SweetSpot: Adam Wainwright

SweetSpot TV: Cy Young preview

November, 12, 2014

Eric and I break down the Cy Young races. Felix Hernandez or Corey Kluber? Clayton Kershaw or Clayton Kershaw?

Five things we learned Monday

September, 23, 2014

Six days of regular-season baseball left. Barring a tie-breaker. Catch the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedule at the Hunt for October page.

1. Andrew McCutchen is a baseball deity, conqueror of enemy moundsmen and lifeblood of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Pirates played their third straight 1-0 game and it was McCutchen's home run that provided the night's lone run in the win over the Atlanta Braves. McCutchen lined a 2-0, 86-mph fastball from Aaron Harang over the fence in left-center -- you don't throw 86-mph fastballs past baseball deities -- in the sixth inning and the Pirates' magic number for clinching a playoff berth is down to two. (Here's the home run call from Pirates announcer Greg Brown. That pitch has to rank up there as one of the biggest meatballs of the season.)

Anyway, kudos to McCutchen for giving us more awesomeness. That home run is only going to help his MVP chances against Clayton Kershaw, if such a chance exists. (I say it does, although Kershaw is the clear favorite.) And kudos to Francisco Liriano for another strong outing. He's 4-0 with a 0.35 ERA in September and it raises the question: With St. Louis still up 2.5 games after their win on Monday, the wild-card game is still the likely destination for the Pirates. Does Liriano draw that game against a Giants lineup that features right-handed boppers Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Mike Morse? Do the Pirates throw Liriano this weekend in hopes of securing home-field advantage for that game and perhaps go with Gerrit Cole against the Giants? These are questions that will soon require answers.

2. The AL Central is back up for grabs. The Kansas City Royals lose the suspended game but then beat the Cleveland Indians 2-0 behind Danny Duffy's escape job while the Chicago White Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 2-0 behind Chris Bassitt. Who? Bassitt was making his fourth major league start and earned his first win. The White Sox's No. 15 prospect before the season, according to Baseball America, Bassitt actually made just eight starts in the minors this season due to a broken hand. He throws a low-90s sinker with a slider he developed in spring training, plus a curve and changeup. Nothing special and the Tigers don't have the excuse of not seeing him before, having knocked him around for five runs on Aug. 30, but they couldn't get to him and Tyler Flowers' two-run homer in the second off Kyle Lobstein held up. Right when we start believing again wholeheartedly in the Tigers, they play a game like this.

3. The Mariners' playoff chances are dwindling close to zero. James Paxton had been great but he wasn't on Monday, as shaky control (six walks in 2⅔ innings) led to a nine-run disaster in the Seattle Mariners' 14-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. It has been an embarrassing three games for Seattle as its starters have allowed 20 runs in 10 innings. The Mariners' playoff odds are now down to three percent. Look at it this way: If the Royals go 3-3 over their final six games, the Mariners have to go 5-1 to tie. They've already announced Chris Young won't make his next start, so they'll likely look at one bullpen game, and that's aside from what Taijuan Walker, Hisashi Iwakuma and Paxton can do in their final starts. The good news: Felix Hernandez on Tuesday, Felix Hernandez on Sunday.

4. The Angels really need Matt Shoemaker. Right when we start feeling good about C.J. Wilson -- he threw seven one-hit innings against Seattle in his previous start -- he records only two outs against the Oakland A's after walking four batters. The Los Angeles Angels are still hoping Shoemaker makes a start this weekend, but Wilson remains inconsistent and Hector Santiago has been hammered his past two starts. Cory Rasmus, who had never started a game above A-ball before being pushed into an emergency starting role the past few weeks, is looking like a possibility to start a division series game.

5. Adam Wainwright wins his 20th game. I think he's over that dead arm period. In beating the free-swinging Chicago Cubs with seven scoreless innings, Wainwright showed why he's such a smart pitcher and not just a guy with a nice curveball. He threw just 42 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, his lowest percentage of any start this season. But with the Cubs hacking away, why throw strikes? The St. Louis Cardinals maintained their 2.5-game lead over the Pirates. Wainwright is next scheduled to go on Saturday, which then lines him up to start Game 1 of the division series on Friday, Oct. 3. There is some risk here: If the Pirates somehow catch the Cardinals, Wainwright would have to pitch the wild-card game (Wednesday, Oct. 1) on three days' rest.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 18, 2014
Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at the world-famous Hunt for October page.

1. This is how Mariners fans feel right now. Mariners rookie James Paxton was filthy, matching zeroes with Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson into the seventh inning. Then came a one-out single and soft liner to right that Chris Denorfia let bounce past him, Howie Kendrick scoring from first. Then an intentional walk to Erick Aybar for reasons I don't understand. And then, with two outs, C.J. Cron blasted a loud and long home run off reliever Danny Farquhar. Just like that it was 4-0, the Angels clinched a tie for the AL West title (and later won it as the Rangers rallied to beat the A's in the ninth) and the Mariners' wild-card dreams took a hit as they fell two games behind the Royals.

C.J. Wilson was terrific in his own right, allowing just one hit in seven innings, although the Mariners are pretty inept against southpaws. It was the first time Wilson went seven in 14 starts -- and he went five innings or less in half of those 14 starts. So this was a much-needed strong outing from Wilson as the Angels look to line up their playoff rotation, especially with the iffy status of rookie sensation Matt Shoemaker, who will miss his next start with a mild oblique strain. (Shoemaker said on Wednesday that he's feeling better: "The positive part is it feels better every day. It’s not getting worse. They said it’s going to linger for a few days, and hopefully after a few days it will be gone."

The Angels clinched and they're also three games up on the Orioles for the best record in the league. Would you rather face the wild-card winner or the AL Central winner in the first round? I guess that depends on the opponent. Either way, they'll need Wilson to come up big.

2. Here come the Giants! Crazy day in the NL West as the Giants scored twice in the ninth to beat the Diamondbacks 4-2 -- pinch-hitter Matt Duffy delivered a two-run single -- and the Rockies pounded the Dodgers 16-2. Dodgers starter Carlos Frias, filling in for sore-shouldered Hyun-Jin Ryu, allowed 10 hits while getting two outs, apparently becoming the first starter since 1900 to allow that many hits while getting fewer than three outs. Ouch. The big picture: The Dodgers' lead is down to three games and they're suddenly scrambling in the rotation once you get past Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Before their huge series in San Francisco that starts on Monday, the Dodgers travel to Wrigley this weekend for four games and the Giants to San Diego for three.

3. Maybe that Adam Wainwright guy is OK. Is it time to stop worrying about that little dead-arm slump Wainwright was in? Locked into a great duel with Mike Fiers -- who took a no-hitter in the sixth before Wainwright singled -- Wainwright tossed a nifty 102-pitch, seven-hit shutout for his MLB-leading 19th win. Suddenly, he's Mr. Ace again: Two runs in 26 innings over his past three starts.

It was a tough loss for Fiers, who showed some mental toughness with a good outing after hitting Giancarlo Stanton in his previous start. He deserved better. With Matt Holliday on first in the seventh, Matt Adams hit a slow ground ball that bounced through the shift and center fielder Carlos Gomez bobbled the ball, allowing Holliday to score all the way from first when he threw the ball into second base instead of home.

