SweetSpot: Felix Hernandez
We don’t see these matchups as often you may expect, ace versus ace, best in the game versus best in the game. For the third time in their careers, Felix Hernandez faced Yu Darvish. The first two battles, both in 2012, went to King Felix: He allowed one run in eight innings and then pitched a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem, as Darvish struggled in both outings.
Let's follow along with a running diary of the Texas Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.
You certainly have to expect a low-scoring game. Darvish hasn’t allowed a run in his first two starts and faces a Seattle lineup that has been shut out in three of its past six games. Hernandez has allowed six runs in his three starts with an impressive 30-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
After a scoreless top of the inning, Hernandez takes the mound, top two buttons undone, pants legs down over the top of his shoelaces, his upper lip unshaven and a scraggly fluff of hair sprouting from his chin. Hernandez’s best weapon has been his changeup; batters are 2-for-27 against it with 18 strikeouts. It has been so good that he’s thrown it 28 percent of the time, up from 19 percent in 2013.
* * * *
Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal faced each other just four times, which seems odd to me. Marichal and Koufax were both starters from 1961 to 1966 and the Dodgers and Giants played each other 18 times a season back then, so you’d think they would have matched up more often. You’d maybe even expect the managers to purposely arrange their rotations for their aces to square off. Koufax pitched 26 times against the Giants over those six seasons and Marichal faced the Dodgers 30 times (remarkably, he never allowed more than four runs in those starts), so odds were they should have faced each other a few more times.
In the four games they did pitch against each other, Marichal didn’t even get an official plate appearance in two of them. Once, Koufax got knocked out in the first inning before Marichal hit. Another game -- the last time the two started against each other -- was Aug. 22, 1965, the infamous game when Marichal attacked Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro.
Koufax faced Bob Gibson five times, and they had some great duels. Twice, Koufax beat Gibson 1-0. He pitched a third shutout in another game.
Nick Franklin, just called up from Tacoma, lines a first-pitch cutter into right-center for a one-out triple. Darvish strikes out Justin Smoak on a 1-2 fastball out of the strike zone but then works carefully to Dustin Ackley, walking him to face the right-handed Mike Zunino. Darvish starts out with a 94-mph fastball that Zunino takes for a strike, but the 0-1 pitch is a hanging slider in the middle of the plate and Zunino lines a soft single to center. Right pitch, bad execution. Abraham Almonte then plates Ackley, lining a 1-1 fastball into left field to make it 2-0.
While Hernandez is sailing along through three innings (he started eight of the first nine batters with strikes), Darvish finds himself in a jam, thanks to some shaky defense. Justin Smoak singles past the statuesque Prince Fielder and then Zunino reaches when outfielders Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo miscommunicate on a fly ball. Almonte strikes out. Brad Miller gets ahead in the count 2-1, Darvish gets a gift call on a 2-1 curve that looks outside and then appears to strike out Miller on a good heater on the inside corner. But plate ump Ted Barrett calls it a ball to the displeasure of Darvish. The 3-2 pitch is a slider that Miller sends routinely to right field.
* * * *
Roger Clemens reached the majors in 1984, Randy Johnson in 1988. They were both in the American League through 1998 and in the National League in 2004, but they faced each other only twice, in 1992 and 1994. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez started just three times against each other, once in 1994 and twice in 1995, during Maddux’s apex. He tossed shutouts in two of those games.
According to research by RetroSheet researcher Tom Ruane, the two pitchers who faced off most often in their careers were Jim McCormick and Mickey Welch, who battled 40 times between 1880 and 1887. Since 1900, the most common matchup was between Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Three-Finger Brown, with 23. Brown’s Cubs beat Mathewson’s Giants 12 times to 11. Since World War II, it’s Warren Spahn and Bob Friend, with 21 games.
Two other Hall of Famers who pitched regularly against each other were Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, with 17 duels between 1970 and 1983. And duel they did. On Sept. 24, 1972 -- the year Carlton went 27-10 with an awful Phillies team -- Seaver beat Carlton 2-1, the game decided in the eighth on an unearned run. On Opening Day 1973, Seaver won 3-0 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. On Opening Day 1975, Seaver beat him 2-1, the winning scoring in the bottom of the ninth. In September of 1976, Seaver won 1-0 with a four-hit shutout.
If you’re getting the idea that Seaver had Carlton’s number, it’s kind of true. Or he had the Phillies’ number. The first nine times they faced each other, Seaver went 8-0 with a no-decision. Carlton always pitched well, but Seaver seemed to bring his best stuff. Carlton did finally beat him three times, but overall Seaver went 11-3 with a 2.74 ERA while Carlton went 3-12 with a 2.77 ERA (Seaver had two blow-up starts that raised his ERA). The last time they met was Opening Day 1983. Seaver had returned to the Mets after his exile to Cincinnati, where he had gone 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA in 1982. But the game was at Shea Stadium. Of course Seaver had to start. He tossed six scoreless innings. The Mets won 2-0.
Darvish has settled down after some early issues with baserunners but he also ran up his pitch count. Meanwhile, the King is dealing, with eight strikeouts and three hits through six. While Darvish has thrown 98 pitches through six, Felix is at 79 (55 for strikes).
If you want a good lesson on what makes Hernandez so good -- and especially so good early on this year -- is that he can throw all four of his pitches on any count. So what has Hernandez done Wednesday night? All eight of his strikeouts have come on fastballs, at least according to MLB.com -- five four-seamers and three two-seamers. The guy is amazing.
(The MLB GameDay system I’m checking could be misidentifying some of his changeups as two-seam sinkers -- you know, because who else throws a changeup that’s only a couple miles per hour slower than his fastball. Readers on Twitter say several of the strikeouts were changeups, which is probably the case. We'll see what the data says after the game.)
In what’s probably his final inning, Darvish cruises with a 1-2-3 frame, including his eighth strikeout. Solid effort for Darvish on a night he didn’t appear to have his A stuff. The one pitch he’d like to have back was that slider to Zunino.
Hernandez racks up his ninth strikeout, getting Kevin Kouzmanoff on another fastball, although at 88 mph it may have been another changeup.
Darvish is done, and so is Hernandez after giving up a leadoff triple to Martin. I’m a little surprised at the hook since Hernandez is only at 96 pitches and has kept the Rangers off-balance all night. Felix did not look too happy when Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon took the ball from him, that’s for sure. You know this is the kind of game he at least wants to get the ball into the hands of closer Fernando Rodney.
The Rangers score a run on a sacrifice fly but Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina escape without further damage.
* * * *
In 1959, Lew Burdette and Robin Roberts faced off seven times, the last time two pitchers started that many times against each other in one season. Only one of them was much of a deal, Roberts winning 2-1 on July 4 as he scattered eight hits in a complete game. Another fun piece of data from Tom Ruane: Babe Ruth faced Walter Johnson five times in 1916. There were just 18 runs scored in those five games. How would you like to find a time machine and go watch one those matchups?
Stop reading, Mariners fans. Rodney on for the save. Two quick outs. Kouzmanoff with a grounder to Miller's left that he dives for but can't corral it. He was shaded way in the hole and had a long ways to go, so it was not an easy play. Rodney falls behind Mitch Moreland with two balls, sending McClendon out to the mound (probably telling him to be careful with Moreland since light-hitting Josh Wilson is on deck). Moreland walks on a 3-2 pitch. Donnie Murphy bats for Wilson and hits a routine grounder right to Miller, who tosses the ball high to Robinson Cano at second base, pulling him off the bag. Everybody safe. Wild pitch. Game tied. Martin with a soft single to left. Game over.
What can I say? In what should have been a final sentence exclaiming the brilliance of Felix Hernandez we're instead left saying poor Felix.
We have a good one tonight: Felix Hernandez versus Yu Darvish in Texas. With that matchup in mind, Eric and myself discuss the pitching matchups we'd most like to see.
Hernandez and Darvish have met just twice, both in 2012, and King Felix dominated both times. On May 21, he allowed one run in eight innings while Darvish exited early after walking six batters in four innings. On July 14, Hernandez shut out the Rangers 7-0 with a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance. That's the second-highest Game Score of Hernandez's career, behind only his perfect game against Tampa Bay later that season.
