SweetSpot: Ike Davis

Is that such an outlandish headline? I'm not sure it is. Wood did it all in Monday's 5-1 win over the hapless Diamondbacks, pitching seven innings with nine strikeouts and no walks and going 2-for-3 with a double and three-run homer. Here's a fun tweet:



Wood hit .222 with three home runs last year, and while we won't quite declare him the new Mike Hampton yet, there are similarities in that both are/were smallish lefties who could hit (Hampton hit seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 and hit .344 the next season with three home runs).

More importantly, Wood is off to a great start on the mound (2.52 ERA), so far proving his 2013 breakout wasn't a fluke. In 25 innings, he has 28 K's and four walks and two home runs allowed. That's a big boost in his strikeout rate from 2013 -- 17.5 percent to 25.7 percent -- and if this is a real improvement then it's time to start thinking of him as an elite starter.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, while Wood and Jeff Samardzija have allowed just 14 runs in their eight starts, those two are a combined 1-4 as the Cubs are next-to-last in the NL in runs.

Other quick thoughts from Monday's action:
  • New Pirates first baseman Ike Davis hit a grand slam and then the Pirates scored runs in the eighth and ninth to beat the Reds 6-5. The Reds have an MLB-worst 5.77 bullpen ERA with an atrocious 1.72 WHIP. J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra have really struggled, so even Aroldis Chapman's return isn't an automatic fix. As for Davis, he's been plagued by inconsistency in his career, but we're not that far removed from the second half of 2012 when he hit .255/.346/.542 with 20 home runs. Who knows if it will work out, but it was a good risk by the Pirates to get him. Sure, you worry about all the strikeouts and low average you're going to get from Davis and Pedro Alvarez but they may also combine for 65 home runs.
  • Some sweet fielding plays on Monday. Loved this double play by Ruben Tejeda and Daniel Murphy for the Mets and this slick bare-handed play by Albert Pujols. Tejeda made another diving stop and out as the Mets blanked the Cardinals 2-0 behind Jenrry Mejia's 6.2 scoreless innings and Kyle Farnsworth's first save.
  • Nice 4-3 win for the Rangers over the A's on a night Yu Darvish didn't have a dominant outing, with eight hits and four walks in six innings. Fun fact: Prince Fielder has already been intentionally walked nine times, the most ever for an AL player in April. He's hitting just .205 but opposing managers still want to get a righty-righty matchup when possible.
  • Fielder's old teammate in Detroit, some guy named Miguel Cabrera, continues to struggle with a .206/.275/.333 line and one home run. It's gone relatively unnoticed because he's Miguel Cabrera and we expect him to heat up soon enough -- and the Tigers are still 9-7 after losing to John Danks on Monday -- but this is a guy who never has a bad month (last September, when he was injured, being the exception). He only has one opposite-field hit all season. Last year, 55 of his 193 hits went to right.
  • Keep an eye on Corey Dickerson, who gets a chance to play for the Rockies with Michael Cuddyer on the DL. He can hit and went 3-for-4 with one of the five home runs the Rockies hit against the Giants.
  • Things are turning ugly in Seattle. The Mariners returned home to face the Astros with Felix Hernandez pitching and put up a stinkbomb of a game for their seventh straight loss. An error by Kyle Seager in the sixth inning led to four unearned runs as Hernandez gave up three run-scoring hits with two outs. Dustin Ackley was moved up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup and promptly went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Justin Smoak is hitting .170 after his big opening series against the Angels. Seager and Brad Miller are hitting under .200. Leadoff hitter Abraham Almonte has 28 strikeouts in 19 games. Looks like the same old Mariners.

Pirates fans should get to say 'I like Ike'

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
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One of the things a few folks -- not just long-suffering Mets fans -- were wondering was whether Ike Davis was going to be able to build on last season's big second half. After going down for a month to help him address things like an epically awful start, perhaps related to his planting too far back from the plate, Davis came back up in July and clouted pitchers at a .267/.429/443 clip in two months. That from a lefty power bat that hit 32 homers in 2012, a guy who even with the awful two months to start 2013 has a career .256/.357/.471 line against right-handed pitching (2014-inclusive).

So the thing to watch is if Davis is going to be some variation of that guy again: The lefty masher, maybe the guy who delivered the third-best second-half OBP in the majors in 2013 -- the Pirates aren’t all that picky.
[+] EnlargeIke Davis
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsIf Ike Davis brings his 2012 power or his 2013 second-half OBP, he'll be a big addition to the Bucs.

The fun thing is that Davis perfectly complements the guy the Pirates had left over at first base, right-handed hitter Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez managed just a .619 OPS against righties last year as the short end of the Pirates’ first-base platoon, with Garrett Jones initially and Justin Morneau later, while thriving against the lefties he’s reliably chewed up (.898 OPS career), seeing his usual 200-point OPS split spike up to .987 last year. Even if that had regressed toward something less extreme, even if Sanchez got his OPS against right-handed hitters back up around .700 as an everyday player, he wasn’t going to be an asset as a regular. Credit the Pirates for both resurrecting Sanchez -- he was a Marlins All-Star in 2011, and combined for 38 homers in 2010 and 2011 -- and using him within his limits.

