SweetSpot: Hisashi Iwakuma

If the season ended right now (5:48 p.m. ET), the Mariners would be in the playoffs, tied with the Angels for the two American League wild-card spots, a half-game ahead of the Orioles. They're 31-28, just beat the Braves for the second time in Atlanta, have won five in a row and are 22-14 since starting the season 9-14.

Yes, it's the season of parity, but the Mariners aren't a complete fluke -- their run differential of +25 is tied with the Angels for third in the AL behind only the A's and Blue Jays. They're also 22-17 against teams .500 or better, having played the fourth toughest strength of schedule so far. The point isn't that this is a team without flaws -- I mean, Lloyd McClendon batted Willie Bloomquist and Endy Chavez one-two in Wednesday's 2-0 victory -- but that their record so far hasn't been created by some freakish good luck.

Hisashi Iwakuma was Wednesday's star, tossing seven scoreless innings, carving the Braves i[ like the free-swinging hackers they tend to be. The Braves were 0-for-8 with five strikeouts in plate appearances ending in a splitter -- a pitch every bit as wicked as Masahiro Tanaka's splitter, minus the media coverage. Here:

Batters versus Iwakuma's splitter: .133/.133/.183, 20 SO, 0 BB
Batters versus Tanaka's splitter: .125/.142/.183, 48 SO, 2 BB

"I knew I needed to focus more than regular games because of the heat," Iwakuma said about pitching in the 84-degree weather (hey, compared to Seattle ...). "I was just trying to focus and get quick outs to go deeper in the game and that's what I was able to do."

Iwakuma needed to shut down the Braves because McClendon threw out one of the sorriest lineups you'll see with Bloomquist, Chavez and Stefen Romero, who entered the game batting .204/.256/.345, in the cleanup spot.

By the way, Iwakuma joined the Seattle rotation on July 2, 2012. Here are the AL ERA leaders among starters since then:

Iwakuma -- 2.66
Max Scherzer -- 2.88
Felix Hernandez -- 2.94
Yu Darvish -- 3.04
Alex Cobb -- 3.05
Chris Sale -- 3.08
David Price -- 3.22
James Shields -- 3.23

Ultimately, the Mariners need Iwakuma and Hernandez to continue dominating and hope that the lineup can get more consistent. The Mariners are tied for last in the AL in batting average at .238 and rank last in on-base percentage at .300, but they have been able to raise their game with runners in scoring position, hitting .256/.319/.422. Now they just need to hit better with the bases empty and get better production from the fifth spot in the rotation (Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer have both been terrible there) and it may be an interesting summer in Seattle.
Watched the Rays-Mariners game on Tuesday night. Seattle scraped across a run in the first inning against David Price but then he and Hisashi Iwakuma traded zeroes, Iwakuma baffling the Rays with his splitters and sliders and moving two-seamers, Price often just blowing the Mariners away with fastballs. One of the best pitching duels I've seen so far as neither team really threatened after the first or even appeared as if they might have a chance to score.

So it's 1-0 entering the ninth inning. Iwakuma, who was making his third start after missing spring training with a tendon injury in his finger, was at 97 pitches. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon went to closer Fernando Rodney, who while often walking a tightrope had blown just one save and that was the result of an error that extended the inning.

Anyway, David DeJesus hit a 2-2 changeup for a home run and a few pitches later the Rays had another run. Price went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth, striking out Justin Smoak swinging on a 96-mph fastball.

McClendon was understandably a little defensive to reporters after the game about pulling Iwakuma, saying:
"I'm going to answer this in probably the best way I can because this is something I certainly don't think I should have to defend. First of all, Kuma is on his third start of the year. He had no spring training. He had [97] pitches. And I'll answer it this time. Yes, Kuma was out of gas, but I'm not going to defend that all year.

"First of all, I've got one of the best closers in the game. This guy is going to save a bunch of games for us. It just didn't go his way tonight. That's baseball, it happens. I know everybody's upset. I'm upset. I would have booed me. Heck, I'm upset, too, but that's the way it goes. We'll pick up the pieces and get ready for tomorrow."

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Mariners, to be sure. Whether Rodney is one of the best closers in the game remains to be seen -- he's allowed 19 hits and nine walks in 16.1 innings so there are questions there beyond his league-leading 11 saves. But this isn't about ripping McClendon; going to Rodney there is certainly defensible.

The Mariners are 20-19, which isn't necessarily a huge surprise until you factor in that Iwakuma missed time, James Paxton went down with an injury after two starts, Taijuan Walker is still rehabbing in the minors, Robinson Cano has one home run and the offense is last in the AL in on-base percentage and OPS.

My thought in watching Rodney implode: Do surprise teams tend to have great bullpens? If the Mariners are going to be a surprise team and stay in the playoff race, my guess is the bullpen will have to improve on those late-inning results. As we know, great bullpens can often emerge from nowhere (and often fall apart again the following season). Seattle's bullpen has been solid although not spectacular -- 10th in the majors and fourth in the AL with a 3.53 ERA, but the Mariners are just 16-5 when leading entering the eighth inning (the average team has fewer than two losses when leading entering the eighth).

Let's review some recent surprise teams and see how their bullpens stacked up.

2013 Pirates: Had the third-best bullpen ERA in the majors even after trading away closer Joel Hanrahan. Veteran Jason Grilli stepped in as closer and Mark Melancon had a lights-out year as the setup guy. The pen went 30-20 while pitching the fourth-most innings in the majors.

