SweetSpot: Bartolo Colon
Colon returns to the National League East more than a decade after his half-season with the Montreal Expos. Although he was plenty good with the Oakland A's last season, going 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA, there's room to believe he might be even better should his pipeline to the fountain of youth continue. Trading the designated hitter for opposing pitchers should help artificially boost his below-average strikeout rate while aiding in maintaining his near non-existent walk total. He has faced 1405 batters over the last two seasons and walked just 49 unintentionally. In regards to batted balls, he will continue to pitch in a pitcher-friendly home park and will do so in front of what should be an above-average defensive outfield that includes Granderson, Chris Young and Juan Lagares.
Colon's game plan is simple. Everything is predicated off well-located fastballs. Despite his advanced age, and diminished velocity, he is one of the heaviest (no pun intended) users of fastballs in the league. Since 2011, he has thrown the most heaters of any starter (minimum 450 innings). In fact, it is not even close. Colon has thrown nearly 86 percent fastballs over the last three seasons with Gio Gonzalez in second at just under 70 percent.
While Colon may seem like a one-trick pony, he actually uses the fastball as multiple different pitches. Take for example his work against Adrian Beltre in 2013. As division rivals, the duo locked horns 13 times. The results are irrelevant (.077/.077/.154 for those that care) but the process is evident. Of the 43 pitches Colon threw to Beltre, 34 were fastballs. The velocity range was 86 mph on the low end and 94 mph on the high end of the spectrum. The most impressive part was the varied location. Colon threw up and in on the hands as frequently as he threw down and away. The constant changing of speeds and shifting of eye levels makes illustrates how one pitch can look like a complete arsenal the opposing batter.
The risk in signing a pitcher working on his fifth decade on the planet to a multi-year contract is implied. But Colon is an outlier. Over the last two seasons, he has made 54 starts, averaging over six innings per start with an ERA around 3.00. For a Mets' staff that has an average birth year in the late 1980s, the ability to consistently go deep in the games is noteworthy. There is also value in young hurlers soaking up some tips of the trade from a guy who has thrown around 50,000 pitches at the top level. Even if you want to tack on an arbitrary half run for each additional birthday candle, Colon should pay off over the length of the deal, The Mets have added a good major league pitcher at a price that is more than reasonable.
Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report and contributes to GammonsDaily.com.
The Oakland Athletics have a better record than the Detroit Tigers, yet while the Tigers have six All-Stars, the only All-Star for the A's so far is a fat, 40-year-old pitcher who went 32-40 with a 4.38 ERA from 2006 to 2012 and throws almost nothing but fastballs.
But there was Bartolo Colon on Monday night, listed at 265 pounds but not looking a pound under 300. He pitched another gem in the opener of a big series between the first-place A's and, entering the game, the first-place Pirates. His opponent was another unlikely All-Star in Jeff Locke and both showed why they earned those selections as the A's won 2-1. Colon got the win with seven solid innings to improve to 12-3, but we know a win-loss record can be misleading. Let us focus instead on some of Colon's other stats like his 2.69 ERA and the second-lowest walk rate among major league starters.
There's nothing fluky going on here with Colon. He doesn't rack up a lot of strikeouts, but with just 15 walks in 18 starts he's nearly eliminated free baserunners. He keeps the hits down due to a pinpoint location, changing speeds and movement on his fastball. His velocity isn't bad either for an old man: He averages 90 mph on his fastball, but due to the changing speeds part; he can still crank it up to 96 on occasion.
In fact, his biggest and fastest pitch of the night was his final one. With one run already in, the Pirates had runners on first and second with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and All-Star Andrew McCutchen up. McCutchen swung through a high inside 95 mph fastball, took a fastball up high and then a 95 mph fastball at the knees. The 1-2 pitch was a 96 mph heater up in the zone. OK, it actually wasn't a very good pitch as catcher Derek Norris had set up high and away but Colon caught too much of the plate and McCutchen lined it hard to center, where Coco Crisp made a fantastic diving catch to save the day.
Usually, of course, Colon hits his spots. He threw his fastball on 89 of his 108 pitches on Monday, an 82 percent ratio that matches his season average of 84 percent fastballs. Sixty-seven of the 89 pitches were strikes. What makes Colon so unique isn't just the percentage of fastballs he throws but that he's still effective with it against left-handed batters, who are hitting .276 against his fastball with a .296 on-base percentage -- the MLB average for right-handed pitchers against left-handed batters is a .274 average but a .349 OBP. Again, it is really that ability to limit walks more than anything that has made Colon successful.
Look how he pitches left-handed batters with his fastball: Outside, outside, outside.
A great example of this approach was against Pedro Alvarez, leading off the sixth. Colon wasn't about to let Alvarez beat him on an inside pitch and threw six straight fastballs -- all outside, all just off the plate. Alvarez finally grounded out on the 3-2 pitch. Don't be deceived by Colon's waistline: The guy can pitch.
As Crisp's catch showed, however, the A's win as a team -- much like last year, when relief pitcher Ryan Cook was their lone All-Star and right fielder Josh Reddick their only player to accumulate 4.0 WAR. This year, Colon and third baseman Josh Donaldson are the only players on pace to exceed 4.0 WAR. Donaldson got snubbed for the All-Star Game despite his excellent all-around season and shortstop Jed Lowrie and Crisp were borderline candidates (closer Grant Balfour may end up replacing Colon, who is scheduled to pitch Sunday and will thus be unable to pitch), but, really, the A's can't cry about a lack of respect when it's really a testament to their depth. They win as a team, not as a team of stars and scrubs.
The A's are still trying to win over more believers, as many will point to their 9-0 record against the Astros as helping inflate their record. (Of course, they still get 10 more games against the Astros.) This week will provide a good test with these three games in Pittsburgh and then three at home against Boston. Maybe if they head into the All-Star break still in first place they'll get a little more of that respect they deserve.
1. Sources say Major League Baseball will seek to suspend about 20 players connected to the Biogenesis PED scandal up to 100 games.
2. The Oakland A's lost a tough one, 4-3 in 10 innings to the Brewers after blowing a 3-0 lead. Still, they've won 15 of their past 18 games.
3. The Texas Rangers were hammered 17-5 in Boston.
The Rangers' lead over the A's in the AL West -- 7 games less than three weeks ago -- remains at 1.5 games. Maybe you were ready to count out the A's back when they were plodding along at 20-22, chalking up 2012's division title as a fluke. But this is what the A's do: They get on these awesome runs, an Oakland tradition going back to the Hudson-Zito-Mulder clubs.
Last year, they were 37-42 entering July, 13 games out of first place. They won 18 of their next 21 games; in August and early September they would run off another stretch of 15 wins in 17 games. In 2006, when they had last won the AL West title, the A's were 25-30 on June 2 when they won 13 out of 14. They would later reel out a 17-3 stretch. In 2004, they had a 16-2 stretch in August/early September. In 2003, it was a 14-2 stretch in August/September that pulled them to a division title. In 2002, it was the famous 20-game winning streak beginning in August. In 2001, they had a 22-2 stretch -- again in August into September.
Those earlier years were a different generation of A's teams, of course, but the A's have always had a similar philosophy, it seems: They're loose, they have fun, they play with that ol' fire in their bellies. Whether or not that helps to lead to more of these hot streaks, I don't know, but when the A's get hot they seem unstoppable.
The Rangers, of course, were supposed to be here, although there were some questions about the offense after losing Josh Hamilton, some concerns about the bullpen with Alexi Ogando moving back to the rotation, and then some concerns about the rotation after Matt Harrison underwent back surgery after just two starts.
