SweetSpot: Anibal Sanchez



Eric and I discuss the possible return of Anibal Sanchez to the Tigers and how they should deploy him.
Earlier on Monday, Eric Karabell and myself taped a SweetSpot TV segment on managers, and one thing we harped on was the slow hooks some managers have had in the postseason, particularly Dusty Baker with Johnny Cueto in the NL wild-card game and Fredi Gonzalez with Julio Teheran in Game 3 of the Braves-Dodgers series.

Sure enough, in the first game after our segment, Jim Leyland's slow hook on Anibal Sanchez haunted the Tigers in Oakland's 6-3 victory.

Look, Sanchez had a great season. He led the American League with a 2.57 ERA, and if he hadn't missed a few starts with shoulder issues, he would be a more viable Cy Young Award candidate. He was terrific in the playoffs for the Tigers last season, and they don't have the deepest bullpen among the playoff contenders, so while I understand Leyland's decision to ride Sanchez, it seemed pretty clear he should not have faced Seth Smith in the fifth inning.

Sanchez had struggled all day with his command, and was already nearing 100 pitches as Smith stepped to the plate with the A's leading 4-3. The A's had hit two home runs, one a line shot by Brandon Moss earlier in the inning, and Sanchez doesn't usually give up home runs, just nine all season in 182 innings.

[+] EnlargeAnibal Sanchez
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastSeth Smith's two-run home run off Anibal Sanchez in the top of the fifth was the third longball given up by Sanchez in Game 3.
Yoenis Cespedes was on first base after a single. So, command issues, balls up in the zone, a left-handed batter at the plate, lefty Jose Alvarez warming up in the pen. It seemed to be the right time to remove Sanchez from the game.

Smith hit just .235 against left-handers, and A's manager Bob Melvin would have been unlikely to hit for Smith that early in the game. Alvarez isn't anything great, but if you're going to use him, this seemed like the right situation, especially with two more lefties on deck.

Sanchez, focusing on trying to get a double play, tried to keep Cespedes close out at first and threw five pitches to Smith -- four hard sinkers and one changeup. The 3-1 pitch was a sinker that was flat as a pancake, and Smith crushed it into the bullpen in left-center for a 6-3 lead.

Now, compare that to what Melvin did with Jarrod Parker, who had been hit around during a three-run fourth inning. He let Parker go one more inning, with Josh Donaldson turning a 5-4-3 double play on Torii Hunter to help out his pitcher and end the fifth. Parker was only at 73 pitches through five; in the regular season, he would've gone back to the mound for the sixth.

This isn't the regular season, however. Melvin went to Dan Otero, and he pitched two scoreless innings, with Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour finishing up (nice little skirmish there with Balfour and Victor Martinez, by the way).

The other issue for the Tigers is their offense, which ranked second in the AL in runs scored in the regular season, but was 27th in the majors in home runs in September and has scored runs in just two innings in three games in this series. A large reason for those struggles, of course, has been Miguel Cabrera, who had just two extra-base hits in September. Leyland has decided to stick with his injured star, but it's clear he's not remotely close to the hitter he was for most of the season.

The decision to play Cabrera also hurts the team in the field. Not a good defender to begin with, it seems reasonable to assume Cabrera's fielding is also hindered. His error in the third inning allowed a run to score with two outs, leading to a heated exchange between Sanchez and Cabrera as they walked off the field and into the dugout.

In trying to infuse more offense, Leyland also inserted former shortstop Jhonny Peralta into left field, where he had played two games since returning from his PEDs suspension. In the fourth, Peralta was unable to throw out Stephen Vogt tagging from third on a fairly shallow fly. Vogt is a catcher. Peralta did later hit a two-run single, but that poor throw cost the Tigers a run.

Trouble is, Leyland can't DH Cabrera because Martinez is locked in there and he's been one of the team's best hitters. You're not going to catch Martinez, who played just three games behind the plate, because Alex Avila is a plus defender and hit very well in September (.343, seven extra-base hits). You could play Peralta at third, have Andy Dirks in left, and be stronger defensively at two positions, but that means sitting Cabrera.

The series isn't over. Doug Fister versus Dan Straily in Tuesday's Game 4 is a matchup that favors the Tigers, but right now the A's have the better lineup, the better defense and the better bullpen. I see no signs that Cabrera is going to suddenly bash one out, so Fister is going to have to pitch a gem and hope his defense and bullpen backs him up.

SweetSpot's 2013 AL All-Star team

September, 28, 2013
9/28/13
11:40
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Here are my choices for the 2013 American League All-Star team:

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Twins (.324/.404/.476, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs, 5.2 WAR)
There's not a real clear choice, as Mauer played just 75 of his 113 games behind the plate, but he's the best hitter among the catchers and threw out a league-leading 43 percent of base stealers. Carlos Santana has good offensive numbers, but he played a lot of first base and DH and struggled defensively. Jason Castro's fine season was buried in the Astros' awfulness, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia has hit .272, raising his average 50 points from last year, while bashing 40 doubles and 14 home runs. If he had played a little more behind the plate -- he started 95 games -- he might have been my choice.

First base: Chris Davis, Orioles (.287/.370/.637, 53 HRs, 138 RBIs, 6.7 WAR)
Davis is the easy choice in a weak year at first base in the AL. The only other two first basemen to slug .500 were Edwin Encarnacion, who spent a large chunk of his time at DH, and Brandon Moss, a platoon player. Davis joined Babe Ruth and Albert Belle as the only players with 50 home runs and 40 doubles in a season.

Second base: Robinson Cano, Yankees (.313/.383/.514, 27 HRs, 106 RBIs, 7.6 WAR)
In a year when so much went wrong with the Yankees, Cano was the one constant, missing just one game and putting up his usual excellent numbers. Now the Yankees have to decide exactly how much they're willing to pay for those numbers. Teams like the Dodgers and Nationals could pursue the free agent this winter.

Third base: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (.347/.441/.637, 44 HRs, 137 RBIs, 7.1 WAR)
Despite the injury issues that have slowed him in September (.265, just two extra-base hits and seven RBIs), Cabrera remains the likely MVP winner, thanks in part to a .397/.529/.782 mark with runners in scoring position. It's a deep position with Josh Donaldson having his own MVP-caliber season, Manny Machado catching everything at the hot corner and Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre once again doing everything, but it's hard to deny Miggy's dominance with the bat.

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Orioles (.262/.305/.432, 25 HRs, 74 RBIs, 3.6 WAR)
There's not an obvious guy at the position. Hardy is good defensively and has power, but that .305 OBP lowers his offensive value. Yunel Escobar may have had the best year on defense, but a slow start dragged down his offense. Elvis Andrus plays great defense and has 41 steals but doesn't give you much at the plate. Jed Lowrie stayed healthy and hit but lacks range. In the end, I went with Hardy, who has played 157 games and gives you a little on both sides of the ball.

Left field: Mike Trout, Angels (.323/.431/.554, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, 9.1 WAR)
OK, I cheated a little bit since Trout actually started more games in center than left. But the state of left field in the AL is pretty pathetic, with Alex Gordon and Michael Brantley the only other two rated as even 2.0 WAR players.

Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (.297/.355/.421, 8 HRs, 52 RBIs, 5.7 WAR)
Ellsbury also stole 52 bases in 56 attempts, the second-best percentage ever for a player with at least 50 steals. Orioles fans will argue for Adam Jones, who has 33 home runs and 108 RBIs, but he's drawn just 25 walks so his OBP is a mediocre .318 and his defense doesn't match Ellsbury's.

Right field: Shane Victorino, Red Sox (.297/.354/.456, 15 HRs, 61 RBIs, 6.2 WAR)
He's been solid offensively -- including hitting .303 and slugging .515 while having to bat right-handed against right-handed pitchers after a hamstring injury prevented him from batting left-handed. He has been terrific defensively with 24 Defensive Runs Saved, the sixth-best total in the majors at any position. Again, nobody with big numbers here on offense, especially with Jose Bautista's season-ending injury, but Victorino is a worthy selection.