2013 Indians: The overall ERA doesn't impress with a 3.62 ERA that ranked 19th in the majors and closer Chris Perez even lost his job late in the season, but the relievers were at their best when the game was on the line. The Indians were 72-6 when leading after seven, 76-2 when leading after eight and 10-2 in extra innings.

2013 Royals: The Royals didn't make the postseason like Pittsburgh and Cleveland but did win 86 games, the most for the Royals since 1989. The bullpen had a 2.55 ERA, the lowest by an AL team since the 1990 A's.

2012 Orioles: Baltimore made the playoffs with its first winning season since 1997 largely because of its bullpen. The O's went an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning games. The bullpen ERA improved from 4.18 to 3.00.

2012 A's: Oakland's bullpen ERA improved from 3.74 to 2.94 and it posted an impressive 30-14 W-L record.

2011 Diamondbacks: Arizona won the NL West as it went from 65 wins to 94. The bullpen had been dreadful in 2010, with an MLB-worst 5.74 ERA and 32 losses. The D-backs basically rebuilt the entire pen, acquiring J.J. Putz and David Hernandez and the group went 23-14, 3.71.

2011 Brewers: The Brewers were 26th in bullpen ERA in 2010 but sixth in 2011 and the team improved from 77 to 96 wins. Closer John Axford blew two saves early on but then recorded 43 in a row. The next year, the bullpen regressed again as the Brewers led the majors in ninth-inning losses.

2010 Reds: The Reds improved by 13 games to win the NL Central, their first winning season since 2000. This was one case where the bullpen wasn't a big reason why, as it actually had a worse ERA than the year before (3.97 compared to 3.56). They were a solid 74-5 when leading after seven and 78-4 when leading after eight, however.

2009 Rockies: The 4.53 ERA (24th in the majors) isn't impressive, but they went 83-1 when leading after eight innings as closer Huston Street went 35-for-37 in save chances.

2008 Rays: The '07 Rays, losers of 96 games, had maybe the worst bullpen ever, with a 6.16 ERA. The team made a lot of moves that offseason, notably improving its defense, and also signed closer Troy Percival. But much of the improvement came from Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour, all members of the '07 team. The pen went 31-17, 3.55, the second-best mark in the AL. The Rays went from having the worst record in the majors to playing in the World Series.

OK, so the anecdotal evidence says that, yes, surprise teams almost always have a great bullpen, or at least a good one. It's not always the primary reason for a team's improvement, but it's certainly a key factor. Of course, most good teams tend to have pretty good bullpens. I think the point is that bullpens can play a huge role in improvement and regression from year to year, the 2011/2012 Brewers and 2012/2013 Orioles being prime examples.

So, which team fits that bill in 2014? Certainly the Brewers, where Francisco Rodriguez has been stellar as the closer so far. Their 3.03 bullpen ERA ranks seventh in the majors, although that's barely better than a year ago. The Padres are 19-21, not out of it and playing better the past week, and have an MLB-leading 2.09 relief ERA. If their offense can score some runs maybe the bullpen carries them to a wild-card spot. The Giants may not fit the idea of a surprise team but they were under .500 a year ago. Their pen is 12-3 with a 2.17 ERA although it was pretty solid a year ago (3.30 ERA). The Rockies' bullpen ERA has improved by a half a run.

On the bad side, the Blue Jays are 29th in bullpen ERA, although closer Casey Janssen just returned from the DL. I mentioned the Mariners -- who were 29th in bullpen in 2013 -- and their five late losses already. The Marlins have a solid closer in Steve Cishek although the group collectively ranks 20th in the majors with a 4.15 ERA.

So if you're looking for a correlation between a potential surprise team with a great pen, maybe the Padres are the pick.

Or maybe Rodney doesn't blow another save all season.
As expected, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer easily won the Cy Young Awards on Wednesday, with Kershaw capturing 29 of 30 first-place to win his second Cy Young Award, and Scherzer collecting 28 of 30 first-place votes to win his first.

Kershaw, with his 16-9 record and 1.83 ERA, was the clear choice in the National League. Jose Fernandez had a similar dominance over hitters -- Kershaw allowed a .195/.244/.277 batting line, Fernandez .182/.257/.265 -- but Kershaw pitched 63 more innings, making that comparison moot. Adam Wainwright was terrific, going 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA, walking just 35 batters in 34 starts while leading the majors in innings pitched, but he allowed 28 more runs while pitching just 5.2 more innings.

The American League race arguably had a little more flavor to it if you looked past Scherzer's shiny 21-3 record. Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron outlined the specifics of the debate when it came to using advanced metrics to evaluate the candidates:

We have two different models of pitcher WAR: one based on FIP, and one based on runs allowed. These represent the extreme opposite ends of the viewpoints on how much credit or blame a pitcher should receive for events in which his teammates have some significant influence. If you go with strictly a FIP-based model, a pitcher is only judged on his walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and the events of hits on balls in play and the sequencing of when events happen are not considered as part of the evaluation.

If you go with the RA9-based model, then everything that happens while the pitcher is on the mound -- and in some cases, what happens after they are removed for a relief pitcher -- is considered the pitcher's responsibility, and he's given full credit or blame for what his teammates do while he's pitching.

Scherzer fared best in the Fielding Independent Pitching version of WAR, with his terrific strikeout and walk rates; Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, because they allowed slightly fewer runs in a similar number of innings, fared best in the runs-based model. Iwakuma, for example, led the AL in Baseball-Reference WAR, which focuses more on runs (while considering other factors like team defense and quality of opposition). But as Cameron pointed out, Scherzer rates high in both models. Scherzer likely won so easily because of his 21-3 record, but he's a deserving winner even if he'd gone 17-7.