It's a fascinating AL West race, especially after the A's swept the Rangers in the final three games last season to pass the Rangers and send Texas into the wild-card game. The Rangers have become one of baseball's wealthy franchises while the A's are still put together with toothpaste and tin foil. The Rangers still have the star power -- Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler -- while Oakland's best player has been the relatively unknown second-year third baseman/former catcher Josh Donaldson.
Remarkably, Colon, who just turned 40 on May 24, has been Oakland's best pitcher with a 6-2 record and 3.33 ERA. He's become one of the most unique pitchers in major league history. He's walked just four batters in 11 starts and basically throws just fastballs -- two-seamers and four-seamers, so count that as two pitches if you'd like. Of the 964 pitches he's thrown, 823 have been fastballs, with some sliders and changeups mixed in.
If Colon were to be suspended, the A's have a couple options. First, there's Brett Anderson, their preseason No. 1, who's currently on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his right foot. But he might be out another two months. After that, former first-round draft pick Sonny Gray would appear to be the next option, as he has 2.40 ERA at Triple-A Sacramento with 65 strikeouts, 20 walks and just one home run allowed in 63.2 innings.
Cruz may be even more difficult to replace, however. He's having a solid season with a .268/.323/.512 line, hitting his 14th home run in Tuesday's loss. But this Rangers team isn't the offensive powerhouse of recent seasons, ranking seventh in the AL in runs scored. They could play defensive whiz Craig Gentry on a regular basis or utility guy Jeff Baker, but Gentry would be exposed offensively playing every day while Baker is really just a platoon bat against left-handers. There doesn't appear to be much in the way of outfielders on the Triple-A roster. Of course, the wild card could be moving Jurickson Profar to the outfield when Kinsler returns from the DL, but I don't think you would move a rookie infielder to a new position at the major league level. Or, horror of horrors, you could try Lance Berkman or Mitch Moreland out there.
Of those options, playing Gentry is probably the best one; at least he'll give you great defense. Baker can continue to be platooned with David Murphy in left field. But losing Cruz's power still leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup.
The Rangers could look to swing a trade -- Andre Ethier (and his ugly contract) is probably available for free from the Dodgers!
Of course, we're getting way ahead of ourselves. But if MLB gets its way on the suspensions, it's the A's and Rangers who will be most affected. How Billy Beane and Jon Daniels respond ultimately could decide the AL West.
Revenge! Earlier this month defending division champs Cincinnati and Washington met in Ohio, and the Reds had the edge, taking the first game 15-0 and the third game 6-3, beating Stephen Strasburg. This series began on Thursday with a blowout Nationals win, and continues through the weekend. This could certainly be a playoff preview, but will the Nationals still be relying on Saturday starter Dan Haren by October? And what about the Reds with rookie lefty Tony Cingrani, scheduled to start Sunday? Haren hasn't retired a hitter in the sixth inning of any of his four starts, and while he searches for answers, don't be shocked when the Nationals upgrade as the year goes on. Cingrani has been terrific, and Sunday will be a test, but regardless of statistics he could be headed back to the minors soon when Johnny Cueto is healthy.
Surprises no more: A year ago today the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics seemed more likely to be last-place teams rather than playoff entrants, but the rest was history. Each team is off to a strong start and they'll continue their series, which also began Thursday (with an Orioles victory), in the Bay Area. Right-hander Bartolo Colon comes off a rain-shortened shutout (seven innings at Fenway Park) and is Sunday's scheduled starter. Colon, soon to be 40, is 3-0 already with a 2.42 ERA and he's issued one walk while striking out 17. How does he do it? Nine out of every 10 of his pitches are fastballs, and he's still hitting 90 mph on the radar gun, so give him credit for location, location and more location.
Bullpen follies: In one bullpen you've got the best closer in the business in Craig Kimbrel. In the other it's Jose Valverde, unemployed all winter, in Single-A ball when this week began and now closing again. It's quite the difference! The Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers are likely playoff teams no matter how their bullpens evolve (each bullpen will be fine) and face off in Detroit in the lone interleague series. The Braves have the pitching edge, as they avoid Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, and their trio of Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor bring a composite 1.65 ERA with them. The Tigers will send right-hander Rick Porcello to the mound Saturday, coming off an outing in which he was charged with nine runs in the first inning at Anaheim. Still only 24 but with a career ERA of 4.67 in more than 700 innings, those expecting Porcello to suddenly emerge as a star might be waiting a really long time. Minor and the worthy Doug Fister are scheduled to meet on Sunday night on ESPN.
Worst of the worst: Meanwhile, the battles aren't solely between contending teams. The Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins certainly aren't good teams, but that doesn't mean there isn't much to watch. For the dysfunctional Marlins, it's all about outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, off to miserable start. For those blaming the lack of offense around him I ask, who exactly protected Stanton in the lineup last year, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio? For the Cubs, it's worth tuning in if they have a ninth-inning lead. Pick the over on potential Carlos Marmol bases on balls. Tune in to this series and get a few laughs.
From Cy to Sigh: Every R.A. Dickey outing is worth a look, just to see how the knuckleball will be floating, and so far it seems last season's NL Cy Young award winner is even less sure than normal where it's going. Dickey's numbers are a bit inflated (4.66 ERA, 1.45 WHIP), likely in some part due to neck and back stiffness that he says has affected the knuckleball's velocity. Dickey has never started a game at Yankee Stadium, and it's not exactly a great offensive squad he'll face (Jayson Nix! Lyle Overbay! Brennan Boesch!), but if the Blue Jays are going to contend in the AL East, they'll need better pitching than they’ve received.
Enjoy your weekend!
Record: 94-68 (92-70 Pythagorean)
713 runs scored (8th in American League)
614 runs allowed (2nd in AL)
Big Offseason Moves
Traded Cliff Pennington and Yordy Cabrera to Arizona for Chris Young. Re-signed free agent Bartolo Colon. Signed Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Acquired John Jaso in three-way deal that sent A.J. Cole to Washington. Traded Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi to Houston for Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez. Lost free agents Brandon McCarthy, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes.
More than anything, Billy Beane improved Oakland's athleticism and versatility. He lost two designated-hitter types in Carter and Gomes, but acquired an elite defensive center fielder in Young and picked up two infielders to go along with the return of Scott Sizemore (the team's best hitter in 2011 who missed all of 2012). Nakajima was a star player in Japan and since Lowrie's range at short is limited, the A's are counting on Nakajima to live up to his defensive reputation. The loss of McCarthy will hurt, but re-signing Colon helps maintain their rotation depth. For the tight-budgeted A's, a solid offseason that gives manager Bob Melvin multiple options around the diamond.
As you can see from the projected lineup, there is a lot of unsettled aspect to Oakland's starting nine, but in a good way. Melvin will be able to mix and match and the depth gives the A's injury insurance.
But how good is the lineup? The A's set an all-time strikeout record last season and hit just .238. They did hit better with runners in scoring position -- .265 -- which is one reason they ranked eighth in runs despite finishing 12th in on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. Three reasons to like Oakland's chances to score more runs this year, however: The second basemen hit .228 with five home runs; the third basemen had a .280 OBP, lowest in the AL; and the shortstops had a .272 OBP, again lowest in the AL.
And a fourth reason: Yoenis Cespedes surprised everyone by hitting .292/.356/.505. Very nice numbers. Those could be big numbers this year.
Either you believe in Oakland's young starters or you don't. I'm a believer. Remember that the best of the group might be Brett Anderson, and he made just seven starts in 2012 after returning from Tommy John surgery. Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone and A.J. Griffin enter their second seasons with playoff experience under their belts and Colon returns after his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Dan Straily and Travis Blackley provide depth.
