SweetSpot: Adam Dunn

Dunn among vets seeking first playoffs

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
For an aspiring major leaguer, the first milestone is reaching the big leagues. Once he's played his first game, another goal -- playing in the postseason -- can be just as long and arduous. Just ask Adam Dunn.

Dunn had played 1985 major-league games over 14 seasons and none of them in the playoffs, the most among active players. The wait to make the playoffs has made his wait to reach the big show -- a relatively short four years and 343 games in the minors -- seem like a flash. So the potential to finally play baseball rather than golf in October was one of the reasons why the big slugger, who announced recently that he plans to retire after the season, approved his trade from the White Sox to the A's on Aug 31. Despite the A's recent swoon, they still have a 92 percent chance of making it into baseball's postseason tournament, according to coolstandings.com (which we use on ESPN).

But Dunn's not the only veteran with a decent chance of fulfilling a playoff dream. Several seasoned players stand a better than even chance of seeing October action for the first time: The Royals’ Scott Downs and Josh Willingham, the Orioles' Nick Markakis, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Dodgers' Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm and the Nationals' Scott Hairston.

Some of those players have come close. Dunn's best previous opportunity came after the Reds traded him to the Diamondbacks in August of 2008 to help them chase the Dodgers. But the 44-game rental wasn't enough as Arizona fell two games short of the NL West title. Four years later, Dunn's White Sox led the AL Central for most of the second half of 2012 but faltered in the season's final week and finished out of the money by three games.

Markakis, on the other hand, has actually played for a team that made the playoffs. It's just that injury prevented him from playing during the postseason. With less than a month remaining in the Orioles' wild-card season of 2012 season, C.C. Sabathia broke Markakis' left thumb with a pitch, sidelining the right fielder for the team's wild-card game and five Division Series games.

Willingham is a different story. Despite playing for five different clubs in his 11-year career, he hasn't come close to the playoffs. Heading into this season, Willingham's teams have languished with a .438 winning percentage and finished an average of 20 games back of their division leader. So when he came over from the last-place Twins to the first-place Royals on Aug. 11, he was in unfamiliar territory. If the Royals do hold on and win the Central, though, Willingham isn't a sure thing for the playoffs: He only recently returned to the lineup after having been out since Aug. 29 with a sore back.

Willingham's Kansas City teammate Bruce Chen broke in with the Braves when fall ball was as much of a certainly on their schedule as spring training. Chen was part of the NL East title-winning clubs in 1998 and 1999, but didn't make the playoff roster. He played most of the 2014 season with the playoff-hunting Royals, but found out last week that the Royals designated him for assignment, shelving his playoff dream after 16 seasons.

Players can use their beleaguered teammates' pursuit of the playoffs as motivation. Markakis' outfield mate Adam Jones claims the team is "still [angry] about" Sabathia's pitch. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no stranger to teams rallying around long-suffering stars: He managed the Yankees in 1995 when the team won their final 11 of 12 games and 26 of 33 to at last take Don Mattingly to the playoffs in his final season. And this year, Mattingly’s Dodgers team includes pitcher Jamey Wright, who is in his 19th season but only last year saw the the playoffs (with Tampa Bay).

But if the A's plan to use Dunn’s quest as a rallying cry for their own, the Cardinals and Pirates will have to look to motivators other than helping forbearing teammates realize a dream. That's because those NL Central contenders simply don't have many veterans who haven't played October baseball. Their longest-tenured players without playoff experience are Peter Bourjos and Ike Davis, respectively, each 27 years old and in only his fifth major-league season.

Given a reprieve from a playoff-less career, Donnie Baseball went out with a .440 OBP and .708 SLG in the Bombers' five-game 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners. As Mattingly later said, "I would have been disappointed had I not gotten at least that one chance to play in the postseason, because you really wanna see how you handle it. And I did get that chance."

It’s a swan song that Adam Dunn would like to emulate this year. Will he -- and others -- get the chance?

Longest-tenured vets who have never appeared in postseason for playoff contenders

Athletics -- Adam Dunn, 14 seasons in majors
Royals -- Scott Downs, 13 seasons
Braves -- Aaron Harang, 13 seasons
Dodgers -- Kevin Correia, 12
Blue Jays -- R.A. Dickey, 12
Nationals -- Scott Hairston, 11
Mariners -- Felix Hernandez, 10
Brewers -- Zach Duke, 10
Orioles -- Nick Markakis, 9
Tigers -- Rajai Davis, 9
Angels -- Chris Iannetta, 9
Yankees -- Brandon McCarthy, 9
Indians -- Scott Atchison, 8
Giants -- Yusmeiro Petit, 7
Cardinals -- Peter Bourjos, 5
Pirates -- Ike Davis, 5

Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.
When the Oakland Athletics traded Yoenis Cespedes to acquire Jon Lester, general manager Billy Beane had two beliefs:

(1) Lester would upgrade the rotation and give the A's a No. 1 starter for the postseason.

(2) They had enough offense to replace Cespedes, whose reputation was arguably bigger than his numbers, thanks to his subpar .303 OBP he had before the trade.

In the end, Beane believed the A's had a better chance of winning the division with Lester in the rotation, and winning the division would mean the A's had a better chance in the postseason, simply by avoiding the wild-card game.

Instead, the A's have stumbled to a 12-16 record in August -- their first losing month since May of 2012 -- and the Los Angeles Angels have surged, including wins over the A's in the first three games of this weekend's four-game series to take a four-game lead in the West entering Sunday's contest. In an attempt to add some power to the lineup that has averaged just 3.64 runs per game in August, Beane acquired Adam Dunn from the Chicago White Sox.

With the offense struggling, there have been a lot of echoes of "The A's miss Cespedes." As @EJRaoulduke1976 wrote to me on Twitter, "Sometimes you can underestimate what a single player means though, look at Oakland with Cespedes."

He's not the only one saying that; I've been hearing and reading it for two weeks. But there isn't necessarily a direct correlation from "The A's aren't scoring runs" to "The A's aren't scoring runs because they don't have Cespedes." Cespedes' actual value while with the A's seems to grow with each Oakland loss.

For one, this talk creates the false assumption that the A's were scoring a lot of runs before the trade solely because of Cespedes, when we know that simply isn't the way baseball works. He was but one cog in the machine and not the biggest one at that. You can argue about his "presence," and while I won't completely dismiss that such an element may have existed, the fact is that Cespedes was hitting .252/.303/.464 before the trade and that's not exactly a line that pitchers fear.

One player does not make an offense. Just look at the Angels. They've gone 14-4 the past 18 games with Mike Trout hitting .219 with three home runs and nine RBIs.

Now, this doesn't mean the A's haven't missed Cespedes; his replacements in left field have hit .227/.336/.258 in August with no home runs and seven RBIs. They're actually getting on base at a higher rate but with a complete absence of power, something the A's have certainly missed.

