SweetSpot: Coco Crisp

Athletics need to be worried for stretch run

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16

The A’s have been on top for months, with the best record in baseball to brag about, and they’re supposed to be the runaway winners in the AL West. But in case you’ve missed it, they’re not running away any more, and not just because the Angels have been the second-best team in baseball. If anything, the A’s are coasting, because while they still have the best record, we’ll see how much longer that lasts.
[+] EnlargeBrandon Moss
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesBrandon Moss' power outage since the break is a big problem.

That’s because the A’s have gone 15-15 in their last 30 games, and after Friday night’s loss they’ve slipped below a .600 winning percentage on the season. They haven’t won a series against a team with an above-.500 record since the Orioles immediately after the All-Star break. At this point, you can skip talk of winning 100 games, because the division title isn’t the only thing in danger with the Mariners, Tigers and Royals all making serious pushes for the postseason. Say they play .500 the rest of the way, and they’d wind up with 93 wins, which should at least get them into the wild card -- one-and-done territory, or not where they were supposed to be when they traded away their best prospect, Addison Russell, to purportedly win the World Series this year.

What’s gone wrong of late? It’s pretty much a team-wide problem. Let’s start with the offense. Since the All-Star break, they’ve put up a collective .698 OPS, a tumble from the .729 OPS they had in the first half. Those numbers get worse when you get into what they’ve done since trading Yoenis Cespedes: a .636 OPS in August, with the A’s averaging just 3.7 runs per game when they had averaged 4.9 in the first half.

Who are the culprits? Brandon Moss has struggled terribly, hitting just .213/.31/.303 with two homers since the break; for a guy who had 21 on his way to his first All-Star Game, suddenly hitting 30 again seems a long way off. Coco Crisp has been even worse as he struggles through a neck injury, putting up just a .395 OPS. Moving parts like John Jaso (.647 OPS) and Alberto Callaspo (.505), so important to manager Bob Melvin’s lineup-card dynamics, are slumping as well. If it weren’t for Josh Donaldson doing his thing and Josh Reddick’s rebound since returning to action (.904 OPS, four homers since the break), the picture would be even more bleak.

[+] EnlargeScott Kazmir
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesScott Kazmir is among the A's pitchers who are slumping in the second half.
Then there’s the pitching. Saturday’s starter, Sonny Gray, may have set off alarms for the beatdown he took two turns ago, but his velocity’s holding relatively steady; he may be the one guy you should worry about least. Instead, worry about the fact that Scott Kazmir’s strikeout rate since the All-Star break is 13 percent, 10 points lower than it was in the first half, or that Jason Hammel has one quality start in seven tries as an Athletic. Or that Jeff Samardzija’s run of greatness extends no further back than this season. Did the A’s need Jon Lester? You bet they did, in no small part because their investment in Kazmir and their getting Hammel haven’t paid off as well as they might have hoped.

And then there’s the interior defense. Losing Jed Lowrie to the DL isn’t something you’d normally associate with hurting your defense, but the problem it created is that it moved Eric Sogard from a position he plays well at second base (averaging plus-9 Defensive Runs Saved per season on his career) to a position he doesn’t at short (minus-14 career). Exacerbating that loss is that Alberto Callaspo has had to become an every-day player at second. Whatever Callaspo’s virtues as a multi-positional rover, one thing he doesn’t do well and has never done well is play second base: His performance this year is at a minus-11 DRS for a full season at the keystone, consistent with a career clip of minus-14. So instead of the benefits of getting Lowrie’s bat (even in an off year) at short and Sogard’s glove at second, the A’s now have neither, plus they don’t have Callaspo to plug in everywhere else they might have a day-to-day need either. And with Kazmir and Hammel looking so hittable, you can bet a worse infield defense is hurting.

And just stop with Sam Fuld already. The guy’s well-spoken, a great interview and a decent fielder, but c’mon now, he’s sabermetrics’ answer to Willie Bloomquist. A .370 OBP during two months in Minnesota do not define a guy, they’re just two nice months from someone whose career suggests he couldn’t keep that up. And sure enough, the guy the A’s got back in a ticky-tack trade with the Twins has not been Rickey Henderson reborn or Lance Blankenship or even Eric Fox; instead, it’s the same guy who came into the year with a .314 career OBP, and the same guy who was eminently cut-worthy by these same A’s earlier this season. The A’s need him because Crisp’s neck injury and second-half struggles make an insurance policy in center necessary, but you can forget about penciling in an every-day OBP north of .350. Tell yourself you’ll always have Minnesota to fulfill your Fuld fantasy, and just let that notion go.

Now, I know, this is where we can cite all sorts of happy stats to warm A’s fans’ hearts, like their huge run differential or their expected record, which is six games better (79-43) than where they’re actually at (73-49). But wasn’t this supposed to the team that was better than the sum of its parts, not worse? Admittedly, that was a sportswriterly narrative that wilts in the daylight of data, but to stick with the facts, a big chunk of the A’s run differential belongs to early-season blowout wins that this lineup hasn’t been cranking out of late, as well as that stack of close losses that you can blame on the early-season mistake of having Jim Johnson as their closer.

And the thing to keep in mind is that the A’s won’t get any of that back -- those runs, wins and losses are history and already banked, and that accrual doesn’t mean squat for the last 40 games. That’s because this team is a significantly different collection of players than that which stacked up that run differential in the first place just a few short months ago. You can’t expect it to continue or magically continue. A big win in May can’t do anything more to keep the A’s ahead of the Angels than it already has. The A’s relative run differential is shrinking, and even with Lester and Samardzija and Gray going strong, it’s probably going to shrink more.

This is why all you ditch that stuff about the A’s being the best team in baseball, or having the best record in baseball. It’s true for as long as nobody catches them while playing .500 brand of baseball as they have lately, and that won't be for much longer. So Oakland needs an in-season rebound, starting now. Beating the struggling Braves in this series may not sound like much, but the A’s have to start somewhere if they’re going to fulfill any of the expectations put on them, let alone stay a game ahead of the Angels.

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

Rooting for Rendon, Crisp to be All-Stars

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5

With the All-Star rosters being named Sunday night, I’m sure we all have guys we’d like to see make it and our different reasons, as fans or as analysts, for wanting them to get in. It’s easy to be excited for guys such as Andrew McCutchen or Josh Donaldson or Yasiel Puig, guys we expect to be there who are just flat-out fun to watch play the game.

But beyond those kinds of selections, there are two players I’d like to see make it to the All-Star team this year, as recognition of what they’ve delivered. One is a rising star in the National League who will have multiple chances in the years to come; the other is an American League long shot making his last, best case for inclusion. I’d like to see both on the foul lines on July 15 at Target Field when they make the full-team introductions.

In the NL, I’m not being especially sentimental in stating that I think Anthony Rendon of the Nationals flat-out belongs. He’s knocking around with Puig and Hunter Pence in terms of WAR, just outside the league’s top 10. Puig and Pence are both likely to make it; Rendon might not.

In part that’s because Rendon was on the ballot as a second baseman, where Chase Utley should have won the fan vote handily in recognition of past greatness and present goodness. It probably didn’t help Rendon’s case that he's had to split his playing time this season between the keystone and the hot corner because of Ryan Zimmerman’s injury. If you consider him a third baseman, Rendon suffers because whomever the fans vote in between Aramis Ramirez and David Wright, Todd Frazier is the first choice for who should be selected to sit behind the starter.

But it has been a pretty weak season for second basemen around the senior circuit: Neil Walker got hurt, while Brandon Phillips has gotten old; Rickie Weeks has slipped back into a platoon role, while Matt Carpenter moved to third base to stay. Utley is clearly the league’s best, but after that, who’s the obvious reserve at second base? There really isn't one.

