SweetSpot: Brandon Phillips

A glance through Sunday's results and some quick thoughts ... at least one for every team!
  • A's 11, Orioles 1: I wrote about Manny Machado's embarrassing episode here. How much of this is frustration by Machado? While he has had four two-hit games since May 31, his season line is a mediocre .235/.291/.346. Last June 30, he was hitting .321/.350/.489 with 35 doubles (remember when he was on a record pace for doubles in a season?). Since then he's hit .238/.278/.360 with 16 doubles in 107 games. Pitchers have been able to tie him up inside (.204 on inside pitches) and get him with primarily offspeed stuff outside (.236). For the first time, Machado is learning that baseball is hard. He needs to make those adjustments at the plate. ... The fielding metrics love Josh Donaldson's fielding and he passes the eye test with great plays like this one. If I'm voting today, he's my AL MVP.
  • Mariners 5, Rays 0: Felix Hernandez had one of the best games of his career on Sunday, with a career-high 15 K's in just seven innings. Remember when we were all worried about that no-strikeout game a few weeks ago? Since then he's 5-0 in six starts (he didn't get the win on Sunday since Seattle didn't score until a two-out, five-run rally in the ninth) with a 1.99 ERA. Jeff Sullivan suggests one reason for his success is Mike Zunino's ability to frame those pitches low in the strike zone. ... I love when managers do this: Ten days ago Endy Chavez wasn't good enough to be on the team and now Lloyd McClendon is batting him first or second. ... David Price, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer are all underperforming their FIP. I don't think that gives any solace to Rays fans.
  • Angels 4, White Sox 2: Interesting move by Mike Scioscia to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Adam Dunn in the ninth to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But the batter was backup catcher Adrian Nieto, who had entered earlier for Tyler Flowers, so the White Sox had to let him hit. ... Any doubt that the AL West is the best division in baseball right now? ... Robin Ventura had used Nieto to run for Flowers in the eighth after a leadoff walk. That didn't really make sense since the score was 4-0 at the time. ... Tough sweep for the White Sox since Sunday's loss came on the heels of leading 5-0 in the eighth on Saturday with Chris Sale pitching.
  • Astros 14, Twins 5: With George Springer, Jose Altuve and now Jon Singleton, the Astros have been interesting to watch for the first time in years. They're 16-9 since May 13 and have averaged 4.7 runs per game. ... How about Springer for the All-Star Game? Hitting .251/.346/.497 with 12 home runs and that's come after a slow start. With just one steal, hasn't flashed the stolen base part of that 30/30 potential, however. ... Don't exactly understand the Kendrys Morales signing for the Twins. The Twins are 29-32 and while that puts them in the wild-card race, it also means they're not that good. Morales isn't really a difference-maker. Wonder if he becomes trade bait in July if the Twins fall out if it.
  • Red Sox 5, Tigers 3: If anyone can stop a Red Sox losing streak, it's Joba Chamberlain. ... Big Papi doesn't miss 83-mph hanging sliders. ... I have mixed opinions on the Tigers right now. They're 33-26, but have outscored opponents by just nine runs. I wonder what Justin Verlander is right now and the late-inning relief has been shaky, although to be fair Joba had done a decent job before Sunday's ninth-inning blow-up. The offense looks mediocre beyond the awesome 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It still seems like they should run away with the AL Central, but maybe we'll get a race like the past two seasons.
  • Indians 3, Rangers 2: The Indians are fifth in the AL in runs and while Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall have been great, I think there's still more upside from this group, especially from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. ... This is one team that could really use David Price. He'd look pretty nice alongside Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, but not sure the Indians have the prospects to get a deal done (they're not trading Francisco Lindor). ... Just not going to be the Rangers' year. Now Mitch Moreland, not that he was hitting great, is out for maybe the rest of the season after he had ankle surgery, and second baseman Rougned Odor had to leave Sunday's game with a sprained shoulder.
  • Royals 2, Yankees 1: The other day, I heard Yankees announcer John Sterling say the Yankees can only play better the rest of the season. Is that really true, however? This looks like a classic .500 team to me. ... Gotta love Ned Yost. He's hitting the players with the two highest OBPs on the team (Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain) fifth and seventh for the most part.
  • Cardinals 5, Blue Jays 0: Impressive back-to-back shutouts for the Cards in Toronto. ... Amazingly, the Cards have now homered in back-to-back games for the first time since May 7-9, snapping a 26-game stretch without homering in consecutive games. ... That lack of power remains one of the most important issues in the National League moving forward. ... You do wonder how the Blue Jays' rotation will hold up. Mark Buehrle is due to slide (he lost Saturday) and Sunday starter Drew Hutchison has been inconsistent and is coming off Tommy John surgery so you wonder about fatigue later in the season with him.
  • Giants 6, Mets 4: Hard to find a flaw right now with the Giants. Tim Lincecum wasn't great on Sunday -- allowing three runs in six innings -- but when he's the weakest link on the club that's how you can have the best record in baseball. ... Brandon Crawford remains an unsung member of the team, very good at shortstop and contributes with the bat. ... As bad as the Mets lineup looked on Sunday, the Mets are averaging 4.0 runs per game, right at the NL average. I hear the lineup being criticized a lot as being awful, but it's not, it's actually mediocre.
  • Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: On Sunday, the most expensive payroll in the majors rolled out a lineup that had Chone Figgins leading off, Scott Van Slyke batting fifth and playing center field, somebody named Jamie Romak batting sixth and playing right field, somebody named Miguel Rojas batting seventh and weak-hitting Drew Butera hitting eighth. And they won! ... Charlie Blackmon since May 1: .246/.289/.405. ... The Rockies are 2-11 their past 13 and their next 27 games are all against teams currently with a winning record. They may be 10 games under .500 by the end of that stretch. It was fun for awhile.
  • Diamondbacks 6, Braves 5: I think it's too late, but the D-backs are 20-15 since April 30. ... Chase Anderson is 5-0 in five starts. Is he this good? Probably not. His FIP is 4.54 but his ERA is 3.14. He had a 5.73 ERA last year at Triple-A Reno. He doesn't throw hard (average fastball is 90 mph) but has thrown strikes so far and hasn't hurt himself. ... Not sure how much longer the Braves can ride the Aaron Harang bandwagon (six walks on Monday). ... Tommy La Stella has hit .400 in nine games although with no extra-base hits. That's what he is, a guy who can hit for average and put the ball in play. He won't be a huge offensive contributor since it will be an empty average, but he should still be an upgrade over what they got from Dan Uggla the past year-plus (including defensively).
  • Brewers 1, Pirates 0: Yovani Gallardo had his best start of the season. I think he's a huge key to the Brewers winning the NL Central. ... If I'm filling out my All-Star ballot today, Jonathan Lucroy gets my vote as starting catcher. ... Is this what Starling Marte is, a .230 hitter? With 68 strikeouts and just 16 walks, he clearly has holes in his swing and areas he can be pitched to.
  • Nationals 6, Padres 0: You rarely see a pitcher dominate with just his fastball, but that's essentially what Jordan Zimmermann did, with nine of his 12 K's coming on his fastball. ... Zimmermann has lowered his ERA from 4.07 to 3.17 with two scoreless starts. Is he back to the guy who dominated in the first half of last year? We'll see, but those two starts came against the Phillies and Padres. ... The Nationals have the best ERA in the majors since May 1 at 2.87. ... This upcoming road trip to St. Louis and San Francisco will be an interesting test for the Nationals to make a statement that they're more than just a .500-ish team. ... Chase Headley will always have that second half of 2012. Will he go down as the least likely season RBI leader ever?
  • Marlins 4, Cubs 3: The Marlins continue to hang in there, although let's see if Henderson Alvarez's injury is serious (he left in the sixth with a hip strain after his scoreless streak ended at 26 innings). ... Next 16 games are against teams with losing records, so an important stretch to play well. ... Lineup is still more than just Giancarlo Stanton -- seven of the eight regulars have an OPS+ better than league average. ... In general, I still like this club and expect them to hang around in the NL East. ... Have the Cubs found a starter in Jake Arrieta? In 16 starts with them, he has a 3.18 ERA. Maybe leaving Camden Yards helped his confidence or maybe at 28 he's finally figuring a few things out. He's also being limited to 5-6 innings per outing. There are some gray areas in the numbers but he does have a 2.58 FIP this year to go with his 2.50 ERA, primarily because he's allowed just one home run. I'm still a little skeptical, as home runs have always been a big problem for him.
  • Reds 4, Phillies 1: Speaking of bad lineups, maybe it's time Bryan Price demotes Brandon Phillips and his .305 OBP out of the third spot? Not that Price has a lot of good options. He's hit Todd Frazier, the team's best hitter this season, in the second spot quite a bit recently, but he was hitting sixth on Sunday. So Price hit his hottest hitter sixth in order to lead off his lineup with three guys with OBPs of .288, .267 and .305. ... As for the Phillies, don't even get me going on Ben Revere, who drew a walk leading off a game for the first time in his career. He's hitting .282 ... with a robust .298 OBP. It's National League baseball, 2014 style!