But that's just one part of Oakland's offensive struggles in August. All-Star Brandon Moss -- who has played the most left field since the trade -- is hitting .178 with no home runs and a whopping 35 strikeouts in the month. All-Star Derek Norris is hitting .188. Coco Crisp is hitting .191 with a .255 OBP. Stephen Vogt and John Jaso, both of whom hit so well in the first half, have OBPs of .259 and .216 in August. Cespedes must have been some kind of secret weapon if he's the reason all those guys have gone in the tank at once.

And focusing just on the offense ignores that the rotation Beane built hasn't pitched well enough to carry the team -- Scott Kazmir has a 6.28 ERA in August, Sonny Gray 4.28 and Jeff Samardzija 3.92.

The A's are struggling in August because they haven't played well, not because they traded Cespedes. If the Angels go on to win the division, don't blame the Lester trade. Beane made his club better; it's just played worse.

The game survives. It always survives.

A routine Wednesday afternoon game on a gorgeous June day in Seattle between two teams rapidly going nowhere can slog along for 13 uneventful innings -- so uneventful that it was 0-0 heading to the 14th, with nary a hit with runners in scoring position.

Then the White Sox score five runs in the top of the 14th. Mariners fans began filing out into the concourses of Safeco Field. The Mariners score a run and load the bases with two out. White Sox closer Addison Reed has Kyle Seager in a 1-2 hole when Seager dramatically turns the routine into the remarkable, hitting a game-tying grand slam out to right-center.

The game heads to the 15th inning and the camera pans to fans heading back to their seats.

This is what baseball does to us. For 24 hours, the talk had been about Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez and Biogenesis instead of Yasiel Puig and Domonic Brown. Instead of discussing scores, everyone was discussing suspensions. And then Kyle Seager hits a grand slam and the fans return.

Maybe Bud Selig cares more about penalizing players who used performance-enhancing drugs than publicizing up-and-coming stars. Maybe he cares more about increasing owner profits than creating a playoff system that makes sense. Maybe he cares more about limiting bonuses to amateur players instead of trying to attract the best athletes to his sport.

There are many problems with the business of baseball.

There are not problems with the game. We do go back.

* * * *
The White Sox won 7-5 in 16 innings, snapping an eight-game losing streak. It's probably fair to say that they needed this one. Reed blew the five-run lead but, out of pitchers, manager Robin Ventura left Reed in to go three innings, which these days is like asking your closer to climb Mount Everest without oxygen and carrying Pablo Sandoval on his back.

[+] EnlargeKyle Seager
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonKyle Seager, center, became the first player to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings.
Needless to say, the game contained a few "first-evers" and other oddities. Seager became the first player in major league history to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings. It was the first time both teams scored 5-plus runs in extra innings after the game had been 0-0 through nine. The 12 total runs in extra innings tied an American League record. (All nuggets courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.) Mariners catcher Kelly Shoppach became the 13th player since 2010 to strike out five times in a game -- although the only one to also register two hits. Mariners manager Eric Wedge didn't use a single position player off his bench. The White Sox turned six double plays.

But the game also exposed the weaknesses of these two clubs. If they don't hit home runs, they don't score. The five runs the White Sox scored in the 14th were more than they had scored in any game during their eight-game losing streak, a stretch in which they hit .197 with one home run and a .486 OPS. With a 25-32 record, the White Sox appear to be a dysfunctional unit, hoping unproductive veterans Adam Dunn (.162 average, .261 OBP) and Paul Konerko (.233 average, .296 OBP) find a fountain of youth, with no youth to build a lineup around. The entire offense is a wreck outside of Alex Rios, last in the AL in runs, average, walks, OBP and 13th in home runs. The White Sox are likely going to be sellers at the deadline, but outside of Rios and Chris Sale (who isn't going anywhere) there aren't many assets here of much value.

The Mariners hit Endy Chavez and Jason Bay 1-2 on Wednesday, which also tells you the state of a team that's in Year 5 of general manager Jack Zduriencik's attempt to clean up the mess left behind by the Bill Bavasi. The Mariners are 26-34, and that's with two of the best starters in the league. Hisashi Iwakuma was terrific once again, pitching eight scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 1.94. He's 6-1 in 13 starts but has allowed more than three runs just once; with a little run support he could easily have 10 wins.

I don't know if this was the game of the year, but I'm pretty sure it will end up on the short list. For 5 hours and 42 minutes, two bad baseball teams gave us baseball to talk about.

