SweetSpot: Jordan Zimmermann

I don't know which stat is more amazing: After homering off Tim Lincecum last night, Paul Goldschmidt is now 13-for-24 with seven home runs off Lincecum; or, Goldschmidt's opposite-field home run was just the eighth by a right-handed batter at AT&T Park over the past eight seasons. (And you wonder why Giants pitchers often have big home/road splits.)

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

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

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

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

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



Christina Kahrl, Buster Olney and Jim Bowden covered the Miguel Cabrera contract, so there isn't really much more to add. The timing is definitely odd with Cabrera two years from free agency, the money seems extreme and who knows how Cabrera will age once he get into his mid-30s. On the other hand, it's not our money and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 84 years old and probably not too worried about about what happens in seven or eight years.

Other stuff ...
  • Righty Jordan Zimmermann tossed five scoreless innings for the Nationals against the Mets in his final spring tune-up. He's been as good as any pitcher this spring, allowing one run in 18 innings with just one walk. Clayton Kershaw -- sore back and all (he'll miss his start on Sunday night) -- is clearly the Cy Young favorite in the National League, but Zimmermann is a solid sleeper choice if Kershaw falters. Compare Zimmermann over the past two seasons to his more-hyped teammate, Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann is 31-17 with a 3.10 ERA and 409 innings; Strasburg is 23-15 with a 3.08 ERA and 342 1/3 innings. You may look at Zimmermann's strikeout rate (161 in 213 1/3 innings) and think he doesn't throw hard, but that's not the case. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph last season. Even though he pitches up in the zone with it he induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls thanks to good movement. He mixes in a slider, curve and occasional change. The one thing he has to improve on to go to the next level is limit the blow-up outings; he had games last year with eight, seven, seven and six runs allowed, giving up 10 of his 19 home runs in those four starts.
  • Even with the injury to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks sent down Archie Bradley, the hard-throwing right-hander many rank as the top pitching prospect in the minors. I think it's the right decision. Bradley still has to improve his fastball command -- he walked 59 batters in 123 1/3 innings in Double-A -- to succeed consistently at the major league level. A month or two in the minors won't hurt, although it won't surprise me if he's back sooner than that if somebody in the Arizona rotation falters or gets injured.
  • The A's and Giants are playing a three-game Bay Bridge series back home and the A's had to be happy to see Scott Kazmir toss 5 1/3 scoreless innings. He did walk three with four strikeouts but allowed only two hits. With the loss of Bartolo Colon as a free agent and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery, the A's have to find nearly 400 new innings in the rotation. Kazmir threw 150 last year for Cleveland. Josh Reddick homered for the A's. While the rotation may take a hit, the Oakland offense should be better if Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes rebound from mediocre seasons. Remember, the A's were third in the AL in runs even though Reddick posted a .307 OBP in 441 PAs, Cespedes a .294 OBP in 574 PAs and the departed Chris Young a .280 OBP in 375 PAs. It wouldn't surprise me if the A's have the best offense in the AL, leaping over the Tigers and Red Sox.
  • Speedster Billy Hamilton went 3-for-4 with two triples for the Reds and is hitting .327/.381/.527 in 55 spring at-bats. There are still a lot of doubts on whether he'll hit at the major league level and his lack of power means he'll see a lot of hard stuff inside, but there have been positive signs this spring, including the willingness to take some pitches and draw a few walks (six in 18 games). He walked a lot in Double-A, not nearly enough in Triple-A, but that needs to become a bigger element of his game. I do like his chances to hit just enough -- say .250 with a .310 OBP -- to keep his job in center field and swipe 60-plus bases.
  • The Phillies released 40-year-old vet Bobby Abreu and if you can't make the Phillies ... Abreu didn't play in the majors last year and looked pretty done in 2012 (he posted a .350 OBP but with little power). Twenty-five years ago there would be room for Abreu somewhere as a pinch-hitter/DH/very occasional outfielder, but teams don't carry those guys any more on rosters stocked with so many relievers. The guy had a great career and was a very underrated player during his prime years with the Phillies, hitting .305/.416/.513 from 1998 to 2006 while averaging 29 steals and 5.4 WAR per season. His timing wasn't quite right; he left the Phillies before they become a perennial playoff team and he left the Yankees the year before they won a World Series in 2009. With 60.5 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, he compares in value to other outfielders like Billy Williams (63.6), Richie Asbhurn (63.4), Zack Wheat (60.2), Jim Edmonds (60.3), Gary Sheffield (60.2), Vladimir Guerrero (59.3) and Sammy Sosa (58.4).
  • So the Mariners didn't want to pay Randy Wolf a guaranteed $1 million but then gave a guaranteed $1.25 million contract to Chris Young (the pitcher, not the outfielder). Go figure. Young had been in camp with the Nationals but couldn't crack their rotation. Reports, however, had him throwing 88 and healthy, much better than the 83-85 he was throwing when he was last in the majors in 2012. You can argue that the Mariners made a baseball decision here and that Young is a better bet to perform than Wolf, but that's not really what happened. Wolf had made the team before they decided to screw him with a 45-day contract offer, which Wolf turned down, leaving the Mariners with no option but to give Young a guaranteed deal even though he's hardly a sure thing to last all season in the rotation.


The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

How NL All-Star roster is shaping up

June, 10, 2013
6/10/13
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Jordan ZimmermanMarc Serota/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann is averaging just one walk per game and could be the National League's All-Star starter.
We're about a month out from the All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York, so it's a good time to take stock of how the All-Star rosters might be shaping up -- after all, the debate of who goes to the game is usually much more interesting than the game itself.

The most heated discussion in the National League might be at starting pitcher. New York Mets fans will undoubtedly be vociferous about hometown hero Matt Harvey deserving the start, but, as Bill Baer outlined here a couple days ago, the Cy Young race is crowded, which means the All-Star assignment is a crowded field. With apologies to Harvey and rookies Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin, I think the starting pitcher should have a little longer track record than a couple good months. Harvey does have 23 career starts with a 2.35 ERA going back to his 2012 call-up, although we've seen some dents of late with 31 hits allowed in 26 innings over his past four starts.

With further apologies to Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright, right now I'd give the nod to Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who pitched seven scoreless innings against the Twins on Sunday to improve to 9-3 with a 2.00 ERA. Some remain skeptical of Zimmermann's success because his strikeout rate -- 5.8 per nine innings -- doesn't match the elite starters in the league. But Zimmermann is a master of movement, location, command and deception. He doesn't second-guess his stuff; his fastball has averaged 93.7 mph, and the great sinking and cutting action he gets on it induces a lot of ground balls.

As ESPN Stats & Information's Mark Simon points out, Zimmermann limits hits not by generating strikeouts but by generating weak contact. His line-drive rate allowed ranks eighth among qualified starters, and batters have hit just .207 off that fastball, even though they often know it's coming.

He's also the master of efficiency, ranking third in the NL in innings even though he's topped 100 pitches just five times this season -- his 111 on Sunday was his season high. You hate to compare anybody to Greg Maddux, but Zimmermann is the most Maddux-like in the game today: He's walked just 13 batters in 13 starts and has allowed more than two runs just twice in those starts. He's consistent and very, very good. Don't be surprised if he's on the mound at Citi Field next month.

