SweetSpot: Barry Bonds

Some stuff to check out as you take a break from watching the World Cup ...
  • Remember the great throw by Yoenis Cespedes a couple weeks ago? The next day, I wrote about some of history's great throws. Eric Lang of The Hardball Times examined the physics of a few of these great throws. Of the eight throws Eric looked at (including three from Rick Ankiel), Cespedes' throw had the second-fastest release speed and third-longest distance. Eric doesn't declare a best throw but does have some cool charts. Plus you can watch the videos again.
  • Grantland's Jonah Keri with a look at the evolution of the Cuban pipeline.
  • Missed this from a couple weeks ago, but Jonah had a list of the 15 BestCoolest teams he's seen in his baseball-watching lifetime. Surprisingly, he didn't have the 1994 Expos No. 1. He mentions the 1995 and 2001 Mariners, although I'd arguably suggest the 1997 club, while not as good as the 2001 team, was the coolest with Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez before we despised him, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson, Little Joey Cora, Paul Sorrento ... good times. Until the playoffs.
  • Matt Swartz of The Hardball Times had an interesting two-part look at the declining percentage of African-American players in the majors. Here's part 1 and part 2.
  • Good feature on Joey Votto by Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star. Votto: "I was always concerned about having the feeling — there’s nothing like seeing the fans and knowing you can’t go anywhere. It never made me feel comfortable. If I go out to dinner in Cincinnati, I know everyone’s eyes are on me, or at least the people who recognize me. Eyes are on me, judging me, and I can’t relax. I can’t be at ease. I don’t like that feeling. Over time, I’ve realized those things are few and far between, that those are isolated circumstances and my life can be completely normal. I wanted to open up because I do like to talk baseball. I love talking baseball. I think it’s an interesting subject, I think it’s something I’m familiar with. It’s something I can constantly learn about. I do like talking with the fans."
  • The Indians inducted Omar Vizquel into their Hall of Fame. Zack Meisel of Cleveland.com has the story of how Vizquel matured from an 18-year-old who couldn't hit the ball out of the infield to a potential Cooperstown Hall of Famer. Related: This is great, how the Indians turned an infielder from the '70s named Jack Brohamer into Vizquel, via Ryan McCrystal of It's Pronounced "Lajaway."
  • Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs with a look at Alex Gordon's arm. It's a pretty awesome weapon for the Royals.
  • Joe Posnanski with some thoughts on Barry Bonds and the Hall of Fame.
  • The Orioles need to fix left field. Matt Perez of Camden Depot suggests Seth Smith of the Padres.
  • Brad Vietrogowski of It's About the Money ponders the idea of Adam Warren in the Yankees rotation.
  • Matt Adams of The Catbird Seat looks at the history of Home Run Derby participants to see if Jose Abreu could be affected by participating. That's something you hear all the time if a player regresses in the second half. Some of said that's why they don't want to participate, that it could mess up their swing. Matt's study shows 65 hitters improved in the second half and 141 declined in terms of OPS. Evidence of anything? I don't think. Aren't players who had a good first half more likely to be invited? So they would be good bets to regress anyway? I think Abreu will be if asked (and he should be).
  • Eric Reining writes that it's OK if the Rangers end up tanking this season. At this point, I agree. Too many injuries. Too many teams ahead of them in the standings. Take your lumps and look ahead to 2015. But do they really have anybody worth trading?
  • Nothing like a foul ball at a game, right? Here are some recent highlights: A fan gives a young girl a ball, only to see her throw it into the lower deck; a fan catches a foul ball while holding his kid; an A's fan is upset after missing a catch; a father and son are really excited about catching one; finally, Robinson Cano is out to protect Felix Hernandez. As he should. He is, after all, the King.
  • Finally, the memorial service for ESPN colleague Richard Durrett was held Monday. Hundreds packed the church in Dallas, including Rangers manager Ron Washington and GM Jon Daniels. He'll be missed.
Let's finish up with the 14 players I consider strong Hall of Fame candidates. Of course, if I had a ballot, I could vote for only 10 ... well, that's another essay, my friends. Here is Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

The Hall of Famers

14. Tim Raines (69.1 career WAR, 52.2 percent of the vote last year) -- I’m a big supporter of Raines although it’s possible that the sabermetric crowd has overstated his case just a bit. Raines had a high peak from 1983 to 1987 while with the Expos -- his combined WAR ranks fourth among position players, behind Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken, meaning he was arguably the best player in the National League over that span. He was also an outstanding player in the 1981 strike season and again in 1992 with the White Sox. Other than those seven seasons, however, he was merely good instead of great and spent his late 30s as a part-time player.

Still, as others have written, as he’s a very close statistical comp to Tony Gwynn -- Raines just happened to replace Gwynn’s hits with walks. He’s one of the best basestealers in history and the WAR is right in line with recent Hall of Fame selections. The good news is that Raines’ case is building, from 22.6 percent to 30.4 to 37.5 to 48.7 to 52.2. If he can avoid a collapse this year because of the crowded ballot, his momentum appears strong enough to eventually see election.

13. Craig Biggio (64.9 WAR, 68.2 percent) -- Results from public ballots have Biggio just crossing over the 75 percent mark. Biggio reached the magical 3,000-hit barrier, meaning the only surprise was he didn’t get elected in his first year on the ballot. In the past, 3,000 hits meant you were a mortal lock for Cooperstown. Of the 28 players to reach 3,000 hits, only Biggio, Paul Waner and Rafael Palmeiro failed to get elected on the first ballot (not including Pete Rose and Derek Jeter).

Of course, to get there, Biggio wasn’t helping his club at the end. He picked up 265 hits his final two seasons while being valued at minus-1.7 WAR. He posted poor on-base percentages and had poor range at second base, not surprising considering he played in his age-40 and age-41 seasons. That's the flaw in focusing on round numbers. Biggio only got there by hanging on.

At his peak, however, Biggio was a tremendous offensive player as a second baseman, with power, speed, on-base skills and the ability to steal bases. From 1994 to 1998 he ranked third, third, second, 12th, third and second, in the NL in offensive WAR and was right up there with the best all-around players in the game.

12. Alan Trammell (70.3 WAR, 33.6 percent) -- To me, it’s clear that the BBWAA threw its support behind the wrong Detroit Tiger. Trammell is basically the same player as Barry Larkin (70.2 WAR), except he played in the same league as Cal Ripken and Larkin played in the same league as Shawon Dunston.

The weird thing about this is that I'm pretty sure Trammell was more famous while active than Larkin, at least on a national level. Larkin did win an MVP Award but Trammell's teams were in the playoff race for most of his career while the Reds were a small-market club that was up and down during Larkin's career. I think what happened is basically this: Say the 33 percent who vote for Trammell also voted for Larkin. That leaves the other two-thirds of the voting pool. Say one-third were NL beat guys and columnists and the other third were AL beat guys and columnists. All the NL guys voted for Larkin because he was the best shortstop in his league but didn't vote for Trammell. But the AL guys didn't vote for Trammell either because he wasn't Ripken -- and then after Trammell retired, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra came along. Larkin gets the easy label -- best in his league -- that Trammell doesn't. Which is too bad. Trammell was a beautiful ballplayer who did everything well.

11. Mark McGwire (62.0 WAR, 16.9 percent) -- One of the things I’ll never forget as a baseball fan is watching McGwire take batting practice while covering a Cardinals-Tigers game at Tiger Stadium in 1999. Standing behind the batting cage as he launched ball after ball onto the roof or over the roof made me re-think the laws of physics (not that I know the laws of physics).

Why McGwire and not Sammy Sosa, when their career WAR isn't that dissimilar? Maybe it is a feel thing, a feeling that McGwire is one of the game's historic figures. I think that counts for something. He also has the best home run rate in history (higher than Babe Ruth).

10. Edgar Martinez (68.3 WAR, 35.9 percent) -- Bias alert! I wrote about Martinez back in 2009 and then again the other day. I rate him a little higher than the guys above because he had more high peak seasons -- five with 6-plus WAR, eight with 5.5-plus WAR and two more at 4.9 and 4.8. Simply, one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. Sadly, if the Mariners didn't waste three years of his career letting him unnecessarily rot in the minors, his case would be much stronger.

9. Mike Piazza (59.2 WAR, 57.8 percent) -- We'll learn a lot about Piazza's future Hall of Fame hopes this year. He achieved a strong showing in his first year. If that grows this year, it's a good sign. If it falls or remains the same, it could be that he's maxed out already due to PED concerns. About that WAR total: It's difficult for catchers to compile the same WAR as other positions, as they play fewer games and often have shortened careers. Piazza ranks sixth all time among catchers, behind Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Ivan Rodriguez and Yogi Berra.

8. Mike Mussina (83.0 WAR, first year) -- As I wrote back in November, Mussina is eminently qualified for the Hall of Fame.

7. Frank Thomas (73.6 WAR, first year) -- I wrote about Thomas the other day. It looks like he'll get in on his first year on the ballot. Will Thomas' election help Martinez? Once Thomas is in, doesn't it mean you can't use the "but he was a DH" argument against Martinez? Probably not. That suggests a consistent and logical line of thinking from the BBWAA, which ... well, that's like expecting a Cardinals fan to be treated with kindness and respect while sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers wearing a Matt Holliday jersey.

6. Tom Glavine (81.4 WAR, first year) -- Not much to add about Glavine that you don't already know. Durable, consistent, got the most out of his ability. Like Greg Maddux, an absolute joy to watch (unless you were a Mets fan). He owned the outside corner of the plate -- and maybe a few inches beyond -- with that changeup. I think Glavine and Maddux have a bit of an unfair reputation of not showing up in the postseason. Compare their results to those of Andy Pettitte, who does have a reputation as being extra-special clutch in October:

Glavine: 14-16, 3.30 ERA, 35 GS, 218 1/3 IP, 1.27 WHIP
Maddux: 11-14, 3.27 ERA, 30 GS, 198 IP, 1.24 WHIP
Pettitte: 19-11, 3.81 ERA, 44 GS, 276 2/3 IP, 1.30 WHIP

Their records aren't as good because they didn't get the same run support, not because they didn't pitch well.