With Pittsburgh winning, the Brewers dropped to 2.5 games behind the Pirates. Milwaukee has one more game with St. Louis before squaring with the Pirates in Pittsburgh this weekend. No matter the results of Thursday's game, the Brewers will essentially be in a "must sweep" scenario against the Pirates.

4. Chris Sale can be beat. Which is good news for the Royals because they touched up the AL ERA leader (well, Sale is now second in ERA to Felix Hernandez) after giving up nine hits and five runs in five innings. Lorenzo Cain, who a week ago was batting eighth and is now hitting third (Ned Yost, everyone!), hit a three-run homer in the third inning and then Alcides Escobar torched Sale in the fourth. It was just the third time Sale has allowed five runs and the nine hits are the second-most he's allowed in a game -- the Orioles got him for 11 back on June 23. The Royals are now a half-game behind the Tigers for the division lead and two up on Seattle for the wild, the usual "suspended game against Cleveland" not included.

5. Indians barely alive. Carlos Carrasco tossed a dominant two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout over the Astros. His Game Score of 94 tied for the sixth-highest of the season. Do the Indians have any shot at the wild card? Very slim, as they trail the Royals by five games. But they do have a series against Kansas City next week. Get some help from Detroit this weekend, sweep the Royals and hope Seattle falters and you never know. Because ... baseball.

The good news for the St. Louis Cardinals: They secured an important 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Combined with the Milwaukee Brewers' seventh straight loss, the Cardinals now lead the NL Central by two games over the Brewers and four games over the Pirates. Until taking the division lead on Monday, the Cardinals had been tied for first place for seven days, but hadn't had sole possession of the top spot. Now they do -- even though they've been outscored on the season (last team to win a division while being outscored: the 2007 Diamondbacks) -- and they may not look back.

The bad news for the Cardinals: Adam Wainwright got the win but struggled once again, and the concerns about his dead arm or fatigue or whatever are going to get more serious with each mediocre outing.

Wainwright lasted six-plus innings but gave up three home runs for just the fifth time in his career and first since 2010. I was actually a little surprised manager Mike Matheny brought him back out for the seventh inning with the Cards up 5-2 and Wainwright already at 91 pitches. He hadn't really dominated up to that point with three strikeouts, but the two home runs he allowed had been solo shots. Why not call it a night, chalk up his best performance in several weeks and turn the game over to the bullpen with a good feeling? Instead, Wainwright walked Ike Davis, and Starling Marte crushed a 2-1 slider to left field, leaving the Cards still worrying about their ace.

They have to, don't they? At the All-Star break, Wainwright was a legitimate Cy Young contender, maybe even the favorite over Clayton Kershaw since he had pitched more innings. But it's been a Jekyll and Hyde two halves for Wainwright:

First half: 12-4, 1.83 ERA, .201 average, .258 BABIP, 4.26 SO/BB ratio
Second half: 4-5, 4.82 ERA, .282 average, .315 BABIP, 2.0 SO/BB ratio

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAdam Wainwright didn't have his best stuff Tuesday, and he hasn't had it in a while.
Besides the ERA, the important number here is the strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the first half, he averaged more than four K's for every strikeout, but that rate is down to just two K's for every strikeout since the All-Star break.

There had been speculation about Wainwright suffering from a dead arm or fatigue, and he did finally reluctantly admit to an issue a few days ago -- again, leading me to wonder why Matheny didn't pull him after six innings. That fatigue hasn't shown up in the velocity readings -- his fastball averaged 89.8 mph on Tuesday, right near his season average of 90.1, and he's averaged 89-91 every start this season -- although it's possible he's exerting more effort to create the same velocity.

Of course, the other thing that happened right before the All-Star break was the injury to Yadier Molina, who went down on June 29. There was speculation that maybe Wainwright just missed Molina and his game-calling and artful pitch framing of Wainwright's offerings. You can read the piece from Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs for some evidence in that regard. As a team, the Cardinals' ERA on the season is 3.31 with Molina catching, 4.24 with Tony Cruz and 4.29 ERA with A.J. Pierzynski. Sabermetricians dislike catcher ERA due to concerns about sample size and personal catchers and so on, but successful pitch framing should show up in fewer runs allowed, right?

But Molina was back there Tuesday and that didn't seem to help. It just hasn't been the same Wainwright. Witness the three home runs. The pitch to Marte was a flat slider with no bite. Russell Martin homered on a 2-0 fastball that was down the middle. The 2-1 pitch to Jordy Mercer was a 90 mph inside fastball at the belt with no movement. Three bad pitches when behind in the count. Big league hitters don't miss those kinds of pitches too often.

The Cardinals can certainly win the division even if Wainwright continues to scuffle. But if he doesn't show signs of getting back to something resembling what he was in the first half or the past two seasons, Matheny will have a difficult decision: Does he still make Wainwright his No. 1 starter in the postseason? Is he still the guy you want to line up for two potential starts in a five-game series, to potentially match up against Kershaw?

Maybe Matheny turns to Lance Lynn, who has a 2.85 ERA ... but has also never made it through six innings in five career postseason starts. Maybe he turns to John Lackey, who hasn't been that great since coming over but pitched well in the postseason for the Red Sox last year. Maybe Michael Wacha manages to get healthy and join the rotation (he just pitched two innings in his first rehab stint).

Put it this way: I don't think it should be automatic that Wainwright will be the No. 1 starter come the postseason, from what we're seeing right now.

Of course, you do have to get there first.

Last week, after Corey Kluber dominated the Mariners with an 85-pitch shutout, I rashly tweeted that Kluber is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the game. That seemed to stir things up a bit on Twitter, and Giants fans were especially angered when I suggested Kluber is better than Madison Bumgarner. Kluber came back on Monday with another solid effort, allowing one run while striking out seven in 7.1 innings, improving his record to 12-6 with a 2.55 ERA.

But is he one of baseball's top 10 starters right now?

[+] EnlargeCorey Kluber
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHe's been very, very good. But is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in baseball right now?
How do you even measure such a thing? We can take the easy way out and just look at wins above replacement for the season.

1. Felix Hernandez: 5.8
2. Corey Kluber: 5.0
3. Jon Lester: 4.7
4. Clayton Kershaw: 4.5
5. Chris Sale: 4.2

1. Felix Hernandez: 5.5
2. Clayton Kershaw: 5.2
3. Corey Kluber: 4.7
4. Johnny Cueto: 4.6
5. Chris Sale/Max Scherzer: 4.5

By WAR, Kluber isn't just a top-10 starter, but a top-five starter. Even ignoring how much you believe in WAR, the question is: Do you buy into Kluber's four-month streak as a true breakout performance? How much emphasis do we place on history? Zack Greinke won a Cy Young Award in 2009. Should that matter as to how we evaluate him now? Scherzer won the Cy Young Award last year when he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League. How much should that matter as to how we evaluate him in August 2014?

