Don't sleep on Henderson Alvarez

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
11:20
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The two best things about the Miami Marlins the past two seasons have been Giancarlo Stanton's prodigious power and the rapid emergence of Jose Fernandez as a true ace. Then you add in Nate Eovaldi, who possessed the highest average fastball velocity of any pitcher who threw 100 innings last season and has a 23:3 K:BB ratio this season. Center fielder Christian Yelich is building upon his good rookie season, improving his OPS by more than 50 points in the early part of the season. Adeiny Hechavarria is making strides at the plate, lowering his strikeout percentage for the second season in a row and batting a surprising .319. One could almost be excused for overlooking a 24-year-old pitcher who yielded only two homers in 102 innings last season and capped 2013 off with a no-hitter on the last day of the regular season.

Henderson Alvarez twirled that no-no against the Detroit Tigers. But he’s got a comparatively lackluster strikeout rate (4.5 per nine through 2013) and a brilliant, but unsexy, 55.3 percent career ground ball percentage. On a staff full of power arms, he can get lost in the shuffle, especially given the way he started 2014. In his first three starts, he yielded 25 hits and seven walks against only 10 strikeouts in 14⅔ innings. He didn’t make it past the sixth inning in any outing.

[+] EnlargeHenderson Alvarez
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesThe Marlins' Henderson Alvarez lost his bid for a perfect game Saturday against the Mariners in the sixth inning on Dustin Ackley's leadoff single.
Furthermore, Saturday night, he was facing a Seattle Mariners team with five players in the lineup that had batted a collective .353 against him.

But something clicked for Alvarez against Seattle. Perhaps it was the presence of manager Lloyd McClendon in the opposing dugout. McClendon happened to be the hitting coach for the Tigers for that no-hitter in 2013. Perhaps it was time for regression to the mean from Alvarez’s .444 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this season (it was .285 through 2013). Despite the familiarity of some of the opposing batters, the Mariners' impatient approach and lack of good contact (26th in walk percentage, 25th in line drive percentage and tied for 23rd with 3.77 pitches seen per plate appearance going into the game) might have helped. Whatever the case, he was wickedly efficient and brilliant in a 90-pitch, two-hit, complete-game 7-0 shutout of Seattle at Marlins Park.

Alvarez was perfect through the first five innings, needing only 53 pitches and allowing only one fly ball. He kept the Mariners at bay with a four-seam fastball that touched 95 mph, a power sinker that topped 92 most of the night and a smattering of changeups and sliders. Meanwhile, the Marlins pieced together single runs in the third and fourth.

With a 2-0 lead heading into the sixth, Alvarez yielded a solid leadoff single to center by Dustin Ackley and then promptly induced Mike Zunino into a 5-4-3 double play, part of the 16 ground ball outs he tallied on the night.

The Marlins blew the game open in the sixth, capped off by Marcell Ozuna’s three-run homer off a tiring Roenis Elias.

Alvarez’s only other blemish on the night came on a double just over the third-base bag by Zunino with one out in the ninth. Two more infield groundouts, and he had his third career complete game and a shutout.

His BABIP for the season is now down to a more reasonable .329, and he’s now allowed only two hits in his past 18 innings with McClendon in the same building. Perhaps he should carry Lloyd’s baseball card in his back pocket from now on.

Diane Firstman writes for Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot Network blog.

Harper disciplined by yesteryear's phenom

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
7:10
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Bryce Harper’s latest bit of drama hit the news: pulled from a close game Saturday and benched for lack of hustle running to first base. Nationals manager Matt Williams was pretty up-front about the reason why, stressing Harper’s obligation to his teammates when he said, “He and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement, that when we play the game, that we hustle at all times.” Harper’s postgame comments seem to indicate he took it in the right way, or was at least ready to give the right answers, so we can forget about any postgame drama.

It’s times like these that you have to remember that, while it might seem as if Harper has already been around a while, he’s nevertheless just 21 years old, yet in his third season in the majors already. I think we all remember what we were like at 21, and whether or not you were ready to be a perfect employee in any workplace, let alone one with few days off and the rigors of a grinding travel schedule. Which is why, even for a player as good as Harper, even for a player who has been relentlessly conditioned and prepared to be a big league ballplayer, as he was, you can extend some small measure of understanding for him. On the other hand, as the son of an ironworker, he has lauded his father’s example as the inspiration for his work ethic.

The microscope that Harper has to work under is no easy thing for anybody, with or without the clown questions. Less than two weeks ago, he was talking about how lost he was at the plate and taking a day off. Then he rattled off an eight-game hitting streak while hitting .483/.545/.759, so I guess you can say he found himself.

That’s what is worth the headaches, even as you accept that, third-year pro or no, Harper is still a very young man. Which is why you can simultaneously respect Williams for exercising his responsibility to his team so quickly. Williams may be a rookie skipper, but he’s also a guy who had his share of huge touts back in the day as the third overall pick of the 1986 draft for the San Francisco Giants. He was in the majors nine months later, just 21 years old with even fewer games as a pro under his belt in the minors than Harper had when he was called up (less than 80, to 134 for Harper).

So Williams knows more than a little about these kinds of pressures, as well as his own experience as a singular talent. Maybe that means he’s less inclined to spare the rod, so to speak. We’ll have to see how Harper, having been chastened, responds to the message in the days to come.

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

Pirates fans should get to say 'I like Ike'

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
4:00
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One of the things a few folks -- not just long-suffering Mets fans -- were wondering was whether Ike Davis was going to be able to build on last season's big second half. After going down for a month to help him address things like an epically awful start, perhaps related to his planting too far back from the plate, Davis came back up in July and clouted pitchers at a .267/.429/443 clip in two months. That from a lefty power bat that hit 32 homers in 2012, a guy who even with the awful two months to start 2013 has a career .256/.357/.471 line against right-handed pitching (2014-inclusive).