Did either pitcher have a historic season? Scherzer did have the fifth-highest winning percentage for a pitcher who won 20 games:

Ron Guidry, 1978 Yankees: .893 (25-3)
Lefty Grove, 1931 A's, .886 (31-4)
Cliff Lee, 2008 Indians: .880 (22-3)
Preacher Roe, 1951 Dodgers: .880 (22-3)
Scherzer, 2013 Tigers: .875 (21-3)

But Scherzer's 2.90 ERA wasn't historical, and teammate Anibal Sanchez had an even lower ERA. Scherzer was hard to hit and had a high strikeout rate, but his .583 OPS allowed ranks just 31st during the wild-card era. I'm not trying to diminish Scherzer's season, just suggesting the win-loss record overstates his dominance a bit. He took a huge leap forward, however, and is now correctly labeled as one of the best in the majors.

It's easier to make the case for Kershaw. Since 1950, we've had just 33 seasons where a starter allowed an ERA under 2.00, with 21 of those coming in the 10-year span between 1963 and 1972, when pitching dominated. Going back to 1994 and the wild-card era, just seven times has a pitcher finished with an ERA under 2.00: Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez twice, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens and now Kershaw. Kershaw's .521 OPS allowed is third-best in that era, behind Martinez in 2000 and Maddux in 1995. I would rate Kershaw's season behind those two since they pitched in much higher-scoring leagues.

In fact, Baseball-Reference isn't all that impressed with Kershaw's season, valuing it at 7.9 WAR -- just 38th since 1990. Consider the other factors in play: He pitched in a good pitcher's park, offense across the majors was at its lowest point since 1992 and he didn't face a particularly tough slate of opponents.

Not that 7.9 WAR isn't anything but awesome. It is awesome. Kershaw is clearly the best starter in the majors right now, having finished first, second and first in the past three Cy Young votes while leading the majors in ERA all three seasons. He doesn't turn 26 until next March. I don't think he's going to stop at two Cy Young Awards.

SweetSpot TV: Cy Young preview

November, 13, 2013

Eric and myself preview the Cy Young Award races. It seems pretty clear who will win but should it be so obvious?

SweetSpot's 2013 AL All-Star team

September, 28, 2013
Here are my choices for the 2013 American League All-Star team:

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Twins (.324/.404/.476, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs, 5.2 WAR)
There's not a real clear choice, as Mauer played just 75 of his 113 games behind the plate, but he's the best hitter among the catchers and threw out a league-leading 43 percent of base stealers. Carlos Santana has good offensive numbers, but he played a lot of first base and DH and struggled defensively. Jason Castro's fine season was buried in the Astros' awfulness, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia has hit .272, raising his average 50 points from last year, while bashing 40 doubles and 14 home runs. If he had played a little more behind the plate -- he started 95 games -- he might have been my choice.

First base: Chris Davis, Orioles (.287/.370/.637, 53 HRs, 138 RBIs, 6.7 WAR)
Davis is the easy choice in a weak year at first base in the AL. The only other two first basemen to slug .500 were Edwin Encarnacion, who spent a large chunk of his time at DH, and Brandon Moss, a platoon player. Davis joined Babe Ruth and Albert Belle as the only players with 50 home runs and 40 doubles in a season.

Second base: Robinson Cano, Yankees (.313/.383/.514, 27 HRs, 106 RBIs, 7.6 WAR)
In a year when so much went wrong with the Yankees, Cano was the one constant, missing just one game and putting up his usual excellent numbers. Now the Yankees have to decide exactly how much they're willing to pay for those numbers. Teams like the Dodgers and Nationals could pursue the free agent this winter.

Third base: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (.347/.441/.637, 44 HRs, 137 RBIs, 7.1 WAR)
Despite the injury issues that have slowed him in September (.265, just two extra-base hits and seven RBIs), Cabrera remains the likely MVP winner, thanks in part to a .397/.529/.782 mark with runners in scoring position. It's a deep position with Josh Donaldson having his own MVP-caliber season, Manny Machado catching everything at the hot corner and Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre once again doing everything, but it's hard to deny Miggy's dominance with the bat.

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Orioles (.262/.305/.432, 25 HRs, 74 RBIs, 3.6 WAR)
There's not an obvious guy at the position. Hardy is good defensively and has power, but that .305 OBP lowers his offensive value. Yunel Escobar may have had the best year on defense, but a slow start dragged down his offense. Elvis Andrus plays great defense and has 41 steals but doesn't give you much at the plate. Jed Lowrie stayed healthy and hit but lacks range. In the end, I went with Hardy, who has played 157 games and gives you a little on both sides of the ball.

Left field: Mike Trout, Angels (.323/.431/.554, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, 9.1 WAR)
OK, I cheated a little bit since Trout actually started more games in center than left. But the state of left field in the AL is pretty pathetic, with Alex Gordon and Michael Brantley the only other two rated as even 2.0 WAR players.

Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (.297/.355/.421, 8 HRs, 52 RBIs, 5.7 WAR)
Ellsbury also stole 52 bases in 56 attempts, the second-best percentage ever for a player with at least 50 steals. Orioles fans will argue for Adam Jones, who has 33 home runs and 108 RBIs, but he's drawn just 25 walks so his OBP is a mediocre .318 and his defense doesn't match Ellsbury's.

Right field: Shane Victorino, Red Sox (.297/.354/.456, 15 HRs, 61 RBIs, 6.2 WAR)
He's been solid offensively -- including hitting .303 and slugging .515 while having to bat right-handed against right-handed pitchers after a hamstring injury prevented him from batting left-handed. He has been terrific defensively with 24 Defensive Runs Saved, the sixth-best total in the majors at any position. Again, nobody with big numbers here on offense, especially with Jose Bautista's season-ending injury, but Victorino is a worthy selection.