To compensate for those shortcomings, the Pirates had retained Travis Ishikawa as a sort of latter-day Dave Bergman/Tony Muser type, something you don’t see much of on rosters these days. As a fan of a certain age, those are my points of reference for a backup first baseman good for spot starts against right-handers who struggle against lefties, maybe some pinch hitting and defensive-replacement duties. They were fun to have around, but they were something you could only afford the roster space for at a time when bullpens were staffed by five or six guys, not seven or eight. Like Morneau, Davis is a much stronger alternative, and a much better use of the roster spot in today’s competitive environment, which is why the Pirates promptly designated Ishikawa for assignment as soon as they could add Davis to the active roster on Saturday.

Having assembled their latest retread platoon to cover their first-base needs, it’s interesting to see how many teams are adapting to today’s decline in runs scored with platoons or with some measure of platooning. The Brewers have had to resort to the barrel-bottom solution of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, while the Rays have stuck with James Loney-Sean Rodriguez at first. The Yankees have resorted to a platoon during Mark Teixeira’s time on the DL, partnering Kelly Johnson with Francisco Cervelli and Scott Sizemore at first. The Astros and Rockies play matchup games.

But most of those are desperation or price-driven choices, whereas the Davis-Sanchez platoon might combine to crank out offensive production to rank among the top half of first basemen. While we don’t know who the PTBNL the Mets will get will be, minor league righty reliever Zach Thornton seems like little more than an organizational arm. So while the Pirates may well be cost-conscious and reluctant to part with talent, what they might get from first base won’t be too shabby for a pair of bargain-basement finds.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Keith Law will unveil his Top 100 prospects on Wednesday (you can find his organizational rankings here) so I thought I'd look at five former top-100 prospects who are entering crucial, make-or-break seasons.

Dustin Ackley, OF, Mariners
Age: 26 in February
2013: .253 AVG/.319 OBP/.341 SLG, 4 HR in 384 AB, 1.1 WAR
ZiPS projection: .253/.327/.365

The second overall pick in 2009, Ackley was hailed was one of the best pure hitters to come from the college ranks in years. He showed promise as a rookie in 2011, hitting .273, but fell apart in 2012, hitting .226; his confidence was perhaps shattered by Safeco Field. He tinkered with his swing for 2013 and that resulted in a slow start and a demotion to Triple-A, a move that also resulted in a switch back to the outfield (where he had played in college) as Nick Franklin replaced him at second base.

After a month in Triple-A purgatory, Ackley returned and hit much better: .285/.354/.404, including .301 from July 6 on. However, after he had turned into a solid defensive second baseman, Ackley looked out of place in center field, with poor reads and a mediocre arm. With Robinson Cano on board, Ackley is no longer a second baseman, at least in Seattle, but at this point his bat doesn't profile well for left field, where he'll probably end up in 2014.

What to expect: Mariners fans point to those second-half numbers and believe again in Ackley. Here's my concern: He hit .257 against fastballs in 2013 with no home runs. He did increase that to .314 in the second half. Still, that was with no power. If you can't punish fastballs, you're not going to be anything more than a marginal hitter. If Ackley doesn't hit this year, he's destined for a career as a utility man, playing second base and outfield. Kind of a younger version of Skip Schumaker.

Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
Age: 24 in March
2013: .245/.284/.347, 10 HR in 666 AB, -0.6 WAR
ZiPS projection: .280/.319/.413

Ah, the enigma that is Starlin Castro. After hitting .300 as a rookie and .307 as a 21-year-old, he looked not just like a budding star, but a budding superstar. But his game has stalled. His power hasn't developed; he didn't run as much in 2013 (22 steals in 2011, down to nine in 2013); he still swings at too many pitches outside the strike zone; and he ranked first or second in the league in errors for the fourth year in a row. The fans got to him, and while he was out there every day once again (he has missed five games in three years), some question how much he really wants it.

Believe it or not, there's still some good news. Castro's line-drive percentage in 2013 was the same as it always was -- 22 percent, according to Baseball-Reference.com, versus a career mark of 21 percent. ESPN Stats & Information had him at 19 percent, but compared to a career mark of 19 percent. In other words, he pretty much hit as he always has. Line drives usually result in hits, but Castro's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was well below his career norm. So it appears he hit into a lot of bad luck in 2013.

So he should improve in 2014 just based on that. But can he be something more than a .300 hitter with 12 home runs? Is there more power to come? This is the year we should find out.

What to expect: ZiPS is optimistic about a rebound, but not overly optimistic. In the end, Castro isn't a patient hitter so he's never going to draw many walks to boost his OBP. (Well, never say never.) Would a more patient approach help? Probably, but after four years in the league -- even at his age -- you wonder if he is what he is at this point.