Bill James actually devised a method to answer this question a couple of years ago. He wrote:
Everybody starts out with a ranking of 300.0, and you can’t go lower than 300, even if you pitch badly. If you’re at 300, you’re unranked; you’re only actually on the list if you have a current score higher than 300. There would typically be 150 to 180 pitchers who are, at the moment, ranked. Pitchers never actually pitch badly enough that they would rank below 300 (if it were possible to do so) for more than two or three starts, because if you pitch that badly, you lose your position in the rotation.

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

a) Mark down his previous ranking by 3%, and

b) Add 30% of his Game Score for the start.

We base the rankings on Game Scores, which means that we ignore wins and losses, but give weight to innings pitched, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, walks and strikeouts.

James also adjusted for park effects, inactivity (if a pitcher doesn't pitch, his overall rating goes down) and postseason play, which he factored in. Anyway, his site unfortunately doesn't update the rankings, so I don't know how Kluber would rank. So I'll just wing my own top 10.

1. Clayton Kershaw

The best pitcher in baseball, and I don't think anybody is really arguing this. Hernandez ranks higher on the WAR lists because Kershaw missed April, so he doesn't have as many innings.

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

Similar in many ways -- veteran right-handers (it seems weird to call Felix a "veteran," but he has been around a long time) having their best seasons.

4. Chris Sale

He's 10-1 with a 2.09 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 20 walks in 116 innings. Incredible numbers. He has cut his home run rate from last year, even though he pitches in a good home run park. I'm not knocking Wainwright when I say this: Sale is better. But he did miss time earlier this year and I think we have to give Wainwright extra credit for his durability.

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price


Is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in the game?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,346)

I'm not completely comfortable ranking Price this high -- he's ninth in FanGraphs WAR and 25th in B-R WAR. He has 189 strikeouts and just 23 walks but has allowed 20 home runs, and he goes from a good pitcher's park with a good Rays defense behind him to a better hitter's park with a below-average Tigers defense behind him. It's possible that change will reveal that he did benefit from pitching in Tampa. Or it may not reveal anything. But Price has been good a pitcher for five years, and his new approach of pounding the strike zone has basically turned him into a harder-throwing version of Cliff Lee.

OK, now things get a little murky. Let's start with Kluber versus Bumgarner, because that got a lot of feedback on Twitter.

I know Bumgarner has been a solid pitcher for several years. He has come up big in the postseason. But in comparing 2014: Kluber has the better ERA, the better FIP, the better strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, a lower home run rate, a higher ground ball rate, the lower batting average and OPS allowed, has pitched more innings and has done it in a DH league while pitching in a tougher park with a lousy defense behind him. I can't rate Bumgarner ahead of Kluber.

(By the way, Bumgarner's career high bWAR is 3.8, achieved last year. A lot of that is park effects. Giants fans will point out that Bumgarner has a better ERA on the road in his career than at home, but that's not the way park effects work. Bumgarner still has the advantage of pitching half his games in a pitcher's park.)

Jon Lester? Hmm. Lester is a No. 2 starter having a No. 1-level season. But he had a 3.75 ERA last year and 4.82 the year before. FanGraphs and B-R differ on his value -- FanGraphs ranks him third overall while B-R ranks him 22nd. Kluber, by the way, had a 3.85 ERA last year with excellent peripherals. If you give Lester a little extra credit for his postseason last year, I'll reluctantly give him the nod, although I think his track record works against him just as much as Kluber's lack of track record works against him.

Scherzer is similar to Lester, except his No. 1 season came last year. He's been nearly as good this year, even though his BABIP has once again bounced up:

2011: .314
2012: .333
2013: .259
2014: .316

One reason Scherzer's BABIP is usually high is that he does pitch up in the strike zone, unlike a lot of pitchers who pound the zone at the knees. Of course, the other reason is the lousy Tigers defense. (Take note, Mr. Price.)

Johnny Cueto? I'm not quite sure what to do with Cueto, giving his history of injuries. But we're talking best starters right now, and Cueto has been healthy and effective all season and he has always been effective even when he has missed time.

Garrett Richards is another young starter having a breakout season. While Kluber relies on command and a wipeout curve, Richards has upper 90s heat and a deadly slider. Their numbers:

Kluber: 2.55 ERA, .233/.277/.341, 26.7 percent K rate
Richards: 2.58 ERA, .195/.267/.259, 24.7 percent K rate

Kluber rates a little higher in WAR because he has pitched 12 more innings and Richards benefits from a pitcher's park. Tough call here. Like Kluber, Richards doesn't have much of a track record before this season. There's no denying his stuff. Richards has the fourth-lowest BABIP allowed among starters at .258 (Kluber's is .309) and a low rate of home runs per fly ball (third-lowest among starters). I think those numbers indicate Richards has pitched in more good luck than Kluber this season. But I could be wrong; his stuff is nasty.

OK, where does that leave us? With apologies to Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Hisashi Iwakuma, the injured Masahiro Tanaka and maybe a couple of others, the top 10 starters in the majors RIGHT NOW:

1. Kershaw
2. Hernandez
3. Wainwright
4. Sale
5. Darvish
6. Price
7. Cueto
8. Lester
9. Kluber
10. Scherzer

Including Richards, you could rank the final four guys in any order, really. If you want a longer track record, go with Lester and Scherzer. If you like raw, unhittable stuff, go with Richards. If you think postseason history matters, go with Lester. If you like 28-year-olds out of nowhere with curveballs that make major league hitters weep in frustration, go with our man Corey Kluber -- one of the 10 best starters in the game.

As we turn the corner into August, I see seven strong National League MVP candidates in what's shaping up as one of the most wide-open MVP discussions in years.

The players may eventually sort themselves out -- if I remember correctly, we were in a similar position at the end of last July in the NL, but Andrew McCutchen eventually pulled away from the pool of contenders and gathered 28 of 30 first-place votes -- as injuries and team results in the final two months play a factor. But this looks like one of those years in which a big September could put a player over the top.

Eric Karabell and I discuss the race in the video above, but here's a quick outline of the seven players I'm considering in the MVP hunt:

Andrew McCutchen, CF | Pirates
Numbers: .309/.409/.539, 17 HR, 63 RBIs, 60 runs, 4.5 bWAR, 4.4 fWAR

The case for: His numbers across the board are a slight tick up from last year; second in the NL in on-base percentage (he leads the league in walks) and fourth in slugging; 17 for 18 swiping bases; plays a key defensive position, although his defensive metrics aren't great (minus-8 defensive runs saved); the Pirates are in the thick of the playoff race after a slow start; has missed just two games.

The case against: Like last year, one single number doesn't stand out, so voters will have to factor in his all-around excellence; the Pirates and McCutchen were a feel-good story last year, so he can't rely on that part of the narrative again; voters don't like to give it to the same guy (although Miguel Cabrera did just win back-to-back MVP honors in the AL); doesn't lead in WAR on either Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs; Pirates might not make the playoffs, and the MVP almost always comes from a playoff team.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS | Rockies
Numbers: .340/.432/.603, 21 HR, 52 RBIs, 71 runs, 5.6 bWAR, 5.1 fWAR

The case for: Leads the NL in all three triple-slash categories; plays a premium defensive position and plays it well (plus-8 defensive runs saved); leads NL players in both Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR; leads NL in park-adjusted OPS.