Machado is your 2013 Web Gem champ

September, 20, 2013
Roy Absalon/USA TODAY SportsManny Machado will reign supreme in Web Gems for 2013.

Web Gems are fun. Players like them. Fans like them. There's no reason not to like them. They've been a staple on "Baseball Tonight" since the term was coined by then-producer Judson Burch prior to the 2000 season.

They're not necessarily a predictive statistic when it comes to indicating present or future defensive performance. But they give you a good sense of who in baseball is making the most eye-popping, wow-inducing plays, in the opinions of our production crew and analysts.

We're nearing the end of another season's worth of Web Gems and with that in mind, I thought I'd share some of the fun Web Gem stats that our group has compiled.

• Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado leads the majors with 18 Web Gems, a half-dozen more than the second player on the list, Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra.

We should have known that Machado would be the leader this year. He had seven in only 51 games last season, which was a 22-Web Gem pace.

This could be the first time there has been that big a gap between the Web Gem champ and the runner-up since 2009, when Ryan Zimmerman had 19 and runner-up Mark Reynolds had 13. Zimmerman's 19 are the most in any season in our five-year database.

• A brief word on Reynolds, who often gets mocked when we make reference to Web Gem historical stats on Twitter. There was a time when he was quite good at making the highlight-reel play. In the past five seasons, Reynolds has 39 Web Gems, the fourth-most of anyone in the majors.

• Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips has the most Web Gems in the past five seasons with 52. He has never been a single-season Web Gem champion.

Phillips was runner-up in both 2010 (to Troy Tulowitzki) and 2012 (to Alcides Escobar). Phillips is the only player in baseball to have at least 10 Web Gems in each of the past four seasons.

Machado's 25 Web Gems the past two seasons are the most in the majors in that span. Escobar is at the top with 35 in the past three seasons.

• Phillips has been the No. 1 Web Gem four times this season. That's one shy of the major league lead, shared by Parra and Houston Astros outfielder Brandon Barnes.

• Three players have had at least six No. 1 Gems in a season in the past five years -- Reynolds in 2009, Tulowitzki in 2010 and Escobar in 2012.

• Carlos Gomez has had the most No. 1 Web Gems during the past five seasons with 13.

Other players in double figures are Tulowitzki (12, though none this year), Phillips (11), Escobar (11) and Evan Longoria (10).

• The Royals have the most Web Gems by any team in the majors this season with 44, five more than the Orioles and nine more than the Twins. The Cardinals and Rays rank last in Web Gems with 17.

• The Mets lead the majors in No. 1 Web Gems with 11, one more than the Reds.

• If you're a major league aspirant and want to make Web Gems, your best bet season is to be a center fielder or a third baseman. Center fielders this season have 145 Web Gems, two more than those who play the hot corner.

• The rarest of Gems is the catcher gem. Catchers have 13 Web Gems this season, less than half as many as their battery counterparts (pitchers have 28).

Fun with player comparisons

September, 6, 2013
We haven't done this in a while. If you haven't been paying close attention to the numbers, you may be surprised by some of these comparisons:

Player A: .265/.342/.496, 28 HR, 72 RBI, 132 OPS+
Player B: .283/.352/.468, 22 HR, 64 RBI, 134 OPS+

Player A is Evan Longoria, Player B is Kyle Seager. Longoria does hold the WAR advantage, 5.2 to 4.1, thanks to better defense, but Seager is quietly have another solid season at the plate.

Player A: .271/.359/.448, 22 HR, 117 OPS+, 1.0 WAR
Player B: .260/.370/.446, 17 HR, 131 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Player A is Prince Fielder, Player B is Carlos Santana. Of course, I left out RBIs, and Fielder has 95 of those compared to 60 for Santana (Fielder has 81 more plate appearances). Has Fielder had a great RBI season? According to Baseball-Reference, the average major leaguer drives in 65 runs in 622 plate appearances, so Fielder is +30. Sounds good. But ... he's also had 98 more runners on base than the average hitter. In WAR, Santana moves ahead thanks to Fielder's poor defense and a positional adjustment for Santana, because he's played a lot behind the plate.

Player A: .233/.291/.448, 29 HR, 84 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Player B: .238/.299/.422, 19 HR, 62 RBI, 1.0 WAR

Player A is Mark Trumbo and Player B is Angels teammate Josh Hamilton. Trumbo has escaped criticism because he has more home runs and RBIs, but he's also another sub-.300 OBP guy in the middle of the Angels' lineup.

Player A: .243/.311/.433, 17 HR, 102 OPS+
Player B: .267/.316/.420, 18 HR, 98 OPS+

Looks pretty close, right? What if I told you one of these guys has 101 RBIs and has been touted as an MVP candidate by some (OK, at least one prominent national broadcaster), and the other guy has 60 RBIs.

Player A is Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and Player B is Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. In terms of WAR, Dozier has the bigger advantage, 3.8 to 1.7. Look, Phillips is hitting .354 with runners in scoring position. He's also hitting .211 with a .249 OBP with the bases empty; those at-bats count, too. Phillips has made the fourth-most outs in the NL.