Designated hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox (.308/.395/.565, 30 HRs, 103 RBIs, 4.3 WAR)
At 37, he's still going strong with his seventh 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Hall of Famer? He's up to 431 career home runs and 1,429 RBIs.

Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Tigers (21-3, 2.90 ERA, 6.6 WAR); Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners (14-6, 2.66 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Chris Sale, White Sox (11-14, 3.07 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Yu Darvish, Rangers (13-9, 2.82 ERA, 5.7 WAR); Anibal Sanchez, Tigers (14-8, 2.64 ERA, 6.0 WAR)
Apologies to Bartolo Colon and Felix Hernandez, and even Clay Buchholz, who went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts.

Left-handed setup guy: Neal Cotts, Rangers (7-3, 1.13 ERA)
Cotts was one of the great stories of the season. He hadn't pitched in the majors since 2009, having Tommy John and four hip surgeries in the intervening years. He pitched in 25 games for the Rangers in Triple-A last year and started there again this season before getting recalled. In 55 2/3 innings, he's allowed just eight runs and 35 hits while striking out 63.

Right-handed setup guy: David Robertson, Yankees (5-1, 2.07 ERA)
For those worried about replacing Mariano Rivera as Yankees closer, the bigger question may actually be: Who replaces Robertson as the eighth-inning guy?

Closer: Koji Uehara, Red Sox (4-1, 21 saves, 1.10 ERA)
Apologies to Kansas City's Greg Holland, who has a 1.23 ERA and 46 saves, and Texas' Joe Nathan, who has a 1.41 ERA and 43 saves. But Uehara, who began the year in middle relief, has put up one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, limiting batters to a .129 average with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 100-to-9.

Debating Scherzer's postseason slot

August, 24, 2013
8/24/13
1:29
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With the Tigers' lead in the AL Central continuing to widen, it would be understandable if thoughts in the Motor City turn to the postseason. My thoughts have certainly drifted in that direction, and really, that's all that matters, right?

Well, there is a potentially interesting situation brewing in Detroit (if, that is, you are interested in this sort of thing). Max Scherzer, of course, has been one of the headline stories this season. Last Sunday, Scherzer pitched eight solid innings against the Royals, running his record to a gaudy 18-1, and further strengthening his case as a top-shelf contender for the American League Cy Young Award.

By any metric, Scherzer has been terrific this season (if not quite as good as Seattle's Felix Hernandez, who is likely the leader in the race for Cy Young glory). His ERA is 2.82, which ranks sixth among AL starters; his fielding-independent numbers are equally good (2.66 FIP, 3.08 xFIP). Scherzer strikes out a lot of batters and doesn't walk many … and how about that gorgeous win-loss record!

One can almost picture it: the bright October lights shining down on the Comerica Park mound, the energy in the stands, television cameras everywhere, red-white-and-blue bunting hanging from the dugout railing. Max Scherzer ambles out, steps across the third-base line. Scherzer reaches back and lets loose with a fastball, the first pitch of Game 3 of the AL Division Series.

[+] EnlargeMax Sherzer
J. Meric/Getty ImagesMax Scherzer is 5-0 with a 1.69 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break.
Wait … Game 3?

Don't be surprised if Scherzer ends up being the No. 3 starter for Detroit in the playoffs. In fact, there's a strong argument to be made that Scherzer, despite the eye-popping W-L numbers (and excellent peripheral stats), is just the third-best pitcher in the Tigers' rotation.

Imagine for a moment that you’re Jim Leyland. Your feet are propped on the desk, you’re smoking a cigarette and trying to figure out who you are going to start in Game 1 of the Division Series. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that Scherzer has ended the regular season 22-2 or 21-3. What does Leyland do?

He starts Justin Verlander in Game 1, that's what he does. Yes, Leyland is old school, and we know that certain baseball lifers haven't yet come around to the notion that the win-loss record is a very poor way to judge a pitcher's value. Even so, I can’t see Leyland sending anyone other than Verlander to the hill in that scenario.

Certainly, Verlander's numbers haven't been as good as Scherzer's in 2013, but in many ways, this is still the same pitcher who finished second and first in the Cy Young voting the past two years (and winning the MVP in 2011). This season, Verlander is 12-9 with a 3.68 ERA. The biggest reason for his slight decline over the heights reached in recent years is that Verlander is walking 3.19 batters per nine innings; that's his highest walk rate since 2008.

Again, however, this is the guy who has been Detroit's superstar over the past four seasons. He has been Hall-of-Fame good, averaging more than seven wins above replacement per year during that time. Verlander also has that version of baseball's holy grail: postseason experience. Though he hasn't been particularly special in the playoffs (6-4, 4.22 ERA), he has started 12 postseason games, including three in the World Series.

Everyone knows about Verlander's greatness in recent years. What might be surprising to the casual fan is that Anibal Sanchez has posted a season that, in most respects, has been even better than his more celebrated teammates.

Sanchez is 11-7, with the team's best ERA (2.45, which ranks second in the AL), the team's best ERA+ (171) and the best FIP (2.34) in the entire American League. Thanks largely to some added velocity on his fastball this year, Sanchez's strikeout rate is second in the league (Scherzer ranks third). Scherzer does edge Sanchez in wins above replacement thanks to the fact Scherzer has made four more starts, and has thrown 40 more innings. (Sanchez spent some time on the disabled list in late June, with a shoulder strain.)

Yes, Sanchez has "lost" seven games, but do we really need another example of how W-L doesn't tell even half the story? If so, the Scherzer/Sanchez duo is prime proof. Sanchez has been every bit as good as Scherzer, but ol’ Max is sitting pretty with an 18-1 record.

Finally, we already knew this, but: wow. Detroit has some outstanding pitching. It's a testament to the quality of this rotation that we're even engaging in this discussion (and we haven't mentioned Doug Fister, who has had a fine season in his own right). Leyland has at his disposal three shutdown starters, and very few teams can boast that level of pitching talent.

If it were up to me, looking at things in a vacuum (I haven't been to Detroit lately; are they playing baseball in a vacuum there?), I'd start Verlander in Game 1, Sanchez in Game 2 and Scherzer in Game 3 of the Division Series. Verlander has been Detroit's best pitcher over the past five years, and Sanchez has been the club's best pitcher this year.

Of course, even if Leyland understands that Sanchez has probably been his best pitcher this season, he still may choose to make him the No. 3 guy to help him get additional rest for that shoulder. Also, keep in mind that, even if he doesn't start Game 1 of the ALDS, Scherzer could still be in line to start Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Ultimately, whatever Leyland decides, he probably can’t make a mistake, no matter how he chooses to assemble this rotation in October.

Actually, on second thought, I might start Miguel Cabrera on the mound in every game. After all, there’s nothing that guy can't do, evidently.

Chad Dotson writes Redleg Nation, a blog about the Cincinnati Reds. Follow him on Twitter.
Completely arbitrary cutoff points:

Justin Verlander since May 11: 5.22 ERA.
Doug Fister since May 9: 4.55 ERA.
Anibal Sanchez since May 18: 3.33 ERA plus DL time.
Rick Porcello since start of season: 4.49 ERA.
Max Scherzer: He's fine.

With Verlander getting rocked again on Thursday -- 11 hits and seven earned runs in a loss to the White Sox -- concerns about him continue to mount. He hasn't struck out more than five batters in his past eight starts and has averaged 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings over that stretch, which ranks 89th out of 110 qualified starters. We know his fastball velocity is still down from previous years and hitters are taking advantage, batting .306 against it after hitting .233 the previous two seasons.