The case against: Currently on the DL with a hip flexor strain; hitting .417 at home but just .257 on the road, with 14 of his 21 home runs at Coors Field; the Rockies are horrible (the last player from a sub-.500 team to win an MVP was Cal Ripken in 1991).

Clayton Kershaw, SP | Dodgers
Numbers: 12-2, 1.76 ERA, 112⅓ IP, 76 H, 15 BB, 141 SO, 4.9 bWAR, 4.1 fWAR

The case for: The best pitcher on the planet; leads the league in both K's per nine and fewest walks per nine; he's allowed a .220 OBP -- while owning a .237 OBP himself; after a seven-run outing against Arizona on May 17, he has a 1.10 ERA over his past 12 starts, so he's in the midst of one of the most extended dominant stretches we've ever seen from a starter; leads NL pitchers in both Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR; the Dodgers lead the NL West.

The case against: Pitchers don't win MVP awards; OK, Justin Verlander won the AL MVP in 2011, but he was the first pitcher to do so since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the first starter since Roger Clemens in 1986; the last NL pitcher to win the MVP was Bob Gibson in 1968; the last time an NL pitcher even finished in the top five was Greg Maddux in 1995; he missed all of April, so he ranks just 45th in the innings pitched; umm … actually gave up a home run on a curveball this year?

Adam Wainwright, SP | Cardinals
Numbers: 13-5, 1.92 ERA, 149⅔ IP, 110 H, 34 BB, 122 SO, 4.7 bWAR, 3.4 fWAR

The case for: As great as Kershaw has been, Wainwright is right behind with a sub-2.00 ERA and has thrown 37 more innings; has had 10 starts in which he allowed zero runs; since 1980, the most such starts in a season is 11; just like Kershaw, his own OBP (.265) is higher than the OBP he's allowed (.258); has allowed just four home runs; the Cardinals are again in the thick of things; leads the league in wins even though the Cardinals are the second-lowest scoring team in the NL; 7-3, 1.52 against teams with a winning percentage above .500.

The case against: All the pitcher caveats with Kershaw apply here; peripheral numbers, such as walk rate and strikeout rate, are excellent but don't compare to Kershaw's.

Giancarlo Stanton, RF | Marlins
Numbers: .293/.393/.535, 23 HR, 71 RBIs, 67 runs, 5.1 bWAR, 4.2 fWAR

The case for: Leads NL in RBIs and ranks second in home runs while also leading the league in intentional walks; leads McCutchen in Baseball-Reference WAR; plays a good right field (plus-9 defensive runs saved); has helped lead a Jose Fernandez-less Marlins team to a surprising .500 record; if they somehow go on a late-season run, Stanton will have the same narrative McCutchen had last year, the superstar carrying a bunch of nobodies into contention.

The case against: The Marlins are still a long shot to make the playoffs; numbers have tailed off in July, hitting .221 with just two home runs; doesn't play a premium, up-the-middle position.

Jonathan Lucroy, C | Brewers
Numbers: .306/.375/.495, 12 HR, 50 RBIs, 50 runs, 4.6 bWAR, 4.0 fWAR

The case for: Terrific offensive numbers for a catcher; the leader of the first-place Brewers; his WAR is right up there among the league leaders, and that doesn't account for how he handles the pitching staff and his pitch-framing abilities (he's one of the best, if not the best, in the game); has played in 100 of Milwaukee's 108 games and started 90 behind the plate.

The case against: He had the hot May and June but is hitting just .205 in July; you can argue that Carlos Gomez has been just as valuable to the Brewers; while he's great at pitch framing, he doesn't have a great arm and has allowed 56 stolen bases, the most in the league, with a below-average caught stealing percentage; voters obviously prefer big power numbers from their MVP candidates; voters might not place much value on his pitch framing.

Yasiel Puig, OF | Dodgers
Numbers: .317/.402/.544, 12 HR, 54 RBIs, 59 runs, 4.1 bWAR, 4.4 fWAR


Who do you think WILL win the NL MVP Award?


Discuss (Total votes: 6,469)

The case for: Tied with McCutchen for second in fWAR among position players; second in the NL in batting average and slugging percentage and third in on-base percentage; third in extra-base hits; second in assists among right fielders and has committed just one error; has recently started playing center field, which increases his value if he stays there.

The case against: Will have to fight Kershaw for votes and narrative; has just one home run and 14 RBIs since June 1; has missed 10 games; voters might focus too much on some of the negatives (bat flips, baserunning gaffes).

It definitely looks like it will come down to September, one of those years in which the best stretch run will settle the race. There are two ways to look at the MVP voting: Who will win it and who should win it. The "should" debate is wide-open, but we can eliminate Tulo from the candidates of "will" win because the Rockies are out of it (and given his current DL status). Stanton is also unlikely; his numbers aren't any better than McCutchen's and his team is less likely to make the playoffs.

That leaves the other five (although a player who has a hot final two months could climb into the race, especially if he's on a playoff contender -- somebody such as Freddie Freeman or Anthony Rendon).

Who do you think will ultimately win it?
Two statistical nuggets:
  • Felix Hernandez tied Tom Seaver's major league record with 13 consecutive starts pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer.
  • Adam Wainwright has allowed zero runs in 10 starts this season, three more than any other starter.

So, which feat is more impressive?

To put Wainwright's nugget in context, since 1980 only three pitchers have had more than 10 no-run starts, all with 11: Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985 and Cliff Lee in 2011. Eight other times a pitcher matched Wainwright's total of 10: Roger Clemens (1997 and 2005); Pedro Martinez (2000 and 2002); Clayton Kershaw (2011 and 2013); Greg Maddux (2002); and Chris Young (2007).

(The Baseball-Reference Play Index goes back to 1914 and five other times a pitcher topped 11: Pete Alexander in 1916 with 16, all complete game shutouts; Sandy Koufax in 1963, Dean Chance in 1964 and Bob Gibson in 1968, all with 13; and Alexander again in 1915 with 12.)


Which feat is more impressive?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,228)

Anyway, in a way it's a question of consistent dominance versus dominance mixed in with a few bad or mediocre starts. Which is more valuable? But in evaluating the context of each pitcher's individual performance, you could conceivably factor in things like the strength of the opponent, the park and the pitcher's performance (strikeouts, walks, hits). Bill James actually just had a long series of articles on this where he examined every start of a pitcher's season for each of those areas (plus the run context of the season). Each start was then graded on a scale from 0 to 10. You can then use the data to break down each pitcher's season in total. It would be fun to compare Hernandez and Wainwright, but the numbers aren't publicly available.

Baseball Prospectus used to have a stat called support-neutral win-loss record, which assessed each pitcher's projected win-loss record given his innings and runs for each outing and average run support, but I don't see that on their site. (Felix has won just seven of his 13 starts, no fault of his.)

Interestingly, Hernandez has just two zero-run starts this season. But he's allowed more than four runs just once -- six against Houston on April 21 (and just two of those were earned) -- whereas Wainwright has had games of seven, six and six runs.

