Sandoval is Giants' most valuable defender

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
SandovalAP Photo/Alan DiazPablo Sandoval has been so good in the field that he can even make plays while blowing bubbles.
If the San Francisco Giants do emerge as the top team in the NL West this season, Pablo Sandoval's defense at third base may be a difference-maker.

Some may find that odd, but if you disregard his girth, study the numbers and watch a little film, it makes sense.

The numbers
Sandoval dropped a considerable amount of weight prior to the start of the season and the dividends are apparent.

Sandoval ranks third among third basemen with 10 defensive runs saved this season, trailing only Josh Donaldson and Nolan Arenado. His 10 runs saved are the most on the team.

This is not the first time that Sandoval has excelled in that category.

In 2011, he ranked second among third basemen in the majors and first in the NL with 15 defensive runs saved. But his total slipped to minus-5 defensive runs saved in each of the past two seasons, with added pounds perhaps playing a role.

"He came into spring training in better condition and that brings out his athleticism,” said Giants bench coach Ron Wotus on Tuesday. “Pablo is someone who has always worked extremely hard on his defense and he pays a lot of attention to detail. He's very athletic for his body type. He's always had the skills.”

Sandoval currently ranks fourth in out of zone plays (OOZ), a stat that can be found at Fangraphs. The past two seasons, he ranked 11th and 12th.

In other words, Sandoval is getting to the balls that others aren’t.

Film review
Baseball Info Solutions does video review of every play of every game, categorizing plays into 30 groups of good fielding plays (GFPs) and about 60 categories of defensive misplays & errors, providing the data to teams and media.

Good fielding plays for third basemen include things such as an outstanding diving stop that merits a Web Gem, starting a double play quickly, or cutting off a ball hit down the line to yield only a single instead of a double.

[+] EnlargeSandoval
AP Photo/David DurochikSandoval has an extremely accurate arm.
Sandoval currently has 46 good fielding plays and 15 misplays and errors.

His good play/misplay ratio of better than 3 to 1 is the best among third basemen. The next closest is Anthony Rendon of the Nationals at 2.2 to 1. The average third baseman has a ratio only slightly better than 1 to 1.

In fact, the only players who are better among regular second basemen and shortstops are Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Cardinals second baseman Mark Ellis.

Watch a little bit of the Sandoval highlight reel and the thing that jumps out is his reflexes. We're taking an educated guess here, but we'd wager that if someone kept track of the rate of a player's successful dives for balls to diving attempts made, Sandoval would be at the top of the list.

"His hand-eye coordination is off the charts," said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Alex Cora. "You can see that in how he hits balls over his head and balls in the dirt. His best tool on defense is that hand-eye coordination, because there's not a lot of time to read the angles of the ball coming off the bat at third base."

Sandoval leads players at all positions with 28 good fielding plays awarded for ground-ball outs on diving stops and charges on slow rollers. He’s also cut back on throw-related misplays and errors from 13 last season to only four so far in 2014.

A pitcher's best friend
Wotus noted that one advantage Sandoval has is that he knows the tendencies of his pitchers, since the likes of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have been with the team for a while. The Giants rank fourth in the majors in turning ground balls into outs (76 percent of the time) and that could be part of the reason.

"When the Braves had their run [with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz], they had the same pitchers going every night, and all their fielders seemed to know exactly where to be," Wotus said.

But the new guys have also learned that Sandoval performs better than he looks.

"I've been very impressed with him," Giants starter Tim Hudson told Jerry Crasnick earlier this week. "Because he's a bigger guy, you don't think he's very athletic by looking at him. But he's pretty agile. He'll get to balls in the hole and some balls down the line. He runs in on the ball pretty well, too. I've been pleasantly surprised with his range and how nimble he is at third."

He probably isn't the only one.

The Brewers produced a fun video before the All-Star Game, a light-hearted “attack ad” encouraging fans to vote catcher Jonathan Lucroy into the National League starting lineup ahead of Yadier Molina. The video emphasized that Lucroy not only was the best catcher in baseball, but “most importantly, he is not a St. Louis Cardinal.”

Lucroy fell roughly a half-million votes short on the National League ballot (those St. Louis fans get out the vote), but he wound up starting anyway when Molina got hurt. He deserved to be the starter even if Molina had been healthy, though. For once, a political ad actually was accurate -- Lucroy, who was undrafted out of high school, is having the best season of any catcher in baseball this season (he also had two doubles and drove in two runs in place of Molina at the All-Star Game).

[+] EnlargeJonathan Lucroy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJonathan Lucroy's breakthrough as a star catcher could be the difference for the Brewers this year.

Among all major league catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, only Atlanta’s Evan Gattis has a higher OPS than Lucroy, and just barely (.884 to .881, and also with 100-some fewer plate appearances than Lucroy). Only Minnesota’s Kurt Suzuki has a higher batting average, and again, just barely (.312 to .310). Only Miguel Montero and Buster Posey have more RBIs. Only three catchers have more home runs than Lucroy’s 11. No other catcher has scored more runs (48). No other catcher has anywhere near as many doubles (33). No other catcher has as many hits. No other catcher has a higher WAR (4.2 according to, with Kansas City’s Salvador Perez the only other catcher above 2.9). He has almost as many walks as strikeouts.

He’s also very good behind the plate in addition to beside it, with exceptional skill in framing pitchers.

Lucroy had been in a slump in recent weeks, hitting just .200 in his previous 25 games, going 3 for his previous 30 at-bats and dropping his average from .341 to .308, but he had a big night Tuesday. He homered twice, including a game-winning shot in the bottom of the ninth off Cincinnati’s Sam LeCure that gave Milwaukee a 4-3 victory over the Reds. The victory edged the Brewers up to 1 1/2 games in first place, a spot they have held alone or in a tie every day since April 5. It also handed the Reds their fifth consecutive loss, just when it appeared Cincinnati was finally on track in the National League Central.

“Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come,” Lucroy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If we can keep playing this good, if guys keep pitching this good and we keep getting big ABs, we’ll get the job done.”

Milwaukee got off to a great start this season, surprising everyone by winning 20 of its first 27 games to take a 6 1/2-game lead in the NL Central in April. The Brewers went roughly .500 in May as the Cardinals crept closer. Then they got hot again in June, pushing their record 51-32 with a 6 1/2-game lead. And then they started tumbling in July -- while Lucroy was slumping -- losing seven in a row just before the break as the Cardinals briefly tied them for first.

But every time I start to write them off, here the Brewers come again. There are many reasons for this. Carlos Gomez is having another excellent, under-the-radar season (.304/.369/.504/.873 and 18 stolen bases). Ryan Braun’s power might be down a bit as Buster Olney wrote Tuesday, but he, too, is producing, as is most of the lineup -- Milwaukee is second in the National League in runs. Kyle Lohse (10-4, 3.16 ERA), and Wily Peralta (11-6, 3.58 ERA) have been solid in the rotation while Zach Duke has been great out of the bullpen.

Can they hold up over the final two months? We’ll see but if Lucroy keeps playing the way he has this season, I wouldn’t be surprised. The Brewers probably won’t feature him in any political ads this November, but it would be refreshing to see Milwaukee's superb catcher get some national air time in October.

Braves stress the importance of defense

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
Andrelton SimmonsPouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves/Getty ImagesAndrelton Simmons is widely considered to be among the best defensive shortstops in all of baseball.

ST. LOUIS -- Andrelton Simmons' eyes tell him everything. He stands where the infield dirt meets the outfield grass. He prepares, knowing where each batter tends to hit the ball. He anticipates where the swing and the pitch will intersect, yet he says his fielding precision at shortstop comes down to one thing: what he sees when the ball hits the bat.

First, Simmons said, he observes direction. Is it a ball he has to go in to get? Or does he have to go back and away from the cut of the grass?

"You anticipate it, but you can't really predict where [the ball] is going to go because some guys are just quick with their swing," the Atlanta Braves shortstop said before a game in St. Louis. "Some guys might get jammed. You've got to see it. He might be trying to pull, but the pitcher might have thrown the ball where he didn't want it to go."

It is in there, those moments when a pitcher does not have his best stuff on the mound, where the Braves really see Simmons' impact on the field.

"A guy just so happens to get jammed a little and he hits the ball up the middle, and there's Simmons; smack, he's out," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "A different shortstop, the ball goes through."

Fielding is the one aspect of baseball where our eyes convey a different story to everyone. Where someone sees good range, another will perceive better positioning. Where one evaluator notices reaction time, another observes slower velocity off the bat. One fielder might think he needs to go back, another will see he has time to let the ball come to him.

Looking at the numbers, they leave room to debate the best fielders, too. Take defensive runs saved (DRS). Jason Heyward rates the highest in the majors with 25 DRS this season. But use ultimate zone rating (UZR) and the Kansas City Royals' Alex Gordon leads the majors at 23.7 -- with Heyward second.

Gonzalez said he listens to everything he can about advanced statistics. The stat packet he receives is about two inches thick, and as he flips through it each day he'll usually find a magic number to help with the game matchups. Some days, though, there are no numbers to help him prepare for the game.

"It's like, well, nobody gets to play today," Gonzalez joked. "By these numbers we should all just go ahead and go home."

Some advanced stats are just not helpful. Because, as Gonzalez put it, "At the end of the day you go, well, what can we do with this?"

Yet, while it's impossible to evaluate fielding precisely, the ability to field the ball has never been more important than it is today. Runs are more difficult to come by, and in close division races in the second half of the season -- such as the National League East, Central and West -- defense could decide the division champion.

"It's ultimately important," Gonzalez said about the impact fielding has had on the NL East and the Braves' ability to win games this year. "There's four aspects of our game: pitching, hitting, baserunning and defense. You can live without the hitting, you can live with a team kind of struggling, but you can't live without pitching, and you can't live with shoddy defense. You just can't. It's impossible."

San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy agreed.

"To me, defense and pitching, they go hand in hand," Bochy said. "That's been a big reason our pitching has done such a good job. Our defense has been on [its] toes."

Baseball people hear this often, Braves right-hander David Carpenter said. "Offense wins games, pitching and defense wins championships. We are trying to do that here."

But, Carpenter has discovered, good fielding also impacts his ability to pitch well.

"It's a big confidence booster knowing that you don't have to be out there and be perfect," said Carpenter, currently on the 15-day disabled list. "There's not as much stress put on every single pitch because you know if they make contact the guys are busting their butt to go get the ball for you."

Having good fielders also helps the catcher.

"It always helps that you know plus defenders are out there," Braves catcher Ryan Doumit said. "It makes it that much easier as far as pitch selection."

Currently, teams do not have good data to evaluate fielding. While some advanced stats do not transfer well for use on the field, player tracking -- when it becomes available to teams -- is the next and new way teams can gain an advantage over other teams.

From every advanced stat or system he has seen so far, Gonzalez is most excited about being able to use player tracking and, ultimately, improve defense.

"It's unbelievable," Gonzalez said of FIELDf/x and Major League Baseball Advanced Media's (MLBAM) statcast player tracking. "It has the angle of the ball, how long it stayed up in the air. It shows the outfielder -- which route did he take? Did he go back, or did he go [to the right] and come back?"

This season, there are two systems being tested by MLBAM. They will soon decide whether to integrate the two together or chose one over the other.

