SweetSpot: Mat Latos

Latos' return restores Reds' rotation order

June, 15, 2014
Jun 15
12:09
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The Reds came into the season knowing they’d have some challenges if they wanted to secure their third straight 90-win season, a feat they most recently accomplished with a run of five years ending in 1976. Lineup catalyst Shin-Soo Choo took his .423 on-base percentage to Texas, leaving the leadoff spot to speedy but unproven Billy Hamilton. Hamilton had managed a paltry .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A before getting a cup of coffee with Cincinnati in September. A drop in RBI opportunities and overall run scoring was to be expected.

The Reds' pitching staff would have to be even better than it had been the previous season, when it yielded the fewest hits and third-fewest walks in the National League. Cincinnati let 36-year-old, 14-game winner Bronson Arroyo and his yearly workload of 200 innings go to free agency. They were counting on the continued growth of Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani, as well as a return to health by Johnny Cueto. Even bigger things were expected of Homer Bailey, who put together his best overall season in 2013 and was rewarded with a six-year deal. But Mat Latos was going to be the real wild card in the rotation.

[+] EnlargeMat Latos
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsMat Latos tossed six scoreless innings in his season debut for the Reds, holding the Brewers to a pair of hits while striking out four.
Latos, 28-11 with a 3.32 ERA in his first two seasons with the Reds, had elbow surgery to remove bone chips in October and then needed meniscus surgery on his left knee in February. His status for Opening Day was already going to be “doubtful,” but he then suffered a flexor strain while rehabbing, thus pushing his 2014 debut back even further.

Fortunately for Cincy, reliever Alfredo Simon stepped into the rotation and racked up nine wins in 13 starts. However, injuries to Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman threw the bullpen into disarray early in the season, and coming into Saturday’s contest against Milwaukee, the Reds were tied for the fourth-highest bullpen OPS in the league. At 32-34, the Reds started the day 7.5 games behind their evening’s opposition -- but only 2.5 games out of the second wild card.

Latos, making his season debut, would be facing the surprise of the division, as the Brewers have used a torrid April to sit atop the division at 40-28. Entering Saturday's game, however, the Brew Crew was a mere .500 team since May 1 (20-20), and while they were a league-best 12-4 versus lefties, they were only 28-24 against righties.

Latos benefitted from the Brewers’ free-swinging ways (MLB-worst 3.64 pitches per plate appearance) and breezed through the first five innings in 63 pitches (42 strikes), with four strikeouts. His only blemish was a second-inning single by Aramis Ramirez. Latos got two quick outs in the sixth inning, but then a borderline 1-2 pitch to Scooter Gennett was called a ball and the at-bat ended up lasting 13 pitches, with Gennett doubling to end a streak of 13 straight batters retired.

Those extra pitches helped end Latos’ night a bit earlier than might have been otherwise and perhaps exposed the Reds' bullpen one inning early.

Coming into the game, the Reds had the fourth-highest defensive efficiency in baseball, but a couple of lapses led to the Brewers taking the lead on Cincinnati’s shaky bullpen. Logan Ondrusek allowed the first two batters he saw to reach in the seventh, then Hamilton’s too-high throw on a fly ball to medium center field allowed both runners to move up. After an RBI groundout, Brayan Pena allowed a passed ball, which gave the Brewers a 2-1 lead.

Although Hamilton atoned for his mistake by tying the game with a rare homer off lefty Will Smith in the eighth, J.J. Hoover couldn’t keep it tied and allowed a two-run opposite-field homer to Ryan Braun. Those were the deciding runs in the Brewers’ 4-2 win.

Going forward, Latos’ return is another piece toward restoring order to the Reds' rotation, with a possible trickle-down effect of less work for the beleaguered bullpen. It seems unlikely manager Bryan Price would move Simon back to the bullpen, given his terrific performance in the rotation thus far. However, Hoover and Manny Parra are pitching much worse than their stellar ledgers of 2013, and the seventh inning in particular has been a horror show (Cincinnati's .828 OPS in that inning is the worst in the league). With the offense struggling, it's no surprise the Reds have been involved in the second most one-run games in the league (26), despite the efforts of Cueto and Simon.

If (and it's a big if) the Reds can figure out their bullpen and get their offense in sync, the Cueto-Latos-Bailey troika could be lethal in October.

Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog. Follow here on Twitter @dianagram.

Fun with player comparisons

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
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We haven't done this in a while. If you haven't been paying close attention to the numbers, you may be surprised by some of these comparisons:

Player A: .265/.342/.496, 28 HR, 72 RBI, 132 OPS+
Player B: .283/.352/.468, 22 HR, 64 RBI, 134 OPS+

Player A is Evan Longoria, Player B is Kyle Seager. Longoria does hold the WAR advantage, 5.2 to 4.1, thanks to better defense, but Seager is quietly have another solid season at the plate.