For the season, we can use a stat like to WAR evaluate each pitcher's overall performance. Felix leads Wainwright in FanGraphs WAR, 5.5 to 3.5, while Wainwright leads in Baseball-Reference WAR, 5.3 to 5.0. Felix leads in Baseball Prospectus' WARP, 4.0 to 3.3.

So which feat is more impressive? One thing about allowing zero runs: You're almost guaranteed to win the game. And, indeed, the Cardinals are 10-0 in those 10 games.

On the other hand, Felix has a chance to do something no pitcher has ever done -- 14 consecutive great starts.

What do you think? I'd probably give the slight edge to Wainwright's 10 scoreless games ... although the edge to Felix for the better overall season.

One thing about Derek Jeter: He has a way of rising to the occasion. As New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said last year, when Jeter came off the disabled list and hit a home run in his first game back, "He's a movie is what he is."

Indeed, Jeter's entire career seems scripted by Hollywood screenwriters. You know the story.

So here he was in his 14th All-Star Game, receiving multiple standing ovations from Minnesota Twins fans. But he still had a game to play, and that's what Jeter has always done best: focus on playing baseball.

He led off the game with a patented Jeter hit -- a line-drive double down the right-field line with that famous inside-out swing that hasn't changed in 20 years.

OK, so St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright admitted that "I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots. He deserved it. I didn't know he was going to hit a double or I would have changed my mind."

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsDerek Jeter, who had a double, single and a run scored, left the All-Star Game in the fourth inning to a rousing standing ovation.
Still, you have to hit the ball, and Jeter did. His double kick-started the American League's three-run first inning, as Mike Trout followed with a triple and, with one out, Miguel Cabrera lined a home run into the left-field stands.

Wainwright would later backtrack during an in-game interview, suggesting his humor was misconstrued. "I hope everyone is realizing I'm not intentionally giving up hits out there," he said. "This game means too much."

The Cardinals ace is known for speaking from his heart, but as much as he didn't want to take away from Jeter's moment, it's a controversy that is unavoidable and should absolutely be discussed and debated. The fact is that something is on the line, home-field advantage in the World Series, something Wainwright knows all too well considering the Cardinals lost Game 6 at Fenway Park last year.

The heart of the game is competition, not giving Jeter a chance for a big moment. Whether he actually grooved that 91 mph fastball will certainly be addressed if the World Series ends up going six or seven games again.

While Wainwright clearly regretted his initial statement, he probably regretted those pitches to Trout and Cabrera even more. He had a full count on Trout, but instead of throwing his nasty curveball -- batters have hit .143 against it -- he threw a cutter that Trout drilled to right. He threw an 0-1 inside sinker to Cabrera that Miggy turned on, a lovely piece of hitting.

The National League later tied the game to take Wainwright off the hook, but the American League scored the winning runs in the fifth off another Cardinals pitcher, reliever Pat Neshek -- a guy whose season began as a minor league spring training invite. He has been terrific for the Cardinals on the season, but Derek Norris and Alexei Ramirez singled and then Trout hit a chopper over the third-base bag that Aramis Ramirez, not exactly known for his defense, failed to came up with, scoring Norris for an RBI double. Jose Altuve then hit a long sacrifice fly off Tyler Clippard.

Those two hits earned Trout MVP honors and perhaps presented a symbolic passing of the torch in some way from Jeter to a young player who grew up in New Jersey with a Jeter poster in his bedroom.

Now, Mr. Trout, all you need is a few big October moments.

A few other random thoughts:
  • Cardinals manager Mike Matheny paid the price for playing favorites, as Wainwright and Neshek combined to allow six of the AL's seven hits. While Wainwright was certainly a worthy starter considering his 12-4 record and sub-2.00 ERA, you can certainly make the argument that Clayton Kershaw deserved to start. Kershaw pitched a 1-2-3 second inning. And while Neshek is a great story, he's also a player who has had 38 great innings, not really the kind of guy you think of as an All-Star.
  • To be fair, the NL's pitching depth had been hurt by the fact that Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and Julio Teheran all started Sunday and were unavailable to pitch and Jordan Zimmermann was injured. The fact that Alfredo Simon, a mediocre reliever last year who has had three good months as a starter, was the third NL pitcher used showed the relative thinness of the staff and that Matheny had to rely on a slew of relievers.
  • AL manager John Farrell, meanwhile, was able to roll out one good starter after another, not having to turn to his bullpen until two outs in the sixth inning. And remember, guys such as Garrett Richards and Corey Kluber didn't even make the AL squad. In all, the AL staff struck out 13 while allowing just one walk, with the five relievers used combining for six strikeouts in the 10 outs they recorded.
  • I don't really like the way the managers skipper these games, basically just getting everyone in the game and not worrying about potential late-game matchups. The final three NL batters against lefty reliever Glen Perkins were Miguel Montero (who can't hit lefties), Pirates utility man Josh Harrison and Charlie Blackmon, who is often platooned by his own team against lefties. Well done, NL. The AL seemed to have the deeper roster coming into the game -- something Matheny perhaps recognized by playing his starters longer -- and it came into play the final couple of innings.
  • It was a tough All-Star debut for Yasiel Puig. After going homerless in the Home Run Derby, he went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, waving wildly at a Max Scherzer 3-2 slider for his third K.
OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.

2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.

Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.

[+] EnlargeHallion
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHas instant replay helped? The answer, at least from players, isn't all positive.
3. Confusion over new instant replay rules.

Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."

4. New stars emerge.

Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.

Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.

5. Pitchers continue to dominate.


What's been the biggest story of the first half?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,576)

Even with all the injuries, offense has still gone down -- if only slightly -- to 4.14 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 4.12 in 1992. We enter the break with 21 qualified starters holding an ERA under 3.00, and that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.

Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.

6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.

7. The NL Central race.

With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP PhotoHaven't seen much of Mike Trout's strikeout face lately.
8. The Dodgers catch the Giants.

On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.

9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?

On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.

10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.

Wainwright has the edge over Kershaw

July, 12, 2014

The St. Louis Cardinals may have lost their leader behind the plate, but they haven't forgotten how to win.

With Saturday's 10-2 victory over the slumping Milwaukee Brewers, the Yadier Molina-less Cardinals pulled into a first-place tie with Milwaukee in the NL Central.

Adam Wainwright had another brilliant outing, holding the Brewers to two runs over seven innings, adding to his stellar résumé in a bid to be the NL's starting pitcher at Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Wainwright relied on his signature curveball to silence the Brewers' bats, throwing it a season-high 33 percent of the time. He threw 31 curves, netting him nine outs with only one baserunner allowed; six of the seven curveballs put in play resulted in grounders.

The Cardinals' ace fell behind early and often against the Brewers, but that mattered little. Wainwright went to a 1-0 count on 13 of the 27 batters he faced, but only one of those 13 batters reached base. (Carlos Gomez got hit with a pitch in the third inning.)

A nine-year veteran with a trio of top-three Cy Young finishes already to his name, Wainwright is having the best season of his career, with a sparkling 1.83 ERA and 12-4 record in 19 starts.