Thank goodness for that.
Quick thoughts on Monday's action ...
  • Just over a week ago the Brewers were 2-8 and looked horrible. Now they've won eight in a row after beating the Padres 7-1 on Monday, as they lit up Jason Marquis for five runs in the first inning (Ryan Braun and the awesome Yuniesky Betancourt homered). Ahh, the rapid-fire twists and turns of April baseball. Braun has four home runs and 11 RBIs in his past five games, with three of those homers coming in the first inning and the other a go-ahead shot in the sixth. Keep an eye on Kyle Lohse, however, as he left after five innings with an injury to his left hand suffered when his finger got caught on Jedd Gyorko's belt while crossing first base on a bunt.
  • Matt Moore looked terrific in leading the Rays to a 5-1 win over CC Sabathia and the Yankees, allowing just two hits (both by Robinson Cano) over his career-high 117-pitch, eight-inning effort. Moore threw 79 fastballs and while he recorded just two of his eight strikeouts with the heater, the Yankees went just 1-for-15 against it. Moore improved to 4-0, 1.04, but I need to point out the Yankees lineup: Ben Francisco hitting second, Francisco Cervelli hitting fifth, lefties Brennan Boesch and Lyle Overbay ... George is not impressed. Teams should be doing everything in their power to start left-handers against the Yankees; they're hitting .190 with a .561 OPS against lefties (28th in the majors) compared to .301 with a .902 OPS against righties (first in the majors).
  • Big hit of the night: How about Buster Posey's two-run, game-tying blast to dead center off tough D-backs reliever David Hernandez in the ninth? Brandon Belt knocked in the game-winner the next inning for the G-men.
  • Big rally of the night: After the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 13th, the Reds scored three in the bottom of the inning to win 5-4. Jay Bruce hit his first homer earlier in the game and then doubled home the tying runs in the 13th before Cesar Izturis delivered the game-winning hit with two outs. Still waiting for Dusty Baker to use Aroldis Chapman for more than three outs for the first time.
  • Justin Masterson survived four walks to improve to 4-1 as the Indians beat the White Sox 3-2. Adam Dunn went 0-for-4 to see his average drop to .101. Ozzie Guillen stuck with Dunn all year in 2011 but it will be interesting to see how long Robin Ventura sticks with him this time around. Speaking of bad White Sox hitters: Jeff Keppinger is hitting .171 in 76 at-bats and hasn't drawn a walk, so his OBP is actually lower than his average. Did we mention that the White Sox are in last place even though they've allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL?
  • Love watching Manny Machado play third base.
  • Finally, congrats to Felix Hernandez on his 100th career victory.
With strikeout rates at record levels, that inevitably means we're going to get some crazy strikeout totals for hitters. Let's take a stroll through some of my favorite numbers heading into Monday's games.
  • Adam Dunn, White Sox: 26 SO, 3 BB in 69 PAs. Dunn, of course, has always struck in prodigious numbers, but he's taking it to a new level this year, whiffing in 37.7 percent of his plate appearances, which would top his previous career worst of 35.7 percent in 2011. To make matters worse, he's stopped walking. And is hitting .108.
  • J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays: 28 SO, 1 BB in 73 PAs. The Toronto catcher is tied with Houston's Chris Carter for the major league strikeout lead at 28. What's fun about his line is he has just one walk, so he has a .260 OBP to go with his .250 batting average. He also has belted seven home runs so he's slugging over .600, so he could be headed for the worst 30-homer season in history.
  • Rick Ankiel, Astros: 23 SO, 0 BB in 35 PAs. My lord. That's a strikeout rate of 65.7 percent! He's made contact 12 times and has eight hits, including four home runs. Still ... 23 whiffs in 35 PAs. By the way, the non-pitcher "record" for most strikeouts in a season without drawing a walk belongs to Alejandro Sanchez, a DH/outfielder on the '85 Tigers who had 39 strikeouts and no walks in 133 PAs. The "record" for most PAs without a walk for non-pitcher belongs to Craig Robinson, an infielder on the '73 Phillies, who had 148 PAs. Here's the funny thing: Robinson turned that season into a gig as the Braves' starting shortstop in 1974. He hit .230 with no home runs but did draw 30 walks in 506 PAs.
  • Ryan Braun, Brewers: 20 SO, 10 BB in 60 PAs. Braun is putting up his usual big numbers but his strikeout rate of 33 percent is sixth highest among qualified hitters. But his walk rate is up 7 percent over the past two years. (Colby Rasmus, Arencibia's Blue Jays teammate, has the highest K rate among regulars at 43.5 percent.)
  • Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox: 22 SO, 3 BB in 72 PAs. Outside of that three-homer game, Middlebrooks has been terrible, hitting .172 overall and 2 for his last 25. Until he learns to lay off those pitches out of the zone he's not going to help the Sox much. A stint back in the minors may eventually be needed.
  • Josh Hamilton, Angels: 23 SO, 5 BB in 77 PAs. Compared to last year, Hamilton's K rate is up and his walk rate is down. He's second only to Pablo Sandoval in swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone among regulars. His approach hurt him in the second half last season and is a main reason he's struggling early on (.176, 2 HR).
I had noted yesterday how the Chicago White Sox weren't drawing any walks and then saw this piece today from Dave Cameron at FanGraphs titled "Adam Dunn's failed experiment." Dunn apparently said in spring training he was going to be more aggressive early in the count; well, he's hitting .136 with 15 strikeouts and two walks. He's gone from Adam Dunn to Adam Done.

There's a big issue going on here with the White Sox: They've drawn just 16 walks in 12 games, the major reason they're 13th in the AL in runs scored despite ranking third in home runs. That's 14 fewer walks than any other AL club. Besides Dunn, the major culprits are notorious free swingers Dayan Viciedo (no walks in 34 PAs) and Alexei Ramirez (one in 46 PAs), plus Conor Gillaspie (none in 27 PAs) and Alejandro De Aza (two in 52 PAs). It's simple, really: It's difficult to string together big innings without getting guys on base, so unless you're hitting for a high average (which the White Sox aren't), you need some walks mixed in.

The White Sox are drawing walks at less than half the pace they did last year, when they ranked 11th in the AL in walk percentage. Here's how the White Sox have fared offensively the past five years:

2013: 15th in walk rate (3.7%), 3rd in home runs, 13th in runs
2012: 11th in walk rate (7.5%), 3rd in home runs, 4th in runs
2011: 8th in walk rate (7.7%), 9th in home runs, 11th in runs
2010: 12th in walk rate (7.6%), 4th in home runs, 7th in runs
2009: 6th in walk rate (8.7%), 6th in home runs, 12th in runs

This could just be a blip in early scheduling -- they've faced a lot of strike-throwers so far with the likes of James Shields, Blake Beavan, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Jordan Zimmermann and Dan Haren, but it's still a troubling sign. The White Sox rank 11th in swing percentage on pitches outside the zone but first in percentage of swings -- meaning they swing at more pitches than any other club. The White Sox scored runs last season because they hit 211 home runs, but that's a precarious way to make a living. If they don't come close to that figure again they're not going to finish fourth in runs scored again.

How done is Adam Dunn?

November, 9, 2012
The term Three True Outcomes predates Adam Dunn, but it is a term that has been attached to him his entire MLB career. Half of his plate appearances have ended with a home run (5.6 percent), a walk (16.2 percent), or a strikeout (28.2 percent). Those home runs and walks contribute most of Dunn’s value at the plate and has made him a tantalizing talent for many an evaluator.

The major knock on him is that as well as he excels at racking up home runs and walks, he has no value in the field. Playing for the Reds, Diamondbacks and Nationals, Dunn struggled as a National League player. Without the option to place him safely off the field at designated hitter, teams tried to hide the deficiencies with his glove in left field and then at first base. Conventional wisdom suggested that Dunn’s ability would be best used at DH, but he had been vocal about his desire to remain on the field. However, Dunn changed his mind when the White Sox offered a four-year, $56 million contract.

It is fair to say no one expected Dunn’s 2011 to be so poor on an underperforming 79-83 White Sox team. His minus-3.1 WAR was the worst performance ever by a DH, which was over a win worse than the second worst seasons (Chris James and Alvin Davis, 1991). The walks kept coming, but his home run per fly ball percentage fell from 21.3 percent to 9.6 percent and his batting average fell to .159. Combine these things together and you wind up with a very poor DH who has no MLB quality skills beyond walking.

There was a silver lining that many, including me, pointed out: His .240 batting average of balls in play, which was above .300 during his two seasons in Washington. Simple regression toward his career levels would suggest that more balls would leave the yard and more balls would hit the ground instead of being snagged in gloves.

The 2012 White Sox improved by six wins over the previous season to finish at 85-77. It can be argued that their six-game improvement was greatly affected by Dunn’s 4.8 WAR swing (reaching 1.7 WAR in 2012). He finished the season with 41 home runs and a slash line of .204/.333/.468. It was good to see the power return and the retention of walks for Dunn, but his performance was still somewhat below average for what one would hope to get out of the bat-only position of designated hitter.