But Verlander isn't the only pitcher in the rotation Tigers fans should be concerned about. After a hot start, Fister has hardly dominated. Using an even smaller sample size, he's allowed 45 hits, including seven home runs, over his past 34 1/3 innings. Sanchez has allowed just one run his past two outings, but the Tigers are being cautious with his shoulder, and he hasn't pitched more than six innings in four starts since returning from the DL. Porcello continues to run hot-and-cold, with four scoreless starts since May 28 mixed in with several blow-up outings.

Not long ago, we were talking about the potentially historic stature of this rotation. Since May, Detroit's starting rotation has posted a 3.87 ERA, not much better than Cleveland's 3.98 mark. To be fair, Tigers starters are still averaging more innings and allowing a lower OPS since May 1 (.690 versus .719), but the gap between the two rotations isn't as dramatic as it appears when just looking at the names. And since June 25, Indians starters have actually allowed a lower OPS than Tigers starters. (Yes, team defense factors in here.)

Look, the Indians don't have anyone as good as Scherzer, and moving forward you would certainly be more likely to bet on Verlander and Fister than Scott Kazmir and Corey Kluber, but baseball has a funny way of proving us wrong. Take away the 13 starts the Indians gave Carlos Carrasco (9.10 ERA), Brett Myers (8.02 ERA) and Trevor Bauer (5.29 ERA), and the five guys currently in the rotation -- Justin Masterson, Kluber, Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez and Zach McAllister have been pretty solid -- with Jimenez's 4.49 ERA the only one over 4.00.

The Indians are just three games behind the Tigers, but Detroit's run differential is much better (plus-99 to plus-36). Since May 1, the Indians are 42-35 and the Tigers are 41-35. Miguel Cabrera has missed the past three games with an injured hip flexor, and while nobody is saying it will be a lingering issue, you never know. Prince Fielder has hit .256/.339/.407 since May 1, which means he's hardly that big second threat behind Cabrera, and Jhonny Peralta is returning to more normal levels of production of late (.244/.299/.378 over his past 33 games). Right now, the offenses are comparable.

I'm still betting on the Detroit to win the division -- the Indians, after all, will have to play better than the Tigers to catch them -- but I think we're heading to a similar scenario as last year, when the Tigers didn't put the White Sox away until the final week of the season. Ryan Pinheiro of It's Pronounced Lajaway isn't quite so optimistic, arguing the Indians are a still a big hitter and ace starter away from playoff contention. Maybe so, but I believe the Indians are going to hang in there.
Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer looks to go 10-0 tonight and become just the second starter of the wild-card era to win his first 10 decisions. Roger Clemens started 11-0 for the '97 Toronto Blue Jays (Clay Buchholz and Patrick Corbin are also 9-0) on his way to the Cy Young Award that season.

Scherzer ranks third in the majors behind Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez in strikeouts, first in lowest batting average allowed (.179), sixth in the AL strikeout-to-walk ratio, and eighth in the AL in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings. He is, however, only 13th in the AL in ERA -- more on that in a bit.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Max Scherzer
AP Photo/Tony DejakDetroit's Max Scherzer goes for his 10th win of the season tonight.
Led by Scherzer, the Tigers' rotation has been outstanding, although it took a hit on Monday when Anibal Sanchez was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain, an injury the Tigers are saying will cost Sanchez a couple starts -- though any shoulder issue should always make you a little nervous.

Anyway, last Thursday Jeff Sullivan pointed out something interesting on FanGraphs. At the time, in large degree because of the numbers the starting pitchers have put up, the Tigers' team Wins Above Replacement was 26.3, which put them on a 162-game pace of 66.6, which would be the third-best WAR of all time, behind only the 1927 Yankees and 1939 Yankees, regarded by many as the two greatest teams ever.

As Jeff wrote,
The Tigers are on pace to win a perfectly reasonable 91 games. That should be enough to get them into the playoffs as Central division champions. But by WAR, they’re on pace to be one of the very greatest teams in baseball history, right up there with the best of the Yankees and eclipsing the 116-win 2001 Mariners with ease. When you watch these Tigers, you might not get the vibe that you’re watching all-time greatness. But by the numbers, that’s what they feature, eschewing the stars-and-scrubs approach in favor of stars-and-more-stars.

Since Jeff wrote that, the Tigers' team WAR has climbed to 28.8 through 67 games, which puts them on pace for 69.6 WAR, a total that would move them into second place (although the '39 Yankees did it in a 154-game season). Meanwhile, the Tigers are still on pace for just 91 or 92 wins, and, no, all the blame for the discrepancy doesn't belong to Jose Valverde.

Eric Karabell and I were talking about this during lunch today and my gut reaction was, "Well, maybe there's something wrong with WAR that's overvaluing all the strikeouts." Eric's reaction was a little different: "Why are the numbers so great but the results not as great?"

Back to the pitching staff. Here are the five main starters and their ERAs and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which approximates what their ERA should be given their strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.

Anibal Sanchez: 2.76 ERA, 2.07 FIP, 3.1 WAR
Justin Verlander: 3.41 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 3.0 WAR
Max Scherzer: 3.19 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 2.9 WAR
Doug Fister: 3.21 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 2.8 WAR
Rick Porcello: 4.37 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 1.3 WAR

Total WAR: 13.1

Since FanGraphs bases its WAR calculation on FIP rather than actual runs allowed, you can guess that a large portion of the discrepancy between the Tigers' WAR total and their actual win total comes from the difference between the ERA and FIP numbers above. Baseball-Reference.com, which calculates its pitcher WAR differently, estimates a total of 9.3 WAR for those five.

Now, Verlander (sixth), Sanchez (ninth) and Fister (20th) rank in the top 20 among qualified starters in highest batting average allowed on balls in play, and overall the Tigers have the fourth-highest BABIP in the majors at .304, "better" only than the Twins, Astros and Mets. So it could be the Tigers are a historically terrible defensive team, but the defensive metrics don't say that. FanGraphs' defensive metric, UZR, has the Tigers at minus-5 runs, which is bad, but not as bad as the Twins, Astros or Mets, all at minus-16 runs or worse. Baseball-Reference uses DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), which has the Tigers at minus-11 runs, which is bad, but there are eight teams rated worse.

So this suggests that maybe Verlander, Sanchez and Fister have simply faced some bad luck on balls in play, although nothing is ever as simple as suggesting it's just bad luck. One more thing. I thought I'd check pitcher's numbers with the bases empty and with runners on base. A pitcher's ERA can climb if the hits he does allow are simply bunched together.

Sanchez: .227/.281/.341, .246/.290/.331
Verlander: .257/.317/.346, .248/.302/.386
Scherzer: .153/.195/.288, .259/.330/.376
Fister: .245/.294/.324, .272/.319/.340
Porcello: .217/.254/.328, .318/.375/.489

As you can see, Scherzer and Porcello have been much worse with runners on base. There could be a real issue here -- they lose stuff from the stretch, Alex Avila calls for too many fastballs, etc. -- or just randomness in the numbers.

Anyway, the Tigers have a comfortable lead in the AL Central, and even if Sanchez's injury requires a longer DL stint than 15 days, I see them pulling away to a sizable lead in the division in the second half. But all-time great team? That probably won't happen, although 100 wins isn't out of the question; the Tigers would have to go 62-33 over their final 95 games to reach the century mark. And that probably means Jose Valverde better start locking down every save situation, for starters.

Iwakuma heads crowded AL Cy Young race

June, 14, 2013
6/14/13
12:00
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Last week, we went over the early contenders for the National League Cy Young Award. We still have a lot of season left, but there have been a few pitchers who have already separated themselves from the pack in the American League. Shockingly, only two players who received votes in last year's AL Cy Young balloting made the top five on my list through two and a half months. In fact, none of last year's top three -- David Price, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver -- made it.