SportsNation

Which player will improve the most in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,441)

Ike Davis, 1B, Mets
Age: 27 in March
2013: .205/.326/.334, 9 HR in 317 AB, 0.2 WAR
ZiPS projection: .232/.320/.424

Like Ackley, Davis got off to a horrible start and was hitting .161 in June when he was demoted to the minors. He straightened out his mechanics in Triple-A and hit .267/.429/.443 the rest of the way, until a strained oblique finished his season at the end of August.

After signing Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the Mets will thankfully move Lucas Duda out of the outfield, setting up a spring training battle with Davis at first base. Duda hit .223, so this won't exactly be a McCovey-Cepeda situation going on here.

What to expect: I still like Davis, although it's probably time to admit he'll never hit lefties. As a platoon first baseman, his value rests in a good eye at the plate, which can give him a respectable on-base percentage despite a low batting average. Still, he's prone to long slumps, as in the first half of 2013 and the first half of 2012. The Mets are probably wary of Davis by now, so look for Duda to win the job and Davis to be shopped around. He'd be a good fit for the Pirates, who need somebody to platoon with Gaby Sanchez. Either way, if Davis doesn't win a regular job, he'll probably drift into a Russell Branyan-like vagabond career, going from team to team as a fill-in first baseman.

Desmond Jennings, CF, Rays
Age: 27
2013: .252/.334/.414, 14 HR in 527 AB, 3.0 WAR
ZiPS projection: .249/.326/.403

Jennings is a good player, as witnessed by his 3-WAR seasons the past two years. He does a little of everything -- some power, steals some bases, solid defender in center, draws some walks. The question isn't whether he's going to be a guy teams can count on, but whether he'll make a leap and become the All-Star once envisioned of him. He's entering his age-27 season and has two full seasons under his belt. Now is the time.

What to expect: Jennings has to improve against off-speed stuff. Among 140 qualified regulars, his .193 average against "soft" pitches ranked 125th. (The major league average was .242.) Twelve of his 14 home runs came against fastballs. ZiPS is projecting 2014 numbers that are similar to 2013; considering Jennings has nearly 1,500 PAs now in the majors, that's probably what to expect, although I wouldn't be surprised to see a breakout performance.

Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds
Age: 26 in June
2013: .238/.287/.362, 9 HR in 323 AB, 0.0 WAR
ZiPS projection: .251/.313/.421

Mesoraco's bat was supposed to be his calling card, but in his first chance at extended playing time he flopped with a sub-.300 OBP. Mesoraco doesn't have the service time of Ackley and Davis, and catchers can take longer to develop at the plate, so his leash is a little longer. Mesoraco's defense was better than expected in 2013, as he threw out 29 percent of runners (league average was 28 percent). Still, he'll turn 26 this season, so his time to turn into an above-average player or All-Star performer is starting to wane.

What to expect: Veteran Ryan Hanigan is gone, so the Reds have handed the keys to Mesoraco. Considering the Reds' lineup after Joey Votto and Jay Bruce is pretty spotty, they desperately need Mesoraco to improve his numbers. I have my doubts. He didn't hit righties at all last year (.212/.254/.322) and he walked even less in the second half. The ZiPS numbers may be optimistic, although it's possible he could crack 20 home runs playing in Great American Ball Park.

Let's look at five pitchers on Wednesday.


There’s a team in New York that’s worth watching these days, one that has struggled to score runs much of the season, has been entangled in some legal issues and is in need of a shortstop.

I’m talking, of course, about the New York Mets.

Just like their rivals from the Bronx, the Mets aren’t going to make the playoffs; unlike the Yankees, however, the Mets have a future that isn’t full of aging stars, bloated payrolls and Vernon Wells.

That future was on display on Tuesday night in the form of Zack Wheeler and a right arm that has enough electricity to light up at least a few of the auto body shops that surround Citi Field. Wheeler took a shutout into the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves, pumping up a home crowd on a warm August evening in Queens. The Mets held on for a 5-3 victory, and while everyone will be talking about the Yankees’ doubleheader sweep of the Blue Jays, it’s Wheeler and the Mets that are more exciting.

Wheeler is the future to Matt Harvey’s present, a guy with a big fastball and ace potential. He may never reach that apex -- he doesn’t yet have Harvey’s command, let alone his complete arsenal of secondary pitches -- but he has pitched much better than I expected after watching his first couple big league starts, with a 3.49 ERA through his first 12 spins in the rotation. Those outings included a 12-strikeout gem in his previous start in San Diego and a one-run, no-walk effort the game before that in Arizona.

Wheeler’s fastball is a weapon almost by itself. Since his recall on June 18, only 10 pitchers have struck out more batters on fastballs. His other pitches -- slider, curveball and changeup -- are works in progress, with the slider looking like it will become his top off-speed pitch. Ask Jason Heyward about the one he struck out on in the third inning.