FIELDf/x is currently installed in five major league ballparks.

"FIELDf/x is a camera-based tracking system that tracks all of the movement of the players, the ball off the bat and the throws. So all of that, and the player events in a given play," said Mike Jakob, president and chief operating officer for Sportvision, Inc. "It's a four-camera system. It's a project we've been working on in conjunction with MLBAM for several years."

MLBAM statcast player tracking is currently installed in three ballparks and it will be in all 30 by 2015. MLBAM foresees the data rolling out in a similar fashion as PITCHf/x did. So they will work closely with the clubs to ensure the data is authentic, accurate and in real time. Then the clubs will get a daily pipeline to the raw data that is pushed to them every night.

Until now, very few people have talked specifically about how this system could transfer to the field and ultimately -- and most importantly -- help managers. Sure, fans will enjoy it, but will managers use it?

"From all the ones that have come out, [player tracking] is the one I really got excited about," Gonzalez said. "Because you could actually go to the player and say, 'We've got to work on your jumps, because this ball was up four seconds, and instead of you going directly to the ball, you kind of went back and then came over.' So you can use that as a teaching tool.

"The other [stats], when I first figured out OPS and I fully had a good grasp of it, they went to a different level with it -- X WAR, or more weighted, [or something]," Gonzalez said laughing. "I'm like, 'Oh my God, I just figured out OPS.' I still haven't figured out ERA."

Many players, coaches and managers are wary of how to incorporate advanced stats into the game.

"They talk about all the defensive metrics on TV," Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford said. "But I think just watching a guy and seeing how he fields the ball -- you know, how strong his arm is -- stuff like that, I think an eye test will tell you if a guy is a good fielder or not."

However, Simmons, much like his manager, said he does pay attention to advanced statistics.

"I try," Simmons said. "I'm slowly getting the hang of it. Yeah, I'm trying to learn more and more every day."

As they work on a way to evaluate fielding, Simmons said he hopes the people interpreting the data understand each position and understand how hard it is to play defense.

"Obviously, you have to judge plays that would have normally been made," Simmons said. "Like errors, I don't think much of errors, because a guy that gets to everything, he's more vulnerable to make an error, because he went to the hole and got the ball deep. Sometimes you overdo it, or you throw a ball and give a guy an extra base, and I can see those things [as errors]."

Simmons, of course, doesn't have a lot of time each day. Baseball is a demanding sport. What motivates him to learn about sabermetrics?

"You want to compare yourself to how other players do," said Simmons. "If you notice another good shortstop, you want to know, oh, he does this better. Then, you might go looking at video and see why he does this better, stuff like that. You want to compare yourself and see where you're at."

Who would he compare himself to?

"Hmm, I don't know," answered Simmons after he thought about it for a while.

What about Troy Tulowitzki?

"I see him every once in a while in the highlights," Simmons said. "I try to look at some of the stuff and see, oh, I would have made it this way. Everybody plays defense a little differently. I try to see, he makes this play good, or I can do this. I learn from everybody pretty much."

It is in this, the fielder's desire to learn how he can see more clearly, where one can always, with or without player tracking, define the best fielders. With player tracking, the game then becomes a matter of how teams use the data to give them an advantage.

Finding the secrets to a different edge or a new approach, that's baseball today. At some point, though, even fielding data will run its course, and teams will look for something else.

"The next one will be MANAGERf/x," Gonzalez joked. "'Fredi, we've got to get you wired to the monitor and see when you put a squeeze on, and we'll see how much of a ba bum, ba bum, your [heart] goes,' or when you bring that lefty in and you go, 'Oh s---, is he going to get somebody out?' Ba bum, ba bum, ba bum."

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

Angels' rotation may be their weak link

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22

The Angels are the second-best team in baseball. Win or lose going into Monday night’s game against the AL East-leading Orioles, they were going to be the second-best team in baseball after the fact. They lost, missing the chance to move within a game of the A’s in the AL West race. But it’s July and there’s still plenty of time, so there’s no reason to sweat, right?

Certainly not, at least not if you look at the big picture and the projection models at FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus, which say the Angels have a 98 or 99 percent shot at the playoffs. Slam-dunk sure thing? Sounds like it.

But there’s a problem with that: It doesn’t mean all that much in the era of the one-game play-in wild-card “round.” The Angels' shot at winning the AL West is calculated as much less of a sure thing, from the 20 percent range according to analyst Clay Davenport, to the 30s for FanGraphs, or the 40s for Baseball Prospectus. These are roughly the same as the chances of the Blue Jays coming back to win the AL East and then also not having to sweat a one-or-done scenario despite probably being 10 games worse than the Angels at season’s end. Saying the Angels’ shot at playing their way into the one-game coin-toss of the wild card is around 60 or 70 percent is like saying their chance of their season ending a day or two after the regular season is still astonishingly likely.

[+] EnlargeMatt Shoemaker
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Shoemaker's loss was the latest tough start for the Angels' non-Richards rotation regulars.
Unless they beat the A’s and win the West. Unless they make their math problem now into Oakland’s math problem tomorrow. That’s their challenge, and losing games like Monday’s will only make it harder.

To pull this off in the long weeks to come, they’re going to have to find a happier answer in their rotation than the ones they’ve found so far. While the trades for Jason Grilli and Huston Street may have shored up their bullpen, there’s the larger problem of how good their rotation really is outside of newly minted ace and All-Star Garrett Richards. Assuming that Jered Weaver’s back is sound all the way down the stretch, he hasn’t overpowered strong teams’ lineups, seeing his OPS jump 50 points and his WHIP increase by 0.3 facing teams that are .500 or better; unsurprisingly, his FIP is 4.12, which suggests sturdy mediocrity, not the ace he once was. C.J. Wilson won’t be back from his DL stint for a sprained ankle until after the trade deadline; even if he’s sound, his 4.29 FIP doesn’t suggest he’s a solid No. 2, either. And the back-end trio of Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker have put together just 15 quality starts in their 38 turns.