5. Jeff Bagwell (79.5 WAR, 59.6 percent) -- Other than not playing an up-the-middle position, the perfect ballplayer: power, speed, on-base ability, terrific baserunner, durable (at least until a shoulder injury cut his career a few years short), excellent defender. Here's something I wrote on Bagwell last January.

There are those who refuse to vote for Bagwell under the assumption he used PEDs; Bagwell has strongly denied using PEDs, telling ESPN's Jerry Crasnick in 2010:

I never used [steroids], and I'll tell you exactly why: If I could hit between 30 and 40 home runs every year and drive in 120 runs, why did I need to do anything else? I was pretty happy with what I was doing, and that's the God's honest truth. All of a sudden guys were starting to hit 60 or 70 home runs and people were like, 'Dude, if you took [PEDs], you could do it too.' And I was like, 'I'm good where I'm at. I just want to do what I can do.'

There's nothing abnormal about Bagwell's career curve, other than his freakishly awesome 1994 MVP season when he hit .368. He didn't suddenly start posting career-best numbers in his mid-30s like McGwire or Barry Bonds. He was good as a rookie, got better, remained great and then slowly declined in his 30s.

4. Curt Schilling (79.7 WAR, 38.8 percent) -- Why Schilling over Glavine, even though Glavine won 305 games while Schilling won just 216 games? OK, here's why:

1. Wins are overrated.

2. More career pitching WAR (80.7 to 74.0).

3. Schilling had more high peak seasons -- eight 5-plus WAR seasons with three at 7.9 or higher compared to Glavine's four and one.

4. Postseason dominance.

In the end, I just feel Schilling had the bigger impact on the game's history -- the 2001 World Series triumph for the Diamondbacks, ending the Red Sox curse in 2004 and winning another title in 2007.

Glavine was more durable and lasted longer and maybe you prefer that type of career arc. But I'll take Schilling and his big seasons and go to war with him in October.

3. Greg Maddux (106.8, first year) -- The smartest pitcher who ever lived. At his 1994 and 1995 peak, maybe the best pitcher who ever lived.

2. Roger Clemens (140.3 WAR, 37.6 percent) -- Let's say Clemens started using PEDs in 1997, the year he went to Toronto and went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA. The popular mythology is that Clemens was fat and washed up in Boston. Actually, he had ranked second among AL pitchers in WAR and led the league in strikeouts in 1996. But whatever. Anyway, through 1996 he was 192-111 with a 3.06 ERA, three Cy Young Awards and 81.3 career pitching WAR. That's more career WAR than Glavine or Schilling. After two big Cy Young seasons with the Blue Jays, he went to the Yankees. And you know what? He wasn't that great with them -- 77-36 but with a 3.99 ERA. He won a sixth Cy Young Award because he went 20-3, not because he was the best pitcher in the league. He won a seventh with the Astros because he went 18-4 (he was seventh among NL pitchers in WAR). Other than the 1.87 ERA in 2005 -- thanks to an absurdly low BABIP -- his late career basically matches what Nolan Ryan did in his 40s.

1. Barry Bonds (162.5 WAR, 36.2 percent) -- Somebody tweeted this on Tuesday night, Bonds hitting a mammoth home run at Yankee Stadium in 2002 -- a blast so impressive that even Yankees fans cheered in awe.

On a basic level, I understand the no votes: Cheaters shouldn't be honored. My colleague Christina Kahrl made a great point about how we view the PED guys: It's a litmus test that tells us what we want from the game. As she told me, we have to remember the past is plenty grimy, full of stories and people every bit as wonderful as we want them to be -- people who also happen to be human.

From 1988 to 1994, Bonds was second in the majors in home runs (to Fred McGriff) and first in OPS and sixth in stolen bases. His WAR was 13 wins higher than the No. 2 position player (Rickey Henderson). From 1988 to 1995, he was 14.5 wins better than the No. 2 guy (Cal Ripken). Ken Griffey Jr. joined the league in 1989. From '89 to '98, Bonds' WAR was 84.1, Griffey's 65.6 (and the No. 3 guy, Barry Larkin, way back at 51.1). Bonds was the most devastating force in the game before he allegedly started using PEDs sometime after McGwire and Sosa went all crazy in 1998.

Ray Ratto just wrote a brilliant Hall of Fame column and he had two great points about Bonds (and Clemens): "1. The player did things on the baseball field that few others did. ... 6. I DON’T WORK FOR BASEBALL, AND I DON’T CARE WHAT IT PURPORTS TO BE. I CARE WHAT IT IS, AND THIS IS PART OF IT."

Bonds is arguably the greatest player of all time, and, yes, a man with many flaws.

What do you want out of the game?

Last Wednesday, Miguel Cabrera was facing hard-throwing Cleveland Indians rookie Danny Salazar in the eighth inning with two outs and a runner on. The Indians led the Tigers 3-2 and Salazar had struck out Cabrera three times -- looking on an 88 mph changeup, swinging on a 99 mph fastball at the letters, and then swinging again on a 100 mph fastball on the outside corner that left Cabrera awkwardly spinning in the dirt at home plate.

So Terry Francona let Salazar face Cabrera a fourth time. He had thrown 102 pitches. The fans at Progressive Field rose to their feet, sensing the drama of the moment, a potentially defining showdown of the Indians’ season. “This is the game right here, baby,” said the Indians broadcaster.

Salazar’s 103rd pitch was a 96 mph fastball over the middle of the plate and Cabrera crushed it to dead center field, 427 feet away -- 427 feet of misery for Cleveland fans, the rookie craning his neck as the ball flew out into the night, his face eventually contorting into a confused look of shock.

Don’t worry, Danny, you’re not the only one who hasn’t solved Mr. Cabrera. Two nights later, Cabrera hit a two-run, game-tying homer to center off Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, the seventh pitch of an epic confrontation. He homered on Saturday off Phil Hughes. He homered again off Rivera on Sunday. Monday night, he lined a first-pitch, 96 mph fastball from Chris Sale over the fence in right, his fourth homer in four games and fifth in six games (although the White Sox did beat the Tigers, 6-2).
[+] EnlargeChris Sale
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastVictim of a Miguel Cabrera home run? Chris Sale is another guy who knows the feeling.

Not that we haven’t been asking this question all season, but how are you supposed to get this guy out? You thought he was pretty good last year when he won the Triple Crown and the MVP Award, but Cabrera has somehow raised his game. He may not win the Triple Crown this season -- Chris Davis leads him in home runs, 43 to 37 -- but he’s better and it’s not even that close.

In 2012, Cabrera’s Triple Crown was the result of great numbers and even better timing. It was an epic achievement, but his 2013 season is more epic in its complete devastation of opposing pitchers.

The baseline numbers:

2012: .330/.393/.606, .999 OPS, 164 OPS+ , .417 wOBA, 166 wRC+
2013: .366/.459/.692, 1.151 OPS, 205 OPS+, .479 wOBA, 208 wRC+

So far he’s raised his batting 36 points, his on-base percentage 66 points and his slugging percentage 84 points. His advanced metrics -- OPS, park- and league-adjusted OPS, weighted on-base average and wRC+, essentially a park- and league-adjusted version of wOBA -- all correspond with that.

From a pure production standpoint, 2012 wasn’t really a historic season; it wasn’t even Cabrera’s best OPS figure at that point in his career. But using the advanced metrics we can place his 2013 in context of other all-time great seasons. There have been 49 seasons (including Cabrera’s) since 1901 in which a player recorded an OPS+ of 200 or greater, via Baseball-Reference.com. The last four were by Barry Bonds, the two before that by Sammy Sosa in 2001 and Mark McGwire in 1998, the two before that by Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell in the strike-shortened 1994 season, and the one before that Barry Bonds in the 1993 expansion. Albert Pujols, as great as he’s been, has a career-best OPS+ of 192 in 2008, a year he hit .357/.462/.653.

Of course, the 2001 to 2004 run that Bonds went on, as well as the Sosa and McGwire seasons, are understandably met with a bit of skepticism. They weren’t the only hitters putting up monster numbers from 1993 to 2009, just the ones who put up the biggest.

For the purpose of this next list, let’s go back before 1993, avoiding all those messy seasons from that era, and list the seasons with a 200 OPS+ since 1950:

Miguel Cabrera, 2013: 205
Barry Bonds, 1992: 204
George Brett, 1980: 203
Willie McCovey, 1969: 209
Mickey Mantle, 1961: 206
Norm Cash, 1961: 201
Ted Williams, 1957: 233
Mickey Mantle, 1957: 221
Mickey Mantle, 1956: 210
Ted Williams, 1954: 201

Those are pantheon seasons -- Bonds in his pre-PED heyday when he was still the best player in the game, Brett’s chase for .400, McCovey’s MVP season, Mantle’s Triple Crown year. Sorting by wOBA or wRC+ produces similar lists. FanGraphs currently ranks Cabrera’s 2013 as the seventh-best wRC+ since 1950, behind those four Bonds seasons and the 1957 years of Williams and Mantle.

What’s fun is looking at Cabrera’s batting average by zone this year:

Cabrera heat mapESPN Stats & InformationWell, sure, hit that low and outside corner every pitch and you have a chance.

Pitchers will try and work him up high, but pitching up leads to walks or home runs if you don’t hit your spot. What’s the big difference from last year? It’s hard to tell when looking at the numbers. He’s chasing pitches outside of the strike zone about 3 percent less often, so that’s certainly helped him zone in on a few more hittable pitches. More than anything, however, I think his continued improvement in going to right field has helped.

Check his opposite-field home runs by year:

2009: 5
2010: 11
2011: 6
2012: 9
2013: 9

But it’s not just the power to right field that has improved. Check his batting averages when going to the opposite field:

2009: .374
2010: .382
2011: .395
2012: .433
2013: .467

This is a batter -- like Bonds (with or without PEDs) or Williams -- who has mastered the art of hitting. In the case of Cabrera, that means trusting his hands to go to right field, but probably involves other little things like adjusting his feet and stride to the pitcher or situation.

