SweetSpot: Garrett Richards

Last week, after Corey Kluber dominated the Mariners with an 85-pitch shutout, I rashly tweeted that Kluber is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the game. That seemed to stir things up a bit on Twitter, and Giants fans were especially angered when I suggested Kluber is better than Madison Bumgarner. Kluber came back on Monday with another solid effort, allowing one run while striking out seven in 7.1 innings, improving his record to 12-6 with a 2.55 ERA.

But is he one of baseball's top 10 starters right now?

[+] EnlargeCorey Kluber
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHe's been very, very good. But is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in baseball right now?
How do you even measure such a thing? We can take the easy way out and just look at wins above replacement for the season.

FanGraphs
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.8
2. Corey Kluber: 5.0
3. Jon Lester: 4.7
4. Clayton Kershaw: 4.5
5. Chris Sale: 4.2

Baseball-Reference
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.5
2. Clayton Kershaw: 5.2
3. Corey Kluber: 4.7
4. Johnny Cueto: 4.6
5. Chris Sale/Max Scherzer: 4.5

By WAR, Kluber isn't just a top-10 starter, but a top-five starter. Even ignoring how much you believe in WAR, the question is: Do you buy into Kluber's four-month streak as a true breakout performance? How much emphasis do we place on history? Zack Greinke won a Cy Young Award in 2009. Should that matter as to how we evaluate him now? Scherzer won the Cy Young Award last year when he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League. How much should that matter as to how we evaluate him in August 2014?

Bill James actually devised a method to answer this question a couple of years ago. He wrote:
Everybody starts out with a ranking of 300.0, and you can’t go lower than 300, even if you pitch badly. If you’re at 300, you’re unranked; you’re only actually on the list if you have a current score higher than 300. There would typically be 150 to 180 pitchers who are, at the moment, ranked. Pitchers never actually pitch badly enough that they would rank below 300 (if it were possible to do so) for more than two or three starts, because if you pitch that badly, you lose your position in the rotation.

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

a) Mark down his previous ranking by 3%, and

b) Add 30% of his Game Score for the start.

We base the rankings on Game Scores, which means that we ignore wins and losses, but give weight to innings pitched, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, walks and strikeouts.


James also adjusted for park effects, inactivity (if a pitcher doesn't pitch, his overall rating goes down) and postseason play, which he factored in. Anyway, his site unfortunately doesn't update the rankings, so I don't know how Kluber would rank. So I'll just wing my own top 10.

1. Clayton Kershaw

The best pitcher in baseball, and I don't think anybody is really arguing this. Hernandez ranks higher on the WAR lists because Kershaw missed April, so he doesn't have as many innings.

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

Similar in many ways -- veteran right-handers (it seems weird to call Felix a "veteran," but he has been around a long time) having their best seasons.

4. Chris Sale

He's 10-1 with a 2.09 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 20 walks in 116 innings. Incredible numbers. He has cut his home run rate from last year, even though he pitches in a good home run park. I'm not knocking Wainwright when I say this: Sale is better. But he did miss time earlier this year and I think we have to give Wainwright extra credit for his durability.

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price

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Is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in the game?

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,346)

I'm not completely comfortable ranking Price this high -- he's ninth in FanGraphs WAR and 25th in B-R WAR. He has 189 strikeouts and just 23 walks but has allowed 20 home runs, and he goes from a good pitcher's park with a good Rays defense behind him to a better hitter's park with a below-average Tigers defense behind him. It's possible that change will reveal that he did benefit from pitching in Tampa. Or it may not reveal anything. But Price has been good a pitcher for five years, and his new approach of pounding the strike zone has basically turned him into a harder-throwing version of Cliff Lee.

OK, now things get a little murky. Let's start with Kluber versus Bumgarner, because that got a lot of feedback on Twitter.

I know Bumgarner has been a solid pitcher for several years. He has come up big in the postseason. But in comparing 2014: Kluber has the better ERA, the better FIP, the better strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, a lower home run rate, a higher ground ball rate, the lower batting average and OPS allowed, has pitched more innings and has done it in a DH league while pitching in a tougher park with a lousy defense behind him. I can't rate Bumgarner ahead of Kluber.

(By the way, Bumgarner's career high bWAR is 3.8, achieved last year. A lot of that is park effects. Giants fans will point out that Bumgarner has a better ERA on the road in his career than at home, but that's not the way park effects work. Bumgarner still has the advantage of pitching half his games in a pitcher's park.)

Jon Lester? Hmm. Lester is a No. 2 starter having a No. 1-level season. But he had a 3.75 ERA last year and 4.82 the year before. FanGraphs and B-R differ on his value -- FanGraphs ranks him third overall while B-R ranks him 22nd. Kluber, by the way, had a 3.85 ERA last year with excellent peripherals. If you give Lester a little extra credit for his postseason last year, I'll reluctantly give him the nod, although I think his track record works against him just as much as Kluber's lack of track record works against him.

Scherzer is similar to Lester, except his No. 1 season came last year. He's been nearly as good this year, even though his BABIP has once again bounced up:

2011: .314
2012: .333
2013: .259
2014: .316

One reason Scherzer's BABIP is usually high is that he does pitch up in the strike zone, unlike a lot of pitchers who pound the zone at the knees. Of course, the other reason is the lousy Tigers defense. (Take note, Mr. Price.)

Johnny Cueto? I'm not quite sure what to do with Cueto, giving his history of injuries. But we're talking best starters right now, and Cueto has been healthy and effective all season and he has always been effective even when he has missed time.

Garrett Richards is another young starter having a breakout season. While Kluber relies on command and a wipeout curve, Richards has upper 90s heat and a deadly slider. Their numbers:

Kluber: 2.55 ERA, .233/.277/.341, 26.7 percent K rate
Richards: 2.58 ERA, .195/.267/.259, 24.7 percent K rate

Kluber rates a little higher in WAR because he has pitched 12 more innings and Richards benefits from a pitcher's park. Tough call here. Like Kluber, Richards doesn't have much of a track record before this season. There's no denying his stuff. Richards has the fourth-lowest BABIP allowed among starters at .258 (Kluber's is .309) and a low rate of home runs per fly ball (third-lowest among starters). I think those numbers indicate Richards has pitched in more good luck than Kluber this season. But I could be wrong; his stuff is nasty.

OK, where does that leave us? With apologies to Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Hisashi Iwakuma, the injured Masahiro Tanaka and maybe a couple of others, the top 10 starters in the majors RIGHT NOW:

1. Kershaw
2. Hernandez
3. Wainwright
4. Sale
5. Darvish
6. Price
7. Cueto
8. Lester
9. Kluber
10. Scherzer

Including Richards, you could rank the final four guys in any order, really. If you want a longer track record, go with Lester and Scherzer. If you like raw, unhittable stuff, go with Richards. If you think postseason history matters, go with Lester. If you like 28-year-olds out of nowhere with curveballs that make major league hitters weep in frustration, go with our man Corey Kluber -- one of the 10 best starters in the game.

Angels add Richards to big O for 'best' bid

August, 5, 2014
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One ballgame does not a four-game, home-and-home, crosstown series make -- not when the Angels are in what figures to be a two-month race yet to run against the other AL West candidate for best team in baseball, the Oakland A's. But on Monday, the Angels provided a few quick reminders for why folks might want to think about them as baseball’s main feature, and not just in La-La Land.

Start with Garrett Richards, best young righty in the league using almost any metric you might want to turn to. He was already among the top 10 AL pitchers in WAR before Monday’s complete-game shutout, allowing just seven baserunners and whiffing nine in his 17th quality start in 23 turns. His ERA is in the top 10, but turn to Baseball Info Solutions’ Component ERA and you’ll find that the only pitchers in the league doing a better job of keeping runs off the board than Richards’ 2.02 ERC are Felix Hernandez (1.54) and Chris Sale (1.82). Now boasting a 12-4 record on a team that might wind up with the best record in baseball, it’s easy to suggest he might be in the Cy Young mix no matter who comprises this year’s electorate from among the BBWAA’s members: young or old, sabermetrically savvy or new-data indifferent and old-school.