To catch the A’s, the Angels are going to need not just one guy but several guys to step up down the stretch. Not just because you can’t count on a league-best offense to crank out five or more runs every night, but because the Angels need to have somebody else besides Richards to use in those potentially scary end-of-year situations. What if Richards has to pitch in the last weekend series against the Mariners but the Angels don’t catch the A’s then? What if they have to play a tiebreaker? Who pitches the wild-card game? Where does that leave them in the ALDS? They’ll need some of the non-Richards starters to step up, not just to keep up with the A’s and their shored-up rotation, but to be able to win October games when they don’t put five or six runs on the scoreboard.

That was why Shoemaker’s start against Baltimore was a little more important than just another late-July turn. Barring a trade, somebody is going to be bumped once Wilson comes back from the DL. Even on a night when he struck out a career-high 10 batters, seeing Shoemaker get beaten deep twice by Adam Jones was the sort of thing that won’t keep the rookie ahead of Skaggs or Santiago, not that either of them is owning his slot.

To be sure, the Angels should be grateful things are this close. Thanks in large part to early-season bullpen problems of their own, the A’s are four games worse than you’d project from their runs scored and allowed, which is a big part of the reason they are within striking range for the Angels, even after Oakland went 20-10 in its past 30 games. All it took was the Angels going 22-8 in their past 30 before Monday, no easy thing to do with a rotation that may struggle to match the A’s made-over, Jeff Samardzija-enhanced rotation in the last 60 games.

If Wilson or Weaver, Shoemaker or Skaggs steps up, things will be that much more interesting all the way down to the wire. If not, the Angels may be one of those great teams that, like the 1993 Giants, wind up getting to brag about how great they were without getting much of an opportunity to prove it come October. Those Giants were caught from behind by the Braves, San Francisco winning 103 games for the second-best record in baseball … and no October invite. The Halos have to hope they’ll earn something more than one game better than that -- but more than hoping for it, they’ll have to do it.

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

PHILADELPHIA -- It’s been a while since the last Cliff Lee sighting on the Citizens Bank Park mound. He went on the disabled list with a strained left elbow on May 18, which means that he was rehabbing through Memorial Day, Flag Day, Father’s Day, the first day of summer solstice and Independence Day while any semblance of spring training optimism faded for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lee finally made it back in time for National Baseball Trade Speculation week -- but just barely.

As the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, Lee essentially has a two-start showcase to help drum up interest among trade partners looking for rotation help down the stretch. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say the first installment didn’t go so hot.

Lee returned to the Phillies’ rotation in a 7-4 loss to San Francisco on Monday. He did get off to an encouraging start with a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 first inning. But the storyline regressed from there. Lee tied a career high with 12 hits allowed over 5⅔ innings and threw 90 pitches -- 59 of them strikes -- before giving way to reliever Justin De Fratus. Although he broke several bats and gave up an inordinate number of bleeders, it wasn’t the type of performance that’s going to make general manager Ruben Amaro’s cell phone vibrate with calls from motivated suitors.

“I thought he showed some rust,” an AL scout said of Lee. “His fastball command was off and he wasn’t nearly as precise as usual. He threw too many hittable pitches, and his overall stuff was flatter than normal. Give him another start before rushing to judgment. He threw strikes, but not with the level of precision he typically does.”

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Michael PerezAs rumors about Phillies trades swirled, all Cliff Lee could do was focus on execution.

Contending teams typically want to see more than a two-start cameo before putting their heart into a trade, but it’s not unprecedented for clubs to take the plunge off a limited sample size. In 2013, Jake Peavy of the Chicago White Sox missed six weeks with a fractured left rib and returned to make two starts in late July. That 13-inning audition was enough to convince Boston to trade shortstop Jose Iglesias and acquire Peavy in a three-team deal with Chicago and Detroit at the deadline.

In Lee’s case, money definitely complicates matters. He’s still owed about $10 million this season. Throw in a $25 million salary in 2015 and a $27.5 million mutual option for 2016 that automatically vests if he throws 200 innings next year (not to mention a $12.5 million buyout), and Lee is guaranteed somewhere between $47.5 million and $62.5 million through age 37 or 38. As good as he is, the Phillies are faced with the prospect of having to kick in millions to subsidize him pitching somewhere else.

Lee’s deal also includes a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 20 teams. According to a baseball source, Lee has listed Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Minnesota, the New York Mets, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Washington as the nine teams he can be traded to without his consent.

Against that backdrop, the Tigers, Pirates, Orioles, Mariners, Angels, Royals, Blue Jays and Giants -- contenders all -- were among a dozen teams that had scouts at Monday’s game. No one can say for sure who was on hand to expressly scout Lee, in part because the Phillies have so many other tradable commodities on their roster.

Outfielder Marlon Byrd is a potential target for teams in search of a right-handed outfield bat. Closer Jonathan Papelbon is being scouted by the same talent evaluators who are checking in on Joakim Soria, Joaquin Benoit, Brad Ziegler, Steve Cishek, et al. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins could help contending teams in need of middle infield help, but their 10-and-5 service-time rights give them veto power over any deal. And while Cole Hamels’ name has been mentioned here and there, those rumors have never gained any traction.

Anyone up for some good A.J. Burnett, Antonio Bastardo or Kyle Kendrick speculation?

With Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Brandon McCarthy already traded and Tampa Bay more conflicted than ever about moving David Price because of its recent surge in the standings, the list of available impact starters is slim. But is it slim enough for a team to make a run at Lee even though he looked like a guy who will need a few more outings to round into top form? At this point, it takes a pretty active imagination to envision Lee pitching anywhere other than Philadelphia this season.

