SweetSpot: Andrew McCutchen

Five things we learned Monday

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
1:42
AM ET


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.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but is it possible reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen is a little underrated?

Here's what I'm getting at it: Who is the best player in baseball? Most everyone says Mike Trout. Some will say Clayton Kershaw, if you want to consider a pitcher. Maybe a small percentage will suggest Giancarlo Stanton, based on his big season.

And while everyone acknowledges McCutchen is a terrific player, I don't seem to hear his name mentioned alongside Trout's. Why not?

In Wednesday's 6-3 victory over the Phillies, McCutchen went 2-for-4 with an inside-the-park home run as his deep drive to center bounded off the wall and away from Ben Revere (right fielder Grady Sizemore was nowhere to be seen backing up the play). The Pirates maintained their slim 1.5-game lead for the second wild card, and McCutchen has been a big reason for that. Since he missed 15 games in early August with a fractured rib, he's hit .313/.356/.550 with six home runs in 20 games -- all while playing through the injury. With Josh Harrison, the red-hot Starling Marte and McCutchen -- each went 2-for-4 on Wednesday -- the Pirates have as good a top three in the lineup right now as any team in the majors. That offense is good enough to carry this team into the postseason again.

Anyway, back to that compare/contrast exercise with Trout. Their season numbers:

McCutchen: .311/.403/.539, .401 wOBA, 162 wRC+
Trout: .286/.373/.551, .391 wOBA, 164 wRC+

Trout has the advantage in power, while McCutchen gets on base more. The sabermetric stats rate their overall value as hitters pretty similarly, with McCutchen having the edge in weighted on-base average and Trout the slightest of edges in the park-adjusted weighted runs created.

OK, what about defense? The metrics agree neither Trout nor McCutchen has been a top defensive center fielder this year. Trout rates at minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved and McCutchen at minus-8. Ultimate Zone Rating also puts both below average. Both have reputations that exceed the numbers, but this is the second straight season of mediocre defensive metrics for Trout.

Baserunning? Trout hasn't run as much this year, so that advantage has dissipated. He's 14-for-16 stealing bases while McCutchen is 17-for-19. McCutchen has taken the extra base in 42 percent of his opportunities compared to Trout's 59 percent, so overall, Trout holds a minor edge on the bases. Still, there's not a whole lot of difference between what the two guys have brought to the field this year.

Now, Trout does own a somewhat decisive edge in Wins Above Replacement, with 7.0 to 5.3 on Baseball-Reference.com (entering Wednesday) and 6.9 to 5.5 on FanGraphs. Some of that difference is simply due to plate appearances: Trout has played 12 more games and has 70 more at-bats. (Batting second as opposed to third also gives him a few more plate appearances.)

WAR is a cumulative statistic, so I'm not dismissing that advantage of Trout's; those are real opportunities to affect games and create value, and are more opportunities than McCutchen has had. But we're not really discussing value here as much production and ability. Give McCutchen those 70 additional plate appearances, and he edges closer to Trout in WAR.

I think part of the reason McCutchen might be underrated is he doesn't do one thing that draws awe-inspiring reactions: He doesn't hit mammoth home runs like Stanton or play center field like Juan Lagares or dart around the bases like Billy Hamilton. He did have a 31-homer season in 2012, but he had 21 in his MVP season, and he's at 23 this year.

Trout, meanwhile, put up numbers rarely seen from a 20-year-old, and then did it again last year as a 21-year-old. He was the best player in baseball those years. Once you've earned that label, you don't lose it unless you really go into the tank. That's certainly not the case with Trout this year.

However, while Trout leads the American League in both runs and RBIs, he hasn't been quite as good this year (though I'd argue he's still the best player in the AL): The on-base percentage is down from .432 to .373; the steals are down; the defense is arguably down a bit; and his average and walk rates are both down, as his strikeout rate has increased.

Trout is still awesome. But so is McCutchen. Consider this a reminder to give Cutch a little more love when you talk about the best of the best.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
8:13
AM ET
1. Oakland's pain continues.

After Oakland's dramatic ninth-inning rally on Saturday, the Astros returned the favor, scoring twice in the ninth to win 4-3. Especially painful: The Astros didn't even get a hit as Ryan Cook walked three batters and Fernando Abad walked two (around a sacrifice fly). Eric O'Flaherty, the team's interim closer with Sean Doolittle injured, was unavailable with lower back tightness, so Bob Melvin turned to Cook, who promptly walked Marwin Gonzalez on four pitches and threw only five of 18 pitches for strikes. With the Angels pounding the Twins, the A's are now seven back. It's all about holding on to a wild card now -- and avoiding becoming the first team of the wild-card era to have the best record in the majors at the All-Star break and miss the playoffs. Next up: A seven game road to Chicago and Seattle. That trip to Safeco shapes up as a huge series with the Mariners just two games behind the A's for the first wild card.

2. Wade Davis continues to throw up zeroes.

Filling in for Greg Holland (biceps tendinitis) in the ninth inning, Davis spun another scoreless inning to get his second save of the weekend -- closing out 1-0 and 2-0 wins over the Yankees, giving the Royals their first season-series edge over the Yankees since 1999. Davis has allowed five runs all season for a 0.71 ERA and hasn't allowed a run since June 25, a span of 31 appearances. Ned Yost has been careful not to ride his big three relievers too hard. With Holland out, Aaron Crow pitched out of the seventh on Sunday after Yordano Ventura threw six-plus scoreless innings and Kelvin Herrera was pushed back to the eighth.

Yost may have to ride that bullpen a little harder down the stretch, especially after Danny Duffy left his start on Saturday after one pitch with a sore shoulder. But he does have his three veteran starters lined up for the big series against the Tigers that begins Monday, with Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and James Shields set to go.

3. Don't forget Andrew McCutchen in the NL MVP race.

He went 3-for-5 with his 22nd home run as the Pirates finished off a sweep of the Cubs. McCutchen also went 3-for-5 on Saturday and ranks first in the NL in OBP and third in slugging.

4. Matt Kemp stepping up for the Dodgers.

Adrian Gonzalez had the big day on Sunday with two two-run homers, but Kemp also hit his third homer of September, after hitting five in August. Kemp is quietly 10th in the NL in slugging percentage and considering the struggles of Yasiel Puig of late (.207, no home runs since Aug. 1), Kemp may have to be the guy to carry the Dodgers down the stretch.

5. Derek Jeter had a nice career ... in case you had forgotten.

The Yankees had their Derek Jeter sendoff of sorts on Sunday, even though they still have more home games remaining. But maybe it was a good idea to do it now and get it out of the way, just in case the Yankees are fighting for a wild card down the stretch. Jeter wouldn't have wanted the ceremony to distract the team before a crucial game in the week's final season.