It would be safe to say that wasn’t what most people expected from Richards at the start of the season, but the Angels are simultaneously balancing the proposition that you can be baseball’s best ballclub and nevertheless conjure up answers on the fly, because nothing works out exactly the way you expect. Success isn’t just a matter of getting great years out of great players or enjoying a breakthrough as big as Richards’; it’s also about managing around the problems that arise in-season and coming up with your best combinations as you figure out what works. Richards is one big in-season development; shoring up the bullpen with closer Huston Street and former closer Jason Grilli is another.

But another thing that’s happened along the way is that the Angels’ lineup is finally taking shape along the lines manager Mike Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto might have envisioned on Opening Day. That’s because they’ve finally gotten all of the big names back from the DL while also being able to discard what hasn’t worked.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsMike Trout wasn't Superman on Monday, but on this Angels' team, he doesn't need to be every night.
In Mike Scioscia’s front-stacked lineup featuring power-hitting Kole Calhoun leading off with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton behind him, you could argue that the Angels are doing the best possible job of punting on old-school lineup design by trying to put speed or bat control up top, instead concentrating the most at-bats in their best players. They didn’t have the benefit of having that all season, not when both Calhoun and Hamilton got hurt in April, but now they have one of the best front fours in any lineup all active at once.

As a result, Trout can afford to turn in workmanlike Clark Kent nights like this -- when he kept his Superman thing relatively muted, “just” doubling in a run and scoring another in the Angels’ four-run first -- because everyone else did plenty to remind folks that they’re not just Mike Trout and Troutettes. Instead, ex-famous people such as Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton provided reminders that they still have plenty left in the tank, doubling and homering, respectively, off Zack Greinke.

They still afford themselves their former World Series-winning conceit of hard-contact, ball-in-play types who don’t strike out -- guys such as Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar -- but they’re down in the order, behind the big thumpers. The bottom third of the order is where Scioscia gets to play around with combinations, such as professional hitter Efren Navarro and power prodigy C.J. Cron sharing regular at-bats between the first, left and DH slots, or Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger combining to contribute an OPS around .740 from the catchers’ slot. When the worst player in your regular lineup is David Freese, you’re probably going to score runs, and it’s why the Angels rank second in the league in runs scored per game.

The front half of the season also provided answers as well as absences. Giving Raul Ibanez a chance as their DH wasted their time and left runs unscored, but that’s no longer their problem down the stretch. Now, it’s a matter of keeping Hamilton and Pujols in the lineup and injury-free through scheduled rest and sporadic DH starts. If both are contributing behind Calhoun and Trout down the stretch, it can be the kind of lineup that keeps cranking out five runs a night.

That’s no small thing in this low-scoring age. Instead, it’s about as decisive an edge as you could ask for, even on the nights when Garrett Richards doesn’t pitch. And as the Angels look forward to scoreboard-watching night after night to see if this is the night they've caught the A's, the Angels will take both the benefits of the contender they designed and the assets that they've added along the way.


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

Angels' rotation may be their weak link

July, 22, 2014
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video

The Angels are the second-best team in baseball. Win or lose going into Monday night’s game against the AL East-leading Orioles, they were going to be the second-best team in baseball after the fact. They lost, missing the chance to move within a game of the A’s in the AL West race. But it’s July and there’s still plenty of time, so there’s no reason to sweat, right?

Certainly not, at least not if you look at the big picture and the projection models at FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus, which say the Angels have a 98 or 99 percent shot at the playoffs. Slam-dunk sure thing? Sounds like it.

But there’s a problem with that: It doesn’t mean all that much in the era of the one-game play-in wild-card “round.” The Angels' shot at winning the AL West is calculated as much less of a sure thing, from the 20 percent range according to analyst Clay Davenport, to the 30s for FanGraphs, or the 40s for Baseball Prospectus. These are roughly the same as the chances of the Blue Jays coming back to win the AL East and then also not having to sweat a one-or-done scenario despite probably being 10 games worse than the Angels at season’s end. Saying the Angels’ shot at playing their way into the one-game coin-toss of the wild card is around 60 or 70 percent is like saying their chance of their season ending a day or two after the regular season is still astonishingly likely.

[+] EnlargeMatt Shoemaker
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Shoemaker's loss was the latest tough start for the Angels' non-Richards rotation regulars.
Unless they beat the A’s and win the West. Unless they make their math problem now into Oakland’s math problem tomorrow. That’s their challenge, and losing games like Monday’s will only make it harder.

To pull this off in the long weeks to come, they’re going to have to find a happier answer in their rotation than the ones they’ve found so far. While the trades for Jason Grilli and Huston Street may have shored up their bullpen, there’s the larger problem of how good their rotation really is outside of newly minted ace and All-Star Garrett Richards. Assuming that Jered Weaver’s back is sound all the way down the stretch, he hasn’t overpowered strong teams’ lineups, seeing his OPS jump 50 points and his WHIP increase by 0.3 facing teams that are .500 or better; unsurprisingly, his FIP is 4.12, which suggests sturdy mediocrity, not the ace he once was. C.J. Wilson won’t be back from his DL stint for a sprained ankle until after the trade deadline; even if he’s sound, his 4.29 FIP doesn’t suggest he’s a solid No. 2, either. And the back-end trio of Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker have put together just 15 quality starts in their 38 turns.

To catch the A’s, the Angels are going to need not just one guy but several guys to step up down the stretch. Not just because you can’t count on a league-best offense to crank out five or more runs every night, but because the Angels need to have somebody else besides Richards to use in those potentially scary end-of-year situations. What if Richards has to pitch in the last weekend series against the Mariners but the Angels don’t catch the A’s then? What if they have to play a tiebreaker? Who pitches the wild-card game? Where does that leave them in the ALDS? They’ll need some of the non-Richards starters to step up, not just to keep up with the A’s and their shored-up rotation, but to be able to win October games when they don’t put five or six runs on the scoreboard.

That was why Shoemaker’s start against Baltimore was a little more important than just another late-July turn. Barring a trade, somebody is going to be bumped once Wilson comes back from the DL. Even on a night when he struck out a career-high 10 batters, seeing Shoemaker get beaten deep twice by Adam Jones was the sort of thing that won’t keep the rookie ahead of Skaggs or Santiago, not that either of them is owning his slot.

To be sure, the Angels should be grateful things are this close. Thanks in large part to early-season bullpen problems of their own, the A’s are four games worse than you’d project from their runs scored and allowed, which is a big part of the reason they are within striking range for the Angels, even after Oakland went 20-10 in its past 30 games. All it took was the Angels going 22-8 in their past 30 before Monday, no easy thing to do with a rotation that may struggle to match the A’s made-over, Jeff Samardzija-enhanced rotation in the last 60 games.

If Wilson or Weaver, Shoemaker or Skaggs steps up, things will be that much more interesting all the way down to the wire. If not, the Angels may be one of those great teams that, like the 1993 Giants, wind up getting to brag about how great they were without getting much of an opportunity to prove it come October. Those Giants were caught from behind by the Braves, San Francisco winning 103 games for the second-best record in baseball … and no October invite. The Halos have to hope they’ll earn something more than one game better than that -- but more than hoping for it, they’ll have to do it.


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


Not only that: Rick Porcello threw a no-strikeout, no-walk shutout -- the first time that's happened since Jeff Ballard did it in 1989, making this one of the coolest performances of the season.

Porcello's four-hit gem to beat the A's 3-0 was a thing of beauty: He threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of 31 batters, increased his scoreless streak to 25 innings and improved to 11-4 with a 3.12 ERA. In this age of more strikeouts and more strikeouts, Porcello is a throwback to another era ... one that existed a mere 25 years ago, when you didn't have to average nine or 10 strikeouts per nine innings to be considered an elite pitcher.