Player A: 209 IP, 145 H, 47 BB, 201 SO, 6.6 WAR
Player B: 187.2 IP, 158 H, 40 BB, 199 SO, 6.2 WAR

Pretty similar. Both are left-handed. One stat I left out: Player A has a 1.89 ERA, while Player B's is 2.97. Player A, of course, is Clayton Kershaw while Player B is Chris Sale. How can Sale be close despite an ERA a run higher? A few things. We're talking an NL pitcher versus an AL one, so Kershaw's run-scoring environment is a little lower. Home park: Kershaw pitches in Dodger Stadium, a good park for pitchers, while Sale pitches at The Cell, a hitter's park. Quality of opponents: Kershaw's opponents have averaged 4.20 runs per game compared to 4.51 for Sale's. Defense: Kershaw's is good, Sale's isn't. So why has nobody noticed Sale's season? He's 10-12. Put him on the Tigers and he'd be competing with Max Scherzer for Cy Young Award honors.

Player A: 193 IP, 180 H, 43 BB, 174 SO, 3.50 ERA, 4.1 WAR
Player B: 184 IP, 169 H, 50 BB, 172 SO, 2.98 ERA, 4.0 WAR

Cole Hamels is A, and Mat Latos is B. Of course, Hamels is 6-13 and Latos is 14-5, obscuring the fact that Hamels has been outstanding. Hamels was 1-9 with an ERA approaching 5 through May, and those bad starts (or good starts) stick in our memories. But since July, he's made 12 starts and posted a 2.17 ERA, allowing more than two runs just twice (though he has just four wins). He's still one of the best left-handers in the league.

One more:

Player A: 5-2, 1.48 ERA, 38 saves, 2 blown saves
Player B: 4-2, 2.19 ERA, 41 saves, 6 blown saves

Joe Nathan (A) and Mariano Rivera (B). By the way, Nathan's career save percentage since becoming a closer: 91 percent. Rivera's since becoming a closer: 90 percent, not including the postseason.

Despite RBI total, Votto is MVP candidate

August, 16, 2013
The appreciation of objective analysis in baseball has never been higher. Most clubs have an analytics department, or have at least added a couple of math whizzes who know the ins and outs of baseball stats to their payrolls. The Baseball Writers Association continues to get more statistically savvy writers in its membership. Wins Above Replacement and Win Percent Added are two of a handful of sabermetric stats regularly cited during live broadcasts and recap shows such as "Baseball Tonight."

As far as we have come, we still have a long way to go. Here is why -- and I need your participation. Without cheating, name the two best hitters in baseball dating back to 2009 going by weighted on-base average (minimum 1,000 plate appearances). No. 1 is quite easy, as Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown last year and is having an even better season in 2013.

The second-best hitter over the past five years, however, may be more of a surprise: Joey Votto. In fact, it's not even close -- Cabrera and Votto have been in a league of their own. Cabrera has posted a .431 wOBA, Votto .420, Mike Trout ranks third at .405, and Ryan Braun fourth at .402.

[+] EnlargeJoey Votto
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoey Votto helps the Reds score runs even if he's not driving them in.
How is it that Votto has been so good and so underrated? The answer is many people still rely on runs batted in as the primary gauge of offensive success. This is true even in Cincinnati, where Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman has made a habit of disparaging the first baseman. Earlier this season, Brennaman said of Votto, "He's not paid to walk. ... He's paid to drive in runs." Later, he said "Saber people get all worked up" over walks.

Votto is currently sitting on 57 RBIs after his go-ahead home run in Thursday's 2-1 win over the Brewers. That ranks tied for 54th out of 148 qualified hitters -- and half of Cabrera's 115. For someone hitting .320/.434/.511, one would certainly expect more RBIs, especially when you look at his teammate Brandon Phillips with 89 and a .259/.308/.404 slash line. There are three factors influencing Votto and Phillips' disparate RBI totals:
  • Zack Cozart: For most of the season, Cozart was hitting second in front of Votto. Cozart has a .272 on-base percentage, meaning he rarely got on base in front of Votto.
  • Votto's walk rate: It's true that Votto walks a lot, and that's a fantastic thing. Walks aren't as sexy as home runs or doubles, but they always help. Votto has walked in nearly 17 percent of his plate appearances this season (he has the highest walk rate in the majors). However, because a walk does not produce a ball put in play, the opportunity for other runners to advance other than by force is lost. So Votto isn't taking advantage of leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo's .411 on-base percentage the way ...
  • ... Phillips is taking advantage of Choo's OBP and Votto's OBP. Phillips has batted with 382 runners on base -- the second most in the majors. Votto has batted with 325 runners on base (13th). However, Votto's walks and Phillips' aggressiveness means Phillips puts more balls in play -- 79 percent of his plate appearances to Votto's 64 percent. Putting the ball in play is good in theory, but remember that an elite hitter gets a hit in only three out of every 10 at-bats. While putting the ball in play is conducive toward padding that RBI total, Phillips' frequency of making outs has hurt the Reds' ability to score runs. Going by wOBA, the gap between Votto (.406) and Phillips (.307) represents about 45 runs created over 600 plate appearances.

Given the wealth of information at our disposal, there is absolutely no reason anyone should still be using the RBI stat as part of any semi-serious analysis. In most cases, it paints an unclear picture, but in the case of Votto, it is wildly misleading -- the "Dewey defeats Truman" of baseball statistics, if you will. (Votto, by the way, is hitting .308 with runners in scoring position and .298 with runners on base.)

Votto is leading the National League in on-base percentage for the fourth consecutive year. Since 2000, the only players with more .300/.400/.500 or better seasons are Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Todd Helton, Cabrera, Lance Berkman and Barry Bonds. By FanGraphs WAR, the only players more valuable to their teams than Votto since 2009 are Cabrera and Evan Longoria. By focusing on RBIs, Votto's generationally great offensive skills are going unnoticed and unappreciated.

Saberists celebrated when Felix Hernandez went home with the American League Cy Young Award in 2010 -- because he had posted a 13-12 record. Since the inception of the award in 1956, it was unheard of for a pitcher to win the award without crossing the 20-win threshold or otherwise having a hefty win-loss differential and a great ERA. Not only did Hernandez win in 2010, he took home 21 of 28 first-place votes. It was only five years prior when Bartolo Colon, then of the Angels, won the award despite a 3.48 ERA (compared to third-place Johan Santana's 2.87) because he had a 21-8 record.

Just as baseball fans and pundits weaned themselves off of the pitcher win-loss record, they must now wean themselves off a hitter's RBI total. The stat is often more reflective of the players around a particular hitter than that particular hitter himself. If it happens in the next few months, perhaps Votto -- debatably deserving -- will wind up with the NL MVP and become the Felix Hernandez of RBIs.
Eric Karabell wrote about Ryan Ludwick's return to the Reds' lineup on Monday, which could give Dusty Baker the option of returning to his Opening Day lineup, when Brandon Phillips hit second and Ludwick hit cleanup, for a left-right-left-right-left-right top six with Shin-Soo Choo, Phillips, Joey Votto, Ludwick, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier. Ludwick hit sixth on Monday but if he gets the bat going like last year, it will be interesting to see if Baker moves guys around.