Here's how the rest of the roster is looking right now. All-Star rosters consist of 34 players, with the eight position starters voted in by the fans, eight backups chosen by the players and the first eight pitchers (five starters, three relievers) also chosen by player balloting. For the purpose of this run-through, I'll use the fan starters but ignore player voting, which is usually the part that messes things up the most (like voting in Bryan LaHair last year at first base because he had 70 hot plate appearances in April). My own personal philosophy is to factor in some combination of 2013 stats with previous track record; you need to weigh both.

Catcher
Fans: 1. Buster Posey; 2. Yadier Molina; 3. John Buck

Should start: Molina.
Automatic: Posey.

If you want to argue that Posey should start, I'm not going to put up a strong debate. They're close in hitting value, although they've done it in different ways, with Molina relying on a high batting average and Posey hitting more home runs and drawing more walks. But Molina's masterful handling of the St. Louis pitching staff has to be recognized.

First base
Fans: 1. Joey Votto; 2. Paul Goldschmidt; 3. Brandon Belt.

Should start: Votto.
Automatic: Goldschmidt.

Like the debate at catcher, this can swing either way. Goldschmidt has the huge edge in RBIs -- 58 to 29 -- and he has hit .431 with runners in scoring position (Votto has hit .333), so if you want to say Goldschmidt deserves the start, I'm not going to fight. But if the statistical record is close, I like to go with the guy with the longer track record, and that's Votto.

Don't fret, Diamondbacks fans, as Goldschmidt would get my starting nod at the designated hitter slot (which is now used in NL parks as well).

Second base
Fans: 1. Brandon Phillips; 2. Marco Scutaro; 3. Matt Carpenter.

Should start: Phillips.
Automatic: Carpenter.

Carpenter leads Phillips in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), but this is another track-record vote. But Carpenter has played so well -- including with the glove after playing little second base before this season -- that he should garner an automatic bid.

Third base
Fans: 1. Pablo Sandoval; 2. David Wright; 3. David Freese.

Should start: Wright.
Automatic: None.

Wright should be the obvious starter in another weird season at third base in the NL. Sandoval's numbers are mediocre, as are 2012 RBI champ Chase Headley's. Freese and Ryan Zimmerman have missed time with injuries, and Martin Prado hasn't hit. Todd Frazier is actually second in WAR, and he's hitting .250 with six home runs. If Sandoval holds on to his lead in the vote, it will probably be just him and Wright on the squad.

Shortstop
Fans: 1. Troy Tulowitzki; 2. Brandon Crawford; 3. Jean Segura.

Should be: Tulowitzki.
Automatic: Segura, Everth Cabrera.

Segura is a rookie, but he's been so good that he earns the backup slot. Cabrera is also a deserving All-Star, hitting .298 with a .374 OBP, leading the NL with 29 steals and playing solid defense. He's among NL leaders in WAR at any position. He might be the only Padres All-Star, but he's not a token rep.

Outfield
Fans: 1. Justin Upton 2. Bryce Harper 3. Carlos Beltran 4. Ryan Braun 5. Shin-Soo Choo 6. Hunter Pence

Should be: Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen, Braun.
Automatic: Carlos Gomez.

Upton and Harper lead the fan voting due to their hot starts, but neither is a deserving starter at this time. Harper is on the DL with a knee injury, and Upton is hitting .206 with just two home runs in 36 games since April 28. I would go with Gonzalez, McCutchen and Braun as my starters -- three proven stars who rank second, seventh and eighth among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Gomez is the one must-be-there outfielder with his power/speed/defense combo giving him the top WAR among NL position players via both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Considering my three starters are different from the fan starters, and combined with the inclusion of Gomez, that's seven outfielders.

SportsNation

As of now, who would you like to see start the All-Star Game for the NL?

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Starting pitchers
Starter: Zimmermann.
Automatics: Kershaw, Harvey, Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin, Mike Minor, Cliff Lee.

Considering there are currently 17 starters in the NL with sub-3.00 ERAs, somebody is going to get the shaft. But the above guys have combined their low ERAs with low batting averages allowed and excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios.

Relief pitchers
Automatics: Jason Grilli, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman.

The rules state the players' vote will include the top three relievers. I'd go with the above three, and I'm guessing they'll win the player vote as well.

* * * *

Where does that leave us? With fan starters added to my should-be starters and other automatic selections, we're at 29 players.

We're going to need at least two more pitchers, since rosters usually include at least 13 pitchers; we also need reps from the Marlins and Cubs. But the first guy I want to add is Domonic Brown, who might be riding a hot streak, but what a streak. He leads the NL in home runs and ranks fourth in RBIs. Of the top six leaders in slugging percentage, he's the only one who doesn't get to play his home games in a hitter's paradise in Colorado, Milwaukee or Arizona.

We better do the Marlins and Cubs reps. With Giancarlo Stanton injured -- and as much as I would like to try, I couldn't really justify his inclusion since he hasn't played much -- the Marlins lack a good candidate. Their only two players with a 1.0 or greater WAR on Baseball-Reference.com are rookie outfielder Marcell Ozuna and starter Ricky Nolasco. We'll give the nod to Nolasco, although you could probably make a case for rookie Jose Fernandez being the team's best starter. For the Cubs, it's either Travis Wood or Jeff Samardzija. Wood is 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA while Samardzija is 3-7, 3.18 ERA with more strikeouts and a better K/BB ratio. Samardzija is my choice -- he was very good last season -- but if you want Wood, that's fine.

That leaves two spots to fill. Based on consistency of WAR across both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, the top guys are probably Pirates catcher Russell Martin and Pence. Works for me -- especially Martin -- who also earns raves for the leadership he's brought to Pittsburgh. Relievers Edward Mujica and Sergio Romo have cases but get squeezed out. I'd love to add defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons, but it's tough finding room for four shortstops.

So, as of now, my 34-man roster would look like this:

C Buster Posey, Giants*
C Yadier Molina, Cardinals
C Russell Martin, Pirates
1B Joey Votto, Reds*
1B Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B Brandon Phillips, Reds*
2B Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
3B Pablo Sandoval, Giants*
3B David Wright, Mets
SS Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
SS Jean Segura, Brewers
SS Everth Cabrera, Padres
OF Justin Upton, Braves*
OF Bryce Harper, Nationals*
OF Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
OF Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
OF Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
OF Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF Carlos Gomez, Brewers
OF Domonic Brown, Phillies
OF Hunter Pence, Giants

SP Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals*
SP Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
SP Matt Harvey, Mets
SP Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
SP Shelby Miller, Cardinals
SP Mike Minor, Braves
SP Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks
SP Cliff Lee, Phillies
SP Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
SP Ricky Nolasco, Marlins
RP Jason Grilli, Pirates
RP Craig Kimbrel, Braves
RP Aroldis Chapman, Reds

Disagree? Debate below and then check back tomorrow for the American League.