Lee, for his part, said he’s oblivious to the Internet buzz. His fastball checked in at an average of 89.1 mph Monday night, slightly below what he was throwing earlier this season. And the Giants recorded three hits against his cutter, a pitch that’s been less effective for him this year compared with recent seasons. So he’ll make some adjustments and hope the results are better against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday.

“I didn’t know how many scouts were here and I don’t care about the rumors,” Lee said. “My goal is to get out there and try to give the team a chance to win. Obviously I didn’t do that as well as I would like. But that’s where my focus is. I could care less about the scouts in the stands or the trade rumors. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I never cared about that. I still don’t.”

Spoken like a man who has been through this routine about a half-dozen times already in his career. Lee was 23 years old in 2002 when he went from Montreal to Cleveland with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips in the big Bartolo Colon trade. He has since been traded from the Indians to the Phillies, from the Phillies to Seattle and from Seattle to Texas, so he understands the importance of being an emotional flatliner in July.

“It’s not my job to make trades and acquire players and all that stuff,” Lee said. “Let them do their job upstairs, and our job as players is to go out there and compete and try to win. It’s really that simple to me. I’m not going to get caught up in trades and all the speculation. I’m a Phillie and I want this team to win and I’m going to do everything I can to help that happen. That’s really it.”

Except that it isn’t -- for the embattled Amaro and season-ticket holders who have grown tired of the product the Phillies are selling and want to see changes. Monday night the focus was on Lee. Tuesday it will shift to somebody else. There could be a lot of action in Philadelphia between now and July 31. Some of it might actually take place on the field.

Don't doubt Sonny Gray as A's ace

July, 20, 2014
Jul 20

When the Oakland A's pulled off the blockbuster trade for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel on July 4, most people assumed Billy Beane was looking to upgrade his rotation and didn't have faith that Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir could carry the team into the postseason as frontline starters.

After Sunday, anyone who doubted Gray as the ace of the staff might want to reconsider.

Gray endured the worst month of his young career in June and went 2-2 with a 5.40 ERA while allowing nearly 35 percent of batters to reach base. But since the calendar turned to July, he has been a different pitcher.

He has won all four of his starts and has a 0.95 ERA with 26 strikeouts over 28 1/3 innings this month. It is his longest win streak through his first 30 starts, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the A's, who are trying to fend off a pesky Angels team that will not go away in the AL West race.

Gray also had to overcome some personal demons to get Sunday’s win against the Orioles. He entered the game 0-2 with an 11.42 ERA in two career starts against Baltimore -- by far his worst ERA against any opponent.

[+] EnlargeGray
Ed Szczepanski/USA TODAY SportsSonny Gray stopped the Orioles cold to give the A's the showdown series.
What has the 24-year-old first-round pick from Tennessee done this month to turn around his season and become the leader of the A's staff?

Gray's put-away pitch has always been his devastating curveball, a pitch he likes to bury down and away to both lefties and righties. After throwing the pitch nearly 30 percent of the time in April and May, that rate dropped to just 21 percent in June.

Perhaps he lacked confidence in the offering, which batters tagged for a .385/.429/.423 line this past month. He got just 16 outs and allowed 12 baserunners with the 107 curveballs he threw in June.

Gray has revived his signature curve this month and thrown it one out of every three pitches, and batters have barely been able to touch it. His 135 curveballs delivered in July have netted 38 outs, with only eight baserunners allowed.

His curveball was at its best Sunday. The Orioles were hitless in 10 at-bats ending in the pitch. Four of his eight strikeoutS came with the curve, which fooled the O's lineup all afternoon. Location was key, as he threw three-quarters of his 35 curveballs at the knees or lower.

Gray has also benefited from an improved infield defense behind him. In June, batters reached base 27 percent of the time when hitting a grounder against the righty. This month, the Oakland defense has converted his 40 groundballs into 38 outs -- allowing less than 10 percent of batters to reach base.

Perhaps the biggest key to his improved performance in July has been his ability to pitch effectively under pressure. Opponents are 1-for-21 (.048) with runners in scoring position this month, after crushing him for a .379 average in such situations in June.

Gray has been absolutely dominant this month when pitching from the stretch and has barely given opponents a chance to think about scoring against him. Of the 20 outs he has gotten this month with a man on second or third, 17 have been via strikeout or groundout.

Thanks to Gray's ace-like stuff in July, the A's continue to make their case as the best team in baseball, with a major-league-leading 61 wins, though the Angels -- who walked off against Seattle on Sunday afternoon -- lurk just a game back in the loss column.

Nonetheless, it appears it will be very difficult for the Angels to overtake an A's squad that now has the look of a bonafide postseason contender with a dominant starting rotation fronted by a 5-foot-11, 24-year-old righthander who suddenly refuses to lose.

McGehee's change at the plate working

July, 20, 2014
Jul 20

When Tim Lincecum hung a slider in the zone like it was a piñata, Miami Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee didn’t just call it candy, he took it yard … for his second home run of the season, breaking a 58-game homerless streak. It’s an amusing data point in what has been a fascinating season for the 31-year-old veteran.

Keep in mind, before this year many thought McGehee was done. After putting up an .859 OPS as a rookie followed by an .801 OPS with 62 extra-base hits for the division-winning 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, he struggled to a .632 OPS across the next two seasons, playing his way out of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York. It earned him a trip to the Japanese leagues with the Rakuten Eagles last year. There, he cranked out 28 homers while hitting .292/.376/.515, or more closely resembling the guy who’d been a contending team’s power source.