Baker may look at Phillips' 89 RBIs and want to leave him in the cleanup spot. Phillips' production is a mixed bag, however: He's hitting just .260/.310/.410, good for an OPS+ of 93, so he's been a below-average hitter overall. But all those RBIs! Well, a lot of that is credit to Votto and Choo, who rank 1-2 in the NL in on-base percentage. Phillips has hit with the second-most runners on base of any hitter in the majors, trailing only Prince Fielder. He has, however, hit much better with runners in scoring position (.376) or with runners on base (.319) than with the bases empty (.195).

So what does Baker do? Phillips has hit .224/.269/.344 since June 15, so even though he's driven in 34 runs in 47 games (including a two-run homer in Monday's 2-0 win over the Cubs) over that stretch, he's using up a ton of outs and outs are bad. Yes, give him credit for hitting well with runners on base, but that has to be balanced against his poor production otherwise.

My guess is Baker stands pat for now, with Todd Frazier perhaps staying in the two-hole for a spell. If Ludwick gets hot and Phillips continues to struggle, then Baker makes a change. Personally, while I understand the desire to split up the lefties, I'd probably just hit Bruce cleanup, but that's not going to happen.

By the way, I figured the Reds had struggled against left-handed pitching this year, but actually their splits are pretty even: .720 OPS against RHP, .708 against LHP. But if Ludwick hits like last year, he'll help.

Reds' righty bats need to start hitting

August, 4, 2013
Now 11 games over .500 after beating the Cardinals on Saturday night, the Cincinnati Reds might seem like they’re in a good spot with the fifth-best record in the league. As long as they continue to be just that wee bit better than mediocre, they can probably count on making it as far as the one-game wild card play-in. The Phillies have already excused themselves in the last week, while the Diamondbacks and Nationals don’t seem likely to achieve escape velocity from their orbits around .500.

While a third trip to the postseason on Dusty Baker’s watch seems likely, though, this isn’t as strong a team as it looks like at first glance. The lineup that ranks fourth in the league in runs scored with 4.3 per game might appear to be humming along with Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto getting on base and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce driving them in.

But it’s far from a perfect offense. Despite gaudy RBI totals generated by getting to bat behind Choo and Votto, Phillips isn’t a perfect cleanup man. The Reds are getting below-average offense from five different positions, including second base, the others being catcher, short, left (absent Ryan Ludwick) and third base.
[+] EnlargeDevin Mesoraco
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesDevin Mesoraco's hot bat since the break could help cure some of what ails the Reds.

Third? Didn’t the Reds just get a top prospect break through there? Sadly, not so much. Todd Frazier has struggled badly as a sophomore, with a .718 OPS that represents a 100-point tumble from his rookie season; add in last season’s September fade and that Frazier is producing a woeful .581 OPS on the road, and you might wonder if he’s really a long-term answer.

One of the especially crippling problems the lineup has is the woeful performance of its right-handed hitting regulars against right-handed pitching, or almost half of the Reds’ plate appearances. Even with the advantage of getting to hit in a bash-boosting ballpark like the Gap when they’re home, the Reds’ righty bats are hitting a pathetic .219/.274/.330. Big culprits include everyday players such as second baseman Phillips (.673 OPS vs. RHPs) and shortstop Zack Cozart (.634). Chris Heisey was supposed to help improve the offense when he came back from the DL to man left field; instead, he has chipped in a .558 OPS versus righties.

How bad is the issue? The team’s collective .604 OPS from righties against righties through Friday night’s action ranks 14th in the National League, bettering only the Marlins. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s OPS indices for league-relative splits, if 100 would be normal, the Reds’ 74 for righty-on-righty performance barely betters the Marlins’ 71. When you’re better at something than one of the worst offenses in the era of divisional play, you don’t really get to brag, you merely hope that nobody else notices.

Unfortunately, the Reds won’t have that luxury, especially not if they’re matched up against the Cardinals -- and either one of the Birds’ top-tier right-handers, Adam Wainwright or Shelby Miller. While anything can happen in sudden death, that sounds more like one-and-done than something won as postseasons go.

One source of improvement is supposed to be left fielder Ryan Ludwick, out since Opening Day and working hard to get back in action to prove that his surgically repaired shoulder is sound while also trying to get his bat back up to speed. Ludwick is the rare righty whose career line is stronger against right-handed pitching (.811 career OPS, versus .774 against lefties). If Baker’s preference for Ludwick to get another week-plus of minor-league playing time is any guide, Ludwick will be back in action mid-month.

Maybe Ludwick helps fix the problem, but that leaves the Reds with just two weeks to evaluate him and make a decision on whether they need to add a bat before the waiver trade deadline, compressing an already tough decision into an impossibly small timeframe. Kvetching about sample size will be pointless -- there won’t be enough results to say much of anything either way. They’ll simply have to make a tough call.

Happily enough for the Reds, Saturday’s game provided more than just a win against the Cardinals, it also gave them a reason to believe things might be getting better where Devin Mesoraco is concerned. Ripping a pair of home runs on Saturday gave him four since the break. If Mesoraco is finally settling into a groove at the plate, it can’t come a moment too soon for a Reds organization that had expected him to have long since blossomed into a top-tier hitter at catcher, going all the way back to when they made him the 15th overall selection in the draft in 2007. The well-worn bromide that catchers develop later doesn’t have a lot of statistical support for it, but if Mesoraco finally breaks out in his age-25 season, it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Best deadline deal ever: Indians

July, 12, 2013
Throughout July, we're going to present 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade deadline deal ever made by each team. We've covered the AL East and NL East so far and are now on the AL Central.

THE TEAM: Cleveland Indians

THE YEAR: 2002

THE SITUATION: The Indians made the playoffs six out of seven years between 1995 and 2001 but were poised to enter a rebuilding phase. Prior to the 2002 season, they traded second baseman Roberto Alomar, hinting that there may be more moves to come. The Montreal Expos were in contention by the end of June and faced potential retraction in the very near future. The theory was, if the team would soon cease to exist anyway, why not bet the farm and try to win now?

THE TRADE: Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew were traded to the Expos for Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens, who was tossed into the deal to help Montreal avoid a payroll increase. The other three were promising prospects that would restock an Indians farm system that was considered one of the worst in baseball.

THE AFTERMATH: The Indians have made a number of good trades over the years, dating back to 1910 when they acquired Shoeless Joe Jackson for next to nothing. The only bad part about the Colon deal for the Indians is that they inexplicably gave up on Phillips and sent him to the Cincinnati Reds for next to nothing. Phillips, Lee and Sizemore all became stars though. Lee won the Cy Young Award before he was traded to Philadelphia in 2009 in a move that didn't net anywhere close to the return of the Colon deal. Sizemore was one of the team's most popular players before injuries caught up with him a couple of years ago. The Expos eventually finished just four games above .500 in 2002, 19 games behind the first-place Braves. In January 2003, they traded Colon to the White Sox and after the 2004 season left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals.