Breaking down the NL Cy Young race

June, 7, 2013
6/07/13
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Miller/HarveyGetty ImagesShelby Miller and Matt Harvey, two of the National League's youngest pitchers, are contending for the Cy Young this season.
We're two-fifths of the way through the regular season and boy, are my arms tired. Over the first 60-plus games, a whole host of new names has popped up on our radar for our attention while old standbys have fallen off. Nowhere is that more true than with the early favorites for the National League Cy Young Award.

Matt Cain has a 5.45 ERA. Cole Hamels is 2-9, 4.56. Tim Hudson has a 4.48 ERA. On the flip side, NL ERA leaders include Shelby Miller (22 years old), Patrick Corbin (23), Jordan Zimmermann (27) and Matt Harvey (24). With the youth movement afoot, let's dive further into the numbers and look at our early Cy Young favorites.

SportsNation

At this point, who would you pick to eventually win the NL Cy Young Award?

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Adam Wainwright
In 89 innings, Wainwright has struck out 84 and walked only six, for a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 14-1. Among all starting pitchers since 1901 to toss enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, only two have finished with a double-digit strikeout-to-walk ratio: Bret Saberhagen (11.0) in 1994 with the Mets, and Cliff Lee (10.28) in 2010, splitting time with the Mariners and Rangers. Wainwright has had more games with zero walks (seven) than games in which he walked a batter (five). At his current pace, Wainwright would easily eclipse Saberhagen's record.

Wainwright's 2.33 ERA is only sixth best in the league at the moment, but since we haven't seen a pitcher finish a season with a sub-2.00 ERA since Roger Clemens (1.87) in 2005, he is certainly in Cy Young territory. Strikeouts and walks are also the best measure with which to predict future success, so we should expect him to keep a low ERA for the rest of the season and gain ground on everyone else. His skill interactive ERA (SIERA), an ERA estimator, is an MLB-best 2.67.

Shelby Miller
Miller, Wainwright’s teammate, is enjoying his first full season in the majors and could very well go home with both the NL Rookie of the Year Award and the NL Cy Young Award. Miller currently has a league-best 1.91 ERA thanks to four starts (of 11) in which he allowed zero runs while tossing at least six innings. In a rotation that has endured some hardship -- Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook have all been incapacitated in one way or another -- Cardinals fans have quickly come to depend on Miller and they haven't been disappointed.

Although Miller won't keep his ERA in the ones, his strikeout and walk rates are eerily similar to those of Wainwright in previous seasons, so he won't fall too far off if those rates hold. However, Miller has faced only the Brewers, Pirates and Giants multiple times. As he goes up against the rest of the opposition for a second and third time and the league builds a book on his tendencies, we will learn more about Miller's staying power. For now, though, he is the leading candidate for the NL Cy Young Award and the favorite to start for the NL in the All-Star Game in July.

Matt Harvey
When I was a kid, we used to play a variant of "tag" that included safety zones. So long as you were touching the designated tree, you couldn't be tagged by the person who was "it." For Mets fans, Harvey's scheduled start is that safety zone every fifth day where the rest of the league can't pound on them. No, really. The Mets are 8-4 in Harvey's starts and 15-29 every other day. "Harvey Day" is to Mets fans what Friday is to office workers of the world.

Harvey wasted no time establishing himself among the league's best. He had a 0.93 ERA through his first four starts, all wins, making him the first pitcher in the modern era to win all four of his starts to begin a season while allowing 10 or fewer hits. Over a longer frame of time, he became the first with 125 or more strikeouts and 25 or fewer earned runs allowed in his first 17 career starts. There is no shortage of ways to put Harvey's early performance in a historic light.

In his most recent start, he allowed four runs in five innings to the Marlins, his first objectively poor start of the season. His ERA rose all the way to 2.17. Unless Harvey strings a bunch of those starts together, he will be around at season's end when we are once again debating who should go home with the hardware. We all know wins can be overrated, but in a season with so many candidates, Harvey's lack of run support could hurt him; he's 5-0 but has earned no-decisions in seven of his past eight starts.

Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw is only 25 years old, but is talked about as if he is a grizzled veteran. In some ways, he is, as this is the lefty's fifth full season. He has encountered very few issues over that time as he works his way toward becoming his generation's best starting pitcher.

He has a 1.93 ERA through 13 starts and it seems as if no one is talking about it. Considering the way his Dodgers teammates have been falling like flies to injuries, his performance stands out even more. His strikeout and walk rates are nearly identical to last year's, when he finished second in Cy Young balloting to R.A. Dickey.

One aspect of Kershaw's game that gets overlooked is his ability to generate weak contact. His infield popup rate is the seventh best in the league at 13.3 percent, according to FanGraphs. Along with his 25 percent strikeout rate, two out of every five plate appearances lead to an out without any hope for base advancement. That is a great recipe for success, and it's why he is one of two NL starters (along with Miller) currently sitting on an ERA below 2.00.

Jordan Zimmermann
With an honorable mention to Patrick Corbin (9-0, 2.06 ERA) and Cliff Lee (7-2, 2.45, but could be traded to an AL team), it is Zimmermann who rounds out my top five. This success is nothing new for the Nationals right-hander, who posted a 3.18 ERA in 2011, 2.94 last year, and is currently at 2.16. In that time, he has the eighth-lowest walk rate among qualified starters at 4.7 percent, just a few ticks shy of leader Lee at 3.9 percent.

Zimmermann doesn't have overpowering stuff, but succeeds by keeping runners off the bases by limiting walks and inducing weak contact. His 17.3 percent infield popup rate is the best in baseball at the moment, and his 51.5 percent ground-ball rate is the 12th highest. One might think that relying on success on balls in play is a recipe for disaster, but Zimmermann has been doing this for nearly 500 innings and has shown no signs of slowing down.
video
The Franchise Player Draft has been completed, so it's time for Eric Karabell and myself to continue our tradition of doing the second round. All picks were made by Eric and myself, not the franchise "owners," so yell at us, not them. Eric made all the odd-numbered picks and I made the even-numbered picks.

And, no, I did not draft Eric Hosmer.

31. Keith Law (David Price): Oscar Taveras. KLaw knows a few things about prospects, and Taveras was his No. 2 guy entering the season, after the already chosen Jurickson Profar.

32. Manny Acta (Jose Bautista): Matt Moore. Bautista is a win-now type of building block, but so is Moore, a 24-year-old with terrific stuff, hasn't been overworked and has as good a chance as anybody to be the best pitcher in baseball over the next five years.

33. Eric Karabell (Andrelton Simmons). Carlos Gonzalez. Defense in Round 1, offense in Round 2. And even if this mythical team doesn't play its home games at Coors Field, note that CarGo is hitting better on the road this season.

34. Jonah Keri (Joe Mauer): Madison Bumgarner. Hard to believe that he doesn't turn 24 until August, but he already has two World Series rings and two 200-inning seasons. He's so efficient that he should be a 200-inning guy for years to come.

35. Scott Spratt (Felix Hernandez): Jean Segura. I'll admit I considered Segura late in Round 1, but instead opted for the elite defense of Simmons. Segura won't hit .350 all year, but he's not a bad pick at this spot.

36. Jim Bowden (Stephen Strasburg): Jordan Zimmermann. Hey, don't blame Strasburg and Zimmermann for the Nationals' problems this year! Jim was the Nationals' GM when the club selected him in the second round of the 2007, so he's happy to snag him again.