So the thing to watch is if Davis is going to be some variation of that guy again: The lefty masher, maybe the guy who delivered the third-best second-half OBP in the majors in 2013 -- the Pirates aren’t all that picky.
[+] EnlargeIke Davis
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsIf Ike Davis brings his 2012 power or his 2013 second-half OBP, he'll be a big addition to the Bucs.

The fun thing is that Davis perfectly complements the guy the Pirates had left over at first base, right-handed hitter Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez managed just a .619 OPS against righties last year as the short end of the Pirates’ first-base platoon, with Garrett Jones initially and Justin Morneau later, while thriving against the lefties he’s reliably chewed up (.898 OPS career), seeing his usual 200-point OPS split spike up to .987 last year. Even if that had regressed toward something less extreme, even if Sanchez got his OPS against right-handed hitters back up around .700 as an everyday player, he wasn’t going to be an asset as a regular. Credit the Pirates for both resurrecting Sanchez -- he was a Marlins All-Star in 2011, and combined for 38 homers in 2010 and 2011 -- and using him within his limits.

To compensate for those shortcomings, the Pirates had retained Travis Ishikawa as a sort of latter-day Dave Bergman/Tony Muser type, something you don’t see much of on rosters these days. As a fan of a certain age, those are my points of reference for a backup first baseman good for spot starts against right-handers who struggle against lefties, maybe some pinch hitting and defensive-replacement duties. They were fun to have around, but they were something you could only afford the roster space for at a time when bullpens were staffed by five or six guys, not seven or eight. Like Morneau, Davis is a much stronger alternative, and a much better use of the roster spot in today’s competitive environment, which is why the Pirates promptly designated Ishikawa for assignment as soon as they could add Davis to the active roster on Saturday.

Having assembled their latest retread platoon to cover their first-base needs, it’s interesting to see how many teams are adapting to today’s decline in runs scored with platoons or with some measure of platooning. The Brewers have had to resort to the barrel-bottom solution of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, while the Rays have stuck with James Loney-Sean Rodriguez at first. The Yankees have resorted to a platoon during Mark Teixeira’s time on the DL, partnering Kelly Johnson with Francisco Cervelli and Scott Sizemore at first. The Astros and Rockies play matchup games.

But most of those are desperation or price-driven choices, whereas the Davis-Sanchez platoon might combine to crank out offensive production to rank among the top half of first basemen. While we don’t know who the PTBNL the Mets will get will be, minor league righty reliever Zach Thornton seems like little more than an organizational arm. So while the Pirates may well be cost-conscious and reluctant to part with talent, what they might get from first base won’t be too shabby for a pair of bargain-basement finds.

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

Carlos Santana settling in at third base

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
11:38
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Starting with the standard “just a 10th of the way into the season” caveat, one of the things that’s been interesting to check out about the Indians is how much Carlos Santana has been inked into the lineup at the hot corner. That’s because the big offseason experiment with getting Santana in gear to be their in-house answer at third base was one of those things where it would really last.

So far, the Indians have put him out there only 50 percent of the time, giving him eight starts. Five starts at DH and another three behind the plate as the backup catcher have kept him in the lineup every day.
[+] EnlargeSantana
Scott W. Grau/Icon SMIEarly on, it looks like Carlos Santana has adapted to life at the hot corner.

How does that happen? Making every roster spot work for you, even in the reliever-crowded rosters of the present. The rest of the playing time at third has been spread between Lonnie Chisenhall (when he isn’t the DH) and superutilityman Mike Aviles (when he isn’t spot-starting at second, short or left field). There are a lot of moving parts, plus the need to spot lefty-killer Ryan Raburn wherever he fits in any given day (either outfield corner, DH and maybe second base in a pinch).

It’s the natural outgrowth of a playing-time plan where, instead of marooning one guy in the regular DH role, Terry Francona is keeping his 11 best bats rotating through his lineup, with seven-position reserve Elliot Johnson representing his lone true bench player. That will change when Jason Giambi reprises his gray eminence gig once he’s activated from the DL (reportedly Monday), but the G-man won’t get more than 200 at-bats this year.

Now that the games count, Santana hasn’t looked too shabby at third. A lone error, a league-average rate of plays made, nothing too appalling in terms of the early returns from Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus-Minus, Baseball-Reference.com’s Total Zone or FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating. Yes, it’s only eight games, but none of the interpretive metrics have gone Russian judge on us when evaluating Santana’s performance.

So, so far so good. As one AL insider put it to me this spring, “Can he really be worse than [Miguel Cabrera]?” Even if Santana turns out that badly playing just half the time, he still will likely do more than enough damage at the plate to make up for it. His homer Friday got him off the schneid in that department, and the experiment’s looking good early on.

Making the comparison to Miggy makes sense, because just as Cabrera’s move to third base in 2012 was about adding Prince Fielder’s bat to the Tigers’ lineup, the Indians’ decision to give Santana a shot at third is about getting their best bats into the mix. You can see it as comparable to the decisions about where to put Bobby Bonilla in the lineup in the 1990s: No, he wasn’t a great third baseman, but if you found a right fielder who hit better than your alternatives at third base, you could still contend with Bobby Bo at the hot corner -- as the Pirates did -- or win it all, as the Marlins did.

Making a defensive sacrifice at one of the corners is more affordable than ever today, thanks to the game’s offensive environment: More strikeouts than ever mean that the positions that get the fewest chances have even less of an opportunity to affect outcomes on the field. The Giants won in 2010 with a DH (Aubrey Huff) in the corners, the Cardinals won in 2011 with a DH on the field (Lance Berkman), and the Giants won again in 2012 despite Pablo Sandoval’s immobility at third base. Santana? He’s just the latest example of an adaptive strategy to get runs from your lineup while runs are getting more scarce.

The other half of the proposition was that Yan Gomes had to show he could handle playing regularly as the club’s catcher. Here again, the answer’s a happy one, echoing Gomes’ second-half breakout for the Indians last year. At the plate, he’s hitting for the same kind of power, with an Isolated Power clip in the .180s. Behind it, he’s an asset, according to the new catcher framing metrics, plus he’s deterring the running game, with less than one steal being attempted every nine innings, while he has thrown out 4 of 11 attempts already.