If we're going to nitpick, it's that it's not a big strikeout rotation. The A's ranked 10th in the AL strikeout rate among starting pitchers at 16.6 percent -- more than 5 percent less than Tampa Bay's 21.9 mark. But guess which staff tied for the lowest walk rate? The A's won't beat themselves and they pitch to their big home ballpark -- where Young, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick have the speed to run down a lot of flyballs.
If you watched the A's down the stretch, you saw the hard-throwing trio of Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle dominate the late innings. Those three combined for a 2.49 ERA over 195 innings; not bad for a minor free-agent signing, a throw-in in the Trevor Cahill trade and a guy playing first base in the minors in 2011. All told, opponents hit .206 off the Oakland pen, second-lowest in the league to the Rays' .205 mark. There's depth behind those three guys as well.
Good rotation. Good pen. Some will predict regression from this group, but I expect another solid season in which the A's once again rank among the AL leaders in fewest runs allowed.
Beane acquired Parker from the Diamondbacks and the rookie right-hander showed why he was highly rated coming up through the Arizona system. His changeup made many left-handed hitters look foolish at the plate -- in 140 plate appearances ending with that pitch, they hit .163/.216/.194, with just three extra-base hits (two doubles, one triple). It's one of the best pitches in the game and the reason I expect Parker to have another solid season.
OK, maybe you don't believe in Reddick and Cespedes and Brandon Moss. I do. I think they return to the playoffs.
A’s versus O’s in September, and there’s something major at stake? Gritty starting pitching, a stack of well-turned double plays and the winner winds up being whoever homered with somebody on base -- what is this, a "That ’70s Show" rerun? Perhaps not since the Big Green Machine of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter had to try going through the Earl Weaver Orioles three times in four years 40 years ago has this matchup meant so much.
In the end, it was Yoenis Cespedes’ two-run home run that was the key blow, but that’s only because it was the noisiest feat in a game that reflected a few reasons these teams are here. The A's Friday starter, Tommy Milone, leads the team in turns through a combination of unhappy accidents (to Brandon McCarthy) and better living through chemistry and a suspension for Bartolo Colon. He wasn’t supposed to be “the” guy, but here he was, giving the A’s a chance at keeping the Rangers in range in the American League West while defending Oakland’s AL wild-card lead.
Cespedes’ power production has been crucial for an A’s team that could never afford a premium free agent in the outfield. General manager Billy Beane and friends reached into their bag of roster-rebuild tricks to conjure up an unexpected Cuban solution to their need for power and their inability to afford it on the free market.
But what’s remarkable about this showdown between the A’s and Orioles is that neither team was pegged to finish in the top half of their respective divisions, let alone be sparring in September for the second-best record in the league. Both clubs are huge surprises. However, that’s about all they have in common, because as surprising as they’ve been, they’re surprising in very different ways.
Plenty of people have already commented on the Orioles’ “luck” this season. Whether that’s a matter of being a record 20 games over .500 in one-run games or their being more than 10 games over in extras or their bullpen’s remarkable success despite the absence of a classic late-game flamethrower ... pick your poison, really. All of those things contribute to a Pythagorean record that was an MLB-best 12 games in the black before Friday’s contest. It’s all very fun from a stathead point of view because it’s not suppose to happen -- that’s not how we believe teams win, and the fact that the Orioles are winning this way is one of those fun exceptions to the rule. It’s the sort of piled-up stack of improbabilities that makes the game so much fun to follow from the get-go.
That isn’t the A’s. Say what you want about how surprising it is to find them in multiple races -- for the AL West, an AL wild-card slot or, perhaps most surprising of all, the second-best record in the league -- at this stage of the season, one thing is clear: The A’s aren’t lucky to be here. Going into Friday night’s game, their expected record was just one game worse than their actual record. Unlike the Orioles, they’re not a surprise on the basis of what they’re doing -- they’re an ongoing surprise because the collected wisdom of the know-it-all-ocracy was just flat-out dead wrong about them six months ago. And six weeks ago. And probably six days ago.
One key? Defense, as the A’s managed to kill the Orioles with four double plays. As a team, they’re second only to the defense-obsessed Mariners in defensive efficiency in all of baseball. That hasn’t been a function of the Coliseum’s foul territory, either. They’re fourth in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, rating behind the Padres, Mariners and the Rays -- the team that employs the man who invented that stat, James Click.
What’s incredible about that is that if defense is the product of team play, the A’s performance on D has come despite a ton of turnover at all four infield positions, five if you count catcher. Not one of their opening day starters is still playing his season-starting position regularly. Toss in the since-reversed decision to put Cespedes in center and Coco Crisp in left, and the only guy left from that March 28 opener in the Tokyo Dome is right fielder Josh Reddick.
That commitment to churning through their options until they get the best team possible is what put catcher Derek Norris on the spot Friday night. It was his throw from behind home plate that ended the game, not a closer whiffing someone at home and not some dramatic bit of walk-off drama. Norris wasn’t even on this team until June 21, and he didn’t take over as the regular receiver until after longtime regular Kurt Suzuki was dumped, casually chucking notions about the virtues of team chemistry and veteran leadership.
Which seems totally in character for this A’s team. Their approach to personnel led them to just put the better player on the team. Contend with a rookie catcher? Sure, because they think he’s the best they have. A no-name rotation? Again, not a problem, they know what they’ve got. Turn over the entire infield? Why not -- just win, baby.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
But the 2012 A's? Who are these guys?
Put it this way. The Los Angeles Angels have the best player in the league in Mike Trout. Mark Trumbo is putting up monster power numbers. Albert Pujols, despite a homerless April, is tied for second in the American League in extra-base hits. Jered Weaver seems to win every time out, C.J. Wilson ranks 10th in the league in ERA and they just traded for Zack Greinke. The Angels are the team of stars and highlight-reel home runs.
The A's? The last time through the rotation they used four rookie starters. Bartolo Colon, who seemed washed up five years ago, is the fifth starter. They're hitting .229, last in the league. They just traded their veteran catcher to give a rookie more playing time. They started three different shortstops and three different center fielders last week. "Moneyball"? This is more like Desperateball.
And yet ... the Angels and A's meet for a crucial three-game series in Oakland beginning Monday and it's the A's who lead the Angels by a half-game, tied with the Tigers for the wild-card lead. How have the A's done this? How can they be ahead of the Angels, a team with a payroll $100 million higher? As Ron Washington might say, "It's incredibly hard."
There are the 13 walk-off victories, the 7-0 record in games lasting 12 innings or longer (including two 15-inning victories last week), and a pitching staff that has allowed the fewest runs in the league. On paper, the Angels should pull away from the A's. But maybe the A's have their scissors on hand. As they get ready for their biggest series since making the postseason in 2006, here are five things to look for.
1. Monday's matchup: Jered Weaver versus Jarrod Parker
Since returning from the DL on June 20, Weaver has won all eight of his starts, allowing just 11 runs and posting a 1.87 ERA. The rookie Parker has been Oakland's best starter, but has been inconsistent of late, with a 6.07 ERA over his past five starts. The A's aren't likely to score many runs off Weaver, so Parker will need to bring his best stuff. Parker threw just 136 innings last season in the Diamondbacks organization, as he returned from Tommy John surgery. He's already at 130 this season, between 110 with the A's and 20 in Triple-A, so watch his fatigue moving forward.