37. Paul Swydan (Jurickson Profar): Matt Wieters. Build teams up the middle! Wieters remains a building-block player, despite a slow start to 2013.

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38. Curt Schilling (Shelby Miller): Paul Goldschmidt. Too early for a first baseman? Maybe, but Goldschmidt is more than just a slugger. He's an elite defender at first, swipes some bases, and at 25 is entering his prime years.

39. Mark Simon (David Wright): Zack Wheeler. Well, Mark is, after all, a Mets fan. And pretty soon Wheeler will have many fans.

40. Justin Havens (Ryan Braun): Prince Fielder. A relatively safe pick considering Fielder's durability and on-base skills. Plus, Justin can now watch that 2011 Brewers highlight DVD that has been collecting dust.

41. Orel Hershiser (Justin Upton): Adam Wainwright. OK, so maybe the Cardinals right-hander has never tossed 59 consecutive scoreless innings, but he's pretty good.

42. David Schoenfield (Troy Tulowitzki): Miguel Sano. Prospects are overrated! Plus, Sano is only in Class A ball, you say? Sure, but he'll be in Double-A soon, putting him on track for a midseason promotion to the Twins in 2014. And then my future third baseman will start winning home run titles.

43. Mike Greenberg (Matt Kemp): Chris Davis. Well, at least one of these sluggers is healthy and producing. And Davis does look legit.

44. Mike Golic (Dustin Pedroia): Elvis Andrus. With that double-play duo behind them, the pitchers on Golic's team will be very happy pitchers. Well, assuming the outfield doesn't consist of Raul Ibanez, Lucas Duda and Mike Morse.

45. Richard Durrett (Justin Verlander): Adam Jones. This elite center fielder looks even better than his breakout 2012.

46. Christina Kahrl (Jason Heyward): Xander Bogaerts. He probably doesn't stick at shortstop, but he's going to hit at whatever position he plays. Plus, his name starts with an X, and he'll be better than Xavier Nady.

47. Buster Olney (Robinson Cano): Clay Buchholz. Olney got a close-up look at Buchholz on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, and had to be impressed. Perhaps he can build an entire fake team with all Yankees and Red Sox.

48. Dan Szymborski (Yu Darvish): Carlos Santana. We're not privy to the super secret ZiPS projection system that Dan keeps stored in a bank vault somewhere in Maryland, but we have to think it likes a catcher with power and on-base skills.

49. Jon Sciambi (Giancarlo Stanton): Yasiel Puig. Could be 80 home runs from this duo in 2014. Or, we suppose, fewer.

50. Mike Petriello (Andrew McCutchen): Yadier Molina. Talk about building up the middle. Molina turns 31 in July and caught a lot of games before turning 30, so there's risk that he won't hold up. But he's the kind of guy you take a risk on.

51. C.J. Nitkowski (Joey Votto): Austin Jackson. Terrific center fielder and leadoff hitter could have gone in the first round. It's tougher to find an all-around center fielder than a first baseman.

52. Alex Cora (Miguel Cabrera): Chris Sale. Some believe he's an arm injury waiting to happen, but there's no denying he's one of the best starters in the game.

53. Tim Kurkjian (Matt Harvey): Wil Myers. One future Cy Young winner is set, and here comes the prototypical slugging right fielder to join him. If the Rays would just cooperate and promote him.

54. Jim Caple (Yoenis Cespedes): Matt Cain. We know Caple loves those West Coast guys, so let's give him Cain, who is still just 28. Don't overreact to his current 5+ ERA. He'll be fine.

55. Dave Cameron (Evan Longoria): Mike Zunino. Mariners fan gets the next great Mariner. Thought about giving him Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero, picks from last season, but that seemed a bit unfair.

56. Molly Knight (Clayton Kershaw): Cole Hamels. What's wrong with Hamels? As with Cain, let's not overreact to two subpar months. A rotation with these two lefties would look pretty sweet.

57. Jayson Stark (Buster Posey): Jose Fernandez. Future ace has certainly impressed as a rushed rookie this season.

58. Aaron Boone (Manny Machado): Starling Marte. He's playing left field for the Pirates, but could easily move to center, giving Aaron two elite young defenders who have some ability at the plate as well.

59. Doug Glanville (Bryce Harper): Starlin Castro. What a fall from grace! A year ago the Chicago Cubs shortstop was the ninth overall selection in Round 1. Now he barely gets chosen at all. I have to admit, he doesn't seem to be growing at the plate or in the field, but Glanville probably has more patience.

60. Jerry Crasnick (Mike Trout): Mark Appel. Jerry loves Dylan Bundy, but he was just recently cleared to start throwing for the first time since late March. So let's go off the board and give him a guy who hasn't even started his professional career yet. Thanks us later, Jerry.


It was 86 degrees in Baltimore on Wednesday night, the ball was flying and we had one of the most exciting games of the season, a 9-6 Orioles victory over the Washington Nationals and one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, including a six-run rally in the seventh inning.

Here are 30 thoughts/observations/random tidbits on the game ...

1. Chris Davis. It was Chris Davis T-shirt night at Camden Yards and he didn't disappoint, slamming his 18th and 19th home runs, going 4-for-4, scoring three runs, driving in three, selling pretzels between innings. After his second home run, the camera panned to him a few moments later in the dugout, his helmet off -- and if you ever want to know the look of a man in the zone, Davis had it. Sort of part-bemused, like he was reliving the moment, part-amazed, like the first time you see the Grand Canyon, eyes wide, soaking it all in.

2. Electric atmosphere. As the Orioles announcer said, it had the feel of a Friday-night college crowd, with a buzz going all game, the fans exploding after each hit during Baltimore's big seventh. Baseball at its best.

3. Last season, it seemed Orioles fans were a little reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, as the support -- at least as shown in attendance figures -- was slow to get going, certainly understandable after years of losing. Looks like the support is getting back to levels we saw in the mid-1990s, when you couldn't get a ticket to an O's game.

4. Davis versus Miguel Cabrera. For all the attention that Cabrera has rightfully been generating for chasing the Triple Crown again, Davis is having the better season at the plate:

Davis: .359/.447/.755, 19 HR, 18 2B, 50 RBIs, 1.214 OPS
Cabrera: .368/.444/.656, 15 HR, 13 2B, 59 RBIs, 1.099 OPS

5. Of course, as one Tigers fan tweeted to me the other night, let's see the numbers at the end of the season.

6. Still.

7. Fifteen players have slugged .700 in the first half since 2000, but only two since 2009: Albert Pujols in 2009 (.723) and Jose Bautista in 2011 (.702).

8. This isn't the same Chris Davis who had a big breakout season last year, when he hit 33 home runs. Last year, he struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 6.6. This year, those figures are 21.9 and 13.2. A man with his power and better control of the strike zone is a scary proposition. OK, so maybe he's not a .359 hitter, but he's not doing it by accident.

9. Manny Machado hit another double. That's 24. He's on pace for 73. The record is 67, set way back in 1931 by Earl Webb.