[+] EnlargeRick Porcello
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonRick Porcello's breakthrough this season could put him in the All-Star Game.
Porcello has 62 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings and a K rate of 5.2 per nine innings. Among the 93 qualified starting pitchers, that rate ranks 87th; his sinker induces ground balls, not strikeouts. It's just a different style of pitching than we're used to now, but there's no reason it can't be successful. Back in the '80s and up through 1993, the league-average strikeout rate was less than six per innings, so obviously many pitchers won back then with strikeout rates similar to Porcello's.

His approach does require good infield defense, and the Tigers are definitely stronger in that area this season, with the departure of Prince Fielder, the move of Miguel Cabrera from third base to first base and the addition of Ian Kinsler. More shifting also helps. It's no coincidence that Porcello's average on balls in play is .266, after averaging .327 from 2011 to 2013.

It's not just better defense, however; Porcello is throwing his curveball more -- 16 percent of his pitches this year compared to 8 percent of the time over the previous three seasons. To be fair, this trend started last season and has proven to be an effective pitch, as batters have hit .208 against it the past two seasons, compared to .293 against his slider. More curves and better defense have made Porcello a better pitcher. He's been around so long that we forget that he's still 25, clearly young enough to still be learning and adapting his stuff.

This time of year, it's fun to talk about potential All-Star selections. Porcello's strong first half certainly puts him in prime consideration for a spot. Once you get past some of the automatic selections -- Felix Hernandez, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, David Price, Chris Sale (well, he should be automatic, even if he missed time with an injury), here are four other surprise guys battling Porcello for maybe one or two spots on the American League staff:

Garrett Richards, Angels (9-2, 2.81 ERA, .194 AVG, 108 SO, 40 BB). Richards is the new kind of cool: high-octane fastball and a wipeout slider. His average fastball velocity is second in the majors among starters to Yordano Ventura, and he's improved his command to become an elite starter in the first half. Like Porcello, he helped his All-Star case with a strong outing on Tuesday. He gave up a three-run home run to Jose Abreu in the first inning after he had walked two batters, but then he settled down and over his final seven innings allowed just one more hit and no walks. That's exactly the sign of maturing the Angels are seeing this year. Another example: After the A's knocked him out in the first inning on May 30, he's responded with his best stretch of the season, with a 1.49 ERA and .147 average allowed over six starts. At this point, he's just about a lock to make the team.

Dallas Keuchel, Astros (8-5, 2.78, .234 AVG, 88 SO, 26 BB). Who saw this coming? I don't want to compare him to Tom Glavine, but he's kind of like Tom Glavine. His fastball sits 89 to 92 and he pounds the outside corner with fastballs and changeups. He'll also go inside to righties with a wipeout slider -- righties are hitting .151 against with 26 strikeouts in 56 plate appearances.

There was nothing in Keuchel's track record that said he could be this good -- he owned a 5.20 ERA over his first two seasons with Houston while giving up 34 home runs in 239 innings -- but there's no fluke here. The strikeout rate is good enough, his control is excellent and he keeps the ball down in the zone, a reason he's allowed just five home runs. I think he's the real deal, one of those lefties who figures things out ... just like Glavine did after a rocky start in his first couple of years with the Braves.

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Which one of these AL starters is most deserving of an All-Star spot?

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Corey Kluber, Indians (7-6, 2.99 ERA, .254 AVG, 127 SO, 29 BB). Kluber actually had a breakout season of sorts last year with a 3.85 ERA and excellent peripherals, but he made just 24 starts, so it didn't get much attention. But check out that strikeout rate: 127 whiffs in 117 1/3 innings. He's eighth among all starters in strikeout percentage. His curveball has developed into one of the most unhittable weapons in the league: Batters are hitting .087 against it with 61 strikeouts, three walks and no home runs. Yes, those are Kershaw-esque types of results.

Don't put too much emphasis on that win-loss record. Kluber has allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of his 18 starts but has won just six of those games. He's good. How are we going to find room for all these guys?

Scott Kazmir, A's (9-3, 2.16 ERA, .216 AVG, 91 SO, 24 BB). Kazmir was one of the best stories of 2013, when he returned after years of injuries, awful results and not even pitching in the majors to go 10-9 with Cleveland. He's been even better with Oakland this year, justifying the two-year contract the A's gave him as a free agent. Kazmir's fastball isn't as overpowering as it was when he was a two-time All-Star with Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2008, but he still throws in the low 90s and mixes in a slider, curve, cutter and changeup, with the changeup becoming his best strikeout pitch.

OK, five guys, all worthy first-half All-Stars. Which one most deserves to make the American League's All-Star team?
Jose Fernandez is having his Tommy John surgery Friday, but if you're a fan of pitching and low-scoring baseball, the good news is there are more young guns on the way. Here are five starters making big impressions so far as breakout pitchers for 2014.

1. Garrett Richards, Angels

I'll admit: This one has caught me by surprise. Richards has always had a terrific arm but never put up good strikeout rates in the high minors or majors because of lack of command and quality secondary pitches. Last year, splitting time between the bullpen and rotation, he fanned 101 in 145, a nice total for 1989, but not so great for 2013. But he's put it all together through eight starts as Keith Law and Eric Wedge discuss in the video above, holding batters to a .186 average with just one home run allowed and striking out 54 in 52 innings. When he gets ahead in the count, his slider has become a wipeout pitch as batters have struck out 25 times in 44 plate appearances ending with that pitch (with just four hits for a .095 average).

2. Nate Eovaldi, Marlins

One of my top breakout candidates entering the season because of his explosive fastball, Eovaldi has averaged 96 mph with his heater, second-highest among qualified starters (just ahead of Richards' 95.8). Like Richards, however, Eovaldi had a mediocre strikeout rate in 2013. He's still primarily a fastball/slider guy, mixing in an occasional curve and changeup, but improved fastball command has resulted in a big drop in his walk rate and a higher K rate on his fastball (from 12.5 percent to 20.1 percent). He got roughed up Thursday night, raising his ERA from 2.86 to 3.62, but if he can develop a third pitch and keep throwing strikes (12 walks in nine starts), watch out.

3. Yordano Ventura, Royals

This is the guy with the best fastball velocity among starters at 96.5 mph (and touching 100 more than once). He's 2-3 with a 2.40 ERA and a 53/16 SO/BB ratio in 48 ⅔ innings. Unlike Richards and Eovaldi, Ventura doesn't throw a slider, instead relying on a changeup and curveball; that's helped him limit left-handers to a .217 average. Listed at 6-feet, 180 pounds, Ventura doesn't have your classic power pitcher's build, so the concern is whether he has the durability to hold up as a starter. But that may not be a legitimate issue beyond the usual concerns about a 22-year-old rookie who throws in the upper 90s. A 2010 study by Glenn P. Greenberg in the SABR Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal found:
Height was not correlated to durability in seasons in which players were healthy, but that fact does not end the analysis. For us to be able to say that height does not correlate to durability at all, short pitchers would have to throw as much and stay off the disabled list as much as taller pitchers. The data for players on the disabled list at any time during 1994 through 2007 can be seen in table 5. There is no statistically significant correlation for games started or innings pitched; the highest r-square being .002 and the lowest p-value being .096. However, there is a correlation between height and games -- a negative one: greater height correlates to fewer games pitched.
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Which young potential ace do you like best?

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4. Sonny Gray, A's

Gray burst on to the scene late last season with 10 regular-season starts and then that 1-0 win over the Tigers in the ALDS, so his rise has been perhaps a little more predictable. Still, as primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher, I wondered how the league would adjust against him, having seen him once or twice. So far, it's Gray who has made the adjustments, as he's 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA in eight starts, including a .222 average allowed and just 11 extra-base hits (three home runs). Batters are hitting .152 with no extra-base hits against the curveball, but he's also mixing in about eight changeups and eight sliders a game, just enough to keep those pitches as potential weapons.