Hisashi Iwakuma (7-1, 1.79 ERA, 95.1 IP, 64 H, 87 SO, 14 BB)
Iwakuma nudges out Clay Buchholz for No. 1 on my list for two reasons: He has made two more starts (and tossed 11 more innings) and has better defense-independent numbers, which make him a slightly better candidate going forward. Iwakuma has the second-best ERA at 1.79 and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio at 6.21. He is one of five starters across baseball with a walk rate below 4 percent. The only question with Iwakuma is if he can maintain a low BABIP, as he's currently at .222. As most pitchers tend to hover around .290 to .300, Iwakuma would have to have some abnormal batted-ball ability (such as Matt Cain’s ability to generate infield pop-ups) or play behind an elite defense to maintain it.

Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA, 84.1 IP, 57 H, 29 BB, 81 SO)
Buchholz is a perfect 9-0 and has baseball's best ERA at 1.71. By traditional measures, he's the no-brainer favorite right now, but we will dig a bit deeper. The one factor that has led to Buchholz's success most has been his ability to limit home runs. Over his career, one out of every 10 fly balls Buchholz allowed has left the yard, a normal rate. This year, though, it is only 3 percent despite inducing fly balls at the same rate. Last season, Gio Gonzalez had the lowest HR/FB rate among all starters at 5.8 percent.

Buchholz also has walked batters at more than twice the rate of Iwakuma, 9 percent to 4 percent. Both strike out hitters at the same rate, so Buchholz, simply, is allowing more baserunners. He is clearly a much better pitcher than he has been in the past (he increased his strikeout rate by about 50 percent), but he is just a shade behind Iwakuma thus far.

Anibal Sanchez (6-5, 2.65 ERA, 78 IP, 66 H, 19 BB, 98 SO)
Only two pitchers in baseball have tossed at least two games with a game score of 88 or better: NL Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright (89, 91) and Sanchez (88, 94). Sanchez's first was a 17-strikeout outing against the Braves on April 26, a start that officially put him on the map. The second was a no-hit bid May 24 against the Twins, broken up by Joe Mauer's one-out single up the middle in the ninth inning.

Sanchez, acquired by the Tigers last July from the Marlins and then re-signed as a free agent in the offseason, is a markedly better pitcher now, at the age of 29. His strikeout rate is a terrific 31 percent, the second-best rate among all starters. His previous career-high was 24 percent. He is also walking 6 percent of hitters faced, 2 percent below his career average. Like Buchholz, he has limited home runs at 5 percent of fly balls. Even if that rate regresses back to the mean, though, Sanchez should still be among the league leaders in ERA, which should pull in some of the more traditional-minded voters.

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As with Buchholz, who has missed some time with a sore neck, keep an eye out for Sanchez's health. He missed his last start with shoulder stiffness.

Yu Darvish (7-2, 2.64 ERA, 95.1 IP, 61 H, 29 BB, 127 SO)
Darvish is the only pitcher this year to have at least five starts with at least 10 strikeouts. To say he has been impressive would be an understatement. Darvish has made improvements in his defense-independent metrics, increasing his strikeout rate over last year by 7 percent and cutting his walk rate by 3 percent.

Perhaps most stunning, he is on pace to strike out 267 batters over 200 innings. If he gets there, it would be the most strikeouts since Verlander's 269 in 2009, and he would be one of only four pitchers (Verlander, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia) to cross the 250-strikeout barrier since 2005. Strikeouts have been on the rise since 2005 (6.3 per game to 7.6), but innings pitched by starters have been on the decline. Darvish's array of pitches has turned him into the game's premier strikeout pitcher.

Compared to the other candidates, Darvish has actually been hurt by home runs, allowing nine in 88 innings. Despite that, he still has a 2.75 ERA, which ranks sixth in the AL.

Felix Hernandez (7-4, 2.49 ERA, 97.2 IP, 83 H, 19 BB, 102 SO)
We are looking at arguably the best King Felix we have seen to date. His 2.49 ERA ranks third in the AL, but he has bumped his strikeout rate to a career-high (27 percent) and his walk rate to a career-low (5 percent), giving him the third-best K/BB in the league, behind teammate Iwakuma and Doug Fister. Hernandez has done all of this while eating a ton of innings -- his 97.2 innings pitched is second-best in the league behind James Shields' 100. Hernandez had tossed at least 230 innings in each of the previous four seasons, so this is nothing new for him.

That Hernandez is only No. 5 on this list and that he may not be the favorite going forward should not diminish the tremendous improvement in his effectiveness this year. At just 27 years old, he will have plenty more opportunities to add a second Cy Young Award to his mantle as he stakes his claim as one of his generation's best arms.

Bill Baer writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

This whole closer thing is a tough business. Perfection isn't just expected; it's demanded. Slip up once and it's a headline; slip up twice and fans are ready to trade you to Topeka. Slip up three times and your manager usually starts questioning your intestinal fortitude. As the late, great Dan Quisenberry once said, "A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six-shooter: He fires until it's empty then takes the gun and throws it at the villain."

The trouble with closers, and the decisions managers have to make when they start to struggle: When do you know if the chamber is empty?

Three playoff contenders suffered wrenching defeats this weekend when their closers blew multirun leads. Blown saves in one-run games are bad enough; blowing leads of two or three runs is generally unacceptable. The victims, or saboteurs if you prefer: Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles, Chris Perez of the Cleveland Indians, and Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here's what happened:
  • The Orioles led the Blue Jays 5-2 on Sunday entering the bottom of the ninth, but Edwin Encarnacion doubled, Adam Lind grounded a single up the middle and J.P. Arencibia lined a base hit to right. A fly out, walk and fielder's choice made it 5-4 with runners at the corners and two outs. Light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki was at the plate. Johnson threw Kawasaki six consecutive fastballs -- six of his signature mid-90s sinker -- but the sixth one didn't sink much. The pitch hung out over the middle of the plate, and Kawasaki lined it into left center for a game-winning two-run double. The Orioles lost just one game last season they led heading into the ninth inning; they already have five such defeats in 2013. Johnson has lost three of those, and he has two other defeats, as well.
  • The Indians also led 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, ready to salvage a split of a four-game series at Fenway Park. Dustin Pedroia walked to lead off, and, as you can probably guess, bad things happen when you walk the leadoff batter with a three-run lead. David Ortiz doubled. A groundout scored a run, Ortiz stole third and then another groundout made it 5-4. But now the bases were empty and Perez had two outs. He walked Jonny Gomes, who is hitting .200 without a homer against right-handed pitchers; Stephen Drew lined a base hit to right; and Perez walked light-hitting Jose Iglesias. Terry Francona had finally had enough and brought in Joe Smith to face Jacoby Ellsbury, who won it with a double to left center. It was the first game Cleveland lost entering the ninth inning and just the second loss for the bullpen, but Perez has been shaky of late. Last week, he blew a two-run lead in the ninth to Seattle only to get the win, and two days later, he gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth only to be rescued again as Cleveland won in extra innings. That's seven runs his past three outings.
  • Rodney blew his fifth save on Saturday night, a 3-1 lead against the Yankees, who won in 11 innings. The Rays have now lost three games they led entering the ninth (and five they led entering the eighth). Last season, when Rodney allowed just nine runs all season and the entire pen was stellar, those figures were two and three.

So that's the play-by-play of disaster. That all three are struggling isn't necessarily a big surprise. Their Proven Closer labels were a little dubious entering the season, especially for Johnson and Rodney, who each had just one full season as a closer under the belt. In fact, it's time we take the magic out of the whole "closer mystique" nonsense that everybody likes to pretend exists. The fact that guys like Jason Grilli of the Pirates and Edward Mujica of the Cardinals are doing just fine is another indication that closers are often lucked into, not made.