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsThe Cardinals' Adam Wainwright is 6-1 with a 1.03 ERA in his last seven starts.
This first-half performance is one of the best in Cardinals history and has earned him a place alongside a Hall of Famer. The only other St. Louis pitcher with at least 12 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA heading into the All-Star break was Steve Carlton, who went 12-5 with a 1.65 ERA over 18 starts prior to the break in 1969.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has a tough choice to make in deciding who will be on the mound for the senior circuit to start the All-Star Game. Clayton Kershaw has been equally dominant, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Wainwright leads the NL with 138 innings while Kershaw has not yet reached the century mark this season.

That workhorse mentality and consistency are what set Wainwright apart. Consider this comparison:

On Saturday, Wainwright notched his major league-leading 15th start of at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed. That's nearly twice as many as Kershaw (8) has thrown this season. Wainwright also has nine outings of at least seven scoreless innings; Kershaw has only five.

Though Kershaw has the slightly better ERA (1.78 vs. 1.83), Wainwright has the better mark when adjusting for a pitcher's ballpark, and he has also faced much tougher competition than Kershaw.

Entering Saturday's game, Wainwright's opponents had a collective .693 OPS for the season, and that number only increased after he faced the powerful Brewers. The teams that Kershaw has faced have a combined OPS of .680, which is roughly the equivalent of pitching against the Mets every game.

With the injuries to Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha, combined with the general ineffectiveness of Shelby Miller, Wainwright has been the clear staff ace and the glue that has held together the Cardinals' rotation this season.

Wainwright's performance was not the only noteworthy one on Saturday for the Cardinals, who appear to be breaking out of their season-long offensive slump. For the first time this season they scored at least seven runs in back-to-back games and went 7-for-14 with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals got contributions throughout the entire lineup, with the 1-2 batters (Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong) combining to go 3-for-9 with three RBIs and the 7-8 batters (Tony Cruz and Jon Jay) going 5-for-10 with four RBIs.

Wong has been on tear recently, with five homers in his past seven games. This is an unprecedented display of power from the light-hitting second baseman, who had homered only once in his first 77 career major league games.

Another nice surprise was catcher Tony Cruz driving in a career-best three runs. Cruz will never be able to match the pitch-calling skills or the arm of Molina behind the plate, but the Cardinals will have a lot less to worry about if Cruz can improve on his career .600 OPS and give them some timely hits.

On Sunday, the Cardinals will go for their first sweep of the Brewers since last May and a chance to claim first place outright in the NL Central for the first time this season.

With Wainwright at the peak of his game, the Cardinals' bats finally showing signs of life and the Brewers in complete free fall, it appears that St. Louis has put itself in prime position to capture yet another division title.

The first few months have been a struggle for Mike Matheny and this Cardinals team, but now it seems inevitable that they'll end up exactly where the experts predicted they'd be at the start of the season -- looking down at the rest of the NL Central.

Who is the best starting pitcher in baseball right now? I think you can make a strong case for Chris Sale, who maybe isn't the first guy who pops into your head, in part because he did miss a few starts with a tender elbow -- technically a strained flexor muscle -- but he's returned to the White Sox and been nearly unhittable.

In fact, he has been unhittable when facing left-handed batters: They're 0-for-32 against him on the season. In his past four outings, Sale has allowed four hits in 25 innings for a .051 batting average against.

Is he the best? Let's do a quick roll call.

Chris Sale

The case for: 5-0, 1.59 ERA in seven starts. Has allowed a .126 average against with a 52-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His slider has been known to make grown men cry. He had a 3.05 ERA in 2012 and 3.07 in 2013, while pitching in one the best home run parks in the majors. Distinctive three-quarter delivery and unusual arm angle have earned him the nickname "The Condor," which is worth bonus points. Arguably improving as strikeout rate has increased and walk rate decreased.

The case against: Has just one 200-inning season in his career and may not get there this year. This hit rate is unsustainable. Concern about elbow. Only one of his seven starts has come against a team with an above-average offense (and that was Cleveland, which ranks seventh in the AL in runs per game).

Clayton Kershaw

The case for: He's been the best pitcher in baseball the past three years and should have won three straight Cy Young Awards (he has two). He's 4-2, 3.32 and people say he's struggling even though his strikeout and walk rates are both better than last season. If God needed one pitch to get out the Devil, he just might choose Kershaw's curveball. He's averaged 232 innings the past three seasons. He's pitched in front of a shaky defense, especially with poor range from exiled center fielder Matt Kemp and shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Take away that seven-run game where he lasted 1 2/3 innings and he's been as dominant as ever.

The case against: A 3.32 ERA is a 3.32 ERA. Missed time with a sore back, so you have to worry about that. Has actually allowed three extra-base hits, including a home run, off that curveball, which is three more extra-base hits than he allowed last year with it. Got hammered in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series by the Cardinals last year. Only one outing of more than seven innings this year.

Yu Darvish

The case for: If you were going to sculpt a pitcher from clay and infuse him with life, you'd want him to look like Darvish and possess his right arm. He's 5-2 with a 2.04 ERA while pitching in a hitters' park. He's leading the AL in strikeouts per nine innings for the second straight year. Darvish has allowed just three home runs this year after allowing 26 in 2013. Kershaw has allowed a lower batting average (300 innings minimum) since 2012, but Darvish doesn't get to face pitchers. He's walking fewer batters, and over his past four starts -- which included games against Toronto, Detroit and Washington, three good offensive teams -- he allowed four runs and struck out 41 in 31 2/3 innings.

The case against: Hey, he's never thrown a complete game either. Still runs up big pitch counts, which can lead to early exits. Has missed a couple of starts with neck stiffness -- this following a nerve problem in his lower back that hampered him last September.

Masahiro Tanaka

The case for: He's 9-1 with a 2.02 ERA and has 12 quality starts in 12 starts. Leads AL starters in lowest OBP allowed. He's 33-1 over the past two seasons. His splitter has been outlawed by multiple religious groups for defying the laws of nature; batters are hitting .135 against it with 48 strikeouts, two walks and one home run (by Melky Cabrera, on Tanaka's first pitch of the season, which means he's since thrown 315 splitters without much damage). He's rebounded from his one loss with three straight one-run starts.

The case against: It's only 12 starts, so let's see what happens as teams see him again. The quality start stat is a little dubious since he allowed four runs in six innings in his defeat, but only three of the runs were earned. He's allowed eight home runs, so the long ball may prove to be an issue. Struck out 10-plus batters three times in his first five starts but hasn't done it since.

Max Scherzer

The case for: The reigning AL Cy Young winner is 6-2 with a 3.20 ERA; his strikeout, walk and home run rates are essentially the same as last year. Few pitchers can match his four-pitch arsenal of four plus pitches. Has had four starts with no runs allowed this year. Have to admire the guts to turn down a reported $144 million contract and hit free agency after the season.

The case against: Has never thrown a complete game in the majors. If you're talking about the best at this very moment, Scherzer has allowed 16 runs in his past three starts. Hit rate is back up this year. Had one great season but career ERA is still 3.64.