However, Rendon has made himself into a good second baseman after last year’s midseason live-fire conversion. I figure between his reliability at the plate and flexibility around the diamond, he has been the glue that has held both the Nationals’ offense and their infield together during a bumpy first half. While all of their more famous and expensive people have broken down or provided one form of disappointment or another, Rendon has been the Nats’ first-half MVP. It should be the first of many All-Star invitations for him.
[+] Enlarge Coco Crisp
Jason O. Watson/Getty ImagesHere's hoping Coco Crisp is at least this excited if he's named to the American League All-Star team.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, in the AL the guy I’m rooting for is Coco Crisp. This might surprise you because the A’s player who comes up after Josh Donaldson in this context is usually Brandon Moss. And I agree with the proposition that Moss would be a worthy selection, for many of the same reasons: If you want to honor a broad, deep Athletics lineup, you couldn’t do much better for a “Moneyball 2.0” poster boy than Moss, a 30-year-old journeyman who washed out with the Pirates and put in a season in Triple-A for the Phillies before resurrecting his career with the A’s in 2012.

But my case for Crisp relies on a couple of considerations. I can start off with a subjective argument that he’s just flat-out fun to watch play, not that that means much -- most All-Stars are, and they should be. This would also be a way of recognizing his critical impact on the contending A’s in the past year and a half, because after last year’s 22-homer, 4.3-WAR season helped propel him to a 15th-place finish in the AL MVP voting, this year he’s made it clear that his bigger impact on the A’s offense isn’t a one-year phenomenon. Crisp never merited mention for an All-Star invitation earlier in his career, but his late-career surge deserves notice.

The thing to recognize about Crisp’s impact at the plate is that he’s something of a sorting-stat victim this season. Crisp’s overall WAR this year of 1.9 doesn’t sound especially awesome, and it isn’t. But it suffers because various defensive metrics aren’t wild about his contributions in the field, which reflects a long-standing problem -- while WAR relies on the offensive value we can measure so well, it relies on less-certain data when it comes to evaluating defense. WAR is like a good fruit punch on that score: You mix your apples and oranges and they might seem great together, but one is recognizably better than the other.

In this instance, I’d argue that it’s undermining Crisp’s perceived value. While he’s just 41st overall in the American League in WAR, he’s in the AL top 10 in the more reliable offensive component of WAR with 3.0 oWAR, effectively tied with Baltimore’s Adam Jones as the second-best bat in center after some kid named Trout, and that’s a tie only because Crisp lost time to the DL earlier this year. It’s also a higher mark than Moss (2.5 oWAR), again in much less playing time. Crisp is 13th in the AL in OPS; Jones is 14th.

All of which makes for an interesting argument about who the second-best center fielder in the league might be. But whereas Jones has been an All-Star three times before, Crisp has never made it. At 34 years old, this might be his last chance to merit an All-Star conversation. So, between his bat and his never having earned the honor before, and because he’s become a fan favorite in the East Bay in recent years, here’s hoping that Crisp gets to go to Target Field to play for the American League.

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

I hope the women and children in Texas didn’t witness the sweep the A's put on the Rangers because I think the A’s just committed three counts of felony sports-slaughter. After beating Yu Darvish 4-0 on Monday and the red-hot Martin Perez 9-3 on Tuesday, they bashed Robbie Ross in a 12-1 victory on Wednesday. The A’s close out April with an 18-10 record, including 12-4 on the road, and while they don’t have baseball’s best record, they are baseball’s best team after one month.

Here are 10 reasons they were the best in April … and should continue to roll along:

1. Run differential: The Milwaukee Brewers (20-8) and Atlanta Braves (17-9) have better win-loss records, but the A’s have a huge edge in run differential: plus-59 compared to plus-19 for the Brewers and plus-16 for the Braves. Sure, you don’t want to overemphasize run differential in April since one or two blowout wins or losses can skew the totals, but plus-59 is total domination and a better indicator of team strength than going 20-8 because you went 6-2 in one-run games and 4-1 in extra innings. Sorry, Brewers fans.

2. This lineup is deep: The Chicago White Sox, riding the big bat of Jose Abreu and some other improbable hot starts (Tyler Flowers hitting .354, Dayan Viciedo .348, Alexei Ramirez .351) have scored a few more runs, and the Los Angeles Angels have scored one more run in one less game played, but no team matches the depth of the Oakland lineup from one through nine. Coco Crisp (.393 OBP) and Jed Lowrie (.423) set the table at the top with Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes anchoring the middle of the order. They have two catchers who can hit in Derek Norris and John Jaso, Craig Gentry is one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball and Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto are versatile switch-hitters off the bench. In fact, Crisp and Lowrie also switch-hit, making it difficult to match up with the A’s in the late innings. That kind of flexibility allowed the A’s to bat with the platoon advantage 70 percent of the time last season, the second highest in the majors.

[+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsJesse Chavez is just the A's latest mystery man propelling them to the top.
3. Jesse Chavez is no fluke: When Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin (who just announced he’d undergo Tommy John surgery as well) both went down in spring training, it opened up a rotation slot for Chavez. He’s 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA in six starts and was silly good in Wednesday’s win, allowing one hit and one walk in seven innings. He’s a four-pitch guy, or five pitches if you want to include both his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball, adding a cutter that he throws a lot, a changeup and a curveball.

What makes Chavez so tough is that he uses the different pitches to basically pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone. Both fastballs tend to be up in the zone, primarily used inside to both righties and lefties; he uses his cutter on the outside part of the plate (meaning he has the ability to spot it to both sides, depending on whether it’s a lefty or righty batting; the changeup, mostly thrown to left-handed batters, is low and away; the curveball usually drops in at the knees across the plate.

Where did he come from? The journeyman righty spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Braves, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays before the A’s purchased him from Toronto in August of 2012. He had a 3.92 ERA in relief last season with Oakland. When he first reached the majors, Chavez was primarily a fastball/slider guy. He’s since dumped the slider and added the cutter while throwing his four-seamer less and his changeup and curve more often. It’s working. He throws strikes, he knows how to pitch and if, he can handle 30 starts without breaking down, he’ll be good all season.

4. Josh Donaldson is no fluke, either: He finished April with a .279/.338/.533 line, seven home runs and 23 RBIs. Just like 2013, he’ll be one of the best players in the American League.

5. Sonny Gray just might be an ace: I’ll admit I was skeptical heading into 2014 despite his dynamite showing at the end of 2013 and in the postseason. A short right-hander who is basically a two-pitch pitcher? I took a “prove it to me again” attitude. He’s proving it, alright, with a 4-1, 1.76 start, including that three-hit shutout against Darvish on Monday. Look, let’s not get carried away here: He’s only 16 starts into his career, and he needs to show he can handle 200 innings in the major leagues and pitch consistently every fifth day. But he is slowly working in a few changeups and sliders to go with his power heater and hammer curveball, and he’s got that “look” out there, not that I can define what that means.

6. Crisp has aged into an underrated star: Another Billy Beane special. Crisp does a little of everything: good range in center (although the metrics rate him off to a slow start with minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved), excellent percentage base stealer, doesn’t strike out much and he even added power last season with 22 home runs (and hit his third of 2014 on Wednesday). At 34, he’s playing the best baseball of his career.