Considering the way both pitchers are going right now -- Hernandez has allowed six runs in three starts and owns a 30-2 strikeout/walk ratio and Darvish hasn't allowed a run in two starts -- and the fact that the Mariners have been shut out three times in their past six games and the Rangers have scored one run in three of their past five, we should expect a low-scoring game.
Which means, of course, we'll probably have an 8-7 final.
In the case of Jose Fernandez, the stuff is always premium, with a fastball that touches the upper 90s when he pumps it up, a slider that makes right-handed batters weep in torment and a sharp curveball that he’s not afraid to throw on any count. He’ll even drop in an occasional changeup, just to turn batters' brains to mush worrying about a fourth pitch.
But his pitch to Seth Smith shows why Fernandez is a pitcher who relies on more than just stuff. The 21-year-old knows how to pitch. He usually throws a four-seam fastball, but against Smith he threw a first-pitch, 89 mph sinker that Smith pounded into the ground for a 4-6-3 double play.
That was pretty much it for the Padres. Fernandez regrouped, found his command and threw seven pitches in the fourth, 10 in the fifth and 14 in the sixth, allowing him to pitch into the seventh inning. He left with two outs in the seventh, after striking out Alexi Amarista (who reached when the curveball got away from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Fernandez’s final line in the Marlins’ 4-0 victory looked like another dominating gem: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 SO. But this is one of those games in which an ace overcame a shaky beginning.
Through two starts now, Fernandez has allowed one run and eight hits in 12.2 innings with 17 strikeouts. Going back to last season, he’s allowed more two runs just twice in 20 starts, and those two times he allowed three runs.
Fernandez, who weighed as much as 260 pounds in high school (perhaps a reason he fell to the 14th pick in 2011), spent the offseason biking as much as 600 miles per week on his $9,000 Specialized S-Works Venge bike. Listed at 240 pounds as a rookie, Fernandez is now a svelte but still powerful 220 pounds. He’s poised, confident, in terrific shape and developing the mind of an ace to go with his all-world right arm. Two starts in and he looks like a guy who will be the best pitcher in baseball in 2014.
* * * *
Stephen Strasburg is still trying to find the consistency that Fernandez seems to have found. He struck out 10 batters in six innings on Opening Day but still gave up four runs, as three of the five hits he allowed to the Mets came in the first inning, including a three-run homer.
Freddie Freeman walked, Strasburg gave up two soft liners and a ground single to load the bases. He started Dan Uggla with a curveball in the dirt and then came back with another curve that Uggla grounded sharply into left field for a two-run single. Bryce Harper’s throwing error allowed the runners to move up to second and third for Ryan Doumit.
Strasburg is a strikeout pitcher and needed one here, with the Nationals down 4-2. Against the switch-hitting Doumit, he fired six fastballs in a row -- ball, called strike, foul, ball, ball, foul. It was a curious pitch selection, especially after he got the count to 1-2, because against left-handed batters in 2013, Strasburg’s fastball wasn’t a great strikeout pitch. In 223 plate appearances against lefties ending in fastballs, he struck out just 23 batters (and walked 28). Of 416 swings on his fastball by lefties, just 56 were missed. So Doumit hung in there. Strasburg did finally come in with a 3-2 curveball, but Doumit looked like he was sitting on it and lined it over a drawn-in infield for an RBI single. The sixth run came on a sac fly after Strasburg had been yanked.
In comparing Fernandez to Strasburg, the big difference comes with runners on base. Last year, Strasburg allowed a .184 average with the bases empty compared to .245 with men on. Fernandez was .176 with the bases empty and .191 with runners on.
Saturday night's games showcased that difference. Fernandez got out of his jam and settled down; Strasburg didn't. If the two entered the season regarded essentially as equals as Cy Young contenders, it's Fernandez's poise and pitchability that right now makes him the better ace.
* * * *
Felix Hernandez once had a fastball that matched Fernandez and Strasburg. But those days are in the past. He's now a wily veteran who turns 28 on Tuesday (can he really be that old already?) and his fastest pitch against the A's on Saturday was clocked at 92.3 mph. But Hernandez spots that fastball, usually on the black, and backs it up with one of the most devastating pitches in the game, a hard changeup that comes in at the knees and seems to take a 90-degree turn straight down at the last split-second.
Hernandez threw 23 changeups against the A's with an average velocity of 88.6 mph, not that much slower than his fastball, which makes it doubly tough for hitters to pick up. The A's did nothing against it: 15 swings, five misses, eight foul balls, one ground ball out and one fly ball out. The effectiveness of that fastball/changeup combo can be seen in the two jams Hernandez worked through.
In the fourth inning, the game still 0-0, Jed Lowrie singled with two outs and Brandon Moss doubled on a pop fly that shortstop Brad Miller lost in the sun. That brought up Yoenis Cespedes. Hernandez went 89 mph fastball right on the outsider corner, a slider off the plate that Cespedes missed, then another fastball right at the knees that Cespedes, perhaps looking for that changeup, swung through. In the sixth, Coco Crisp tripled with one out, bringing up Josh Donaldson. Slider for a strike, a foul tip on a changeup, a 92 mph fastball inside. With the count 1-2, Donaldson probably expected the changeup -- he had struck out earlier in the game on one. He got one that fell off a table. Swing and a miss, Donaldson nearly screwing himself into the ground. Hernandez then got Lowrie to pop up -- changeup, curveball.
Hernandez lost his shutout on Lowrie's home run in the ninth, but this game exemplified the King at his best: four pitches that he'll throw on any count, with precision and a plan and deception. It's a beautiful thing.
So you think you want to be an official scorer? Better try this story on for size first.
Take a deep breath. This gets complicated.
In the top of the fourth, Toronto’s Adam Lind led off and reached first base safely on third baseman Kyle Seager's error. Colby Rasmus then followed with a ground ball to second that hit Lind. Under major league rules, Lind was called out and Rasmus was awarded a base hit.
Brett Lawrie then hit a grounder between third and short that shortstop Brad Miller backhanded. Miller tried to force Rasmus at second but the throw went into right field, with Rasmus advancing to third. Determining that the throw would not have beat Rasmus anyway (or Lawrie at first), official scorer Eric Radovich ruled it a hit and an error on Miller that allowed Rasmus to advance to third.
Still with me? OK. Let’s move on.
Lawrie then stole second to put runners at second and third. After Josh Thole struck out, Emilio Bonifacio doubled home Rasmus and Lawrie. Jose Reyes then singled home Bonifacio. Reyes was thrown out trying to steal to end the inning.
Don’t relax yet. This is where the fun starts.
Based on rules that determined there should have been three outs before any runs scored, Radovich counted all three runs as unearned. Lind's leadoff grounder/error should have been out one. Thus, the out on Rasmus' grounder would have been out two. And Thole’s strikeout would have ended the inning. Three outs before a run scored, so no runs are earned.
That’s the way it was scored and that’s the way it stood.
For two weeks.
The Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician for Major League Baseball, saw the scoring differently. Because Rasmus was awarded a hit, Elias said the play could not be counted as what should have been the second out of the inning, and so put the original scoring decision under review. Radovich understands the point of view, but says, “The rulebook is not definitive on how to score these runs in regards to a base runner being hit by a batted ball, as the batter is credited with a hit by rule, although there is also an out made on the play.”
After some debate over how the runs should be scored, Joe Torre -- MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations -- made the ruling roughly two weeks after the actual play. Torre decided the runs should be earned, thereby raising Hernandez's ERA though the Aug. 6 game from 2.39 (which is where it was after Radovich's initial decision) to 2.55.
But wait. We’re not done.
After the runs were ruled earned, the club informed Hernandez that he could appeal the original scoring decision that Miller's throw to second base, if it had been on target, wouldn't have beaten Rasmus for the out. Hernandez did appeal, and we're still awaiting a verdict. If it is ruled that a good throw would have beaten Rasmus and thus the play was an error all the way, the runs would become unearned again.
And you thought scoring was easy.