Finally, and this is a big one, it also means setting up the pitcher. Here’s an example: Last year, he put the first pitch in play 31 times, hitting .387 with five home runs. This year he's already put the first pitch in play 77 times, hitting .481 with 11 home runs.

When Cabrera stepped in against Danny Salazar -- or Chris Sale on Monday -- it’s almost like he knew what was coming. He was sitting fastball and didn’t miss.

These days, it’s not often that he does.
NEW YORK -- Media day at the All-Star Game isn't quite media day at the Super Bowl, but on a hot, steamy day in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field, sweaty media members met with sweaty ballplayers. There was a vibe of happiness from the players because everyone enjoys being an All-Star, but special praise to Justin Verlander and Brandon Phillips for gutting out the hot weather and wearing jackets to their media sessions -- Verlander in a baby blue coat complete with pocket square, something you might see your grandfather wearing at his condo in Florida -- when most players smartly donned short-sleeved shirts.

(Poor Felix Hernandez kept needing a towel to mop off the sweat dripping down his forehead. Hey, he's not used to 100-degree weather pitching in Seattle.)

Players praised Mariano Rivera and talked about childhood dreams coming true, although Brett Cecil admitted he never dreamed of becoming an All-Star. Matt Carpenter was asked to translate "I love baseball" in Chinese for a promotional video. Joey Votto said he thought Ichiro Suzuki would be a good contestant for the Home Run Derby.

Speaking of home runs, on Sunday, I wrote about Chris Davis now being on pace to hit 62 -- short of Barry Bonds' record of 73, but giving him a chance to beat Roger Maris' total of 61.

I asked readers who they think the "real" home run champion is and the poll results, with more than 38,000 votes, have Maris ahead of Bonds, 73 percent to 27 percent. That's a landslide for Maris.

What do the All-Stars think? All leaned toward 73 -- as in homers, not percent -- at least the ones we asked. Some of the more interesting responses:
  • Votto, the Cincinnati Reds first baseman: "I think 61 came with its own little asterisk, since they had extended the schedule to play more games. At the time, if you asked players of the previous era, they probably would have said 60 is the record, with Babe Ruth. If you ask players of Maris' generation, they'll say 61 is the record. If you ask the recent generation, they'll probably say 73 [with Barry Bonds]. My gut says to keep 73, but it's something we'll have better perspective on in 20 or 30 years."
  • Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, teammate of Davis: "I think that year all those home runs were happening was really exciting for the fans, really exciting for us, fun to watch. I don't know where the record should stand. If Chris hits 61 home runs this year, that would be pretty cool though." By the way, Hardy on playing with Davis this year: "It's awesome. Just like the fans and how interested they are in watching, I think everyone on his team is the same way. Everyone in the dugout watches every one of his at-bats in case something special happens. He put up numbers like this in the minors and it was just a question of whether he'd do it in the big leagues, so it's not like he hasn't done it before. It's something that's been in there."
  • Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis: "That's a record I'll never have to worry about. It's a topic you're going to have a lot of debate over if Davis gets close. I guess the old-school guys will say 61. The purists will probably say 61. But didn't the pitchers use back then as well? They did from what I know. I think [Bonds] is just a product of his era. The fact is he hit 73 home runs."
  • San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, giving a little bit of a Of course Bonds holds the record, he's a Giant look: "Bonds holds the record, but if Davis can come close to 61 or 73, that will be fun to watch."
  • Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman: "That's a tough question. I grew up with Bonds and I choke up on the bat because of him. It was amazing what he did when he would often only get one pitch to hit in a game. That answer your question? Probably not."
  • Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann: "Bonds holds the record. I grew watching him and it was incredible what he did."
  • Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel: "I'd like to see Davis hit 62 because that's fun baseball. [But would that make him the home run king?] If he hits 62, he hits 62."

One interesting side note: Many of players seemed reluctant to actually mention Bonds by name, which is interesting, although they still tacitly acknowledged he's the record holder.

As for Davis himself suggesting 61 is the record, Votto had the best quip: "Maybe he's just being selfish, saying that if he beats the record he'll get to wear a crown or something."
Chris Davis hit his 37th home run on Sunday, his fourth straight game with a homer, and he is now on pace for … 62.

You know what that means, right?

Let the controversy begin. It's already starting to ramp up a bit. It will not be avoided if Davis mounts a charge to 62: Roger Maris is the "real" home run champion with the 61 he hit in 1961, and if Davis hits 62, he'll surpass Maris as the legitimate single-season record holder.

Davis himself considers Maris the record holder, telling ESPN's "Mike & Mike" in early July that "the reason being, he was the last guy to do it clean. There's a lot of things that have been said about the guys who have come after him and have achieved the record, but I think as far as the fans are concerned they still view Maris as being the all-time home run record [holder] and I think you have to. There's no doubt that Barry [Bonds] and Mark [McGwire] and any of those guys had ridiculous seasons and had some great years, but I think when you get to the root of the record, I still think it's Roger Maris.'"

My guess is that most fans would agree with Davis, that McGwire's 70 home runs in 1998 and Bonds' in 73 are tainted, tarnished and achieved in unethical ways.


Who is the REAL single-season home run champion?


Discuss (Total votes: 39,470)

And thus don't count.

That may be true. Except the not counting part. The record is the record, and Bonds is the single-season home run champion. What people believe or desire shouldn't factor into the argument; well, you can argue, but I'm not buying. We can't pretend that Bonds didn't hit 73; we can't wipe out an entire era and pretend it didn't exist. Barry Bonds hit 73 baseballs over the fence in 2001, and 73 is the record.

But brace yourself for a non-ending stream of columns, sports radio chatter, Twitter posts and the like. When Davis appears before the media on Monday in New York in preparation for the All-Star Game, he's going to be mobbed more than other player: Can you do it?

Look, it's an amazing story. Davis is now slugging .717. Not including Davis this season, there have been 35 seasons in which a player slugged .700 -- and all but four occurred in the 1920s and '30s, or between 1994 to 2004. The four outlier seasons: Ted Williams in 1941 and 1957, Stan Musial in 1948 and Mickey Mantle in 1956. Davis' performance would remain historic in nature, no matter his final home run tally.

Will he get to 62? He has said his big difference is that he has learned the strike zone; his selectivity and patience have helped him wait for better pitches to drive. His walk rate is up 3.2 percent from last year, one sign of his patience. Another sign is his ability to drive the ball to left field -- 11 of his 37 home runs are classified as opposite field, most in the majors (Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Adam Dunn each have seven). But Davis has hit another five just to the left of center field and he's hitting .537 when putting the ball in play to the opposite field -- second in the majors to Jason Kipnis' .556.

Davis' year reminds me a little of what Reggie Jackson did in 1969. Reggie was younger -- he was 23, Davis is 27 -- but had a monster first half, hitting .287 with 37 home runs and a .716 slugging percentage in 91 games (the Orioles have played 96 games). There was talk of Reggie dethroning Maris, but he would hit just 10 home runs in the second half (the 47 would remain his career high).

There are two majors differences: Reggie has said the talk of beating Maris created added pressure on him and, as a young player, he didn't deal with it very well, trying too hard to hit home runs. Davis is older, although nobody can predict how a player will handle the pressure if it gets to that point. Reggie also played in Oakland, a tough home run park; Camden Yards is generous in the power alleys, so that will help Davis.

One thing working against Davis, however, is that Buck Showalter continues to hit Davis fifth in the order, choosing to bat Adam Jones cleanup between lefties Nick Markakis and Davis. That will cost Davis plate appearances over the season -- an estimated 30 over the entire year, if he was hitting third instead of fifth -- and those 30 missing PAs could be the difference between 59 and 62. With Matt Wieters not having a great year behind him, Davis may also start receiving more walks (although July has produced his lowest walk rate of the season, so pitchers haven't been pitching around him).

Hey, I hope he makes 62 an interesting number to watch for in late September. A lot of fans will consider 61 the record and that will make for a fun, engaging stretch drive if Davis gets close. It won't be The Record but it will get people watching baseball, and that's a good thing.

Paul GoldschmidtStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesPaul Goldschmidt has been money in late-inning situations for the Diamondbacks in 2013.
So Paul Goldschmidt's "clutch" credentials so far are pretty spectacular:

  • He's hitting .431 and slugging .914 with runners in scoring position.
  • He has four go-ahead homers in the eighth or later, most in the majors, including this three-run homer with two outs in the eighth on Friday against the Giants. (Why Goldschmidt was allowed to face a left-hander there is another discussion).
  • He's hitting .368 and slugging .754 in so-called high-leverage situations.
  • He leads the majors in a statistic called Win Probability Added, which calculates the change in probability of a player's team winning the game based on each individual outcome while batting. A single in the ninth inning of a tie game, for example, is worth more than a single in a 10-0 game. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs calculate the results a little differently, but Goldschmidt is best on both sites -- 4.0 WPA at B-R and 3.6 at FanGraphs.

The myth of the clutch hitter is one of the key sabermetric tenets, but that doesn't mean Goldschmidt hasn't been clutch; he has. He's been amazingly clutch. In focusing on the WPA statistic, for example, the only other players with a WPA of 3.0 are Chris Davis (both sites) and Josh Donaldson (FanGraphs). Miguel Cabrera, who leads the majors with 67 RBIs, ranks seventh on B-R (2.5 WPA) and sixth on FanGraphs (2.6 WPA). He's hit .493 with runners in scoring position, but has also had many more opportunities than Goldschmidt, who has 58 RBIs; Cabrera has 93 PAs with RISP versus 69 for Goldschmidt. But no hitter can match Goldschmidt's late-game heroics.