Who is baseball's best team right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 13,183)

7. An improved Yoenis Cespedes: The feeling last season was that Cespedes got a little too homer-happy, selling out for the long ball. He hit 26 of them, but his walk rate dropped and his strikeouts increased, leading to a .240 average and sub-.300 OBP. He has 16 strikeouts and 12 walks so far, a much improved ratio over last season’s 137/37 mark. A more disciplined Cespedes is a more scary Cespedes.

8. I’m not worried about the bullpen: The A’s have lost three games they led heading into the ninth, one reason they’re 18-10 instead of 21-7 or 20-8. They have some power arms down there, however, and things will get sorted out. Sean Doolittle, for example, is 0-2 with a 5.68 ERA, but he’s also fanned 15 with no walks; he’ll be fine. Luke Gregerson is good, Jim Johnson has pitched better after a couple early bad outings, Ryan Cook is back, Fernando Abad has pitched very well and Dan Otero is a tricky right-hander. The pen is fine.

9. Manager Bob Melvin: One of the best in the business. The calm serenity of a redwood tree. Or something like that.

10. Green Collar Baseball: That’s the A’s official slogan of sorts. The team’s website includes it, and the clubhouse in spring training had a sign up to remind players of it, not that they need reminding. As Donaldson told me in spring training about what it means, "It’s about grinding every at-bat. That you’re never out of a game." It’s not necessarily playing with a chip on your shoulder just because you’re on the small-market A’s but showcasing your ability every day, no matter your salary, your service time, the number of fans in the park or your place in the standings. "I think you’re going have guys in this locker room who are going to be $20 million ballplayers," Donaldson said in March. "They may not be making $20 million right now, but there’s definitely potential for guys to make that money. There’s a bunch of guys here with less than three years of service, so we have guys still trying to make their mark. That’s the great thing about baseball: You get a chance every time you step on the field to prove yourself."

With apologies to Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay or John Mozeliak in St. Louis or Neal Huntington in Pittsburgh or Ruben Amaro Jr. in Philadelphia (just kidding, Phillies fans!), if I win $750 million in the lottery and purchase a major league franchise, Billy Beane is the guy I'd hire to run my franchise.

Although I may try to steal some of the stats guy from Tampa, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

The Oakland A's clinched their second straight American League West title with Sunday's 11-7 win over the Minnesota Twins, further proof that Beane can build a winner minus Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Maybe the ideas behind "Moneyball" have been replicated and expanded -- find a market efficiency and exploit it and hire smart analysts to help you find those inefficiences -- but Beane has won the past two years in sort of an old-fashioned way: Make good trades and scrounge around the discount sales pile for cheap buys.

Who is the GM of the year?


Discuss (Total votes: 6,234)

The A's aren't built around expensive free agents; we know that. But they aren't built around a stockpile of high first-round picks either. There is no David Price or Evan Longoria on the Oakland roster, no Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez or Gerrit Cole. The only homegrown first-round pick to make a significant contribution this season is Sunday's starter, Sonny Gray, the team's first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2011 who improved to 4-3 with a 2.90 ERA in nine starts. It wasn't his best outing -- seven hits and four runs in five innings -- but it was good enough to probably cement his place in Oakland's postseason rotation.

But even Gray was just the 18th overall pick of the first round, low enough that you're well past sure thing territory. Even in the post-Moneyball era, the A's never sank to rock bottom the way the Rays or Pirates had to; their worst record under Beane was the 74-88 mark in 2011. The only top-10 pick the franchise has had since drafting Mulder and Zito in 1998 and 1999 was Michael Choice, 10th overall in 2010 (Choice has had 17 plate appearances this year with the A's).

Only four A's are making more than $5 million -- outfielders Chris Young ($8.7 million), Yoenis Cespedes ($8.5 million) and Coco Crisp ($7 million), plus starter/reliever Brett Anderson ($5.75 million). Compare that to their division rival Rangers, who have 10 players from their Opening Day roster making $5 million-plus, or AL East champion Boston, which has 12.

Crisp was one of the stars on Sunday, going 2-for-4, including a three-run homer in Oakland's six-run second inning. Crisp has been a big surprise in the power department, with 22 home runs and 65 RBIs out of the leadoff spot, 13 of those coming in 53 games since the All-Star break. Crisp was originally signed as a free agent after an injury-plagued season with Kansas City in 2009, when he hit .228 and played just 49 games. Beane bought low, as he did with minor league free agent Brandon Moss and past-his-prime starter Bartolo Colon. In other cases, he sold high, as when he dealt established mid-rotatin starter Trevor Cahill to Arizona for Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook.
[+] EnlargeA's
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsThe A's can celebrate back-to-back division wins thanks in part to someone not on the field: GM Billy Beane.

Beane's smartest transaction this past offseason was plugging the team's shortstop hole. Oakland shortstops had hit .203 with a .585 OPS last year. Beane acquired Jed Lowrie from the Astros for three players, including first baseman/DH Chris Carter, who had provided an effective right-handed platoon bat for the A's in 2012. Lowrie has a good bat for a shortstop, but had been injury-prone and doesn't have the defensive profile you might expect from an Oakland shortstop. But Beane knew he needed more offense from his infield and Lowrie has played 149 games and hit .288/.344/.443 -- the highest OPS among all regular shortstops (Troy Tulowitzki and Jhonny Peralta are higher but haven't qualified).

But Beane doesn't stop there. In late March, he picked up Nate Freiman off waivers from the Astros (he'd been a Rule 5 pick from the Padres). Freiman was a 26-year-old minor league vet. Why the interest in a guy who couldn't make the Astros? Freiman had hit .348 against left-handers in Double-A in 2012. He's provided the A's with a right-hander to replace Carter. That's not the discount pile, that's the discard pile.

Now all Beane and the A’s have to do is prove their stuff works in the postseason.

When the Oakland A's acquired Chris Young in the offseason from the Arizona Diamondbacks, it appeared Coco Crisp would be the odd man out in the Oakland outfield, or at least see his playing substantially reduced. While it was billed as a "four guys for three positions" type of arrangement along with Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, Young was viewed as the better defender in center field, and Cespedes and Reddick, Oakland's two best position players a year ago, weren't likely to sit too often.

It's not that Crisp was going to sit on the bench; after all, he put up a solid .259/.325/.418 line last year with 39 steals in 43 attempts. As a switch-hitter, he would help give Bob Melvin the platoon advantage no matter who would be pitching. But Crisp's crucial misplay against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series cost the A's a victory, forcing a Game 5 confrontation against Justin Verlander that proved to be all Verlander, and Young's power potential would be intriguing to a club that relied on heavily on the home run in 2012.

Whatever the plan, it has worked out that Crisp has been the A's best outfielder, and their second-most valuable position player behind third baseman Josh Donaldson. With Cespedes, Reddick and Young all struggling at the plate, where would the A's be without Crisp? Not tied with the Rangers for the AL West lead. Just over a week ago, the A's looked like a team on the fall, at risk of losing its hold on the second wild card to the Indians or the Orioles or maybe the Yankees. Now they've won seven of eight and caught the Rangers in the standings for the first time since Aug. 9.
[+] EnlargeCoco Crisp
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsCoco Crisp has reason to celebrate, and so do the A's.

In the opener of a crucial three-game series in Oakland against the Texas Rangers, Crisp hit the go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth, hitting the left-field foul pole and upheld upon review, and the A's bullpen held on for the 4-2 victory. It was Crisp's career-high 17th home run, but maybe his power shouldn't be that big a surprise: He hit .281/.349/.511 in the second half last year with eight home runs. He has been hitting like this since last July.