Wheeler tired a bit in the seventh, walking Joey Terdoslavich and Heyward with one out, and then watching Andrelton Simmons clear the bases with a three-run double off reliever Carlos Torres. But I like that Terry Collins initially left Wheeler in there to try to work out of a jam; he’s a young pitcher who needs to learn how to close out those innings. He didn’t on this night (he left after 114 pitches) but the belief is that he’ll get there soon.
[+] EnlargeTravis D'Arnaud, LaTroy Hawkins
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesCatcher Travis d'Arnaud, another big reason for the Mets to be excited about their future, got his first hit.

On a night Wheeler pitched, catcher Travis d’Arnaud picked up his first major league hit. He’s the highly rated prospect the Mets got from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade. He spent most of the minor league season on the disabled list, but check out these numbers from his 19-game stint in Triple-A: 21 walks, 12 strikeouts. In four games with the Mets, he’s drawn five walks. Have to love that approach, although his injury history is a concern.

Ike Davis continued his torrid stretch, going 2-for-4 with an RBI single and eighth-inning home run, and I know, it’s Ike Davis and this happened last year as well. He was hitting .161 on June 6 when sent to the minors, but since his return to the Mets on July 5, he’s hit .282 with a .450 on-base percentage -- only Joey Votto, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt have drawn more walks in that time frame. Is he going to be the star we once thought? No, but maybe if this new ability to get on base is legit, he's going to be a very useful piece in the lineup.

Then there’s Juan Lagares, the speedy rookie center fielder who has played outstanding defense in center field. Entering Tuesday, Baseball Info Solutions had credited Lagares with 21 defensive runs saved, tied for fifth most of any player in the majors, at any position. But Lagares has done that in about two-thirds the innings that Carlos Gomez, the highest-rated outfielder, has played. Defensive stats aren’t perfect and single-season numbers can certainly be questioned, but it appears that from both the metrics and the anecdotal reports, Lagares could be an elite defender. Now, his bat may not play -- 66 strikeouts versus nine walks is an issue -- but there’s hope here.

Behind Harvey and Wheeler in the rotation there is solid Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese and promising Jenrry Mejia, who was just shut down after five impressive starts. He’ll have surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero started the Futures Games and are two top pitching prospects who have reached Double-A. The Mets can dream of a 2015 rotation of Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, Montero and Mejia.

The Yankees, meanwhile, have players just trying to stay awake in the late innings.

Maybe the Yankees hang in this wild-card race -- although at 5.5 games behind the A’s and with the Rays and the Orioles and Indians still a game ahead of them it will take exceptional baseball from the Yankees and bad baseball from at least one of the A’s or Rays for a playoff berth to happen. More likely, the Yankees fall short and they’ll have to figure out how to reload for 2014.

Maybe they can figure out a way. Maybe they make peace with Alex Rodriguez, he gets his suspension reduced and hits 20 home runs in the second half. Maybe Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira all return healthy and perform. Maybe they replace Mariano Rivera without a hitch. Maybe.

Just don’t be surprised if it’s the Mets who start getting the back page covers in the New York tabloids next year. They need a shortstop -- how about a trade for Starlin Castro? -- and they should go hard after free-agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. The bullpen needs some work but that can be fixed. But Mets fans can see a foundation building instead of crumbling.

Today's scrubs may be tomorrow's All-Stars

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
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On Monday night, Carlos Gomez jumped, stuck his glove over Miller Park's center field fence, and pulled back what would have been a go-ahead home run from Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Instead, it was the third out in the ninth inning. Francisco Rodriguez got the save and the Brewers happily celebrated as Gomez jogged towards his teammates from the warning track.

According to FanGraphs, Gomez has been the National League's best player thus far, compiling 4.9 wins above replacement thanks to an .889 OPS, that great defense in center and 21 steals in 24 attempts. At one time, he was the No. 3 prospect in the Mets' system according to Baseball America, but the Mets included him in a package they sent to the Twins to acquire ace lefty Johan Santana.

Playing every day for the Twins in 2008 and '09, Gomez struggled at the plate. In 963 plate appearances, he posted a .645 OPS with a staggering 214 strikeouts and 47 walks, a ratio in excess of 4.5. His defense was great at times, but the Twins couldn't justify keeping his weak bat in the lineup. After the 2009 season, they traded Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Though he missed some time between 2010-12 with injuries, Gomez still did not live up to the lofty expectations set for him when he ascended through the Mets' system. The Brewers used him as a fourth outfielder behind Nyjer Morgan in 2011, and splitting time with Norichika Aoki to start the 2012 season, primarily platooning him against left-handers. By the end of July, though, Gomez was back playing every day and he finally showed flashes of the player dominating the league presently. Between July 16 and the end of the 2012 regular season, Gomez posted an .812 OPS with 14 home runs in 273 plate appearances. He stole 26 stolen bases in 29 attempts.