Of course, the Yankees went out and laid an egg with that shutout defeat. I figure it's going to take at least 90 wins to win the second wild card, which means the Yankees have to go 17-5 the rest of the way. Doesn't seem likely, does it?
So, these are the National League leaders in batting average entering Thursday:

1. Justin Morneau, Rockies -- .317
2. Ben Revere, Phillies -- .310
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates -- .307
4. Josh Harrison, Pirates -- .304
5. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers -- .304

Five other players -- Matt Adams, Daniel Murphy, Yasiel Puig, Paul Goldschmidt and Denard Span are also at .300 or above, although Goldschmidt will eventually fall off the qualifying leaderboards due to his season-ending injury (as Troy Tulowitzki already has).

Let's be honest here: This isn't exactly Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker dueling it out.

Morneau is a nice story, signing with the Rockies and having a nice season after struggling for years to perform at his usual All-Star level after suffering a concussion in 2010. Of course, hitting .317 or winning a batting title playing for the Rockies is hardly a unique achievement and Morneau hasn't hit .300 in a full season since 2008. Michael Cuddyer, another ex-Twin, won the NL batting title last season for the Rockies at age 34 -- after having never hit .300 before. Six different Rockies have won a total of eight batting titles. To be fair, Morneau isn't just riding Coors Field -- he's hitting .325 on the road and .310 at home.

In Revere's case, it's not so much that it's surprising that he's hitting .300 -- he hit .305 last year and .294 the year before -- it's that he's the perfect example of why batting average is overrated in the first place. He has no power (just one home run and 17 extra-base hits in 480 at-bats) and has just 11 walks. So while's second in the NL in average, he's just 41st in on-base percentage and 63rd in slugging percentage. Players like Revere are kind of what led to the whole creation of sabermetrics in the first place: There's more to creating runs than just getting singles.

Now, players of Revere's ilk have won batting titles before. Ichiro Suzuki won two titles, although compared to Revere he looks like Babe Ruth, and he hit .350 and .372 the years he won. Tony Gwynn had some years where he didn't hit for much power; in 1988, he won a title with a .313 average and just 34 extra-base hits (that's the lowest average to win a title since the mound was lowered in 1969). He also won the next year, hitting .336 with four home runs. Rod Carew won the AL batting title in 1972, hitting .318 with no home runs and just 27 extra-base hits. Matty Alou won the NL batting title in 1966 (.342) while hitting two home runs.

Still, Revere would easily be the "worst" batter to win a batting title. Here are the players with the lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging) to win a batting title:

Ben Revere, 2014: .696
Rod Carew, 1972: .749
Zach Wheat, 1918: .755
Dick Groat, 1960: .766
Tony Gwynn, 1988: .787
Matty Alou, 1966: .793
Pete Runnels, 1960: .795
Willie Wilson, 1982: .796

Those numbers don't adjust for the offensive environment of the season. OPS+ adjusts for that as well as home park. The worst five in this category, via Baseball-Reference.com:

Groat, 1960: 110
Runnels, 1960: 114
Billy Goodman, 1950: 117
Wilson, 1982: 118
Freddy Sanchez, 2006: 119

Revere's OPS+ is 96 -- below league average.

Under this method, Groat qualifies as the worst hitter to win a batting title. He hit .325/.371/.394 that year with two home runs and 32 extra-base hits. The average wasn't a complete fluke as he hit .300 three other times in his career. To show how times have changed, however, Groat also won the NL MVP Award as the Pirates won the pennant. Yes, he played shortstop and was regarded as the team leader (and wasn't a terrible choice with a 6.2 WAR that ranked seventh among NL position players), but the batting title most certainly helped.

Groat winning wasn't as strange as Goodman riding his .354 mark for the Red Sox to second place in the 1950 MVP vote. He was kind of the Josh Harrison of his day, playing all over for Boston, although he played in just 110 games and barely qualified for the title. Phil Rizzuto won the MVP but Goodman (four home runs, 68 RBIs) finished ahead of Yogi Berra, who only hit .322 with 28 home runs and 124 RBIs for the pennant-winning Yankees.

Anyway, if you like to follow the batting races, this year's NL race could certainly end up being one to forget. Although on the bright side it gives Phillies fans something to cheer for (although didn't they want to run Revere out of town last summer?).


I'm not sure it was the Pittsburgh Pirates' biggest win of the season, but watching from afar it sure felt like it. It may not even have been Ike Davis' biggest pinch-hit home run of the season -- back on April 5, he hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Reds -- but considering the opponent, the time of the season and how the game unfolded before Davis crushed a three-run shot to center field in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and deliver the Pirates a 5-2 win over the Cardinals, it was one of the blows to remember if this season turns to roses for Pittsburgh.

A few small-picture and big-picture thoughts off this game. ...

1. Andrew McCutchen departed in the sixth inning with discomfort in his left rib, the injury that forced him to recently miss two weeks. He left two innings after making a leaping grab against the wall that preserved the no-hitter Gerrit Cole was working on at the time. He batted one more time after the catch, striking out. Obviously, the MVP candidate isn't at full strength, although he did homer on Monday. Hopefully, this was more precautionary and not a severe re-aggravation. Despite missing the two weeks of action, McCutchen stands a good chance of winning back-to-back MVP honors, especially with a big September that pushes the Pirates into the postseason.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesGerrit Cole flirted with no-hitting the Cardinals, the latest proof he's the Pirates' indispensable starting pitcher.
2. Gerrit Cole looked terrific. In his second start since returning from a six-week stint on the DL with soreness in his right lat (he also missed three weeks in June with a sore shoulder), the hard-throwing second-year righty was dominant, with a no-hit bid until Kolten Wong doubled with two outs in the sixth. He averaged 95.7 mph on his fastball, maintaining the velocity he had in his last start, a good sign that he's healthy.

Leading 2-0 in the seventh, Clint Hurdle let Cole start the inning against Matt Adams, the Cardinals' lefty masher. Cole was at 105 pitches entering the inning, so it was a curious decision in this day in which pitchers rarely go much past 110. Why not bring in a lefty to face Adams to start the inning? By the time Adams doubled and Jhonny Peralta singled, the Pirates were in trouble. Tony Watson couldn't escape the inning as the Cards hit a sac fly and soft looper to center -- reminiscent of Monday's rally when a few seeing-eye singles gave the Cards a late comeback.

3. Ex-Mets great Davis to the rescue. With Pirates fans sensing doom and gloom after McCutchen's departure and the blown lead, Davis entered for Watson with two outs against righty Seth Maness and hit a 2-2 change to deep center -- a definite no-doubter that Davis watched and admired for a split second. Considering Davis is hitting .100 against lefties this year (granted, that's in just 32 plate appearances), it was a little surprising Mike Matheny didn't bring in Randy Choate, although maybe he suspected Hurdle would have countered with a right-handed bat. But considering McCutchen and also Pedro Alvarez (foot injury) had left the game, the Pirates' bench was already thin by then; I doubt Hurdle would have wasted Davis in a tie game.