There are probably more than you realize. Pujols, of course, is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, even factoring in the somewhat disappointing results of his first two seasons with the Angels. With three MVP Awards, 492 home runs, 1,491 RBIs, a .321 average and a career WAR of 92.9 (27th all time among position players) his legacy is ensured, even if his Angels career never lives up to the expectations of his contract.
Based on historical trends, I estimate about 40 current players are future Hall of Famers -- possibly more, although Hall of Fame standards have been growing tougher in recent years, both by the Baseball Writers Association, which pitched a shutout this year, and the Veterans Committee, which has voted in just one post-1950 player since 2001. The steroids era fallout is also affecting voting results.
Anyway, if we look back at 10-year increments we can see how many Hall of Famers were active that season:
1953: 28 players
1963: 36 players
1973: 37 players
1983: 34 players
1993: 19 players
There are fewer players in 1953 because there were fewer teams, just 16 compared to 30 now. Compared to 1983, when there were 26 teams, 1953 still has a higher percentage of players inducted (1.75 per team versus 1.30). Still, 1983 already has 34 players who active that season already in the Hall of Fame, plus potential enshrinees like Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith, Dale Murphy, Lou Whitaker, Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons and others (some of whom are off the BBWAA ballot but could be Veterans Committee selections).
OK, to our little list. Here are 40 active players who will be Hall of Famers -- listed in order of most likely to make it. We're at a moment when there are very few sure-thing Hall of Famers -- I count only five -- so the list thus involves a lot speculation. I considered only players who have played in the majors this year, so no Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez or Scott Rolen.
1. Derek Jeter: Would anyone find reason not to vote for Jeter? Well, he did date Mariah Carey. Jeter may seem like a lock as a unanimous selection, but keep in mind that eight voters somehow found reason not to vote for Cal Ripken Jr.
2. Mariano Rivera: No matter what you think of closers, Rivera will be a slam-dunk selection, with his "greatest closer ever" label, World Series rings, universal respect among opponents and writers, and 0.70 postseason ERA in 141 innings. While writers have generally become very generous to relievers -- Dennis Eckersley made it in his first year on the ballot -- I suspect a few won't vote for Rivera out of an anti-reliever stand.
3. Albert Pujols: If his career continues to peter out, that more recent perception may cast a shadow over his dominant run from 2001 to 2010, when he averaged 8.1 WAR per season. Many Hall of Famers never achieved that in one season.
4. Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera is now in his age-30 season, with 53.2 WAR. Through age 30, Pujols had 81.1 WAR. That's how good Pujols was -- nearly 30 wins better than a sure Hall of Famer who arrived in the majors at a younger age. Much of that advantage comes on defense and the basepaths, but Baseball-Reference estimates Pujols created 590 runs more than the average batter through 30, with Cabrera at 447 (and counting).
5. Ichiro Suzuki: He may not get to 3,000 hits in the majors -- he's at 2,706 after Sunday's four-hit game -- but with 1,278 hits in Japan, voters should factor that he didn't arrive in Seattle until he was 27. With his all-around brilliance, he should sail in on the first ballot.
6. Robinson Cano: He has done a lot of things MVP voters like -- hit for average, drive in runs, win a World Series -- and done it with exceptional durability. He's already at 42.4 WAR and needs three to four more peak seasons to ensure lock status, but he's just 30 and still at the top of his game. Considering his durability and age, 3,000 hits isn't out of the question either.
7. Clayton Kershaw: Obviously, he could get hurt, and a lot of pitchers who were dominant through age 25 couldn't carry that success into their 30s. But Kershaw has been handled carefully, is on his way to a third straight ERA title and second Cy Young Award. He's the Koufax of this decade minus the World Series heroics. But maybe he'll get that shot this year.
8. Felix Hernandez: He's 27 and has won 109 games, despite playing for some of the worst offenses in the history of the game. He has earned 38.8 WAR, which puts him about halfway to Hall of Fame lock status. As with Kershaw, barring injury he'll get there.
9. Roy Halladay: He leads all active pitchers with 65.6 WAR, a total higher than Hall of Famers Bob Feller (65.2), Eckersley (62.5), Juan Marichal (61.9), Don Drysdale (61.2) and Whitey Ford (53.2), to name a few. But what if he never pitches again? Is he in? He has 201 wins and voters still fixate on wins for pitchers. To Halladay's advantage is the general consensus that he was the best pitcher in baseball at his peak, his two Cy Young Awards and two runner-up finishes, three 20-win seasons and the second no-hitter in postseason history.
10. Adrian Beltre: Voters have never been kind to the good-glove third basemen -- excepting Brooks Robinson -- so I may be overrating Beltre's chances. But he also has the chance to reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. If he gets to those milestones, that combined with his defensive reputation should get him in.
11. CC Sabathia: He has 200 wins and looked like a possible 300-game winner entering this season, but that 4.65 ERA has everyone wondering how much he has left in the tank at age 33.
12. David Wright: Similar in a lot of ways to Cano -- same age, similar career WAR (Wright is actually a little higher at 45.9) -- so if he plays well into his 30s like Beltre has, he'll get in. But a lot of players have looked like Hall of Famers at 30.
13. Justin Verlander: He still has a lot of work to do, with 134 career wins and just two seasons with an ERA under 3.00.
14. Carlos Beltran: I suspect he'll have a long, slow trek to Hall of Fame status, as his all-around game may be difficult for voters to properly assess. His having just two top-10 MVP finishes will work against him, but he has eight 100-RBI seasons, should reach 400 home runs, is one of the great percentage basestealers of all time and should reach 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBIs.
15. Mike Trout: Well, of course this is premature; he's only 21. He could be Willie Mays, he could be Cesar Cedeno. I'm betting on Mays.
16. Evan Longoria" Beloved in sabermetric circles, he could use that one monster MVP season to create more of a Hall of Fame aura around him.
17. Joey Votto: Will voters appreciate the on-base percentage in 20 years?
18. Joe Mauer: Like Votto, Mauer has an MVP award that helps his case; any time you can argue "he was the best player in the game" about a guy, his candidacy shoots up in the minds of voters. He's not going to end up with the big home run and RBI totals but his .323 career average, .405 OBP and solid defense (three Gold Gloves) will garner support. He has to stay healthy and probably needs to stay behind the plate a few more years.
19. Andy Pettitte: See Jack Morris. Probably a slow crawl on the BBWAA ballot, perhaps hurt by admitting he tried PEDs (although he seems to have escaped the stain), with eventual election by the Veterans Committee. With 252 wins, five World Series rings and 19 postseason wins, it's difficult to ignore his fame and constant presence in October.
20. Bryce Harper: Most home runs before turning 21: Mel Ott 61, Tony Conigliaro 56, Ken Griffey Jr. 38, Harper 37, Mickey Mantle 36, Frank Robinson 34.
21. Buster Posey: Yadier Molina may be the most valuable catcher right now, but Posey is the better Hall of Fame candidate.
22. David Price: Pitchers become Hall of Famers in their 30s, not their 20s, but Price is already 66-36 with a Cy Young award.
23. Dustin Pedroia: I'm a little skeptical how he'll age into 30s, but Pedroia seems like the kind of player voters would love to put in if he becomes a borderline candidate. He does have an MVP award and recognition for his all-around play, but since he's not a big home run or RBI guy, he'll have to remain durability and approach 3,000 career hits.
24. Manny Machado: He's in a big slump right now but we have to remember he's still just 20 years old. But few players have shown this kind of ability at his age and his defense -- Jim Palmer said recently he makes plays at third base that Brooks Robinson could not have made -- is already Hall-of-Fame caliber.
25. Todd Helton: We can just about close the book on him. The .318/.417/.541 career line is impressive, although voters will have to adjust for Coors Field. The 361 home runs and 1,378 RBIs are short of Hall of Fame standards for recent first base inductees. Considering Larry Walker's poor support so far, Helton will probably have to get in through the back door.
26. Andrew McCutchen: How about an MVP Award for 2013?
27. Giancarlo Stanton: Injuries are an issue, but I'm still betting on him (or Harper) to be the premier power hitter of his generation.