The Indians might have other issues as they try to repeat last season’s success, but Carlos Santana at third base? So far, that ain’t one of them.


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

Keep an eye on Buehrle-Kluber matchup

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
10:00
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Let's put this afternoon's pitchers in the Toronto Blue Jays-Cleveland Indians matchup side by side.

Mark Buehrle has an 0.86 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and .221 opponents' batting average in his first three starts of the season.

Corey Kluber has a 5.40 ERA, 1.68 WHIP and .347 opponents' batting average in his first three starts of the season.

On the surface, the numbers look similar in only one regard (Buehrle's strikeout-to-walk ratio is 16-2, Kluber's is 16-3), but …


Mark Buehrle has gotten his fair share of outs on hard-hit balls in 2014.

Buehrle has allowed 16 batted balls that have been classified as hard-hit by Inside Edge's video-tracking system.

Kluber has allowed only 15.

They've each allowed hard-hit balls in 20 percent of the at-bats against them this season.

The difference in their performance this season is what has happened on those hard-hit balls.

Opponents are 6-for-16 with three singles and three doubles when hitting the ball hard against Buehrle. Against Kluber, opponents are 10-for-15 with two singles, six doubles and two home runs when hitting the ball hard.

Buehrle has benefited from his outfielders being able to chase down fly balls. In his last start against the Orioles alone, there were three warning-track fly outs that had they had a little bit more carry to them, would have gone over the fence and produced four more runs.

Kluber has not been as fortunate. Balls are falling in against him with a bit more frequency, not necessarily an abnormal one, but one that has been damaging to his overall performance nonetheless.

The gap between the two is much smaller if you take a look at a stat like FIP (fielding independent pitching), which estimates ERA based on strikeouts, walks and homers allowed. Buehrle's is 1.95. Kluber's is 3.22.

So forgive us if we like Kluber to bounce back this afternoon and for Buehrle to fall back to earth just a little bit.

Simply nothing stops Braves' rotation

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
12:15
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Less than a month ago, Aaron Harang fought and failed to make the Cleveland Indians' 25-man roster. A perfect storm of injuries to the Atlanta Braves' rotation earned the 36-year-old right-hander another shot at making another major league team only days after his late-March release. On Friday, Harang not only found himself on the mound at Citi Field, but pitching seven no-hit innings against his former team.

Youthful pitching powered the 2013 Braves to a convincing NL East title, as their rotation combined for a 3.51 ERA on the backs of Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran. A surplus of young pitchers allowed Atlanta to part with some of their older arms in Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson, but as the 2014 season grew closer to fruition, the Braves failed to leave spring training with a confident rotation.

It took Brandon Beachy, Medlen and Minor to suffer injuries before Harang pitched an inning with the Braves. This massive injury bug would have most teams laboring to find enough arms to stay afloat, but performances like Harang's against the Mets show why the Braves have succeeded despite misfortune.

[+] EnlargeAaron Harang
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsAaron Harang struck out five and walked six while pitching seven hitless innings for the Braves on Friday night.
Harang didn't throw the prettiest seven no-hit innings, but, in the end, he held the Braves' one-run lead until the bullpen could take care of the final two innings. Of the 121 pitches the righty threw, just 70 were strikes, and his six walks -- compared to five strikeouts -- paint a respectable microcosm of his struggles against the Mets lineup. It was a hard-fought zero in the hit column for Harang, but his toughest inning was the seventh. He retired the first two batters but then issued back-to-back walks as the Mets were trying to make up a one-run deficit. Though Harang sat at 115 pitches at the time, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez elected to stick with the veteran righty. Harang worked the count full before striking out Andrew Brown on an 83 mph slider for his final pitch of the night. With the weather cold and pitchers still building up their strength, Gonzalez's decision to go to the bullpen was a no-brainer after such a hefty pitch count for Harang.

The Braves didn't end up with a gaudy no-hitter over the Mets, but Harang's start represents the most recent streak of success in the Braves' pursuit of quality starting pitchers. It was a battle for Harang, who threw 51 balls and toiled with six walks, but the Braves got yet another quality start from the back end of their rotation. For a team with such bad luck with the health of their pitchers, they have a knack for catching lightning in a bottle.

While performances by veterans like Harang are one source of their starting pitching success, the Braves have shown no lack of benefit when finding even younger starters. David Hale enjoyed some success in 471 minor league innings, but his career minor league ERA was nothing spectacular at 3.69. Thus far, Hale has shown up in Atlanta ready to contribute, and after giving the team two great starts in 2013, he's put together two respectable performances for the 2014 team.

Having access to this crop of young pitchers helped the Braves in a much larger way this March. A cheap and young rotation, still in their first few seasons of arbitration, allows the Atlanta front office to make big emergency purchases like that of Ervin Santana. But even here we see the value of the Braves' ability to scout pitching. Atlanta landed Santana on a one-year deal over Ubaldo Jimenez on a three-year deal, and in this very small sample size in mid-April, Santana has given up just one run in two starts while Jimenez has allowed 13 runs in three starts.

It's hard to make a proper judgment when it isn't even three weeks into the season, but after suffering such a horrible chain of injuries to their rotation, the Braves now lead the majors with a combined 1.47 ERA out of their starters. Be it their fielding, their front office or their management on the field, it seems that no matter what happens to the Braves, nothing can stop their ability to pitch.

Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
6:01
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While driving home from work Thursday night, I was listening to the Rays' feed of the Yankees-Rays game when Derek Jeter made a "diving" play. The broadcasters chuckled at Jeter's lack of range and his natural succumbing to Father Time, saying something along the lines of "That's Jeter's range; however he can fall to his right and however he can fall to his left." An inning or so later, the maligned Yanks infield turned a triple play, so there you go. Without further ado, the best from around the SweetSpot Network, week 3:

Boston RedSox: FireBrand of the AL
A large cup of coffee: Jeff Polman catches up with former Red Sox starting pitcher Dana Kiecker. Who’s Dana Kiecker, you ask? He’s just the pitcher who followed Roger Clemens in the 1990 ALCS by starting Game 2. Follow on Twitter: @jpballnut.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Which pitchers have nasty stuff? If you missed the 10-strikeout performance put up on Wednesday afternoon by Masahiro Tanaka, it showed off his nasty stuff. Joe Aiello takes a look at what other pitchers have "nasty" stuff. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The art of patience: Collin Whitchurch examines the White Sox offense's hot start as a product of a new organizational emphasis on plate discipline. Follow on Twitter: @cowhitchurch


Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
What are the keys for pitching at Coors? and ¿Cuáles son la claves para lanzar en Coors Field? The debut of Sabermetrics in Spanish, Juan Pablo Zubillaga compares Rockies pitchers with non-Rockies pitchers and analyzes which metrics can indicate success for Rockies pitchers.

Milwaukee Brewers: Disciples of Uecker
The Brewers' line-driving frenzy: Jonathan Judge looks at the value and sustainability of the Brewers' high line-drive rate so far. Follow on Twitter: @bachlaw

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
How good could the 2015 infield really be? Matt Seybold wonders how the Yankees will go about filling the holes they will have in the 2015 infield. Follow on Twitter: @Sport_Hippeaux

How did the "pine tar" affect Pineda's performance? Michael Eder takes a look at what affects, if any, that mysterious blob of goo on Michael Pineda's hand had during his start against Boston. Follow on Twitter: @edermik

Philadelphia Phillies: Crashburn Alley
Phillies showing tremendous plate discipline: The Phillies are drawing plenty of walks, something they haven't done in a few years.

Some fun trivia on Cliff Lee's start against the Braves: Cliff Lee got the tough-luck loss on Wednesday but it made for some interesting trivia. Follow on Twitter: @CrashburnAlley

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Offense, Myers struggling: Jason Collette shows how 2014 looks a lot like 2011 in the early going for the Tampa Bay offense and why Wil Myers is struggling at the plate. Follow on Twitter: @processreport

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.

Suddenly and swiftly, the Yankees are the ones with the young pitching, while the Rays have question marks in their rotation.

The Yankees have had 25-year-olds Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda become two of the biggest stories of the early going in all of baseball.

The Rays have been hurt by injury after injury to their r, making their favorite status in the AL East a little tenuous.

They have watched as 24-year-old Matt Moore and 27-year-old Jeremy Hellickson have needed elbow surgery. Moore will be gone for the year. Meanwhile, 26-year-old Alex Cobb has a left oblique strain.

On Friday night, they are forced to throw 35-year-old journeyman Erik Bedard.

The Rays supposedly have plenty more young pitchers in the pipeline, but at the moment the Yankees have created some depth in the majors and possibly the minors. Besides Tanaka and Pineda, Ivan Nova is just 27.

Adam Warren is only 26. Warren looks like he could be a dependable setup man and, if given the chance, may be able to become a starter. Other than his disastrous one-start debut in 2012, he has been impressive now for a year-and-a-half.

Joining Warren in the pen is Dellin Betances. Betances, 26, has struck out 11 in 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Though he doesn't always have complete control of his pitches, he is becoming a weapon.

David Phelps is a bit up-and-down, but he is only 27.

On the farm, the Yankees have some potential with Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos and Luis Severino.

As we have already seen this year, pitching depth is a fragile thing. But at the moment, there is a role reversal going on with the Yankees' young pitchers thriving and the Rays taking a step back.

On deck: Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 3.86) takes on Bedard (0-0, 0.00) in Game 2 of this four-game series. First pitch is set for 7:10 p.m.
There's certainly no shame in losing to Adam Wainwright. When he's commanding his fastball to the corners and dropping in that big curveball, the 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would have trouble beating him.

It's one thing to lose to an ace like Wainwright, but it's another to go down like the Washington Nationals did on Thursday night: one lone infield hit to Wainwright until there were two outs in the ninth; four errors, to add to their league-leading total; 192 pitches thrown; one wild pitch, one hit batter and a whole bunch of fans who left Nationals Park early.

This is supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball? The Nationals looked like the '62 Mets in this one. By the seventh inning, I expected to see Marv Throneberry triple into a double play.

Of course, every team has a game like this at some point during the season. There are more than a few teams who would like to own the Nationals' 9-7 record. Still, this game exposed some concerns about the Nationals, namely, their defense, their arguably overrated rotation and their inability to beat good teams.

[+] EnlargeDanny Espinosa
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsDanny Espinosa made one of four errors by the Nationals in their loss to the Cardinals on Thursday.
Yes, the Nats are 9-7, but they’re 3-0 against the Mets (who, granted, are off to an 8-7 start) and 5-1 against the Miami Marlins, but 1-5 against the Atlanta Braves and now 0-1 against the St. Louis Cardinals. In those seven games against the Braves and Cardinals, they've been outscored 40 to 16.

If that sounds familiar, I take you back to 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 0-6 against the Cardinals. Against the five National League playoff teams, they went 14-31 while being outscored 181-125. The Nationals went 86-76 only because they beat up on the hapless Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Marlins, and they did much of that damage in September, once those three clubs had long since packed it in. If we're supposed to take the Nationals seriously, don't they need to start beating the good teams?

That vaunted Nationals rotation. It had a 3.60 ERA last season. That's good. I mean, it was only sixth best in the NL, barely better than the Mets (3.68) and only a little better than the Marlins (3.87). Of course, the Mets didn't get to face the Mets and the Marlins didn't get to face the historically awful Marlins offense, but 3.60 is pretty solid. Many thought it would be even better this season: They brought in Doug Fister to replace Dan Haren, and Stephen Strasburg should be better and Jordan Zimmermann just needs to do what he did in the first half last season (12-4, 2.58 ERA) over a full season.

That hasn't happened early on. Fister hasn't pitched yet; the depth from Taylor Jordan, who started Thursday, and Tanner Roark hasn't materialized; Strasburg has struggled with runners on base; Zimmermann had a blow-up start. The Nationals have a 5.21 rotation ERA, second worst in the majors.