Designated hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox (.308/.395/.565, 30 HRs, 103 RBIs, 4.3 WAR)
At 37, he's still going strong with his seventh 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Hall of Famer? He's up to 431 career home runs and 1,429 RBIs.

Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Tigers (21-3, 2.90 ERA, 6.6 WAR); Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners (14-6, 2.66 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Chris Sale, White Sox (11-14, 3.07 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Yu Darvish, Rangers (13-9, 2.82 ERA, 5.7 WAR); Anibal Sanchez, Tigers (14-8, 2.64 ERA, 6.0 WAR)
Apologies to Bartolo Colon and Felix Hernandez, and even Clay Buchholz, who went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts.

Left-handed setup guy: Neal Cotts, Rangers (7-3, 1.13 ERA)
Cotts was one of the great stories of the season. He hadn't pitched in the majors since 2009, having Tommy John and four hip surgeries in the intervening years. He pitched in 25 games for the Rangers in Triple-A last year and started there again this season before getting recalled. In 55 2/3 innings, he's allowed just eight runs and 35 hits while striking out 63.

Right-handed setup guy: David Robertson, Yankees (5-1, 2.07 ERA)
For those worried about replacing Mariano Rivera as Yankees closer, the bigger question may actually be: Who replaces Robertson as the eighth-inning guy?

Closer: Koji Uehara, Red Sox (4-1, 21 saves, 1.10 ERA)
Apologies to Kansas City's Greg Holland, who has a 1.23 ERA and 46 saves, and Texas' Joe Nathan, who has a 1.41 ERA and 43 saves. But Uehara, who began the year in middle relief, has put up one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, limiting batters to a .129 average with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 100-to-9.
With four scoreless starts in his past five outings, Seattle Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma has forced his way into the Cy Young discussion. He's now 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA.

Eric Karabell calls Iwakuma his fantasy MVP among pitchers, but that's factoring in Iwakuma's relatively low average draft position. Eric's also right about this: Max Scherzer will probably win the award easily thanks to his sterling 21-3 record.

But whether Scherzer should be a lock is no longer such a sure thing.

Iwakuma ranks third in the AL in ERA (just behind the 2.64 marks of Bartolo Colon and Anibal Sanchez, both of whom have pitched far fewer innings), second to James Shields in innings pitched, second to Scherzer in opponents' OBP, third to Yu Darvish and Scherzer in batting average allowed and fourth in strikeout/walk ratio behind David Price, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez.

In terms of Baseball-Reference WAR, however, it's not a two-pitcher race but a three-pitcher one:

Sale: 7.2 WAR (11-13, 2.97 ERA)
Iwakuma: 7.0 WAR (14-6, 2.66 ERA)
Scherzer: 6.7 WAR (21-3, 2.90 ERA)

The raw totals are close: Sale has allowed 77 runs in 209 innings, Iwakuma has allowed 69 in 219 2/3 and Scherzer has allowed 73 in 214 1/3. The statistical edge Sale and Scherzer have over Iwakuma is strikeouts -- 240 for Scherzer, 221 for Sale, 185 for Iwakuma.

(For the record, Iwakuma is rated much lower via FanGraphs WAR, which focuses on strikeouts, walks and home runs as opposed to actual run prevention. Scherzer, however, has pitched slightly worse with runners on base, or at least had worse results, than Iwakuma. For example, Iwakuma has allowed 25 home runs, but 19 have been solo shots. He's allowed a .228 average with the bases empty but .184 with runners in scoring position. Scherzer has allowed a .186 average with the bases empty versus .223 with runners in scoring position.)

One thing I like to look at is starts allowing two runs or fewer. You should win most of those starts; allow three and it's more of a 50-50 proposition; allow four or more, and you rarely win (only three pitchers have won at least four games this year when they allowed four-plus runs and only five, including Scherzer, have won three).

Record when allowing two runs or fewer:

Scherzer: 20 starts, 15-1, four no-decisions, 1.61 ERA
Sale: 14 starts, 9-3, two no-decisions, 0.98 ERA
Iwakuma: 20 starts, 12-1, seven no-decisions, 0.97 ERA

Iwakuma has pitched better than Scherzer in his good starts yet has three fewer wins. In fact, he's had four no-decisions when allowing zero runs. (All three pitchers have had seven starts allowing four runs or more.)

So yes, Scherzer has had better run support. Really, you can dissect this a lot of ways and all three are pretty even. But I suspect if you put Scherzer on the Mariners, we wouldn't be talking about a landslide Cy Young vote.

(For the record, I'd probably go Scherzer, Iwakuma, Sale, Darvish and Hernandez on my five-pitcher ballot. But maybe that's the Mariners fan in me not trying to be biased.)

Iwakuma heads crowded AL Cy Young race

June, 14, 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.


Who do you think will end up winning the AL Cy Young Award?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,919)

As with Buchholz, who has missed some time with a sore neck, keep an eye out for Sanchez's health. He missed his last start with shoulder stiffness.

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.

The game survives. It always survives.

A routine Wednesday afternoon game on a gorgeous June day in Seattle between two teams rapidly going nowhere can slog along for 13 uneventful innings -- so uneventful that it was 0-0 heading to the 14th, with nary a hit with runners in scoring position.

Then the White Sox score five runs in the top of the 14th. Mariners fans began filing out into the concourses of Safeco Field. The Mariners score a run and load the bases with two out. White Sox closer Addison Reed has Kyle Seager in a 1-2 hole when Seager dramatically turns the routine into the remarkable, hitting a game-tying grand slam out to right-center.