Dunn simply did not make enough successful contact and had the second worst batting runs above average (as measured by Rbat) of his career with eight. That performance ties him for the second worst value in baseball history for a player who has hit 40 or more home runs:

1. Tony Batista, 2000 Blue Jays: Rbat of 0
2t. Adam Dunn, 2012 White Sox: Rbat of 8
2t. Vinny Castilla, 1996 Rockies: Rbat of 8
4t: Adam Dunn, 2006 Reds: Rbat of 9
4t: Jose Canseco, 1998 Blue Jays: Rbat of 9
6t: Curtis Granderson, 2012 Yankees: Rbat of 12
6t: Vinny Castilla, 1997 Rockies: Rbat of 12
8. Tony Armas, 1984 Red Sox: Rbat of 13
9. Greg Vaughn, 1999 Reds: Rbat of 14
10. Ryan Howard, 2008 Phillies: Rbat of 15

None of the above players were a negative with the bat, which shows how difficult it is to be detrimental to the team if one manages to send 40 balls past the fence. However, the accomplishment does not guarantee that the performance was exceptional. To put this in perspective, the median value of Rbat for the 310 40-homer seasons is 48 (most recently attained by Adrian Gonzalez in 2009), which is roughly four wins better than what Adam Dunn accomplished in 2012.

Going forward into the final two years of Dunn’s contract, there is some uncertainly as to how well he will perform. Although he improved, it was not a product of his BABIP, which was largely unchanged. His home run per fly ball percentage jumped up to 29.3 percent, an all-time high for him. Just looking at those two numbers, I still expect some regression to his career levels of .288 and 22 percent.

It should be noted, though, that we may be seeing a change in how he plays or how others play against him. Over the past four years, pitchers have been increasingly going after Dunn with two-seam fastballs increasing from 2.5 percent of the time in 2009 to 12.3 percent in 2012. This seems to relate somewhat to his ability to perform well as measured by Pitch f/x wFA values that are half of what they were when he was playing for the Nationals. These perceived struggles against fastballs may indicate a deterioration of hitting ability. It may well be that he made adjustments from 2011 to 2012 in order to perform better and that those adjustments may not be able to prevent Father Time affecting his abilities.

It appears that the White Sox will be spending a total of $30 million for the next two years on someone who at best will hold his own at designated hitter. Paying a premium for this level of production is likely not what the team had in mind when they signed him.

Jon Shepherd is a contributor to Camden Depot, the SweetSpot network affiliate covering the Baltimore Orioles.

Fernando Rodney is awesome

September, 28, 2012
Adam Dunn is at the plate, looking relaxed, just another of his more than 7,000 career plate appearances in the major leagues.

Dunn may appear relaxed, but Chicago White Sox fans certainly aren't, as they stand in unison, knowing the season has come down to this: one pitch. The cameras pan to the White Sox dugout and bullpen and Dunn's teammates have that look of dead men walking -- the depressing look of a team falling apart at the wrong time of the year, not knowing or understanding how this happened.

The count is three balls, two strikes, Fernando Rodney on the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays, his hat askew and beard groomed in a long goatee hanging in a point off his chin. It seems more goofy than intimidating -- if that's what Rodney is going for -- but when you have an ERA of less than 1.00 and have allowed two earned runs since the All-Star break, nobody cares what you look like.

Dunn has one thing on his mind: home run. The Rays lead 3-2, there is a runner on base, the White Sox in danger of losing for the eighth time in nine games. On the previous pitch, Dunn somehow laid off a changeup that dipped just below the knees. The pitch before he was late on a 98-mph fastball.

Fastball or changeup?

Good luck.

Rodney throws the changeup, it drops at the last moment, and Dunn swings over the top of it, and the air is let out of 18,000-plus at The Cell. The White Sox, 3-2 losers, are now two games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and their season feels over. The Rays have now won eight in a row and are two games behind the Oakland A's in the wild-card race. They've done this miracle surge thing before.

* * * *

Evan Longoria belted the winning home run off Brett Myers in the ninth inning, a sloppy curveball that a player of Longoria's caliber doesn't miss. But let's write about Rodney, because of his superlative season and because we really haven't talked much about him this year.

There was a tweet I saw as Rodney came in to close it out, from a guy named Dave Hogg (@stareagle): "Guess what, Tigers fans? You are about to relive the past -- it's going to be Fernando Rodney closing out a huge game for Detroit."

That's kind of a joke. Rodney used to pitch for the Tigers but wasn't that great for them. He was the closer one year for them, saved 37 games, but with a 4.40 ERA. The Tigers let him walk and he signed with the Los Angeles Angels, where his ERA was 4.32 the past two seasons. He had more walks than strikeouts for them last season. Of course they let him walk. Why wouldn't they?

And now he's put together one of the great relief seasons in history. How do you explain this?

You can't. The Rays have said it's all about improved fastball command from previous years, helping set up that lethal changeup. It's not just the drop in the pitch, but the separation from his fastball; his heater averages 96.1 mph, his changeup 82.4 mph.

"I'm surprised, to tell you the truth, whenever anybody puts the bat on one of them," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey told Marc Tompkin of the Tampa Bay Times back in July. "Because this is not just a changeup."

Here's one heat map example of his improved fastball command against left-handed batters, 2011 versus 2012:

Fernando RodneyESPN Stats & InformationRodney's fastball command has been much improved in 2012.

Before this season, Rodney had averaged 4.9 walks per nine innings in his career (and a staggering 7.9 with the Angels in 2011). In 2012, that number is less than 2 per nine.

That command sets up the change. In 64 plate appearances ending with a changeup, batters are hitting .102 against -- 6-for-59, one double, no home runs, 25 strikeouts. And because of that, Rodney's ERA is now 0.62. Talk about staggering. The lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings: Dennis Eckersely, 0.61 in 1990. With more scoreless inning, Rodney will match exactly Eck's totals: 73.1 innings, nine runs, five earned runs. (To be fair: Craig Kimbrel of the Braves has actually allowed fewer runs per nine innings this year.)

Not bad for a guy the Rays signed for $1.75 million and $2.5 team option (after the Angels had thrown away $11 million on him over two season). Rodney got a chance to close only when Kyle Farnsworth was injured in spring training.

"We thought he was ripe for a good year," Rays manager Joe Maddon had said back in July. "I think it's a combination of him feeling good about himself and liking it here, and maybe some nice physical and mental adjustments, and all of a sudden, you've got an All-Star."

Score one for the Rays. As our pal Jonah Keri said, in reference to Rodney's infamous post-save celebrations: He is an arrow-firing cyborg.

That cyborg is a reason the Rays are still alive. Very much alive.
    "It ain't over 'til it's over." -- Yogi Berra on the 1973 National League East pennant race

For a few minutes on Monday, you had the feeling the Chicago White Sox were getting a little bit closer to over. Justin Verlander had done his job for the Detroit Tigers, throwing eight innings and striking out eight in a 6-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals. Late in their game, the White Sox knew the Tigers' result as they stared at a 4-2 deficit to the Cleveland Indians. They were also staring at their sixth consecutive defeat, a sixth game where the bats looked feeble, and a tie for first-place in the American League Central.