5. Wily Peralta, Brewers

Another right-hander with a big arm, Peralta has averaged 95.2 mph with his fastball -- placing him fifth in average fastball velocity (Gerrit Cole is fourth; Fernandez sixth). As a rookie in 2013, Peralta found that the fastball alone wasn't enough as he went 11-15 with a 4.37 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 183 ⅓ innings. His strikeout rate hasn't jumped up, but he's cut his free passes in half -- from a 10.5 percent walk rate to 5.3 percent. Pounding the strike has worked as he's 4-2 with a 2.05 ERA (although that's helped by five unearned runs). His slider is his knockout pitch and batters are hitting .204 against it without an extra-base hit.

Which one do you like best? I'd probably put Gray and Ventura 1-2 because of a deeper arsenal of pitches. Gray seems to have that classic feel for pitching and knowing how to set up hitters. Richards and Eovaldi would be next; both have shown tremendous strides this year. Peralta's strikeout rate is the worst rate of the group, so I'd put him fifth. But all have the ability to develop into aces.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire!

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
1:02
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Eric and myself take questions via Twitter and answer them in this week's edition of rapid fire.
I don't know which stat is more amazing: After homering off Tim Lincecum last night, Paul Goldschmidt is now 13-for-24 with seven home runs off Lincecum; or, Goldschmidt's opposite-field home run was just the eighth by a right-handed batter at AT&T Park over the past eight seasons. (And you wonder why Giants pitchers often have big home/road splits.)

According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.

Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."

You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.

Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.

Thoughts on other games ...
  • Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
  • I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
  • With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
  • Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
  • After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
  • Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.



Make-or-break seasons: Pitchers

January, 29, 2014
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With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects, let's look at five pitchers, once top prospects themselves, who are entering make-or-break seasons of sorts.

Pitchers, of course, are harder to predict and project than hitters. A new pitch or a new grip or a sudden ability to repeat a delivery can take a pitcher to a new level. A pitcher's park or defense -- good or bad -- also can have a big influence on his results.

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 27 in April
2013: 5.17 ERA, 174 IP, 185 H, 50 BB, 135 SO, -0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 164 IP, 4.12 ERA, 1.5 WAR

Through his first two-plus seasons, Hellickson was 27-21 with a 3.10 ERA, but hadn't won over the sabermetric community because of mediocre strikeout-to-walk rates and a fairly high total of home runs allowed. His success had been built on pitching particularly well -- or being particularly lucky -- with runners on base. In his first two full seasons, opponents hit just .194 with runners in scoring position against him.

In 2013, Hellickson lowered his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate while home runs allowed remained the same -- and his ERA rose to an unsightly 5.17. Batters hit .333 with runners in scoring position. Had his luck run out or was it just bad luck? The Rays probably can't afford to once again keep a guy with an ERA of 5.00 in the rotation all season, not with guys such as Jake Odorizzi and Enny Romero waiting for an opportunity.

What to expect: Hellickson probably wasn't as good as his first two seasons or as bad as 2013. He's not overpowering -- average fastball of 90.5 mph -- so he relies on movement and then tries to get hitters to chase his changeup or pound it into the ground. In the end, the lack of a dominant fastball probably limits his upside and he probably settles in somewhere between his 2011 and 2013 performance.

Phil Hughes, Minnesota Twins
Age: 28 in June
2013: 5.19 ERA, 145.2 IP, 170 H, 42 BB, 121 SO, -0.7 WAR
ZiPS projection: 141.2 IP, 4.64 ERA, 0.8 WAR

Hughes has been around so long now -- he debuted with the Yankees in 2007 -- that it seems a little odd to include him here, but he's here because this could be his final chance to prove himself as a starting pitcher. He's on a new team and in a new ballpark and some believe getting him away from the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium will help. After all, he served up 35 home runs in 2012 and 24 last year in just 145 innings. Indeed, over those two seasons, he allowed 39 home runs at home, 20 on the road, although his ERA splits weren't so dramatic, 4.88 in Yankee Stadium, 4.33 on the road.

What to expect: ZiPS isn't optimistic, projecting Hughes as barely above replacement level. He still pitches up in the zone too much with his fastball and no ballpark is going to fix that. Still, moving to a more favorable environment and a weaker division should help. If he stays healthy, I can see an ERA in the upper 3s ... good enough to keep his rotation job and prevent a move to the bullpen.

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Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 25 in June
2013: 3.29 ERA, 150.1 IP, 119 H, 76 BB, 143 SO, 2.6 WAR
ZiPS projection: 171.1 IP, 3.41 ERA, 3.0 WAR

Wait, the dude went 17-4 and you're calling this a make-or-break season? Well, not exactly. Moore is going to have a long career in the majors. The question for him: Is he going to turn the corner and develop into the ace status projected after he burst onto the scene at the end of the 2011 season?

For Moore, it's all about command. He walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in 2013 and led the AL with 17 wild pitches. One effect of this is it runs up his pitch counts and knocks him out of games early. He averaged just 5.5 innings per start. Aces have to stay in the game longer. He'll turn 25 in June, so we should be looking at a guy who can pitch 200 innings.

What to expect: ZiPS still projects a starter who will walk four batters per nine innings and it's difficult to be an ace when you're walking that many batters. Moore's No. 1 comp via ZiPS is Mark Langston -- which makes perfect sense. Langston was a hard-throwing lefty for the Mariners in the '80s, a guy whose stuff was as good as any left-hander's in the game back then. He led the AL in strikeouts as a rookie in 1984 and again in 1986 and 1987. He also walked 100 batters a year his first seven seasons. He had a great career -- 50.4 WAR -- and if Moore does that nobody should complain.

Garrett Richards, Los Angeles Angels
Age: 26 in May
2013: 4.16 ERA, 145 IP, 151 H, 44 BB, 101 SO, 0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 139 IP, 4.47 ERA, 0.4 WAR

Nobody questions Richards' arm strength -- his average fastball clocked in at 94.9 mph in 2013 -- but the total package remains elusive. He worked out of the pen and then started 19 games last season, but the trades for Hector Santiago and Diamondbacks prospect Tyler Skaggs means Richards isn't a lock for the rotation in 2014. Despite the big heat, his strikeout rates remain low -- even in the minor leagues they were nothing special. Richards threw 1,092 fastballs in 2013 with 306 plate appearances ending with the pitch. He recorded just 17 strikeouts. His fastball has good velocity, but just hasn't been a swing-and-miss offering. His slider was a solid weapon, but he has to be able to set it up with an effective fastball.

What to expect: There just isn't a track record that suggests Richards is going to make any kind of significant leap forward. Even in Double-A in 2011, he fanned just 103 in 143 innings. He may get one final shot at the rotation if the Angels don't sign another starter, but I'm skeptical. I think he'll end up in the bullpen long term.

Jacob Turner, Miami Marlins
Age: 23 in May
2013: 3.74 ERA, 118 IP, 116 H, 54 BB, 77 SO, 1.4 WAR
ZiPS projection: 157.1 IP, 4.35 ERA, 1.2 WAR

The Tigers made Turner the ninth overall pick in 2009 out of a St. Louis high school, a big, projectable right-hander, and he reached the majors at the end of 2011. The Tigers liked his polish, but he was included in the Anibal Sanchez trade in 2012. Turner now has 30 major league starts under his belt and while he posted a solid ERA in 2013, his peripherals were less impressive. Among the 145 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Turner ranked 142nd in strikeout/walk ratio. If he's going to become something more than a back-end starter, it's time to make some improvements.

What to expect: While his overall strikeout rate was low, he actually ranked 85th in swing-and-miss percentage -- higher than Jon Lester or David Price, to name two. To me, this suggests his stuff is good enough to get more strikeouts. He needs to improve his command and maybe trust his offspeed stuff a little more, especially his curveball. He threw 67 percent fastballs in 2013, a pretty high percentage for a guy who doesn't blow it by batters. I'm not sure the breakthrough will come this season -- ZiPS isn't a huge fan -- but I still believe he can develop into a No. 3-caliber starter.