[+] EnlargeMcGhee
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeNow that he's hitting above .320, this isn't the Casey McGehee you thought you knew.
Getting a second chance stateside with the Marlins, McGehee is hitting .322/.387/.399 as the team's cleanup hitter, which is … let’s say "unusual," because it’s so very different from everything he has done at the major league level or in Japan. His power has evaporated with his slugging almost halved: His previous career Isolated Power rate (slugging minus batting average) was .157, but this year it’s at .077. Despite that his walk rate is up (more than 10 percent for the first time in his career). And he’s batting more than 60 points above his pre-2014 career average of .257. And he’s striking out less than ever before, just 13 percent of the time when big league pitchers used to whiff him 18 percent of the time.

Almost by reflex, McGehee’s unusual breakout season has led to observations that he can’t keep doing this. Equally confident have been the assertions that his BABIP (at .369 before Sunday’s action) has to go down. It’s an entirely safe assertion; regressing toward the average is normal when you look at all players on the macro level, while a massive change in an individual player’s performance level most definitely is not.

Except that it’s adding up to enough time that you have to give the guy his due. He’s hitting .390 in July, which means if regression is supposed to be a law like gravity, McGehee can fly.

Dive a little deeper into McGehee’s numbers, and you’ll see he’s doing more things differently at the plate than just hitting singles and drawing walks instead of homers and whiffs. He isn’t making mistakes when he offers on pitches: Whereas he used to be closer to the MLB average of missing on 15 percent of his swings, this year he’s below 10 percent, ranking in the top 10 in the National League. His rate of striking out looking is at a career-high (and NL high) 56.4 percent, almost 10 percent higher than the guy ranked second (Troy Tulowitzki) … and that isn’t really the sort of thing you associate with a hitter getting plinky and just trying to poke singles, is it? Between that seeming passivity and the increased walk rate, you’ve got two things going on in McGehee’s at-bats that you might more associate with Adam Dunn, not a guy with an outside shot at a batting title.

You don’t have to be a Marlins fan or even a Casey McGehee fan to enjoy this, although as someone who was in the press box the day McGehee ripped three home runs in one game off Edwin Jackson back in August 2011, it’s particularly fun to consider. If anything, McGehee’s transformation into a very different kind of player at the major league level reminds me of Carney Lansford becoming more of a singles hitter late in his career, in his age-31 season. Lansford shed much of his power, seeing his ISO halved from .166 in the pumped-up ’87 season to just .081 while hitting .331 in the first half of the 1988 season (earning his first and only All-Star appearance), that before slumping terribly in the second half to appease the BABIP fairy. Then he hit .336 in 1989 to show that he really could do this late-career reincarnation as a singles hitter. Lansford had hit lots of singles before (hitting .336 in the strike-shortened ’81 season), but seeing him deliver at that level more consistently while his power went away that dramatically was odd then.

Almost as odd as McGehee’s power outage has been this season while hitting lots more singles. But unlike McGehee, Lansford's walk rate dropped, which you would have expected since he was seeing less than three pitches per plate appearance back in 1988. What McGehee is doing is thus different, because it's a battle in the batter's box that he's waging differently, watching more pitches, drawing more walks, but making contact when he chooses to.

Which, when you get right down to it, is more than a little fun to see happen. Here’s hoping that McGehee keeps it up, whether in a Marlins uni or wherever he might get sent if they ever do deal him down the stretch, because if he does hit all year long, it'll force us to think about how much we know about what players can do when they set their minds to it.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

Price, Zobrist thriving as deadline looms

July, 20, 2014
Jul 20

The 2014 season for the Tampa Bay Rays has not gone exactly as planned. Myriad issues have led to the Tampa Bay's 46-53 record and its key players having to worry about being traded. The club finds itself in this position for the first time since the 2009 season, with David Price and Ben Zobrist front and center in the latest trade rumors.

The problem is the Rays aren't playing like a team with a .465 winning percentage and a 3.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. With a 5-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday night, Tampa Bay is now tied with the Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds for the most wins (22) since June 11 -- a .667 clip thanks to the efforts of Price and Zobrist.

Zobrist’s time in Tampa Bay has seen a bit of just about everything. He has been there for the lean times of 2006 and 2007, has done everything but catch and pitch in a game and has hit in every spot in the lineup. His versatility has once again been leveraged in recent weeks as he's had to play shortstop while Yunel Escobar was on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. Zobrist himself returned from the disabled list May 30 after recovering from a dislocated thumb injury but was not 100 percent from both sides of the plate.

Prior to the team’s hot streak, Zobrist was hitting .241/.322/.365 with 26 runs and 13 RBIs over 231 plate appearances, hitting mainly out of the second spot in the lineup. Zobrist has upped his production to a .311/.411/.487 line since June 11, scoring 18 times and driving in as many runs in 90 fewer plate appearances. Now that Zobrist is 100 percent healthy from both sides of the plate, he is becoming the key cog near the top of the lineup that the Tampa Bay offense relies upon to keep the line moving. The revitalized offensive production and continued defensive versatility is why Zobrist has frequently been mentioned in trade rumors in recent weeks as multiple teams -- the Mariners, Reds and Angels -- look for middle-infield help.

Contending teams are also always in search of a starting pitcher, and few pitchers are performing as well as David Price is these days.

With the victory Saturday, Price has won each of his past five starts and continues to lead the league in strikeouts and innings pitched. His eight scoreless innings against Minnesota marks the second consecutive game he has held the opposition scoreless over eight innings. Price has struck out nine or more batters in seven of his past nine outings, and he continues his approach of attacking the strike zone with authority and putting batters on the defensive. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Price has thrown 70 percent of his pitches for strikes this season; only Twins starter Phil Hughes, Price's opponent Saturday, has been better.