And maybe that sinking feeling of a team in a free-fall.

Then, with apologies to the late, great Clarence Clemons, up stepped The Big Man.

Adam Dunn had homered earlier in the sixth inning, his 40th. Now he faced an 0-2 count in the bottom of the eighth inning against Cleveland's tough, underrated relief pitcher, Vinnie Pestano. There were two outs, two on (courtesy of a pinch-hit walk by Dan Johnson -- remember him? -- and a Kevin Youkilis infield single) and 20,000 White Sox fans on their feet, more hopeful than exuberant.

Pestano relies on a sharp-breaking slider, one of the best in the game, and that makes him especially deadly against right-handed batters. He's a little more vulnerable against lefties, but when he gets to 0-2 he's nearly unhittable against all batters. In 79 plate appearances that had reached an 0-2 count, batters were hitting .132 off Pestano, with one walk, 38 strikeouts and no home runs.

Dunn leads the world with 207 strikeouts. He'd struck out twice in the game. The count was 0-2, a count when Pestano strikes out nearly half the batters he faces. If you were a betting kind of person, this one was off the board: Pestano would get the K.

This, of course, is baseball ... pennant-race baseball ... in which it ain't over 'til it's over.

Pestano doesn't throw his slider. He throws a 92-mph four-seam fastball. Pretty much down the middle of the plate.

The Big Man doesn't miss, lofting the ball to right-center, just a few feet beyond the railing, a three-run homer that White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson understandably calls the biggest hit of the season for the Sox. Hope turns to exuberance, White Sox players leap out of the dugout and Chicago holds on for a 5-4 victory.

Before the game, Dunn had told MLB.com, "You can't worry about what other teams are doing. We are in first place. That's what people are still forgetting. We are in first place. If we win as many games as we can and we play well, we will make the playoffs. When you have a lead, you don't have to scoreboard watch. It's nice if we win and they lose, but if we win them all and they win them all, guess who goes? We just have to take a step back and relax. We have to realize we are in first place and in a really, really good position."

If you're the Tigers, you've been trying to get over that hump and into first place since late July. The Tigers caught the White Sox for one day on Sept. 2, after Verlander had defeated Chris Sale, but the Sox have held first by themselves every day since July 27. And now the Tigers just fired their best bullet. They have one more Verlander start left. That means eight games in which Verlander doesn't start. The White Sox are 1 game up.

Who do you like?

I will say this: If the Tigers do win the division, I wouldn't want to play them in a five-game series, not with Verlander lined up to start Game 1 in Detroit and then again in Game 5. For example, if the New York Yankees win the AL East, they'll likely play the AL Central champ (with the Texas Rangers playing the wild-card winner). So you get CC Sabathia opening up against Verlander at Comerica Park. If the Tigers win that one, the Yankees face the pressure of maybe having to win three in a row.

Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus wrote an ESPN Insider piece Insider a few days ago that argues having an ace isn't the huge bonus in October everyone believes it is:
      To do that, Baseball Prospectus director of research Colin Wyers selected the ace of each playoff team from the one-wild-card era of 1994-2011, defining the ace as the starter who pitched at least 120 innings with the lowest ERA. Then he came up with a normalized measure of ace-ness, similar to ERA+, that allowed us to place all the aces on the same scale. Finally, he checked the correlation between the strength of each team's ace and the difference between its winning percentages in the regular season and the postseason.

The result? A statistically insignificant correlation of 0.02. (A correlation of 1.0 is perfect, minus-1.0 is the opposite.) Park-adjusting the stats didn't strengthen the correlation. Neither did defining ace as the starter with the highest WARP. Neither did running the study again using only pitchers who pitched in the playoffs, so as not to skew the results by including teams whose regular-season aces weren't available in October. However we sliced and diced the data, we couldn't find any evidence that the strength of a team's top starter alone helped dictate how it would do.

Of course, Verlander isn't any ordinary ace. Ben's point is valid: There's no guarantee Verlander would beat a quality pitcher in Sabathia (with a better team behind him) twice. Still, it's Verlander. He certainly can carry a team in a short five-game series, even one that could own just the seventh-best record in the AL.

But the Tigers have to find a way to get there and Dunn just made that more difficult. It may be a little much to say that Dunn saved the White Sox season with that home run, but it's not too much to say that one win could likely be the difference in nine days.

With Max Scherzer -- second in the AL in strikeouts to Verlander -- pulled early two starts ago with shoulder fatigue and struggling in his last start, he's not as locked in as he appeared 10 days ago. Doug Fister is solid, but I'd give Chicago's rotation depth a slight edge right now (although their own ace, Sale, also pitched on Monday).

One more interesting note: Scherzer is on track to start the season finale. But if the Tigers need a win, would Jim Leyland start Verlander on three days' rest?

I guess we can worry about that in nine days. As Yogi might say, "When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it."

Miguel CabreraLeon Halip/Getty ImagesHe may not have homered, but Miguel Cabrera's happy someone else pushed him home.

When Davey Johnson got his first managerial gig with the New York Mets in 1984 he took over a franchise that had lost 94-plus games in six of its previous seven seasons, and the only reason it didn't happen in the seventh season was due to the 1981 strike. The Mets won 90 games in 1984, and a key reason why was Johnson's insistence that a 19-year-old rookie named Dwight Gooden make the club out of spring training.

He believed in Wally Backman when few did. He gave playing time to a little 22-year-old, tobacco-chewing outfielder named Lenny Dykstra over high-priced veteran George Foster. Sparky Anderson didn't think Howard Johnson could play; traded to the Mets, HoJo became a star.

Davey Johnson knows talent. OK, so everybody believed in Bryce Harper's talent. But Johnson sat behind a table during the winter meetings in December and told reporters how much he loved this kid. When he told the story of how he tried to convince the Mets' general manager that Gooden was ready for the big leagues, the implication was clear: Bryce Harper, even though he had played only 37 games above Class A ball -- and would play the entire 2012 season at 19 years old -- was ready for the big leagues.

Johnson's belief in Harper is the reason he hasn't removed Harper from the No. 2 spot in the Washington Nationals' batting order, even as Harper's batting averaged plummeted from .282 at the All-Star break to .245 on Aug. 15. For Johnson, it has always been about talent and his view isn't that Harper is a 19-year-old kid, but a major leaguer with off-the-charts ability. Leave him in the two-hole and let the talent win out.

Harper hit two home runs on Wednesday. He hit another on Thursday -- a two-run, first-inning shot off Jaime Garcia -- to help lead the Nationals to an 8-1 victory. It's Johnson's faith in his 19-year-old center fielder that makes Harper one of the most important players as we head into the season's final month. Is he bouncing back from this recent dry spell? Is the home run off Garcia a sign that he should continue to bat second against left-handers? Will his inexperience in center lead to a crucial misplay? Will he wear down?