Anyway, the other option would have been to have Pat Neskek and his 0.86 ERA pitch the eighth instead of Maness, but Matheny figured Maness could get through the bottom of the Pittsburgh order. Maness is certainly a serviceable middle guy, he just hasn't pitched at Neshek's level. You hate to lose games like this without getting your best guys in there. (Neshek had thrown 18 pitches on Monday, didn't pitch on Sunday, threw 16 pitches on Saturday but hadn't pitched in four days before then, so he appeared to be rested enough.)

4. First base and right field. As for Davis, he hasn't provided a ton of power in his platoon role at first but at least he has been getting on base with a .352 OBP. Last year, first base and right field were offensive problems for the Pirates (rectified somewhat late in the year with the additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd) and Davis was supposed to help that production as was rookie midseason call-up Gregory Polanco.

Their first basemen have a .232/.320/.376 line this year versus .264/.346/.422 last year (Garret Jones hit when he played first but not right field); their right fielders are hitting .247/.305/.345 compared to .242/.299/.385 last year and Polanco was just sent down to the minors.

The Pirates are scoring more runs this year (4.24 runs per games compared to 3.91), but it's not because they've upgraded their production from those two spots. Most of that credit goes to Josh Harrison and Russell Martin and a bench that has been more productive (in part because of Harrison).

5. Oscar Taveras needs to start hitting for the Cardinals. Part of the reason for trading Allen Craig in the John Lackey deal was the Cards' faith in their rookie right fielder, but Taveras is still muddling along at .233/.272/.306 with two home runs in 180 at-bats. Considering the Cards are still last in the NL in home runs, they desperately Taveras -- or somebody -- to start popping a few home runs.

Anyway, good game. It's not September yet, but it certainly had that September feel to it. The best part: Same two teams Wednesday afternoon, Adam Wainwright versus Jeff Locke, as Wainwright tries to turn around his second-half slump. The Pirates are 3.5 behind the Cards in the wild-card race, so it's a bigger game for them. Let's hope McCutchen is out there in center field.

Pirates must rely on big reinforcements

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
12:29
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This is a big week for the Pittsburgh Pirates, perhaps even a defining week. Monday night’s loss to the Atlanta Braves was their sixth straight. They’re now two games back in the wild-card standings, with the Braves between them and the Cardinals and Giants.

The big factor that people no doubt worry about is that they’ve gone 5-9 since the grudging acknowledgment that reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen had to go to the disabled list. Add in that second baseman Neil Walker has been healthy enough to make just five starts in August in what had been his best season since his rookie year, and the Pirates have had to get by a whole lot of Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez. Some of those losses have been especially tough, including getting swept over the weekend in a trio of one-run losses to the Nationals, and losing four one-run games during McCutchen’s absence. Operating without their best hitter, as well as their best starting pitcher -- Gerrit Cole -- and those margins are that much tighter.

SportsNation

With Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole returning this week, will the Pirates make the playoffs?

  •  
    9%
  •  
    58%
  •  
    33%

Discuss (Total votes: 41,348)

I’d argue that the absences of Cole and Charlie Morton have been every bit as critical as the losses in the lineup. Since the break, the Pirates have averaged 4.6 runs per game, and even 4.1 with McCutchen on the DL, slightly above league-average for the NL. But on the pitching side, since the All-Star break the Pirates have seen some things unfold that they have to have anticipated: Jeff Locke’s transient magic once again fading with repeated exposure to National League lineups that have cranked out a 1.60 WHIP in his last six starts, while Edinson Volquez has been looking very much like nothing more than a No. 5 while allowing 4.9 runs per nine in his six turns in that time. These are not the guys you’re going to win a division with; they’re whom you get by with when Cole and Morton are out. The happier news is that Vance Worley looks like a keeper, but we’ll see if he pushes past Volquez to enter postseason rotation consideration.

One of the things you can consider a lesson learned is that the enthusiasm for the Pirates’ young outfield is still mostly deserved. Starling Marte has been excellent since the All-Star break, with an 1.132 OPS. Gregory Polanco, not so much (.632 OPS), but it’s too soon to see if he’s going to have to join Pedro Alvarez on the team’s growing pile of disappointing superstars-to-be (or not). But another happy surprise is that Josh Harrison seems as ready as Omar Infante was to make people eat those “that guy’s an All-Star?” taunts, hitting .331/.369/.570 since the break.

The weeks to come are going to provide all sorts of interesting questions for Clint Hurdle and company as they try to get back on top, because the Pirates and Hurdle have proven themselves reliably creative when it comes to lineup solutions in particular. I think it’s fascinating to see them play Harrison at shortstop these last four games. Breaking out a rare “small sample-size” caveat this late in the season, it hasn’t been lovely (the first three games were at a minus-38 Defensive Runs Saved level for a full season), but if by some chance he proves that he can play short as a regular, that creates an expanded range of options in the lineup. It might even provide Alvarez a chance at redemption at third base, at least against right-handed pitching -- if the choice is between Jordy Mercer (.656 OPS, career) or Clint Barmes and Alvarez (.790 OPS) against a righty. I’d like to see a loose Alvarez-Mercer platoon in the lineup. Maybe Harrison is only affordable at shortstop on days when Cole pitches (because of his large number of strikeouts) or Worley (because he’s a fly ball-out guy), but it’s interesting to see Hurdle and the sabermetrically savvy Pirates experiment, even at this point of the season.

And that’s because, with 37 games left, everything is still possible. The good news is that they’ll get McCutchen back from the DL on Tuesday, and Cole should make his return from the DL on Wednesday, in time to face these Braves. Sometime around Sept. 1, they should have Morton back to start for them as well.

As long as the Pirates are within a game or two, when you’re talking about adding that kind of talent, you’re talking about a team with a chance. Last year’s playoff appearance should not be a one-time thing. And after what Pirates fans endured for two decades, you have to hope it wasn’t.


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


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

SportsNation

Who do you think WILL win the NL MVP Award?

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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?

The best player in baseball

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
11:52
PM ET


Sorry, Miggy. Your hitting feats are legendary. You'll be in the Hall of Fame some day, on the short list of best right-handed batsmen the game has ever seen. You know you're an all-timer when you're hitting .319 and on pace for 135 RBIs and nobody is even talking much about how great you've been. You've been so good for so long that sometimes we do take you for granted and shame on all of us for that.

Sorry, Giancarlo. Your feats of strength seem impossible. Your home run on Monday was impossible. You've become must-see TV because any swing can result in something we've never seen before. How many players can we say that about? Watching you hit -- I hate to say it because it sounds crazy -- but watching you hit in some ways must have been like when Babe Ruth started swatting home runs for the Yankees in the old Polo Grounds. What was that? When Yankee Stadium was built they called it the House That Ruth Built. Maybe someday that park in Miami will be called Stanton's Playground. You've matured as an all-around hitter and even your defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
AP Photo/Mark DuncanFew players can or should set their personal goals as high as Mike Trout might for himself.
Sorry, Tulo. You might be in the midst of a season for the ages, in the running to win that MVP award all of us have predicted for you at one time or another, and the reason you may not win it is because your team hasn't been so terrific. You were born to play shortstop, gliding effortlessly to make plays, that strong arm of yours allowing you to make plays other shortstops can't. You've managed to stay on the field, and we know that has been an issue in the past.