What sabermetricians argue, however, is that clutch hitting isn't a predictable result. Right now, for example, nine batters are hitting at least .400 with runners in scoring position -- Cabrera, Carlos Beltran, Freddie Freeman, Goldschmidt, Brandon Phillips, Adrian Gonzalez, Kelly Johnson, Alejandro De Aza and Allen Craig. Last year, only Craig finished at .400. Cabrera hit .356 with runners in scoring position, but he hit .356 because he's a good hitter. In 2011, nobody hit .400 with RISP, with Victor Martinez topping the list at .394.

Since 2009, the top 10 leaders in batting average with runners in scoring position are Craig (.367), Joey Votto (.360), Cabrera (.357), Adrian Gonzalez (.357), De Aza (.351), Joe Mauer (.341), Salvador Perez (.336), Goldschmidt (.328), Donaldson (.328) and Jordan Pacheco (.324). No. 11 is Jesus Guzman. There are some odd names in there (De Aza is even slugging .554), but I've never heard anyone refer to De Aza or Pacheco as one of the game's best clutch hitters. But the odd names are guys with small sample sizes; the big names -- even Craig is a career .302 hitter -- are guys who hit well regardless of the situation.

Back to Goldschmidt. What I'm getting at is that his clutch hitting will likely slow down, considering he's on pace for over 10 WPA. Here are Baseball-Reference's 10 best WPA seasons since 2009:

1. Prince Fielder, Brewers, 2009: 8.0
2. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays, 2011: 8.0
3. Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 2009: 8.0
4. Prince Fielder, Brewers, 2011: 7.7
5. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, 2011: 7.6
6. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, 2010: 7.5
7. Joey Votto, Reds, 2011: 7.1
8. Joey Votto, Reds, 2010: 6.9
9. Ryan Braun, Brewers, 2011: 6.4
10. Ryan Howard, Phillies, 2009: 6.4

(FanGraphs rates Pujols' 2009 as the best in this period at 8.2).

If we go back 20 years to include seasons when offensive levels were much higher, only three players have cracked the 10.0 WPA barrier -- Barry Bonds in 2004, Barry Bonds in 2001 and Barry Bonds in 2002. Both sites also agree that the only two other seasons to top 9.0 WPA were Pujols in 2006 and Mark McGwire in 1998.

How good was Bonds? Since we have play-by-play data (mostly complete since 1954), Baseball-Reference rates only one other season at 10.0 WPA -- Willie McCovey's 1969 MVP year with the Giants when he hit .320 with 45 home runs and drove in 126 runs despite being intentionally walked 45 times. McCovey hit .349 with RISP but he really shone in the same situations Goldschmidt has thus far: He hit .390 with eight home runs in "late and close" situations. Even then, however, his heroics didn't quite match what Goldschmidt has done. McCovey hit three game-tying home runs in the eighth or later, but no go-ahead home runs. He did hit three go-ahead home runs in the seventh inning.

That's how great Goldschmidt has been; he's been more clutch than one of the great clutch seasons ever.
There are four left fielders in major league history who stand out among all the rest. Three of them are three of the most exciting, singular players in the annals of the sport; they are also three of the most arrogant, churlish players in the game's history and -- depending on your opinion on such personalities -- most disliked.

The fourth was, simply, known as The Man.

Ted Williams was arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Barry Bonds became the greatest hitter since Williams. Rickey Henderson was the greatest power-speed combo ever, unless you give that honor to Bonds. It's easy to extract an image of them in play: Williams, with that beautiful uppercut swing, launching that home run in the 1941 All-Star Game, the last man to hit .400; Bonds, once the graceful two-way threat, already the best player in the game, turning into the beefy monster late in his career and putting up softball numbers; Henderson, in that crouch at home plate, annoying pitchers with his postage-stamp strike zone and then annoying them further by swiping second base ... and often third.

[+] EnlargeStan Musial
(AP Photo/Tom Gannam, FileStan Musial was perhaps more loved by St. Louis fans than any player in his team's hometown.
But Stan Musial? What's your image of Stan the Man?

Musial died Saturday at the age of 92. William Nack has written an eloquent obituary of Musial, and the subhead on that story reads, "Baseball lost a true gentleman and one of its most underrated players."

Let's be honest: Williams, Bonds and Henderson were all a pain the ass. Williams was undeniably the Bonds of his day in many ways, from attitude to talent, except Giants fans actually liked Bonds more than Red Sox fans liked Williams. The Williams love affair in Boston didn't really begin until late in his career and didn't really entirely blossom until after he retired and became an old man. As John Updike wrote in his famous New Yorker essay on Williams after his final game at Fenway, "The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories."

With Bonds, even Giants fans admit to his sins and the late-career numbers compiled with help beyond just quick wrists and maple bats. Rickey? I suppose he's revered in Oakland, but he doesn't belong just to Oakland, having gone from the A's to the Yankees to the Blue Jays back to the A's and then to the Padres and a bunch of other stops. Rickey was a man of many steals and many teams and many teammates whose names he never bothered to learn.

With Musial, it was just baseball. No fighting with the media or fighting with teammates or deciding to take a day off. He showed up to the ballpark every day, played as hard as he could, usually lashed a couple hits and then returned the next day to do the same thing. I'm pretty sure he never got caught playing cards in the clubhouse in the middle of a game.

Of course, he played his entire career with the Cardinals, and I would argue no baseball player is more beloved by his home fans than Musial is in St. Louis. Sure, maybe Cal Ripken in Baltimore, maybe Mickey Mantle or Derek Jeter in New York, maybe George Brett in Kansas City. You can make those arguments, maybe a few others as well. But how many of those guys were so respected by fans throughout the league as Musial was?

As beloved as he was in St. Louis, however, Musial's legacy had faded over time, picking up in attention only in recent years, it seemed. He wasn't the last player to hit .400. He hadn't played with the Yankees. He didn't play center field like Willie Mays or become the home run king like Hank Aaron. Again: What label do you put on Musial?


Who is the greatest left fielder of all time?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,231)

How about ballplayer? I think you can make the argument that Musial is the greatest of the four; it's a hard one to win (in part because Musial actually played a few more games at first base than left field, and also several seasons in right field). But that speaks not just to his versatility -- he was athletic enough to play over 300 games in center field as well -- but his obvious willingness to put the team first, not always something said about Williams, Bonds or Henderson. He once played more than 800 games in a row, and that durability, consistency and attitude provided a bonus you didn't get at all times from the other three.

In terms of career wins above replacement, the four rank like this:

Bonds: 158.1 WAR
Musial: 123.4 WAR
Williams: 119.8 WAR
Henderson: 106.8 WAR

Williams, of course, missed three full seasons and the majority of two others serving in World War II and the Korean War. Musial missed one season during World War II. Maybe Musial didn't quite match Williams' overwhelming skills at the plate, but the guy was pretty good with the stick, winning seven batting titles, one more than Williams, and hitting .331 lifetime. And Musial didn't have the benefit of playing half his games in Fenway Park (where Williams hit .361 in his career, compared to .328 on the road). Musial never led the National League in home runs, but he led eight times in doubles, five times in triples and six times in slugging percentage. This was a player who never loafed to first base, that's for sure.

"I consciously memorized the speed at which every pitcher in the league threw his fastball, curve, and slider," Musial said about his approach to hitting. "Then, I'd pick up the speed of the ball in the first 30 feet of its flight and knew how it would move once it had crossed the plate."

The respect the writers held for Musial was evident in the MVP voting: He won the award three times and finished second on four other occasions. The only player with more MVP "award shares" (percentage of total MVP votes) than Musial is Bonds. "I've had pretty good success with Stan [Musial] by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third," Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine once said.

Ballplayer. I like it. And if I were starting a team, I might just take Stan the Man and leave the headaches for somebody else.

Is this a sad day for baseball? Maybe not. There will be another election next year and one the year after that. I presume onward into the future players will get elected. But this year? The Baseball Writers' Association of America struck out.

Nobody can deny the current process is broken. This summer, the Hall of Fame will hold an induction ceremony that will honor three individuals who have been dead for over 70 years. Only one of those was a player, and Deacon White played so long ago he was a catcher without a glove.

The Hall of Fame is a museum, but there will be no Astros fans trekking to Cooperstown to see Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell inducted and take a tour of baseball history. There will be no Tigers and Twins fans going to see Jack Morris get in. No Expos fans cheering Tim Raines, Mariners fans driving 3,000 miles to see the great Edgar Martinez inducted or throngs of Mets fans making the short drive to see Mike Piazza's speech.

If you've never been to the Hall of Fame, maybe this summer is the time to go. The lines will be short.

Some quick thoughts:

[+] EnlargeCraig Biggio
Brian Bahr/ALLSPORTCraig Biggio's 3,060 hits -- good for 21st all-time -- were not enough to make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Craig Biggio (68.2 percent)
The BBWAA went against its history by not electing Biggio. Every eligible player with 3,000 hits except Paul Waner and Rafael Palmeiro was elected in his first year on the ballot (Pete Rose being ineligible). Somehow the writers didn't find room for a player who scored the 15th most runs in history. He'll get in next year.

Jack Morris (67.7 percent)
I almost feel sorry for Morris at this point. His vote total went up just 1 percentage point from last year, leaving him 42 votes short of election. He has one year left on the ballot, and while players as close as Morris often get the sympathy vote when they get this close, his candidacy will be hurt by the addition of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to next year's ballot, two pitchers in a higher class than Morris. I just heard Bob Costas on MLB Network mention that the sabermetric community has hurt Morris' case, unlike how it helped Bert Blyleven's case. I think Costas is 100 percent wrong with that statement. In Morris' first five years on the ballot, he received less than 30 percent of the vote. He was initially rejected because voters looked at his 3.90 career ERA as unworthy of Hall status. His totals have risen through the years despite the strong sabermetric evidence against him.