The Nationals have a lot to play for in September, as they try to hold off the Braves for the NL East title with Stephen Strasburg's season nearing its end. They're neck-and-neck with the Reds for the best record in the league and home-field advantage throughout the postseason (although the Nationals do have the best road record in the majors). Harper's September will be key to securing that No. 1 seed.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/David GoldmanThe Yankees may need the bat of Alex Rodriguez to hold onto the AL East lead.
Here are nine more important players as we head down the homestretch:

Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees

A-Rod begins his rehab Friday at Class A Tampa. With Curtis Granderson struggling (.194 in August), Mark Teixeira out with a calf injury, Russell Martin hitting .197 and Raul Ibanez showing his age, the Yankees will need A-Rod to produce when he returns if they want to hold off the Orioles and Rays.

James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates

Dominant in the first half when he went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, .196 average allowed and 100/31 SO/BB ratio, McDonald has hit the wall since, going 3-3 with a 6.24 and 41/30 SO/BB ratio in the second half. He has allowed no runs in two of his past three starts, however, giving Pirates fans hope that they'll see the first-half McDonald down the stretch.

Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Dodgers

The state of the Dodgers' rotation: Chad Billingsley, likely out for the season; Chris Capuano, five or more runs allowed in four of his past seven starts; Joe Blanton, 6.67 ERA in five starts since joining the Dodgers. OK, Clayton Kershaw is pretty good. The Dodgers paid a hefty price for the expectation that Beckett will be better than he showed with the Red Sox.

Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox

He leads the American League with 38 home runs, but after hitting .230/.378/.556 through May, he has hit a far less scary .190/.310/.444 (not including an 0-for-4 on Thursday). The White Sox could use one of his patented power streaks.

Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants

We've been pointing to Tim Lincecum all season and it still holds that the Giants' one-time ace needs to spin off a few good starts in a row, but what about Pence? He's hit just .230 with the Giants with two home runs in 28 games. With Melky Cabrera spending the rest of the season on a beach somewhere, the Giants are counting on Pence as that bat behind Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey.

Brett Anderson, Oakland A's

The most amazing aspect of the A's grip on a wild card is the current shuffling Bob Melvin has had to do with the rotation. Bartolo Colon's suspension came right as Anderson returned to make his first starts following Tommy John surgery in July 2011. His first two starts have been brilliant: 14 innings, six hits, one run, 11 K's, two walks, low pitch counts. It's the Brett Anderson, strike-throwing machine, that everyone fell in love with his first two seasons in the majors. The A's have a brutal schedule the rest of the way: BOS, LAA, @SEA, @LAA, BAL, @DET, @NYY, @TEX, SEA, TEX. They'll need more gems from Anderson.

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

At this point, the Braves' rotation is unlikely to suddenly improve. Craig Kimbrel will continue closing out the leads he gets. That means it's up to the offense to carry the Braves into the playoffs. As the curtain closes on Chipper Jones' Hall of Fame career, it has been exciting to see Heyward step up of late. With seven home runs and a .607 slugging percentage over his past 21 games, he's showing why this will be his team in 2013.

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

He was unbeatable down the stretch a year ago, but no pitcher has thrown more pitches over the past two seasons than Verlander. He hasn't won any of his past four starts (although only the eight-run beating in Kansas City was his fault). After starting August with six straight wins, the Tigers have gone an uninspiring 9-11. Getting swept by the Royals is hardly an indication that this is a playoff team. Mr. Verlander, it's your time.

The Baltimore Orioles' bullpen

OK, this is a group, but it's the reason the Orioles are just three games behind the Yankees and currently front-runners for a wild-card spot. The Orioles are 24-6 in one-run games, which would be the best winning percentage in history. The O's don't score a lot of runs; the rotation is scrambling to fill holes with the likes of Joe Saunders and now Randy Wolf. Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop and company need a lockdown final 32 games.

Bryce HarperMarc Serota/Getty ImagesBryce Harper launches his 15th home run -- one behind Ken Griffey's total as a 19-year-old.
Curtis Granderson's statistical line has become so unusual that Eric Karabell and I discussed it briefly on Thursday's Baseball Today show. Granderson is hitting .244 with 30 home runs and slugging .498. He's on pace for 44 home runs, leading Eric to ask: Has any player ever hit 40 home runs while slugging under .500?

To do so, you don't just have hit for a low average, but also register few extra-base hits beyond home runs. Indeed, Granderson has just 12 doubles and three triples.

Anyway, Eric predicted it's been done -- probably several times, citing the fact that Mark Teixeira nearly did it last season when he hit 39 home runs and slugged .494. I predicted it had never been "accomplished."

The answer: It's happened once. Adam Dunn in 2006 hit 40 home runs and slugged .490, thanks to a .234 batting average and just 24 doubles. Should have figured on Dunn.

Besides Teixeira, two others hit 39 home runs while slugging under .500 -- Cecil Fielder in 1996 and Mark McGwire in 1990. Three others hit 38 -- Jeromy Burnitz, Rafael Palmeiro and Gorman Thomas. My favorite high home run/low slugging year, however, belongs to the immortal Dave Kingman, who hit 37 home runs for the Mets in 1982 ... and slugged .432. How is that even possible? He actually led the National League with those 37 home runs but hit just NINE doubles while hitting .204. He ranked 24th in the league in slugging percentage.

Man, and I thought Granderson was an extreme case.
Friday represented the final Baseball Today podcast before the All-Star break, and Mark Simon and I took it seriously enough to talk award winners, playoff teams, recap Thursday, preview the weekend and much more!

1. David Wright continues to make one of us smile, but is he the first-half MVP in the NL? We also name our Cy Young winners, rookies, managers and whether the Red Sox playoff-bound.

2. Who do you want up to the plate with a 3-2 count? We’ve got numbers, loads of numbers.

3. An emailer wants to debate the value power hitters Adam Dunn and Jose Bautista bring with their low batting averages. Isn’t there a more important statistic those fellas provide?

4. If you could go back in baseball history and witness a game or event that occurred, what would it be?

5. It’s a Yankees-Red Sox weekend, but that’s hardly the only interesting series to watch!

So download and listen to Friday’s fun Baseball Today podcast and have a great weekend! On Monday Keith Law and I will record the show from Kansas City, Mo.!
My favorite All-Star selection in the past decade was reliever Mike Williams of the Pirates in 2003. At the break, he had 25 saves ... but a 6.44 ERA. He was the Pirates' lone representative, of course, although the club did have other worthy options -- Jason Kendall was hitting .308, and Brian Giles was hitting .306 with a .444 on-base percentage. Williams, in fact, was so bad that he never pitched in the majors after that season.

At least National League manager Dusty Baker didn't actually use Williams in the game.

Anyway, the All-Star roster selections are now complicated by a four-tiered system: Starters are voted in by the fans, players vote for some of the reserves, managers fill in the rest of the roster (keeping in mind that each team needs a representative) and then fans vote for the final man. Good times!