Sorry, Cutch. You were the MVP last year. You have no weakness in your game and pack surprising power into your small frame. You're one of the class acts in the game, exciting at the plate and in the field, and you've lifted a sorry franchise into a team worth paying attention to.

But Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. I should say: Still the best player in baseball. He was the game's best all-around player the past two seasons. That isn't really up for debate; I mean, you can argue if you want, but you're going to lose. Ask any general manager who has been the best player in the game past two years and I would predict 29 will say "Trout." Maybe 30 if promised anonymity.

In Tuesday's 9-3 win over the Indians, Trout went 3-for-5 with two home runs and four RBIs. His first homer was a three-run shot off Josh Tomlin in the fifth inning that gave the Angels a 5-2 lead, off a 2-2 89-mph fastball that Trout lined over just over the fence in right field after fouling off three two-strike pitches. His second homer in the seventh off Mark Lowe came off an 0-1 fastball that Trout crushed several rows deep into the left-center bleachers.

Trout is now hitting .311/.397/.611 with 16 home runs, 54 RBIs and nine steals. He lead the American League in slugging percentage and OPS while tied for third in RBIs (impressive for a No. 2 hitter). What's remarkable about those numbers is that it was just a few weeks ago when the big story line was, "What's wrong with Mike Trout?"

After a big opening month, he suddenly slumped in early May. On May 19, he went 1-for-4 in a loss to the Astros and his average dropped to .263. As far as crisis, it wasn't quite Babe Ruth overdoing it on the hot dogs, but Trout had struck out 56 times in 44 games, the most whiffs in the American League. What was going on?

On May 20, Trout started and left in the fifth inning with what was reported at the time as tightness in his leg. He sat out the next day. On June 3, he left a game after one at-bat and the club reported he'd been dealing with a lingering back issue, or "mid-back discomfort." An MRI showed no major problems, just inflammation. He sat out the game on June 4 but has been back in the lineup since. And he has been raking. He's Mike Trout.

In fact, since falling to .263 on May 19, he's hitting .410/.475/.819 with eight home runs, eight doubles and a triple in 22 games. Remember when he was striking out twice as often as he was walking after being close to a 1-to-1 ratio last year? In those 22 games, he has 14 walks and 14 strikeouts.

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Who is the best player in the game right now?

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Discuss (Total votes: 8,835)

Both of his home runs on Tuesday came on low pitches. That's danger zone against Trout. He whips that bat through the zone so quickly on those pitches with great extension. The swing is different, of course, but in some ways it reminds me of Ken Griffey Jr.; his beautiful lefty swing with that big arc was tailor-made for low pitches. Fifteen of Trout's 16 home runs have come on pitches in the lower half of the strike zone. His one home run in the upper half of the zone was a middle-of-the-plate slider. Eight of his home runs have come on low fastballs. Basically, the worst pitch you can throw Trout is a low fastball.

The Indians threw two low fastballs and paid the price.

Power, speed, defense, walks. We know Trout does all of those things. Maybe pitchers will eventually learn to expose that top part of the strike zone more often (Trout is hitting .119 against pitches in the upper half of the zone or above), but pitchers are not trained to pitch up in the zone these days; it's down, down, down, so many just aren't comfortable throwing high fastballs.

Even then, I suspect Trout will eventually learn to adjust. He is, after all, still just 22 years old.

Best player in the game? Here's my top 10 right now, June 17, 2014:

1. Mike Trout
2. Troy Tulowitzki
3. Giancarlo Stanton
4. Andrew McCutchen
5. Jose Bautista
6. Yasiel Puig
7. Carlos Gomez
8. Miguel Cabrera
9. Jonathan Lucroy
10. Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson (tie)

I reserve the right to change this list on June 18.


After two months of speculation, yearning from fans and guarded responses from the front office, the Pirates finally recalled 23-year-old outfielder Gregory Polanco. As Alex Speier wrote on ESPN Insider, Polanco's story is a fun one, as he rose from a gangly and raw unknown prospect just two years ago to become one of the most hyped players in the minor leagues.

He made his debut in front of a hungry group of Pirates fans, hungry for their team to find the same winning formula as last year's Cinderella squad. Polanco, they hope and believe, will provide that first necessary spark. Over 31,000 came out to PNC Park -- much higher than the club's first three Tuesday games that averaged 17,865 fans.

[+] EnlargePirates
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesGregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen will be getting used to meeting at home plate after scoring.
Polanco certainly showed some energy: He lined a base hit to left field for his first hit and later scored on Andrew McCutchen's home run to center, racing around the bases with his greyhound speed, not realizing the ball had cleared the fence. He greeted McCutchen with a huge smile, the innocent joy of a rookie. I guess he has plenty of years to become a grizzled veteran who learns how to play the game the right way.

That was his only hit as he went 1-for-5 as the Pirates lost 7-3 to the Cubs. He misplayed a fly ball in the seventh, tracking down Anthony Rizzo's deep liner but seeing the ball clank off the heel of his glove. It was ruled a double but the play should have been made. The Pirates have mentioned how he's still learning to play right field after playing primarily center before this season, but this looked like a rookie mistake, perhaps wary that he was too close to the wall and unfamiliar with the park.

I liked his approach against tough lefty Travis Wood, not the easiest guy to make your debut against considering Wood's five-pitch arsenal. He took the first pitch in all five of his plate appearances, falling behind in four of those trips. He did pop out twice and in the eighth inning even appeared a little miffed when a 2-0 Wood fastball at the knees was called a strike. He pulled the next pitch to second base, a routine grounder that showcased that great speed.

Time will tell about the hype. He hit .347 with seven home runs at Triple-A Indianapolis, but that was after hitting .400 in April. I'm not sure he's a polished player just yet, so I would advise Pirates fans to restrain their expectations. After the game, Cubs manager Rick Renteria compared his to swing path to Ken Griffey Jr.'s. That's high praise, of course, and certainly hints at Polanco's potential, even minus some of Junior's power.

He joins McCutchen and Starling Marte in what should develop into an outstanding defensive outfield -- all three are natural center fielders and once Polanco gets settled in right that trio is going to run down a lot of balls in the gaps.

What's the upside here? McCutchen, 27, is the reigning MVP, one of the best all-around players in the game. Marte, 25, was worth 5.5 WAR last year thanks to a good year at the plate, outstanding defensive metrics and 41 steals. But he's hitting just .244/.315/.378 this year. Polanco doesn't turn 23 until September.