It's probably good news that the Nationals are 9-7 when the rotation has struggled to this degree. Sure, there's undoubtedly some bad luck in there -- the .348 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) the starters have allowed is also second worst in the majors -- but they're also 28th in average innings per start and 25th in walks per nine innings. They're also first in strikeouts per nine, but strikeouts are nicer when they come with run prevention.

OK, most of us still believe in the rotation. And they'll have a lot of games against the Marlins and Phillies to look good against.

The defense, however, has been the biggest disaster of all. On Thursday, shortstop Ian Desmond made a fielding error and a throwing error, raising his season total to seven; second baseman Danny Espinosa dropped a throw from Desmond; right fielder Jayson Werth dropped a fly ball. That's 20 errors in 16 games. Ugly.



OK, errors aren't everything. You can make up for errors with good range. But they look bad, and, sometimes, sloppy baseball feeds off itself. The pitchers have to throw more pitches and work out of more jams. That leads to earlier exits and puts more strain on the bullpen.

Again, one game. In September, it will be forgotten. Heck, it might be forgotten by next week. But I won't forget until I start seeing the Nationals do some damage against better teams. Ask yourself this: How would we view this team if it played in the NL Central instead of the NL East?
One of the craziest games of recent years took place on Monday, when the Phillies scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 6-5 lead, only to blow it in the ninth when Dan Uggla hit a grand slam for the Braves off Jake Diekman.

One reason it turned into a crazy game was Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon was unavailable, having pitched the three previous days, saving a 6-3 game, pitching an inning in a tie game and then saving a 4-3 lead on Sunday.

Ryne Sandberg certainly isn't unique in not using his closer for a fourth day in a row. Last season, only one relief pitchers pitched five days in a row -- Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers, on the final four days of the regular season and the tiebreaker game against the Rays. A reliever pitched four days in a row just 33 times and most of them weren't closers. The only closers to do it more than once were Edward Mujica and Joe Nathan.

Anyway, what I wonder: Is this something new, not using your closer four days in a row? Maybe not. The Captain's Blog tweeted this on Monday after I tweeted that Goose Gossage would have pitched four days in a row:



The Captain wasn't quite right. Gossage also pitched four days in a row, Sept. 5-8, 1980. Of course, as Gossage himself would be quick to point out, closers didn't just pitch the ninth inning back then. Gossage pitched two innings four times in those eight appearances (and in 1978 even had a seven-inning relief appearance).

Mike Marshall was another 1970s reliever. In 1974 he won the National League Cy Young Award for the Dodgers, pitching in 106 games and 208.1 innings. From May 17 through 24 that year he appeared eight days in a row, pitching a total of 14.2 innings. OK, Marshall was sort of a freak. So let's check a few other guys to see how often they pitched at least four days in a row:

Rollie Fingers: 7 (most: 6)
Bruce Sutter: 5 (most: 6)
Dan Quisenberry: 12 (most: 4)
Lee Smith: 12 (most: 6)
Dennis Ecksersley: 1 (most: 4)
Billy Wagner: 6 (most: 4)
Trevor Hoffman: 10 (most: 4)
Mariano Rivera: 4 (most: 4)
Jonathan Papelbon: 0

No real surprises here. Since total appearances for closers hasn't really changed much in 30 years it's not a big surprise that the '70s and '80s guys didn't pitch all that often four days in a row. Eckersley was clearly handled very carefully and as you can see, Papelbon has never done it (and, in fact, has appeared three days in a row just 19 times).

I think what has changed in recent seasons is managers announcing before a game that a reliever isn't available. I guess they want to stop the second-guessing before it can begin.

By the way, the record for most consecutive days (not games) pitched is Kent Tekulve, who pitched nine days in a row for the Phillies in 1987, giving up one run in 9.1 innings. He pitched in 90 games that year, totaling 105 innings. That wasn't even the biggest workload of his career. In 1978-79 with the Pirates, he pitched in 91 and 94 games and 135.1 and 134.1 innings.
The other day, SweetSpot TV co-host Eric Karabell said to me, "It seems like a third of managers are hitting their worst hitter first or second."

True or not? Well, here are some examples:
  • The impetus for our discussion was Tony Gwynn Jr., a career .245 hitter with no power who owns a career OPS+ of 75. After Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg benched Ben Revere for dropping two fly balls, Gywnn took over in center -- and took over Revere's leadoff spot for four games. Remember, Gwynn wasn't even in the majors last season.
  • When Toronto lost Maicer Izturis to an injury, the Jays called up Munenori Kawasaki. In his first game, he hit second, which sabermetricians will say is one of the spots you want your best hitter (second or fourth). So one day he's not good enough to be on the team, the next day manager John Gibbons hits him second. In over 400 career plate appearances, Kawasaki has hit .221/.307/.288. Instead of leaving Edwin Encarnacion batting fifth, why not just move everyone up? Jose Bautista second, Adam Lind third and Encarnacion fourth?
  • The Padres have hit Alexi Amarista second three times since Sunday. He hit a home run earlier in the season, but he's still a career .234 hitter with a .280 OBP and little power. On Monday, Amarista hit second, while Will Venable, a good hitter, batted eighth (against a right-hander, so no lefty in play for Venable). Venable is off to a bad start, but still ...
  • Xavier Nady hit cleanup for the Padres on Wednesday night, which maybe says more about the Padres than Bud Black. Nady was out of the majors last year after hitting .184 in 2012. The last time he had an OPS above league average was 2008. But, hey, lightning in a bottle or something, I guess.
  • B.J. Upton continues to hit second for the Braves, as Fredi Gonzalez pulls the opposite of Black and refuses to react to small sample sizes (Andrelton Simmons, off to a .333 start with no strikeouts, hit eighth Wednesday). Of course, there is last year's sample size for Upton to consider.
  • The Royals called up Johnny Giavotella last week for one game. He hit second.
  • Buck Showalter has hit Delmon Young second four times. Against a left-hander, I guess I could reluctantly accept that. But three of those games were against a right-hander. Young had a .293 OBP last year against righties. In 2012, it was .279. In 2011, it was .288. He also grounds into a fair number of double plays. But, hey, otherwise he's the perfect No. 2 hitter. (To be fair, Young probably isn't the worst hitter on the Orioles. Boy does that team have some OBP issues. They're third in the AL in batting average but 14th in OBP.)
  • When Michael Bourn started the year on the DL for Cleveland, Nyjer Morgan made the team. He hit leadoff seven games. He actually played well (.348), but when Bourn returned Morgan was sent down to the minors. Terry Francona did catch a little lightning there.
  • Bryan Price, of course, continues to hit Billy Hamilton leadoff. But he's not even the Reds' worst hitter right now: That's Zack Cozart and his .109 average. Plus, Price has moved Joey Votto up to the No. 2 spot, so he deserves credit for a solid sabermetric-approved decision there.
  • The Marlins have hit Adeiny Hechavarria first or second five times in 16 games.
  • Derek Jeter has hit leadoff once and second 10 times. (I kid, I kid!)