-- Stephanie Liscio, It's Pronounced Lajaway

The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.
The afternoon tilt between the Reds and Mets at Citi Field would have been just another mid-May game between a good team and a bad team, except the Mets are a good team when Matt Harvey pitches. Some thoughts on an interesting game, which the Reds won 7-4 with three runs in the ninth:

  • [+] EnlargeJoey Votto
    Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJoey Votto's two-run homer in the third put the Reds up, 2-1.
    Harvey didn't have great command on this day (he normally gets a swing-and-miss percentage of 27 percent but was just 13 percent today), although some of that is a testament to the Reds' hitters, especially Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, who are so good at making a pitcher work to get them out. He left a couple of sliders over the middle of the plate but the one big mistake he made was a 3-0 fastball to Votto with Zack Cozart on second in the third. Votto is Mr. Discipline, so Harvey was probably thinking Votto would take a pitch, especially with first base open and one out. He threw a 96-mph fastball down the middle and Votto launched it over the wall in left.
  • The next time Votto came up, Cozart was again on second base, although with two outs this time. The Mets didn't fool around and intentionally walked Votto. Brandon Phillips also walked but Harvey got Jay Bruce to ground out on a curveball.
  • It was 2-2 entering the seventh but Harvey had already thrown 100 pitches. The Reds had the top of their lineup up and while you could consider bringing in a lefty there to face Choo, who is hitting .146 against southpaws, this is the Mets' bullpen we're talking about and Jesse Orosco and John Franco weren't available. Harvey got Choo on a groundball but Cozart singled to center. That brought up Votto, with Harvey at 109 pitches. Mr. Discipline would take a pitch here, right? Maybe try to take a walk against a pitcher nearing the end of his stint? Nope. Harvey started him off with a changeup and Votto lined a single to center. Phillips then singled to give the Reds the lead and knock Harvey out of the game. (The Reds added another run to make it 4-2.)
  • It was the first time in 16 starts that Harvey allowed more than three runs (in fact, he'd given up as many as three only two times) and the second start this year where he allowed more hits than innings. I guess he's allowed to be human every now and then.
  • In the bottom of the seventh, Daniel Murphy singled off Mat Latos with two outs to drive in a run and make it 4-3. Latos was only at 99 pitches, but Mets announcer Ron Darling suggested a pitching change may be in order since Ankiel had been on Latos all day. Dusty Baker left in Latos and Ankiel tripled off the wall in left to tie it up. And then Dusty took out his starter.
  • Ike Davis is having the season from hell. He did draw two walks and Darling suggested he looked a little more comfortable at the plate, but he's now hitting a miserable .147/.236/.245. And then a bit of defensive indecision cost the Mets in the ninth. With runners at the corners (Votto had been intentionally walked again), here's the result of Phillips' check-swing, go-ahead RBI double. I don't know if Davis had a shot at the runner at home, but you still have to field the ball and let the ump call it foul instead of hoping it goes foul.
  • Votto is now hitting .358/.484/.545 with seven home runs. And there are those complaining that he's not driving in enough runs.
I don't know where this post is going, but wherever it leads, it's not meant to rip on Brandon Phillips, if it does wind up sounding negative. Reds fans jumped on me a few weeks ago when I called Phillips overrated, and that's fine: Fans should defend their players, especially the good ones, and Phillips is an excellent player and has been since 2007. Just because I called him overrated doesn't mean I don't like Phillips as a player: I do.

Anyway, right now Phillips is second in the National League to Troy Tulowitzki with 36 RBIs. He's having a great season, right? RBIs are king! He sort of said as much to Eric Karabell in this post:
"My job now is to get RBI, it's my No. 1 thing," said Phillips, who is getting so many of them that he's one off the NL lead, and remains on pace for 133 of them. "That's my goal, to get 100. When I hit fourth that's my job. I don't really worry about my batting average or my on-base percentage, it's just getting the guy in [to score]. Having that approach has been working so far. I'm a free swinger. I like hitting fourth. It's fun. Your job is to do one job."

With seven home runs, Phillips is on pace for a few more home runs than last year, but his batting line remains relatively unchanged from 2011 and 2012, when he drove in 82 and 77 runs -- years when he did spend a lot of time batting cleanup (55 starts in 2011, 73 last year), but not regularly like he's done this year. His triple-slash lines:

2011: .300/.353/.457
2012: .281/.321/.429
2013: .281/.323/.468

Now, one reason Phillips has driven in 37 runs is he has Shin-Soo Choo hitting leadoff and Joey Votto hitting third in front of him, and they are first (Votto) and third (Choo) in the majors in on-base percentage. The Reds have received poor production from the No. 2 spot in the lineup -- their collective .265 OBP is 28th in the majors -- but Phillips has still hit with the second-most runners on base of any player in the majors. Here are the top five, according to Baseball Prospectus:

Prince Fielder, Tigers: 150
Brandon Phillips, Reds: 149
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: 148
Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox: 147
Justin Morneau, Twins: 146

To drive in a lot of runs you need runners on base. Now, Phillips has hit exceptionally well when runners are on and deserves credit there -- .318 with men on and .432 with runners in scoring position. His RBI total is still somewhat a reflection of how often Choo and Votto have been on base, however: His percentage of "others driven in" (percentage of runners on base driven in) is 20.1 percent; among players with 75 plate appearances that ranks 29th (Ryan Zimmerman is first at 26.8 percent).

What's interesting is that it appears Phillips changes his approach a bit with runners in scoring position. He's hit just one run home run in 58 plate appearances, as he seems to focus more on getting the ball in play and getting base hits. With the bases empty he's hit five home runs in 87 plate appearances, but is hitting just .244. Here, the stat lines:

RISP: .432/.474/.591, 7 BB, 8 SO
Empty: .244/.253/.465, 1 BB, 15 SO

He strikes out slightly less (14 percent versus 17 percent) but the walk rate is much better (one of those seven was intentional) with runners on. Phillips says he's a free swinger; well, that's kind of true. With the bases empty, his chase percentage on pitches outside the strike zone is 41 percent; but with RISP it's just 27 percent. Phillips has been better with RISP because he limits his free-swinging habits.

This could just be small sample size results going on here. In 2011-12, for example, his chase percentage with RISP was 34 percent and with the bases empty 37 percent. But if he does manage to maintain this approach, and keep his free-swinging ways to a minimum, he'll continue to drive in a lot of runs.

Now, if only Dusty Baker could find a decent No. 2 hitter imagine how many runs Phillips may knock in.

In April, Jose Bautista had turned into a three true outcomes type of player: home run, walk or strikeout. He hit seven home runs and had a slugging percentage over .500, but was hitting just .200.

Was he just finding his stroke as he returned from last year's injury problems? Or was he no longer the MVP-caliber hitter of 2010 and 2011, when he hit 54 and 43 home runs, drew walks, and hit .260 and then .302?