As always, things get screwed up along the way. Here's a quick reaction to this year's rostesr -- but, don't forget, there likely will be a few injury and pitcher replacements to come!

Worst National League fan selection: Pablo Sandoval, Giants. I chided Rangers fans last week for stuffing the ballot box, but clearly I underestimated Giants fans. David Wright has arguably been the most valuable player in the National League in the first half, hitting .355/.449/.564 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) while carrying a Mets offense racked by injuries. Sandoval overcome a 400,000-vote deficit over the final week to pass Wright, even though he's played only 44 games.

Worst American League fan selection: Derek Jeter, Yankees. I don't have a huge problem with the fans voting in one of the game's all-time greats, but Elvis Andrus or Asdrubal Cabrera would have been a more deserving starter. Both have better numbers at the plate and are superior defenders to the aging Jeter. At least both made the team as reserves.

Best fan selection: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays. Considering his slow start, .239 average and north-of-the-border status, it would have been easy for the fans to miss out on Bautista's June power surge that has lifted him to a major league-leading 26 home runs.

Best reserve: Mike Trout, Angels. There might have been a fan mutiny if Trout (who wasn't on the All-Star ballot) hadn't made the team.

Wait, the Cubs got two players? Bryan LaHair is one of the nice stories of the season, but he made it only because a backup first baseman is required. The fact that a platoon player with just 28 RBIs made it speaks to the lack of depth at first base in the NL. However, LaHair's selection also shows the player voting is done too early in the season. LaHair was hitting .388 through May 3 but is hitting .236/.313/.389 since. Basically, he made the All-Star team with one hot month. Paul Goldschmidt or Adam LaRoche would have been a better choice.

$173 million payroll and one All-Star: Red Sox. DH David Ortiz is Boston's lone All-Star, the first time since 2001 the Red Sox have had just one All-Star. (Manny Ramirez made it that year.) The Red Sox had had at least six All-Stars each year since 2007.

Weirdest selection: Huston Street, Padres. Street has pitched well (1.35 ERA) but has pitched only 20 innings. Third baseman Chase Headley would have been the Padres' obvious rep, but Sandoval getting voted in as a starter meant Wright had to get the nod as the backup third baseman.

More evidence that player votes are tabulated too early: Lance Lynn, Cardinals. Lynn got off to a terrific start but is now only 27th in the NL in ERA, pushing more deserving starters like Johnny Cueto, James McDonald, Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner to the sideline.

The too-many-relief-pitchers rule: Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies. Again, it's a shame that the rules require relievers to be added. Seventeen starters have a better ERA than Papelbon, who has pitched a grand total of 30 innings. Of his 18 saves, only six came in one-run games. Only question: Will Tony La Russa use him in a tie game?

Comeback All-Star of the year: Adam Dunn, White Sox. After hitting .159 in 2011, Dunn made his second All-Star team (and first since 2002, his first full year in the majors) by slugging 24 home runs and driving in 58 runs. Despite hitting .213, Dunn has a respectable .363 OBP thanks to a league-leading 64 walks.

Most deserving guy who didn't make it, National League: Johnny Cueto, Reds. He has a 2.26 ERA despite pitching in The Great American Ball Park.

Most deserving guy who didn't make it, American League: Austin Jackson, Tigers. Jackson did miss 20 games with injuries, but he's been tremendous, hitting .326/.408/.537 and playing excellent defense in center field.

AL final man vote: Jake Peavy, White Sox. Peavy is the most deserving based on his terrific first half, but if you’re trying to win the game, Angels reliever Ernesto Frieri may be the best choice, considering he hasn’t allowed a run in 23 innings since coming to the Angels.

NL final man vote: Michael Bourn, Braves. This may be the most intriguing final man vote ever: All-time great Chipper Jones or hyped newcomer Bryce Harper? I’ll split the difference and take the guy who had the best first half and could help the NL as a pinch hitter, defensive sub or pinch runner. After all, the game counts, right?

On May 4, Robin Ventura made the first crucial decision of his incipient managerial career. With Chris Sale facing a bout of soreness and tightness in his left elbow, Ventura and Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper decided to move Sale to the bullpen, despite Sale's 2.81 ERA through five starts.

Sale was not happy with decision, saying his elbow didn't hurt but was merely tender. Ventura and Cooper expressed concerns that they just wanted to be cautious about Sale's long-term health. "It's the best way to keep him healthy and strong," Cooper told White Sox beat reporters at the time. "He was upset. He wanted to continue to (start). But sometimes we have to make decisions based upon what we feel is best for that individual, and that's what we did."

Sale pitched one game in relief on May 8, picking up a blown save in an eventual 5-3 victory for the White Sox over the Indians.

[+] EnlargeChris Sale
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesChris Sale had 15 strikeouts on Monday.
Ventura then made a second critical decision, one that could prove to be the key move of the 2012 regular season: He put Sale back in the rotation.

An MRI on Sale's elbow had come back clean. Sale argued to management that his elbow wasn't actually so sore after all. Ventura, Cooper and GM Kenny Williams put their 23-year-old left-hander back in the rotation.

"Just to say, I really, really felt I could do this," Sale said, expressing his desire to start after pitching in relief as a rookie in 2011. "This is something that has been a dream of mine, and I've been passionate about for very long. At the end of the day, I felt I could do this. I felt poorly, I set a goal to do this, fell drastically short. I felt like I was letting my teammates down. I felt like I was having other people to put up my slack. It was disappointing to me to not be able to fulfill what I was supposed to do."

The results since: A so-so effort of five innings and three runs on May 12, but then one run over 5 1/3 innings in a victory over the Angels, seven scoreless innings against the Twins and Monday's 15-strikeout masterpiece in a 2-1 victory over the Rays, matching Max Scherzer for the season high in strikeouts. Sale was dominant, throwing 80 of his 113 pitches for strikes. He's built like that sophomore center on your high school's JV basketball team who hit his growth spurt but has never lifted anything heavier than an algebra textbook, but from the 6-foot-6 matchstick frame, Sale cranked his fastball up to 97 mph against Tampa Bay on a first-inning pitch to B.J. Upton and threw 22 pitches clocked at 95 or higher. Most impressively, he held that velocity into the eighth. The final two batters he faced were Jose Molina, who struck out swinging on a 96-mph heater, and Rich Thompson, who grounded out on another 96-mph fastball.

Here's a heat map of all 15 strikeouts:

Chris SaleESPN Stats & InformationChris Sale's 15 strikeouts tied the MLB season-high.

He used his wipeout slider for 11 of the 15 strikeouts; the other four came on fastballs. Those 15 strikeouts were the second-most in White Sox history since 1918, according to Baseball-Reference.com; Jack Harshman had 16 K's in 1954. Sale mixed in a few changeups, showing a three-pitch arsenal that has made him one of the best starters in the American League so far.