Jeff Bagwell (59.6) and Mike Piazza (57.8)
Bagwell's total increased 3.6 percentage points from last year, and Piazza fared well for a first-ballot guy. By historical measures, both are on an excellent Hall of Fame path. Barry Larkin, for example, received 51.6 percent his first year, 62.1 percent the next and was elected in his third year with 86.4 percent. Bagwell and Piazza are tied to PED rumors, so historical measures may not apply to them; Bagwell's total certainly didn't rise as rapidly as Larkin's did. Still, it's also true that Bagwell and Piazza are being viewed differently than Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Tim Raines (52.2)
In his sixth year on the ballot, Raines' total increased from 48.7 percent. He still has nine years to get in; he'll get there.

Lee Smith (47.8)
While Smith's support isn't surprising in light of the fact that three of the past 14 members elected by the BBWAA have been relief pitchers, it continues to baffle me. Yes, he racked up a lot of saves, but I always put the Smith question this way: At any point in his career, even when he was at his scariest, most dominant peak, would he have been traded for a Dale Murphy, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling or Alan Trammell? Of course not. Smith's general manager would have been laughed off the phone, yet he got more votes than any of those guys. His vote total did drop and it was his 11th year, so he's a guy who was affected by the crowded ballot. His chances took a big turn for the worse.

Curt Schilling (38.8)
While it's amazing that Schilling received almost 30 percentage points fewer votes than Morris, this is actually a decent vote total for a first-year candidate. It may be a slow trek for him, but I believe he's on the path to induction.

Roger Clemens(37.6) and Barry Bonds (36.2)
No surprise that these two received less than 40 percent. The most interesting fact is that Clemens received eight more votes than Bonds.

Edgar Martinez (35.9)
In his fourth year, Martinez lost a few votes. He is already fighting the bias against designated hitters, so even though he is just one of 16 players with at least 10 seasons with a .400 OBP (11 total), this wasn't a good day for him.

Alan Trammell (33.6)
Trammell also lost votes. His bandwagon didn't really begin until last year, but it's too late for him and the ballot is too crowded. He is every bit the Hall of Famer that Larkin is, but with three years left, it will be up to some future version of the Veterans Committee to put him in.

Sammy Sosa (12.5) and Rafael Palmeiro (8.8)
They stayed on the ballot, but they're not getting in, at least not through the BBWAA.

Bernie Williams (3.3) and Kenny Lofton (3.2)
Maybe the most discouraging result of the day is that Williams and Lofton -- admittedly, borderline guys -- will be booted off future ballots, their cases never given the opportunity to be argued. Whitaker'd.

* * *

So there we go. A crowded ballot gets even more crowded next year with the additions of Maddux, Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent. Good luck, voters.

Hall of Fame already compromised by PEDs

December, 28, 2012
The announcement of the 2013 Hall of Fame voting results is around the corner, and there's sure to be plenty of teeth gnashing involved once they come out on January 9. We might be treated to the spectacle of purportedly clean players like Craig Biggio and Jack Morris voted in, while vastly superior players like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds remain on the outside looking in. Is this a case of results may vary? No, my friends, make no mistake: Results will vary.

[+] EnlargeBiggio
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBeing a player who was not suspected of using PEDs should enhance Craig Biggio's Hall of Fame chances.
Particularly where purported performance-enhancers are concerned, you already know to expect plenty of slow news day moralizing and some character assassination when the results come out. For that kind of sports-page sermonizing you can thank the guidelines, such as they are. What constitutes a Hall of Fame ballplayer is an opaque mishmash: “Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

The first two are rough synonyms for what a guy did on the field, which we can measure fairly objectively thanks to Alexander Cartwright. In contrast, the next three are entirely subjective and depend on the individual voter's sense -- or flat-out guess -- about these things and their importance; relative to the first two statistical bases for voting, they're sort of apples to oranges. Sure, they might matter, but good luck on nailing down how much and to what extent; results will certainly vary from voter to voter. And that last suggested standard sort of sums of these two broad categories of criteria, which to stretch the metaphor must make it a pluot or something.

Then there's the tradition of some voters withholding their votes for some first-timers on the ballot because these knowing scribes worry about how only a certain kind of player is “supposed” to get in during his first year. This seems like a self-important, self-reinforcing conceit, that first-year winners are special as opposed to their getting in the first year being a special result. Special, as opposed to mere Hall of Fame ballplayers? If a player is special, just vote for him already; even these made-up standards have made-up standards.

For all that, I'm nevertheless looking forward to the day when I may eventually get to vote. You might reasonably think that's because I'll get to use the ballot to sound off about players I've seen, analyzed, touted and excoriated, but that's not quite it. There's little about talking about a player's performance relative to the Hall of Fame which is any different from what every electron-stained wretch in the Fourth Estate gets to do every day … except for the responsibility voting entails, and come the day, I figure I'll be leaning heavily on the first two criteria for election more than the others.

That's because working as a baseball writer for 15 years has taught me that, while there are plenty of ways to be objective about a player's career, there's wisdom in leaning on the expertise of others. I expect to refer to the work of an old Baseball Prospectus colleague, Jay Jaffe, and his Jaffe WARP Score system metric for evaluating players' careers to suggest Hall worthiness using the statistical standards informally established by the examples of who's been voted in already.

Using JAWS to look at this year's ballot on Baseball-Reference.com, we can see that there might be as many as 13, maybe even 14 guys worthy of election because they're at least within a point or two of their already enshrined peers: Bonds, Biggio and Clemens, plus Jeff Bagwell, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza. Lee Smith is kind of tricky, because there aren't a ton of relievers in the Hall of Fame, and the standards for relief greatness have changed dramatically over a very short period of time. Each case is fun to mull over, and it'll be interesting to see how they do.

As simple as that might seem, you can bet voting won't be that simple for most voters, because a good number of them will be publicly wringing their hands over the purported performance-enhancing benefits of PEDs and whether players suspected of using them to enhance their performance should be banned because their use is considered antithetical to those standards of “integrity, sportsmanship, and character.”

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Noah BergerBarry Bonds will likely be more successful with his 2011 perjury trial than with January's Hall of Fame voting.
I admit, I prefer evidence in such matters: Convictions in court or suspensions by MLB, clear violations of baseball's rules against the non-prescription use of prescription drugs. That rule has been on the books since 1971, much longer ago than the 2005 agreement specifically banning PEDs like steroids and amphetamines. Using either was a clear case of breaking rules within the game and -- since 1991, when possession of a non-prescription steroid became a federal crime -- and the law outside of it.

The game's lax enforcement of its own rule across the decades since and the writers' willingness to do likewise by enshrining amphetamine users suggests to me that the issue today is less about the numbers or even guilt and innocence by the nebulous standards of “integrity, sportsmanship, and character,” and more about writers going on about the immorality of steroids and stooping to playing make-believe about some players while doing so.

Witness what's happened to Jeff Bagwell: Innocent by any reasonable or legal standard, he's been loudly pronounced guilty by a few character assassins with votes who retroactively decided he somehow looked 'roid-y back in the day. The witches of Salem got better due process, but that's the problem in a nutshell: The issue of PEDs has become less about actual guilt or innocence, and isn't even about performance or performance-enhancement, if ever it was. Instead, it has become an opportunity for one sportswriter or another to be visible as a noisily moral public person. Swell.

For those who are squeamish about voting for one PED suspect or another, I guess I'd remind them that the Hall already represents a collection of shabby compromises and irrevocable judgments, which we are not free to undo. We don't get to kick out Cap Anson because we can't be sure how many hits he had, or because today we'd consider him a racist guilty of wrecking decades of baseball history by fighting for the game's segregation, probably the worst thing anyone associated with the game's history has been a part of.

And we also don't get to go back and kick out the amphetamine users. I mean, c'mon, no Mike Schmidt or Hank Aaron in the Hall of Fame? By their own admission they broke the same baseball rule on the books that Bonds did, and they did so for the same reason -- to enhance their performance.

Which is why I'd go so far as to say this: If you're worrying for the sake of the sanctity of the Hall where Bonds or Clemens are concerned, you need to ask and answer whether it still has any, or ever did. And after that, perhaps we'll come to the conclusion that the Hall's purpose is not to play make-believe about some players to keep them in or keep them out, but is instead to preserve the game's history, many warts and all.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Sammy SosaJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSammy Sosa compiled a 31.9 WAR over his peak five-year period from 1998 to 2002.
Absent, shall we say, a complicating factor, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa would be ultra-mortal locks. Based on the numbers, there wouldn’t be the slightest hesitation in checking the box next to their names.

That quote comes from longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan in a piece the other day.

Bonds, Clemens and Sosa are three of the 23 new names on the Hall of Fame ballot this year (see Jim Caple's piece here) and the three are commonly grouped together for obvious reasons. But should they be? One of these numbers is not like the others:


Is Sammy Sosa a Hall of Famer?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,253)

Bonds: 158.1 Wins Above Replacement
Clemens: 133.9 Wins Above Replacement
Sosa: 54.8 Wins Above Replacement

Bonds and Clemens are all-timers -- they ranked third and seventh in our recent Hall of 100 survey -- while Sosa is clearly way behind them, at least in terms of statistical evaluation (he ranked 95th in the Hall of 100).

Sosa hit 609 career home runs but much of his value was packed into a remarkable five-year run from 1998 to 2002, in which he hit .306/.397/.649, averaged 58 home runs, 141 RBIs and 124 runs scored and won an MVP Award. He totaled 31.9 WAR over those five seasons, including 10.1 in 2001, when he hit 64 home runs, slugged .737 and drove in 160 runs.

Those weren't the only good seasons of Sosa's career. He was also a five-win player in 1995 and 1996, when he averaged 38 home runs and grades much better on defense (Baseball-Reference rates him third in the NL in 1995 in defensive WAR and second in 1996.) But Sosa didn't really get started until 1993, when he was 24 years old, and his last good season came in 2003, when he was 34, so we're talking about a relatively short span of productivity for a Hall of Famer, leading to his somewhat modest career WAR (modest by Hall of Fame standards, that is).

Let's compare him to other outfielders in the Hall of Fame and other prominent outfielders on this year's ballot.