Crisp was just one of Monday's surprise heroes -- players who usually fly under the radar but provide the contributions that push teams into the playoffs. Here are a few others:

  • Brian Roberts, Orioles: After playing just 115 games combined over the past three seasons, who thought Roberts would be playing in 2013, let alone contributing? But there he was on Monday, hitting leadoff and hitting a two-run double to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead in the third inning against the Indians, on way to a 7-2 victory. He's hitting .265/.341/.350 in the second half while playing in 37 of Baltimore's 40 games. He hasn't been great, but he's getting on base and provided stability at second base.

  • David Huff, Yankees: A former supplemental first-round pick of the Indians, Huff never did much with Cleveland and the Yankees picked him up on waivers in late May and sent him to the minors. As a former starter, he has contributed two big long relief performances in the past two weeks. On Aug. 21, he pitched five scoreless innings of relief in a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jays. On Monday, he replaced Phil Hughes in the second innings after a nearly two-hour rain delay and pitched 5 2/3 innings and watched as the Yankees put up eight runs in the fourth inning to beat the White Sox.

  • Jordan Schafer, Braves: The one-time top prospect has rescued his career with a strong season as Atlanta's fourth outfielder. With Jason Heyward on the disabled list, Schafer is playing right field and went 4-for-5 on Monday, raising his season line to .275/.352/.389. Considering B.J. Upton's season-long struggles, if Heyward returns by the end of the regular season, it will be interesting to see if Schafer gets postseason starts in center field (at least against right-handed pitching).

  • Charlie Morton, Pirates: With seven strong innings in a 5-2 win over the Brewers, Morton is now 7-3 with a 3.00 ERA, and the Pirates reclaimed sole possession of first place. As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information points out, the curveball has been a huge weapon for Morton, especially with two strikes, when he's limiting batters to a .392 OPS compared to .522 in 2011-2012. Opponents are hitting just .117 off Morton's two-strike curveballs. There are some cloudy numbers in Morton's results -- his strikeout rate isn't great and he leads the NL with 14 hit batters in just 90 innings -- but he's allowed two runs or fewer in six straight starts and helped rescue a Pirates rotation that has battled injuries.

  • Andre Ethier, Dodgers: OK, he's a pretty big name and paid like a pretty big star. The emergence of Yasiel Puig back in June led to calls for the Dodgers to trade Ethier; instead, Matt Kemp hasn't been able to stay on the field and Ethier has had to start 62 games in center field -- where he had started just once before in his major league career. He hasn't killed them defensively -- he's at -4 Defensive Runs Saved -- and in the second half he's hitting .302/.399/.532, including two doubles and a home run on Monday in a 10-8 win over the Rockies.

    It's not often that plans in March go smoothly all season. The A's outfield depth has paid off, maybe as Billy Beane intended, but sometimes alternate plans are needed -- like Ethier playing center field. I'm pretty sure that wasn't in Don Mattingly's playbook back in spring training. But playoff teams have stars and unsung heroes.

  • 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.

    Bartolo Colon heat mapESPN Stats & Information Left-handed batters cannot lay off Bartolo Colon's outside fastballs.
    As you can see from the percentages, he throws more fastballs off the plate and outside the strike zone than he does on the inner third of the plate. But as the pitch moves and sinks away from lefty hitters, they cannot lay off. For the season, Colon has 23 strikeouts and seven walks in plate appearances against lefties ending with a fastball; compare that to a guy like Stephen Strasburg, who has 13 strikeouts and 18 walks.

    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.

    Jesse Chavez is essentially the 25th man on the Oakland A's roster. He started the year in Triple-A, got called up, got sent down, got called back up and is working as the low-leverage guy out of the bullpen. Before Thursday, he hadn't pitched since June 5, and the final scores of games he'd appeared in (without a decision) were 6-1, 10-2, 11-5, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 10-2, 9-6 and 8-1.

    Chavez is the definition of a journeyman right-hander, having pitched for the Pirates, Braves, Royals and Blue Jays before the A's purchased him from Toronto last August. He was a typical Billy Beane acquisition: He has a pretty good arm, fastball in the low 90s, but what Chavez hadn't had was much success at the major league level, with a 5.74 ERA over 191 career innings.

    But sometimes you need that 25th guy to come through, and Chavez's other asset is that he had started for Triple-A Sacramento. That ability to pitch multiple innings came into play in Thursday's 18-inning marathon in Oakland, the A's finally pushing across the winning run with a blooper and broken-bat flare off Mariano Rivera, winning 3-2. Chavez was the big hero, however, pitching 5.2 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief. He has a starter's repertoire, with a cutter, curve and changeup. He got two big outs when he entered with two runners on in the 13th, striking out Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells on curveballs.

    In the 14th, A's manager Bob Melvin had the guts to intentionally walk Robinson Cano with runners on first and second; Mark Teixeira popped out to shortstop, missing a hittable fastball. From there it was smooth sailing, as Chavez retired the side in order in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th innings. Not bad for your garbage-time reliever.

    [+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
    AP Photo/Eric RisbergJesse Chavez got the win for the A's in 5.2 innings of scoreless relief, with one hit and seven strikeouts.
    "The last guy they threw was the best guy we faced all day," Teixeira told MLB.com. "That guy is nasty."

    It's one of those games that will be remembered if the A's end up winning the American League West. It's that kind of bullpen depth that fueled their second-half surge last season and has fueled their strong start this season. The A's are 33-0 when leading heading into the ninth inning. They're 6-2 in extra innings. When tied through seven innings they're 8-1. This is a tough team to beat late in a game.

    The A's have won 11 consecutive games at home and 21 of their past 26, and while they were 7 games behind the Rangers in mid-May, they now lead the division by two games, after the Blue Jays beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers 3-1, dropping the Rangers to 4-8 in June. Injuries to Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland have hurt, but that gets us back to roster depth.

    Who is the favorite to win the West? Here's a quick rundown comparing the two teams.

    Oakland: .246/.328/.397
    Texas: .264/.327/.436

    Entering Thursday's games, the Rangers had the higher wOBA, but the A's had the slightly better park-adjusted offense. The A's have gotten huge performances from Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp, and while some regression might be in order, Donaldson also looks like a much-improved hitter from last season, as Jerry Crasnick wrote. On the other hand, Josh Reddick (.187) and Chris Young (.169) should improve.

    For the Rangers, the offense is trending downward. In 2011, they averaged 5.3 runs per game; in 2012, 5.0; this year, 4.4. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are doing Adrian Beltre- and Nelson Cruz-type things, but Elvis Andrus and David Murphy are struggling right now. If Murphy doesn't pick it up, the Rangers might look to add an outfielder.

    Advantage: A's.

    Starting pitching
    Oakland: 29-24, 4.01 ERA; .249/.298/.398; 6.1 innings per start
    Texas: 25-21, 3.77 ERA; .251/.311/.391; 5.9 innings per start

    The rotations have posted similar numbers, but once you adjust for ballpark, the Rangers' staff has performed better, led by Darvish and Derek Holland. FanGraphs WAR rates the Rangers' starters at 8.6 Wins Above Replacement, third-best in the majors, and the A's 12th-best at 5.0.

    The good news for the A's is that Jarrod Parker pitched well again Thursday. After posting a 7.34 ERA through his first seven starts, he's gone 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA over his past seven, with a .183 average allowed and WHIP under 1.00. His changeup is back to the deadly weapon it was last year, as batters have hit .118 against it in those most recent seven games.


    Which team will win the AL West


    Discuss (Total votes: 2,957)

    The Rangers have succeeded even though Matt Harrison has spent most of the season and the disabled list and Colby Lewis all of it. Alexi Ogando is also out again with shoulder inflammation. The Rangers received some solid work from Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm early on, but those two haven't been quite as strong lately, and you have to wonder if the injuries won't catch up to the rotation at some point, at least until Lewis and Harrison return.