In an article for Sports On Earth, Howard Megdal noted how Gomez himself decided to make a change. He discarded years of advice from the plethora of coaches and decided to try to hit home runs, rather than put the ball on the ground. "I always expected myself to be a three-hole hitter," Gomez said. "Thirty-plus home runs. That's how I saw myself ... But all the people wanted [was] to take advantage of was my speed. I mean, better late than never."

Gomez, still just 27 years old, is just the latest in a surprisingly long line of players who are now at the top of the game after having been given up on by their former teams. Jose Bautista went from club to club, never finding the kind of success that parlays into a starting role. He went to the Blue Jays in 2008, changed his swing, and the rest is history. Edwin Encarnacion has a similar story; he hovered around the league average offensively, came to the Blue Jays in 2009, and turned into one of the game's premier power hitters. Domonic Brown was nearly given up on by the Phillies organization just a few years after they refused to include him in a trade for Roy Halladay, and now he sits with the second-most home runs in the National League.

Perhaps the best example is Chris Davis. Davis tore up opposing pitching while in the minors with the Rangers between 2006-08. In 2008, he reached Triple-A at the age of 22, and he hit 23 home runs in 329 trips to the plate while posting a 1.029 OPS. He earned a call up to the majors at the end of June, and hit 17 home runs with an .880 OPS.

He was asked to replicate that in 2009 at the big league level, but he couldn't. Opposing pitchers had a book on him and his approach at the plate wasn't major league quality. While he was able to muscle out 21 home runs, he struck out 150 times and walked only 24 times in 391 plate appearances. The Rangers kept him in Triple-A for most of 2010 and he performed well; in three different stints in the majors that year, however, he looked completely lost.

At the trade deadline in 2011, the Rangers needed to add some pieces for a postseason run so they traded Davis to the down-and-out Baltimore Orioles with Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara and a small amount of cash. The Rangers lost the World Series in seven games and, they would eventually find out, they also lost an impact bat.

Davis flourished with the Orioles. Last season, he hit 33 home runs with a .827 OPS. This year, were it not for Miguel Cabrera hitting at an historic level, Davis would be baseball's best hitter. He has hit the most home runs in baseball thus far with 33 and he has the highest slugging percentage with a Bondsian .690. He is walking more, striking out less, and making good contact on seemingly everything. And he's only 27 years old.

The moral of the story is not to give up on players with a surfeit of talent but a deficit of results. Patience is often rewarded in baseball. And it is a never-ending cycle. Right now, there are struggling players who have yet to live up to expectations who will eventually be discarded by an impatient, unsatisfied team and picked up by an optimistic team hoping to strike lightning in a bottle.

SportsNation

Which of these young players is the best bet to develop into a future All-Star?

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Mike Moustakas may be one such player. After hitting 20 home runs last year but posting overall below-average offensive numbers, he has been among the five worst-hitting American Leaguers this year, with only six home runs and a .213 average to his name entering Thursday's game against the Yankees. The Royals are 43-45 and just seven games out of the second wild-card spot. Their offseason trade of Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis was a public admission they wanted to compete for the postseason, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them use Moustakas in a trade to bolster the roster for a late-season run.

Lonnie Chisenhall is another. The 24-year-old has posted tremendous minor league numbers and was ranked as the No. 39 overall prospect by Keith Law before the 2011 season. In 542 PAs in the majors, though, he hasn't shown much. The power and plate discipline he showcased in the minors seems to disappear when he faces major league pitching, but the potential is there nonetheless. Since being recalled on June 18, Chisenhall has posted a .772 OPS. That is certainly a small sample, but also a glimmer of hope as well.

Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley was ranked No. 7 by Law before the 2011 season, but like Chisenhall, has not been able to translate minor league success into major league success. In 1,249 PAs in the big leagues, he has a .650 OPS, including a paltry .533 this year that includes a .209 average. With Triple-A Tacoma -- after getting sent down -- he posted a .947 OPS with more walks (19) than strikeouts (14). He's back with Seattle and now playing outfield.

You can look at Mets first baseman Ike Davis through the same prism. And to the Mets' credit, they have been incredibly patient with him and have been exhausting their options to get him to be an above-average major league contributor. In fact, Davis has a lot in common with Davis, including the tremendous raw power and the high strikeout rate.

As odd as it sounds, some of tomorrow's All-Stars may be found at the bottom of this year's offensive leaderboards. At the same time two years ago, you would never have expected us to be talking about Chris Davis and Gomez as their league's respective most valuable players, but here we are in 2013 doing exactly that. Baseball, it's a funny game that way.

Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. He runs the Crashburn Alley blog on the Phillies.
The afternoon tilt between the Reds and Mets at Citi Field would have been just another mid-May game between a good team and a bad team, except the Mets are a good team when Matt Harvey pitches. Some thoughts on an interesting game, which the Reds won 7-4 with three runs in the ninth:

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

After Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder defected to the American League last year, the ranks of Senior Circuit first sackers took a hit, but a young group of sluggers appears ready to emerge: Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs, Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks and Ike Davis of the Mets (you also have Brandon Belt of the Giants and Yonder Alonso of the Padres). Davis is the veteran of that group, having reached the majors in 2010.

Mark Simon has a good post up on Davis, who hit .227 but with 32 home runs last season, and how he needs to improve against left-handed pitchers. He hit .295 against lefties as a rookie in 2010 but just .174 in 2012.

Davis' power is obvious, but I have a feeling he's going to put up better numbers across this board, after hitting .255/.346/.542 in the second half. Citi Field seemed to get in his head a bit last year as well, as he hit .262 and slugged .566 on the road but .188 and .342 at home.

If Davis can make the adjustments Mark alludes to, he can salvage his approach against lefties and boost his numbers.

I like his chances to do that and won't be surprised to see a batting line similar to what he posted in the second half. And that may make him the answer to the question.
I had an excellent time talking baseball with Keith Law on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast. (What, you wanted us to break down LeBron James and Kevin Durant?) The show may have run a little long, but trust me, it's worth the listen!

1. With Troy Tulowitzki undergoing groin surgery and another tough loss, we couldn't avoid the train wreck that is the Colorado Rockies. Can we just put Jim Tracy out of his misery already?

2. Mike Trout is awesome, but so is Stephen Strasburg. We talk about Strasburg's workload and how to keep him fresh for ... October. Yes, we said October.

3. I was at the Orioles-Mets game so we talk some Orioles and Mets, and dig into Ike Davis' continued struggles at the plate.

4. A user email prompts a discussion about which pitchers from the 1990s and 2000s are Hall of Famers. And, yes, Mike Mussina was better than Jack Morris.

5. We talk about some prospects -- Billy Hamilton of the Reds, Danny Hultzen and Nick Franklin of the Mariners and, of course, #freetrevorbauer.

All that, plus Jacob Turner makes his debut on Thursday, Matt Moore versus Gio Gonzalez and much more!
I met up with SweetSpot TV pal, Baseball Today podcast host and man of all seasons Eric Karabell last night at Citi Field for some baseball. A few observations:

  • The Orioles can't screw around with their outfield much longer. Chris Davis is not a right fielder but at least he's hitting. Ryan Flaherty played left field and he not only isn't a left fielder, he can't hit. He had a miscommunication with Adam Jones on one play and dropped a fly ball, leading to an unearned run. Later, he had a terrible jump on a David Wright shallow fly/blooper that dropped for a hit, essentially opening the door for two more Mets runs. Considering he has 23 strikeouts and one walk, he's bringing nothing to the table right now. As a Rule 5 pick, they have to keep him on the roster all season or make a deal with the Cubs if they wanted to keep him and send him down to Triple-A. Anyway, with Nick Markakis looking like he may be out now until at least the All-Star break and Nolan Reimold still out indefinitely, the Orioles can't afford to keep playing their alignments. Steve Pearce has also been playing some outfield but, like Davis, he's really a first baseman. Throw in Wilson Betemit at third and defense is a big problem for the O's.
  • Interesting scenario in the ninth thanks to the always shaky Frank Francisco: With the score 4-2 and the bases loaded with two outs, Francisco faced Pearce. Do you play the outfield more shallow to give your outfielders a chance to throw out the tying run at home plate on a base hit, or do you play deep to prevent an extra-base that would clear the bases? The Mets decided to play the outfield in. It didn't come in to play as Pearce walked (and Francisco got Brian Roberts to ground out to end it).
  • Francisco gave up two singles and two walks but somehow held on to convert his 17th save in 20 chances. No, it's not pretty with him, not with a 5.14 ERA. Heck, Aroldis Chapman has the same number of blown saves. Really just proof that you can be a mediocre reliever and still convert a high percentage of your save opportunities.
  • Ike Davis did hit a grand slam on Monday, but he continues to struggle. Not sure how much longer the Mets can stick with him at first base. He has two home runs in his last 107 at-bats and is hitting .121 with one home run at home. Maybe call him up just for road trips, the first-ever home/road platoon!
  • Solid effort from Dillon Gee. Over his last seven starts he has a 3.02 ERA and has held opponents to a .198 average. His overall ERA isn't much different from last season, but his underlying numbers are much improved, with a significantly lower walk rate and higher walk rate. For a No. 4 starter, you could do a lot worse.
  • The Mets must be trying to save money on their power bill. Most teams turn their scoreboard on before the crowd enters the ballpark. The Mets turned theirs on about an hour before the game. And it was shut off about five minutes after the game ended as fans were still filing out.
  • Eric doesn't think the Mets are serious considers. In the National League ... I say anything is possible.
Nobody wants to believe in the New York Mets, but they beat the Pirates 3-1 on Wednesday and there they are at 24-20 even though they've been outscored by 29 runs on the season.