Adam Wainwright

The case for: Talk about a workhouse. Led the NL in innings (and wins) in 2009 and again last season. This year, he's once again leading in innings and wins. He's 8-3 with a 2.31 ERA and holding batters to a .194 average. His curveball has been known to break knees, spirits and bank accounts. Has a 2.53 career postseason ERA and is the prototypical staff leader. He's third in the majors since 2012 in FIP (fielding independent pitching) behind only Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. Has had six games this season of seven-plus innings and no runs.

The case against: His BABIP this season is .252, far below his .320 of 2012 and .311 of last season, so his hit rate may increase moving forward. Gets to pitch in the NL Central, which, let's face it, has had some pretty weak offenses in recent years, except the team Wainwright pitches for. Does have some blowup starts -- a seven-run and six-run game this year, a nine-run and six-run game last year. (Hey, we're nitpicking here.)

Felix Hernandez

The case for: His FIP is second in the majors over the past three years -- 2.62 to Kershaw's 2.57, and he does that facing deeper lineups. He's 8-1 with a 2.57 ERA this year and just three home runs allowed. Has topped 200 innings in six consecutive seasons. That changeup, oh that changeup. Shakespeare would write love sonnets about it if he were alive today. Batters are hitting .143 against it with 49 strikeouts and three walks and one home run (praise you, Matt Dominguez). Has pitched in front of a lot of lousy defense the past couple of seasons, particularly in 2013, when the Mariners' outfield was especially atrocious. Has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career and faces the pressure of often having to win with one or two runs of support nearly every start. Nicknamed "King" and nobody really has an issue with that.

The case against: Gets to pitch half his games at Safeco Field, where fly balls go to die. Hasn't had an ERA under 3.00 since 2010 or a complete game since 2012. Hasn't had a no-run game yet this year. Can he pitch in a pennant race or big-game situation? Has never had to do that.

Hisashi Iwakuma

The case for: Since he joined the Mariners' rotation in July 2012, he has the best ERA in the AL. Led AL pitchers in Baseball-Reference WAR last season and finished third in Cy Young voting. (See above for notes about bad defense and offense.) His splitter is a thing of beauty: Over the past two seasons batters have hit .174 against it with 99 strikeouts, eight walks and four home runs. Has handed out just four walks in seven starts.

The case against: Missed time with a finger injury this year and wasn't always the most durable pitcher back in his Japan days. No career complete games in the majors. His strikeout rate of 6.4 per nine innings is a little mediocre and he's allowed six home runs after allowing 25 last year. Isn't nicknamed "King."

Johnny Cueto

The case for: Leads the majors with a 1.68 ERA while pitching in that bandbox in Cincinnati. That Luis Tiant-like spin-and-twirl delivery is awesome. Has three complete games and limited batters to a .151 average. His strikeout rate has increased for the third year in a row and is up to 27 percent. With his fastball/cutter/slider/changeup arsenal, he's a four-pitch pitcher and can throw any of them at any time. Has given up more than two earned runs just once so far. One of the best right-handed pickoff moves ever means he shuts down the running game -- one stolen base allowed this year after just three the previous two years (runners were 1-for-10 off him in 2012).

The case against: His .187 BABIP is simply unsustainable. ERA is helped by five unearned runs. Has had trouble staying healthy, making 24 starts in 2011 and 11 last year, so has reached 200 innings just once.

With apologies to: Anibal Sanchez, Julio Teheran, Tim Hudson, Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Mark Buehrle, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Stephen Strasburg and Sonny Gray, left off for reasons of space, previous track record, lack of a track record, or simply the belief that their hot start isn't sustainable.
It was caught the month for Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado. Consider:
  • He literally knocked the cover off the ball against the Pirates a couple weeks ago.
  • He was in the middle of the Carlos Gomez-Gerrit Cole spat and cold-cocked Pirates outfielder Travis Snider, leading to a five-game suspension.
  • Before yesterday, he had played in six games -- and the Brewers won all six.
  • On Wednesday, he appeared in his seventh game and pitched a scoreless inning of relief.

OK, maybe wackiest player of the month.

The real candidates for player of the month:
  • Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki: .364/.477/.727, 24 runs, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 10 Defensive Runs Saved, 3.0 WAR. Have a month. OK, so he's hitting .563 at home and just .250 on the road. 3.0 WAR in a month? That's insane. Anyway, if Tulo remains healthy the Rockies are going to be a playoff contender.
  • White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu: .270/.336/.617, 20 runs, 10 HR, 32 RBI, 71 total bases, 0.7 WAR. That WAR total seems a little low but the OBP isn't great and he has no value on the bases or in the field. Still, welcome to America, Jose.
  • SportsNation

    Who was the player of the month for April?


    Discuss (Total votes: 1,070)

  • Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright: 5-1, 1.20 ERA, 2.0 WAR, 24 hits and 11 walks in 45 innings. He's allowed no runs in four of his six starts and is working on 25-inning scoreless streak.
  • Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto: 2-2, 1.15 ERA, 2.5 WAR, 22 hits and 14 walks in 47 innings. Cueto's strikeout rate has jumped from 7.1 per nine innings when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2012 to 9.6 so far in 2014. He's pitched at least seven innings in all six starts and hasn't allowed more than two runs. (He lost one game 1-0 and pitched eight scoreless innings in another 1-0 loss for the Reds.)
  • Angels outfielder Mike Trout: .321/.403/.596, 21 runs, 6 HR, 18 RBI, 4 SB, 2.3 WAR. The high strikeout rate is a bit of a concern -- up 8.4 percent over 2013 -- but his numbers are all there. He's once again been the best all-around player in the AL.

My choice? Seems like a no-brainer: Tulo had one of the great months in recent history.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire!

April, 29, 2014

Eric and myself take questions via Twitter and answer them in this week's edition of rapid fire.
1. Former Orioles manager Earl Weaver -- who knew a thing or two about good pitching staffs -- is widely credited with saying, "Momentum? Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher."

If that's the case, the Atlanta Braves are riding a huge wave of it, because the performance of their starting rotation continues to amaze. We're now 24 games into the season, 15 percent of the schedule, and Braves starters have allowed more than two earned runs in a game just twice and more than two runs just four times.

The latest gem was Julio Teheran's eight shutout innings on Sunday. Teheran had no margin for error because Reds starter Johnny Cueto matched him pitch for pitch, zero for zero. The starters handed the game over to the bullpens, and the Braves finally broke through in the bottom of the 10th when Freddie Freeman singled to deep center to with two outs to score Jason Heyward with the walk-off run.

It was Atlanta's fourth straight win, as they improved to 17-7 with a National League-best plus-31 run differential. With a tip of the cap to the 18-7 Milwaukee Brewers, the Braves have been baseball's best team in April.

The Teheran-Cueto duel was maybe a signature game for Teheran, going up against one of the hottest pitchers in baseball. Cueto has now allowed one run in his past 30 innings while Teheran has allowed one in his past 24. One of those was a 1-0 complete game shutout over Cliff Lee. It's time to start acknowledging that Teheran has developed into a No. 1 starter. Over the past calendar year Teheran has made 32 starts and only Clayton Kershaw and Jose Fernandez have a lower ERA than Teheran's 2.58.