At 6-2 with a 2.34 ERA, Sale ranks second to Justin Verlander in ERA, fourth behind Verlander, Jered Weaver and teammate Jake Peavy in WHIP, eighth in strikeouts, fourth in opponents' batting average and fourth in opponents' OPS. The last hurdle is for him to prove he can pitch consistently into the seventh and eighth innings and that he can do this for 30 starts.

Still, not bad for a guy who hadn't started a big league game before the season.

Sale was one of four high-profile, reliever-to-starter transitions this season. Daniel Bard's move for Boston has earned mediocre reviews, and that's a kind judgment considering his 4.69 ERA and 28/29 SO/BB ratio. The Rangers' Neftali Feliz is on the disabled list with a strained right elbow. Jeff Samardzija has a solid 3.00 ERA for the Cubs.

Sale's move was probably the least publicized of the four, considering the White Sox's red-headed stepchild support in Chicago. But when the White Sox drafted Sale with the 13th pick in the 2010 draft out of Florida Gulf Coast University, they always envisioned him as a potential starter. He reached the majors just two months after getting drafted, pitching in 21 games out of the bullpen that year and then 58 games and 71 innings in 2011. It was the old Earl Weaver approach of sorts: Put the kid in the bullpen for a year or two and then let him join the rotation.

It's a route rarely used anymore, but Sale's rise is perhaps a case study on why it should be utilized more often.

The White Sox have now won six in a row to move just a half-game behind Cleveland. The 1-2 punch of Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn and a strong start by catcher A.J. Pierzynski have carried the offense. Now the Sox appear to have a lethal 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Peavy and Sale.

In the AL Central, that may be enough to keep them in the race.

There was a time when Jake Peavy was mentioned in the same breath as pitchers like Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander. There was a time when Peavy might have been better than all of them -- the best in the game, in fact.

The last year he started 30 games was in 2007. That season he led the National League in wins, ERA, strikeouts, fewest baserunners allowed per nine innings and most strikeouts per nine. He was the only starter in the major leagues with an ERA under 3.00. He collected all 32 first-place votes in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.

"I can definitely get better," Peavy said after winning the award. "I've got a long way to go to be who I want to be." Maybe he was referring to not throwing a complete game that season. Maybe he was referring to Game No. 163, the playoff tiebreaker in Colorado. Peavy gave up 10 hits and six runs in 6 1/3 innings in a game the Padres eventually lost in the 13th inning. He was 26 years old, a Cy Young winner with two ERA titles under his belt, but he still wanted to prove he was the best pitcher in baseball.

This isn't the way he wanted it to happen, but it's May 2012 and right now Jake Peavy is back on top: He's the best pitcher in baseball. That's right: Better than Halladay or Verlander or Clayton Kershaw or Jered Weaver.

It's an amazing comeback story from a guy who has battled four years of injuries, and not just the routine battle scars that pitchers have to overcome. In 2010, he feared his career could be over. A quick look back at that list of injuries:

2008: He went on the disabled in May with a sore elbow, missed a month and ended up making 27 starts and posting a 2.85 ERA.

2009: Strained a tendon in his right ankle rounding a base in late May, an injury that eventually landed him on the DL. Traded to the White Sox while disabled, Peavy returned in September to make three strong starts. In 16 starts, he finished 9-6 with a 3.45 ERA.

2010: In July, Peavy ruptured the tendon that attaches the latissimus dorsi muscle to the rear of the right shoulder. He became the first major league pitcher to undergo an experimental surgery involving stitches and titanium anchors. His season was over after 17 starts.

2011: Missed time at the start of the season with shoulder tendinitis, later pulled a groin and then was shut down in September due to arm fatigue. He made 18 starts.

Now he's healthy for the first time in a long time. "I’m a different guy than since you've probably ever seen me, just as far as feeling OK on the mound, being able to worry about making pitches, worrying about game planning not sitting in the trainer room the whole time in between days," he told ESPN Chicago a couple starts ago.

Watching him pitch on Wednesday, he looked like the Peavy from his Padres heyday, mixing his fastball, cutter, tight slider, curveball and changeup from that slightly herky-jerky delivery of his. For all the talk of Yu Darvish's wide arsenal of pitchers, Peavy also throws a kitchen sink repertoire. He cruised through six shutout innings against Cleveland before surrendering a run in the seventh as the White Sox scored an 8-1 victory. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 28 batters and while he rarely topped at more than 90 mph on his fastball, he pitched with precision while changing speeds.

Best in the game? A bold statement, yes, but through seven starts nobody's been better. Check the numbers:

  • 4-1, 1.89 ERA, with just 11 runs allowed in seven starts.
  • Tied with Felix Hernandez for most innings pitched.
  • .189 batting average allowed, .221 OBP allowed (third behind only Matt Cain and Jered Weaver), .482 OPS allowed (fifth).
  • Strikeout/walk ratio of 44 to 7, third-best behind Cole Hamels and Bronson Arroyo.

What's impressive about this seven-start run is Peavy has had to face most of the hard-hitting lineups in the American League: two starts against Detroit, plus Texas, Boston, Baltimore and Cleveland. He has one start against Oakland. Weaver, for instance, has faced the Twins in three of his seven starts and hasn't faced Detroit, Texas or Boston.

Now, whether Peavy can keep it going and remain healthy is another issue. Entering his Wednesday start, he was the most extreme fly-ball starting pitcher in the majors, although he has allowed just two home runs. He did induce groundballs on nine of his 15 non-strikeout outs on Wednesday, but skeptics would suggest that his home run rate isn't sustainable. That's certainly likely, but you can see from his heat maps that while he's been pitching up in the zone, he's doing a good job of keeping the ball away from hitters.

Jake PeavyESPN Stats and InformationJake Peavy's pitch locations versus left-handed batters and right-handed batters in 2012.

Amazingly, Peavy isn't the only comeback story for the White Sox. Designated hitter Adam Dunn's career appeared to be in jeopardy for other reasons after suffering through one of the worst seasons in major league history last year, with a batting average I don't even want to repeat.

Dunn, however, has been one of the most valuable hitters in the game so far, slugging his 10th home run on Wednesday, a two-run bomb off Jeanmar Gomez in the first inning. Dunn is hitting .243/.384/.586 and he's tied for third in the majors in homers and ranks ninth in RBIs and 15th in OPS.

Whether Dunn can keep this up is also a fair question. His strikeout rate of 34.1 percent is close to 2011's 35.7 percent, both figures well above Dunn's career mark of 27.7 percent. Basically, last year his fly balls were caught; this year, they're landing on the good side of the fence. But he's also lofting the ball more than a year ago; only four players are hitting a higher percentage of fly balls than Dunn. When you're as big and strong as Dunn, fly balls are a good thing.

Still, you have to connect with the sweet part of the wood. And White Sox fans have hearing that sweet sound so far.

Starlin CastroJerry Lai/US PresswireIt might be an everyday thing for the Cubs, but Starlin Castro's out at home.