2. Ryan Cook struggling of late
All-Star reliever Ryan Cook -- one of 11 rookie pitchers the A's have used -- has discovered a dose of reality, having been scored upon in six of his past seven appearances, a string that included four blown saves and his first four home runs allowed. For now, he's still the closer, but manager Bob Melvin indicated Cook may be on a tight leash. "We'll take all the variables into consideration like we do with anything," Melvin told MLB.com before Sunday's game. "You have to support younger guys going through difficult times, [but] there are times that hypothetically you feel like you need to give somebody a break from a role."
3. No more Kurt Suzuki
The A's went against conventional wisdom when they shipped veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to the Nationals. Hitting just .218 with one home run, the A's will seek more offense from rookie Derek Norris and recently acquired George Kottaras, who fits the old-school "Moneyball" mindset as a player with good on-base skills (he had a .409 OBP with the Brewers despite a .209 batting average). Was Suzuki's leadership important to the young Oakland staff? Billy Beane is betting that it wasn't.
4. Wednesday's matchup: Zack Greinke versus Dan Straily
The Angels bolstered their roster at the trade deadline by trading for a former AL Cy Young winner. The A's bolstered their roster by calling up another rookie pitcher -- one who wasn't even ranked as one of the team's top 30 prospects before the season. But Straily earned the call with huge numbers at Double-A and Triple-A, and impressed in his major-league debut against Toronto, allowing one run in six inning with five strikeouts and one walk. The A's ended up winning that game in 15 innings; the Angels, meanwhile, have lost both of Greinke's starts for them.
5. Who plays shortstop?
A contender is supposed to be strong up the middle, right? Well, second baseman Jemile Weeks is hitting .219, the starting catcher was just traded and it's been a revolving door at shortstop since Cliff Pennington landed on the DL. There was Brandon Hicks and then Eric Sogard and now, the last four games, Adam Rosales. Pennington may be back soon as he's played two rehab games with Sacramento, although considering he's hitting .197, we're not exactly talking about Tejada circa 2002 here. Pennington won't be the only returning starter, as Brandon McCarthy could return Friday (replacing A.J. Griffin, who landed just landed on the DL with shoulder tightness).
We know everything about baseball these days. We can tell you that Mike Trout leads the majors in batting average on low pitches. We can tell you which starting pitcher throws his fastball with the most velocity on average (Stephen Strasburg) or most often (Bartolo Colon) or the vertical break Justin Verlander gets on his curveball (a lot).
On the other hand ... we don't know anything.
How else do you explain the Oakland Athletics? Nobody expected the A's to be any good this season. Many expected them to lose 100 games. I heard one national radio analyst declare that the A's could lose 120 games. I'm not sure the A's believed in the A's, not after trading Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill in the offseason in yet another rebuilding plan. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS model was a little more optimistic, projecting in March that Oakland would win 70 games.
But here are the A's at 51-44 after an exciting four-game sweep of the New York Yankees: Four one-run victories, two in walk-off fashion, including Sunday's 5-4, 12-inning thriller during which Seth Smith tied the game with a home run in the bottom of the ninth and Coco Crisp's two-out flare scored Derek Norris with the winning run. It may have been the most electrifying four games any team has played this season. Just like that, the A's are playoff contenders, tied with the Orioles for the second wild card and just a half-game behind wild-card leader Los Angeles.
Yes, maybe our knowledge tells us the A's are still last in the American League in runs scored and last with a .228 batting average. Maybe our knowledge tells us they're too young, too inexperienced, too lucky with those five straight one-run wins and a major league-leading 11 walk-off wins.
But why not the A's? They've allowed the fewest runs in the AL -- 38 runs fewer than any other club. Too young? Can't hit? I'm sure in late July of 1969 skeptics said the same thing about the New York Mets. I'm sure in July of 1991 many believed the Atlanta Braves, who had finished in last place the previous three seasons, were too inexperienced and just riding a wave. In 2008, we waited for the Tampa Bay Rays to fall apart.
Sometimes, as we apply our knowledge, we too easily ignore the emotion of the sport, strip it down to numbers, statistics and probability. Probability. That's not the same thing as certainty. A's general manager Billy Beane undoubtedly can see this weekend's results and think back to his 2002 club that won 20 games in a row. What was the probability of that, even from a team far superior to this one?
But as A's outfielder Smith said after Sunday's dramatic comeback and win, "I don't think there was anybody in the dugout or in the stands who didn't think we were going to win."
Heck, even the numbers weren't complete disbelievers in the A's -- ZiPS gave Oakland a 1.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. That's larger than zero.
How did the A's get here? Five key reasons:
1. Josh Reddick
He's been one of the best players in the AL, ranking third among AL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR behind Trout and Robinson Cano, at 4.1 wins above replacement. Reddick is hitting .271/.349/.529 with 21 home runs and 19 doubles, great numbers considering Oakland is a tough place to hit.
2. Yoenis Cespedes
When Beane gambled and signed Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million contract, even the most optimistic of observers thought it would take him a year to adapt to major league pitching. Instead, he's providing a big presence in the middle of the Oakland order, and despite going 0-for-5 on Sunday is hitting .299/.358/.530. Led by Reddick and Cespedes, the A's ranked third in the AL in home runs in June and rank third in July. Yes, the offense was terrible in April (.211) and May (.210), but it's been respectable of late. (Buster Olney wrote more about Cespedes on Sunday.)
3. Young starters
The A's lead the AL with a 3.69 rotation ERA. Yes, their home park helps, and skeptics will point to a low strikeout rate (5.93 K's per nine innings) as a possible indicator this rotation will eventually implode. However, maybe that's misreading the stats a bit. Colon has walked 19 in 19 starts; rookie lefty Tommy Milone has walked 26 in 19 starts; Travis Blackley has walked 10 in his eight starts; ace Brandon McCarthy, out since June with a bad shoulder but scheduled to throw this week at the club's spring training facility, walked 19 in 12 starts. This isn't a staff that beats itself. That roll call doesn't include Oakland's most impressive starter, rookie Jarrod Parker, the key acquisition in the Cahill trade, who is 7-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 16 starts. He's the one Oakland starter whose stuff grades out as top-of-the-line and he's held opponents to a .223 average.
4. Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour
The rookie All-Star Cook allowed his first two home runs of the season during the four games against the Yankees, but he and Balfour give the A's two nasty right-handers at the back of the 'pen. Opponents are hitting .115 off Cook and .185 off Balfour. But this 'pen has depth: Former position player Sean Doolittle has a 29-4 SO-BB ratio since his recall, Jerry Blevins is a solid lefty who can be stretched out against righties (he pitched two innings to get the win on Sunday) and Jordan Norberto and Jim Miller provide decent quality.
Yes, let's put it out there. Emotion, energy, the thrill of the unexpected. It means something. Maybe we can't quantify it. Maybe there isn't a number we can point to that analyzes it. But the something is there with this club right now.
"It definitely feels good to battle and be victorious against the best teams, on paper, in the game," Crisp told MLB.com after the game. "You can look up and down a lot of lineups like Detroit, or the Angels, the teams with high payrolls. Obviously they have high payrolls for a reason, because the players on the team deserve it. When we battle against those guys and come out with wins, it's definitely a great feeling."
The A's are riding a big wave right now. Maybe the team with baseball's lowest payroll can ride it further than anyone imagined.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Forget Albert Pujols. There's another reason to watch the Los Angeles Angels, and his name is Mike Trout.
For all the hype Bryce Harper has rightfully received, it's time to start giving a few headlines to another rookie phenom, time to give the Left Coast a little love. Trout went 3-for-4 with a home run, a stolen base and three runs scored in the Angels' 4-0 victory over the A's on Tuesday. In 15 games since getting recalled from Triple-A, Trout is hitting .316 BA/.369 OBP/.561 SLG, reminding Angels fans what an All-Star batting line is supposed to look like and why a homegrown, five-tool rookie with young, fresh legs is a player to get more pumped about watching than a money-for-hire Hall of Famer you purchased on the free-agent market.