Look, it's early and these are just a few scattershot examples. If Upton continues to hit .180 and Simmons .300, Gonzalez will make a change soon enough. None of these are Alcides Escobar-type situations yet, when Ned Yost was still hitting Escobar second into July last season despite a sub-.280 OBP.

Still, with all the information that front offices use -- and some of that has filtered down to the field level (such as all the shifting that now takes place) -- it's still strange that managers continue to muck up the batting order or overreact to a few games. The odd thing is most managers probably obsess over this as much as any part of their job. I still think they're too beholden to the conventional approach of a fast guy hitting leadoff and then your two best hitters batting third and fourth. Because usually want a decent hitter following their two best hitters, that often leaves a mediocre guy batting second.

The other problem? There just aren't enough good hitters these days to fill out a perfect lineup card.
There were 15 games played Wednesday. One-third of those games featured a shutout. Teams hit a collective .220 and averaged 2.8 runs per game. The Cubs played a doubleheader and didn't score a run, the first time that has happened since 1962 (the Cubs lost 103 games that year). Felix Hernandez allowed one run and didn't win, the 17th time since 2010 he's pitched at least seven innings, allowed one run or fewer and didn't get the W. Cliff Lee allowed one run and fanned 13 and didn't win. The highest-scoring games featured just 10 runs and both went extra innings, and one was decided when a utility infielder had to pitch.

So, yes, just another day of baseball. Quick thoughts ...
  • The Red Sox beat the White Sox 6-4, scoring twice in the 14th inning off infielder Leury Garcia. I'd say the 14th inning is a little early to run out of relievers, especially when your starter goes six innings. The White Sox were nursing a 4-2 lead in the eighth, but manager Robin Ventura burned through four relievers in getting just three outs as Boston scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth. Ventura was trying to match up and brought in lefties Scott Downs and Donnie Veal to face one batter, which led to a thin bullpen in extra innings. Rather than try to get a fourth inning out of Daniel Webb (who had thrown 59 pitches) or use a starter in relief, Ventura used Garcia. The White Sox bullpen has an MLB-worst 6.38 ERA and the bullpen walked 11 batters in this game. It was a concern heading into the season, and Doug Padilla writes that changes could be in order.
  • Julio Teheran continues to impress despite low strikeout totals. He beat Lee 1-0 with a three-hit shutout with just four strikeouts. Teheran threw 23 changeups (22 to left-handers), after having thrown only 15 in his first three starts. It worked as the Phillies went 0-for-6 against it. Teheran has only 13 strikeouts in 28 innings, but has allowed only four extra-base hits and walked six. The impressive thing about Wednesday's effort was going back out there in the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With Craig Kimbrel still day to day with a sore shoulder, Fredi Gonzalez even left Teheran in to face Chase Utley after Jimmy Rollins had singled (and stole second with two outs). Utley grounded a 3-1 sinker to second, Teheran's 115th pitch. Compare that to Lloyd McClendon, who pulled Hernandez in the eighth inning after 96 pitches and saw his bullpen and defense lose it in the ninth.
  • It's only three starts, but Masahiro Tanaka looks like a No. 1 to me. OK, it was the Cubs. And the Cubs can't hit (Michael Pineda & Co. shut them out in the nightcap). Still, that splitter is a wipeout pitch. Maybe hitters will learn to lay off it, but as Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara showed last season, hitters can't lay off it, even when they know it's coming. Tanaka has 28 strikeouts through three starts. Since 1900, only Stephen Strasburg and J.R. Richard had more strikeouts in their first three career starts.
  • Johnny Cueto had a brilliant three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout for the Reds over the Pirates, giving Cincinnati its first series win of 2014. Keep an eye on Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, however. Clint Hurdle didn't start him as he had struck out three times in each of the previous two games and now has 24 in 68 plate appearances (35 percent strikeout rate). He's hitting .250/.338/.383, but all the K's are becoming a concern. The Pirates need him to be more than just a great defensive left fielder; they need him to hit or this offense is really going to struggle to score runs.
  • Jose Fernandez, after getting roughed up and struggling with his command in his last start, was cruising along into the sixth inning against the Nationals with a 3-0 lead, having allowed only one hit with six punchouts. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrible play with pitcher Tanner Roark bunting. The bunt was short and in front of the plate and while Salty had a possible play at third, with a 3-0 lead you just take the out at first. He threw wildly and everyone was safe. After a strikeout and infield pop out, Fernandez should have been out of the inning. Instead, Jayson Werth did this, lining an 0-1 fastball down the middle just over the fence in right-center (the review confirmed it was a home run). Fernandez ended up with 10 K's in seven innings, but the Nationals won it with three in the eighth.
  • Big win for the Angels to avoid a sweep to the A's. A night after tying it in the ninth but losing in extra innings, the Angels again tied it in the bottom of the ninth and this time won in extra innings, on Chris Iannetta's 12th-inning walk-off homer against Drew Pomeranz. Mike Trout, who homered Tuesday to tie it, got the tying rally started with a base hit. Losing leads in the ninth is always wrenching, but especially so against a division rival. The Mariners lost to the Rangers in similar fashion (Jeff Sullivan writes it as only a Mariners fan can: Baseball's back).
  • Buster Olney wrote on George Springer's major league debut for the Astros. Springer went 1-for-5 with a dribbler for a base hit, a walk and two strikeouts in the Astros' 6-4 loss to the Royals in 11 innings. He also got picked off (one of two Astros to get picked off). The Royals won despite making four errors. Some game there. The Astros, by the way, are hitting .189.
  • Injury watch: Cardinals starter Joe Kelly is likely headed to the DL after pulling his hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit; Hanley Ramirez left the game after getting hit on his hand, but X-rays were negative and he's day-to-day; Kole Calhoun is out 4-6 weeks for the Angels after spraining a ligament in his ankle (J.B. Shuck hit leadoff in his place last night).