The game heads to the 15th inning and the camera pans to fans heading back to their seats.

This is what baseball does to us. For 24 hours, the talk had been about Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez and Biogenesis instead of Yasiel Puig and Domonic Brown. Instead of discussing scores, everyone was discussing suspensions. And then Kyle Seager hits a grand slam and the fans return.

Maybe Bud Selig cares more about penalizing players who used performance-enhancing drugs than publicizing up-and-coming stars. Maybe he cares more about increasing owner profits than creating a playoff system that makes sense. Maybe he cares more about limiting bonuses to amateur players instead of trying to attract the best athletes to his sport.

There are many problems with the business of baseball.

There are not problems with the game. We do go back.

* * * *
The White Sox won 7-5 in 16 innings, snapping an eight-game losing streak. It's probably fair to say that they needed this one. Reed blew the five-run lead but, out of pitchers, manager Robin Ventura left Reed in to go three innings, which these days is like asking your closer to climb Mount Everest without oxygen and carrying Pablo Sandoval on his back.

[+] EnlargeKyle Seager
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonKyle Seager, center, became the first player to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings.
Needless to say, the game contained a few "first-evers" and other oddities. Seager became the first player in major league history to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings. It was the first time both teams scored 5-plus runs in extra innings after the game had been 0-0 through nine. The 12 total runs in extra innings tied an American League record. (All nuggets courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.) Mariners catcher Kelly Shoppach became the 13th player since 2010 to strike out five times in a game -- although the only one to also register two hits. Mariners manager Eric Wedge didn't use a single position player off his bench. The White Sox turned six double plays.

But the game also exposed the weaknesses of these two clubs. If they don't hit home runs, they don't score. The five runs the White Sox scored in the 14th were more than they had scored in any game during their eight-game losing streak, a stretch in which they hit .197 with one home run and a .486 OPS. With a 25-32 record, the White Sox appear to be a dysfunctional unit, hoping unproductive veterans Adam Dunn (.162 average, .261 OBP) and Paul Konerko (.233 average, .296 OBP) find a fountain of youth, with no youth to build a lineup around. The entire offense is a wreck outside of Alex Rios, last in the AL in runs, average, walks, OBP and 13th in home runs. The White Sox are likely going to be sellers at the deadline, but outside of Rios and Chris Sale (who isn't going anywhere) there aren't many assets here of much value.

The Mariners hit Endy Chavez and Jason Bay 1-2 on Wednesday, which also tells you the state of a team that's in Year 5 of general manager Jack Zduriencik's attempt to clean up the mess left behind by the Bill Bavasi. The Mariners are 26-34, and that's with two of the best starters in the league. Hisashi Iwakuma was terrific once again, pitching eight scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 1.94. He's 6-1 in 13 starts but has allowed more than three runs just once; with a little run support he could easily have 10 wins.

I don't know if this was the game of the year, but I'm pretty sure it will end up on the short list. For 5 hours and 42 minutes, two bad baseball teams gave us baseball to talk about.

Thank goodness for that.
Major league baseball is so deep in quality starting pitching that you could probably make the case for nine or 10 different combinations as the best pair going right now. Here are my top five:

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:

Iwakuma: 2.54
Hernandez: 2.69
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.


Which is the best starting pitching combo in the majors right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,796)

5. 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.
The ESPN Fantasy staff has published its mid-May rankings -- their top 250 players for the rest of the season.

It's always interesting to see the different opinions. Everybody agrees on guys like Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun, but here are some guys where the rankings differ or have changed from preseason projections:

Bryce Harper (14th overall, up from No. 36 preseason): Our guy Eric Karabell has him the highest at No. 9 while his lowest ranking was 26th. I'm in line with Eric here, although he hasn't run yet (one stolen base) and needs to stay away from walls.

Stephen Strasburg (32nd overall, down from No. No 23): Wild variance in opinion, as he was as high as 22nd and as low as 73. Strikeout rate is down nearly two per nine innings from last year and left-handers have a .357 OBP against him. Somewhere in the 30s seems right to me.

Shin-Soo Choo (33rd overall, up from No. 75): As high as 18th, as low as 53rd (that's Karabell). He's helped carry my team to first-place in the one auction league I joined this year with all the ESPN fantasy gurus (shameless self-promotion), but I can't say he's going to hit .322/.465/.589 all season. Still, his power is playing up in that bandbox. The concern is he still can't hit lefties (.159) and you're not going to hit .322 when you can hit one side of pitchers.

Matt Kemp (18th overall, down from No. 6): The fantasy guys are expecting his power to come back (one home run so far). My concern: In his big 2011 season, he basically had two strikeouts for every walk; this year, it nearly 4-to-1.

Albert Pujols (25th overall, down from No. 7): He's hitting .248/.328/.418 with six home runs and 23 RBIs, so the fantasy guys expect a big bounce moving forward to rank him 25th. I'm not so sure. Yes, he'll get his RBIs hitting behind Mike Trout, but you have to be worried about a DL stint at some point and he's not going to give you those few stolen bases he always gets.

Matt Harvey (55th overall, up from No. 160): Thought he'd be a little higher, but I guess he may not win many games with the Mets' offense behind him.

Jean Segura (87th overall, up from No. 276): Hitting .349 and leads the NL with 13 steals. Obviously, if he comes close to that he'll be better than 87th, but keep in mind he always had trouble staying healthy in the minors.