28. Troy Tulowitzki: He has to stay healthy, of course, but he has 30.5 WAR so far, in his age-28 season. Jeter had 36.8 and Ripken 50.1 through age 28, but you don't have to be Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken to make the Hall of Fame. Recent inductee Barry Larkin had 30.9 WAR through age 28 and only played 140 games three seasons after that (although did play until he was 40).
29. Miguel Tejada: Tough one here. He has the PED rumors, but he also has six 100-RBI seasons as a shortstop, an MVP award, more than 300 home runs and he will top 2,400 hits. Perhaps a Veterans Committee choice?
30. Prince Fielder: He hasn't hit 40 home runs since 2009 and is going through the worst season of his career. Still, he's just 29 and has 277 home runs and 838 RBIs. He has been the most durable player in the game since his rookie season, but his body type certainly raises questions about how he'll do as he gets into his mid-30s. If he does remain healthy and reaches some of the big milestones he's going to be a Morris-like controversial candidate, because his career WAR (currently 22.4) isn't going to reach Hall of Fame standards.
31. Madison Bumgarner: He turns 24 on Aug. 1 and already has 46 career wins, two World Series rings and is in the midst of his best season. Check back in 10 years.
32. Yasiel Puig: Is he not in already?
33. Andrelton Simmons: We're starting to get into the area of crazy projections. Hey, a lot of Hall of Famers didn't look like Hall of Famers their first few seasons in the league. Anyway, the Braves have four young players you could reasonably project long-shot HOF status onto -- Simmons, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. I like Simmons; he'll have to have an Omar Vizquel-type career with most of his value coming from his glove, but what a glove it is.
34. Chase Utley: He basically has no chance to get in via the BBWAA because his career counting totals will be well short of Hall standards. His five-year peak from 2005 to 2009 was among the best ever for a second baseman -- in fact, since 1950, from ages 26 to 30, the only players with a higher WAR were seven guys named Mays, Pujols, Yastrzemski, Aaron, Bonds, Boggs and Schmidt. If he can stay healthy for a few more years -- a bit of a dubious proposition -- he enters Veterans Committee territory.
35. Jose Fernandez: This could be Chris Sale or Stephen Strasburg or some other hotshot young pitcher.
36. Tim Hudson: I believe pitching standards will have to change, as the idea that you need 300 wins eventually subsides in this day where starters just don't as many decisions as they once did. Hudson is out for the year after breaking his ankle and, at the age of 38, you have to worry about his future. But he does have 205 wins and one of the best winning percentages of all time at .649. He sounds like a Veterans Committee choice in 2044.
37. Nick Franklin: The point isn't that I think Franklin is a Hall of Fame player, but that somebody like Franklin will turn into a Hall of Famer. It could BE Franklin, it could be Wil Myers, it could be Marcell Ozuna, it could be Jurickson Profar. As for Franklin, he has reached the majors at 22, has flashed power (10 home runs and 12 doubles in 52 games) and shown a good approach at the plate. You never know.
38. September call-up to be named: Xander Bogaerts? Oscar Taveras? Miguel Sano?
39. David Ortiz: There's no denying the fame and the peak value -- he finished in the top five in MVP voting five consecutive seasons -- but he has several strikes against him, notably the PED allegations (Ortiz was mentioned in the Mitchell report) and the fact that he may not be the best DH eligible (that would be Edgar Martinez, with a career WAR of 68.3 to Ortiz's 42.7). Papi is at 420 home runs; if he gets to 500 (round number!), his chances go up, but like all the guys tied to steroids, he'll be a controversial candidate.
40. Alex Rodriguez: He hasn't actually suited up in the majors yet this season, but let's assume he does to be eligible for this list. I also assume, at some point in the future -- 20 years? 25 years? 75 years? -- the moral outrage against the steroids users eventually subsides. Maybe, like Deacon White, A-Rod makes it some 130 years after he plays his final game.
The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?
But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?
Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.
Got all that?
The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.
My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:
Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.
Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).
Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.
Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.
How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.
Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.
Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.
Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.
Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.
Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?
Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?
In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.
Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.
In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)
Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).
And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.
- Down 7-0 to Felix Hernandez, the Angels pulled off the comeback of the season to win 10-9. Needless to say, this kind of thing doesn't happen every day. Hernandez had been given a seven-run lead 17 previous times in his career and never lost. It was just the sixth time in Angels franchise history that they trailed by seven runs and won. Hernandez had never allowed seven hits in an inning before and the Angels got seven in a row against him in the fifth. Baseball is amazing sometimes. One game won't turn around the Angels' season, but if they go on a run we can all point to this game. Trouble is, 12 of their next 15 games are against the Pirates, Tigers, Cardinals and Red Sox. We'll know after that 15 games if the Angels are still breathing ... or dead.
- As for the Mariners, they're only four games ahead of the Astros and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them finish in last place. According to Defensive Runs Saved, they've been the second-worst defensive team in the league (minus-42 runs, better only than the Angels). Their offense, once again, is last in the league in runs per game. The bullpen has the second-worst ERA in the league (just head of Houston). It's a bad team, a bad product for Mariners fan to have to watch.
- Speaking of the Astros, Carlos Pena launched this long home run to give the Astros a 7-4 win over the Brewers in 10 innings.
- Watched some of Roy Oswalt's debut for the Rockies, and it was a strange outing. He obviouslyy showed he has something left in his right arm, striking out 11 (and walking nobody) in just five innings, often just blowing it by the Nationals. He touched 94 with his fastball, which he threw on 80 of his 101 pitches, recording 10 of his 11 strikeouts. But he also gave up nine hits and the Nats won 5-1. Here's Oswalt on his performance. Overall, I think he'll help if his health holds up; could end up being one of those great sleeper pickups.
- Yasiel Puig continues to amaze in many ways -- he hit his sixth home run in a 6-3 loss the Padres but also struck out three times while going 1-for-5. He's yet to draw an unintentional walk in 16 games but is hitting .452. The scary thing about his hot start is he's doing this on talent alone. While he's not a wild hacker up there as you may think from the lack of walks, discipline is clearly not yet one of his strengths. If he develops that aspect of his game -- and there's no guarantee he will -- watch out. Puig is 12-for-14 when putting the first pitch in play (including four home runs, most in the majors since his recall). You'd think pitchers would stop challenging him on the first pitch. By the way: Let's put him in the Home Run Derby. Get it done, MLB.
- Catch of the day: Twins ball boy snags a foul ball with a leaping grab. Even cooler: He's Paul Neshek, younger brother of A's reliever Pat Neshek, who had a couple tweets about the play:
No fricken way...my brother Paul is on ESPN for play of the night, holy cow what a catch, check it out. http://t.co/rlJthPEnml— Pat Neshek (@PatNeshek) June 20, 2013
My brother makes ESPN's Top Plays & is now signing autographs...seriously check out this video at the 2:30 mark http://t.co/MWCGgOqONM— Pat Neshek (@PatNeshek) June 21, 2013
Last week, we went over the early contenders for the National League Cy Young Award. We still have a lot of season left, but there have been a few pitchers who have already separated themselves from the pack in the American League. Shockingly, only two players who received votes in last year's AL Cy Young balloting made the top five on my list through two and a half months. In fact, none of last year's top three -- David Price, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver -- made it.
Hisashi Iwakuma (7-1, 1.79 ERA, 95.1 IP, 64 H, 87 SO, 14 BB)
Iwakuma nudges out Clay Buchholz for No. 1 on my list for two reasons: He has made two more starts (and tossed 11 more innings) and has better defense-independent numbers, which make him a slightly better candidate going forward. Iwakuma has the second-best ERA at 1.79 and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio at 6.21. He is one of five starters across baseball with a walk rate below 4 percent. The only question with Iwakuma is if he can maintain a low BABIP, as he's currently at .222. As most pitchers tend to hover around .290 to .300, Iwakuma would have to have some abnormal batted-ball ability (such as Matt Cain’s ability to generate infield pop-ups) or play behind an elite defense to maintain it.
Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA, 84.1 IP, 57 H, 29 BB, 81 SO)
Buchholz is a perfect 9-0 and has baseball's best ERA at 1.71. By traditional measures, he's the no-brainer favorite right now, but we will dig a bit deeper. The one factor that has led to Buchholz's success most has been his ability to limit home runs. Over his career, one out of every 10 fly balls Buchholz allowed has left the yard, a normal rate. This year, though, it is only 3 percent despite inducing fly balls at the same rate. Last season, Gio Gonzalez had the lowest HR/FB rate among all starters at 5.8 percent.
Buchholz also has walked batters at more than twice the rate of Iwakuma, 9 percent to 4 percent. Both strike out hitters at the same rate, so Buchholz, simply, is allowing more baserunners. He is clearly a much better pitcher than he has been in the past (he increased his strikeout rate by about 50 percent), but he is just a shade behind Iwakuma thus far.
Anibal Sanchez (6-5, 2.65 ERA, 78 IP, 66 H, 19 BB, 98 SO)
Only two pitchers in baseball have tossed at least two games with a game score of 88 or better: NL Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright (89, 91) and Sanchez (88, 94). Sanchez's first was a 17-strikeout outing against the Braves on April 26, a start that officially put him on the map. The second was a no-hit bid May 24 against the Twins, broken up by Joe Mauer's one-out single up the middle in the ninth inning.
Sanchez, acquired by the Tigers last July from the Marlins and then re-signed as a free agent in the offseason, is a markedly better pitcher now, at the age of 29. His strikeout rate is a terrific 31 percent, the second-best rate among all starters. His previous career-high was 24 percent. He is also walking 6 percent of hitters faced, 2 percent below his career average. Like Buchholz, he has limited home runs at 5 percent of fly balls. Even if that rate regresses back to the mean, though, Sanchez should still be among the league leaders in ERA, which should pull in some of the more traditional-minded voters.
Yu Darvish (7-2, 2.64 ERA, 95.1 IP, 61 H, 29 BB, 127 SO)
Darvish is the only pitcher this year to have at least five starts with at least 10 strikeouts. To say he has been impressive would be an understatement. Darvish has made improvements in his defense-independent metrics, increasing his strikeout rate over last year by 7 percent and cutting his walk rate by 3 percent.
Perhaps most stunning, he is on pace to strike out 267 batters over 200 innings. If he gets there, it would be the most strikeouts since Verlander's 269 in 2009, and he would be one of only four pitchers (Verlander, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia) to cross the 250-strikeout barrier since 2005. Strikeouts have been on the rise since 2005 (6.3 per game to 7.6), but innings pitched by starters have been on the decline. Darvish's array of pitches has turned him into the game's premier strikeout pitcher.
Compared to the other candidates, Darvish has actually been hurt by home runs, allowing nine in 88 innings. Despite that, he still has a 2.75 ERA, which ranks sixth in the AL.
Felix Hernandez (7-4, 2.49 ERA, 97.2 IP, 83 H, 19 BB, 102 SO)
We are looking at arguably the best King Felix we have seen to date. His 2.49 ERA ranks third in the AL, but he has bumped his strikeout rate to a career-high (27 percent) and his walk rate to a career-low (5 percent), giving him the third-best K/BB in the league, behind teammate Iwakuma and Doug Fister. Hernandez has done all of this while eating a ton of innings -- his 97.2 innings pitched is second-best in the league behind James Shields' 100. Hernandez had tossed at least 230 innings in each of the previous four seasons, so this is nothing new for him.
That Hernandez is only No. 5 on this list and that he may not be the favorite going forward should not diminish the tremendous improvement in his effectiveness this year. At just 27 years old, he will have plenty more opportunities to add a second Cy Young Award to his mantle as he stakes his claim as one of his generation's best arms.
Bill Baer writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
1. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
This may surprise you, but Hernandez and Iwakuma have the highest WAR (wins above replacement) of any pair of pitchers in the majors. And before we write off Iwakuma's outstanding start to the season as a fluke, here are the American League ERA leaders going back to last July 1, when Iwakuma joined the Mariners' rotation:
Justin Verlander: 2.77
James Shields: 2.86
Hiroki Kuroda: 2.97
So the M's have Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball, a guy who has pitched 230-plus innings the past four seasons and who has been as effective as any starter in the game for nearly a year. And they have Iwakuma, who will give up some home runs, but he's walked only 11 batters in 10 starts and his splitter has turned into a wipeout pitch -- batters are hitting .184 off it with one home run, 35 strikeouts and two walks in 79 plate appearances ending with the pitch. If the Mariners fall out of the wild-card race, maybe they'll look to trade Iwakuma while his stock is high, but I fear that would be a mistake and they would be making a Doug Fister-like trade that backfires. Iwakuma is for real.
2. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, Tigers
The Tigers' rotation is so good that you could also slot Fister or Max Scherzer here and have an equally terrific duo. I still like Scherzer as the club's No. 2 as the season progresses, but Sanchez has been terrific so far and has ramped up his strikeout rate to new highs, up more than 9 percent from last season (68 in 55.1 innings). His ERA is 2.77, and while his home run rate is probably unsustainable (just two allowed), his BABIP is too high on the other end at .356. Moving forward, those two results should cancel each other out as they normalize and Sanchez should remain outstanding.
3. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game right now -- he's gone 22 consecutive starts allowing three earned runs or fewer, the longest such streak since Pedro Martinez had 23 in 1999-2000 -- and Greinke would be the ace of many teams. Now that Greinke is back from his broken collarbone, we'll see if everyone has written off the Dodgers too quickly.
4. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Somehow, Kuroda still flies under the radar despite playing in New York. He's not flashy, but batters are hitting .201 AVG/.254 OBP/.292 SLG against him. There's some luck going on here since his .229 BABIP will probably rise, but his slider has been untouchable: opponents are 8-for-61 (.131) against it without an extra-base hit. Meanwhile, Sabathia has lost some velocity off his fastball, but he pitches down in the zone more, throws strikes and keeps the Yankees in games. Since his pitch counts have run high at times he's averaging only 6.5 innings per start, so maybe his days as a 230-inning workhorse are over (he missed a few starts last year, remember, and pitched just 200 innings). Remember as well that these guys have to pitch half their games at Yankee Stadium, where routine fly balls can land in the right-field stands.
Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Yes, young guns Shelby Miller and Matt Harvey have seemingly pushed Strasburg out of the limelight, but he's still pretty good and still throws hard (best average fastball velocity among starting pitchers). Nonetheless, he's been surpassed by Zimmermann as the club's ace. Zimmerman doesn't rack up the huge strikeout totals so the advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP suggest his ERA will rise (well, it will, since it's at 1.62 right now). But he throws strikes with Maddux-like precision (nine walks in nine starts) and while there were concerns heading into the season about his ability to go deep into games, his efficiency has allowed him to toss three complete games without throwing more than 107 pitches. He's 7-2 and could be 9-0 -- in the two games he lost, he allowed two runs.
That's my top five, and I couldn't find room for Adam Wainwright and Miller, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Chris Sale and Jake Peavy, Matt Moore and David Price, Matt Harvey and anybody. It's a pitcher's game right now, that's for sure.
So, since 1969 and the divisional era, here are the pitchers who accumulated the most WAR but never started a playoff game:
1. Ferguson Jenkins (67.7 WAR, 16th overall)
His career WAR is actually higher, but we're only counting WAR earned from 1969 and beyond. Anyway, Jenkins played for the Cubs, Rangers and Red Sox and had 284 career wins. Those late 1960s/early 1970s Cubs teams have four Hall of Famers -- Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo -- and had some other good players (Bill Hands, Ken Holtzman, Milt Pappas) but never reached the postseason.
2. Mariano Rivera (54.9 WAR, 30th overall)
Well, he hasn't started a postseason game ...
3. Mark Langston (50.2 WAR, 41st overall)
Very underrated pitcher in the '80s and '90s, spending most of his career with the bad Mariners and mediocre Angels. From 1986 to 1993 he averaged 247 innings per season. Did pitch in relief for the Padres in the 1998 postseason.
4. Wilbur Wood (45.9 WAR, 47th overall)
Had 11.7 and 10.7 WAR in in 1971 and 1972 when he pitched 334 and then 376 innings for the White Sox.