Player A: .271/.359/.448, 22 HR, 117 OPS+, 1.0 WAR
Player B: .260/.370/.446, 17 HR, 131 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Player A is Prince Fielder, Player B is Carlos Santana. Of course, I left out RBIs, and Fielder has 95 of those compared to 60 for Santana (Fielder has 81 more plate appearances). Has Fielder had a great RBI season? According to Baseball-Reference, the average major leaguer drives in 65 runs in 622 plate appearances, so Fielder is +30. Sounds good. But ... he's also had 98 more runners on base than the average hitter. In WAR, Santana moves ahead thanks to Fielder's poor defense and a positional adjustment for Santana, because he's played a lot behind the plate.

Player A: .233/.291/.448, 29 HR, 84 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Player B: .238/.299/.422, 19 HR, 62 RBI, 1.0 WAR

Player A is Mark Trumbo and Player B is Angels teammate Josh Hamilton. Trumbo has escaped criticism because he has more home runs and RBIs, but he's also another sub-.300 OBP guy in the middle of the Angels' lineup.

Player A: .243/.311/.433, 17 HR, 102 OPS+
Player B: .267/.316/.420, 18 HR, 98 OPS+

Looks pretty close, right? What if I told you one of these guys has 101 RBIs and has been touted as an MVP candidate by some (OK, at least one prominent national broadcaster), and the other guy has 60 RBIs.

Player A is Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and Player B is Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. In terms of WAR, Dozier has the bigger advantage, 3.8 to 1.7. Look, Phillips is hitting .354 with runners in scoring position. He's also hitting .211 with a .249 OBP with the bases empty; those at-bats count, too. Phillips has made the fourth-most outs in the NL.

Player A: 209 IP, 145 H, 47 BB, 201 SO, 6.6 WAR
Player B: 187.2 IP, 158 H, 40 BB, 199 SO, 6.2 WAR

Pretty similar. Both are left-handed. One stat I left out: Player A has a 1.89 ERA, while Player B's is 2.97. Player A, of course, is Clayton Kershaw while Player B is Chris Sale. How can Sale be close despite an ERA a run higher? A few things. We're talking an NL pitcher versus an AL one, so Kershaw's run-scoring environment is a little lower. Home park: Kershaw pitches in Dodger Stadium, a good park for pitchers, while Sale pitches at The Cell, a hitter's park. Quality of opponents: Kershaw's opponents have averaged 4.20 runs per game compared to 4.51 for Sale's. Defense: Kershaw's is good, Sale's isn't. So why has nobody noticed Sale's season? He's 10-12. Put him on the Tigers and he'd be competing with Max Scherzer for Cy Young Award honors.

Player A: 193 IP, 180 H, 43 BB, 174 SO, 3.50 ERA, 4.1 WAR
Player B: 184 IP, 169 H, 50 BB, 172 SO, 2.98 ERA, 4.0 WAR

Cole Hamels is A, and Mat Latos is B. Of course, Hamels is 6-13 and Latos is 14-5, obscuring the fact that Hamels has been outstanding. Hamels was 1-9 with an ERA approaching 5 through May, and those bad starts (or good starts) stick in our memories. But since July, he's made 12 starts and posted a 2.17 ERA, allowing more than two runs just twice (though he has just four wins). He's still one of the best left-handers in the league.

One more:

Player A: 5-2, 1.48 ERA, 38 saves, 2 blown saves
Player B: 4-2, 2.19 ERA, 41 saves, 6 blown saves

Joe Nathan (A) and Mariano Rivera (B). By the way, Nathan's career save percentage since becoming a closer: 91 percent. Rivera's since becoming a closer: 90 percent, not including the postseason.

Playoff watch: Thoughts of the day

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
11:55
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Some quick thoughts on the most important results and plays of the day and a look forward to Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeMat Latos
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMat Latos is a big part of the reason why September could be good for the Reds.
Pitching performance of the day: Mat Latos, Reds. Don't count the Reds out just yet in the NL Central race. For the second start in a row, the Reds battered Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, but Latos stepped up with his first complete game of 2013 and just the fourth of his career. Dusty Baker rarely lets Latos get to 110 pitches (his season high is 111, twice) so Latos rarely gets past the seventh. But he threw an efficient 100 pitches, striking out two while allowing four hits. If the Reds don't win the division, it could be Latos who gets the ball in the wild-card game.

Key at-bat of the day: Jurickson Profar versus Grant Balfour. With a 4-2 lead and Oakland closer Balfour pitching for the fourth time in five days -- he said after the game he was "pitching on fumes" -- he walked David Murphy on four pitches to start the ninth and gave up a Leonys Martin single to left. That brought up the rookie, Profar. The Rangers are second in the AL in sacrifice bunts (although with 34, they're hardly Gene Mauch-ish about it) and Ron Washington decided to play for the tie rather than a win against a tired reliever. Except Profar squared around twice and took two strikes. Swinging away, he ended up bouncing out to first, so he at least advanced the runners. But what if he had been allowed to hit away? Balfour escaped the inning as Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre both swung at first pitches and flew out.

Most important win: Oakland's win over Texas, giving them a tie for first rather than a two-game deficit.