So while we wait for Pujols to get untracked, maybe the Angels' answer to their offensive prayers -- they've been shut out an MLB-leading eight times -- is a kid who doesn't turn 21 until August.
Against Bartolo Colon, he took a middle-in fastball and crushed it just to the right of center field, off the back wall behind the center-field fence in Anaheim. There aren't many leadoff hitters who can mash a pitch with that type of authority. The other day, he showcased his quick, compact swing, yanking a 2-1 fastball from Yu Darvish well over the left-field fence in Texas. His first home run came on a 1-0 fastball off Toronto's Kyle Drabek, a 93 mph heater low in the zone that Trout hit to left-center.
I think those returns are pretty clear: Trout can do some serious damage when he gets into a fastball count.
Trout is even faster than Harper and much more advanced defensively (although he lacks Harper's arm). And for all the awe for Harper's quick rise, Trout is only a year older. Like Harper, he debuted in the majors while still 19 years old. Like the previous two 19-year-old center-field phenoms -- a couple of guys named Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. -- Trout has that broad range of skills that should make him a franchise player as he matures.
My favorite aspect of the Trout/Harper comparisons is that the two will always be linked, even though they play in different leagues and cities three time zones apart. Just like we debated Rodriguez and Jeter and Garciaparra back in the late '90s, or like New Yorkers debated Mays and Mantle and Snider in the 1950s, I'm sure we'll be endlessly debating Trout and Harper for years to come.
The other highly rated prospects entering the season were Tampa Bay Rays lefty Matt Moore and Mariners catcher/designed hitter Jesus Montero. They aren't off to impressive starts like Trout and Harper, but let's take a closer look at them as well.
Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
I'll make this one brief. We've seen Harper's lightning-quick bat speed and raw power with his home runs in back-to-back games -- one blast to dead center and the one Tuesday to deep right-center. We've also seen a few misplays in the field, however, from losing a ball in the darkened skies Sunday to dropping a fly ball Monday.
Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
When I polled the SweetSpot network bloggers before the season for their American League rookie of the year predictions, Moore came out on top, outpointing Darvish. I wasn't quite as optimistic, as I believed Moore's spectacular playoff performance against the Rangers raised expectations to unrealistic levels. The only rookie starter since 2000 to pitch at least 162 innings with an ERA less than 3.00 was Jeremy Hellickson, and his flukey .224 average on balls in play had something to do with that. With Moore, I still wanted to see a guy who had the consistent command needed to dominate in the majors.
That's been a big issue with him so far, as he's walked 22 batters in 39 innings, a rate of 5.1 walks per nine. As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Info points out, Moore also has struggled with runners on base:
Justin also writes that Moore "continues to leave entirely too many balls up in the zone, ranking sixth out of 115 pitchers in percentage of total pitches 'up' in the zone." This ties into Moore having the third-highest walk rate (12.4 percent) among starters, behind only Ubaldo Jimenez and Drabek, and six home runs allowed in seven starts.
There are no major issues here, other than pointing out that most young pitchers do go through a learning curve. Hellickson -- who doesn't have the raw stuff Moore owns -- set the bar high with his own rookie campaign, but that type of season is the exception.
Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners
It's also a mixed bag so far with Montero. With five home runs, he's displayed the power stroke scouts projected. His overall batting line of .256/.285/.411, however, isn't much to get excited about, as the occasional long ball is marred by a poor 29/6 strikeout/walk ratio.
There are a few things going on here. He has expanded the strike zone, swinging at 36.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That's not necessarily a career-killing attribute (Josh Hamilton currently has the second-highest rate in the majors), but it's among the 30 worst percentages so far. The bigger problem is he isn't making contract on those pitches and certainly not good contact. He's swinging and missing at those pitches 56.6 percent of the time, which again places him among the 30 worst rates.
When you dig deeper into the numbers, it's pretty clear what's happening. Check out the heat maps below. On the left, Montero against "hard" stuff, and on the right, Montero against "soft" stuff.
Against "hard" stuff, he's hitting .362 (25-for-69) with four home runs and five doubles. Against "soft" stuff, he's hitting .133 (8-for-60) with one home run and no doubles. So if pitchers get ahead in the count, they can get Montero to chase the offspeed stuff out of the zone.
A final issue is Montero's ability -- or lack of it -- to pull the ball. While he's known for his opposite-field power, I'm not sure you can live off that trait alone. Of Montero's five home runs, two have gone to right-center, one to center and two to left-center. His hit chart is littered with fly balls to right field and the right-field line. Frankly, he just hasn't shown the ability to pull the ball with any authority. To me, this reads like a guy who can be jammed inside and will chase pitches outside. Look, the pitch recognition should improve, but he's going to have to figure out how to do more damage to all fields.
The injury to Miguel Olivo also forced the Mariners to play Montero more regularly behind the plate. I haven't seen the defensive butcher advertised, but he's clearly a work in progress. A couple of starts ago, Kevin Millwood was constantly shaking him off. However, the two were on the same page in Millwood's win over the Yankees on Sunday. Opponents are 8-for-10 stealing bases off him.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Second base: What can you say about the toxic cleanup site found on the mound in Camden Yards after the A’s went China Syndrome and totally melted down in the bottom of the ninth against the Orioles? The O’s are newsworthy enough for their “yeah, we matter too” start, but c’mon. A’s manager Bob Melvin leaving Bartolo Colon out there in the ninth against the heart of the Orioles order when the Beefy One is just weeks shy of his 39th birthday seemed like carelessness at best. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity ... for the second coming of Luis Tiant? Regardless, Colon was gassed, and once the Orioles lit a match, something was bound to combust, in this case, Grant Balfour.
Third base: Has anybody had a quieter great April than the Cubs’ Bryan LaHair? The journeyman hasn’t just gotten his first big break in the big leagues as a 29-year-old, he’s delivered the best first-month OPS of any first baseman in the majors (1.197). As good a prospect as Anthony Rizzo is and as good a career as you can expect him to have, LaHair’s making it easy for the Cubs to leave Rizzo in corn country while he makes the most of his first real opportunity. Is it really any surprise that a guy born on Guy Fawkes Day (that’s Nov. 5 for all of us from everywhere else but Great Britain) would explode once he was finally given the chance?
Home plate: The tweet of the night goes to Stephanie Liscio of It’s Pronounced ‘Lajaway’, when she noted:
Time to play "guess the subsequent roster move" with Damon joining the team Tuesday. I'll take "DFA of Jose Lopez" for $100!— Stephanie Liscio (@stephanieliscio) April 30, 2012
There's something simple and comforting about watching David Price pitch. No trick pitches, no cutter or split-finger or sidearm slurve, nothing ornamental in his delivery, just rear back and sling that leather sphere with a high degree of velocity. He reminds me of how I imagine it was like watching Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale, almost an old-school, 1960s approach: My stuff is good, you know what's coming, and you're not going to hit it.
No, nothing fancy with Mr. Price. In 2011, he threw his fastball 70 percent of the time. Among starting pitchers, only Justin Masterson and Bartolo Colon relied on old No.1 more often. Maybe we need a nickname for Price's heater. According to the "Dickson Baseball Dictionary," in the 1970s, an especially good fastball was referred to as a Linda Ronstadt Fastball -- for "Blue Bayou," her hit single of the time. That's what Price loves to do: Blow it by you.