That's a young outfield and an exciting one and probably an excellent one in time. Considering McCutchen is signed through 2018, it's a group that should be together a while. There is another young outfield worth mentioning, however: Christian Yelich (22), Marcell Ozuna (23) and Giancarlo Stanton (24) of the Marlins are even younger and Ozuna and Stanton are currently outproducing Marte and McCutchen at the plate. All three also rate as plus defenders.

Which trio do you like better? I think it's a coin flip right now, depending on whether Yelich (.259/.341/.421 so far) or Polanco develops into a star hitter.

Polanco's call-up also generated some discussion on Twitter on how the potential of the Pirates' trio rates historically among outfields. That's a pretty tough area to crack. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I searched for some of the best young outfields of the past 50 years, using the following criteria: All three outfielders compiled at least 3.0 WAR; all three were 27 or younger with at least two 25 or younger.

The last such group was the 2011 Diamondbacks with Gerardo Parra, Chris Young and Justin Upton. That team did win 94 games and Upton was fourth in the MVP voting, while Parra and Young were outstanding defenders. Three years later, however, only Parra is on the team.

Here are some of the other best young outfields of the past 50 years, a reminder that good things don't always last or develop into great things:

1999 Royals: Carlos Beltran (22 years old, 4.7 WAR); Johnny Damon (25, 5.4); Jermaine Dye (25, 4.7)
Hey, they all played in the World Series ... but with different teams, none of them in Kansas City. Damon was traded after the 2000 season, Dye in 2001 and Beltran in 2004. If only they could have remained together. Combined career WAR: 143.9.

1995 Angels: Garret Anderson (23, 3.0); Jim Edmonds (25, 5.6); Tim Salmon (26, 6.6)
Those three combined for 83 home runs in the shortened 1995 season and Anderson hit .321 and Salmon .330. They lost a tiebreaker game that year and didn't make the playoffs until 2002 -- after Edmonds had been traded to the Cardinals. Career WAR: 126.4.

1985 Blue Jays: George Bell (25, 4.1); Lloyd Moseby (25, 3.1); Jesse Barfield (25, 6.8)
Fans my age will remember Barfield's arm but all three could play. Led by these three guys, the Jays won the AL East and were up 3-1 over the Royals in the ALCS. But they lost that series and then blew the AL East on the final weekend of 1987. But Moseby faded after that year, Barfield was traded in 1989 and Bell left as a free agent after 1990. Combined WAR: 86.6.

1980 A's: Rickey Henderson (21, 8.8); Dwayne Murphy (25, 6.9); Tony Armas (26, 5.9)
Note the WAR totals: They ranked second, fifth and 11th among AL position players that year. All three were capable of playing center field but with completely disparate games. Henderson, of course, was the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, already one of the best players in the game at 21. Murphy was a tremendous center fielder (he won six Gold Gloves) who drew a lot of walks. Armas slugged 35 home runs and had a cannon for arm but never walked. They made the playoffs in 1981 and that was it. Murphy and Armas both and had their best seasons in 1980 and Armas was traded to the Red Sox for Carney Lansford after 1982. Combined WAR: 159.7.

1978 Expos: Warren Cromartie (24, 4.4); Andre Dawson (23, 4.8); Ellis Valentine (23, 5.6)
At the time, it was Valentine who most would have bet on as the future Hall of Famer, a lean, powerful, right fielder with a legendary arm. But '78 would be his best season and he would battle cocaine problems. It would also be Cromartie's best season. None of the three walked much and while Dawson became one of the best all-around players in the game, the other two never improved as hitters. Combined WAR: 97.8.

1975 Red Sox: Jim Rice (22, 3.0), Fred Lynn (23, 7.4), Dwight Evans (23, 5.1)
How good was this group? Lynn and Rice finished first and third in the MVP voting as rookies. The Red Sox lost the World Series (which Rice missed with an injury), but the future looked bright. Instead, this group never reached the postseason together again (although Rice and Evans were still around in 1986). Evans didn't really become a great player until 1981, by which time Lynn had signed with the Angels. Interestingly, the guy with the lowest career WAR is the one in the Hall of Fame. Combined WAR: 164.2.

1973 Giants: Gary Matthews (22, 3.4), Garry Maddox (23, 4.7), Bobby Bonds (27, 7.8)
The Giants were churning out good-to-outstanding outfielders like clockwork around this time -- Jack Clark came along a couple years later. Maybe they took them for granted. Bonds -- the Giants blamed him for their struggles (he did have off-the-field issues) -- was traded for Bobby Murcer after 1974, Maddox was sent to the Phillies in 1975 in an ill-advised deal for Willie Montanez and Matthews left as a free agent after 1976. Combined WAR: 124.5.

1967 Red Sox: Carl Yastrzemski (27, 12.4); Reggie Smith (22, 3.4); Tony Conigliaro (22, 3.7)
The core of the Impossible Dream Red Sox. Yaz had one of the greatest seasons of all time in winning the MVP and Triple Crown while the rookie Smith was on his way to a borderline Hall of Fame career. Tony C was the heartbreaking story: He was hit in the eye that August and missed the rest of the season and all of 1968. Vision problems eventually prematurely ended his career. Combined WAR: 172.9.

As you can see, some pretty dynamic trios there. But maybe these Pirates will do something none of those groups did together: Win a World Series.

Will McCutchen draw All-Star short straw?

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
11:51
PM ET
It's time to give Andrew McCutchen a little love.

The reigning National League MVP is quietly performing at the same level as last season but with little national attention. That's what happens when your team goes from America's favorite underdog to same old Pittsburgh Pirates. McCutchen, who homered and drove in three runs in the Pirates' 6-2 win over the Chicago Cubs, can't even crack the top three among outfielders in the All-Star voting.

[+] EnlargeAndrew McCutchen
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsSome fans haven't forgotten Andrew McCutchen, but he might ask if she's eligible to vote.
McCutchen is now hitting .309/.423/.509, pretty much identical to 2013's .313/.404/.508. But you're not hearing his name mentioned as an early MVP candidate. Heck, we've had more discussion about minor league outfielder Gregory Polanco; thank god the Pirates finally announced that he's joining the team on Tuesday, so we can finally see if the kid can play rather than just speculate on whether he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer or merely a Hall of Famer.

Of course, one sign of a great player is when you have a great season and nobody really notices. Henry Aaron churned out MVP-caliber seasons like clockwork for nearly 20 years but won only one MVP Award early in his career, in part because it's harder to get recognized when the story is simply, "Oh, yeah, he does that every year."

That means the attention among National League outfielders has centered on Yasiel Puig and Giancarlo Stanton. Puig is a lightning rod for many reasons but he's putting up even bigger numbers than last season. Stanton is carrying the surprising Marlins, routinely hitting 450-foot monster mashes and even making diving catches in right field. Both are young, awesome and undoubtedly have a "wow" factor that few in the game possess. Even Carlos Gomez, third in the voting, has been in the spotlight with his bat flips and is one of the most exciting players in the game with his power/speed combo.

