minutes as medical personnel attended to him, with blood clearly visible in the dirt around home plate. Fiers, visibly shaken up, stood on the mound, his hands on his head, despondent over the pitch. It was clearly an accident, as most of these pitches are. Just a pitch that got away and a batter who didn't dive out of the way. It is, unfortunately, part of the game.
Obviously, we can only hope Stanton is OK, that the ball didn't get him in the eye. As of this writing, the only medical update we have is he had a laceration on the left side of his face, but he was carted off the field and taken to a nearby hospital, an eerie silence at Miller Park stating the gravity of the situation.
The game nearly took a turn for the worse. With Reed Johnson finishing Stanton's at-bat (the pitch to Stanton was actually called a strike, as umpire Jeff Kellogg ruled Stanton had swung at it), the first pitch to him from Fiers was also up and in -- like Stanton, Johnson didn't seem to pick up the movement and started to swing -- and appeared to hit him on the hand (it was ruled that Johnson, too, had swung). The Marlins charged the field, with a pushing and shoving match ensuing as Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee went a little crazy. The next inning, the Marlins predictably hit Carlos Gomez, who thankfully kept his cool and the matter seemed resolved, at least for this game.
For all the talk about home-plate collisions, the bigger danger epidemic in baseball that can lead to injuries is hit batters -- heads, wrists, hands. For all the talk old-timers love to revel in about Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson throwing at hitters -- which they did (Drysdale led his league five times in hit batters) -- batters continue to get hit by pitches at much higher rates than back in the 1960s.
Look at the rates through the years:
1964: One hit batter every 177 plate appearances.
1974: One hit batter every 192 plate appearances.
1984: One hit batter every 240 plate appearances.
1994: One hit batter every 142 plate appearances.
2004: One hit batter every 102 plate appearances.
2014: One hit batter every 112 plate appearances.
HBP rates peaked in 2001, at one every 99 plate appearances, with general declines after that (although 2014 is up slightly from 2013). Two theories you often here about the increase in hit batters is that "pitchers haven't learned to throw inside" or "pitchers don't throw inside in college because of the aluminum bats" and thus aren't used to doing it in the majors.
I don't think that's the case at all. First of all, hit batter rates decreased drastically from 1964 to 1984, at the same time the rates of college pitchers entering the game were rapidly increasing. HBP rates in the early '90s were up a bit from 1984, but still not higher than 1970s levels. They really started to escalate in the mid-'90s; from 1990 to 1995 the rates had jumped from .20 per game to .30 per game, a 50 percent increase in five years.
What happened in those years? More home runs, more offense, more hitters crowding the plate, more hitters diving out over the plate because they had the power to crush the ball to the opposite field. As offense jumped throughout the '90s, so did the rate of hit batters. Sure, some of that was probably applicable to retaliation effects after home runs, but my theory puts the hitters mostly at fault here. It's pretty simple: If you stand closer to the plate you're more likely to get hit by a pitch.
Take Stanton. He's been hit by just four pitches this year, even though he gets pitched inside regularly. But he doesn't get hit often because he's well off the plate.
Also, if the theory is that young pitchers don't know how to throw inside, check out the list of pitchers with the most hit batters: Charlie Morton, Justin Masterson, Edinson Volquez, Bud Norris, R.A. Dickey, Jeremy Guthrie, A.J. Burnett, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Alfredo Simon, James Shields. Those are all veteran pitchers. Leake is the youngest and he's been in the league five years. Some of them are even known as pitchers with great control -- Guthrie, Cueto, Shields. It's not a young pitcher problem. It's a crowding the plate problem.
I don't see things changing, however. It's a power game we live in right now and hitters are going to continue diving over the plate to hit home runs. Henry Aaron was hit 32 times in his career; singles-hitting Jon Jay has been hit 18 times this year, most in the majors.
It's a different game. A more dangerous game.
It seems like the idea of Victor Martinez as an MVP candidate picked up a lot of momentum in the past few days. It's not the craziest of ideas but well, it's a little out there, and I say that with full appreciation of Martinez's year at the plate.
Martinez is hitting .333/.404/.568, and there's an argument he's been as good as any hitter in the game. In the sabermetric statistic wOBA (weighted on-base average), he's tied with Andrew McCutchen for best in the majors. In the park-adjusted wRC+ (weighted Runs Created Plus), he's tied with Jose Abreu and Mike Trout, just behind McCutchen. In the more conventional stats, he's second to Jose Altuve in the AL in batting average, first in on-base percentage and tied for sixth in RBIs.
Martinez has received a lot of attention for his rare combination of power and contact ability. He has 30 home runs and just 39 strikeouts, giving him the lowest strikeout rate in the majors among qualified hitters at 6.8 percent. That's certainly a rare skill these days. Here's a good read from August Fagerstrom at FanGraphs, pointing out Martinez not only makes contact but is adept at making contact outside the strike zone -- he makes contact on 89 percent of the pitches he swings at that aren't even strikes.
As the chart in that piece shows, Martinez is extreme not just in his ability to connect with those pitches but to connect with power. August writes:
Here’s one more little Victor nugget before we go: Martinez has hit seven home runs off pitches outside the strike zone this year. Of those seven, four have come in an 0-2 count. No other player in baseball has hit four home runs off any pitch in an 0-2 count this season, ball or strike. Look up. The second gif came in an 0-2 count. The fourth gif, even though the broadcast displayed it incorrectly, came in an 0-2 count. Even when you get ahead of Martinez 0-2 and throw him a good 0-2 pitch, he can still do damage against you. It's not over until it's over.
Now, Martinez's skill is certainly unique. The last player to hit at least 30 home runs while striking out 50 or fewer times was Albert Pujols in 2006 (49 home runs, 50 strikeouts). Since the mound was lowered in 1969, it's been done just 15 times, including three times apiece by Barry Bonds and Don Mattingly. If you factor in the league strikeout rate, Martinez's home run-to-strikeout ratio looks even more impressive.
That's fun stuff, but it doesn't make Martinez's production any more valuable. And that's where we have to point out he's still a designated hitter trying to win the MVP award, and that's a tough proposition to argue for. He's started just 32 games in the field -- 30 at first base and two at catcher.
David Ortiz, who finished second to Alex Rodriguez in 2005. The voting was actually pretty close -- 331 points to 307 -- although A-Rod was clearly more valuable considering he had slightly better triple-slash stats, played a good third base and stole 21 bases (A-Rod led in WAR, 9.4 to 5.3). Edgar Martinez finished third in 1995, behind Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle, and actually had a higher WAR than either two. Ortiz's wRC+ in 2005 was 157, below Victor Martinez's 163, while Edgar Martinez's was a sky-high 182, easily best in the majors that year.
Speaking of WAR, this is where it's hard to build a case for Martinez. Baseball-Reference has him at 4.6 WAR, 18th among AL position players. FanGraphs has him at 3.9, 20th among AL position players. You have a player with no defensive value and is one of the slowest runners in the league (he's rated as one of the 10 worst baserunners in the AL with minus-5.3 runs on the bases via FanGraphs), so you basically have to hit like Barry Bonds circa 2001-2004, or at least Edgar Martinez in 1995, to be in the MVP discussion if you're a DH.
Martinez has been one of the season's biggest surprises and best stories. In this day of flailing sluggers and strikeout-prone singles hitters, he's a joy to watch. But he's not one of the AL's five best MVP candidates.