The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. -- Mark Twain

If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first. -- Mark Twain

* * * *

I went on ESPN Radio on Friday to discuss the slow start of the Los Angeles Angels, pointing out the obvious: The rotation was a concern heading into the season, was a bigger concern now with Jered Weaver on the disabled list, and that nobody should be surprised that Joe Blanton is pitching somewhere between awful and atrocious. I also said the offense will be fine. What I neglected to mention was that the Angels were heading into a big weekend home series against the Tigers, staring at a 4-10 record and facing the team many consider the best in the American League. Three more losses would put the Angels at 4-13 and put them in the same big hole as last season when they were unable to overcome a 6-14 start.

Well, three games does not rescue a season, but maybe it will help rescue the Angels' April. They took advantage of the good fortune of not facing Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and roughed up the Tigers 8-1 on Friday, 10-0 on Saturday and then won 4-3 on Sunday on Mark Trumbo's dramatic walk-off piece against Phil Coke in the 13th inning, following a bizarre intentional walk to Albert Pujols in the previous inning.

We learned something about the Angels this weekend; namely that their demise has been too quickly fabricated. But we also may have learned something about the Tigers, who are a mediocre 9-9 and exposing the same flaws as last year when everyone predicted them to run away with the AL Central and they didn't.

So, some random thoughts on the Angels and Tigers …

1. As always, don't overreact to two weeks' worth of stats. Remember when Peter Bourjos couldn't hit three days ago and it was a huge mistake for the Angels to count on him as their regular center fielder (and Vernon Wells has been doing so well for the Yankees!)? Well, Bourjos had three hits on Friday, three on Saturday and another on Sunday and is hitting .302/.333/.491. Look, he's not a .300 hitter and the one walk is an issue, but he's probably not going to be awful.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokAfter a slow start to the season Mike Trout has now raised his average to .307 and hit his first career grand slam on Saturday.
2. Mike Trout is fine. After a five-hit weekend, including his first career grand slam on Saturday, he's up to .307 and has 10 extra-base hits. I still see him as an MVP candidate by season's end, assuming the Angels are any good. Because MVPs can't play for losing teams!

3. Josh Hamilton continues to struggle, enough that Jim Leyland had the left-handed Coke intentionally walk Pujols with two outs and the bases empty in the 12th. Hamilton struck out on three pitches but Trumbo led off the 13th and hit a 3-1 changeup deep into the left-field stands. So many things to discuss with that move: putting the winning run on base (crazy!), the complete lack of respect for Hamilton (how far has he fallen?), leaving Coke in for a third inning to face a string of righties (well, he didn't get through the first one). Interesting stuff there.

4. As for the Tigers, they're 9-9 and that's with a lot of things going well so far: Miguel Cabrera is hitting .355, Torii Hunter is hitting .392, Prince Fielder is hitting .333 and slugging .638. Austin Jackson and Jhonny Peralta have been fine. Four starters have an ERA under 3.00. They lead the majors in strikeouts. The bullpen hasn't been great -- 20th in the majors in ERA -- but the Tigers have lost just one game they've led heading into the eighth or ninth. They've lost two extra-inning games, but those came in the 12th and 13th innings, hardly the fault of the bullpen, and have won a 14-inning game. The pen hasn't been great but isn't the reason the Tigers are .500.

5. Alex Avila: The new Rick Wilkins? Avila and the bottom of the Tigers' lineup have struggled -- the same problem as last year when Detroit's offense had two of the best hitters in baseball (and a superb Jackson) and was still inconsistent scoring runs.

6. Rick Porcello [n.]: A mushroom whose legend grows in the absence of light and rational inquiry.

We don't want to overreact to any of this. The Angels are still throwing Blanton out there every fifth game, and if they lose three in a row to the Rangers this week, we'll be right back asking, "What's wrong?" The Tigers have six games at home against the Royals -- that's the division-leading Royals -- and the Braves, which will potentially tell us more about the Tigers than this weekend's fiasco in Anaheim did. In the long run, I still believe the Tigers will end up benefiting from a weak AL Central, but after 18 games I don't think we can assume they're going to have an easy road to a third straight division title.

Oh, as for the frog quote above, that was just there to make you laugh. Or maybe to suggest that maybe neither the Angels nor Tigers are the biggest frogs in the American League this year many thought back in March.

REST OF THE WEEKEND

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Three stars

1. Ryan Braun, Brewers. Braun hit a first-inning, three-run homer off Jeff Samardzija in Friday’s 5-4 win over the Cubs and a go-ahead, three-run shot off Scott Feldman in the sixth of Sunday’s 4-2 win. Suddenly, the Brewers have won seven in a row and are 9-8 after that 2-8 start.

2. Pirates pitching staff. After losing the series opener on Thursday, the Pirates cooled off the red-hot Braves with three straight wins, holding the Braves to three runs in the three games. Wandy Rodriguez threw seven innings of one-hit ball on Friday and the bullpen tossed six scoreless innings in relief of terrible Jonathan Sanchez on Sunday.

3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Harvey makes a repeat performance with his gem to beat Stephen Strasburg on Friday. Here’s everything you need to know about the hottest pitcher in baseball (4-0, 0.93 ERA, .108 average allowed).

Clutch performance of the weekend

Jeremy Hellickson, Rays. The Rays entered the weekend scuffling at 5-10, but swept the A’s at home. Hellickson outdueled Jarrod Parker 1-0 on Saturday, allowing three hits in seven innings, with Matt Joyce's home run standing up.

Best game

Red Sox 4, Royals 3 (Saturday). From the stirring pregame ceremony paying tribute to the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombing, to David Ortiz’s rousing speech ("This is our f------ city!") that even the FCC forgave, to Neil Diamond singing "Sweet Caroline", to the Red Sox rallying for three runs in the bottom of the eighth to win 4-3, it was a game many in Boston won’t forget.

Hitter on the rise: Joey Votto, Reds.

I mean, Votto was already pretty good. But there were those worried about his power production, with just one home run in more than 50 games going back to last year. But he homered on Saturday and Sunday (going 7-for-11 in the two games) and is now hitting .328/.522/.516.

Pitcher on the rise: Garrett Richards, Angels

The Angels have always liked Richards’ power arsenal and he’s getting a chance to start with Weaver on the DL. His first start was a so-so effort against the Astros, but on Saturday he shut down the Tigers on two hits over seven innings. More impressively (and importantly), he struck out eight and walked nobody. Command has been the big question for him, and if the 24-year-old throws enough strikes he’ll hold on to his rotation spot when Weaver returns.

Team on the rise: Rockies

The Rockies blew a 4-2 lead to the Diamondbacks to end their eight-game winning streak, but at 13-5 are tied with the Braves for the best record in baseball. Yes, they’re 6-0 against the Padres and 3-0 against the Mets, so they’ve taken advantage of a soft schedule, but that’s what you have to do. Their next 19 games are against the Braves, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rays, Yankees and Cardinals, so let’s see where they stand on May 12.

Team on the fall: Mariners

The Mariners scored eight runs in six games, got shut out Friday and Saturday by the Rangers and haven’t won two in a row since starting the season 2-0. The Mariners are right back where they’ve been in recent years: 29th in the majors in batting average (.218), 28th in OBP (.285) and 26th in runs scored. A bad, boring, slow baseball team; you wonder how much longer manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik will have their jobs.


Restocking the Angels' rotation

November, 12, 2012
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Entering 2012, the Angels’ rotation looked like it would be a winning weapon. At the top, Jered Weaver was coming off a Cy Young-caliber season, and Dan Haren and Ervin Santana were poised to repeat their solid campaigns. Jerry Dipoto has inked C.J. Wilson to a long-term deal to give the Angels a very strong four-man crew. Jerome Williams or Garrett Richards would be the fifth starter, and both seemed like they would be pretty decent in such a role.

Santana imploded, came on strong, imploded again, then came on strong to finish. His final body of work was well below average, and the Angels had little interest in bringing him back at a $13 million salary. Haren struggled to stay healthy, and he wasn’t able to command the strike zone like he had in 2011. The Angels opted to decline Haren’s $15.5 million option, making him a free agent after two-plus years wearing Halo red.