5. Goose Gossage (41.9 WAR, 57th overall)
See Rivera. Pitched in four postseasons, including three World Series.
6. Danny Darwin (40.6 WAR, 48th overall)
Won 171 games and an ERA title, but never pitched in the postseason although he played for eight different franchises. He was on the '86 Astros, who made the playoffs, and went 5-2, 2.32 ERA, after they acquired him from Milwaukee, but was injured and missed the playoffs. Also pitched for the '97 Giants, who made the playoffs, but didn't appear in the postseason.
7. Charlie Hough (39.3 WAR, 61st overall)
Pitched in relief for the Dodgers in three World Series, but spent the bulk of his rotation days with the playoff-less Rangers.
8. Felix Hernandez (36.3 WAR, 71st overall)
And now we get to Hernandez, the active leader among starting pitchers in this dubious category. Is he destined to become the Fergie Jenkins of his generation?
The Seattle Mariners are in that frustrating purgatory of baseball existence: Not good enough to contend, not bad enough to formulate a rebuilding strategy that makes sense.
Where are they? What is the master plan? Is there life after Felix?
There wasn't Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, when Felix Hernandez dueled CC Sabathia in a battle of aces. Hernandez outpitched Sabathia, but a collision at first base in the fifth inning might have shaken him up a bit. He labored through the sixth, allowing his only run and leaving after 97 pitches with a 3-1 lead.
The Mariners bullpen, stellar for most of the season, couldn't hold the lead; the Yankees received some good luck from the baseball gods and then Mariano Rivera closed out the 4-3 victory. The Mariners can cry about the 3-2 pitch to Brett Gardner in the seventh that looked like strike three, or moan about Justin Smoak's liner in the eighth with two on that doubled Dustin Ackley off second base. But they also failed to capitalize on 10 hits off Sabathia, and Michael Saunders couldn't get a bunt down in the eighth. These are the games that good teams pull out and mediocre teams don't pull out often enough.
But ... where are they? That's harder to peg. They're not the Astros or Cubs. They're kind of in that Pirates/Royals territory of maybe if everything breaks right, except those two clubs are playing better right now. Their offseason moves -- signing veterans Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay and trading for Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales -- suggested a "win now" strategy. Those guys are short-term investments, with Ibanez and Bay simply one-year placeholders and part-time players, and Morse and Morales both free agents after the season.
Essentially, those guys were just roster filler anyway, and for all the angst among Mariners fans over Ibanez or Bay stealing a job from Casper Wells, the Mariners' present and future didn't rest in the bat of Casper Wells. No, it rested in the continued improvement of Kyle Seager and Saunders, plus the hopeful development of one-time top prospects Ackley, Smoak and Jesus Montero.
That takes us to mid-May, and it's time for Mariners management to make some difficult decisions. Seager and Saunders, building upon last season's success, have been fine; they're good players, guys who can be key components of a playoff team. But it's the other three -- all once rated as top-20 prospects in the game -- that have again disappointed.
Ackley is hitting .231/.273/.281, and as Jeff Sullivan of the U.S.S. Mariner blog pointed out, his walk rate has plummeted to Miguel Olivo levels. That's not good, in case you're wondering. Smoak is drawing walks but not doing much of anything else, hitting .235/.355/.311 with one home run. Montero is hitting .200/.250/.341 and the catching experiment is working out as well as anything labeled "experiment" usually does.
As I said, it's only mid-May, and you never want to jump to snap conclusions. But smart organizations do make conclusions. Back in the day, a manager like Whitey Herzog might look at a player for two weeks and determine if he's a major league player. Maybe he wasn't always right, but he believed in his convictions.
Do the Mariners still believe in these three? Ackley is now 25 years old and getting worse, much worse than he was as a rookie in 2011. Smoak is 26 and has a career .225 average. Montero is only 23 but is looking like a bat-only player who doesn't have enough of a bat.
John Jaso and Iwakuma early on last season, for example -- but he certainly made his convictions clear with Tuesday's lineup: Ackley, Smoak and Montero all started the game on the bench. In their places were Robert Andino, Ibanez and Kelly Shoppach. Ackley, the can't-miss second pick in the draft, is now being benched against left-handers for a guy hitting .169. Smoak sat for a guy who has hit .207 against left-handers since 2011. Montero sat because he isn't good.
Smart organizations properly evaluate their own talent. They know when not to re-sign Josh Hamilton, know which prospects to hold and know when to walk away. It's time for general manager Jack Zduriencik to make some calls. If the Mariners think Ackley can play then play him, even against Sabathia, and certainly don't bench him for Robert Freakin' Andino. If Smoak can play, then play him. If Montero can't catch, then send him down to Triple-A to see if he can actually develop an idea of how to approach an at-bat.
Because even if those guys play a little better the rest of the season, what have you learned? You'd be back in the same position next year, counting on them simply because they were once highly-rated minor leaguers.
I think the Mariners are close to knowing some answers. They're not contenders. Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino are down in Triple-A, perhaps ready to replace Ackley and Montero, the new new things to get excited about.
It's time to Whitey Herzog it and man up. It's judgment day in Seattle.
- The Orioles continue to impress, beating the Royals 5-3, improving to 21-13. They only had five hits, but took advantage of three Kansas City errors, and the bullpen backed up Chris Tillman with three scoreless innings. The one area the Orioles aren't getting production from is second base, where Ryan Flaherty is hitting .114 and Brian Roberts is on the DL. This is a good team, but I'm not sure the Orioles can count on Roberts staying healthy when he returns. What about going after Chase Utley, an impending free agent? This article by Wendy Thurm at FanGraphs points out that Utley has a no-trade clause to 21 teams, and the Orioles and Phillies are rivals by geographic proximity, but Utley makes perfect sense. He'd look pretty sweet in the third spot in the lineup between Manny Machado and Adam Jones.
- The Angels might have hit a low point -- and that's saying something -- in a 3-1 loss to Bud Norris and the Astros. As Jason Collette pointed out on Twitter, the Angels saw just 93 pitches, the third-lowest total of the season and lowest by an AL team. Even more remarkable -- they had 11 runners, with nine hits, a walk and a hit batter. Eight times the Angels put the first pitch in play (one of those was a Josh Hamilton home run) but the Astros turned four double plays. The Angels are 11-22, and last night's game had the appearance of a team playing out the string in a late September game. "It's still frustrating," Mark Trumbo told MLB.com. "You never want to stop feeling frustrated, because then you've pretty much given up hope. You come here each day with the mindset we're going to win the ballgame, so obviously it's a letdown when that doesn't happen."
- The Twins pounded Red Sox rookie starter Allen Webster, who looked like the JV kid called up to the varsity in his second career start. Not only does he look 15 years old, but he pitched tentatively and then grooved his fastball when behind in the count, and the Twins pounced. The 15-8 win pushed the surprising Twins to .500. David Ortiz also had his 27-game hitting streak dating to last season stopped. With the Twins playing respectable baseball, the Indians on a roll and the Royals four games over .500, the AL Central might be better than it has been in years.
- In a day game, Felix Hernandez outdueled A.J. Burnett for a 2-1 victory. The Pirates scored in the first when Starling Marte pulled a low fastball down the third-base line for a double and scored on Andrew McCutchen's hit. After walking Garrett Jones, the King got a double play and cruised after that. Burnett was just as tough, but Seattle scored one run without a hit thanks to two wild pitches, and then Jesus Montero homered in the seventh. What I didn't understand was Eric Wedge pulling Hernandez in the ninth. He'd only thrown 98 pitches and, yes, Tom Wilhelmsen has been solid, but I'd have let Felix finish it off.
- Another terrific start by Jordan Zimmermann, who shut down the Tigers for seven innings in the Nationals' 3-1 win. He's now 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA, and in his past three starts -- against the Tigers, Braves and Reds -- has allowed just one run. Zimmermann's approach is different from guys like Matt Harvey and Yu Darvish, who have dominated while racking up the strikeouts. Zimmermann pitches more to contact and has just 34 K's in 51 innings, despite which he's allowed just a .181 average thanks to a .209 average on balls in play. I like Zimmermann a lot, but I'm not quite ready to put him in the Hernandez/Darvish/Verlander/Harvey class. One thing that seems clear, however: He, and not Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez, is the ace of the Nationals.