10. He doesn't turn 21 until July. That's Machado; Webb is dead.

11. Will it upset everyone to suggest that Machado -- with his brilliant defense at third -- has arguably been as valuable as Davis and Cabrera? I mean ... he's hitting .332/.365/.517 and has more range than Meryl Streep. Baseball-Reference wins above replacement leaders, American League, entering Wednesday: Machado 3.4, Dustin Pedroia 3.0, Cabrera 2.8, Davis 2.7. FanGraphs: Machado 3.1, Davis 2.9, Cabrera 2.9, Mike Trout 2.9.

12. It's a legitimate argument if you can look beyond RBIs.

13. Ryan Zimmerman, have a day. Tough to hit three home runs -- he homered his first three times up -- and get upstaged, but that's what happened. Is it fair to say that Zimmerman is one of the most important players in the National League? With the Nats' offense struggling -- although a little better of late -- it desperately needs a second big bat behind Bryce Harper. Zimmerman has to be that guy, or maybe Adam LaRoche. Or, preferably, both. Zimmerman's throwing troubles have been an issue all season, although also better of late.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyChris Davis' second homer of the night, a two-run blast, gave the Orioles their final margin.
14. Davey Johnson's beard. Google it. Let's hope the Nationals turn this into a promotional event down the road.

15. Jordan Zimmermann was due for a bad game, but did make some bad pitches. Davis' first home run was off a slider over the middle of the plate. Nick Markakis' home run came off an 0-1 fastball that Kurt Suzuki wanted in but was also over the middle of the plate.

16. Both were hit to the almost identical location in right-center -- in fact, you can see the same guy in the white tank T-shirt reaching for both homers.

17. Steve Pearce's two-run shot off Zimmermann just cleared the fence in left-center. On another night, with a little more luck, it's maybe three long outs to the warning track.

18. Davis' second home run, off an 0-2 changeup from Tyler Clippard, was the most impressive of the night as he showcased his huge raw power, with an easy, almost one-handed swing. How strong is this guy? This one landed near where T-shirt dude was sitting as well, except he must have been off in the beer line this time around.

19. Zimmermann hadn't walked a batter since May 8. So now he has 10 in 11 starts. Terrible.

20. The Orioles can hit. That's 10 or more hits in 27 of their 53 games.

21. The Nationals' bench was supposed to be a big strength heading into the season, but it's been a weak spot. Roger Bernadina did homer, but he's hitting .149. Tyler Moore is hitting .149. Chad Tracy is hitting .170. Steve Lombardozzi is hitting an empty .234. And they've had to play a lot, accumulating more than 300 plate appearances among the four of them so far. Along with struggling Danny Espinosa, they're a huge reason the Nationals are just a game over .500.

22. Remember when Nate McLouth was washed up?

23. He's 17-for-18 in steals. The O's lead the American League in home runs and are tied for the lead in stolen bases. When's the last time that happened?

24. I'm sure Orioles fans were a little nervous when Jim Johnson entered for the save in the ninth, considering his last outing in Toronto on Sunday -- his fourth blown save and fifth loss. But he had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, albeit against the bottom three hitters.

25. Tommy Hunter was unfair in the eighth inning. He threw a 100 mph fastball to Moore followed by a two-strike curve that Moore missed. No chance.

26. I still don't know what to make of Chris Tillman. Four home runs tonight, 11 over his past five starts. Yes, four of those games came at Camden, but he's going to continue having gopher ball problems with such a low ground-ball rate (37 percent on the season).

27. A Beltway Series would be fun in October. Nearly happened last year, but I think the Orioles will need to make a deal for a starting pitcher. I mean, Freddy Garcia goes on Thursday.

28. Buck Showalter can manage my team.

29. I still think second baseman Ryan Flaherty can produce some offense. He returned to the Orioles lineup' and had two hits. I'm less confident about Espinosa.

30. How do I get one of those Chris Davis T-shirts?
video 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.

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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.
Quick thoughts on Wednesday's games ...
  • The Orioles continue to impress, beating the Royals 5-3, improving to 21-13. They only had five hits, but took advantage of three Kansas City errors, and the bullpen backed up Chris Tillman with three scoreless innings. The one area the Orioles aren't getting production from is second base, where Ryan Flaherty is hitting .114 and Brian Roberts is on the DL. This is a good team, but I'm not sure the Orioles can count on Roberts staying healthy when he returns. What about going after Chase Utley, an impending free agent? This article by Wendy Thurm at FanGraphs points out that Utley has a no-trade clause to 21 teams, and the Orioles and Phillies are rivals by geographic proximity, but Utley makes perfect sense. He'd look pretty sweet in the third spot in the lineup between Manny Machado and Adam Jones.
  • The Angels might have hit a low point -- and that's saying something -- in a 3-1 loss to Bud Norris and the Astros. As Jason Collette pointed out on Twitter, the Angels saw just 93 pitches, the third-lowest total of the season and lowest by an AL team. Even more remarkable -- they had 11 runners, with nine hits, a walk and a hit batter. Eight times the Angels put the first pitch in play (one of those was a Josh Hamilton home run) but the Astros turned four double plays. The Angels are 11-22, and last night's game had the appearance of a team playing out the string in a late September game. "It's still frustrating," Mark Trumbo told MLB.com. "You never want to stop feeling frustrated, because then you've pretty much given up hope. You come here each day with the mindset we're going to win the ballgame, so obviously it's a letdown when that doesn't happen."
  • The Twins pounded Red Sox rookie starter Allen Webster, who looked like the JV kid called up to the varsity in his second career start. Not only does he look 15 years old, but he pitched tentatively and then grooved his fastball when behind in the count, and the Twins pounced. The 15-8 win pushed the surprising Twins to .500. David Ortiz also had his 27-game hitting streak dating to last season stopped. With the Twins playing respectable baseball, the Indians on a roll and the Royals four games over .500, the AL Central might be better than it has been in years.
  • In a day game, Felix Hernandez outdueled A.J. Burnett for a 2-1 victory. The Pirates scored in the first when Starling Marte pulled a low fastball down the third-base line for a double and scored on Andrew McCutchen's hit. After walking Garrett Jones, the King got a double play and cruised after that. Burnett was just as tough, but Seattle scored one run without a hit thanks to two wild pitches, and then Jesus Montero homered in the seventh. What I didn't understand was Eric Wedge pulling Hernandez in the ninth. He'd only thrown 98 pitches and, yes, Tom Wilhelmsen has been solid, but I'd have let Felix finish it off.
  • Another terrific start by Jordan Zimmermann, who shut down the Tigers for seven innings in the Nationals' 3-1 win. He's now 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA, and in his past three starts -- against the Tigers, Braves and Reds -- has allowed just one run. Zimmermann's approach is different from guys like Matt Harvey and Yu Darvish, who have dominated while racking up the strikeouts. Zimmermann pitches more to contact and has just 34 K's in 51 innings, despite which he's allowed just a .181 average thanks to a .209 average on balls in play. I like Zimmermann a lot, but I'm not quite ready to put him in the Hernandez/Darvish/Verlander/Harvey class. One thing that seems clear, however: He, and not Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez, is the ace of the Nationals.
  • Goldschmidt happens. Again.

Here's the most important takeaway from the David Price-Tom Hallion incident on Sunday: Hallion missed the call.