So Sosa's case -- absent the PED cloud -- does hang on that peak run. As you can see, he easily created more runs compared to the average hitter of his era over those five seasons than the outfielders on the list. He may not have had the all-around game of Larry Walker or Carl Yastrzemski or the defensive ability of Kenny Lofton or Richie Ashburn, but for a few years there he mashed the ol' horsehide.

Still, it's a short peak, and Sosa doesn't have a lot to go around it. Historically, Hall of Fame voters have rewarded longevity over peak (with notable exceptions like Sandy Koufax or Bruce Sutter), but despite those 609 home runs, I see Sosa as a borderline Hall of Famer -- which, getting back to the Bob Ryan quote, puts him in a completely different class than Bonds or Clemens. Another strike against Sosa is that he wasn't exactly pushing the Cubs to glorious new heights -- they did win the wild card in 1998, but lost 95 games in 1999, 97 in 2000 and 95 in 2002. That's not Sosa's fault, of course, but you can argue that one aspect of greatness is playing on great team. By the time the Cubs returned to the postseason in 2003, Sosa had started to slide and rates as the fifth-best player on the club (behind four pitchers).

If I had a ballot this year, I'd probably want to vote for Sosa -- "fame" and historical significance and high peak barely putting him over the top, for me -- except I wouldn't be able to fit him on my ballot, as there are 10 other players I would rate higher.

Of course, in the end, it's a moot argument. Sosa and friends won't sniff the Hall of Fame this year, but his case wouldn't have been automatic even without the PED complications.

AL MVP debate: Cabrera versus Trout

September, 14, 2012
Miguel Cabrera and Mike TroutUS PresswireMiguel Cabrera, left, is having a great season, but Mike Trout is the slam-dunk AL MVP.

The grievances seem mostly confined to Michigan but usually go something like this: The media is ignoring Miguel Cabrera's MVP candidacy because we're in love with Mike Trout since he's a rookie; that Trout isn't doing anything so historic that we should just hand him the trophy so easily; that Trout's Angels might not even make the playoffs; that Cabrera is the best hitter in the game; that Cabrera has been shafted in other MVP votes and finally deserves one.

Let's take those arguments one at a time.

1. We just love Mike Trout and are ignoring Miguel Cabrera.

Guilty. Of course we love Mike Trout. He hits, he runs, he fields, he robs opponents of home runs and then hits his own. His name is Trout and he tweets about fishing. The fact that he turned 21 in August isn't the reason he's the leading MVP candidate in the world; the fact that he turned 21 and is doing the things he's doing just adds an extra layer of awe.

But that doesn't mean we have anything against Cabrera. We should all respect the way he has moved back to third base and acquitted himself better than anyone expected. He has missed one game all season. That he's a hitting machine, as feared as any batsman in the league, goes without saying. I don't think Cabrera is getting ignored. It is, however, difficult to claim the spotlight when a kid who spent most of the season at 20 years old is putting up numbers we've never seen from someone that young.

2. Trout isn't doing anything that historic.

Through Thursday's games, Trout is hitting .331/.397/.569. If you look just at that triple-slash line then, yes, I suppose you could say there's nothing historic going on here. After all, since 1901 there have been 193 times that a player reached all three of those numbers. Cabrera himself even did it last season.

Of course, Trout has 45 steals (in 49 attempts). Not all 193 of those players ran the bases with Trout's blazing speed. In fact, only 17 of them swiped as many as 25 bases.

And not all of them hit 27 home runs. In fact, of those 17 who stole 25-plus bases, only eight hit as many 20 home runs. All eight happened to be outfielders. Of those eight -- Ken Williams in 1922, Willie Mays in 1957 and 1958, Barry Bonds in 1993, Ellis Burks in 1996, Larry Walker in 1997, Vladimir Guerrero in 2002 and Ryan Braun in 2011 -- only one played center field.

So just like that: Mike Trout and Willie Mays. Yes, with a straight face.

Maybe that's too goofy of an approach for you. WAR -- wins above replacement -- is an attempt to analyze a player's batting, fielding and baserunning statistics into one number. Entering Thursday's game, Trout's Baseball-Reference WAR was 10.3. According to the metrics, there have 28 seasons when a player achieved 10.3 WAR or higher. Six of those seasons were by Babe Ruth, and there have been just six during the divisional era -- Joe Morgan in 1975, Robin Yount in 1982, Cal Ripken in 1991 and Barry Bonds in 2001, 2002 and 2004.

Assuming Trout doesn't go 0 for his next 75, I'm pretty comfortable calling this a historic season.

Oh, Cabrera's WAR: 5.8. Excellent figure. Not historic.

3. How can Trout be the MVP if the Angels don't make the playoffs?

This seems to be Cabrera's best argument -- assuming the Tigers make the playoffs, of course, and the Angels don't. It is true that during the wild-card era few players from non-playoff teams have won the MVP award: Larry Walker in 1997, Barry Bonds in 2001 and 2004, Alex Rodriguez in 2003, Ryan Howard in 2006, Albert Pujols in 2008.

But why this should be held against Trout confuses me. Where would the Angels be without him? Nowhere near contending for the playoffs. Plus, there is the likely scenario that the Angels win more games than the Tigers, yet miss the playoffs while the Tigers make it. I fail to see why that makes Cabrera a better MVP candidate than Trout when Trout's team will have won more games.

4. Cabrera is the best hitter in the game.

I won't disagree with this assessment, but the problem here is it's hard to argue that he has been a better hitter than Trout in 2012.

Trout: .331/.397/.569, 27 HR, 77 RBI, 115 runs
Cabrera: .328/.393/.590, 36 HR, 118 RBI, 91 runs

So Cabrera has the slightest edge in OPS, .983 to .966. Even though he spent the first few weeks of the season in Triple-A, however, Trout has created more runs -- 115 to 113, by our numbers, 121 to 117 by Baseball-Reference figures. But here's another key: Trout has created those while using up 344 outs; Cabrera has used 401 outs.

That's before we even get to the ballparks. Angel Stadium has played a strong pitcher's park this season. Comerica, despite its reputation, has played as a slight hitter's park. So it's hard to give Cabrera the edge on offense when Trout has been the better offensive player. Factor in Trout's obvious huge edges in defense and baserunning, and it's not close.

And, no, I don't want to hear about RBIs. Trout bats leadoff. He doesn't get the opportunities. For what it's worth, in "high leverage" situations, Trout is hitting .328 with four home runs and Cabrera is hitting .351 with four home runs.

5. Cabrera deserves an MVP award.

Hey, I feel for him. If Cabrera fails to win it this year, he'll join Eddie Murray as the only players to finish in the top five of the MVP voting six times yet never win. That's no reason, of course, to vote for a player.

It's Mike Trout's year. He's the best player in the game. This should be Reagan-Mondale. If Trout doesn't win, it would be one of the biggest travesties in MVP voting history.
Mike TroutGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireAngels outfielder Mike Trout has the tools to be baseball's most exciting player for years to come.
We all have our own favorites, of course, and maybe they change from season to season. Or month to month. That's a little of the beauty of baseball; we don't all have to enjoy and appreciate the same players. The stars aren't necessarily shoved down our throats like a certain sport played with an orange ball.

For me, Mike Trout has been the most exciting player in baseball in 2012. It's completely subjective opinion, of course, but if you think of some of the factors that would be considered for such a description, Trout fits (as do Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Kemp and others):

1. Power. Check.
2. Speed. Check.
3. Spectacular plays on defense. Check.
4. Young. Check. This is kind of like how we get excited over a new restaurant or new girlfriend or new TV show.
5. Looks good in a baseball uniform. Check.
6. Has the It Factor. Hard to define, but you know what it is when you see it.
7. Cool name. Mickey Mantle wouldn't quite be Mickey Mantle if his name had been "Andy Stankiewicz."
8. He's good. Duh. Although I suppose there's a different kind of excitement for players who aren't good.

Pitchers have a slightly different list of criteria, much of which boils down to "He's one bad dude."

The first year I remember following baseball was 1976, the year before the Mariners arrived in my hometown. Leaving out the fact that most of us probably prefer a guy on our favorite team, here's my own list of Most Exciting Player in Baseball since that year.

1976: Mark Fidrych, P, Tigers

There hasn't been anybody like Fidrych since he became a national phenomenon as a 21-year-old rookie. For all the attention given to Trout or Harper this year, imagine if ESPN and 24-hour sports coverage had been around in 1976, when Fidrych was talking to baseballs and shaking hands with infielders after a good play -- in the middle of innings. I remember watching the famous June "Monday Night Baseball" game against the Yankees, that's how big it seemed at the time. Fidrych would start the All-Star Game, complete 24 of his 29 starts and boost attendance whenever he pitched (he accounted for nearly half of the Tigers' attendance that year while making just 18 starts at Tiger Stadium). In Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," a history of baseball in the '70s, he writes that other teams begged the Tigers to pitch Fidrych in their parks.

How exciting was he? Here's a clip of that Yankees game; fast-forward to the 2:30 mark and not just for the awesome '70s clothes and fans smoking in the stands. Detroit fans hung out after the game, chanting "We want The Bird! We want The Bird!" When he finally appears from the clubhouse, the place explodes. One of a kind.

1977: George Foster, LF, Reds

Maybe a bit of a one-dimensional slugger, but his 52 home runs that year seemed otherworldly. And maybe they were. It was the only 50-homer season between Willie Mays in 1965 and Cecil Fielder in 1990, Foster waved that menacing black bat and was awesome.

1978: Dave Parker, RF, Pirates

Built like a linebacker, for a few years there Parker was arguably the best all-around player in baseball. He was the MVP in 1978 as he led the majors in batting average and OPS and owned a howitzer for an arm. Plus, this was the year he fractured his jaw and cheekbone in a home-plate collision and returned two weeks later wearing a hockey mask at the plate (quickly replaced by a football-like face mask).