Price's approach has not always been as automatic as it was Saturday night at Target Field. Over the first 10 starts of the season, Price was 4-4 with a 4.28 ERA and opponents were hitting .287 against him, while slugging .464. He had 77 strikeouts and just six walks through those starts but allowed 11 home runs. He also had an abnormally high .351 batting average on balls in play due in part to some issues with the Rays' defense.

Price hit his stride Memorial Day weekend and has not looked back. Since that weekend, the left-hander is 6-3 with a 2.09 ERA, 95 strikeouts, 15 walks and eight home runs allowed. That .351 batting average on balls in play has fallen to .236 thanks in part to the defense Zobrist played at shortstop while Escobar was on the disabled list. The way Price has pitched since late May, from a process perspective, has mirrored what he was doing earlier in the season. The improved performance of the defense behind him and his home run rates returning to his career levels have helped Price regain the elite form he demonstrated in his Cy Young season of 2012 and for the second half of the 2013 season when he returned from injury.

Despite all of the success the Tampa Bay Rays have had in recent weeks, they're still facing extremely tough odds. On June 29, the Rays had the league’s worst record. Three weeks later, they've since passed eight teams in the standings but still find themselves 6.5 games back in the wild-card standings and eight games behind the Orioles in the American League East. Tampa Bay’s 3.9 percent chance of making the postseason is better than the odds of only Boston, Minnesota, Houston, and Texas.

At some point in the next 12 days, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his team will need to decide whether their roster can defy those odds, try again with the current controlled roster in 2015 or rebuild the team over the next few seasons.

David Price and Ben Zobrist are performing at peak value at a time when many players admit having difficulty ignoring the rumors in traditional and social media outlets. Trading both players would be viewed through a prism as the organization waving a white flag by some and a move of organizational survival by others.

If the pressures of trade rumors are affecting Price and Zobrist, they have a funny way of showing it. Their play on the field in recent weeks certainly does not reflect any anxiety of the unknown.

Angels' bullpen woes may be over

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19

After all of the hue and cry over the Angels’ bullpen woes, you’d have to think that the decision to trade for closer Huston Street after already getting Jason Grilli from the Pirates would answer their needs. Angels manager Mike Scioscia was second in the league in relievers used (behind Cleveland), sorting through answers to a relief crew that, per Baseball Prospectus, was second-worst in the league at preventing inherited baserunners to score, allowing 6.1 more runs than you’d expect (with the Tigers owning the dubious honor of being even worse, with 10.3 runs more than expected allowed on inherited baserunners).

My quick takeaways from general manager Jerry Dipoto’s decision to go after Street?

1. Getting Grilli and Street is comparable to the Marlins’ midseason bullpen overhaul in 2003. The Marlins had a similarly lousy pen in-season, but they fixed all that when they stopped getting hung up on Braden Looper’s virtues and went out and got Ugueth Urbina and Chad Fox, bumping Looper, their erstwhile closer, forward into earlier in-game situations. Guess what’s going to happen with Joe Smith? Which is not a bad thing for anyone concerned, because Joe Smith joining Grilli, Kevin Jepsen, Fernando Salas and Mike Morin in the mix in the seventh and eighth innings sounds like a very good thing.

But wait, aren’t all of those guys right-handed?

[+] EnlargeHuston Street
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesHuston Street should be as fired up to join the Angels as they are about adding him.
2. Not enough lefties? No problem. The one thing the Angels haven’t done in the course of their bullpen makeover is get an awesome lefty, settling for adding veteran Joe Thatcher as a token southpaw. Thatcher probably won't get entrusted with lots of leads, but as Scioscia demonstrated quite effectively while winning a World Series in 2002, you don’t have to have even one top-shelf situational lefty in your pen; he kept Scott Schoeneweis around as his lone token lefty threat, but he relied on Brendan Donnelly, Ben Weber and Francisco Rodriguez to protect leads and set up closer Troy Percival. In 2004, Scioscia got exactly two innings of lefty relief on the season; the Angels nevertheless won 92 games and the AL West. In 2005, he ramped it all the way up to just 31 ⅓ relief innings from lefties; the Angels won 95 games and the AL West.

Now, no doubt some of you La Russa groupies might quail at this prospect, but Street is exactly the sort of asset whom Scioscia can use and win with. As Stats & Info pointed out last night, Street has been essentially indifferent to handedness of late, in that he can beat people on either side of the plate by hitting low-and-outside spots with machine-like consistency. And Grilli has been similarly effective against lefties over time, holding them to a .293 slugging percentage across the last three seasons.

So the Angels may be good to go with just these two, although I’d anticipate that if there’s something else Dipoto can pick up cheaply between now and Sept. 1, you can bet he will. But there’s the rub, because…

3. Much like the A’s deciding to trade away Addison Russell in the Samardzija and Hammel deal, this may be the Angels’ last major move. The Angels (like the A’s) don’t have much in the way of ready-now farm talent they could call up, and after this trade, they don’t have a stock of farm talent to deal from. Per Keith Law’s preseason rankings of one of baseball’s worst farm systems (ranking 29th), Dipoto just dealt three of the Angels’ top 10 prospects in second baseman Taylor Lindsey (third in Keith’s rankings, No. 1 over at Baseball America), shortstop Jose Rondon (fifth, per Keith) and righty R.J. Alvarez (ninth).

Unless the Angels start dealing players at the major league level, potentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, this may have to be it for them. But a relief quintet of Street, Grilli, Jepsen, Salas and Morin might be more than enough to get it done for the Halos down the stretch. Credit Dipoto for working within his limited means to trade from, and giving a win-now Angels team a great shot at not just catching the A’s, but having the kind of relief talent to win with in October.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Which AL player most needs a big second half to help his team?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,288)

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

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

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

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

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

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19

For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.