"He's proving to people that he deserves to be the ace,” Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons told MLB.com after the game. "He normally strikes out a lot of people. But I think he went about his job a little different today. He threw strikes, threw great and went against a guy that was throwing really good. They were head-to-head the whole time they were out there. That's pretty impressive. What more can you ask?"

A big reason for Teheran's success has been an improved slider -- batters are hitting .111 against it (4-for-36) with 14 strikeouts and no walks. While the slider was a good strikeout pitch for Teheran as a rookie in 2013 -- he recorded 51 knockouts in 152 plate appearances ending with the pitch -- he also had a tendency to leave some flat ones up in the zone, and nine of the 22 home runs he allowed came off that pitch.

Against the Reds, he fanned just five but also allowed just three hits -- a testament to the movement on his pitches, but also to a defense that entered Sunday with 27 Defensive Runs Saved, best in the majors. His toughest jam came in the fifth when Ryan Ludwick led off with a double, but Teheran fanned Zack Cozart and Cueto with Ludwick on third to escape. Just like an ace.

Can the rotation -- which might get Mike Minor back on Saturday--– keep this up? Well, of course not. It has a 1.57 ERA, with an opponents' batting line of .201/.261/.279. Basically, they've turned the entire National League into Mario Mendoza (career line: .215/.245/.262). Still, it's one of the great stretches of dominance I can remember a rotation being on, the ultimate example of one starter seemingly feeding off the next, not to dissimilar from the days of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

Going back 30 years to 1985, here are the starting rotations with a sub-2.00 ERA in a calendar month:

2011 Phillies: June -- 1.96 (27 games)
1985 Cubs: April -- 1.94 (18 games)
1992 Braves: July -- 1.92 (25 games)
2012 Nationals: April -- 1.78 (22 games)
1992 Cubs: July -- 1.72 (24 games)
1994 Braves: August: 1.61 (10 games)

That's a short list, and one of those entries came in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.

The Braves have two games left in April -- Tuesday and Wednesday in Miami -- to finish off their historic month of pitching. Tuesday's matchup: Alex Wood versus Fernandez, a rematch of last week's 1-0 duel when the two pitchers combined for 25 strikeouts and no walks.

I'll take the under on the total runs.

2. The Braves aren't the only National League rotation tearing things up, however. The Cardinals (2.24), Brewers (2.67), Reds (2.84) and Dodgers (2.87) all have ERAs under 3.00. How much of the Braves' success has been luck? Their starters do lead the majors in home run-to-fly ball ratio, allowing home runs on just 5 percent of the fly balls they've served up (pitchers tend to gravitate around 10 percent). They're also second to the Reds in strand rate, at 84.7 percent. That's how you post a sub-2.00 ERA. That doesn't mean the Braves' rotation has been completely lucky -- it does lead the majors in swing-and-miss percentage at 26.1 -- but that home run rate and strand rate are what we'd call unsustainable.

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IISomehow, Adam Wainwright seems to continue to improve.
3. Speaking of aces, Adam Wainwright tossed eight shutout innings in a 7-0 win over the Pirates. He's 5-1 with a 1.20 ERA, has allowed no runs in four of his six starts and has tossed 25 consecutive scoreless innings. Batters are hitting .157 off him with one home run and .080 against his curveball (4-for-50, four singles). He just seems to get better each season. This could finally be the year he brings home a Cy Young trophy.

4. Of course, Wainwright, Teheran and Cueto weren't the only ones with dominant outings on Sunday. Courtesy of Mark Simon, this was the first day in major league history when 10 starters pitched at least seven innings with three or fewer hits. Also joining in on the fun: Dillon Gee (8 IP, 3 H, 0 R); James Shields (7 IP, 3 H, 2 R); Ian Kennedy (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R); Jason Hammel (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R); Collin McHugh (8.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R); Ryan Vogelsong (7 IP, 2 H, 0 R); and Garrett Richards (7 IP, 3 H, 2 R). That list doesn't even include A.J. Burnett's eight shutout innings.

OK, I can understand Wainwright, Teheran and Cueto, but now we're getting guys such as McHugh and Vogelsong throwing up low-hit gems. Lower the mound! Give the hitters a chance! Ban the Bullfrog sunscreen!

5. The Pirates have dug themselves a huge April hole, now 10-16 and 8½ games behind the Brewers and four games behind the Cardinals. They haven't won two in a row since April 8, and now they enter a tough phase of their schedule: at Baltimore, Toronto, San Francisco, St. Louis, at Milwaukee, at the Yankees, Baltimore, Washington. You may point to the offense that's hitting .221, but it's not an empty .221, as they do have 28 home runs (fourth in the NL) and are tied for third in walks (five behind the league-leading Mets). They've scored more runs than the Braves or Cardinals. They're even 7-6 in one-run games.

I'm not ready to declare them out of it, but the predicted regression from some of the pitchers is exactly what's happening.

6. The Giants have quietly jumped to the top of the NL West, and I say quietly because Buster Posey (.223) and Pablo Sandoval (.180) haven't done much yet and Hunter Pence is only now getting going. But they're getting production from unexpected sources: Michael Morse, after bombing out in Seattle a year ago (what is it about Seattle that makes hitters crumble up and die like they're facing Pedro Martinez in his prime every night?), leads the team with 17 RBIs and has played in every game, basically pushing Gregor Blanco into a defensive replacement role.

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Pablo Sandoval
Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsPablo Sandoval isn't hitting and the Giants are still winning.
Brandon Hicks hit a three-run walk-off homer in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Indians. Jean Machi has four wins in relief. Vogelsong, despite a strong outing on Sunday, hasn't been that good (5.40), and neither has Tim Lincecum (5.96 ERA). Matt Cain is 0-3 with a 4.35. As I said heading into the season, the Giants are now a team built around its offense, not its rotation. Even Madison Bumgarner has given up 38 hits in 28 2/3 innings. (And don't blame the defense for those hits totals, as the Giants ranked fifth in defensive runs saved entering Sunday.)

It's hard to get a read on this team, but if they're winning without Posey, Sandoval, Cain and Lincecum doing much, maybe that's a good sign.

7. Jose Abreu: Time to start watching some White Sox games.

8. David Lough of the Orioles with one of the better catches you'll see. Notice how shallow he was playing. The Orioles got him from the Royals in the offseason precisely for his defensive abilities. He hasn't hit yet but I think he'll end up as a positive addition by season's end.

9. Are you buying into the Mets yet? Gee's gem put them at 14-11 (and 14-8 since a season-opening sweep by the Nationals), and according to our RPI ratings, they've played the fifth-toughest schedule so far. I can't say I'm buying, as they're hitting .218 and slugging .318 -- even in this 1968 version of National League baseball, both figures are dead last.

They've made their most of their scoring opportunities -- they've scored just one fewer run than the Brewers even though the Brewers have a .308 wOBA versus the Mets' .273. They hit the road for a nine-game trip against the Phillies, Rockies and Marlins, which looks like one of those trips which a team might go 6-3 and start believing in itself.

10. Finally, I think Carlos Gomez has a fan for life. Well done, Carlos.

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

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

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

Which means, of course, we'll probably have an 8-7 final.