Weaver had another fantastic season. Wilson was great for a while, then regressed into the mid-rotation arm that he is. Williams and Richards put together underwhelming performances, but in June the Angels turned prospects Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena and Jean Segura into two months of Zack Greinke. Greinke’s arrival encouraged championship expectations; the rotation was supposed to be stable and healthy down the stretch. It wasn’t.

With the end of the season came a world of uncertainty. Weaver and Wilson are the only locks to return, and the Angels have 60 percent of a rotation to fill this winter. Who are some of their better options to restock the staff?

1. Zach Greinke. Greinke is the prize of this offseason. He’s been viewed as an ace ever since his incredible 2009 season with the Royals, in which he posted a 2.33 FIP across just under 230 innings. He’s clearly the best pitcher available on the free agent market, and the Angels have a good amount of money coming off the books, with Haren, Santana and Torii Hunter all off the payroll.

However, while the Angels will aggressively pursue Greinke, but there are several other viable options on the market. Over at Halos Daily, we’ve taken a few different looks at how some of the top arms might fit in SoCal, especially how it relates to Greinke’s value this winter.

2. Anibal Sanchez. Andrew Karcher examined Sanchez, finding that “[he] and his agent will probably bide their time before signing somewhere… letting Greinke set the market and create a bidding war for [Sanchez’s] services.” Sanchez might be a good option as a fallback option if Greinke is out of reach; he isn’t Greinke, but he’s a very consistent, viable piece that any rotation would love to have. If the Angels can’t nab Greinke, Sanchez is a clear fit.

3. Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda could also be a good fit for the Halos. He isn’t young, so it looks like he’s content with a short-term deal without a huge commitment. Regardless of whether the Angels have paid Greinke funny money, Kuroda could be a fit and could make the rotation one of the best in baseball, much like it looked like he would when he originally signed with the Yankees prior to 2012.

At Halos Daily, Jesse Crall points out that Kuroda is “someone whose xFIP is always around 3.50, someone who keeps his ground-ball rate around 50 percent, someone who strikes out just enough batters to succeed, and someone whose fastball has the same low 90’s velocity it did when he broke in with the Dodgers.” Kuroda is the same pitcher that's been above-average for several years now, and he might decide that he wants to go back to SoCal, but that he also looks better in red.

4. Brandon McCarthy. The next attractive option is McCarthy. Whispers that his personal connection is a bit too strong might be true, but money talks, and McCarthy might be willing to leave Oakland given the right situation and a mansion with the proper square footage. The A’s rotation is also pretty deep, so they may decide that getting into a bidding war for McCarthy isn’t worth their time and resources.

McCarthy hasn’t stayed healthy for a long stretch of time, and 2012 wasn't an amazing season for him. His strikeout rate took a dip and he walked a few more batters than he had in 2011. But his stuff was the same, and assuming a clean bill of health, there’s no reason to assume he can’t return to being the No. 2 starter he looked like in 2011. Halos Daily’s Nathan Aderhold thinks “McCarthy can [probably] be had for something around two years and $20 million, which would likely leave $12-$15 million or so on the table to sign another pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda or Shaun Marcum.”

5. Shaun Marcum. Another solid option, Marcum could stabilize the middle of the Angels’ rotation. He’ll probably be looking for some long-term security, and the Angels could roll the dice and give him a three-year deal.

Marcum has been consistent throughout his time in the majors, but elbow soreness sidelined him for over two months in 2012. He returned strong (at least in terms of peripherals), but he turns 31 in December, so his clock is ticking.

Marcum could wait out the offseason for the highest and last bidder, and he may end up settling for an expensive one-year deal that he can use to prove his worth for potential employers in a year. Given that Marcum had the highest strikeout rate of his career in 2012, the Angels would be well advised to jump on such a deal.

The Angels need to fill three spots. Greinke is the flashy name, and one Greinke might mean more than one Sanchez and one Marcum combined if you need him in Game 1 of the postseason, but the Angels are trying to get back to the playoffs first. Rotational depth is a need, and with the club having locked up so much talent long-term last season, they might be best to invest a lot of short-term money in guys who can fill spots for them and perform well, even if they aren’t elite.

Hudson Belinsky is a contributor to Halos Dailey, the SweetSpot network affiliate dedicated to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
As the San Francisco Giants have proved twice in three seasons, the best way to a World Series title is developing a homegrown rotation of Cy Young winners and contenders: Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner all were first-round draft picks.

The trouble with the Kansas City Royals is they've developed exactly two decent starting pitchers in 25 years. And one of those two got hurt early in his career, and the other was traded.

Which is why the Royals traded for Angels right-hander Ervin Santana, a guy coming off a 5.16 ERA and a major league-worst 39 home runs allowed. It's a low-risk investment, with the Royals picking up the "majority" of Santana's $13 million option the Angels picked up, according to Royals GM Dayton Moore. Santana pitched much better over his final eight starts -- 4-3, 3.44 ERA, 0.99 WHIP -- although his home runs allowed per nine innings remained the same as his first 22 starts at 2.0 per nine innings. (Keith Law's Insider analysis here Insider.)

Santana had won 28 games with a 3.65 ERA over the previous two seasons, so he has a track record of success. Of course, the Royals took a similar risk last offseason when they traded Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez. That blew up on them, as Sanchez was horrible and later traded to Colorado.

Santana is a better risk than Sanchez, a guy who always lived on the edge with his control. Santana's basic skill set remains in operation -- he's mostly a fastball-slider guy, but his average fastball fell from 92.8 mph to 91.7 mph and his heat maps indicate too many fastballs left over the middle of the plate. That resulted in a home run-to-fly ball rate of 18.9 percent, well above his career rate of 10.8 percent. When nearly one of every five fly balls you give up clears the fence, you're not going to have a good year.

For the Royals, Santana essentially replaces the slot of free agent Jeremy Guthrie in the rotation. Other rotation candidates would include Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, prospect Jake Odorizzi, Luke Hochevar, waiver wire pickup Chris Volstad, and the rehabbing Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino.

Back at the start of the 2011 season, the Royals were heralded as owners of the best farm system in baseball. They've yet to see the fruits of that group. Eric Hosmer had a horrible sophomore season (.232 BA/.304 OBP/.359 SLG), leaving his impending-star status in question. Mike Moustakas' second-half slump (.211, five home runs) left the 24-year-old third baseman with subpar overall numbers (.248, 20 home runs, but a lowly .296 OBP). Alcides Escobar, once regarded as a good-field, poor-hit shortstop, actually finished with a higher OPS than Hosmer or Moustakas. Pitchers such as Duffy, Mike Montgomery and John Lamb haven't developed or have battled injuries. Overall, progress has been slow: 65 wins in 2009 to 67 to 71 to 72.

At least there's hope with the offense, once you factor in Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and catcher Salvador Perez. The bullpen, full of power arms, was terrific in 2012, posting a 3.17 ERA that ranked fourth in the American League.

So, as always, it turns to starting pitching with the Royals. This franchise has one winning season since the 1994 strike season. In those 18 seasons of the wild-card era, only 11 pitchers have won at least 25 games with the Royals. That unfortunate roll call:

1. Zack Greinke, 60 wins, 3.82 ERA: first-round pick, 2002.
2. Kevin Appier, 49 wins, 3.97 ERA: first-round pick, 1987.
3. Tim Belcher, 42 wins, 4.38 ERA: free agent, 1996.
4. Jeff Suppan, 38 wins, 4.73 ERA: purchased from Arizona, 2008.
5. Jose Rosado, 37 wins, 4.27 ERA: 12th-round pick, 1994.
6. Brian Bannister, 35 wins, 5.13 ERA: trade with Mets, 2006.
7. Luke Hochevar, 33 wins, 5.36 ERA: first overall pick, 2006.
8. Kyle Davies, 29 wins, 5.34 ERA: trade with Braves, 2007.
9. Gil Meche, 29 wins, 4.27 ERA: free agent, 2007.
10. Bruce Chen, 28 wins, 4.35 ERA: free agent, 2009.
11. Runelvys Hernandez, 25 wins, 5.38 ERA: amateur free agent, 1997.