Price thought he had struck out Dewayne Wise to end the seventh inning on a pitch on the outside of the corner. He even took a step to the dugout, but Hallion didn't ring up Wise. Price got Wise on the next pitch but after the game said Hallion swore at him.

"I'm walking off the mound, I'm just mad at myself," Price said. "I didn't say a single word or look at him. He [Hallion] yells at me." Hallion told a pool reporter, "I'll come right out bluntly and say he's a liar. I said, 'Just throw the ball.' That's all I said to him."

Something is fishy, but let's start here. Don't call the player a liar if you got the call wrong. Below is the location of the five pitches to Wise; the fourth one is the one in question.

David Price heat mapESPN Stats & InformationDavid Price's fourth pitch was a strike on the outside edge of the plate.
According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Hallion didn't have a good game on Sunday, with a correct call percentage of 83 percent: Out of 199 pitches that were taken in the game, he missed on 33 ball-strike calls. (Price benefited from some bad calls as well.) The league average is 87 percent, so while 83 percent doesn't appear drastically worse than average, it is -- that would be in the bottom-10th percentile of the league. Out of 200 pitches, we're talking a difference of eight pitches, which is certainly enough to potentially help swing the game's outcome.

Is Hallion a bad umpire? We can't go off one game, so let's check the season numbers: He ranks 64th of the 74 umpires who have umped at least one game behind home plate, with a correct percentage of 85.3. But that's only seven games. What about last year? Hallion ranked 66th of 82 umpires at 86.3 percent. In 2011, Hallion ranked 65th of 83 umpires. I think the trend is pretty clear: Hallion isn't very good at calling balls and strikes. He's not the worst, but he's a long way from the best.

He's a crew chief who began his major league career in 1985; he should know better than to offer a comment when asked about Price, let alone call the player a liar. Even if there was a misunderstanding, he should keep his mouth shut; umpires should always remain in the shadow.

In the end, the missed call to Wise didn't matter. Wise grounded out, and the Rays broke open a 3-3 game with three runs in the eighth and two in the ninth to give Price his first win of the season. But this little incident is a reminder: It's never good news when you're reading about umpires. We're stuck with them -- and the job is tough -- but we shouldn't be stuck with umpires who publicly call out pitchers they have to call balls and strikes on.

REST OF THE WEEKEND
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Three stars
1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez did something Justin Verlander hasn't done, something Jack Morris or Jim Bunning or Hal Newhouser never did in a Tigers uniform: He struck out 17 batters in beating the Braves 1-0 on Friday night, the first win of an impressive sweep for the Tigers as they outscored the Braves 25-7. Sanchez set the Tigers' franchise record for strikeouts -- Mickey Lolich twice fanned 16 in 1969 -- and did it in eight innings. Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman each fanned four times, as Atlanta K'd 18 times altogether. Sanchez also became just the fifth AL pitcher since 1920 to fan at least 17 with one walk or fewer, joining Roger Clemens (twice), Johan Santana, Vida Blue and Luis Tiant.

2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals. Zimmermann tossed a one-hit shutout over the Reds on Friday -- a night after Gio Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano had one-hit the Reds. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Zimmermann didn't allow a single hard-hit ball and was especially dominant with his slider, throwing it a season-high 20 times as the Reds went 0-for-8 against it. Amazingly, the Reds became the fourth team since 1920 to have one or fewer in back-to-back games, joining the 2008 Astros, 1996 Tigers and 1965 Mets.

3. Russell Martin, Pirates. The Pirates took two out of three from the Cardinals, with Martin hitting a big home run in Saturday's 5-3 win and two more in Sunday's 9-0 shutout. The Pirates are 8-2 in their past 10 games, winning series against the Cardinals, Phillies and Braves.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Yoenis Cespedes, A's. With Cespedes on the DL, the A's had lost eight of nine. They were staring at an 8-6 deficit when Cespedes stepped in with one out and one on in the bottom of the ninth in his first game since April 12. With Orioles closer Jim Johnson having pitched in four of the team's previous five games, Buck Showalter had lefty Brian Matusz face Cespedes, but Cespedes ripped a low slider out to left-center and tied the game with a long home run, and the A's won in the 10th on a throwing error by third baseman Manny Machado (who tried to throw out a runner at third on a sac bunt).

Best game
Padres 8, Giants 7 (Saturday). The Giants jumped out to a 5-0 lead after two innings, but the Padres rallied for six off Barry Zito in the bottom of the fourth (including a great move by Bud Black to hit for pitcher Eric Stults with Jesus Guzman, who delivered a two-run single). The Giants retook the lead, but the Padres tied it up in the bottom of the seventh. Both bullpens were stellar into the 12th, with the Padres finally beating Giants closer Sergio Romo when Marco Scutaro booted what could have been an inning-ending double-play ball. OK, the Zimmermann game was pretty good as well -- he outdueled Homer Bailey and threw just 91 pitches while Bailey threw just 89 in seven innings. Good luck seeing another game this year that features just 194 pitches.

Hitter on the rise: Brandon Crawford, Giants
Is the light-hitting defensive whiz really hitting .291/.361/.547? He hit his fifth home run on Saturday -- one more than he hit last season.

Pitcher on the rise: Lance Lynn, Cardinals
After a sluggish start, some fans wondered whether Lynn -- who dropped 40 pounds in the offseason -- had dropped too much weight. But he's allowed just three hits and one run over 14 innings in his past two starts.

Team on the rise: Yankees
Wait a minute, they've made the playoffs every year except one since 1995! What are they rising from? What about preseason predictions of their demise? The Yankees swept the Blue Jays over the weekend, the bats are hitting home runs, the rotation is solid, David Phelps and David Robertson have pitched some key innings in the pen and Mariano Rivera looks like he only has another seven or eight years in him. The Yankees have some overachievers early on (Vernon Wells, the now-injured Francisco Cervelli), but as long as CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte continue to pitch well, they should hang in the AL East hunt.

Team on the fall: Angels
The Giants have lost five straight, including a sweep to the Padres, but the Angels lost three of four in Seattle and are staring at the same lousy April they had a year ago. Will Mike Scioscia still be managing the club this time next week?

In the latest SweetSpot TV, Eric and I rank our top five teams. (I like the Red Sox, especially with David Ortiz coming back, but Eric isn't so sure.)

Early rankings of this type are always difficult; how much do you factor in your preseason projection and how much the first two weeks of play? The Washington Nationals were my preseason No. 1 team and while they're 8-5, it's an unimpressive 8-5. They're 4-0 against the Marlins and 4-5 against everyone else (including 1-5 against the Reds and Braves) and have been outscored by 23 runs in those nine games.

My point isn't that I no longer like the Nationals, but that it's possible they have some potential issues. Five things to watch:

1. Dan Haren hasn't looked good in two starts (9 IP, 19 H, 4 HR). Haren was mediocre enough last year that his early struggles go beyond "it's only two starts" status. Haren escaped with a win against the White Sox in his last start and he starts tonight against the pathetic Marlins, so that won't be much of an indicator.