[+] EnlargeGeorge Brett
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesGeorge Brett had 85 extra-base hits for the Royals in 1979.
1979-1980: George Brett, 3B, Royals

That sweet Charlie Lau swing. The dirty uniform even though he played his home games on turf. And then the chase for .400 in 1980. But how about this line in 1979: .329, 212 hits, 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 home runs.

1981-1983: Rickey Henderson, LF, A's

Actually, you could probably give him the whole decade if you want.

1984-1985: Dwight Gooden, P, Mets

In 1984, he was Kid K, the 19-year-old phenom who finished second in the Cy Young vote, helping turn around a moribund Mets franchise. In 1985, he was Dr. K, the best pitcher on the planet -- 24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 strikeouts. He pitched eight shutouts that year with his blistering high fastball and knee-buckling curveball, plus he had two more nine-inning scoreless outings where he got a no-decision. The four games he "lost" he allowed two, two, two and three runs. With a little luck, he could have gone unbeaten. You couldn't watch all the games back then, of course, unless you lived in the New York area, but I'd stay up late to watch the news to see how Gooden fared or devour the box score in the morning paper.

1986: Roger Clemens, P, Red Sox

Twenty strikeouts in a game. Twenty-four wins. Nothing then about needles in the butt.

1987: Eric Davis, CF, Reds

Skinny as a golf club, Davis somehow generated big power from his slight frame and combined that with blazing speed and acrobatic outfield play. In 1986, he hit 27 home runs and stole 80 bases; in 1987 he hit 37 home runs and stole 50 bases (in just 129 games). In a Sports Illustrated story, Reds manager Pete Rose said, "It's like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout." Teammate Dave Parker said, "Eric is blessed with world-class speed, great leaping ability, the body to play until he's 42, tremendous bat speed and power, and a throwing arm you wouldn't believe. There's an aura to everything he does." In the long run, he couldn't stay healthy, although he did last until he was 39. If you missed seeing the young Davis, you missed something special.

1988: Jose Canseco, RF, A's

Don't laugh. When he went 40-40 it was a very big deal. But, no, I never called the Jose Canseco hotline.

1989-1994: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners

OK, Barry Bonds was better. He was faster. When you break it down, he was a little better hitter and that was even before Big Barry broke out. But Griffey had the It Factor from the time he reached the majors at age 19 and Bonds never really did.

[+] EnlargeRandy Johnson
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonRandy Johnson's heroics in 1995 perhaps saved baseball in the city of Seattle.
1995: Randy Johnson, P, Mariners

Power and might, adrenaline at 100 miles per hour with his long hair flapping behind him, as intimidating a pitcher the game has ever seen. And if you were a Mariners fan in those days, a Johnson game was a treat to be savored. And when he trudged in from the bullpen in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series, the Kingdome exploded in pandemonium. Without Johnson's spectacular '95 season (remember, Griffey was hurt part of that year), there may not be baseball in Seattle.

1996: Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners

The common theory is that A-Rod -- like Bonds -- never managed to connect with the fans on a national scale like Griffey, but that's a little rewriting of history, especially after he left Seattle for his first megabucks contract. In 1996, when he was 20 years old (turned 21 in July), he was, like Mike Trout, a young guy putting up bizzaro offensive numbers -- he'd hit .358 with 36 home runs and 54 doubles. It's too easy to forget now but there was a moment when Rodriguez was a player of our affection instead of a player of derision.

1997: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners

Griffey's MVP season when he led the AL with 56 home runs and 147 RBIs.

1998: Mark McGwire, 1B, Cardinals ... and Sammy Sosa, RF, Cubs

You have to put them together, no? And, no, you can't rewrite history: The home run chase was exhilarating, thrilling and astonishing.

1999-2000: Pedro Martinez, P, Red Sox

In the midst of the barrage of home runs, Pedro was putting up numbers we'd never seen before from a pitcher. In 1999, he struck out 313 batters in 213.1 innings, an average of 13.2 K's per nine innings ... and he walked just 37. He was Nolan Ryan with command and one unhittable changeup. In 2000, opponents hit .167 off him. This wasn't some reliever throwing one inning at a time. Attending a Pedro game at Fenway during this peak was like going to a religious revival, 35,000 fans believing fervently in the gifts of Pedro. He wasn't a god, but he sure pitched like one.

2001: Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners

I think this list is just making Mariners fans sad.

2002-2004: Barry Bonds, LF, Giants

Are walks exciting? Bonds somehow made them so. Love him or hate him, a Bonds at-bat in this era was must-see TV.

2005: Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals

A weird season. Bartolo Colon won a Cy Young Award. Roger Clemens had a 1.87 ERA at age 42. Scott Eyre picked up 10th-place MVP vote. No, seriously, he did. We'll give the nod to Pujols, if only for that 9,000-foot home run off Brad Lidge in the NLCS.

2006-2008: Jose Reyes, SS, Mets

Over those three seasons he hit .292 while averaging 16 home runs, 16 triples and 66 stolen bases per season. Admit it: He was fun.

2009: Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins

Maybe should have mentioned him during the Reyes seasons. This was the year he hit .342 with power and speed.

2010: Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers

He was so good he won the MVP Award despite missing the final month.

2011: Justin Verlander, P, Tigers

With apologies to Matt Kemp.

So that's my list, no slights intended to those I left off. What about your most exciting players? Discuss below ... and enjoy baseball.

Dream teams: 1992 versus 2012

August, 13, 2012
Before the Olympics began, Kobe Bryant suggested this year's Olympic basketball team would defeat the fabled 1992 Dream Team that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Larry Bird. Bryant later adjusted his thoughts, saying the Dream Team was better but that the 2012 squad could beat them.

Bryant and company cruised throughout the tournament until Sunday's gold-medal game against Spain, prevailing 107-100 after leading by just one point heading into the fourth quarter.

Anyway, that's a lead-in to this: What would baseball's dream team from 1992 look like? Let's turn back the clock and imagine we're in the summer of 1992. Let's pick a 25-man team -- 15 position players, seven starting pitchers and three relievers. Just like the '92 hoops Dream Team, legend status should come into play a bit. Since we're imagining an Olympic-type scenario, we're going with U.S. players only.

The Starters
1. 2B Ryne Sandberg, Cubs (.304/.371/.510, 26 HR, 7.6 WAR)
Made his ninth consecutive All-Star appearance in '92.

2. CF Kirby Puckett, Twins (.329/.374/.490, 19 HR, 6.8 WAR)
Had led the Twins to a World Series title in 1991; finished second in '92 American League MVP vote.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/John SwartBarry Bonds led the Pirates to the NLCS in 1992.
3. LF Barry Bonds, Pirates (.311/.456/.624, 34 HR, 8.9 WAR)
The best player in the game; won his second MVP award in '92.

4. DH Frank Thomas, White Sox (.323/.439/.536, 24 HR, 6.7 WAR)
In his second full season, but the most feared hitter in the AL. Led the league in OBP and OPS for the second consecutive season.

5. 1B Mark McGwire, A's (.268/.385/.585, 42 HR, 6.2 WAR)
Had rebounded from a poor 1991 to lead the AL in slugging percentage and the A's to the AL West title.

6. RF Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners (.308/.361/.535, 27 HR, 5.5 WAR)
At 22 years old, already one of the game's best all-around players. We'll move him to right field with Kirby in center.

7. 3B Terry Pendleton, Braves (.311/.345/.473, 21 HR, 4.8 WAR)
People remember his 1991 MVP season, but he finished second to Bonds in the '92 vote.

8. C Darren Daulton, Phillies (.270/.385/.524, 27 HR, 6.7 WAR)
It was a weak year for catchers, but Daulton had a monster season with the fourth-highest WAR among position players.

9. SS Cal Ripken, Orioles (.251/.323/.366, 14 HR, 3.8 WAR)
Not a good season but a baseball dream team wouldn't have been complete without Ripken.

The Bench
OF Rickey Henderson, A's (.283/.426/.457, 15 HR, 5.4 WAR)
The best leadoff hitter in the game compiled 5.4 WAR despite playing just 117 games.

OF Andy Van Slyke, Pirates (.324/.381/.505, 14 HR, 5.9 WAR)
Led the NL in doubles and hits, fourth in the MVP vote, Gold Glove center fielder. His window was small, but a terrific player for a few years.

OF Dave Winfield, Blue Jays (.290/.377/.491, 26 HR, 3.8 WAR)
Others with a higher WAR, but Winfield gets credit for legend status and helping the Blue Jays win the World Series.

SS Ozzie Smith, Cardinals (.205/.367/.342, 0 HR, 5.0 WAR)
Tough call here: Barry Larkin (.304/.377/.452, 5.5 WAR) or the 37-year-old Ozzie? The Wizard could still pick it and had 43 steals.

3B Gary Sheffield, Padres (.330/.385/.580, 33 HR, 6.0 WAR)
Challenged for the Triple Crown much of the year before finishing first in batting, third in homers and fifth in RBIs.

C Terry Steinbach, A's (.279/.345/.411, 3.8 WAR)
Gets the nod over Mickey Tettleton as the backup catcher for his good defense and leadership.

Pitching Staff
Tom Glavine, Braves (20-8, 2.76 ERA, 3.6 WAR)
The only lefty on our 10-man staff, finished second in the Cy Young vote after winning it the year before.

[+] EnlargeGreg Maddux
AP Photo/Bill WaughGreg Maddux would win four consecutive Cy Youngs beginning with the 1992 season.
Greg Maddux, Cubs (20-11, 2.18 ERA, 8.9 WAR)
Won the first of his four consecutive Cy Young Awards.

Roger Clemens, Red Sox (18-11, 2.41 ERA, 8.4 WAR)
Led the AL in ERA, shutouts, WHIP and SO/BB ratio, but finished just third in Cy Young vote.

Doug Drabek, Pirates (15-11, 2.77 ERA, 5.1 WAR)
Career went downhill after signing with the Astros in '93, but regarded as one of the toughest competitors in the game at the time.