There are few great ones -- Mariano Rivera, of course, and Craig Kimbrel (although even he has three blown saves) -- but the truth is that for most of these guys there's a slender margin between invincibility and Tom Niedenfuer. That's exactly what we're seeing with Johnson, Rodney and Perez this season.

Johnson is a pitch-to-contact closer whom sabermetric analysts predicted would be hard-pressed to match his big 2012 campaign when he saved 51 games. His strikeout rate is up, but that's because he's throwing more pitches up in the zone; a sinker up in the zone is a bad pitch. Last season, Johnson's ground ball rate was 62 percent; this season, it's 42 percent. Thus, he's getting hit more.

Perez was an All-Star the past two seasons, but his 3.45 ERA during that span is hardly elite material for a closer. He's always been a guy who lives on the edge, a decent reliever who got the ninth-inning role. His heat map shows a lot more pitches up in the zone this season, as well -- he's already allowed five doubles, four home runs and 10 walks in 16⅔ innings.

Rodney's implosion is probably the least surprising of the three. From 2007 to 2011, his ERA was more than 4.00 each season. Last season, he suddenly developed the perfect feel for his changeup to go along with fastball command, and batters hit .071 off it with 55 Ks and five walks. This season, the fastball command hasn't been there, and neither has the dominance on the changeup. He's already walked 18 batters (including 10 on changeups) after walking 15 all of last season. After giving up four extra-base hits in 2012, that total is already at nine. In other words, instead of getting Dennis Eckersley in his prime, the Rays are back to getting Fernando Rodney.

The managers of these clubs have some difficult decisions. Because all three have the Proven Closer label, how many chances do they get? And just shuffling them into the eighth-inning role and promoting the setup guy to closer doesn't necessarily solve anything; they can blow games just as easily in the eighth as in the ninth. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has the best options, as relievers Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz have all pitched well.

"We should be getting on the plane with three wins here, but I can't hang my head too long," Johnson said after the game. "It's going to hurt for a little bit, and it should."

For now, it appears Johnson will keep his job despite four blown saves in his past five appearances. But no matter what happens the rest of the season, the ninth inning has already been a disaster for the Orioles. Last season, the average team lost 3.7 games it lead heading into the ninth. As mentioned, that's already five such defeats for the O's this season. And each one has hurt a little bit.

REST OF THE WEEKEND

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Three stars

1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez lost his no-hit bid on Friday when Joe Mauer singled with one out in the ninth. After Detroit acquired Sanchez from the Marlins last season, his strong performance in the playoffs led the Tigers to sign him to an $80 million contract that seemed a little ambitious considering his 3.65 career ERA and the fact that he'd never pitched 200 innings in a season. So far, however, Sanchez has been much better than a midrotation starter, as he's increased his strikeout rate from 20.4 percent a season ago to 30.6 percent now. While he's getting more strikeouts with all four of his pitches, the biggest increase has been with his fastball, which had a strikeout rate of 13.8 percent on plate appearances ending with the pitch in 2012 but 28 percent this season. The command of his fastball -- especially on the outside corner to righties -- has made his other pitches even more effective.

2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals. For a guy who is "struggling," Strasburg has looked pretty good of late. He allowed just one run in eight innings against the Phillies on Sunday. In his past three starts, he's allowed four runs and just 13 hits in 23 innings. He's recorded 39 groundouts and 15 fly outs over those three starts. He's still seeking his first double-digit strikeout game of the season but still has 71 Ks in 72⅓ innings. While his ERA of 2.49 is a little misleading -- he's allowed nine unearned runs -- his recent outings should alleviate the minor concerns about his early performance.

3. Pete Kozma, Cardinals. How to beat Clayton Kershaw? The Cardinals shortstop went 4-for-4 on Sunday with three doubles; three of those hits came off Kershaw, including a three-run double and rally-starting two-base hit, as the Cardinals won 5-3.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Of our many walk-off heroes, how about Chris Young of the A's? The A's trailed the Astros 5-3 on Friday. Jose Veras walked John Jaso and Coco Crisp on 3-2 pitches, setting the stage for Young with two outs. Young did this on a 1-1 curveball. The A's are now five games over .500 -- thanks in large part to a 9-0 record against the Astros, who they've outscored 68 to 31. Hey, if they go 19-0 against the Astros, it's going to be hard to deny them another trip to the playoffs.

Best game
The Giants fell behind 4-0 to the Rockies on Saturday but chipped away and tied the game in the seventh. Manager Bruce Bochy got ejected in the eighth when Marco Scutaro was thrown out at third base, and the Giants escaped a two-on, nobody-out jam in the ninth. Troy Tulowitzki homered off a Sergio Romo slider in the 10th. But then, after the usually steady Rafael Betancourt walked Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan lofted a deep fly to right center that kicked off the wall … and, well, Pagan ran 360 feet around the bases, helped a bit by a lazy relay throw from Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler.

Hitter on the rise: Matt Dominguez, Astros
When the Astros acquired Dominguez last season from the Marlins for Carlos Lee, everyone knew he had a major league caliber glove at third base. After going homerless in his first 33 games, doubts began increasing about his bat. Dominguez, however, has now popped seven homers in his past 13 games. His season line still needs some work, especially in the on-base department (.279), but he's starting to look like a positive in this dismal Astros season.

Pitcher on the rise: Jason Vargas, Angels
Don't look now, but the Angels have won eight in a row and are a respectable 23-27. Did they start too late, just like last season? Vargas is 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA in May, allowing nine runs in five starts. The Angels' next 10 games are against the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs. If they're a couple games over .500 at the end of those 10 games, they'll be back in the wild-card race.

Team on the rise: White Sox
Besides the Angels and Pirates (last week's team on the rise), the hottest club is the White Sox. We keep wanting to count out the South Siders, but, somehow, they find a way to hang in there. They don't score much, but they've won nine of 12 the old-fashioned way: with starting pitching. The starters have a 3.25 ERA over those 12 games, and that despite ace Chris Sale missing his last start with mild tendinitis in his shoulder. He's scheduled to start Tuesday against the Cubs.

Team on the fall: Mariners
They pulled out an extra-inning victory over the Rangers on Sunday, but that ended an eight-game losing streak. Starters not named Hernandez or Iwakuma have combined for a 6.78 ERA, which essentially means three-fifths of the Seattle rotation is below replacement level. The Jesus Montero catching experiment was finally, mercifully, brought to an end as he was demoted to Triple-A to see if he can rediscover the supposed hitting prowess that once made him a top-10 prospect (and play some first base). Dustin Ackley continues to be awful and Michael Saunders is three for his past 37. Things are so bad that Mariners fans are excited about Justin Smoak and his .698 OPS.

 
On Sept. 6, 2006, a 22-year-old Anibal Sanchez threw a no-hitter against the Arizona Diamondbacks while pitching for the Marlins. It was the highlight of an impressive debut season in which he went 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA and even received rookie of the year votes. He looked like a burgeoning ace.

Of course, the trajectory of pitching careers isn't always predictable, and shoulder woes would limit Sanchez to fewer than 170 innings over the next three seasons.

Fast-forward to Detroit in 2013, and after a few years of solid, albeit unspectacular, pitching, we're finally starting to see a glimpse of that ace. First it was the 17-strikeout outing against the Braves a few Fridays ago; tonight, he took a no-hitter into the ninth before Joe Mauer broke it up with a one-out single. Sanchez shook it off to strike out the next two batters and finish off the one-hitter, a 6-0 Tigers victory.

Sanchez was a little erratic early on against the Twins, walking a batter in each of the first two innings before turning on the "total dominance" switch. He retired 18 straight from the second through the eighth, and other than a Justin Morneau line drive that was hit directly at shortstop Jhonny Peralta in the top of the seventh, there wasn't anything else that could be described as hard hit until Mauer's single.