Some fans thought Price had a disappointing 2011, maybe relying too much on his fastball, as his ERA rose from 2.72 in 2010 (when he finished second in the Cy Young voting) to 3.49. But that's focusing on the wrong number and ignoring other improvements he made: His strikeout rate increased, his walk rate decreased, he made more starts and pitched more innings.
It's that improvement, durability and moxie why I made Price my preseason Cy Young pick. Plus, there was the scary idea that he'd turn into more than just a power pitcher, that maybe like Gibson and Koufax learned, you can't rely just on your fastball, no matter how authoritative it is.
We saw this approach Tuesday, as Price delivered his second career shutout with a 5-0, five-hit blank job on the Angels. With the Angels stacking their lineup with nine right-handed hitters, Price expertly mixed his fastball with his changeup. He threw 29 changeups, and got a career-high 10 outs on at-bats ending with that pitch. He got ahead of 21 of 32 batters and the Angels were 0-for-13 when Price got to two strikes. That's the combination hitters will fear: Price using his 95-mph heater to get ahead of hitters and then putting them away with a changeup or other offspeed pitch. His first-strike percentage Tuesday was 65.6, an increase over the 55.1 percent rate in his first three starts and more in line with his 60 percent rate of 2011. (Thanks to Dan Braunstein of ESPN Stats & Information for the numbers.)
"Great command of all his pitches," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "He pretty much brought out the kitchen sink. Probably one of his best performances as far as using his entire repertoire."
When Price arrived in the big leagues as a rookie coming out of the bullpen in the 2008 playoffs, he was a two-pitch guy: fastball, slider. In 2009, he was still primarily a fastball/slider pitcher, but he's evolved since then, adding a curveball and slowly mastering his changeup, He threw it 5.5 percent of the time in 2010, about 11 percent last season and around 15 percent this season.
It's outings like this one that show us Price's ability to dominate. After getting knocked out early his previous two starts, he was happy to get the complete game, especially since he never went all nine last season. He was also happy because this game came on April 24, the date his close friend Tyler Morrissey died in a car accident four years ago.
Price had tweeted about his friend earlier the day. He talked to Morrissey's family before and after the game. “It is extra motivation to go out and throw well for these people, but I try to take that same intensity out there every time, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen,” Price told the Tampa Bay Tribune.
The intensity is there. The fastball is there. If he can maintain his focus on every pitch, remember that you don't have to "Blue Bayou" on every pitch, then I won't be surprised to see David Price winning that nice trophy in November.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Second: OK, that’s pretty amazing. But what’s even more amazing? He didn’t even have the highest game score in that ballgame. Matt Cain did, outpointing Lee 86-85 by allowing just three baserunners in his nine shutout innings to Lee’s seven hits and seven K's. Admittedly, Game Score might be sort of sabermetrics’ answer to figure skating-style judging, but to put these nights into perspective, neither game would rate among the top 300 starts by game score from 2000-2012. So, really good, but not as good as Cain’s smackdown of the Pirates on Friday the 13th -- his last time out -- when he had a Game Score of 96. That’s awesome, but that’s Cain in a nutshell. Even when the other guy’s getting the immediate attention, whoever that guy may be, Cain might just be the better pitcher.
Third: In contrast, Bartolo Colon’s Game Score while shutting down the Angels was 79, which is good, but he had two starts that were actually better in May for the Yankees. Of course, those were against the Athletics and Orioles, neither of whom had Albert Pujols in their lineup. Which might make me the Russian judge of Game Scores, because beating the Angels now seems a lot more impressive than beating the A’s or O’s then, especially when he had Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes patrolling the outfield corners.
Home: Tweet of the Night, on what baseball rumbles must really be about:
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Whenever benches clear and nothing happens, I like to imagine that everyone had to rush the diamond to hold an impromptu Socratic seminar.— Steph Bee (@StephBee118) April 19, 2012
Knee problems down the stretch helped end his year on a sour note, but Yankee Stadium probably wasn’t the best fit for Colon in the first place. Lefties crushed him for an .880 OPS (against his .621 vs. right-handed batters), and he gave up 15 of his 21 home runs to lefties, including seven of the 11 he allowed at home. Yankee Stadium is the best ballpark for lefty power in the game today, and Colon is essentially a fastball pitcher who survives on changing speeds; his slider’s really just a show-me pitch, so left-handed hitters could afford to sit dead-red and hammer him.
But why should Colon go to the A’s? First, Colon really couldn’t do much better than the Coliseum as far as picking a place to pitch. While he’s been a fly ball-oriented pitcher his entire career, per Baseball Info Solutions, the A’s home park ranked 12th in the AL for three-year park factor for home runs. While everyone likes to harp on how great grounders are, in a park like the Coliseum fly balls aren’t evil -- they’re a high-percentage outcome for getting outs.
Second, the game has a time-honored tradition for retreads marking time with low-budget also-rans fielding a simulacrum of a competitive team while the prospects get readied. That’s what Livan Hernandez was good for with the Nationals the last couple of years, for example. There was no real expectation of greatness, just a hope for 30 workmanlike starts.
Some teams have made providing safe havens for low-cost veterans into a cottage industry. Perhaps the most memorable was the Montreal Expos in the 1980s. They basically spent a decade thriving as a haven for veteran retreads looking to pitch for pennies and rebuild their careers. Dennis Martinez started his second act for the Expos, going 100-72 in eight years with a 3.06 ERA after the Orioles gave up on him. Other veterans who got a new lease on life included Pascual Perez (28-21, 2.80 ERA in 65 starts), Oil Can Boyd (16-14, 3.15 ERA in 50 starts). The benefits of trawling in this end of the market was perhaps best reflected by Zane Smith: Picked up for nothing from the Braves in 1989, then dealt a year later in 1990 with a 2.79 ERA as an Expo. The payoff? Moises Alou, Willie Greene and lefty reliever Scott Ruskin.
For a veteran pitcher like Colon or Erik Bedard (who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Pirates a month ago), one of the nice benefits of signing with a team headed nowhere is that you don’t have to worry about picking the right team if you want to pitch on a contender. The contenders have better Plan A options, at least until injuries hit. Perhaps the best way to be a Plan B alternative is pitch somewhere in the majors that’s ready to deal you at the first sign of success. Pitch well, and your grateful dumpster-diving temporary employer will agreeably flip you to a winner worried about its rotation depth at the end of July or August.
Finally, Oakland flat-out needs warm bodies to help guarantee that they won’t be piling up mileage on the Sacramento shuttle from Triple-A. With cost control being job one for Billy Beane and David Forst, the last thing they want to do is start the service-time clocks of Jarrod Parker or Brad Peacock any earlier than necessary.
That won’t be easy to do, considering the fragility of almost all of the A’s current rotation choices. Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson are both going to be trying to come back from injury-marred 2011 seasons, while Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Brandon McCarthy all have unhappy track records where the DL is concerned. The bloated Colon may be a doubtful paragon of durability, but he’ll help fill up game time and roster space for the time being.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Yet, on one late, rainy September night, the marathon all but finished, it’s those precious last few hours that will decide everything. Will the Red Sox and Braves complete historic collapses? Will the Rays and Cardinals complete miracle runs?
We believe we’re in for a wild night. We want to believe we’re in for a wild night. Even if such anticipation often ends in predictable disappointment, maybe tonight won’t, maybe the possibilities that are there will come to pass. Maybe the Orioles will beat the Red Sox (again), maybe the Rays will come back against the Yankees, maybe Craig Kimbrel will blow the one save that really matters. We believe because baseball tells us it’s OK to believe, because Kirk Gibson showed us that you don’t need both legs to hit, and Jim Abbott showed us that you don’t need both hands to pitch.