    Edge: Even. The Rangers have been better so far, but moving forward I think the A's close the gap.

    Oakland: 12-3, 2.89 ERA; .227/.289/.358
    Texas: 13-7, 3.29 ERA; .240/.313/.368

    The Texas bullpen has also been outstanding, especially the back three of Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. Neal Cotts has added some depth as well. Scheppers has been the big surprise, with a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and touches 98; he's always had a good arm but might finally be putting it together. He doesn't have a big strikeout rate (21 in 32.1 innings), and I do wonder if he keeps pitching this well. Batters are hitting just .170 off his fastball even though Scheppers' strikeout/walk ratio with the pitch is just 10.9.

    Edge: A's. The Rangers have a good pen, but once you get into the fifth, sixth and seventh guys, I think the A's have the advantage.

    Oakland: minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved
    Texas: plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved

    Ultimate Zone Rating has the clubs essentially even -- Texas at minus-0.3, Oakland at minus-1.3. The big problem area for the A's has been shortstop Jed Lowrie at minus-8 DRS. Chris Young, who usually rates very well in the outfield, has also rated poorly at minus-5 DRS. Of course, if he doesn't start hitting, he's not going to get much playing anyway behind Crisp, Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

    Edge: Rangers.

    The A's were my preseason pick to win the division, and they look like the better team right now. What do you think?

    A year ago, the Cleveland Indians allowed the most runs in the American League, a pretty remarkable achievement considering the Minnesota Twins had a historically awful rotation. The Indians, however, combined bad pitchers and bad defense -- their -51 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 28th in the majors.

    Like the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the Indians decided to make their pitching better by improving their defense. First they traded impending free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who graded out as -12 DRS in right field, and landed Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs in the deal, pushing Michael Brantley to left. Then they signed free agent Nick Swisher to replace Choo; Swisher is a better right fielder than Choo. But when Michael Bourn remained unsigned into February, the Indians swooped in and signed the two-time Gold Glove center fielder. That pushed Swisher primarily to first base and gave the Indians an outfield of three guys who played center field last year.

    The Indians' outfield collectively rated as -17 a year ago, and it's conceivable this group could rate at +30 runs -- a 47-run difference worth nearly five wins. Not to mention maybe some added confidence to the pitching staff.

    The Red Sox, likewise, signed Shane Victorino to play right field and promoted rookie Jackie Bradley to play left. They join Jacoby Ellsbury to give them an outfield of three center fielders; Bradley defers to the veteran Ellsbury for now, but scouting reports suggest he's an elite defender.

    The Angels, who rated as the second-best defensive outfield a year ago at +46 runs (behind Atlanta's +55), could be even better this year, with Peter Bourjos getting more time in center, Mike Trout playing left, and Josh Hamilton, who played a lot of center field for Texas, in right. Essentially, the Angels decided to replace Kendrys Morales' bat with Bourjos' glove, with Mark Trumbo playing more DH and less outfield.

    If Bill James and then "Moneyball" popularized the importance of on-base percentage, then that sort of makes outfield defense the new OBP. Of course, just because emphasizing outfield defense appears to be a new trend doesn't really make it new. Just like Branch Rickey was talking about the importance of OBP over batting average in the 1950s.

    For example, look at Whitey Herzog's Royals of the late '70s and then his Cardinals in the 1980s. Playing on turf in both places, he always emphasized speed in the outfield. His 1985 Cardinals, for example, had an outfield of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke, three guys who could play center field (although Coleman had a poor arm). Van Slyke later paired with Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh to give the Pirates two Gold Glove outfielders as they won three NL East titles in a row. The A's of the early '80s had the great trio of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games in part by employing three great defenders in Mike Cameron, Ichiro Suzuki and part-timer Stan Javier.

    But I would suggest that it seems we are deep in outstanding defensive outfields right now. Here's how I would rank the top five -- remember, we're talking only about defense here.

    1. Angels: LF Mike Trout, CF Peter Bourjos, RF Josh Hamilton
    Trout and Bourjos are arguably the two best outfielders in the American League, and Hamilton is at least adequate with a strong arm.

    2. Athletics: LF Yoenis Cespedes, CF Coco Crisp, RF Josh Reddick
    The A's were fifth in DRS last year at +17, but that includes Cespedes' time in center, where he rated poorly. He should be solid in left (he made a nice play on Hamilton the other night, running down a deep drive in left-center and doubling Albert Pujols off first) with a strong arm, Reddick is outstanding in right (+19 last year) and Crisp average in center. And backing up is Chris Young, who always had excellent defensive metrics with Arizona.


    Which team has the best defensive outfield?


    Discuss (Total votes: 1,034)

    3. Indians: LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn, RF Drew Stubbs
    Bourn's +24 DRS last year tied him with Alex Gordon for the best total of any outfielder in the majors. He can run everything down in center, and now you flank him with two decent center fielders who should rate above-average in the corners. The only question here: Will Stubbs hit enough to remain in the lineup?

    4. Brewers: LF Ryan Braun, CF Carlos Gomez, RF Norichika Aoki
    The Brewers ranked third at +24 DRS a year ago and should be very good once again. All three are above-average defenders.

    5. Red Sox: LF Jackie Bradley Jr., CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Shane Victorino
    Victorino's metrics have dropped a bit in the past couple seasons as a center fielder, but he can still run and has a chance to be outstanding in right. Bradley won't get to show off his range at Fenway Park, but that doesn't mean he won't add defensive value. Ellsbury was +7 DRS back in 2011.

    Worth considering: Nationals (Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth). Span is very good and Harper actually rated very good in center last year, despite some bad routes at times. Werth appears to have lost a step from his Phillies days.

    Worth considering but overrated: Braves (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward). It will be interesting to see what happens here. Since Baseball Info Solutions began their Defensive Runs Saved metric in 2003, the +55 the Braves were evaluated at last year was the third-highest by any outfield (behind two other Braves teams in 2005 and 2007 that featured Andruw Jones). But Bourn and Martin Prado are gone, replaced by the Upton brothers. Some consider B.J. an elite center fielder, but I've never thought that and his metrics aren't great (-30 runs over the past three years). Heyward is terrific in right (+20 last year and a deserving Gold Glove winner) while Justin has been solid (+14 total over the past three years) if prone to throwing errors.

    Sleeper: Tigers (Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter). Jackson is terrific in center, and Hunter continues to age gracefully.

    The defensive metrics don't like them: Orioles (Nate McLouth, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis). Jones won the AL Gold Glove for center field, but DRS considers him below average. Just a few games into the season, the Orioles are at -5 runs ... although, to be fair, so are the Angels (Trout is -2 and Hamilton -4). Maybe Trout is fat.

    Offseason report card: A's

    February, 8, 2013
    AM ET
    2012 in review
    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.

    Position Players

    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.

    Pitching Staff

    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.

    Jarrod ParkerESPN Stats & InformationJarrod Parker's 3.8 WAR ranked 10th among AL pitchers in 2012.
    Heat Map to Watch
    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.

    Overall Grade


    How many games will the A's win?


    Discuss (Total votes: 5,643)

    Many won't believe in the A's simply because they were such a big surprise a year ago. But I'm trying to find reasons to expect a decline and am having trouble identifying them. OK, the offense was sort of one-dimensional last season; but the A's basically received nothing from three positions and they have likely upgrades at all three spots. I didn't even mention Jaso above; if he hits like he did with Seattle, he's another plus at the plate (though the Mariners clearly didn't like his defense behind the plate).