One reason not to believe is the continued struggles of first baseman Ike Davis, who went 1-for-4 against Pittsburgh, which actually improved his season line to .159/.213/.290. Once Jason Bay returns from the disabled list from his fractured rib, possibly by the end of the month, don't be surprised if the Mets send down Davis and play Lucas Duda at first base.

What's happened to the player who had a promising rookie season in 2010 and was tearing it up early last season until he went down with a season-ending ankle injury? There were reports that Davis contracted Valley Fever in the offseason, although both Davis and the Mets have denied that's an issue.

What is clear is that Davis is no longer driving pitches on the outside part of the plate. Davis stands way off the plate, so perhaps that’s part of his current problems. In the top heat map, check out his isolated power and hit chart in 2012 against outside pitches. And in the second heat map, his isolated power and hit chart versus outside pitches in 2010-11.

Ike Davis heat mapESPNAbove: Ike Davis' Isolated Power and hit chart versus LHP, 2012.
As you can see, he's doing very little with those pitches other than a few singles. Now, compare to 2010-11, when he was driving those pitches with more authority, including several home runs to center field and right field.

Ike Davis Heat MapESPN Stats & InformationIke Davis: Isolated Power and hit chart versus LHP, 2010-2011.
It doesn't take long for scouting reports like this to get around the league. Seems like Davis needs some time in Triple-A to rediscover his swing and approach.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
On Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast I’m joined by Keith Law, and starting pitching is clearly on our minds from Monday night.

1. Tim Lincecum is not off to a very good start, but is there truly cause for concern? And what does Lincecum’s future have to do with Madison Bumgarner’s new contract?

2. Justin Verlander tossed a whole lotta pitches to win Monday’s game, but at least he earned his first win! Keith talks pitch counts and what they mean.

3. An emailer asks about pitch counts for younger fellows like Stephen Strasburg, and whether they are necessary. Also, why were the stands so empty for Strasburg’s Monday outing?

4. Speaking of the fans, which teams have the best ones? Our answer might surprise you.

5. We take a closer look at Tuesday’s schedule, including the real reason why people should be watching the Miami Marlins, plus the old guy in Coors Field and why is Tyson Ross a starter?

So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast. There was bias, but no bias cat. Meow.

Over/under: Wins for Mets

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
10:54
AM ET
Could it be that the New York Mets won't be as bad as everyone thinks?

SportsNation

Over/under prediction: 74.5 wins for Mets

  •  
    29%
  •  
    71%

Discuss (Total votes: 914)

After all, they did win 77 games in 2011. And, yes, they will be without Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, their two best hitters last season. On the other hand ... OK, I'm trying to come up with an other hand.

No, there are reasons the Mets could conceivably chase .500 in 2012. Here are five:

1. A full season from Ike Davis. Remember, Davis was tearing it up (.302/.383/.543) in 36 games before his injury.
2. Improved production from David Wright and Jason Bay with the Citi Field fences moved in.
3. The return of Johan Santana.
4. A better bullpen -- Mets were 15th in the NL with a 4.33 relief ERA.
5. Lucas Duda can hit -- .322/.411/.546 in the second half.

OK, that's the positive spin. What do you think? Oddsmakers have the Mets at 74.5 wins.
We talked baseball caps. We talked Braves and Derek Jeter and lots of other things. Check it out here.
April is in the books. May is here ... and so is our weekly stroll through the stats.
  • Ike Davis had a solid rookie season, but I wasn't completely sold on his star potential. But the Mets first baseman is hitting .317/.398/.564 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), including .318 with three of his five home runs at home.
  • Justin Smoak did not have a solid rookie season despite his prospect pedigree, but he's living up to the hype in 2011, hitting .273/.387/.506. As Seattle's lone power threat, he's going to start seeing a lot of pitchers out of the strike zone that he'll need to show the discipline to lay off.
  • Nice to see Brett Wallace hitting .382 for the Astros. Wallace was the 13th pick of the 2008 draft by the Cardinals, traded to the A's in the Matt Holliday deal, flipped to Toronto for Michael Taylor, then shipped to Houston for Anthony Gose. His 2010 debut with Houston was beyond bad, as he hit .222 with 50 strikeouts and eight walks in 159 PAs. Astros fans don't have much to cheer about these days, but Wallace is looking more like the hitter he was projected to be coming out of Arizona State. The home run power isn't there (one so far), but he's hit nine doubles.
  • Since moving into the No. 2 spot in the Reds' lineup, ahead of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce has three home runs in six games.
  • Brooks Conrad's flare to right field in the bottom of the ninth gave the Braves a 6-5 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday -- the fifth walk-off loss for St. Louis and its seventh loss after leading in the seventh inning or later. No other team has more than four such defeats.
  • The Twins are hitting .230/.292/.324 and rank last in the AL in runs, batting average and slugging percentage. Nick Nelson breaks down some of the Twins' struggles. My favorite Twins line comes from catcher Drew Butera, who's hitting .106 in 50 PAs. Since 1980, the lowest average for a non-pitcher with at least 50 PAs is actually another Twins catcher: Tom Nieto hit .067 (4-for-60) for the 1988 Twins.
  • The Vlad Watch: 108 PAs, no walks.
  • Joaquin Benoit had a 1.34 ERA for the Rays in 2010, prompting the Tigers to sign him to a three-year, $16.5 million contract -- one of the biggest ever for a middle reliever, one with a 4.47 career ERA. After giving up three runs on Sunday, Benoit has allowed 11 runs already -- one more than all of 2010. Moral of the story: Never read too much into 60 fluke-ish innings.
  • Jered Weaver looks to go 7-0 for the second time in his career in Monday's start against the Red Sox. According to Elias, only two other pitchers have won their first seven starts of a season -- Sadie McMahon, who did it in 1891 and 1895 for the Orioles, and Hall of Famer Mickey Welch, for the New York Giants in 1884 and '85. So, yes, it's been a while.
  • Pitchers with at least five starts who have had a quality start each time: Weaver, Dan Haren, Justin Verlander and Josh Johnson (six each); and Michael Pineda, Jason Marquis and Josh Tomlin (five each).
I think most of us know this by now: A 21-year-old rookie with the same batting statistics as a 25-year-old rookie will almost always go on to have a much longer, productive career than the 25-year-old. Likewise, we assume a 23-year-old has more potential to improve than a 26-year-old, who has already reached the age that most players peak.