We don’t see these matchups as often you may expect, ace versus ace, best in the game versus best in the game. For the third time in their careers, Felix Hernandez faced Yu Darvish. The first two battles, both in 2012, went to King Felix: He allowed one run in eight innings and then pitched a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem, as Darvish struggled in both outings.

Let's follow along with a running diary of the Texas Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

First inning

You certainly have to expect a low-scoring game. Darvish hasn’t allowed a run in his first two starts and faces a Seattle lineup that has been shut out in three of its past six games. Hernandez has allowed six runs in his three starts with an impressive 30-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/Brandon Wade
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect pitcher’s build, but if I could sculpt a pitcher out of Italian marble, he would look like Darvish -- tall and lean with a regal appearance, his uniform tailored perfectly. It’s a small data sample, but Darvish may be making one major change to his approach from last season, throwing more four-seam fastballs and fewer cutters. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Darvish threw 35 percent fastballs last year and 16 percent cutters. Through his first two starts, those numbers were 61 and 4. This makes sense; the cutter was his weakest pitch last year as opponents hit .271/.357/.500 against it. If he can command the four-seamer, he can ditch the cutter considering he still has his slider and curveball as wipeout pitches (plus an occasional splitter and even a big slow curve).

After a scoreless top of the inning, Hernandez takes the mound, top two buttons undone, pants legs down over the top of his shoelaces, his upper lip unshaven and a scraggly fluff of hair sprouting from his chin. Hernandez’s best weapon has been his changeup; batters are 2-for-27 against it with 18 strikeouts. It has been so good that he’s thrown it 28 percent of the time, up from 19 percent in 2013.

* * * *

Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal faced each other just four times, which seems odd to me. Marichal and Koufax were both starters from 1961 to 1966 and the Dodgers and Giants played each other 18 times a season back then, so you’d think they would have matched up more often. You’d maybe even expect the managers to purposely arrange their rotations for their aces to square off. Koufax pitched 26 times against the Giants over those six seasons and Marichal faced the Dodgers 30 times (remarkably, he never allowed more than four runs in those starts), so odds were they should have faced each other a few more times.

In the four games they did pitch against each other, Marichal didn’t even get an official plate appearance in two of them. Once, Koufax got knocked out in the first inning before Marichal hit. Another game -- the last time the two started against each other -- was Aug. 22, 1965, the infamous game when Marichal attacked Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro.

Koufax faced Bob Gibson five times, and they had some great duels. Twice, Koufax beat Gibson 1-0. He pitched a third shutout in another game.

Second inning

Nick Franklin, just called up from Tacoma, lines a first-pitch cutter into right-center for a one-out triple. Darvish strikes out Justin Smoak on a 1-2 fastball out of the strike zone but then works carefully to Dustin Ackley, walking him to face the right-handed Mike Zunino. Darvish starts out with a 94-mph fastball that Zunino takes for a strike, but the 0-1 pitch is a hanging slider in the middle of the plate and Zunino lines a soft single to center. Right pitch, bad execution. Abraham Almonte then plates Ackley, lining a 1-1 fastball into left field to make it 2-0.

Fourth inning

While Hernandez is sailing along through three innings (he started eight of the first nine batters with strikes), Darvish finds himself in a jam, thanks to some shaky defense. Justin Smoak singles past the statuesque Prince Fielder and then Zunino reaches when outfielders Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo miscommunicate on a fly ball. Almonte strikes out. Brad Miller gets ahead in the count 2-1, Darvish gets a gift call on a 2-1 curve that looks outside and then appears to strike out Miller on a good heater on the inside corner. But plate ump Ted Barrett calls it a ball to the displeasure of Darvish. The 3-2 pitch is a slider that Miller sends routinely to right field.

* * * *

Roger Clemens reached the majors in 1984, Randy Johnson in 1988. They were both in the American League through 1998 and in the National League in 2004, but they faced each other only twice, in 1992 and 1994. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez started just three times against each other, once in 1994 and twice in 1995, during Maddux’s apex. He tossed shutouts in two of those games.

According to research by RetroSheet researcher Tom Ruane, the two pitchers who faced off most often in their careers were Jim McCormick and Mickey Welch, who battled 40 times between 1880 and 1887. Since 1900, the most common matchup was between Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Three-Finger Brown, with 23. Brown’s Cubs beat Mathewson’s Giants 12 times to 11. Since World War II, it’s Warren Spahn and Bob Friend, with 21 games.

Two other Hall of Famers who pitched regularly against each other were Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, with 17 duels between 1970 and 1983. And duel they did. On Sept. 24, 1972 -- the year Carlton went 27-10 with an awful Phillies team -- Seaver beat Carlton 2-1, the game decided in the eighth on an unearned run. On Opening Day 1973, Seaver won 3-0 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. On Opening Day 1975, Seaver beat him 2-1, the winning scoring in the bottom of the ninth. In September of 1976, Seaver won 1-0 with a four-hit shutout.