We believe because we can.
* * * *
The season starts in March.
That alone should be telling; in the 85-year history of the old Yankee Stadium, no game was ever played in March.* Three seasons into the life of the new Yankee Stadium, and a crowd wearing so many layers it ends up waddling more than walking, packs into the concourses before the NCAA has yet to crown a men’s basketball champion.
The Yankees aren’t the only team to open on March 31; it’s a new thing they’re trying this season so that maybe the World Series ends before Halloween, the way it used to when you were still a child.** Still, while they’re introducing the 2011 Yankees, there’s some feeling this is a second-place team -- they missed out on Cliff Lee, missed out on Carl Crawford and signed Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez. There isn’t the certainty here there is in Boston, or in Philadelphia.
It’s perhaps strange to think the biggest move of Philadelphia’s offseason was the acquisition of one single pitcher. Sign Cliff Lee. Keep everyone healthy. Win. It’s a simple formula, and it works well enough to produce the best record in the majors, the only team with 100 wins.
Boston, though, is a different story.
*There was supposed to be a March opener in 2008, but the weather intervened.
**Although the World Series has kept happening at a later and later date, November baseball itself first came about after a week of the regular season was lost in the fallout of 9/11.
* * * *
If you lose the first game of a baseball season, it’s no big deal. Sure, you prefer to start on a high note, but even the best baseball teams in history have lost close to 50 games. Things happen. A pitcher has a bad day, the offense struggles to hit in the cold damp of early spring. So when the Red Sox lose their first game, there are no alarm bells ringing, no bridges or ledges to check. If Carl Crawford goes hitless in four at-bats -- with the hat trick -- you shrug your shoulders and wait for tomorrow.
When you lose the next game, however, and the game after that, and the one after that, and so on until you’ve been swept in the first two series you’ve played, you’ve gone from unconcerned to outright panic. It takes a while in baseball to notice trends; sabermetricians and statistics buffs will tell you that the ultimate sin in baseball analysis is falling victim to the fallacies of small sample size. One good start cannot outdo a season of poor ones (ask A.J. Burnett), and one poor start cannot undo a season of good ones (ask Justin Verlander). Oh-and-one isn’t a concern, but 0-6 is, and by the time you get to 2-10, you’ve become familiar with the maxim: You can’t win a pennant in April, but you can lose one.
By the time Sept. 28 arrives, there’s one overriding question regarding the Red Sox: What if they had won just a few more games in April? What if they had won just one more game during those long nights?
* * * *
The Red Sox aren’t the only team to struggle out of the gate.
The season’s already seven games old by the time the Rays take their first lead.
* * * *
On April 2, Erick Almonte plays in a major league baseball game. It’s his first major league game since 2003.
He has four at-bats, and in three of them, he doesn’t reach base. The other at-bat is a home run.
Bartolo Colon returns from a year out of the majors. He pitches 164.1 innings for the Yankees (the team with the endless payroll signs him for just $900,000) and posts a 4.00 ERA. The last time he threw even 100 innings in one season? 2005.
If the Yankees strike gold with Colon, what do the Giants find with Ryan Vogelsong?
In the six years from 2001 to 2006, Vogelsong, pitching for the Giants and Pirates, had just one season with an ERA under 5.00, and just two with an ERA under 6.00.
In 28 starts with the Giants in 2011, the 33-year-old Vogelsong’s ERA will finish at 2.71.
It’s the fourth-best ERA in the National League.
* * * *
On April 30, for the White Sox, Adam Dunn is hitting .160/.300/.267, with two home runs. It’s a slow start, but other players have April slumps too -- Nick Swisher hits just .226/.340/.286 in the season’s first month.
Swisher will ultimately recover from his slump, and end the season with an .822 OPS. It’s not an All-Star season, but it’s perfectly respectable, the type of season some teams would kill to have from just one of their hitters.
Adam Dunn, however, does not recover.
His final line of .159/.292/.277 is, in some respects, worse than his April line, a historically bad season for a hitter, especially a player known for perennially finishing with 40 home runs ends the season with just 11.
* * * *
Dunn doesn’t hit home runs in 2011, but plenty of other players do.
Jose Bautista, as if to prove that he’s not a one-year aberration, does a Barry Bonds impression in the first half and finishes the season with 43 home runs. Curtis Granderson has 41. Mark Teixeira and Matt Kemp both have 39.
Everyone knows Derek Jeter will get his 3,000th hit in 2011, they just don’t know when. They do know, however, that the 3,000th hit won’t be a home run.
Except, it is.
What’s more, the fan who catches it, Christian Lopez, who can ask for the world in return for that ball, asks for absolutely nothing.
Then, on another night: Jim Thome hits his 599th and 600th home runs in the same game, giving his fans in Minnesota a lone night to cheer.
* * * *
The last time the Pirates finished a season with a winning record was 1992 -- when a man named William Jefferson Clinton was on the Democrats’ ticket for the White House.
The Pirates had a rookie pitcher that year who did quite well, with an 8-1 record and an ERA of 2.14 in 13 games started. His name? Tim Wakefield.
In 2011, when Tim Wakefield will notch his 200th win, there are three separate occasions in July, where, for a total of five nights, the Pirates go to sleep in first place.
The Pirates are undone by a 19-inning marathon with the Braves, a game that Scott Proctor actually wins, a game that, believe it or not, doesn’t have a position player pitching for either team, a game that sees a combined 39 runners left on base ... a game that ends on a blown call at home plate.
Pittsburgh fades into the quiet summer night. The Braves linger. For a little while, anyway.
* * * *
After losing 97 games in 2010 the Diamondbacks are branded underachievers. That young crop of Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, et al, has failed to mature. The bullpen is so noxious that someone jokes that the next time the phone rings, the bullpen coach should just let it go to voicemail*.
Kirk Gibson, who might know a little something about believing, somehow figures it out. Or, rather, if he doesn’t figure it out, it’s under his watch that his players do.
Arizona starts to win, and then they win again, and again, and when San Francisco can’t overcome injuries to Buster Posey and Brian Wilson, the Diamondbacks sense an opportunity.
* * * *
After 2010, one might think the Diamondbacks learned their lesson about bullpens.
Relief pitchers are supposed to have short lifespans.
They are supposed to come up, throw fire, be untouchable for a season or two, be emphatic in their celebration, and then fade into a sort of obscurity, only being remembered for that one World Series they helped their team win -- or, more often, lose.
They are not supposed to stick around long enough for 600 saves.
Yet, on a September afternoon, in what has been an unlikely season for the Yankees, a season of roster patches and Curtis Granderson home runs, Mariano Rivera stands on the mound, notches save No. 2 602, the all-time record, and celebrates with a handshake and hugs with his teammates.
Jorge Posada has to push the Yankees’ closer back to the mound, and force him to enjoy the adulation he’s earned.
* * * *
If only the Red Sox had Rivera.
If only the Braves had Rivera.
On Sept. 5, the Red Sox (they don’t know it yet, but The Collapse has already started) have a seven-game lead over Tampa Bay for the AL wild-card spot. The AL East, with the Yankees leading by just 2.5 games, is not out of reach.
On Sept. 5, the Braves lead the Giants and Cardinals by 8.5 games for the NL wild-card berth. The Phillies are too good for the NL East title to be realistic, but the Braves have such a cushion on the wild-card that the playoffs seem inevitable.
Baseball, though, is a marathon, and no one sees trends right away. The Red Sox lose a game here, the Braves lose a game there.
It’s OK, though -- it would take a miracle for the Cardinals or the Rays or the Giants or the Angels to pose any sort of threat. The Rays waited too long to call up Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore. The Cardinals are too busy worrying about Albert Pujols’ impending free agency. It can’t happen.