Jack Morris, Blue Jays (21-6, 4.04 ERA, 2.5 WAR)
Morris absolutely would have been on a '92 dream team despite the high ERA. He'd just won back-to-back World Series titles and had the 21 wins.

Jack McDowell, White Sox (20-10, 3.18 ERA, 4.9 WAR)
Kevin Appier and Mike Mussina had better ERAs, but Black Jack had the image at the time. And the league-leading 13 complete games.

Nolan Ryan, Rangers (5-9, 3.72 ERA, 1.8 WAR)
The numbers don't merit inclusion, but by '92 Ryan was the biggest icon in the game, a 45-year-old flame-throwing legend. Much like Bird, you wouldn't leave him off.

Dennis Eckersley, A's (7-1, 1.91 ERA, 51 saves, 2.8 WAR)
The last AL reliever to win the Cy Young, Eck also walked away with the MVP trophy. OK, it was a bad vote, but Eck seemed unbeatable back then.

Rob Dibble, Reds (3-5, 3.07 ERA, 25 saves, 0.9 WAR)
At the time, Dibble had four of the five highest K/9 rates in major league history (minimum 50 innings).

Jeff Montgomery, Royals (1-6, 2.18 ERA, 39 saves, 3.0 WAR)
From '89 to '93, Montgomery fashioned a 2.22 ERA with 159 saves. What, you expected Mitch Williams?

So, who got Isiah'd? We mentioned Barry Larkin. Tony Gwynn was in a bit of a down spell (for him), so he loses out as well. We can't find room for NL home run leader Fred McGriff, Will Clark or Paul Molitor. For pitchers, some of the better statistical options would have included the aforementioned Mussina (7.9 WAR) and Appier (7.7 WAR) as well as Frank Viola, Sid Fernandez, Bob Tewksbury and David Cone, plus some up-and-coming guys like John Smoltz and Curt Schilling.

How does this team compare to a 2012 dream team? I'll let you debate who would be on such a 2012 team in the comments section.

You have to love August baseball. This is when the grind of the long season settles in, when depth becomes even more important, when pitchers have to pitch through fatigue and soreness and maybe a little pain. It's when we find out if the pretenders are contenders and whether the favorites really do have the firepower.

August is time for scoreboard-watching. August is time for your ace to go on a five-win hot streak. August is time for the MVP candidates to shine. August is time for big wins, like the one the Giants had on Sunday at home, when they scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Trade-deadline acquisition Hunter Pence had the decisive blow, a three-run home run, his first since joining the Giants. Pence is hitting just .137 with the Giants, but his homer off Rafael Betancourt capped a rally started when Brandon Crawford's leadoff pop fly fell for a single.

Beginning with the Giants, here are 10 important things you need to know as August rolls on.

1. The Giants have an offense.

Since the All-Star break, the Giants are second in the National League in runs scored to the Nationals, hitting .270 with a .339 on-base percentage, also second in the league. Buster Posey, of course, has been on fire, hitting .443 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs since the break. Only Boston's Adrian Gonzalez has more post-break RBIs (35). Melky Cabrera hasn't slowed down either; his .918 second-half OPS matches his .910 of the first half. If Pence can get going to provide another power threat, the Giants' offense looks even better.

2. Remember Jayson Werth.

Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse have combined for 23 home runs since the break to power the Nationals, who had their eight-game winning streak snapped Sunday, but Werth provides something the offense has needed all season: A leadoff hitter. Since his return from a broken wrist, Werth has hit .400 with a .500 OBP. On the season, Nationals leadoff hitters rank just 13th in the National League in OBP. "I am totally surprised how my wrist is doing, how I’ve recovered," Werth told the Washington Post a couple days ago. "When I look down at my wrist and I see that scar, it almost reminds me. Like, 'Oh, yeah.' I almost forget about it until I see the hatchet wound." Werth won't ever live up to the $126 million contract, but he's a a huge key as the Nats push for a division title.

3. Who will step up for the Angels behind Jered Weaver?

Can we stop declaring that the Angels are guaranteed to secure one of the AL wild cards? They're 3-8 over the past 11 games after Jason Vargas outdueled Weaver on Sunday and have slipped 8 games behind the Rangers in the West, and to fifth in the wild-card race behind the Rays, Orioles, A's and Tigers. Dan Haren has allowed at least one home run in nine consecutive starts, Ervin Santana continues to pitch like a ticking time bomb and has allowed the most home runs in the majors, Zack Greinke has been terrible in two of his three starts with the Angels, including the fifth five-plus walk game of his career, and even C.J. Wilson has allowed 27 runs in 29.2 innings over his past five starts. With the starters getting knocked early, the overtaxed Angels bullpen has also been an issue. For all the Mike Trout love, the Angels have a good chance of becoming the season's most disappointing -- yes, even more disappointing than the Red Sox.

4. The Rays are scorching hot on the mound.

If pitchers feed off each other, the Rays are like a pack of hungry wolves right now. Tampa Bay owns a 2.33 ERA since the All-Star break and has held opponents to a .200 average in going 17-11. The Rays swept the Twins by scoring four runs in the top of the 10th and have won eight of 11 to surge into the wild-card lead with the Orioles. Next up on this road: Trips to Seattle and Anaheim. That four-game series against the Angels looms large and David Price and James Shields will start the first two games.

5. Jim Leyland is right ... sort of.

The Tigers manager started a minor firestorm when he referred to Mike Trout as "Wonderboy" in suggesting his own Miguel Cabrera is deserving of the AL MVP Award so far. Leyland's comments really weren't derogatory, as he was simply referring to the potential of voters getting caught up in Trout's storyline. Hey, he's right in that regard; voters do love a good storyline. It's why Ichiro Suzuki won in 2001 over Jason Giambi and teammate Bret Boone. Or why Miguel Tejada won over Alex Rodriguez in 2002. Interestingly, the last "Wonderboy" to challenge for an MVP trophy was A-Rod in 1996, and he finished second to Juan Gonzalez in one of the worst MVP votes of all time.

That's because what MVP voters really like is a player who makes the playoffs. It's why Ryan Braun beat out Matt Kemp in 2011 or why Joey Votto collected 31 of 32 first-place over Albert Pujols in 2010 despite basically identical numbers. Of the 34 MVP trophies handed out during the wild-card era, only six have gone to players whose teams didn't reach the playoffs: Pujols (2008), Ryan Howard (2006), Barry Bonds (2004 and 2001), A-Rod (2003) and Larry Walker (1997). So maybe Trout is the MVP favorite right now, but that all changes if the Angels don't reach the playoffs (the same, of course, can be said for Cabrera).

6. The Cardinals have the same record through 115 games as 2011.

Just like a season ago, the Cardinals are 62-53. However, in 2011 they were just 3 games behind the Brewers and 4 behind wild-card leader Atlanta. While they're 7 behind the Reds in the National League Central, they trail the Braves and Pirates by just 2.5. Like a year ago, the bullpen is struggling -- on Sunday, St. Louis blew a three-run lead in the eighth to the Phillies and lost in 11 innings. Of course, we know the bullpen buttoned down last year.

7. The best trade deadline pickup may have been ... Paul Maholm?

Maybe the Braves got the best Cubs pitcher being shopped around. Maholm's record since June 29: Eight starts, eight runs allowed. He's pitched in obscurity for years in Pittsburgh, often with some terrible defensive teams behind him. He doesn't light up the radar gun but his strikeout rate has ticked up a notch this year, perhaps because he's throwing his slider with greater frequency. Oh, another note: Mike Minor, much-maligned by Braves fans in the first half, has a 1.99 ERA over his past five starts.

8. Manny Machado is here to stay.

Can a rookie lead the Orioles to the first playoff berth since 1997? In four games since his surprise call-up from Double-A, all the 20-year-old rookie has done is hit three home runs, a double and a triple, scored five runs and knocked in seven. Maybe we have a second Wonderboy.

9. The Yankees are 26-22 since June 18. A-Rod is on the DL. CC Sabathia is again on the DL ...

Since reeling off that 10-game winning streak in mid-June, the Yankees have played just above .500 baseball. They're actually 14-14 over the past 28 games. Phil Hughes, having looked better, has returned to being Phil Hughes his past two starts. Ivan Nova lives and dies on whether his curveball and slider have enough bite on any given start. Sabathia has a tender elbow. Andy Pettitte had a setback. And then there's the offense. Curtis Granderson is turning into an extreme all-or-nothing hitter. He has seven homers since the break, but is hitting .218 with a 39/9 SO/BB ratio. Ichiro Suzuki has a sub-.300 OBP since joining the Yankees. And ... the Yankees are still up 5 games in the East.

10. We don't know anything.

Nine teams in the AL are within 5.5 games of a playoff spot. Seven teams are within 5 games of a playoff spot in the NL. That means more than half the teams have legitimate playoff hopes. There is no clear-cut No. 1 team in baseball. We have parity, we have excitement, we have fans filling ballparks (well, at least some of them) and we have a crazy, unpredictable finish ahead of us. Why is that important? Because it gives all of us reason to do plenty of scoreboard-watching.
Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast with SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield and I was one of those delightful episodes with much back and forth and opinion, with among the juicy topics being ...

1. Who’s joining that Orioles bandwagon after another extra-inning victory? Well, Dave is! We also take a look around the game from Tuesday, discussing Jose Valverde, Evan Longoria and Chris Perez.

2. Who are the top center fielders in the game and where does B.J. Upton rank? What in the name of Jon Jay is going on here?

3. Barry Bonds says he’s a Hall of Famer. Do we agree? Do you?

4. Our emailers have thoughts on those Orioles and run differential, Bryce Harper’s real place among the top NL rookies (hint, Michael Fiers might have a say in this) and more!

5. Wednesday’s schedule features the NL ERA leader, and it’s certainly not a name you’d expect. Plus, Dan Straily versus Zack Greinke should be interesting!

So download and listen to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast with Schoenfield and I, because who else is talking about Cesar Cedeno, Greg Luzinski and Ken Griffey’s rookie campaign?