    OK, maybe you don't believe in Reddick and Cespedes and Brandon Moss. I do. I think they return to the playoffs.

    Vote: Who has baseball's best outfield?

    January, 27, 2013
    AM ET
    Justin Upton has been in the news all offseason, especially once the Arizona Diamondbacks needed to fix their outfield logjam after signing free agent Cody Ross. Rumors throughout the winter included both Upton and Jason Kubel, but Braves acquired the 25-year-old to improve their already strong outfield.

    There is no debate: Upton has been one of baseball's best outfielders over the past four years. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Upton has compiled the 10th-most Wins Above Replacement among corner outfielders since 2009, at 13.0. He ranks ahead of players like Giancarlo Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jayson Werth. Now part of an outfield that already includes brother B.J. Upton and another young phenom in Jason Heyward, the Braves arguably lay claim to one of baseball's best outfields.

    That leads us to the obvious question: Which teams are in the mix for baseball's best outfield right now? I've come up with four candidates that could challenge the Braves:

    Los Angeles Angels
    Mike Trout carries most of the weight here, as he alone gives the Angels one of the best outfields around. His 10.7 WAR last year was the most in a single season since Barry Bonds' 11.6 in 2002 and one of only 47 seasons of 10-plus WAR in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference (but not good enough for the AL MVP award, somehow). Trout does it all: hit for average (.326), hit for power (.238 isolated power), run (49 stolen bases in 54 attempts) and play incredible defense (he robbed hitters of at least three homers last season by my cursory research).

    If this is starting to sound like an infomercial for the Angels' outfield, let me do my best Billy Mays impression: But wait, there's more! The Halos signed mercurial Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract during the offseason. Hamilton has been one of baseball's most feared hitters since joining the Rangers in 2008. Among hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances over the last five years, Hamilton's .386 weighted on-base average is 10th best, just a hair behind players such as Jose Bautista and Matt Holliday. The AL average wOBA in that span ranged between .315 and .330, showing how truly prolific Hamilton's bat has been. While Hamilton isn't much in the field or on the bases, he more than makes up for it with his offense.

    Peter Bourjos will be splitting Trout and Hamilton in center field. While many think Trout should have remained the Angels' center fielder, no one denies Bourjos has the athletic tools to thrive as the captain of the outfield. In limited playing time, the speedster has already stolen 35 bases and showed offensive potential during the 2011 season in which he finished with a .271/.327/.438 slash line. In a full season, Bourjos projects to be an above-average player with a very high ceiling. Should he realize his potential, the Angels could very well have an outfield that combines for 15 WAR.

    St. Louis Cardinals
    Hard to argue against an outfield that has two potential Hall of Famers in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, and one of the United States' founding fathers in Jon Jay. Holliday hasn't finished a season with an adjusted OPS under 138 since 2005 in Colorado. The only other player with a 135 or better adjusted OPS in every season since 2006 is former teammate Albert Pujols.

    Beltran had problems staying healthy in 2009-10, but has logged 500-plus plate appearances in each of the past two seasons at the ages of 34 and 35. Beltran's 128 OPS+ last season was one of only eight such seasons in the past four years by a player 35 years old or older. Beltran isn't close to finished yet, and along with Holliday will make up not only one of the most fearsome corner outfield combos, but also one of the most fearsome 3-4 duos as well.

    Jay has turned into one of the game's better contact hitters. In three seasons, he has hit .300, .297, and .305, which has led to an aggregate on-base percentage of .359. He has also stolen 27 bases, 19 of which came last season. While he may not have the power of his outfield compatriots, he complements them perfectly and plays a solid center field, giving the Cardinals one of the more formidable outfields in the game.

    Let's say Beltran can't stay healthy, or an unfortunate injury keeps Holliday or Jay out of the lineup. Then 20-year-old outfield prospect Oscar Taveras will be ready to step in and provide help. Last year with Double-A Springfield, Taveras posted a .321/.380/.572 slash line with 10 stolen bases, 23 homers and 94 RBIs. While there is no guarantee that Taveras would enjoy the same amount of success facing major league pitching, he is looking like one of baseball's few can't-miss prospects.

    Washington Nationals
    List of 19-year-olds to post a 5-WAR season in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference:

    Bryce Harper.

    Yes, Harper is the only player to have had such a productive season at such a young age. Expand the age threshold to 20 and he is joined by a plethora of current and future Hall of Famers, including Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. The sky isn't even the limit for Harper; the expanse of the Milky Way galaxy seems to be, in much the same way it is for Trout. Like Trout, Harper does it all, and he does it all very well, which is why he went home with the NL Rookie of the Year award.

    Werth, the $126 million man, works opposite Harper in right field. In the first year of his deal with the Nats, his production declined precipitously, leading many to declare his contract a failure. When he was healthy last season, he was extremely productive, finishing with a .300 average and a 125 adjusted OPS, numbers similar to those that made him such a good player in Philadelphia from 2007-10. While the days of him being a 35-plus homer threat, as he was in 2009, may be over, he still provides more production than most corner outfielders, which should make the Nationals plenty happy.

    Rounding out the trio of outfielders in Nats Town is the recently acquired Denard Span, who will push Harper out of center field. Like Cardinals center fielder Jay, Span doesn't have the aesthetically-pleasing offense of his corner outfield teammates, but complements them well simply by getting on base, running the bases well, and playing competent defense. Span has finished with 3 or more WAR in three of his five seasons, making him one of the more valuable -- and underrated -- center fielders in recent years.

    Oakland Athletics
    Believe it or not, Athletics outfielders combined for the second-most home runs in the AL last season, trailing the New York Yankees 89 to 83. Josh Reddick led the way with 32 dingers as he broke out at the age of 25. He was one of nine players with 30-plus home runs and 10-plus stolen bases, joining the likes of Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen. While his low average and plethora of strikeouts depressed some of his offensive value, there was not much more the A's could have asked of him.

    The Athletics were the surprising victors in the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes last offseason, signing the Cuban phenom to a four-year, $36 million deal. It looks like a mighty bargain right now. The 26-year-old finished with a 137 adjusted OPS, making him one of the game's most valuable hitters. Of course, Cespedes lost value spending 26 games at DH, spending a couple weeks on the DL and playing below-average defense when he was in the field. As he becomes ever more familiar with AL pitching, he will become better with age and he should develop into a consistent All-Star talent.

    Coco Crisp patrolled center field at O.co Coliseum last year, but that position may fall to Chris Young, acquired from the Diamondbacks. Crisp has developed into a consistent 2-3 WAR player since coming to Oakland in 2010. In those three years, he has stolen 120 bases in 136 attempts (88 percent), hit at about the league average (which is great coming from a premium position), and played above-average defense in center field. Young missed time last year with a shoulder injury, but averaged 4.8 WAR in 2010 and 2011, when he hit 47 home runs and played a great center field. Look for Reddick and Cespedes to play every day, although they could be rotated through the DH spot as well.


    Which team has baseball's best outfield?


    Discuss (Total votes: 11,558)

    With the Upton brothers and Heyward, where does Atlanta's outfield rank among the other four listed above? I'd put Atlanta's outfield at No. 2, behind the Angels.

    1. Angels
    2. Braves
    3. Cardinals
    4. Nationals
    5. Athletics

    The Dodgers' outfield (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier) was omitted because of health concerns. Due to defensive concerns, the Cincinnati outfield (Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce) was also omitted, and the Milwaukee outfield (Braun, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki) was a close runner-up to the A's.

    How would you rank baseball's best outfields?

    More baseball!