He hit his first two home runs of May on Sunday in a 12-4 pasting of the Red Sox to raise his overall batting to .246/.360/.544 -- respectable, if not quite 2011-level Bautista. And the Blue Jays need 2011-level Bautista if they have any hope of recovering from their awful start.

I'm not quite sure he's there yet. While Bautista can crush any fastball -- he's hitting .333 with six home runs in 51 at-bats ending with a fastball this season -- it was his production against "soft" stuff that allowed him to hit above .300 in 2011. Check out these two charts on his batting average against soft stuff in 2011, and then the past two seasons:

Jose Bautista heat mapESPN Stats & InformationIn 2011, Bautista hit .291/.415/.591 with 16 home runs against soft stuff.

Jose Bautista heat map 2012-13ESPN Stats & Information Over the past two seasons, Bautista has hit just .180/.326/.365 against soft stuff.

As you can see, that's a lot of red (hot) in 2011 and a lot of blue (cold) since. This year, he's 7-for-51 (.137) with three home runs against soft stuff. He split his home runs on Sunday -- one came off a first-pitch Ryan Dempster fastball, the other off an 0-1 83 mph slider from Clayton Mortensen. Bautista is a dead pull hitter -- only one home run to center and one to right-center over the past two seasons -- which can leave him vulnerable to breaking stuff on the outside part of the plate.

I haven't seen enough evidence that he's going to punish those pitches like he did a couple years ago, so I would guess he'll be prone to ups and downs throughout the season. He's still a huge threat at the plate, but not the MVP bat of 2011.



Who would you most want the rest of the season?


Discuss (Total votes: 765)

Three stars
1. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. One hit. Twenty-seven down. In a 3-0 win over the Rockies on Friday, the St. Louis rookie became the fifth pitcher since 1961 to allow the first batter to reach base and then retire 27 in a row, joining John Lackey (2006 Angels), Jerry Reuss (1982 Dodgers), Jim Bibby (1981 Pirates) and Woodie Fryman (1966 Pirates). Miller had the Rockies guessing wrong -- or merely looking -- all night long, as he got 30 called strikes, the second-most by a starter this season. Eight of those closed out Miller's 13 strikeouts. Just a dominant performance. In fact, for all the attention given to Matt Harvey this year, compare the two young right-handers:

Miller: 5-2, 1.58 ERA, 45.2 IP, 29 H, 3 HR, 11 BB, 51 SO, .179 AVG
Harvey: 4-0, 1.44 ERA, 56.1 IP, 27 H, 3 HR, 14 BB, 62 SO, .142 AVG

2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Not to be outdone, Wainwright took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday, finishing with a two-hit shutout in another 3-0 win for the Cards. Wainwright improved to 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA and had strong words about his rookie teammate: "You follow Roger Clemens a couple times like I have been, it makes you focus a little bit more," he said. "Once you see Shelby mow through a lineup like he has all year, you want to go out there and do it, too." Kudos also to Cards manager Mike Matheny for leaving in Miller to throw 113 pitches, and Wainwright to throw 120. In this day when managers are too willing to yank starters at 100 pitches, it is good to see a manager let his guys go the distance.

3. Chris Sale, White Sox, and Jon Lester, Red Sox. Two more one-hit shutouts, Lester on Friday, Sale on Sunday. Can't anyone here hit anymore? Lester got 12 ground-ball outs as he joined Pedro Martinez (2000), Hideo Nomo (2001), Curt Schilling (2007) and Josh Beckett (2011) as Red Sox pitchers to throw a one-hit, no-walk shutout in the live ball era. But Sale threw his wearing the so-ugly-they're-cool 1983 throwback uniforms.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Evan Longoria, for his two-out, two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth home run to give the Rays a dramatic 8-7 win over the Padres on Saturday. My favorite part: There's some sort of picnic area in left-center (yes, "picnic area" and "domed stadium" is kind of an oxymoron) where the ball landed, and it looks like half the fans out there didn't realize it was a game-winning home run.

First off, credit Ben Zobrist for a drawing the two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch from Huston Street, working back from a 1-2 count. Street knew that was the batter he had to get. "You get him 1-2, you've got to make a pitch," he said. "I'm frustrated about that just as much as leaving a pitch to Longoria in the middle of the plate." The Rays had led 6-2 before the Padres scored five in the seventh, leading Joe Maddon to say it would have been one of Tampa's worst three losses of the year. "But you can't go to the dance playing like that. When you get leads, you've got to put the other team away. I'm not happy with that. That's inappropriate. That's got to stop," he said.

The Rays finished the sweep on Sunday, however -- their fifth win in a row -- and clawed a game over .500.

Best game
Well, that Padres-Rays game was pretty good. Miller's game was mesmerizing. Toronto's win over Boston on Saturday featured Adam Lind's go-ahead home run in the ninth off Junichi Tazawa, after the Red Sox had tied it in the bottom of the eighth. But I'll go with Cleveland's 7-6 win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on Saturday. Or Cleveland's 4-3 win on Sunday, in which the Indians tied it in the ninth and won it in the 10th, leading to this quote from Mark Reynolds, who delivered the go-ahead single: "With two strikes, I'm just trying to shorten up my swing and get something into play," he said. Wait ... since when does Reynolds shorten up his swing? Gotta love baseball.

The Indians took two of three from the Tigers to move into a first-place tie with Detroit.

Hitter on the rise: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
He had six home runs through April 21, but his average fell to .173 after a three-strikeout game on April 25. In 16 games, he's hit .419/.478/.694, with three more home runs, eight doubles and nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight). He has six three-hit games in that stretch, and he's showing he's more than just an all-or-nothing slugger. He's showing he's a guy who is going to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter for a long time.

Pitcher on the rise: Zach McAllister, Indians
Don't believe in the Indians? Don't believe in the rotation? McAllister is starting to look like another solid option alongside Justin Masterson. He didn't get a decision in Sunday's game but pitched a solid six innings. He's 3-3 with a 2.68 ERA and a decent 33/13 SO/BB ratio in 43.2 innings. He's a fly ball pitcher but has allowed just five home runs in seven starts. If he keeps the ball on the right side of the fence he has a chance to be successful.

Brandon Phillips play of the week
This one was pretty.

Happy Mother's Day
Pablo Sandoval uses his pink bat to launch one into McCovey Cove. Tim Lincecum backed up Sandoval with his best outing of the year as the Giants took the final three of four from the Braves. Tough stretch coming up for the Giants, however: 20 of their next 30 on the road, including series in Toronto, Colorado, St. Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Team on the rise: Indians
They're 12-2 over the past 14, hitting .305 with 24 home runs -- and that stretch does not include that 19-6 win over Houston earlier in the season. The pitching staff has a 2.98 ERA with 13 home runs allowed. The Indians lead the majors in home runs and OPS, and guys like Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall have room to do better.