- Goldschmidt happens. Again.
Darvish faced the Red Sox and struck out 14 batters in his seven innings -- and in some ways this was a bad start for him, as he gave up two home runs and three runs. But he showed why he's been so tough this season: four strikeouts on his fastball, six with his slider, three on his curve and a 14th on a pitch classified as a splitter (a 93-mph pitch that David Ortiz swung through in the sixth inning). Who knows; it could have been a gyroball or some other exotic pitch Darvish made up on the spot. On his 127th and final pitch, he fanned Pedro Ciriaco on a 3-2 slider that moved wickedly away from the plate. Rangers manager Ron Washington took him out, and he ended up with a no-decision in Texas' 4-3 victory, but I have no doubt he could have pitched another inning or two.
Verlander, meanwhile, cruised through the Triple-A lineup known as the Houston Astros, taking a no-hitter into the seventh while rarely pumping up the velocity on his fastball. He didn't need to. He averaged 92.8 mph on his heater, but on this day that was enough. He pitched seven scoreless frames, allowing two hits and striking out nine.
With apologies to Clay Buchholz (great start but inconsistent career), Matt Harvey (too soon), Jordan Zimmermann (getting there), Adam Wainwright (amazing control so far) and a few others, the battle for best right-handed starter in baseball right now is between Darvish, Verlander and Felix Hernandez, who pitched his own must-watch gem on Friday, shutting out the Toronto Blue Jays over eight innings.
Let's take a quick look at how the three have fared in 2013.
Darvish: 5-1, 2.56 ERA, 45.2 IP, 27 H, 15 BB, 72 SO, 3 HR, .169 AVG
Verlander: 4-2, 1.55 ERA, 46.1 IP, 38 H, 13 BB, 50 SO, 1 HR, .222 AVG
Hernandez: 4-2, 1.60 ERA, 50.2 IP, 39 H, 7 BB, 51 SO, 3 HR, .212 AVG
Hernandez has pitched the most innings; Verlander and Hernandez have the lower ERAs; but Darvish has been the most dominant, averaging 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings, a mark that would shatter Randy Johnson's record for starters of 13.4, set in 2001. Darvish has also been the toughest to hit with that .169 batting average against and has to pitch in the best hitter's park of the three. Hernandez, however, has faced a slightly tougher slate of offenses, mostly because he's had to pitch against the Rangers and Tigers while the other two haven't. All three started once against Houston ... and none allowed a run.
Edge: We can't put too much emphasis on ERA this early in the season. Hernandez has the edge in durability and command, but Darvish's strikeout rate has been off-the-charts phenomenal. Edge to Darvish.
Issues entering the season
Darvish: Command, especially of fastball; he must prove he can be a 200-inning workhorse (threw 191.1 in 29 starts last season).
So far, it's mixed reviews on this. His walk rate is down from 11.9 percent to 8.4 percent, so that's good. His percentage of fastballs in the strike zone, however, is actually just 42 percent, down 10 percent from last season. He has the killer wipeout pitches when he gets to two strikes -- 20 K's in 31 plate appearances ending with his curve, 29 K's in 69 plate appearances with his slider -- which makes it scary that he's been so good without consistently throwing his fastball for strikes. In part, this works to his advantage -- kind of an effective wildness that makes it hard for hitters to attack his fastball (or his cutter, which hasn't been a great pitch for him) but can lead to some high pitch counts and fewer innings.
Verlander: Durability after leading AL in innings the past two seasons and throwing 50 more in the postseason. Would there be a letdown after two great seasons?
I'd say a 1.55 ERA answers the second question. He hasn't pitched more than seven innings yet, which is unusual for him, but that's not just because of a tight leash. He's had games of 126, 116, 114, 111 and 111 pitches. He did throw 120-plus in nine regular-season starts in 2012, so Jim Leyland has maybe been a little conservative so far, but Verlander has also pitched in a lot of cold weather. Plus, Leyland may hold back a bit, trying to make sure Verlander remains stronger for a possible October run.
Hernandez: Concerns about declining fastball velocity and late slump last season (0-4, 6.62 ERA in six September starts).
So far, his average fastball is down one mph from last season (92.1 to 91.1), which, in turn, is down two mph from 2011 and down from the 93.9 he averaged in his 2010 Cy Young season. Put it this way: His fastest fastball this season was 94.1 -- pretty much his average just three seasons ago. That said, he's been as good as ever, thanks to that Wiffleball changeup and showing that whatever happened last September was an aberration.
Edge: Even though he doesn't throw as hard as he once did, Hernandez looks better than ever with one of the best stretches of his career. Sure, it helps pitching in the dead air of the West Coast ballparks, and maybe some day the lack of separation betweeen his fastball and changeup will catch up to him, but we're not there yet.
Darvish: Off the charts. He is basically unhittable when he gets to two strikes, thanks to that curveball/slider combo. In 112 plate appearances with two strikes, batters are hitting .088 with 72 strikeouts, eight walks and two extra-base hits. Ouch.
Verlander: Speaking of fastball velocity, Verlander has yet to unleash one of his famous 100-mph heaters and has averaged just 92.2 mph with a peak velocity of 97.1. That doesn't mean it's been any easier to hit: Batters are hitting .192/.289/.256 against his fastball, which is actually worse than the .215/.291/.362 line in 2011.
Hernandez: There might not be a better pitch in the game right now than Hernandez's changeup, which moves away from lefties and jams righties. Batters are hitting .130 off it. He mixes in some sliders and curveballs, making him a four-pitch guy with great command of all four pitches.
Edge: It's hard to suggest somebody has better stuff than Verlander, but right now that's the case with Darvish's deep arsenal of weapons. Verlander doesn't necessarily have to crank it up 95-plus regularly -- we know that he's learned to conserve that until he needs it -- but until he does start doing that more often, nobody can match the electric arsenal of pitches that Darvish possesses.
Who is the best?
This is like picking between Mays and Mantle at their peaks. There's only one way to answer: If all three are pitching at the same time and you can watch only one -- and you don't have a rooting interest in one of the specific teams -- who are you watching? Right now, I'm watching Darvish. Put him in a neutral park and I think he's the best right-hander in the game.
But I might change my mind next week.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Marcell Ozuna, Marlins. A controversial call-up earlier in the week, considering he'd played just 10 games in Double-A (although he hit five home runs), Ozuna didn't look overmatched his first week in the majors, hitting .478 with five extra-base hits in his first six games. He hit his first home run off Cole Hamels in Saturday's 2-0 win -- a nice easy swing off a 92-mph fastball -- and then went 4-for-5 with two doubles, three runs and three RBIs on Sunday.
2. Jeremy Guthrie, Royals. Guthrie's three-year, $25 million free agent deal with Kansas City was widely panned, but so far, so great. Guthrie threw a four-hit shutout in Saturday's 2-0 win over the White Sox -- yes, a manager who let a pitcher go the distance in a close game! -- and improved to 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA.
3. Jon Jay, Cardinals. A few days ago, Jay was hitting .204 and he'd lost his leadoff spot in the lineup. Now he's had four straight two-hit games and is batting a respectable .252/.339/.393. He drove in two runs on Friday, hit a three-run homer off Yovani Gallardo on Saturday and scored two more runs on Sunday. The Cardinals won all four in Milwaukee.
Clutch performance of the weekend
Rangers pitching staff. The Red Sox entered the weekend leading the AL in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and wOBA (weighted on-base average) -- in other words, the best offense in the league. Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Darvish held the Red Sox to four runs in 21 innings, striking out 27, as the Rangers swept. That's an impressive three starts against any lineup, but especially against a red-hot lineup in a pitcher's park like Texas'. The Rangers moved into a tie with the Red Sox for the best record in the AL, and it's been all about their pitching -- they've allowed the fewest runs in the AL. Kudos once again to pitching coach Mike Maddux for building a staff that appeared to have some holes entering the season (and especially when Matt Harrison underwent back surgery).