2. Ryan Zimmerman may have the "yips." Zimmerman's throws from third are an issue; an error last Friday ended up costing them the game. Once an elite fielder (+22 Defensive Runs Saved in 2009), Zimmerman's shoulder issues have obviously affected his defense -- and his release point in particular -- and he's at -3 DRS early on.

3. The bullpen hasn't been lights out. Rafael Soriano has one blown save and another game where he picked up save despite allowing two runs. Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus have combined for 11 walks in 16.2 innings and the bullpen has a 5.90 ERA.

4. Jordan Zimmermann isn't striking anybody out. He's 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA but has just 11 K's in 22 innings. Remember, two of his starts have come against the Marlins, who have averaged fewer than two runs per game.

5. How good are Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond? Both were very good last year, especially Desmond, but Espinosa is off to a slow start (.175/.233/.350), and while he's striking out less he's also walking less. Desmond is hitting .320 with nine extra-base hits, but can he keep up that line with his aggressive approach at the plate? (A 12-1 strikeout-walk ratio at the plate.) He's also made four errors at shortstop.

Am I concerned? Not really. Bryce Harper looks awesome, Denard Span is getting on base, Adam LaRoche will start to hit and the rotation should be one of the best in baseball. I still think there's potentially a 100-win club here. But the Nationals haven't played like one yet.

The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t your typical 88-win team. When you go through their roster, it’s difficult to find obvious holes. The lineup was second in the league in runs scored. The pitching staff allowed the fifth-fewest runs in the league and features Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and now Chris Carpenter, who returned late in the season. The bullpen features a bunch of power arms in 18-game winner Lance Lynn, moved from the rotation, plus Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte.

So, yes, the Washington Nationals won 10 more games during the regular season, but they weren’t the overwhelming favorite to win the series, especially considering the Cards’ status as defending World Series champs.

Before the series, I penciled Game 2 as the key game for the Nationals. It was the one game for which they had the obvious pitching advantage on paper, sending Jordan Zimmermann (good season) against Jaime Garcia (so-so season, although better in September). As it turns out, Garcia had to leave after two innings, but with Lynn sitting in the bullpen, Mike Matheny had a good option to go to.

Unlike in Game 1, the Cardinals didn’t miss their scoring opportunities in this game, routing Zimmermann and a slew of relievers in a 12-4 victory to lock up the series at a win apiece. Zimmermann usually is a good bet to deliver a quality start -- he did so in 24 of his 32 starts – and he allowed five runs or more just twice all season. One was a five-run game against the Marlins, but the other was an eight-run blowup on Sept. 1 against the Cardinals. A lot will be made of whether the Cardinals own Zimmermann, but I’d just chalk it up to small-sample-size fluke for now.

What isn’t a fluke is that the Cardinals now arguably have the edge in starting pitching for the next three games:

Game 3: Chris Carpenter (0-2, 3.71) versus Edwin Jackson (10-11, 4.03)
Game 4: Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) versus Ross Detwiler (10-8, 3.40)
Game 5: Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94) versus Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89)

Yes, Carpenter is a bit of a wild card with only three regular-season starts under his belt. But there are pitchers who know how to grind out a postseason game like he can. But Matheny isn’t asking him to go deep into the game; even after using Lynn for three innings in Game 2 and four relievers, the bullpen is in fine shape. Lynn might be unavailable after throwing 50 pitches, but I guess this is why you carry 12 pitchers in a postseason series.

Meanwhile, Jackson is a definite wild card. He started four postseason games for the Cardinals last year. He won one, got knocked out after two innings in another and walked seven in his World Series start. Obviously, the Cardinals know him well, so they expect them to be patient and force Jackson to show he has his command.

Game 4 has to rate as another edge for the Cards; Lohse had a quiet, underrated campaign and doesn’t seem likely to blow up. Detwiler is likewise an underrated pitcher, a lefty with a good power sinker who generates a lot of ground ball outs. But he’s also a guy with a big platoon split: .170 against lefties, .263 versus righties. The Cardinals, of course, are predominately right-handed.

And in a potential Game 5, it’s back to the Game 1 starters. One of them walked seven batters in that game and the other one didn’t.

After reading through all that: Don’t tell me the Nationals won’t miss Stephen Strasburg.

That doesn’t mean the Cardinals will win the series. The games will take place in Washington; the Nationals, despite the beating in Game 2, still have a good bullpen. They can score runs. I think they have a big edge in the dugout with Davey Johnson.

* * * *

Carlos Beltran added to his postseason legacy with two home runs. While Mets fans remember his strikeout looking against Wainwright for the final out in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, it’s fun to see Beltran back in the playoffs for the first time since that strikeout. With the Astros in 2004, he slugged eight home runs in 12 games; he now has 13 home runs in just 25 career postseason games. He had a red-hot first half before going through a big slump Aug. 15 through Sept. 21, when he hit .215 with one home run and six RBIs over 31 games. With a lineup that leans heavy to the right side with Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and David Freese, the switch-hitting Beltran essentially fills the role that Lance Berkman provided a year ago: that lefty power bat in the middle of the order.

If the Nationals are to win this series, they'll have to shut down Beltran. But if this game is a harbinger of things to come, Beltran just might help carry the Cards into the NLCS.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
9:07
PM ET
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The most important weekend in Washington Nationals history might have been the final three days of the 2008 season. The Nationals began the weekend 59-99; the Seattle Mariners began the weekend 58-101. Both teams were horrible. The Nationals had lost 12 of 14; the Mariners had lost 14 of 15.

The prize for the ultimate futility: Stephen Strasburg, already the clear No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.

The Mariners had it in the bag.

Except the Nationals lost three in a row to the Phillies. Their batting order the final day was a beautiful list: Emilio Bonifacio, Anderson Hernandez, Kory Casto, Ryan Langerhans, Alberto Gonzalez, Roger Bernadina, Luke Montz and Pete Orr, with Odalis Perez on the bump. The Nationals lost 8-3.

And then the Mariners did the impossible: They won three in a row against the A's. On the final day, Ichiro Suzuki had two hits and scored two runs. Yuniesky Betancourt had a big two-run triple. The starting pitcher and winner: R.A. Dickey.

The following June, the Nationals drafted Strasburg first overall. The Mariners drafted Dustin Ackley.

* * * *


Or maybe the most important day came in the draft in June of 2005, the first for the Nationals since moving from Montreal. With the third pick in that draft, the Mariners selected Jeff Clement. With the next pick the Nationals selected Ryan Zimmerman. That draft also yielded John Lannan and Craig Stammen. In 2007, they drafted Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann. In 2008, they drafted Danny Espinosa. In 2009, Strasburg and Drew Storen. In 2010, they once again had the No. 1 overall. It didn't take long for Bryce Harper to arrive.

Maybe the most important day came on June 28, 2009, when then-interim general manager Mike Rizzo traded Langerhans to the Mariners for Mike Morse, a middle-of-the-order bat for nothing.

Maybe the Nationals should give the Mariners part of their playoff share.

* * * *


The Washington Nationals clinched a playoff spot with Thursday's 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers as Detwiler was terrific over six three-hit innings, lowering his ERA to 3.10, another reminder that this rotation is much deeper than Strasburg, Zimmermann and Cy Young contender Gio Gonzalez.