Team on the fall: A's
Awful week, losing four to Cleveland and then two of three to Seattle. They scored more than three runs just once in seven games as injuries to outfielders Coco Crisp, Chris Young and Josh Reddick have left them playing Michael Taylor and Brandon Moss in the outfield (with Daric Barton or Nate Freiman replacing Moss at first base). Jarrod Parker is still scuffling (6.86 ERA, four walks in 6.1 innings on Saturday). The A's just need to get healthy, and they didn't hit their stride last year until July (they were 37-42 and 13 games out on July 1), so they may be down now, but hardly out.
There is no scientific way to pick an all-underrated team. Well, I suppose there is some formula we could come up with, but that would be about as much fun as watching Brendan Ryan take batting practice. So let's go with an unscientific approach: my gut instinct. Plus how many times Eric Karabell and I talk about these guys being underrated at dinner. (He's sick of me bringing up Kyle Seager every Monday night. I remind him he's the only good position player right now on the Mariners.)

So here we go: The 2013 SweetSpot All-Underrated team, guys who don't seem to receive as much national acclaim as they deserve. Note: It's hard to be underrated if you play for an East Coast team, especially ones named "Yankees" or "Red Sox."

C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Had a breakout season with the bat last year, hitting .320 with 12 home runs in between a stint on the DL for breaking his hand when a suitcase fell on it. Aside from his offense, statheads know Lucroy as one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Assuming he stays away from suitcases, the Brewers will reap benefits from his team-friendly contract: He'll make $15 million through 2017.

1B -- Allen Craig, Cardinals
Craig is still looking for his first home run of 2013, but a year ago he replaced Albert Pujols and hit .307/.354/.522 -- that's a higher on-base and slugging percentage than Pujols had with the Angels. Craig hit over .300 in the minors but his lack of a defensive home kept him off prospect lists and he didn't play 100 games in a major league season until last year, when he was already 27. He's a late bloomer but that doesn't mean he can't rake.

2B -- Neil Walker, Pirates
Unlike Craig, Walker seemed to spend forever on prospect lists, first as a catcher, then as a third baseman. He's settled in at second base, but playing for Pittsburgh his solid ability at the bat goes unnnoticed. He's not a star, but a solid contributor who should hit .280 with 12-15 home runs and adequate defense.

3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager got off to a bad start and Karabell told me ESPN fantasy owners were dropping him like Raul Ibanez drops flies. Oh, the rash judgments of April. After a two-hit night Monday, Seager is up to .276/.337/.487. Unheralded coming up through the Seattle system, he has proved to be a better hitter than his North Carolina teammate, Dustin Ackley.

SS -- Brandon Crawford, Giants
OK, OK ... do I think his hot start with the bat is for real? No. Crawford has never really hit. But he's kind of a poor man's Andrelton Simmons, and while everyone raves about Simmons' ability in the field, nobody talks much about Crawford's. Just show them your ring, Brandon.

LF -- Josh Willingham, Twins
Willingham has put up good numbers at the plate for years -- including a monster 35-homer, 110-RBI season last season -- but he has played for the Marlins, Nationals, A's and Twins when they all had bad seasons and has never appeared in a postseason game. He may get that chance this year if the Twins trade him to a contender. (Not that the Twins can't contend! You never know!)

CF -- Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
He's finally getting some recognition thanks to his hot start (.366 average, better-than-Votto .521 OBP), but even then some people just want to talk about his shaky defense in center. He was a good player for the Indians for several years before coming to Cincy and I see his first All-Star Game in his future.

RF -- Norichika Aoki, Brewers
He came over from Japan last year and quietly hit .288/.355/433, lashed out 51 extra-base his, stole 30 bases and played a very good right field. He also made appearances as Bernie Brewer and at least four times raced as the Italian sausage.

SP -- Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Quick: Which starting pitcher has led the AL in ERA since last July 1? I hope you guessed Iwakuma. In 20 games, he has a 2.44 ERA, edging out Justin Verlander's 2.51 mark, and held batters to a .225 average. He's off to a great start in 2013, with a 1.69 ERA through four starts and just 12 hits in 26.2 innings. His fastball isn't overpowering, but he gets away with throwing 90 mph fastballs up in the zone and mixing a good splitter.

SP -- Mike Minor, Braves
I'll break my East Coast rule to include Minor, who also has been dominant since last July 1, with a 2.00 ERA that is second in the majors only to teammate Kris Medlen. I believe he's for real.

What do you think? Whom would you put on your All-Underrated Team?

By the way, check out the video. Who do I think is overrated? You may be surprised.
Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout aren't on the United States roster, and their absence means a lot of fans don't care about the World Baseball Classic -- certainly not enough to spend a Friday evening in early March watching a baseball game between a largely no-name Mexico team and a still-star-laden U.S. team.

But this tournament isn't for fans who so willingly dismiss it. It's not even so much for fans in the United States, who are more focused on their professional teams or the impending NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier in the day, MLB reported that one-third of all television sets in Japan had watched the first-round games involving the Japanese team. I'm sure its dramatic comeback win over Taiwan on Friday morning rated even higher. Fans in Puerto Rico cheered on their team to a victory over Spain. Fans in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic care intensely about how their teams fare.

And Chase Field in Phoenix was nearly full for Friday's Mexico-U.S. game -- with maybe half that crowd rooting for Mexico. Those fans certainly cared that Mexico pulled off the huge 5-2 upset victory, essentially avoiding elimination after Thursday's heartbreaking ninth-inning loss to Italy. The players on the Mexican team certainly cared.

The Mexico lineup is pretty weak outside of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu hit fifth and he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Karim Garcia is still around and he hasn't played in the majors since 2004. But R.A. Dickey's knuckleball wasn't effective, a leadoff bloop single led to two runs in the first inning and Gonzalez torched a 73 mph knuckler to center field for a two-run homer in the third.