Hisashi Iwakuma (134th overall, up from No. 243): He's not this good, but he is good, with that devastating split-fingered. His track record goes back to when he joined the Seattle rotation last July. With eight walks in nine starts, that WHIP will remain low even as his BABIP regresses to more normal levels.

Shelby Miller (135th overall, up from No. 261): Unlike Harvey, he'll get better run support. But will the Cardinals limit his innings?

Kyle Seager (138th overall, up from No. 162): But still below Brett Lawrie. I'll take Seager.
There are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than watching Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander pitch. Especially if you're not at the ballpark and you can set up a laptop outside, put up your feet, soak in those first warm rays of early May and imagine what it's like to throw a baseball like these two guys.

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.

The statistics
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.



Who is the best right-handed starter right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 12,684)

Three stars

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).

Best game
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.

QuirozESPN Stats & InformationBrandon League's 0-2 sinker wasn't that bad of a pitch.
As for the Giants, they continue to win despite poor performances from the rotation. Ryan Vogelsong was the victim in the seven-run inning, and he is 1-2 with a 7.20 ERA with just one quality start in six games. Matt Cain has a 5.57 ERA (lowered from 6.49 after Sunday night's win), thanks to nine home runs allowed. And Tim Lincecum has scuffled along with a 2-1, 4.41 ERA mark. Vogelsong and Cain should fare better -- their strikeout/walk ratios are good -- if they curb the home runs. But it's time to recognize that the 2013 Giants -- like the 2012 Giants -- are built as much around an underrated offense and bullpen (second-best ERA in the majors) as they are around their starting pitchers.

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.

Hisashi Iwakuma heat mapESPN Stats & Information Hitters have not been able to read Hisashi Iwakuma's low splitter.
He can't hit but, he sure can field
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.
There is no scientific way to pick an all-underrated team. Well, I suppose there is some formula we could come up with, but that would be about as much fun as watching Brendan Ryan take batting practice. So let's go with an unscientific approach: my gut instinct. Plus how many times Eric Karabell and I talk about these guys being underrated at dinner. (He's sick of me bringing up Kyle Seager every Monday night. I remind him he's the only good position player right now on the Mariners.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the way, check out the video. Who do I think is overrated? You may be surprised.

The Atlanta Braves sent a message this weekend: Don't forget about us.

We all know the Washington Nationals were prohibitive favorites to win the NL East -- 38 of 43 ESPN.com experts picked them -- and only five picked the Braves. I think the Braves' impressive sweep over the Nationals this weekend, culminating in Sunday's 9-0 shutout, did more to showcase the talents of the Braves than to expose any particular weaknesses in the Nationals.

"We know the Nationals are supposed to be pretty good, so it was good to make a statement early," Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said after the club won its ninth game in a row. "Let them know we're going to be tough to beat."

Nationals manager Davey Johnson took the more experienced response of a manager who knows pennants aren't won in April: "We should have won the first one. We were right there on the second. We just got waffled today. I don't put too much stock in it."

The most impressive thing about the Braves is -- like the Nationals -- they're a team constructed not just for 2013 but for the long haul. What's really impressive is how the Braves have built this team. Astute draft picks, player development, great trades, obscure pickups and, rarely, an impact free-agent signing.

Unlike the Nationals, who benefited from years of losing records that resulted in high draft picks (especially lucky enough to own the No. 1 overall pick the years Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were in the draft), the Braves developed young talent without the benefit of all those high picks. In fact, in the past 20 years, they've had just two picks in the top 15 -- Mike Minor, No. 7 overall in 2009, and Jason Heyward, No. 14 overall in 2007. Minor was a polished college left-hander who some felt the Braves overdrafted; Heyward was a local high school kid who fell to 14th in part because he was pitched around so much as a senior that he had just 52 at-bats.

Credit the Braves scouting staff for not missing those guys. Roy Clark, the scouting director for the Braves when they drafted Heyward and Minor, is now the assistant general manager to Mike Rizzo in Washington. But beyond those first-rounders, the Braves have found talent later in the draft:
  • Simmons was a second-round pick out of Western Oklahoma State Junior College in 2010 and his meteoric rise to reach the majors was remarkable, considering few teams believed in his bat and some even projected him as a pitcher.
  • Closer Craig Kimbrel was a third-rounder in 2008, another junior college pick.
  • Starter Kris Medlen was a 10th-rounder, yet another junior college pick, and like Kimbrel is a short right-hander (both are under 6 feet tall).
  • First baseman Freddie Freeman, currently on the disabled list, was a second-round pick in 2007, and like Heyward reached the majors at age 20.
  • Brandon Beachy, also on the DL after last year's Tommy John surgery, was primarly a third baseman at Indiana Wesleyan and went undrafted. Braves scout Gene Kerns saw him pitching in relief in a college summer league and recommended the team sign him.
  • And then there's the quickly growing legend of Evan Gattis, who less than three years ago was a 23-year-old playing for the University of Texas-Permian Basin after having quit baseball for five years. The Braves drafted him in the 23rd round, and now he's a 26-year-old rookie catcher filling in for the injured Brian McCann, batting cleanup and hitting .324/.385/.724. Gattis, who knocked in two runs in Sunday's win, has 10 RBIs and four home runs in nine games this season.

All that young talent means the Braves had an Opening Day payroll just under $90 million -- 16th-highest in the majors and less than half of the Yankees and Dodgers.

Then, of course, there are the Upton brothers. Instead of re-signing speedster Michael Bourn, the Braves signed the younger B.J. Upton to add more power to the offense. Then came the blockbuster deal to acquire Justin Upton. All he's done is club seven homers -- his seventh came on Sunday off a Gio Gonzalez 2-2 curveball that Upton hit out to right-center.