McCutchen? All he does is hit, hit with some power, play good defense, run the bases well, draw walks, rarely miss a game and deliver cotton candy between innings. He doesn't do dumb things on the bases. He doesn't start brawls. He's boring. No signature element to his game. Nope. He just does everything well.

OK, to be fair here: Who do you leave off the ballot? All four guys are having outstanding seasons. The numbers:

  • Puig (1,472,717 votes): .333/.430/.584, 11 HR, 40 RBIs, 34 runs, 6 SB, -2 Defensive Runs Saved, 2.8 WAR (DRS and WAR entering Monday)
  • Stanton (1,259,047 votes): .301/.393/.589, 17 HR, 53 RBIs, 47 runs, 4 SB, 14 DRS, 4.3 WAR
  • Gomez (1,192,174 votes: .307/.376/.554, 12 HR, 35 RBIs, 42 runs, 11 SB, 0 DRS, 2.5 WAR
  • McCutchen (1,190,516 votes): .309/.423/.509, 8 HR, 31 RBIs, 33 runs, 7 SB, -2 DRS, 2.8 WAR


Stanton has separated himself in WAR mostly because of his superior defensive numbers. He's been regarded as an average outfielder in the past, but Stanton's defensive metrics are strong so far this year -- both in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating -- and he rates fourth among all players, regardless of position, with his 14 Defense Runs Saved. Gomez, who actually edged out McCutchen in Baseball-Reference WAR last year thanks in large part to his outstanding defense in center, hasn't been as good this season, again by DRS and UZR, which both rate him as average defensively so far. McCutchen was +7 last year, but he has no assists this season, compared to 11 in 2013; both defensive systems rate his defense slightly below average this year.

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Which outfielder would you NOT vote for as an All-Star?

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As for offense, McCutchen's home run and RBI numbers fall short of the others, but keep two things in mind: (1) He doesn't have a lot of help around him (2) He plays in a tough home run park, especially for right-handed hitters. He may have only 31 RBIs but he is hitting .327/.444/.551 with runners in scoring position. But he's had just 63 plate appearances with RISP; Puig has had 89, Stanton 77 and Gomez 63.

Anyway, it's tough to leave one guy off, but I'd go Stanton, Puig and McCutchen.

The good news is the loser can get the start at DH since the game will be in an American League park.

Finally, as for Polanco: Yes, he deserves the spotlight on Tuesday as he presumably makes his debut. It's an exciting day for the Pirates and their fans, and at 30-33, Pittsburgh is still in the clogged-up NL playoff races. The Pirates are in a pretty good stretch to make a run -- three more against the Cubs, three against the Marlins, and then 19 against teams that currently have a losing record. So maybe good things start to happen.

If they do, maybe then we'll remember again that Andrew McCutchen is still one of the best players in the game.
 

In this week's Rapid Fire SweetSpot TV segment with Eric Karabell, one topic we discuss is Yasiel Puig. Entering Wednesday, Puig is second in the National League batting race, hitting .346 to Troy Tulowitzki's .373. Can Puig actually win the title? Some quick thoughts here ...

1. Dodger Stadium is a tough place to hit for average ... but not impossible.

Since moving into Dodger Stadium in 1962, only six Dodgers have hit .330 in season (Mike Piazza did it twice, including .362 in 1997). The only Dodger to win a batting title since 1962 is Tommy Davis, who led the NL with a .346 mark in 1962 and .326 in 1963.

Here are the number of .330 seasons for each National League team since 1962:

Rockies -- 17
Cardinals -- 14
Pirates -- 11
Braves -- 10
Giants -- 8
Padres -- 8 (six by Tony Gwynn)
Dodgers -- 7
Cubs -- 6
Reds -- 6
Expos/Nationals -- 6
Phillies -- 5
Brewers -- 5
Mets -- 4
Marlins -- 4
Diamondbacks -- 1

I chose .330 since that's usually the minimum it takes to win the batting title. Since 1969, only four NL batting leaders were under .330 -- Bill Buckner (.324) in 1980, Bill Madlock (.323) in 1983, Tony Gwynn (.313) in 1988 and Terry Pendelton (.319) in 1991.

So while Dodger Stadium can be a tough place to hit, I don't think it's a roadblock to Puig winning a title. It can be done.

2. Puig is for real.

I've mentioned this before, but Puig's plate discipline has improved each month of his career. Here are his month-by-month swing rates on pitches outside the strike zone (his "chase" percentage):

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Best bet to win the NL batting title?

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June 2013: 38.3
July 2013: 35.6
August 2013: 33.2
September 2013: 30.5
April 2014: 27.1
May 2014: 20.8

Puig is hitting .413/.518/.750 in May. Is it a coincidence that's he done that at the time he's chasing fewer and fewer pitches off the plate? I don't think so. The two are correlated and while Puig did hit into a great deal of luck during his hot start last year (he had a lot of bloopers and infield hits), his numbers this year show an improved hitter with a better approach. His strikeout rate is down, his line-drive rate is up and and his percentage of 2-0 counts has increased (from 14.5 percent to 19.6 percent). Yes, his BABIP is still high at .403 but with his speed, Puig is also the type of hitter who should hit for a high BABIP (although very few guys have ever had a .400 BABIP over an entire season).

3. The Coors Field factor.

Obviously, there is no better place to hit. Six different Rockies have won batting titles since they joined the league in 1993, including Michael Cuddyer last year at .331. Tulowitzki is hitting .521 at home, .238 on the road. Certainly, this will be a huge edge for Tulo.

4. Tulowitzki's career high in average is .315.

With this great start, he's certainly a good bet to beat that. He could go 0-for-his-next 30 and still be hitting .316. His updated ZiPS projection has him finishing at .333. If that's about where he ends up, however, it could give Puig a fighting chance.

5. Other candidates.

I listed three other guys in the poll above. Chase Utley is hitting .333, Tulo's teammate Charlie Blackmon .321 and Andrew McCutchen .310. Each has his advantages. Utley is probably the biggest long shot since he hasn't hit .300 since 2007 (when he hit .332), but he's also the healthiest he's been in years. Blackmon had the great April and gets to play in Coors and being a platoon player could actually help since he won't face many lefties to drag down his average (he should still get enough PAs to qualify). McCutchen is a proven high-average hitter: .327 in 2012, .317 last year and .310 so far in 2014. He's drawing a ton of walks this year as he gets pitched around, but fewer at-bats means a hit is worth "more" in terms of batting average.

Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy is hitting .332, which may not be a fluke since he did hit .320 in 2012. Still, hard to bet on a catcher keeping that up through the summer, but Milwaukee is a good hitter's park. I don't expect Matt Adams to stay at .326 -- that 39/5 strikeout/walk ratio suggests a hitter who can be pitched to or chase too many pitches out of the zone. Cuddyer is hitting .319 but has played just 24 games due to injury; he can't be ignored if he can reach the 502 plate appearances to qualify.
There's nothing quite like Opening Day. As Pete Rose once said, "It's like Christmas except warmer." It's a reminder that for perhaps inexplicable reasons we still love this crazy game, that we're ready to devote way too many hours over the next seven months to watching games that will enthrall us and disgust us but bring us together. We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll shout -- and that's just within one Starlin Castro at-bat. It's Opening Day. Enjoy.

Must-watch game of the day
If I could watch only one game on Opening Day -- which would pretty much qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if actually forced to such limits -- I'd go with St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). First, we get a heated division rivalry with two playoff teams from last season. We get a great pitching matchup with Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. We get Billy Hamilton trying to get on base and then trying to run on Yadier Molina if he does get on. We get the new Reds lineup with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hitting third and fourth. (Oh, how we miss you, Dusty.) Plus, there are potential cameos from Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Pete Rose or Schottzie.

Best pitching matchup of the day
Considering the depth of starting pitching in the majors, you'd think we'd have more can't-miss pitching matchups of Cy Young contender facing Cy Young contender, but that isn't really the case on this day. But James Shields versus Justin Verlander is a great one (Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET).

Here's an interesting fact: The Tigers had all that great pitching last year, right? Well, the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Shields is making his sixth career Opening Day start while Verlander makes his seventh in a row. Verlander allowed zero runs his past two openers (although he pitched just five innings last year on a cold day in Minnesota). Royals fans must deal with no Jeff Francoeur in the opening lineup for the first time in four years. Hold those tears.

Pitcher you have to watch if you've never watched him
The Marlins rarely appear on national TV, so you may not have seen Jose Fernandez pitch as a rookie unless you're actually a Marlins fan or your team faced him. If you missed him, you made a mistake, so don't miss this one. No dinner break. No excuse that this may be your third game of the day. He starts against Jorge De La Rosa as the Colorado Rockies play the Miami Marlins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).

This is kind of a cool random factoid from ESPN Stats & Information: This is the first Opening Day matchup in the past 100 years of pitchers born in Cuba and Mexico. Fernandez will become the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in the past 35 seasons behind Dwight Gooden (1985 and 1986 Mets), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers) and Felix Hernandez (2007 Mariners).

The "Wait, he's starting on Opening Day?" award
This is always a fun one. One year the Pittsburgh Pirates started Ron Villone, who had posted a 5.89 ERA the year before -- primarily as a reliever. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started Dewon Brazelton in 2005; he'd finish the season 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA. The Twins started Vance Worley a year ago. This year's most interesting surprise starter is Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers (Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET) -- interesting because he has never started a major league game.

Since 1914, only three pitchers made their major league debuts starting on Opening Day: Lefty Grove of the A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the 1943 Phillies. Scheppers doesn't match their feat because he's pitched in relief, but he does match Valenzuela, whose first major league start came in that 1981 Opening Day start. Of course, to match Fernando, all Scheppers has to do is throw five shutouts and six complete games in his first seven starts.

Just thought I'd mention this
The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay reliever Brandon League more this season ($8.5 million) than the Pirates will pay National League MVP Andrew McCutchen ($7.458 million), who will rank 34th among outfielders in salary in 2014. Anyway, watch McCutchen's Pirates host the Chicago Cubs (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Another reason to love McCutchen, besides the fact that he's a talented artist, can imitate others' batting stances and helps old ladies cross the street: His WAR has increased each season of his career, 2.3 to 3.8 to 5.7 to 7.0 to 7.9.

Watch Robinson Cano in a new time zone
Cano makes his Mariners debut in a late game, Mariners at Angels (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). As a bonus, you get Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Abraham Almonte and Justin Smoak. The Mariners begin the season with a seven-game road trip and play 22 of their first 25 games against division opponents while trying to patch together a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker for a few weeks, so few teams will be under more pressure early on than Seattle. Enjoy the marine layer, Robby!

Player most likely to be booed on Opening Day
I was going to say Dan Uggla or Ryan Braun, but unfortunately the Atlanta Braves play at the Milwaukee Brewers (2:10 p.m. ET) instead of vice versa.

Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.

SweetSpot TV: MVP preview

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
10:00
AM ET


Eric and myself are to break down all six of the MVP finalists. What are their cases and who should win?

SweetSpot's 2013 NL All-Star team

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
12:39
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I did my American League All-Star team yesterday. Here's my National League squad. A few more tougher calls in the NL.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals (.319/.359/.477, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Two questions: Is Molina a legitimate MVP candidate and how will he fare in the voting? Sure, he's a strong candidate, although I have Andrew McCutchen as my clear No. 1 guy. Due to his relatively low runs plus RBIs total (he has 68 runs scored), Molina would certainly be an unconventional MVP candidate. Wins Above Replacement accounts for some of Molina's defense -- such as throwing out runners -- but can't measure some of the intangibles, such as the confidence he gave to the young St. Louis starters. Molina's offense numbers are similar to last year, when he finished fourth in voting, so I wouldn't be surprised if he jumps up to second this season.

First base: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (.302/.401/.553, 36 HR, 124 RBI, 7.1 WAR)
Goldschmidt or Joey Votto? It's not quite as simple as Goldschmidt's 51-RBI advantage as both put up similar numbers otherwise, with Votto having the edge in on-base percentage (.436) and Goldschmidt in power (36 home runs to 24). Both were extremely durable -- Goldschmidt has missed two games, Votto zero -- and solid defenders. The one big difference is an advanced metric called Win Probability Added, a category Goldschmidt led all NL position players in, thanks in part to his .350 average in high-leverage situations and nine home runs in late and close situations (second-most in the majors to Chris Davis). I'm confident Goldschmidt is the right choice here.

Second base: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (.320/.394/.484, 11 HR, 78 RBI, 6.7 WAR)
An easy choice as Carpenter leads the NL in runs, hits and doubles while ranking in the top 10 in numerous other categories. I'm guessing Molina garners more MVP support, but Carpenter is just as worthy to finish in the top five.

Third base: David Wright, Mets (.308/.393/.516, 18 HR, 57 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Pedro Alvarez leads the NL with 36 home runs and has knocked in 100 but a .233 average and sub-.300 OBP means he created a ton of outs to generate those runs. Ryan Zimmerman waited too long to start hitting. Chris Johnson hit .321 for the Braves. None were above-average defenders. So almost by default I'll go with Wright, who easily has the highest WAR even though he missed 50 games.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Braves (.244/.292/.390, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 6.5 WAR)
I've been raving about Simmons all season so I can't change now. Troy Tulowitzki was great once again and relatively healthy (125 games), although he hit 61 points higher at home. Hanley Ramirez was the best on a per at-bat basis but played just 86 games. Ian Desmond flew under the radar year for the Nationals. But Simmons is my guy, even with that sub-.300 OBP. His defense was that good.