Other thoughts:
  • Pool D is really interesting now. It could all come down to run differential to see which two teams advance to the second round. If we assume the U.S. beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. and Mexico both beat Canada, then Italy, the U.S. and Mexico all finish 2-1. But Italy mercy-ruled Canada in a 14-4 victory, putting pressure on the U.S. lineup to do some damage in its next two games. The eighth inning could prove a key for the U.S., as Tim Collins and Steve Cishek worked out of a second-and-third, nobody-out jam.
  • After Dickey's performance, fans will be crying that Verlander or Kershaw or David Price aren't here. First off, Dickey wanted to be here and those guys didn't. Second, Dickey earned his invite as much as those guys would have, coming off his National League Cy Young Award. He just didn't have a good night. That's what happens in a tournament, not much different than what happens in the postseason: Anything can happen.
  • Joe Torre’s lineup left a little to be desired. He hit Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips 1-2, because they're fast and they hit at the top of the order for their regular teams. He hit Eric Hosmer sixth, pushing Giancarlo Stanton -- who only led the NL in slugging percentage -- all the way down to seventh, and Adam Jones, he of the 32 home runs last year, batting eighth. Stanton and Jones are better hitters than Rollins, Phillips and Hosmer. Torre might have been playing the hot hand with Hosmer, who had hit .391 in spring training with the Royals, and maybe he wanted to spread out his three left-handed hitters (switch-hitter Rollins, Joe Mauer and Hosmer). Still, a little more creativity would have had something like David Wright, Mauer, Ryan Braun, Stanton, Jones, Rollins, Phillips, Hosmer and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
  • Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz had two key at-bats for Mexico. In the first inning, he delivered a sacrifice fly that was also deep enough to move Ramiro Pena to third, and Pena scored on Gonzalez's sac fly. In the fifth, after Eduardo Arredondo slapped an Ichiro-like double down the left-field line off Twins closer Glen Perkins and was bunted to third, Cruz delivered another sac fly.
  • Pitchers are allowed a maximum of 65 pitches in first-round games, but Yovani Gallardo was on a 50-pitch limit for Mexico. He looked sharp, allowing two hits and striking out four in 3.1 innings, but that meant Mexico had to rely on its bullpen, a day after using four relievers in that 6-5 loss to Italy. Royals righty Luis Mendoza escaped a jam in the fifth after walking the first two batters, striking out Arencibia on a nice 0-2 slider and then retiring Rollins and Phillips on ground balls. Oliver Perez got a key out in the sixth and Oscar Villareal pitched a scoreless seventh. The U.S. scored once off Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas in the eighth, and Giants closer Sergio Romo closed it out.
  • The Giants were undoubtedly nervous seeing Romo come in. They had apparently requested that Romo not appear in consecutive games, and manager Bruce Bochy has always been very cautious with his use of Romo. He threw 26 pitches Thursday, but this was a must-win game for Mexico. Saving him for Saturday's game against Canada doesn't make any sense if you lose this game. A reliever can't appear three consecutive days, so Romo is unavailable now for Canada.
  • Ryan Vogelsong starts for the U.S. against Italy, and while the Italian team is mostly comprised of U.S.-born players -- including several major leaguers -- they will start an actual pitcher from Italy: Luca Panerati, a left-hander who was in the Reds' system from 2008-11, never advancing past Class A. Last year, he pitched in the Italian Baseball League. Now he gets to face a team of the best players in the world. This is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.

OK, there's no Mike Trout or Buster Posey or Justin Verlander or Andrew McCutchen, but Team USA's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic looks pretty strong. How about this lineup:

RF Ben Zobrist
C Joe Mauer
LF Ryan Braun
DH Giancarlo Stanton
3B David Wright
1B Mark Teixeira
CF Adam Jones
SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Brandon Phillips
P R.A. Dickey

You have on-base ability at the top of the lineup in Zobrist and Mauer, follow that up with two of the best power hitters in the game, have another good OBP guy in Wright hitting fifth, switch-hitting Teixeira in the 6-hole, a 30-homer guy batting seventh, and then speed and more power at the bottom of the lineup. On paper, it's a lineup that should score plenty of runs.

It seems a little better than the 2009 lineup that lost twice to Venezuela and once to Puerto Rico in pool play and then to Japan in the semifinals. Pitching and defense were the big culprits in the U.S. struggles. Puerto Rico beat up Jake Peavy in an 11-1 loss. In a 10-6 loss to Venezuela, Jeremy Guthrie allowed six runs in the second inning, with Adam Dunn -- playing first base -- making a crucial throwing error that led to four unearned runs. Still, Guthrie got knocked around by a Venezuelan team that included, yes, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, but also Endy Chavez hitting leadoff, Cesar Izturis hitting second and Jose Lopez hitting third. In the semifinal loss to Japan, the lineup included Dunn in right field, Mark DeRosa at first base and Rollins hitting third (although he did go 4-for-4), but Roy Oswalt got knocked out in the fourth inning after giving up six runs, with Wright, Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts all making errors.

So that puts the pressure on the four U.S. starters named to the provisional roster: Dickey, Kris Medlen, Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland. Clearly, Dickey and Medlen line up as the top two guys, but the U.S. used four starters last tournament, so all four probably will get at least one game.

Starters are held to strict pitch counts in the tournament, so the pitching staff will include these nine relievers: Jeremy Affeldt, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, Luke Gregerson, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Perez, Glen Perkins and Vinnie Pestano. That's a pretty strong group, with three lefties and some power arms at the back in Boggs and Pestano and with the game's best closer in Kimbrel ready to shut down any lead.

The bench includes Jonathan Lucroy, J.P. Arencibia, Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist.

What's interesting is that Team USA, to be managed by Joe Torre, announced just 27 players. Considering final rosters will include 28 players, it appears as if Torre and USA Baseball had trouble convincing enough players to join the fun. Or maybe they're leaving that final spot open ... you know, just in case, somebody wants to change his mind.

On paper, the U.S. should rate as the favorite with its power and a nice one-two punch in Dickey and Medlen. (Rosters for other countries will be announced at 4 p.m. ET.) But Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, and the U.S. didn't even make the semifinals in the 2006 tournament, losing twice in Round 2. In fact, the U.S. history is pretty dismal. Look at its record:

Teams beaten: Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Canada, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico
Teams lost to: Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan

That's a 7-7 record, with three of the wins against noted baseball powers South Africa, Canada and the Netherlands.

The World Baseball Classic is a big deal everywhere but in the U.S., it seems. I like it, even if it is a little bit of a gimmick.

Gimmick or not, however, it's time for the U.S. team to do better.

More fun with player comparisons

December, 31, 2012
We did two earlier. Let's try another one.

Player A is a regarded as a star player, a slick-fielding second baseman who has won three Gold Glove Awards, has power and finished 13th in the MVP voting in 2012. Player B is a young player with holes in his game, most notably the low batting average and high strikeout rate. Player A, as you probably figured out, is Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds; Player B is Danny Espinosa of the Washington Nationals.

Phillips is the better player, but the comparison shows how the two are much closer in value than the widely held public perception and how focusing on negatives can obscure a player's contributions. Phillips hits for a decent average -- .281 in 2012, right at the .280 mark he's held steady at since becoming Cincinnati's starting second baseman in 2006 -- and puts the ball in play. With Espinosa, it's easy to focus on all the strikeouts -- he led the National League with 189.

But offensively, the two are similar in value; Espinosa just contributes in different ways. He walks more than Phillips, gets hit by a few more pitches and grounds into fewer double plays. Espinosa stole a few more bases (20 to 15) but Phillips is a better baserunner. Overall, we estimate that Phillips created about 77 runs in 2012 and Espinosa about 76 (in a few more plate appearances). Phillips, however, derived a power advantage from his home park -- 15 of his 18 home runs came in Cincinnati (14 of 18 in 2011). Put Phillips in a more neutral context and his home run total likely takes a dip.

Defensively, Phillips had +11 Defensive Runs Saved, Espinosa +4.

Who do I like in 2013? Phillips had a noticeable drop in his walk rate -- the lowest since joining the Reds -- and that's a concern. A drop in walk rate could indicate a player cheating to speed up his bat. He's entering his age-32 season, so it's not only a minor concern, but something to watch early in the season. Espinosa enters his third season and the strikeout rate is an issue. It actually worsened from his rookie season and if he doesn't learn to put a few more balls in play, the strikeouts will prevent from other becoming a star player.

But he's a good player right now, just one of many reasons the Nationals won the most games in the majors in 2012.