    On a day that featured a quadruple-header of baseball playoff action, a game in which a starting pitcher who didn’t win a game all season gets a W, a game with a demoted former two-time Cy Young winner coming out of the bullpen for a clutch relief outing, an once-in-a-lifetime performance by Raul Ibanez (and I mean all of our lifetimes), the Oakland A’s completed the night with a bottom-of-the-ninth three-run rally to beat the Detroit Tigers 4-3 to keep their American League Division Series alive and force a fifth game.

    It also gives us a fourth game on Thursday.

    More baseball? Yes, please.

    Justin Verlander in a decisive game? The frenzied A’s crowd with one more game to cheer on their heroes? Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder? Coco Crisp doing Coco Crisp stuff? The A’s swinging from their heels? I can’t wait.

    Where did this rally come from? It appeared that Joaquin Benoit had snuffed out the last-gasp Oakland rally in the bottom of the eighth when he struck out Brandon Moss on a lovely, low-and-away changeup with two runners on.

    In the bottom of the ninth, Jim Leyland turned to his closer, Jose Valverde. We remember his perfect season a year ago, when he seemingly walked the tightrope in every save situation but always managed to escape. Well, he fell off a few times this year.

    The A’s had led the majors with 14 walk-off wins during the regular season, so even though Benoit had just pitched through Yoenis Cespedes and Moss in the order, you know the A’s believed. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a magical season in Oakland.

    [+] EnlargeCoco Crisp
    AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezPlating the winning run got Coco Crisp a face full -- to say nothing of another game Thursday.
    Josh Reddick pulled a base hit into right field past a diving Omar Infante. Josh Donaldson crushed a first-pitch, four-seam fastball off the wall in left-center for a double. When he’s on, Valverde throws 92-95 mpg and then goes to his splitter to put hitters away. That fastball registered 90. The four pitches to Reddick clocked 90, 91, 91 and 92. Seth Smith stepped in and took a ball, swung through a high-and-away fastball, then drilled another fastball away into right-center. The game was tied and, even though Austin Jackson cut the ball off before it got to the wall, Smith beat the throw for a double.

    The three pitches to Smith: 92, 92, 92. Valverde didn’t have his good heat on this night and he had to throw an off-speed pitch. Valverde throwing 95 is a major league reliever. Valverde throwing 90-92 without a wrinkle is batting practice.

    George Kottaras then pinch-hit and Bob Melvin eschewed the sacrifice bunt and let Kottaras swing away. According to conventional wisdom, the situation called for a bunt -- heck, I’m pretty sure even Earl Weaver would have bunted there -- but given the A’s propensity to strike out, I understand Melvin’s strategy: Give the A’s three chances to get the hit.

    Kottaras popped out to Cabrera on the first pitch, a 93-mph fastball.

    Cliff Pennington struck out on four pitches, taking a splitter for a called strike on a pitch that registered a bit outside.

    Up came Crisp. Game 2 goat. Game 3 hero. Valverde throws a first-pitch splitter. Hard ground ball pulled past Infante into right field, and when Avisail Garcia couldn’t pick up the ball (with his strong arm, he might have had a shot to get Smith if he comes up with it cleanly), the A’s had the win.

    More baseball.

    Leyland, after the game: "This is baseball. This is why this is the greatest game of all. ... You get tested all the time in this game and this is a good test."

    Before the ninth inning, the A’s had been hitting .185 in the series (22-for-119). They went 4-for-6 in the ninth. Valverde had not allowed four hits in an appearance all season. He had allowed three runs just twice.

    Before the series, I suspected the key element in the series might end up being the Tigers' bullpen. When Benoit blew a lead in Game 2 -- only to see the A’s bullpen lose the lead when Detroit scored runs in the eighth and ninth -- I figured the A’s had lost their chance to steal a win. You may get one late-inning comeback in a short series, but it’s hard to get two.

    But the A’s got this one. A fifth game. They’ll get Verlander and you have to suspect the over/under on his pitch count might be 150. If you’re Leyland, do you want to give the ball to Valverde again with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth? Next time you think you can manage a major league team, put yourself in that possible situation.

    The A’s will send rookie Jarrod Parker to the mound. On paper, the edge still goes to the Tigers, with the best pitcher in baseball on the mound.

    In the postseason, paper means nothing.
    The Oakland A’s didn’t really know what to expect from Brett Anderson, who hadn’t pitched in 20 days since suffering an oblique strain.

    But here’s the one thing about Anderson: He can roll out of bed and throw the ball over the plate. He returned from last summer’s Tommy John surgery Aug. 21 and made six starts before the oblique injury. In those six starts, he walked just seven batters, displaying the control the 24-year-old had shown since reaching the big leagues at age 21.

    Manager Bob Melvin was hoping to get five innings from Anderson on Tuesday. Anderson delivered six shutout frames, throwing 80 pitches and allowing just two hits. His final two pitches might have been his best: a 2-1 slider to Miguel Cabrera that broke sharply into the strike zone for a called strike, and then a 2-2 slider that dove down and in and on which Cabrera swung over the top.

    Asked what his expectations were after Oakland’s bullpen locked down the 2-0 win, Anderson said, "Just go out there and give us a chance to win," citing the performances of Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone in the first two games of the series with the Tigers. "You couldn’t really script it, but it worked out. ... Coco [Crisp] robbing the home run sort of set the tone. You can’t say enough about the defense," he said.

    On a day when we had two games and saw a combined total of 16 hits, pitching did rule the day. And instead of two games Wednesday, now we get four. Good for everyone (except maybe Reds and Tigers fans).

    [+] EnlargeBrett Anderson
    AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezIn his first start since September, left-hander Brett Anderson pitched six shutout innings.
    A few other thoughts:

    • Crisp’s second-inning robbery of Prince Fielder is one of the greatest postseason catches I can remember, right up there with Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett in the 1991 World Series, Devon White in the 1992 World Series and Endy Chavez in the 2006 National League Championship Series. Fielder got robbed again when Yoenis Cespedes made a diving catch of his liner in the seventh. When the ball was hit, it looked like a sure single and maybe a double in the gap; it hung up just long enough for Cespedes to appear from nowhere. Josh Donaldson also started a nice 5-4-3 double play off Omar Infante’s hard smash to end the third.
    • I loved the way Melvin handled the seventh and eighth innings, first using Ryan Cook and then Sean Doolittle, even though he usually uses Doolittle and then Cook. He brought in Cook to face Fielder, when he could have either left in Anderson for one more batter, brought in Doolittle or brought in Jerry Blevins, who had been warming up in the sixth. I think he wanted to give Fielder a different look than a third shot at Anderson, so he brought in the hard-throwing Cook. That meant Cook would also face right-handers Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta (who did single), and Melvin wouldn't waste Blevins for one batter. But it also meant Doolittle faced rookie Avisail Garcia and catcher Gerald Laird in the eighth. If Cook had pitched the eighth, Jim Leyland would have pinch hit lefty swingers Quintin Berry and Alex Avila, a better duo than Garcia and Laird.
    • It’s going to be difficult for the Tigers to go all the way with Young batting fifth. Only Josh Hamilton swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone among qualified batters this season. Yes, Young hit five home runs in last year’s postseason. He also hit .133 in the American League Championship Series. He had 112 strikeouts and 20 walks this year. He is not good. As a No. 5 hitter for a team aspiring to win a title, he’s a joke.
    • Strong outing by Anibal Sanchez. Seth Smith turned on an inside fastball for his fifth-inning home run to dead center, but the Tigers couldn't have asked for more than the 6.1 solid innings he gave them.
    • Cabrera singled with one out in the ninth, bringing up Fielder against Grant Balfour as the tying run. Balfour got a break on the first pitch, a fastball outside called a strike by plate ump Dana DeMuth. After a fastball outside, Balfour threw a tough 94 mph heater at the knees that Fielder took for strike two. Another fastball, this one at 95, and Fielder grounded into a 6-3 double play. Guess which team led the AL in double plays grounded into?
    • Max Scherzer versus A.J. Griffin in Game 4. Scherzer left a start Sept. 18 after two innings due to a sore shoulder and returned Sept. 23 but then didn't pitch again until Oct. 3, when he pitched four scoreless innings against the Royals. If he's healthy, he's certainly capable of dominating, after ranking second in the AL in strikeouts to his teammate Justin Verlander and posting a 2.69 ERA in the second half. Following a great run, Griffin struggled in three of his final four starts, with 26 hits and 15 runs in 17.1 innings. Look for a quick hook.
    It began when Josh Hamilton dropped that routine fly ball in the final game of the regular season and has carried over into the postseason: We haven't exactly seen a lot of elegant baseball so far.