Sunday's pitching star was veteran lefty Paul Maholm, another astute Braves pickup, acquired last summer from the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino, a youngster who missed all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. Maholm is a cost-effective mid-rotation starter making $6.5 million this year, the kind of pitcher who is underrated because his stuff isn't overpowering. He'd had a good year with the Pirates in 2011 and was pitching well for the Cubs. He's added a slow curve to his repertoire this year and hasn't allowed a run in three starts.

Maholm will give up a run eventually and the Braves' winning streak will end soon. Right now they're playing the best of any team in baseball, a fun team to watch that does everything -- play defense, pitch, hit for power and then hand the ball to Kimbrel. And the scary thing: B.J. Upton is just finally starting to hit -- he had three on Sunday to raise his average to .163 -- and Heyward is hitting .103 with just two extra-base hits.

Consider the message received.



Which early disappointing team should be the most concerned?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,282)

Three stars
1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox. Took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Sunday against the Rays, finishing with 11 K's over eight scoreless frames in Boston's 5-0 win. Buchholz had a dominant spring training and it's carried over into April as he's 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA.

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners. Outpitched Yu Darvish in a 3-1 Seattle victory on Friday in a matchup that was certainly huge in Japan. Through three starts Iwakuma is 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA, .129 average allowed and 16/1 SO/BB ratio.

3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Can't avoid another pitcher, but Harvey was dominant once again on Saturday against the Twins, pitching through a start-time temperature of 35 degrees. In three starts he's 3-0 with two runs allowed and six hits in 22 innings.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Albert Pujols, Angels. Trailing the Astros 4-1 in the eighth inning on Saturday, and staring at an embarrassing 2-9 start, the Angels rallied for two in the eighth and then Pujols doubled home Luis Jimenez and Mike Trout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. A win on Sunday pushed the Angels to 4-8; not good, but not yet a complete disaster.

Best game
Braves 6, Nationals 4, 10 innings (Friday). The Nationals led 4-0 after two innings and starter Ross Detwiler departed after seven innings with a 4-1 lead. But the Nationals bullpen struggled yet again, the Braves tied it in the ninth off Drew Storen, and then backup infielder Ramiro Pena hit a two-run homer off Craig Stammen in the 10th.

Hitter on the rise: Evan Gattis, Braves.
What does it say about the confidence Fredi Gonzalez has in Gattis to hit him cleanup after just a few games in the majors? If Gattis is this good, it's going to create a good kind of problem when McCann and Freeman return from the DL. What do you do with him? He's catching now and started one game at first, but you can't really hide him anywhere else.

Pitcher on the rise: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
The 20-year-old rookie had his second straight solid outing, with six scoreless innings against the Phillies on Saturday. That's two starts and one run allowed, although he hasn't earned the W yet.

Move I can't understand
Oh, Dusty Baker, how we love to analyze your moves. On Sunday, the Reds led the Pirates 6-4 entering the bottom of the eighth (and had led 5-0 entering the bottom of the seventh). Aroldis Chapman hadn't pitched in ... well, a week. Neither had setup man Jonathan Broxton, who came in and promptly gave up a walk and home run to Michael McKenry. And then after a groundout, another walk. But it wasn't a save situation so Chapman remained in the bullpen. Starling Marte then homered. Broxton then gave up a walk (to pitcher Jonathan Sanchez) and a single. And was still in there to give up a sac fly. (Baker blamed rust for Broxton's stuggles. OK.) Chapman was finally summoned from the pen. So Baker managed to go an entire week without getting Chapman into a meaningful situation. Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto left Saturday's game with right triceps pain and Shin-Soo Choo continues to hit but struggled defensively in center field.

Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates entered the weekend hitting .153 and had scored 21 runs in nine game. They swept the Reds to improve to 6-6, one game behind St. Louis in the NL Central.

Team on the fall: Twins
The Twins have lost five in a row and got snowed out on Sunday, which maybe was a good thing. Rookie center field Aaron Hicks may find a trip to Triple-A in his future, as after a big spring training he looks completely overmatched, hitting 3-for-43 (.047) with 20 strikeouts. And yet Ron Gardenhire continues to hit him leadoff.

A night that could define the season

April, 13, 2013

Friday was just one of those nights when we give thanks for the existence of the MLB cable package.

Everywhere you turned there was something significant, bizarre, or significant and bizarre going on. Some of these events could define the season, or at the very least will help tell its story.

Let's break them down, starting with the most significant.

Reyes' injury

Is the Toronto Blue Jays' dream season over before it could really get going? The star-studded Jays were already off to an uneven start, and then Jose Reyes had to be carted off the field after an awkward slide while stealing second base in Kansas City. Last season, Mariano Rivera was a casualty of the Kauffman Stadium turf; this year, it's Reyes.

The Jays did manage to win, but losing a major asset will only make their path to the playoffs that much tougher. And as Paul Swydan pointed out earlier this week, they have a brutal first-half schedule.

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is saying Reyes will be out at least one month, and it could be as many as three. Ouch.

The Nationals' collapse

On paper, the Washington Nationals are still baseball's best team. But if you want to nitpick, there are these: They have used Tyler Clippard -- one of the game's best relievers -- an alarming amount in recent years Drew Storen might still be dealing with confidence issues after blowing the 2013 NLDS, and every Ryan Zimmerman throw is an adventure.

So what happened on Friday? Clippard entered in the eighth with the Nationals leading 4-1. He wasn't sharp, walking three men and allowing a run without being able to get through the inning. Storen relieved him and got out of the jam, only to surrender two runs in the ninth. (Rafael Soriano was given the night off after working a lot the past few days.)