Sanchez was running up a bit of a pitch count, having thrown 90 through six innings, and it looked like manager Jim Leyland might have to consider pulling him with a no-hitter still intact. But a nine-pitch seventh inning put Sanchez back on course, and he was able to cruise into the ninth.

Mauer loomed over that inning, and it was obvious the three-time batting champ would be the biggest obstacle between Sanchez and the no-hitter. Sure enough, Mauer smoked a 1-1 pitch right back up the middle for a clean single.

The no-hitter would have been a treat, but one hit shouldn't diminish the pitcher Sanchez has become. It's also a lesson that sometimes we need to be patient with pitching prospects. It's easy to write them off if they've had injuries or struggled for an extended period of time, but it's worth keeping the faith as long as their stuff is still intact.

In recent years we've seen a few former top pitching prospects who bloomed late, such as Homer Bailey, Brandon McCarthy and now Sanchez. So if you have been tempted to turn the page on the likes of Julio Teheran and Brandon Morrow because their ascent hasn't come as quickly and cleanly as you hoped, maybe you should hold off for a bit.

While some pitchers, such as Matt Harvey and Shelby Miller, hit the ground running in the majors, others, like Sanchez, take a few years to find their groove. With him, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer fronting the rotation, the Tigers might have the best trio of starters in the game.
Major league baseball is so deep in quality starting pitching that you could probably make the case for nine or 10 different combinations as the best pair going right now. Here are my top five:

1. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
This may surprise you, but Hernandez and Iwakuma have the highest WAR (wins above replacement) of any pair of pitchers in the majors. And before we write off Iwakuma's outstanding start to the season as a fluke, here are the American League ERA leaders going back to last July 1, when Iwakuma joined the Mariners' rotation:

Iwakuma: 2.54
Hernandez: 2.69
Justin Verlander: 2.77
James Shields: 2.86
Hiroki Kuroda: 2.97

So the M's have Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball, a guy who has pitched 230-plus innings the past four seasons and who has been as effective as any starter in the game for nearly a year. And they have Iwakuma, who will give up some home runs, but he's walked only 11 batters in 10 starts and his splitter has turned into a wipeout pitch -- batters are hitting .184 off it with one home run, 35 strikeouts and two walks in 79 plate appearances ending with the pitch. If the Mariners fall out of the wild-card race, maybe they'll look to trade Iwakuma while his stock is high, but I fear that would be a mistake and they would be making a Doug Fister-like trade that backfires. Iwakuma is for real.

2. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, Tigers
The Tigers' rotation is so good that you could also slot Fister or Max Scherzer here and have an equally terrific duo. I still like Scherzer as the club's No. 2 as the season progresses, but Sanchez has been terrific so far and has ramped up his strikeout rate to new highs, up more than 9 percent from last season (68 in 55.1 innings). His ERA is 2.77, and while his home run rate is probably unsustainable (just two allowed), his BABIP is too high on the other end at .356. Moving forward, those two results should cancel each other out as they normalize and Sanchez should remain outstanding.

3. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game right now -- he's gone 22 consecutive starts allowing three earned runs or fewer, the longest such streak since Pedro Martinez had 23 in 1999-2000 -- and Greinke would be the ace of many teams. Now that Greinke is back from his broken collarbone, we'll see if everyone has written off the Dodgers too quickly.

4. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Somehow, Kuroda still flies under the radar despite playing in New York. He's not flashy, but batters are hitting .201 AVG/.254 OBP/.292 SLG against him. There's some luck going on here since his .229 BABIP will probably rise, but his slider has been untouchable: opponents are 8-for-61 (.131) against it without an extra-base hit. Meanwhile, Sabathia has lost some velocity off his fastball, but he pitches down in the zone more, throws strikes and keeps the Yankees in games. Since his pitch counts have run high at times he's averaging only 6.5 innings per start, so maybe his days as a 230-inning workhorse are over (he missed a few starts last year, remember, and pitched just 200 innings). Remember as well that these guys have to pitch half their games at Yankee Stadium, where routine fly balls can land in the right-field stands.

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5. Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Yes, young guns Shelby Miller and Matt Harvey have seemingly pushed Strasburg out of the limelight, but he's still pretty good and still throws hard (best average fastball velocity among starting pitchers). Nonetheless, he's been surpassed by Zimmermann as the club's ace. Zimmerman doesn't rack up the huge strikeout totals so the advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP suggest his ERA will rise (well, it will, since it's at 1.62 right now). But he throws strikes with Maddux-like precision (nine walks in nine starts) and while there were concerns heading into the season about his ability to go deep into games, his efficiency has allowed him to toss three complete games without throwing more than 107 pitches. He's 7-2 and could be 9-0 -- in the two games he lost, he allowed two runs.

That's my top five, and I couldn't find room for Adam Wainwright and Miller, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Chris Sale and Jake Peavy, Matt Moore and David Price, Matt Harvey and anybody. It's a pitcher's game right now, that's for sure.

Well, Miguel Cabrera was due.

I mean, he'd gone a whole four games without a home run. He'd driven in just two runs in his previous eight games. He was probably taking extra batting practice before Sunday's game. The bum.

Cabrera was a one-man wrecking crew on Sunday for the Detroit Tigers, however, going 4-for-4 with three home runs, a walk, four runs and five RBIs. Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers had more than one man and won 11-8 to capture the first showdown of the season between the two teams many consider the best in the American League by winning three of four games, including a battering of Justin Verlander on Thursday.

More on that in a moment. First, let us appreciate the greatness of Cabrera. The scary thing about his hot start -- he's hitting .387 with 11 home runs and 47 RBIs, leading the AL in batting and RBIs while ranking one behind the league leaders in home runs -- is that last season he heated up after May. He hit nine home runs and 42 RBIs through the end of May, still a pretty good two months for most players, but then hit .336 with 35 home runs from June 1 onward. What if he hasn't even heated up yet? I mean, the dude is on pace for 181 RBIs, putting him within spitting distance of Hack Wilson's record of 191. He's making it seem possible that he could win another Triple Crown.

Yes, it's mid-May, but Cabrera is so good it doesn't sound ridiculous mentioning stuff like this.

How do you get him out right now? He's hitting .405 against fastballs. He's hitting .375 against inside pitches. He's hitting .314 on pitches outside the strike zone (with a bunch of walks, as well, since that's where walks come from). Get two strikes on him and he's still hitting .299, compared to the major league average of .194.

Unstoppable right now. Unstoppable.

But the Rangers stole his thunder, lashing out 18 hits in the win. Not a bad four games for Texas, which knocked out Verlander in the third inning on Thursday, Anibal Sanchez in the third inning on Saturday and Doug Fister in the fifth on Sunday.

Which sort of leaves me wondering: What exactly do we have with these Tigers? The AL Central looks much tougher than last season, when the Tigers sort of limped to the division title despite Cabrera's Triple Crown and huge seasons from Verlander, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson. We're sort of seeing the same thing right now. Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball, Fielder is doing Fielder kinds of things, Torii Hunter, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante are all hitting more than .300, and the rotation has generally been excellent before this series.

But for some reason, it hasn't all added up, and the Tigers are just 23-19, now two games behind the Indians. They're under .500 against teams not named "Astros" (17-18). Their run differential is plus-47, second in the AL behind the Rangers' plus-54 but just plus-11 against teams not named "Houston." And the Tigers don't get to play the Astros any more.

And, no, you can't blame the bullpen (although it did get the loss on Sunday). The bullpen ERA is 3.91, 21st in the majors, but still better than the Red Sox, Rays or Cardinals. Their OPS allowed is actually fifth-best in the majors. The relievers' record is 3-8, which is tied for the fewest wins in the majors, but that speaks as well to the offense's inability to score late and Detroit's 2-4 record in extra innings.

There are no questions about Cabrera, but this series certainly left us with some questions about his teammates.