    Consider some of what we've seen:
    • The Braves making three throwing errors in their loss to the Cardinals.
    • The controversial infield pop fly in the same game.
    • Coco Crisp dropping a routine fly ball in Sunday's game that allowed two runs to score.
    • The A's and Tigers both wild pitching in runs in the same game.
    • Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma's error leading to the winning two (unearned) runs for the Nationals).
    • Gio Gonzalez walking seven batters in that game.
    • The Cardinals getting a bases-loaded, no-out situation. Two pitches later, the Nationals had escaped the inning.
    • The Nationals winning despite two errors.
    • Orioles closer Jim Johnson entering in a tie game and surrendering five runs.
    • Even Derek Jeter booted a fairly routine grounder, although it didn't hurt the Yankees.

    To be fair, we have seen some good defense as well. The Reds made several outstanding plays in their Game 1 victory over the Giants. Tigers right fielder Avisail Garcia made a nice throw to gun down Crisp at home plate on Sunday. Orioles right fielder Chris Davis made a nice throw to nail Mark Teixeira at second base and later a nice catch on a foul fly in the corner. Often in October, bad weather can have an affect on the fielders, but that hasn't been a viable excuse so far. I suspect we'll see better baseball moving forward.

    Some links to check out:

    The last few innings won’t exactly go down as textbook October baseball, but the Detroit Tigers will happily take the 5-4 walk-off win over the A’s, the 2-0 series lead and the plane ride to Oakland knowing they need to win only one of three games.

    It was a game in which some of Detroit’s little guys stepped up: Omar Infante had two key hits, Don Kelly delivered the winning sacrifice fly and backup shortstop Danny Worth made a nice play in the ninth.

    In the end, the A’s have nobody to blame but themselves. Tommy Milone, after looking like he wouldn’t last past the third inning early on, settled down and allowed just one run over six innings. When the A’s took a 2-1 lead in the seventh off Doug Fister, Bob Melvin had the game exactly where he wanted: The chance to hand the ball to his final three relievers with a lead.

    Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour had been dominant down the stretch for the A’s when they surged to win the division title. Check out their numbers:

    Doolittle since Sept. 7: 15 IP, 8 H, 3 BB, 13 SO, 1.80 ERA, .154 AVG
    Cook since Sept. 7: 15 IP, 8 H, 1 BB, 16 SO, 0.00 ERA, .154 AVG
    Balfour since Sept. 14: 11 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 14 SO, 0.00 ERA, .086 AVG

    It’s worth noting that Melvin pushed all three hard in the final week -- Cook and Balfour each appeared in the final five games and Doolittle the final four. None had appeared in more than three consecutive games all season prior to that. The A’s had three days off since clinching and all three had excellent velocity, but you do wonder how much they have left in the tanks.

    The key play came with Doolittle pitching in the seventh. After Austin Jackson and Infante singled, Miguel Cabrera hit a fly ball to somewhat shallow center field. Coco Crisp, playing in Saginaw, got a late jump and then tried to Willie Mays it, but dropped it, and two runs scored on the error. It wasn’t that difficult of a play, even from where Crisp started. You can’t make errors like that and win postseason games.

    But the A’s actually took the lead in the eighth when Yoenis Cespedes created a run all by himself, singling, stealing second and third and scoring on a wild pitch. When Josh Reddick then lofted a 3-2 changeup from Joaquin Benoit over the right-field fence to make it 4-3 (batters had previously hit .174 off Benoit’s changeup, with 47 strikeouts and three walks), the A’s once again looked good.

    But in the bottom half, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta singled off Cook and Andy Dirks laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. Pinch-hitter Quintin Berry struck out, but Cook then threw a pitch in the dirt, catcher George Kottaras made an unsuccessful backhand stab and pinch-runner Kelly scored the tying run.

    In the ninth, Al Alburquerque relieved Phil Coke with two runners on and got Cespedes on a bouncer back to the mound to end the threat. Balfour, the hyper Australian, came on in the bottom of the ninth having retired the previous 26 batters he faced. But Infante singled to right with one out, Cabrera dumped a flare into center to send Infante to third, and after Prince Fielder was intentionally walked, Kelly lofted an 0-1 pitch to right, easily scoring the winner.

    Despite the back-and-forth nature of the game, there weren’t too many managerial moves to question. I’m not a fan of loading the bases since it forces the pitcher to throw strikes, but you can’t argue with putting on a hitter such as Fielder to pitch to Kelly. Fielder did ground into 17 double plays, but Balfour is a fly-ball pitcher and Kelly was hitting .186 (although his strikeout rate of 17 percent isn’t terrible). All things considered, you’re much more likely to get a strikeout there than a double play with Fielder.

    I did think Melvin missed a chance to get power-hitting Chris Carter in the game when Leyland brought in Coke to start the ninth to face Kottaras. Melvin instead pinch-hit his other catcher, Derek Norris, who struck out.

    Melvin also chose not to sacrifice bunt with Stephen Drew in the third inning after the first two batters reached. I didn’t have a problem with that. Even though the score was 0-0 at the time, Milone had been shaky, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the second, so Melvin was correct in thinking he should go for a big inning instead of one run. Drew struck out and the A’s scored just one run, as the Tigers ended the threat when rookie Avisail Garcia gunned down Crisp at home plate with a perfect throw from right field.

    So it's a huge win for the Tigers and a frustrating loss for the A’s. The one clear advantage Oakland had going into the series was the bullpen, and now the 'pen has a mark on the wrong side of the ledger. The A’s do head home, where they’ve won eight of nine, but even if they pull out the next two games, you know who is staring down at them for a possible Game 5: Justin Verlander.

    Why each team can win it all

    October, 4, 2012
    PM ET
    With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

    St. Louis Cardinals
    1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

    2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

    3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

    4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

    5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
    --Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

    Atlanta Braves
    The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

    On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

    If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
    --Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

    Cincinnati Reds
    Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

    1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

    2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

    3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

    4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

    5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
    --Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

    Washington Nationals
    1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

    2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

    3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

    4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

    5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
    --Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

    San Francisco Giants
    1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

    2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

    3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

    4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

    5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
    --David Schoenfield

    Baltimore Orioles
    1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

    2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

    3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

    4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

    5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
    --Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

    Texas Rangers
    1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

    2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

    3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

    4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

    5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
    --David Schoenfield

    Oakland Athletics
    1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

    2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

    3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

    4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

    5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
    --Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

    Detroit Tigers
    1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

    2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

    3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

    4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

    5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
    --Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

    New York Yankees
    1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

    2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

    3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

    4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

    5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
    --David Schoenfield