Left field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (.302/.367/.591, 26 HR, 70 RBI, 5.1 WAR)
Starling Marte had an excellent all-around season (41 steals, great defense) for the Pirates and Matt Holliday was solid for the Cardinals. Gonzalez's season was similar to Wright's -- if he'd remained healthy, he'd be the obvious choice, but he missed 50 games. Unlike Tulo, he actually hit better on the road, so it's not a Coors-inflated season. I'll go with CarGo just barely over Marte.

Center field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.317/.404/.508, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 8.2 WAR)
Carlos Gomez would be an MVP candidate if he had better teammates. Shin-Soo Choo gave the Reds exactly what they needed, a leadoff hitter who got on base. But this was McCutchen's season as he often carried a mediocre Pittburgh offense and hit .339/.441/.561 in the second half, helping keep the Pirates in the division title race. He's the likely MVP winner and not a "weak" MVP, as some have speculated. His WAR is higher than the past three NL MVPs, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Votto. He may not drive in 100 runs or score 100 (he's at 97), but it was the best all-around season in the league.

Right field: Jayson Werth, Nationals (.318/.398/.532, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 4.8 WAR)
A loaded position, and that's with Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton missing significant time. Jay Bruce, Yasiel Puig, Hunter Pence and Marlon Byrd all have their supporters (and Gerardo Parra leads in WAR). The knock against Werth, like Wright and Gonzalez, is that he missed significant time (129 games). But Bruce has a .329 OBP. Puig didn't get called up until June and Pence's monster September (11 HR, 29 RBI) came after the Giants had long been eliminated and arguably against dubious September pitching.

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kersaw, Dodgers (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 8.0 WAR); Cliff Lee, Phillies (14-8, 2.87 ERA, 7.2 WAR); Jose Fernandez, Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 6.3 WAR); Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (19-9, 2.94 ERA, 6.2 WAR); Matt Harvey, Mets (9-5, 2.27 ERA, 5.4 WAR)
Oh, Cliff Lee is still good. There were no shortage of top starters in the NL as 18 qualified starters have posted an ERA of 3.25 or under, the most since 17 did it in 1992 and 10 more than last year.

Left-handed setup guy: Luis Avilan, Braves (5-0, 1.55 ERA)
Part of Atlanta's dominant bullpen, Avilan fanned just 38 in 64 innings but allowed a .173 average and just one home run. He gets great movement on his two-seam sinking fastball, resulting in fewer K's but a lot of groundballs. Honorable mention to Pittsburgh's Justin Wilson.

Right-handed setup guy: Mark Melancon, Pirates (3-2, 1.39 ERA)
He had a couple rough outings in September, but was dominant throughout the season, first setting up Jason Grilli and then earning 16 saves when Grilli was injured.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (4-3, 50 saves, 1.23 ERA)
He did blow four save chances and wasn't quite as statistically dominant as last season -- and still finished with 1.23 ERA and 50 saves.







Keys to watch for in Reds-Pirates series

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
3:00
PM ET
The NL Central is the nexus of competitive baseball in the National League. Two of the Central's heavyweights, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, will match up against each other over the weekend. With nine games left in the season, the Pirates trail the first-place Cardinals by a game and the Reds trail by two, so this series has a litany of postseason implications.

If the Reds, who have been stuck in third place since late June, should happen to sweep the Pirates, could they also jump ahead of the Cardinals? If the Pirates sweep the Reds, could they finish in first place for the first time since 1992? To quote Terrell Owens, "Get your popcorn ready." As you prepare for a fun weekend of pennant-race baseball, here are some keys you should be paying attention to in the Reds-Pirates series.

1. Billy Hamilton. The 23-year-old speedster has made waves throughout his minor league career, racking up 395 stolen bases in 479 attempts since 2009. Between Single-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola last year, Hamilton hit .311 with a .410 on-base percentage. Those numbers dropped this year in his first stint with Triple-A Louisville, but that didn't prevent the Reds from giving him a taste of the big leagues, calling him up at the beginning of September. He made his first start on Wednesday against the Astros, going 3-for-4 with a double, two walks and four stolen bases. Otherwise, the Reds have mostly been using him as a pinch runner. Hamilton is a 9-for-9 stealing bases overall. Hamilton's speed could make the difference in a close game. Pirates catchers have thrown out runners at the third-highest rate in the National League this year at 33 percent, trailing only the Cardinals and Dodgers.

2. Andrew McCutchen. He has a strong case for the National League MVP award, sitting on a .325/.408/.520 line with 27 stolen bases and plus defense in center field. Players like Starling Marte and Russell Martin have been huge for the Pirates, but the Bucs have gone as McCutchen has gone. It will be up to Reds manager Dusty Baker and his pitching staff to neutralize the 26-year-old throughout the series.

3. The Reds' on-base machines. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo have on-base percentages north of .425, which would make them the first teammates to accomplish the feat since Todd Helton and Larry Walker in 2001. Votto, at .433, has had an MVP-caliber season, leading the league in walks and OBP while hitting .307 with 23 home runs. As much as people have lauded Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce for the Reds' success, the primary credit should go to Votto and Choo. If the Reds are able to score a bunch of runs against the Pirates, it will be because Votto and Choo continue to get on base. The Pirates will attempt to neutralize them by starting lefties Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke in the series. Votto hits .262 against left-handers, while Choo is hitting .207 with no home runs.

4. Pirates' defensive shifts. Recently, Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published a fantastic article detailing the ways in which the Pirates have succeeded since adopting a more modern view of defense. Thanks to Baseball Prospectus alum Dan Fox and his use of historical batted-ball data, the Pirates changed their approach to defense and began repositioning their players based on a number of factors. According to Sawchik, the Pirates have shifted their infield well over 400 times this season compared to 105 last year and 87 times in 2011. Will it matter against the Reds, who lead the league in walks but rank eighth in batting average?

5. Homer Bailey. Last month, Chad Dotson wrote about how Bailey has turned into an ace for the Reds. The right-hander has had two no-hitters within the span of one year (September 2012 and July this year). Dotson pointed out that Bailey has added velocity to his fastball, which has improved his strikeout rate, and has mastered a split-fingered fastball that has improved his ground ball rate. Bailey is slated to go up against Pirates veteran A.J. Burnett on Saturday.

6. Francisco Liriano. Liriano has been a great find for the Pirates, rebounding from an ERA north of 5.00 in each of the past two seasons to 2.92 this year. As good as he has been, though, he is prone to a blow-up every now and then. On Sept. 4, he allowed seven runs in three innings against the lowly Brewers. On Aug. 24, the Giants tagged him for four runs in four innings. At Coors Field on Aug. 9, Liriano was charged with 10 runs while recording just seven outs. Overall, Liriano has averaged exactly a strikeout per inning pitched while drastically lowering his walk rate. If the Pirates get the good Liriano on Friday night against Mat Latos, they will be in good shape.

Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

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