You know it can’t happen. There’s no possible way. It’s just a September slump.
Until it’s not.
Until you look up one late September day and realize the Red Sox need the Yankees to beat the Rays, not just so that their cushion doesn’t get any smaller, but instead, for their very survival.
Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Cardinals might actually have an easier time beating the Astros than the Braves will have beating the Phillies.
Until you look up one late September day and realize that barely averaging three runs a game for a month, even in a year of depressed offense, isn’t going to cut it when the other team has Albert Pujols (and even when they don’t).
Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Yankees, having clinched everything there possibly is available to clinch in the regular season (playoffs, division, home field), the Yankees have nothing to play for except the pride of not seeing the Red Sox in the playoffs, and the Rays now have everything on the table.
Until you look up, and believe.
* * * *
So we believe.
We believe even as the Braves are just two outs away.
We believe even though the Yankees lead 7-0 lead in the eighth inning.
We believe even though the Red Sox have the Orioles down to their last strike.
There’s no Kirk Gibson one-legged home run on this night, no Jim Abbott no-hitter, but we don’t need them.
We have 13 innings in Atlanta, 12 in Tampa and nine in Baltimore, maybe the most dramatic of all.
We get a two-strike, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth pinch-hit home run from Dan Johnson. We get a two-strike, two-out double from Nolan Reimold off Jonathan Papelbon.
We get a Robert Andino single, a Carl Crawford misplay, and an Orioles win, and then, not five minutes later, we get an Evan Longoria home run just to the right side of the left-field foul pole. A cheap shot, one might argue on another day. Not tonight.
This is the night of the baseball miracles. A month long in the making, a month long to notice, but tonight they’re here, right before our eyes.
We believe because it’s real.
* * * *
Matt Moore has had one career start. Just one, and he’s tapped to start Game 1 of the ALDS for Tampa Bay, with his team on the road, with his team facing the offense of the Texas Rangers, at Arlington. The Rays can’t possibly win this game. Moore can’t possibly succeed with this sort of pressure.
Until he does.
One game won’t make a career, but we believe in courage.
Josh Collmenter’s a rookie, too. He’s a rookie, and he’s on the mound with his team down two games to none. Win or go home, kid, it all hangs on you.
Seven innings, two hits, one run, and the Diamondbacks will live to play another game.
We believe in hope.
Jorge Posada is not a rookie.
The last season of his contract has been an unmitigated disaster, on the field and, for a time, off it, but Posada battles.
His .429/.579/.571 batting line in the ALDS is the best of any Yankees’ hitter. Better than Robinson Cano or Granderson, better than Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, better than Teixeira or Swisher.
We believe in fight.
The Phillies sail through the regular season. Pitching and more pitching, a Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee-Cole Hamels starting three is a dream rotation; the Phillies get spoiled even further with Vance Worley and the best team ERA in the majors.
With that staff, the last image of their season isn’t supposed to be Ryan Howard clutching his ankle after rupturing his Achilles, but that’s what it is.
We believe in unexpected.
The Brewers aren’t afraid of Nyjer Morgan or Yuniesky Betancourt or Mark Kotsay, even when other teams shy away, even when the narrative is about Morgan’s character or Betancourt’s defense or Kotsay’s (lack of) hitting. They aren’t afraid to trade for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, even if it costs their entire farm system.
They have one season left to try to get Prince Fielder a World Series ring, the same Prince Fielder who hits a home run in the All-Star Game that will guarantee home-field advantage for whichever National League team makes it to the World Series.
If there is a season for the Brewers, this is supposed to be it.
We believe in going all-out.
Justin Verlander’s year has been so good that the debate isn’t whether or not he should win the Cy Young; it’s whether or not he should win the MVP. Yet, even with that performance, the move that puts the Tigers over the edge, that moves them from possible AL Central winners to probable American League contenders, is a trade for a pitcher who was 3-12 with a team that would go on to lose 95 games.
It isn’t Verlander to whom Leyland gives the ball in Game 5 of the ALDS; it’s Doug Fister.
We believe in second chances.
The World Series runners-up from 2010 have something to prove in 2011, and even while all the attention is on the Red Sox and the Phillies and the Yankees and the Brewers, the Rangers are still there, winning game after game.
This, we are told, is the Year of the Napoli. The Angels favored Jeff Mathis -- he of the career .194/.257/.301 batting line -- so Mike Napoli went to Texas instead, went to Arlington and posted a 171 OPS+ for the season, and then he kept hitting in the postseason, too.
Josh Hamilton’s story is such that if you pitched it as a Hollywood script they would tell you no, things like that don’t happen, that you can’t come all the way back from drug and alcohol problems to hit 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby in 2008 and then lead your team to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, that you can’t hit the extra-inning, go-ahead home run in the 10th inning of Game 6, and yet this is exactly what happens.
We believe in redemption.
The Cardinals are 10.5 games out in August and 8.5 back in September. Adam Wainwright doesn’t throw a single pitch for them all season. Ryan Franklin loses his job as the team’s closer and on June 17 Chris Carpenter is 1-7 with an ERA of 4.47. Matt Holliday loses his appendix and busts his finger; Albert Pujols breaks his wrist.
The Cardinals shouldn’t make the playoffs. They shouldn’t make the Phillies go five games, and then win because of Carpenter's complete game shutout (not when Tony La Russa’s managing, anyway). They shouldn’t beat the Brewers in Milwaukee, and they certainly shouldn’t have home-field advantage in the World Series.
They shouldn’t, but they do, and then they do more.
Albert Pujols echoes Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth, hitting three home runs in one World Series game, arguably the best single-game offensive performance in postseason history.
In Game 6, the Cardinals are twice down to their last at-bat, twice down to their last strike, twice one pitch away from losing the World Series. Each time, the Cardinals come through, as though the idea of losing the game never occurs, and a team that loses its ace before Opening Day forces a Game 7 in the World Series.
Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. This is what they tell you. One game can’t tell you anything, one game can’t make or break you, but this is what happens in the World Series. One game is all that stands between St. Louis and a World Series championship that few, if any, expected.
One game, and the Cardinals have Chris Carpenter on the mound.
We believe in impossible.
Rebecca Glass works for ESPN Stats & Information and is a contributor to ESPN New York's Yankees blog.
Sure, we all know batting average and RBIs can be overrated, but if Kemp could somehow pull this off, it would be an awesome accomplishment. A fun accomplishment, one to be appreciated, not sabermetrically scorned. The last hitter to do so was Carl Yastrzemski for the 1967 Red Sox. The last NL player was Joe Medwick for the 1937 Cardinals. Over the past six games, Kemp climbed into the batting race by going an incredible 15-for-25 to raise his average from .314 to .326. A week ago, he was too far behind in the batting race; now he's right there. Let's hope he can pull it off.
- Chase Utley is hitting .210 with a .283 on-base percentage since Aug. 2. Bill Baer examines what's gone wrong.
- The Red Sox are hanging on by their fingernails. Chip Buck of Fire Brand of the American League takes the pulse of Red Nation. Chip says he's a mere 1 on the panic scale ... but others are a little more concerned.
- Matt Meyers offers up his review of "Moneyball."
- Bartolo Colon wasn't very good last night. Brien Jackson wonders what the Yankees should do with him.
- Michael Pineda has made his final start for the Mariners, and Brendan Gawlowski reviews Pineda's season over at Pro Ball NW. His take: Unless he develops a better changeup, he may settle in as comparable in value to Ervin Santana.
- Jon Shepherd has an interesting look at some of baseball's early rules and why they developed.