The Hochevar pick -- Dayton Moore was hired just before the draft that year -- was especially disastrous, as Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Lincecum were top-10 selections that year. Going back even further, between 1997 and 2001, the Royals spent top-seven picks on pitchers Dan Reichert, Jeff Austin, Kyle Snyder, Mike Stodolka and Colt Griffin. None developed.

And that's the hitch. Every team wants to develop its own Cain/Lincecum/Bumgarner trio. It isn't so easy to do. After acquiring Santana, the Royals might still be in play for another veteran free agent, although it won't be easy to convince a guy such as Anibal Sanchez or Kyle Lohse to come to Kansas City (money always talks, of course). We'll see.

As for the Angels, clearing Santana's salary creates an opening for hard-throwing right-hander Garrett Richards. They'll also have to decide by Friday whether to pick up the $15.5 million option on Dan Haren. Certainly, they'll be among the bidders for free agent Greinke. But with C.J. Wilson having offseason elbow surgery to remove bone spurs, Santana gone and Haren possibly gone, it could be an overhauled rotation for 2013. It seems paramount now that they convince Greinke to return.

Angels miss golden opportunity

September, 27, 2012
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Knowing the Oakland A's were down big to the Texas Rangers (and would eventually lose), all the Los Angeles Angels had to do was beat the last-place Seattle Mariners, a team they had defeated 10 times in 15 games this season.

This is why only crazy people bet on baseball. The night before, the Angels had defeated the Mariners for the fourth time in a game started by Felix Hernandez (although the win came in the ninth against the Seattle bullpen, with help from catcher Miguel Olivo's inability to block a pitch in the dirt). On this day, Mariners bats erupted for a 9-4 victory, although most of those runs came late against the Angels bullpen.

Seattle led 3-2 in the seventh behind another solid performance from the underrated Hisashi Iwakuma, who ranks fourth in the American League in ERA since the All-Star break at 2.67. Franklin Gutierrez had crashed into the wall making a fantastic catch of Mike Trout's long drive with a runner on, a key play to help keep the lead. Mike Scioscia pulled starter Dan Haren in the sixth after just 80 pitches. Haren has actually fared better of late, with a 2.45 ERA over his past six starts entering the game, but whether because of Haren's balky back or other issues, Scioscia doesn't trust him to go deep into the game. He's pitched into the seventh inning just twice in his past 14 starts.

[+] EnlargeFranklin Gutierrez
AP Photo/Reed SaxonFranklin Gutierrez's running, crashing catch in the fifth kept the Angels at bay.
Anyway, the game's key decision came when the Mariners had runners at second and third with one out and Garrett Richards pitching. Scioscia elected to intentionally walk Dustin Ackley to face Trayvon Robinson. I hate this move, hate it, especially with a guy like Richards, who isn't exactly Greg Maddux when it comes to his ability to throw strikes. Look, Robinson stinks and strikes out a ton, but Ackley isn't exactly Edgar Martinez. The problem with the move is it makes Robinson a better hitter, forces Richards to throw strikes, and increases the likelihood of a big inning.

Sure enough, Robinson walked to force in a run, Kyle Seager singled in two runs and Jesus Montero hit a sacrifice fly. Maybe the big inning still happens if you pitch to Ackley, but Scioscia's move made it more likely.

So the Angels remain two games behind the A's. The Angels have never missed the playoffs three consecutive years under Scioscia, but it might happen, despite all the money spent in the offseason to sign Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, plus the in-season acquisition of Zack Greinke and the emergence of Trout.

"The momentum is crazy this time of year," Scioscia said. "We need to get right back on the horse tomorrow. These guys have played well, especially in the last month. They know what's going on. They know the fine line we have to walk."

Many have pointed to the Angels' middle relief as a key problem. While the bullpen didn't pick up the loss on Thursday (Haren left trailing 3-2), it certainly helped wrecked the chances of a comeback. One way to look at middle is to compare the Angels' record in the middle innings to the top American League teams.

Leading after five innings
Rangers 74-6, .925 (9-10 when tied)
Rays 65-9, .878 (12-13 when tied)
Athletics 6-10, .859 (18-6 when tied)
Yankees 66-11, .857 (9-5 when tied)
Orioles 57-10, .851 (16-8 when tied)
Angels 67-14, .827 (10-9 when tied)

Leading after six innings
Rangers 75-4, .949 (9-9 when tied)
Orioles 62-4, .939 (11-7 when tied)
Yankees 70-8, .897 (9-5 when tied)
Rays 69-8, .896 (7-8 when tied)
Athletics 66-8, .892 (12-6 when tied)
Angels 70-12, .854 (10-6 when tied)

Leading after seven innings
Orioles 70-0, 1.000 (10-5 when tied)
Rangers 77-1, .987 (9-10 when tied)
Rays 71-3, .959 (6-8 when tied)
Yankees 75-5, .938 (6-4 when tied)
Athletics 68-6, .919 (13-7 when tied)
Angels 70-8, .897 (12-6 when tied)

So, yes, middle has been a major issue, even though Angels relievers have thrown the second-fewest innings in the AL (only the Yankees have thrown fewer). It's funny how you spend hundreds of millions on the big names and it's the guys making $600,000 who can decide your fate.

Just another reason we love this game.

Angels will need more than Pujols

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
12:57
AM ET


Now this is what Arte Moreno signed up for. With Saturday night’s home run against the White Sox, that’s six home runs in five games in five days off the bat of Albert Pujols. And all of them hit against the Rangers and White Sox, both potential playoff rivals. Better than any playbook, that’s exactly what the Angels ordered when Moreno shelled out $240 million to import Albert to the left coast last winter.

Say what you will about the big picture, but at some fundamental level that money wasn’t about rebranding a ballclub. It was not about telegraphing seriousness or an intent to contend. It was not about whatever meta-messaging you might have wanted to invest signing Pujols with. Gargantuan expense was supposed to generate gargantuan power, and since that ugly, homer-free initial 27-game introduction to Angels fans, Pujols has delivered, slugging .629 with 24 home runs through Saturday night.

So for all those who doubted that Albert Pujols was going to be Albert Pujols, shame on you. To think that somehow the burden of on-demand greatness in Southern California was supposed to crush the man who will redefine all-time excellence at first base? Perish the thought. And all you folks worried overmuch about that slow start, shame on you.

To bring things back to the big picture, though, the question is whether the Angels will live up to the billing they earn as we head toward the stretch. Much like the Yankees or Rangers, the Angels’ cast of characters seems like a made-to-order highlight reel, a guaranteed collection of show-stopping entertainments. Perhaps nobody was seen as more automatic than Albert Pujols himself, but he’s not alone. When he isn’t conjuring up conversations over whether he should be compared to Fred Lynn or Willie Mays or both, Mike Trout seems to reinvent the definition of what a Web Gem ought to be on a nightly basis. Mark Trumbo is making everyone who doubted his Rookie of the Year worthiness last season eat that skepticism. And every fifth day, Jered Weaver takes his shot at mowing down any team, any lineup, any batter with the relentlessness of an animatronic strike machine.

The question is whether all that highlight material and all that star power adds up to a team that can catch the Rangers in the American League West, or whether it will have to take its chances in the one-and-done wild-card play-in at season’s end. We’re probably all aware that determining the American League’s playoff field is going to be brutal. Say we swap in the Red Sox for the Orioles because you think they’ll be strong while the injury-riddled O’s fade. That means we’re talking about eight contenders in the AL. Maybe the league-leading Rangers and Yankees come back to the pack, maybe they don’t.

That still leaves a six-team pack the Angels need to separate themselves from. Guess what? Thirty-six of the Angels’ last 54 games are against American League contenders. Not even the consolation of facing the Mariners in six of their final nine games can help much -- if the Angels are going to make a move, it has to be in the next month.