Here's the most important takeaway from the David Price-Tom Hallion incident on Sunday: Hallion missed the call.

Price thought he had struck out Dewayne Wise to end the seventh inning on a pitch on the outside of the corner. He even took a step to the dugout, but Hallion didn't ring up Wise. Price got Wise on the next pitch but after the game said Hallion swore at him.

"I'm walking off the mound, I'm just mad at myself," Price said. "I didn't say a single word or look at him. He [Hallion] yells at me." Hallion told a pool reporter, "I'll come right out bluntly and say he's a liar. I said, 'Just throw the ball.' That's all I said to him."

Something is fishy, but let's start here. Don't call the player a liar if you got the call wrong. Below is the location of the five pitches to Wise; the fourth one is the one in question.

David Price heat mapESPN Stats & InformationDavid Price's fourth pitch was a strike on the outside edge of the plate.
According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Hallion didn't have a good game on Sunday, with a correct call percentage of 83 percent: Out of 199 pitches that were taken in the game, he missed on 33 ball-strike calls. (Price benefited from some bad calls as well.) The league average is 87 percent, so while 83 percent doesn't appear drastically worse than average, it is -- that would be in the bottom-10th percentile of the league. Out of 200 pitches, we're talking a difference of eight pitches, which is certainly enough to potentially help swing the game's outcome.

Is Hallion a bad umpire? We can't go off one game, so let's check the season numbers: He ranks 64th of the 74 umpires who have umped at least one game behind home plate, with a correct percentage of 85.3. But that's only seven games. What about last year? Hallion ranked 66th of 82 umpires at 86.3 percent. In 2011, Hallion ranked 65th of 83 umpires. I think the trend is pretty clear: Hallion isn't very good at calling balls and strikes. He's not the worst, but he's a long way from the best.

He's a crew chief who began his major league career in 1985; he should know better than to offer a comment when asked about Price, let alone call the player a liar. Even if there was a misunderstanding, he should keep his mouth shut; umpires should always remain in the shadow.

In the end, the missed call to Wise didn't matter. Wise grounded out, and the Rays broke open a 3-3 game with three runs in the eighth and two in the ninth to give Price his first win of the season. But this little incident is a reminder: It's never good news when you're reading about umpires. We're stuck with them -- and the job is tough -- but we shouldn't be stuck with umpires who publicly call out pitchers they have to call balls and strikes on.

REST OF THE WEEKEND
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Three stars
1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez did something Justin Verlander hasn't done, something Jack Morris or Jim Bunning or Hal Newhouser never did in a Tigers uniform: He struck out 17 batters in beating the Braves 1-0 on Friday night, the first win of an impressive sweep for the Tigers as they outscored the Braves 25-7. Sanchez set the Tigers' franchise record for strikeouts -- Mickey Lolich twice fanned 16 in 1969 -- and did it in eight innings. Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman each fanned four times, as Atlanta K'd 18 times altogether. Sanchez also became just the fifth AL pitcher since 1920 to fan at least 17 with one walk or fewer, joining Roger Clemens (twice), Johan Santana, Vida Blue and Luis Tiant.

2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals. Zimmermann tossed a one-hit shutout over the Reds on Friday -- a night after Gio Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano had one-hit the Reds. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Zimmermann didn't allow a single hard-hit ball and was especially dominant with his slider, throwing it a season-high 20 times as the Reds went 0-for-8 against it. Amazingly, the Reds became the fourth team since 1920 to have one or fewer in back-to-back games, joining the 2008 Astros, 1996 Tigers and 1965 Mets.

3. Russell Martin, Pirates. The Pirates took two out of three from the Cardinals, with Martin hitting a big home run in Saturday's 5-3 win and two more in Sunday's 9-0 shutout. The Pirates are 8-2 in their past 10 games, winning series against the Cardinals, Phillies and Braves.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Yoenis Cespedes, A's. With Cespedes on the DL, the A's had lost eight of nine. They were staring at an 8-6 deficit when Cespedes stepped in with one out and one on in the bottom of the ninth in his first game since April 12. With Orioles closer Jim Johnson having pitched in four of the team's previous five games, Buck Showalter had lefty Brian Matusz face Cespedes, but Cespedes ripped a low slider out to left-center and tied the game with a long home run, and the A's won in the 10th on a throwing error by third baseman Manny Machado (who tried to throw out a runner at third on a sac bunt).

Best game
Padres 8, Giants 7 (Saturday). The Giants jumped out to a 5-0 lead after two innings, but the Padres rallied for six off Barry Zito in the bottom of the fourth (including a great move by Bud Black to hit for pitcher Eric Stults with Jesus Guzman, who delivered a two-run single). The Giants retook the lead, but the Padres tied it up in the bottom of the seventh. Both bullpens were stellar into the 12th, with the Padres finally beating Giants closer Sergio Romo when Marco Scutaro booted what could have been an inning-ending double-play ball. OK, the Zimmermann game was pretty good as well -- he outdueled Homer Bailey and threw just 91 pitches while Bailey threw just 89 in seven innings. Good luck seeing another game this year that features just 194 pitches.

Hitter on the rise: Brandon Crawford, Giants
Is the light-hitting defensive whiz really hitting .291/.361/.547? He hit his fifth home run on Saturday -- one more than he hit last season.

Pitcher on the rise: Lance Lynn, Cardinals
After a sluggish start, some fans wondered whether Lynn -- who dropped 40 pounds in the offseason -- had dropped too much weight. But he's allowed just three hits and one run over 14 innings in his past two starts.

Team on the rise: Yankees
Wait a minute, they've made the playoffs every year except one since 1995! What are they rising from? What about preseason predictions of their demise? The Yankees swept the Blue Jays over the weekend, the bats are hitting home runs, the rotation is solid, David Phelps and David Robertson have pitched some key innings in the pen and Mariano Rivera looks like he only has another seven or eight years in him. The Yankees have some overachievers early on (Vernon Wells, the now-injured Francisco Cervelli), but as long as CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte continue to pitch well, they should hang in the AL East hunt.

Team on the fall: Angels
The Giants have lost five straight, including a sweep to the Padres, but the Angels lost three of four in Seattle and are staring at the same lousy April they had a year ago. Will Mike Scioscia still be managing the club this time next week?

 
You have to feel for Jordan Zimmermann, he of the Friday evening one-hitter, and Kyle Kendrick (three-hit shutout) a little bit. On any other night, either of those two would have been the story. But they were both upstaged by Anibal Sanchez, who set a Detroit Tigers franchise record by striking out 17 batters in a 10-0 victory against the Atlanta Braves.

That's right, a current member of the Tigers holds the franchise record for strikeouts in a game, and it's not Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.

Sanchez isn't in the class of Verlander or Scherzer as a strikeout pitcher (few are), but he did whiff 202 batters while pitching for the Marlins in 2011. So that got me thinking: Could the Tigers' pitching staff set the record for most strikeouts in a season?

The record is just 10 years old, and it was set by the 2003 Chicago Cubs; the Mark Prior/Kerry Wood-led staff fanned 1,404. Through 21 games, the Tigers have 211 strikeouts, which is a hair more than 10 per game and puts them on pace to shatter the record with 1,628.

That figure is a bit misleading due to the fact that the season is in its infancy, and Sanchez's performance is being given too much weight as a result. Rick Porcello and his 2.1 strikeouts per nine innings are set to take the bump for the Tigers on Saturday, and if Detroit's pitchers only rack up five strikeouts, for example, that strikeout "projection" would drop to 1,583.

Nonetheless, this staff has what it takes to threaten the record. Verlander and Scherzer are in the upper echelon of strikeout pitchers, and it wouldn't be unheard of for each of them to surpass 230 Ks apiece, as they did last season. For context, Wood and Prior had 266 and 245 for the Cubs, respectively, in 2003. The Cubs club didn't have another pitcher crack the 200-K plateau, which is where Sanchez can give the Tigers an edge.