[+] EnlargeJay Bruce
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMIJay Bruce reached a career-high in just about every batting statistic last season.
Because of this, Jay Bruce is a popular breakout candidate for 2011. He was 23 years old last season, has three major league seasons under his belt, has the prospect pedigree, and just feels like a guy ready to take one final leap to stardom. I'm on that bandwagon: I do a feel a monster season coming on for Cincinnati’s 24-year-old right fielder.

Even though the Reds won the NL Central, Bruce's 2010 campaign (.281/.353/.493, 25 home runs, great defense that Baseball Prospectus rated as the best in the majors for any outfielder) fell under the radar for several reasons:

(A) He hadn’t been very good in 2009, when he hit just .223 and then suffered a broken wrist;

(B) He got off to a slow start (.266/.339/.446 with 36 RBIs in the first half);

(C) Joey Votto was, you know, getting a lot of attention.

In the second half everything clicked, perhaps in part because Bruce's wrist was 100 percent. In 210 plate appearances, he hit .306/.376/.575 with 15 home runs. You can do the math and triple those numbers to approximate a full season of PAs and understand why some believe Bruce could hit 35 homers, score close to 100 runs and drive in 100-plus. Factor in that he’s still young, has big-time tools (he was once Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect), is more than a year removed from the broken wrist and showed a small spike in his walk rate, and he looks like a player who will improve.

That’s my belief; I think he’s a good bet for fantasy players and a good bet to make Reds fans happier than a basset hound running on a beach. But -- yes, there is a "but" here -- there’s something else in play. Even though the axiom is that young players improve and that hitters generally peak at around 26 to 28, it’s possible that Bruce has already reached his peak ability. Just because he’s 23 and has areas that he could improve doesn’t mean he will improve.

I checked out the 20 best 23-year-old hitters over the past 10 seasons (minimum 502 plate appearances, using OPS+ from Baseball-Reference.com). Bruce ranks 12th on that list with the 127 OPS+ he registered in 2010. The guys on this were already good hitters at 23, so we’re asking: How much better do they get?

The answer, at least with this group: Not much. Hitters ranging from Albert Pujols to Miguel Cabrera to Joe Mauer to David Wright to Nick Markakis were essentially fully developed hitters by 23.

Here’s the chart:



This isn’t to suggest all 23-year-olds won’t improve (such as Carlos Gonzalez making a big leap last season at 24); it’s a possible indicator that if you’re talented enough to reach the majors at 21 like most of these guys and already an excellent hitter by 23, you may not improve much more. Bruce has shown steady progress since his debut in 2008, but he also had a high .334 average on balls in play last year. It's possible he'll regress back to his .299 career average. It's why Baseball Prospectus projects Bruce to essentially repeat his 2010 numbers: .269/.339/.482.

I'll still hold out for a leap -- more walks, fewer strikeouts, 30-plus homers -- and fans of Colby Rasmus and Andrew McCutchen are surely expecting a similar leap. Maybe the wrist injury did hold him back early in 2010, but it’s possible Bruce will settle in as a very good player and potential Gold Glover, albeit not quite a perennial All-Star type.

Final note: It's possible, of course, that PED usage may have some unknown influence on the above results. I'll do a future post to look at a wider swath of good 23-year-old hitters going back more years.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

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