As much as seeing their “name” players shine is cause for highlight-related fun, the less happy fact of the past week is how badly Angels pitching has been clouted in the Weaver-free ballgames. Even including Weaver’s shutting down Texas on July 31, the Halos been hammered in their five games before Saturday’s action, allowing 44 runs in 44 2/3 IP against the Rangers and White Sox, including 64 hits (10 of them homers). That won’t fly in October, not for long.

What those drubbings indicate to me is two things, or one big interrelated thing, which is a problem on pitching and defense. It’s easy to pick on Ervin Santana’s schizophrenic failures or Dan Haren’s struggles, just as it’s easy to suggest that Zack Greinke will fix things because he’s being swapped in for merely adequate fifth-starter material in Jerome Williams or Garrett Richards -- or maybe Santana.

But whether Richards replaces Santana as the starter behind Door No. 5 loses sight of the problem that everyone’s had to work with over the past two weeks, which is the absence of shortstop Erick Aybar on defense. Relying on Maicer Izturis and Andrew Romine doesn’t seem all that coincidental with the sudden outpouring of base hits dropping in against Angels’ pitching, at least not where advanced defensive metrics have Izturis’ work at short. And if Aybar is back in time to play against the Oakland Athletics in the three-game series that starts Monday, that’s a little bit of help from someone beyond those better Angels who might pick everybody up.

Getting help from players beyond the famous people is going to be crucial for the Angels down the stretch in other ways as well. It can show up in something as simple as seeing Howard Kendrick plate Alberto Callaspo with the winning run in the top of the 10th against the White Sox. Not Pujols, not Trout, not Trumbo, but Kendrick, and not with some feat of strength that you’ll still be talking about at work in the break room on Monday.

Better was expected from Callaspo and Kendrick and more beside. While their seasonal slumps didn’t get the same attention as Pujols, breaking them for keeps will make a big difference -- perhaps not as noisily as Pujols’, but significantly. Callaspo, Kendrick and Izturis have all done better than the struggle that each has endured this season to post an OPS above .700. Seeing better work from all of them down the stretch should happen, in the same way that a healthy Aybar should make a difference on defense. Getting Chris Iannetta back from the disabled list isn’t going to set headlines ablaze, but it should repair a slot in the Angels’ lineup that has been dead for months. And if Torii Hunter keeps on keeping on …

Which is why you can believe in Angels, because just as a team is more than the sum of its stars, there are plenty of reason to expect improvement down the stretch. Not just because of the big names or the highlights, but because of some of the other guys who should do better, in part because they couldn’t do much worse. If they do that just as the Halos’ schedule turns fearsome, who knows, there could be credit to go around -- to names small as well as big.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Michael TaylorKelley L Cox/US PresswireMichael Taylor isn't taking a bow for striking out, but he's being polite about it.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Final score: Los Angeles Angels 13, Detroit Tigers 0. Thoughts for tonight ...

1. Mike Trout is good at baseball.

That two-run blast to right-center off Jacob Turner made me happy just to be a baseball fan. As @dianagram tweeted, "OK ... that Trout shot to right-center ... that was Piazza-like oppo power ... wow!"

He four hits all told. He's not slowing down. He may not slow down until 2028.

2. Mark Trumbo is Orange County strong.

Player A: .298/.371/.612
Player B: .311/.364/.634

Player A is Josh Hamilton. Player B is Trumbo. The only Angels player to slug .600 was Troy Glaus in 2000. Trumbo could do it this year.

3. Are the Angels too right-handed?

It's a minor issue. Against the right-handed Turner, manager Mike Scioscia's first four batters all hit right-handed. He has been concerned enough to usually hit the switch-hitting Kendrys Morales between Albert Pujols and Trumbo, but the correct decision is to move Trumbo into the cleanup spot. It's just common sense to hit your best hitters higher in the order and not get overly worried about late-inning relief matchups.

4. Should Peter Bourjos play every day or be traded?

I wouldn't trade him. I love the idea of a 2013 outfield of Trout, Bourjos and Trumbo once Torii Hunter's contract expires after this season. You have two Gold Glove-calibers fielders in Trout and Bourjos and big offensive production from Trout and Trumbo. Bourjos is attractive trade bait, but he's more valuable than another middle reliever. In fact, I think you can make the argument that the Angels' best lineup this season has Bourjos in center field and Trumbo at designated hitter instead of Morales. Understandably, Scioscia is reluctant to lose Morales' bat, but it's not like he's tearing it up. It's also possible Bourjos would hit better with regular playing time.

5. Garrett Richards throws hard.

He didn't rack up the strikeouts in Tuesday's outing (just two), and he doesn't always know where the ball's going, but he cranked his fastball up to 98 mph and his final pitch in the seventh was clocked at 95. If I were the Angels' front office, I'd be very reluctant to include him in a trade.

6. Ervin Santana. Discuss.

We know Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are good. Santana and Haren were supposed to be the other half of a great four-man group. Among 43 qualified American League starters, Santana ranks 41st in ERA at 5.60. Plagued by inconsistency and too many flat breaking balls, he has been hammered on the road. His walk rate is up and strikeout rate down from 2011. Only Seattle's Jason Vargas has allowed more home runs among AL starters. At this point, once Haren returns from the disabled list, you have to wonder if Jerome Williams stays in the rotation and Santana gets sent to the pen for a spell.

7. Dan Haren was so underrated for so long that he almost became overrated. What is he now?

A question mark. Haren's trip to the DL was the first of his career and led to his first missed start. Haren told ESPNLA.com's Mark Saxon that his back felt great in Monday's rehab start and that's he's ready to face the Rangers this weekend. He didn't enjoy missing time. "At the All-Star break, I had insomnia," Haren said. "I slept like nine hours in three days, total. I was just stressed about not being out there and I stayed home. That was really hard, watching the team on TV. Especially if you lose a game or two -- we lost that tough one [Friday] -- it's just hard not being there."

8. They do need bullpen help.

The bullpen ERA is ninth in the AL and Jordan Walden just went on the DL with a strained biceps. Ernesto Frieri finally gave up his first runs and his control issues will always make Angels fans a little nervous when he enters (as we saw the other night when Scott Down and then Kevin Jepsen were required to close out a lead against the Yankees). Still, it's not an awful pen. There's depth with Downs, LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen, but the group doesn't seem to inspire a lot of confidence. Look for the Angels to add another arm here.

9. Angels catchers ...

No, they're not very good. They're hitting a collective .211 with 20 RBIs. Hey, I hear Miguel Olivo is available.

10. May Vernon Wells' rehab assignment last forever.

"Get well. Really well. Are you absolutely sure you’re OK? I don’t know, I think you need to achieve peace of mind. Have you been to Nepal? Ever tried getting there by canoe?"

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bryce HarperJoy R. Absalon/US PresswireDavid Wright and Bryce Harper have a slight disagreement over who third base belongs to.
OK, this rumor is from the pages of the New York Post, so ... umm, take it with a large bucket of salt.

The trade: Mets send David Wright to Angels for Peter Bourjos and Garrett Richards.

The Angels are reportedly seeking to upgrade third base, and getting Wright would certainly add a middle-of-the-order bat to the lineup. With top prospect Mike Trout ready to take over in center field, the Angels could use Bourjos as trade bait ... assuming they're willing to give Vernon Wells another chance in left field after his disastrous 2011 season.

The Mets would be selling low on Wright, after his career-low .771 OPS. But Bourjos is much cheaper, plays a tremendous center field (I thought he deserved the Gold Glove) and surprised at the plate with a .765 OPS in his first full season in the bigs. Angel Pagan played well in center in 2010 for the Mets, but struggled both offensively and defensively in 2011. Richards was the 42nd overall pick in 2009, a right-hander with a big fastball but unrefined secondary pitches.

(Click here to vote on Wednesday's "Who says no?" proposal: Mike Minor for Jed Lowrie.)

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