The celebration was understandably muted; the Nationals obviously have their eyes on a bigger prize and they'll celebrate with more fever when they clinch the National League East sometime next week. Still, it was a great day in franchise history. In 44 seasons since the team played its first on an April day at Shea Stadium in 1969, the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals had been just one postseason appearance, in the 1981 strike season. It was another strike season in 1994, of course, that ultimately helped doom the franchise in Montreal and led to its departure a decade later.

There is still one player on the team with ties to the Expos: Shortstop Ian Desmond was a third-round pick in 2004. Desmond is a great symbol of the franchise's growth in recent years. His prospect status was up and down through the years, a talented player with a terrific but erratic results in the field and at the plate. After making 34 errors as a rookie in 2010 there were long-term doubts about his viability as a big-league starter. The Nationals stuck with him, however, with Davey Johnson a big believer in his ability. Desmond has added power to his game this year and is hitting .296/.333/.517 with 23 home runs, an important cog in an offense that has the second-best OPS in the National League since the All-Star break.

* * * *

The Cincinnati Reds also clinched a playoff spot and they could clinch the NL Central title in a day or two, as their magic number is down to two. Their story might not be as dramatic as Washington's and it's difficult to make the case that they're better than the Nationals, considering the Nats have scored more runs and allowed fewer. But it's a good team, a fun team, one that has allowed the second-fewest runs in the NL despite playing half its games in The Great American Ball Park.

Their celebration was also muted, especially with manager Dusty Baker hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat.

"I worry about Dusty, and everybody in that clubhouse was really worried last night," interim manager Chris Speier said. "You don't just go to the hospital for a cold or anything like that. And I still feel that way. ... My thoughts are more about Dusty than this game."

Despite their convincing lead in the NL Central, the Reds still have a few questions to answer in the season's final days. Ace Johnny Cueto, the leading NL Cy Young contender a couple weeks ago, earned his 18th victory in Thursday's 5-3 win over the Cubs with a mixed bag of results: Six scoreless innings but four walks and just two strikeouts. Still, after allowing 14 runs his previous three starts, the six shutout frames was a good sign -- even if they did come against the Cubs.

Closer Aroldis Chapman hasn't pitched since Sept. 10, when he walked three Pirates in two-thirds of an inning (three days after losing a game to the Astros). Chapman has said he no longer feels fatigued but wants a couple more bullpen sessions to work on his command before returning. Watch his velocity when he does pitch again.

Joey Votto is hitting .342 in 13 games since returning from the disabled list, walking like scary-era Barry Bonds (OBP over .500 since return) but hasn't homered. It's a small thing, but worth watching. The Reds can go all the way if opponents keep pitching around Votto and the guy behind him produce, but it would also seem the Reds will need Votto to hit some home runs in the postseason if they want to reach their first World Series since 1990.

So our first two teams are in. The Nats are 91-58 while the Reds are 91-59, so the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage is still up in the air. Who knows what will happen, of course, but I'm thinking there's nothing wrong with a Gio Gonzalez-Johnny Cueto showdown in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Davey JohnsonAP Photo/Jacquelyn MartinDavey Johnson will lead the Nationals into the playoffs -- postseason baseball in D.C. for the first time since 1933.

Is the stretch Freese's time of year?

September, 2, 2012
9/02/12
12:50
AM ET


Every season has its bright lights, new and old alike. Take the question of whose star burns brightest at the hot corner in the National League, right now. David Wright might be the obvious answer for best ballplayer at third base, but playing for the Mets, he might as well be shining down on the rest of us from the galaxy Irrelevant, light years away from a pennant race. Chipper Jones would probably be the next-best answer, but he’s a month and change from going nova and calling it quits, a superstar so bright he’ll be putting people in the shade from Cooperstown for decades to come.

Instead, right now, as the shadows of the season grow long, the question might be whether it’s that time of year again, that time when it will be David Freese’s star that burns brightest. That’s because the hero of last October’s action for the Cardinals could not have chosen a better time to reignite than on Saturday, because now, as then, the Cardinals absolutely need him.

Against the Nationals, Freese ripped a second-inning two-run homer that helped run Jordan Zimmermann out of the game early, then plated the deciding score in the ninth off Nationals set-up man Drew Storen in the Cardinals' 10-9 victory. It was a nice time for Freese to step up for all sorts of reasons: He helped end a four-game losing streak, he fueled an offense that had been limited to a lone run in those games, and he broke with his own recent bad run, as he’s struggled with a .650 OPS over the previous four weeks.

Last year might have represented Freese’s coming-out party, when he starred in October for the eventual champs by plating 21 October runs while clouting five homers, coming right on the heels of a nice September run (.844 OPS). Well-timed, sure, and maybe just that. But nice to have if he's on your team.

But coming-out or not, Freese's arrival has been something of a slow-moving development because of a career frequently interrupted by injury: He lost the second half of 2009 to surgery on his left foot, more than half of 2010 to ankle surgery on his right foot, and almost a third of the 2011 season to surgery to repair a broken hamate. As a result, Freese is already in his age-29 season, so there is no better time for him to blaze away than right now.

His recent slump aside, he’s nevertheless in the front rank of third basemen in this or any league. Despite the injuries he’s been remarkably strong year-to-year in his three full-ish seasons in the majors, never delivering a BABIP below .356 -- no, everybody does not inevitably “regress” to .300 -- while putting up career-best power (.172 Isolated Power) and a career-best walk rate (over 9 percent) in 2012. Hitting as many line drives as he strikes out -- 22 percent of the time for both -- puts Freese in rare company with younger sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

The Cardinals haven’t had a long-term answer at third base since they traded away Scott Rolen, and one of Freese’s many tests is whether he’ll be more like Rolen and less like another injury-prone temporary fix like Troy Glaus was for the Cardinals, briefly -- good to rent, but not reliably available. If he stays healthy, Freese could be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s, because you marry his past consistency with regular availability, and it's easy to anticipate good things.

In the meantime, if the Cardinals are going to have any shot at repeating last year’s 18-8 September run to get to October, they need Freese to heat up. Sure, they need Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday to deliver as well -- but both have struggled badly to get on base, putting up OBPs in the .260s in the last month. But a strong offense fires on more than one piston, or two. The ill-timed loss of Rafael Furcal to a torn-up elbow is a bad break, but even then, the Cardinals’ lineup has plenty of potential heroes. Allen Craig could fend off his own lengthy injury history and star down the stretch again. The Cards can hope that Lance Berkman’s comeback from an injured knee isn’t limited to sporadic spot starts and a whole lot of pinch-hitting. They’ll need Yadier Molina to bounce back from his most recent home-plate collision and continue crank out his own brand of MVP-level production from behind the plate.

But if now is the time that Freese fires his star back up again, it’ll make one cold August a quickly and easily forgotten memory. As much as the sabermetric community has happily helped kill off notions like clutch hitting as some innate, separate skill from being able to just flat-out hit, you can’t blame a guy like Freese for becoming famous if, now as then, he’s ready to run for the stretch, and perhaps blaze as brightly as any other star.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bryce HarperBrad Mills/US PresswireJust what the Cardinals need, more home-plate mayhem for Yadier Molina his first night back.

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