Giants 10, Dodgers 9, 10 innings (Saturday). On Friday night, Buster Posey hit a walk-off home run off Ronald Belisario on a 3-2 fastball to give the Giants a 2-1 win. On Saturday night, it was an unlikely hero for the Giants: Backup catcher Guillermo Quiroz lined a pinch-hit homer on an 0-2 pitch from Brandon League to give the Giants a 10-9 victory. The crazy game included the Giants blowing 5-0 and 6-1 leads, the Dodgers scoring seven runs in the fifth inning, the Giants tying it up, the Dodgers turning a 4-3 double play on Posey with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and then Quiroz hitting that sinker from League just over the fence in left for his third career home run and first against a right-hander. It wasn't a terrible pitch from League, as you can see from the pitch location map below; sometimes, the hitter just gets good wood on a good pitch.
Hitter on the rise: Mark Trumbo, Angels
Miguel Cabrera had a monster RBI week (and even played some sweet D) and Ryan Raburn had an amazing three-game stretch during which he went 11-for-13 with two two-homer games, but we already know Miggy can hit and we know Raburn will revert back to being a role player off the bench. The Angels had another bad week, but don't blame Trumbo, who blasted five home runs. Importantly, he also drew six walks, a sign that perhaps he's gaining some respect (and that Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have not been on base much in front of him) but also that he's laying off those pitches outside the strike zone. We know Trumbo has big-time power -- 29 home runs as a rookie in 2011, 32 last season -- but low on-base percentages have held down his value. He has too much swing-and-miss to ever hit .300, so he needs to draw some walks to increase his overall offensive value.
Pitcher on the rise: Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
It's time to start believing in Iwakuma as the real deal. With wins over the Angels and Blue Jays this week (one run allowed in each game) he's now 3-1 with a 1.61 ERA and hasn't allowed more than three runs in a start. Since he joined Seattle's rotation on July 2, only Kris Medlen and Clayton Kershaw have a lower ERA than Iwakuma's 2.32 mark. Check out the heat map on his splitter -- hitters just can't distinguish from his two- and four-seam fastballs as they're 9-for-51 (.176) against it with 23 strikeouts, one walk and two extra-base hits.
The obligatory Brendan Ryan defensive play of the week.
Team on the rise: Cardinals
The Rangers sweeping the Red Sox at home was big, I'll rate the Cardinals' four-game sweep in Milwaukee as the weekend's most impressive series. The Brewers are tough at home -- 9-6 before this series, 49-32 in 2012, 57-24 in 2011 -- so the Cards made a big statement by hitting .322 and scoring 29 runs and twice holding Milwaukee to one run. With the Braves just 3-7 over their past 10 games, the Cardinals have staked their claim as the NL's best team. Besides the NL's best record and best run differential, the Cards' bullpen is starting to sort itself out, with Edward Mujica as closer, Trevor Rosenthal in the eighth and Mitchell Boggs now back in the minors. Here's how good the rest of the team has been: St. Louis is 19-6 when the relievers don't get the decision.
Team on the fall: Phillies
Two losses to the Marlins can make a team look bad. First, rookie Jose Fernandez threw seven one-hit innings in a 2-0 win on Saturday for his first major league victory (tell him that pitcher wins don't matter). That was followed by Sunday's embarrassing 14-2 loss in which Roy Halladay got battered around by what is essentially another Triple-A lineup. Adeiny Hechavarria tripled to drive in three and then hit a grand slam (video review changed the call from a double to a home run), part of his seven-RBI day. Let's say that again: Adeiny Hechavarria knocked in seven runs against Roy Halladay. Halladay used to go entire months giving up seven runs. With his ERA at 8.65, it appears the shoulder is a problem and he may be headed to the DL. But, hey, Delmon Young is back, so that should fix the 14-18 Phillies.
Like Mr. Schoenfield, I'm normally the kind of writer who will come at you from an analytical angle. Not tonight.
Tonight, I'm here to celebrate the sheer joy of watching one of the best pitchers in the game, Felix Hernandez, who absolutely dominated the Toronto Blue Jays with eight shutout innings Friday night.
There may be better pitchers than King Felix -- emphasis on may -- but there is not another hurler who is as aesthetically pleasing.
Let's start with the windup. He has that Luis Tiant-esque turn toward center field that not only serves a practical purpose, in that it allows him to hide the ball, but also oozes confidence. It almost feels like he's doing it because it makes him look cool (which it does).
Then there is the stuff. It's been noted that Hernandez does not throw as hard as he used to: Five years ago his fastball sat around 95 mph but is now around 91. However, that hasn't seemed to diminish his effectiveness.
This is subjective, but I don't think there is a pitcher who commands a multipitch arsenal as well as Hernandez does. He'll throw a two-seamer and a four-seamer to both sides of the plate while also mixing in a slider, cutter and that devastating changeup. In his eight innings of work Friday, he scattered five hits while striking out seven, walking none and throwing just 95 pitches to lower his ERA to 1.60 as the Mariners won 4-0. With that kind of efficiency, you wonder why he wasn't allowed to try to finish the game, but that's an argument for another day.
Not since Pedro Martinez can I recall a right-handed pitcher who was able to move and locate the ball with such command. Among lefties, Cliff Lee comes close, and Zack Greinke is a righty who has flashed that ability, but they simply lack a certain je ne sais quoi.
Sure, maybe the Mariners' offense stinks and the club is destined for a fourth-place finish. But if you are not watching Hernandez every time he takes the hill, you are missing out on one baseball's best visceral experiences.
- Just over a week ago the Brewers were 2-8 and looked horrible. Now they've won eight in a row after beating the Padres 7-1 on Monday, as they lit up Jason Marquis for five runs in the first inning (Ryan Braun and the awesome Yuniesky Betancourt homered). Ahh, the rapid-fire twists and turns of April baseball. Braun has four home runs and 11 RBIs in his past five games, with three of those homers coming in the first inning and the other a go-ahead shot in the sixth. Keep an eye on Kyle Lohse, however, as he left after five innings with an injury to his left hand suffered when his finger got caught on Jedd Gyorko's belt while crossing first base on a bunt.
- Matt Moore looked terrific in leading the Rays to a 5-1 win over CC Sabathia and the Yankees, allowing just two hits (both by Robinson Cano) over his career-high 117-pitch, eight-inning effort. Moore threw 79 fastballs and while he recorded just two of his eight strikeouts with the heater, the Yankees went just 1-for-15 against it. Moore improved to 4-0, 1.04, but I need to point out the Yankees lineup: Ben Francisco hitting second, Francisco Cervelli hitting fifth, lefties Brennan Boesch and Lyle Overbay ... George is not impressed. Teams should be doing everything in their power to start left-handers against the Yankees; they're hitting .190 with a .561 OPS against lefties (28th in the majors) compared to .301 with a .902 OPS against righties (first in the majors).
- Big hit of the night: How about Buster Posey's two-run, game-tying blast to dead center off tough D-backs reliever David Hernandez in the ninth? Brandon Belt knocked in the game-winner the next inning for the G-men.
- Big rally of the night: After the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 13th, the Reds scored three in the bottom of the inning to win 5-4. Jay Bruce hit his first homer earlier in the game and then doubled home the tying runs in the 13th before Cesar Izturis delivered the game-winning hit with two outs. Still waiting for Dusty Baker to use Aroldis Chapman for more than three outs for the first time.
- Justin Masterson survived four walks to improve to 4-1 as the Indians beat the White Sox 3-2. Adam Dunn went 0-for-4 to see his average drop to .101. Ozzie Guillen stuck with Dunn all year in 2011 but it will be interesting to see how long Robin Ventura sticks with him this time around. Speaking of bad White Sox hitters: Jeff Keppinger is hitting .171 in 76 at-bats and hasn't drawn a walk, so his OBP is actually lower than his average. Did we mention that the White Sox are in last place even though they've allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL?
- Love watching Manny Machado play third base.
- Finally, congrats to Felix Hernandez on his 100th career victory.