Storen wasn't hit hard, but one would imagine his confidence is still fragile, and this blown save against the Nats' main division rival won't help. And the tying runs? Those came when Justin Upton hit a slow chopper to Zimmerman with the bases loaded and two outs. Zimmerman fielded it cleanly but made an awkward sidearm throw that went into right field and allowed Ramiro Pena to score from second. Injuries have forced Zimmerman to change his arm angle, and he never looks comfortable when making a throw. The Braves took a 6-4 lead in the 10th on a two-run homer from Pena, and the Nats went quietly in the bottom of the frame.

Again, we're nitpicking on the Nats here, and this is a stacked team. But if you were looking for weaknesses, you could find them on Friday.

The Orioles' bad luck

It's been well documented that the Baltimore Orioles had some good mojo last year; look no further than their 29-9 record in one-run games. Friday's events suggested that their luck has turned.

With the score tied at two with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, Vernon Wells hit a deep drive to center field. Adam Jones had a bead on it and was even blowing a bubble (as he's known to do) just as he was about to catch it. Not so fast, my friend. The ball bounced off his glove and three runs scored. It's a drop you never see a player like Jones make. Well, almost never.

Then, in the top of the eighth inning, the Orioles got the first two runners on before Manny Machado hit a soft one-hopper to Robinson Cano at second. And so began the strangest triple play you will ever see. Just watch for yourself.

Quentin's suspension

While all of this weirdness was going on, it was announced that Carlos Quentin would be suspended for eight games for igniting Thursday's brawl with the Dodgers' Zack Greinke. Earlier in the day, word got out that Greinke would miss at least two months with a broken collarbone, and it's easy to wonder if Quentin's suspension should have been heavier considering the severity of Greinke's injury.

I'm inclined to say yes. When you go after someone with the intent to harm, you must be prepared to face the consequences of your damage.

The suggestion that Quentin should have to sit out for as long as Greinke is injured is a bit harsh, but if the precedent for similar instances in which the pitcher was not hurt is eight games, then 15 games would be fair in this instance.

Other weird stuff
  • In Seattle, two Japanese pitchers squared off for just the 10th time in MLB history, with Yu Darvish going against Hisashi Iwakuma.
  • It was snowing when the New York Mets and Minnesota Twins got started at Target Field, with the kind of weather that usually makes it pretty hard to drive the ball. The Mets didn't get the memo, pounding out 16 runs while trouncing the Twins. John Buck hit a grand slam in the second inning and set a Mets record for most RBIs through 10 games with 19.

So yeah, wild night. Thank goodness we live in a world in which we could watch all of it while sitting on one sofa.
Maybe we'll try and do this each morning. Maybe we'll get tired of doing it after two weeks. Anyway, quick thoughts from Tuesday's games.

  • The story of the night obviously was Yu Darvish's bid for a perfect game. He become the fifth pitcher in 25 years to lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning, joining the Blue Jays' Dave Stieb, the Mariners' Brian Holman (I'll never forget watching that one; ex-Mariner Ken Phelps hit a pinch-hit home run, the final home run of his career), the Yankees' Mike Mussina and, of course, Armando Galarraga. I'm sure Darvish went to bed thinking of that first-pitch fastball to Marwin Gonzalez. I'll suggest this won't be the first no-hit bid against the Astros this year, and certainly not the only no-hit bid of Darvish's career. If he commands his fastball like he did in this game, watch out American League. Here's more on Darvish's near-perfecto from ESPNDallas' Jean-Jacques Taylor.
  • After that game ended, watched some of Hyun-Jin Ryu's debut for the Dodgers. The Korean free agent looked impressive, working inside to lefties/outside to righties (see heat map below) and working quickly. He did allow 10 hits, all singles, but didn't walk anybody, and a couple of errors led to two unearned runs. My first thought was he reminded me of David Wells -- like Wells, he has a few extra pounds on him as well -- and then I heard Jim Kaat make the same comparison. He's not overpowering, topping out at 92 mph, but seemed to have a good feel out there. Plus, he wears No. 99, so you have to love that.
Hyun-Jin Ryu Heat MapESPN Stats & InformationKorean free agent Hyun-Jin Ryu had an impressive first outing for the Dodgers.

  • Madison Bumgarner was even better, and Kaat pointed out how pitching coach Dave Righetti has worked with Bumgarner to come a little more over the ball with his fastball grip (if I explained that correctly), to allow him to pitch more effectively inside to right-handed batters. He's always had command on the outside corner, but if he can command his fastball inside, maybe he takes a step forward this season. Which would make him a Cy Young contender.
  • Was also watching some of Mariners-A's game. The Mariners threw out their Raul Ibanez-Michael Saunders-Mike Morse stone statue outfield (at least Jason Bay wasn't in center) but it didn't matter as Hisashi Iwaukuma allowed only a Yoenis Cespedes home run in six innings as Seattle won 7-1. Remember, Iwakuma was one of the best pitchers in the AL in the second half (2.50 ERA). Morse slammed two home runs, including an oppposite-field shot off Jarrod Parker in the third. For Mariners, the most important line was this one: eight walks. Kyle Seager, a strong breakout candidate for 2013, went 3-for-3 with two walks. Josh Reddick's beard is now 0-for-8.
  • Yes, I'm already worried about that Brewers bullpen.
  • Justin Masterson was OK for the Indians in their win against R.A. Dickey. J.P. Arencibia (three passed balls) has some work to do in learning to catch the knuckleball.