If you’re getting the idea that Seaver had Carlton’s number, it’s kind of true. Or he had the Phillies’ number. The first nine times they faced each other, Seaver went 8-0 with a no-decision. Carlton always pitched well, but Seaver seemed to bring his best stuff. Carlton did finally beat him three times, but overall Seaver went 11-3 with a 2.74 ERA while Carlton went 3-12 with a 2.77 ERA (Seaver had two blow-up starts that raised his ERA). The last time they met was Opening Day 1983. Seaver had returned to the Mets after his exile to Cincinnati, where he had gone 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA in 1982. But the game was at Shea Stadium. Of course Seaver had to start. He tossed six scoreless innings. The Mets won 2-0.

Sixth inning

Darvish has settled down after some early issues with baserunners but he also ran up his pitch count. Meanwhile, the King is dealing, with eight strikeouts and three hits through six. While Darvish has thrown 98 pitches through six, Felix is at 79 (55 for strikes).

If you want a good lesson on what makes Hernandez so good -- and especially so good early on this year -- is that he can throw all four of his pitches on any count. So what has Hernandez done Wednesday night? All eight of his strikeouts have come on fastballs, at least according to MLB.com -- five four-seamers and three two-seamers. The guy is amazing.

(The MLB GameDay system I’m checking could be misidentifying some of his changeups as two-seam sinkers -- you know, because who else throws a changeup that’s only a couple miles per hour slower than his fastball. Readers on Twitter say several of the strikeouts were changeups, which is probably the case. We'll see what the data says after the game.)

Seventh inning

In what’s probably his final inning, Darvish cruises with a 1-2-3 frame, including his eighth strikeout. Solid effort for Darvish on a night he didn’t appear to have his A stuff. The one pitch he’d like to have back was that slider to Zunino.

Hernandez racks up his ninth strikeout, getting Kevin Kouzmanoff on another fastball, although at 88 mph it may have been another changeup.

Eighth inning

Darvish is done, and so is Hernandez after giving up a leadoff triple to Martin. I’m a little surprised at the hook since Hernandez is only at 96 pitches and has kept the Rangers off-balance all night. Felix did not look too happy when Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon took the ball from him, that’s for sure. You know this is the kind of game he at least wants to get the ball into the hands of closer Fernando Rodney.

The Rangers score a run on a sacrifice fly but Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina escape without further damage.

* * * *

In 1959, Lew Burdette and Robin Roberts faced off seven times, the last time two pitchers started that many times against each other in one season. Only one of them was much of a deal, Roberts winning 2-1 on July 4 as he scattered eight hits in a complete game. Another fun piece of data from Tom Ruane: Babe Ruth faced Walter Johnson five times in 1916. There were just 18 runs scored in those five games. How would you like to find a time machine and go watch one those matchups?

Ninth inning

Stop reading, Mariners fans. Rodney on for the save. Two quick outs. Kouzmanoff with a grounder to Miller's left that he dives for but can't corral it. He was shaded way in the hole and had a long ways to go, so it was not an easy play. Rodney falls behind Mitch Moreland with two balls, sending McClendon out to the mound (probably telling him to be careful with Moreland since light-hitting Josh Wilson is on deck). Moreland walks on a 3-2 pitch. Donnie Murphy bats for Wilson and hits a routine grounder right to Miller, who tosses the ball high to Robinson Cano at second base, pulling him off the bag. Everybody safe. Wild pitch. Game tied. Martin with a soft single to left. Game over.

What can I say? In what should have been a final sentence exclaiming the brilliance of Felix Hernandez we're instead left saying poor Felix.


We have a good one tonight: Felix Hernandez versus Yu Darvish in Texas. With that matchup in mind, Eric and myself discuss the pitching matchups we'd most like to see.

Hernandez and Darvish have met just twice, both in 2012, and King Felix dominated both times. On May 21, he allowed one run in eight innings while Darvish exited early after walking six batters in four innings. On July 14, Hernandez shut out the Rangers 7-0 with a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance. That's the second-highest Game Score of Hernandez's career, behind only his perfect game against Tampa Bay later that season.

Considering the way both pitchers are going right now -- Hernandez has allowed six runs in three starts and owns a 30-2 strikeout/walk ratio and Darvish hasn't allowed a run in two starts -- and the fact that the Mariners have been shut out three times in their past six games and the Rangers have scored one run in three of their past five, we should expect a low-scoring game.

Which means, of course, we'll probably have an 8-7 final.
Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons hasn't struck out yet in 45 plate appearances. He's also yet to commit to an error. Have I mentioned that I love Simmons?

This won't keep up, of course. At some point he'll face Jose Fernandez and Fernandez will throw a 3-2 slider that will break from behind Simmons' rear end to the opposite side of the batter's box and Simmons will flail helplessly and wonder how somebody can throw a cowhide-covered piece of cork and yarn like it's a Wiffleball.

Still, it raises the fun idea: Is it possible for a player to have more errors in a season than strikeouts? In this day and age, with strikeouts in abundance and errors down, it's a difficult ratio to achieve. (Simmons had 14 errors last year while striking out 55 times.) But not impossible. In the past 10 seasons, four players have fanned 30 or fewer times in a season of at least 502 plate appearances: Jeff Keppinger (2008), Placido Polanco (2005 and 2007), Nomar Garciaparra (2006) and A.J. Pierzynski (2004). Marco Scutaro had the lowest total last year with 34 K's in 547 PAs.

Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez has led the majors in errors each of the past two seasons with 27. Ian Desmond committed 34 in 2010. Mark Reynolds, when he was playing third base, had two 30-error seasons. Garciaparra had a 25-error season in 2002 (alas, he struck out 63 times that year). So we just need somebody with Scutaro's contact ability and Alvarez's hands.

Diane Firstman of the Value Over Replacement Grit blog did more research on the topic and discovered the "record" since divisional play began in 1969 is nine more errors than strikeouts, by Gary Sutherland, who had 21 errors and 12 strikeouts in 1971, and Felix Fermin, who had 23 errors and 14 strikeouts in 1993.

She also found the all-time leader in this area. Check her blog for more info!

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