Assuming Sanchez can surpass 200 punchouts, the Tigers would be halfway to the record before any of their other starters or relievers entered the equation. Thus far, the Tigers' relievers are doing their part, as Al Alburquerque (15.2 strikeouts per nine), Darin Downs (13.0), Joaquin Benoit (10.5) and Phil Coke (10.4) are all fanning more than a man per inning. And the recently promoted Bruce Rondon throws 100 mph and should pull his weight in the strikeout department. As you might recall, the 2003 Cubs featured two relievers who racked up a ton of strikeouts, with Kyle Farnsworth fanning 92 and Mike Remlinger whiffing 83.

When it comes down to it, the Tigers' chances of breaking the record will be dictated by two factors: health (duh) and Porcello. While his current strikeout rate is lower than his career rate of 4.9 per nine, he's never been a guy who misses a lot of bats. If he remains in the rotation all season, he will make it difficult for Detroit to pass the Cubs.

Of course, Porcello might pitch himself out of the rotation if he can't get his ERA into single digits posthaste, and the Tigers' chance of breaking the record would almost certainly get a boost from whomever his replacement might be. (It would likely be Drew Smyly, who is fanning 10.2 per nine as a reliever this season and has a career mark of 8.7.)

With the way strikeout rates have been rising over the lpast decade, it's only a matter of time before the team strikeout record falls. With Anibal Sanchez in top form, the Tigers are equipped to make it happen.
No, the World Baseball Classic isn't the World Series or the World Cup, and it doesn't really prove which country has the best baseball talent. But it's a fun event, the players participating want to win, and there are fans across the globe -- mostly outside of the United States -- who care passionately about the results.

Is the event perfect? Of course not. Thursday's much-anticipated Pool C game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico should have featured Felix Hernandez starting against Johnny Cueto instead of Anibal Sanchez against Edinson Volquez, but I didn't have a problem getting pumped up to watch a Dominican lineup that featured Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Santana, and a Venezuelan lineup that went nine deep with the likes of Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Montero and Martin Prado.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano drove in three of the Dominican's nine runs in the opener against Venezuela.
Managers Tony Pena of the Dominican and Luis Sojo of Venezuela were forced to scramble when a first-inning rain delay led to the early exits of Volquez and Sanchez. But the Dominican had already jumped on Sanchez for three first-inning runs -- Cano doubled in two -- and a contingent of Dominican relievers, some minor league no-names and some major leaguers with big fastballs held the explosive Venezuelans to just six hits in a 9-3 victory. The game slogged along, reminiscent of a Red Sox-Yankees affair from the mid-2000s, but that just showed what the game means to the players: They weren't going through the motions like you might see in a spring-training game in Arizona in early March.

The win puts the Dominicans in the driver's seat to win Pool C and help escape the embarrassment of 2009, when they lost twice to the Netherlands in pool play and failed to advance (scoring just three runs in those two games despite a lineup that included Cano, Reyes, Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada). Venezuela entered the tournament as a favorite alongside the U.S. Even minus Hernandez, it seemed to have more pitching depth than the Dominican, especially among the starters.

But in pool play, it's all about bullpen depth. Pitchers are limited to 65 pitches per outing and if they throw at least 30, they can't pitch the following day. If you pitch two days in a row, you can't pitch a third day in a row. But the Dominican bullpen rolled out Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera, he of the average fastball velocity of 97 mph last year, veteran Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop of the Orioles and Rays closer Fernando Rodney. Strop had the key appearance on Thursday, pitching 1.2 hitless innings in the middle of the game when the score was 5-3. Command has always been the issue for Strop, but he threw an efficient 20 pitches, 14 for strikes. With a day off on Friday, Pena had no reservations about running all his relievers out there.

The Dominicans can attack you in different ways. They have the speed of Reyes, Erick Aybar and Alejandro De Aza; the power of Cano and Encarnacion; the patience of Santana, who drew four walks on Thursday. The team is also hoping to add Adrian Beltre in the second round. With that lineup and that crew of hard-throwing relievers, the Dominicans certainly have the ability to win it all.

The U.S. is still the favorite on paper (it plays its opener on Friday against Mexico). Even without starters Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, it has the most pitching depth. After Volquez, the Dominicans have to rely on guys such as Wandy Rodriguez and probably Samuel Deduno to start.

And don't sleep on Venezuela. Its Saturday game against Puerto Rico likely becomes the key game now in Pool C. I wouldn't bet against a lineup where Marco Scutaro is batting ninth.

Offseason report card: Tigers

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
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2012 in review
Record: 88-74 (88-74 Pythagorean)
726 runs scored (6th in American League)
670 runs allowed (5th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Re-signed Anibal Sanchez. Signed Torii Hunter. Lost Jose Valverde and Delmon Young.

It has been a relatively quiet offseason for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but his two major signings made perfect sense. Bringing back Sanchez gives the team another reliable innings-eater in the middle of the rotation, even if he's not quite as good as his three terrific starts in the postseason, when he posted a 1.77 ERA.

Snapping up Hunter for two years and $26 million was one of the sleeper free-agent signings of the winter. While the Tigers ranked 25th in the majors with minus-32 defensive runs saved, the biggest defensive liability wasn't Miguel Cabrera at third base or Prince Fielder at first base, but the collection of right fielders (primarily Brennan Boesch). Hunter will be a clear defensive upgrade there, and while he won't hit .313 again (he'd never hit .300 before 2012), he'll provide more offense than the .235/.285/.357 line the Tigers got from right field in 2012 (the lowest OPS in the AL).

Position Players

The return of Victor Martinez is addition by subtraction, because it means the departure of Young and his .296 on-base percentage. Martinez is a career .303 hitter, but he is 34 and returning from missing an entire season following knee surgery.

Certainly, any lineup with Cabrera and Fielder is going to score runs; it's knowing you can build around two of the most durable players in the league (they missed only one game between them last year). Despite their presence, the Tigers ranked just 10th in the AL in home runs and they'll remain one of the slowest teams in the league. But if Martinez hits and Alex Avila hits like he did in 2011, there is potential for more runs here.

Pitching Staff

They have the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander and follow that up with the underrated Doug Fister (how did the Mariners trade this guy?), Max Scherzer (fourth-best ERA in the AL in the second half) and Sanchez. Drew Smyly is one of breakout candidates for 2013, and clearly the Tigers believe so as well if the trade rumors involving Rick Porcello are true.

The question mark: Who closes? Following Valverde's meltdown in the playoffs, Phil Coke handled the position just fine, but his 4.05 career ERA and ugly .854 OPS allowed in 2012 have led to speculation that hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon -- with no major league experience -- will be given the chance to close. I have my doubts about that, considering Rondon has fewer than 30 innings above Class A and enough command issues (4.4 walks per nine in the minors) that Jim Leyland might want to see the kid throw some strikes before handing him the ninth. The closer issue moves the overall grade of the staff down a notch.

Heat Map to Watch
Miguel Cabrera's 44 home runs was one element of the Triple Crown. Impressively, he hit 40 of those off right-handed pitchers -- and you can see from the heat map Cabrera's ability to turn on inside pitches.

Miguel CabreraESPN Stats & InformationMiguel Cabrera hit 44 of Detroit's 163 home runs in 2012 -- 40 off right-handers.
Overall grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Tigers win?

  •  
    40%
  •  
    51%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    2%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,707)

Despite their World Series appearance a year ago, the Tigers were hardly a super team, top-heavy around the big three of Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder. Winning 88 games in the weak AL Central doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence, but I have a feeling the rotation will be stronger after Fister and Scherzer had strong second halves, a full season of Sanchez and the full-time addition of Smyly. Hunter is big upgrade in right field as well. The Tigers will be heavy favorites once again to win the division.

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