This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.

The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.

Kyle Lohse has steadied the rotation, while prospect Jimmy Nelson will look to provide a late-season jolt. Top to bottom, the Brewers look to be the most complete team in the division.

If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.

Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.

The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.

At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.

The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.

On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and stud prospect Gregory Polanco is now fronting the lineup.

Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.

The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.

Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report blog on the Rays and contributes to

Braves end their infield Uggla-ness

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18

A few quick takeaways from the Atlanta Braves' accepting the inevitable and finally cutting Dan Uggla loose, because releasing the veteran second baseman not only means the Braves eat the money they owe him, it also means admitting that they effectively lost the trade for him in the first place.

Uggla is no loss, even with the kind of money the Braves will have to eat by cutting him, since he's owed $13 million this season and next. The job at second base already belongs to Tommy La Stella, and there’s not much use for a second-base-only reserve who can’t hit or field. At least they get the roster spot back to use on a pinch-hitter or yet another pitcher or even just to keep Christian Bethancourt around for a while after they reactivate Evan Gattis from the DL. Anything to spare us from another eight-man bullpen.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesDan Uggla long since hadn't shown much at the plate, so you can accept the Braves' willingness to cut him loose after he showed up late.
Even if you’re optimistic enough to think that Uggla might have something left despite a sub-.500 OPS this year after last year’s epic .179/.309/.362 season, there’s also the question of why you’d invest the time to find out. After he earned a one-game suspension for showing up late to a game at Wrigley Field last week, he was the veteran ballplayer in the clubhouse who wasn’t winning friends and influencing people as a reserve. The only guys older than Uggla on the Braves are journeymen Aaron Harang and Gerald Laird. Can you blame the Braves for deciding that enough was enough when they’re contending with the youngest lineup in the NL at 27 years old on average?

And don’t the Marlins look that even smarter still now? When the Fish dealt Uggla to the Braves before the 2011 season, they had one year of contractual control left before he hit free agency. By almost anybody’s standard, they made a tremendous offer to keep Uggla around: four years, $48 million. Even after four straight 30-homer seasons in Florida, he wasn’t an ideal choice to give a huge multiyear deal: He’d already turned 30 and was a slow slugger with a questionable defensive future. But he’d served the Marlins in good stead after they fished him out of the D-backs’ farm system via the Rule 5 draft. Uggla said no thanks, and the Fish decided -- as they had with so many other guys awaiting expanding paydays via arbitration and free agency -- to convert him into what value they could get, which was Mike Dunn and Omar Infante.

At the time, there was a ton of the usual shrieking about how this was yet another indication that the Marlins weren’t a serious operation, as Jeffrey Loria and his minions nickel-and-dimed their way to cheap, pointless self-perpetuation. But now that we’re four years beyond the trade, we have a better perspective on how it worked out.

The Braves granted Uggla a five-year, $62 million deal (avoiding arbitration), but he hasn’t really been a good player since 2011 (his last 30-homer season) -- the last year the Marlins could have controlled him. His power slipped in 2012, when his walk, strikeout and swinging-strike rates all started spiking, then he stopped making good contact last year as his strikeouts climbed even higher. And now he’s truly got bubkes to offer. The Braves are still on the hook for another $13 million next year, when he’ll still be done.

So who won the trade? Well, one way of looking at it is that Uggla did, because he and his agent successfully leveraged his situation into a trade that generated $16 million more than the Marlins were willing to pay him, while putting him on a contender. And another napkin-level guesstimate way of looking at it is via WAR, because against the 2.5 WAR Uggla generated for the Braves in his three and a half years, the Marlins have gotten 1.9 WAR out of Dunn (and counting) and another 4.2 out of Infante in less than two seasons before they dealt him to the Tigers for Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly and Brian Flynn. And they don’t owe Uggla a red cent.

And the Braves? They would have been better off trying to keep Infante for a lot less than they had to pay Uggla, and used that money on something else. Which is easy enough to say in retrospect, but even after trading for Uggla, they didn’t have to give him the kind of money he was asking for, and that would have worked out better for them.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
So Washington third baseman Anthony Rendon says baseball is too long and boring to watch on television and that he prefers to watch the History Channel. Good thing for Rendon that the History Channel does not own the broadcast rights to past seasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally ...

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

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

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Right. Fear and ignorance.

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

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

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

Are we going to see the good Brewers or the bad Brewers? The Brewers have had wide swings all season -- they were 20-7 through April 27, went 10-15 through May 26, then had a 21-10 stretch before going 2-11 heading into the All-Star break, including a brutal four-game sweep at home to the Phillies. They had held sole possession of first place from April 9 until the Cardinals caught them July 12. A victory in the final game before the break put the Brewers back in first, but a one-game lead is disappointing, considering they had a 6½-game lead on July 1.

Three Brewers questions:

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

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

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

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

Three Nationals questions:

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

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

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

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

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

Three Dodgers questions:

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

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

3. Will David Price move to the West Coast?

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

Three Cardinals questions:

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

2. Who steps it up on offense?

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

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

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

Three Orioles questions:

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

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

3. What happens if Cruz and Pearce slow down?

A's general manager Billy Beane already made what may be the season's blockbuster trade in acquiring Samardzija and Hammel (the team won one of the three games those two have started). They were acquired in large part to help hold off the Angels but that division lead is down to 1½ games. On the bright side: After this series, their next nine games are against the Astros and Rangers.

Three A's questions:

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

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

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

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

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

Three Mariners questions:

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

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

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

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

Three Angels questions:

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

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

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

There you go. We also get Reds-Yankees and Indians-Tigers and others to whet your appetite. We've had four days without a game that matters. It's been too long.