Most important loss: The Indians not only dropped behind the Yankees (not to mention the Rays and Orioles) for the second wild-card spot, but lost rotation ace Justin Masterson after just one inning with soreness in his side. He'll undergo an MRI and other tests on Tuesday.

Awards watch: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is pushing his way onto the short list of NL MVP candidates. He homered, doubled and drove in five runs in Atlanta's 13-5 thrashing of the Mets and now ranks fourth in the NL with 93 RBIs. And there's nothing MVP voters love more than an RBI guy on a playoff team.

Tuesday's best pitching matchup: Detroit's Max Scherzer versus Boston's Jon Lester. Scherzer is going for his 20th win but faces Lester, who has allowed more than three runs just once in his past nine starts. Scherzer escaped his second defeat in his last start when the Tigers rallied in the ninth inning. Considering the Tigers' remaining schedule, if he gets past this one without a loss we could be looking at the best single-season win-loss percentage in history.

Tuesday's most important pitching matchup: St. Louis' Michael Wacha versus Cincinnati's Homer Bailey. Wacha pitched out of the bullpen in August and the rookie will be making his first major league start since June. He did throw four scoreless innings in relief against the Reds on August 28, but the Cardinals rotation is scuffling right now: Since Aug. 15, it has the second-worst ERA in the majors (5.14). The St. Louis rotation is why I think the Pirates can win the division -- or why the Reds could catch the Cardinals and Pirates, even though everyone still seems to be picking St. Louis. Wacha has talent, but he's also pitching in Cincinnati, where the Reds are 42-23. Look for more angst in St. Louis after Bailey beats the Cards.

Player to watch: Matt Moore. The Tampa Bay lefty returns to the rotation for his first start since July 28 following a DL stint with elbow soreness. He made one rehab start in Triple-A, allowing eight hits and two walks with two strikeouts in four innings.
Some thoughts on Sunday's MLB games and other stuff ...
  • It's getting more and more difficult to paint a positive outlook for the Nationals, other than it's still early June. Nate Karns started Sunday, exposing the team's lack of rotation depth, as the Braves won 6-3 to take the series. The lineup on Sunday included three guys batting under .160 and two others with an OBP below .300. Jonah Keri has more in this week's The 30 on what has ailed the Nats so far.
  • Meanwhile, the Dodgers -- and their highest-in-baseball $216 million payroll -- rolled out a lineup on Sunday that included Nick Punto hitting cleanup, Juan Uribe batting second, Scott Van Slyke in the cleanup spot, Tim Federowicz hitting fifth, Luis Cruz seventh and Skip Schumaker eighth. My lord, $216 million just doesn't buy what it used. Yes, injuries (catcher A.J. Ellis went on the DL prior to the game.) Still embarrassing. If that wasn't bad enough, starter Matt Magill walked nine batters. Yes, the Dodgers lost to the Rockies 7-2. And it could have been worse. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Magill was the first pitcher in MLB history to walk nine guys and allow four home runs. Your 2013 Dodgers, everyone!
  • Good win for the Pirates over the Reds after getting shut out in the first two games of the series. Garrett Jones became just the second hitter to reach the Allegheny River on the fly (Houston's Daryle Ward did in 2002) with this game-tying home run in the eighth (I like how the announcer seemed to hesitate on whether it was going to be a home run) and then the Pirates won it in the bottom of the 11th. Dusty Baker was critical of Reds starter Mat Latos after the game. "He threw the ball well, but he hit that wall again," Baker said. "He's got to get over that wall and get past the 90-100 pitch mark. He's bigger and stronger than that. That's quite a few victories that got away from him." Latos left after 94 pitches. Baker pulled Latos after the Pirates scored a run in the sixth, the rally consisting of an infield hit, a walk and an Andrew McCutchen base hit. Latos' average allowed by pitch count: 1-25 (.176), 26-50 (.156), 51-75 (.254), 76-100 (.343), 101+ (.714). Generally speaking, all pitchers see a rise, but Latos' numbers are pretty extreme. It should be noted that this was not the case last year, as Latos allowed a .235 average on pitches 76-100 and .128 on 101+. So the question: Is Baker right or is this merely small sample size results?
  • After getting hit his first two starts, Orioles rookie Kevin Gausman had much better results in Sunday's 4-2 win over the Tigers, allowing one run in six innings. The Orioles rallied in the seventh and eighth -- Chris Davis hit his MLB-leading 20th home run -- so Gausman didn't get the win but he was happy to pitch well in his home debut. "I felt comfortable today," he said. "I thought today was the most polished and most calm since I've been up here. Obviously, it was fun and I made my debut here today so that was something I'll never forget." I'd still like to see the Orioles make a deal for another starting pitcher.
  • Matt Harvey wasn't so good again and Mark Simon explains what's been going on.
  • Domonic Brown was good again with a homer, triple and four RBIs in a 7-5 win over the Brewers and now has eight home runs in his past nine games and leads the with 16. ESPN Stats & Info points out that Brown is hitting .350 with six home runs off pitches "up" in the zone, compared to .200 with his one home run in his career prior to 2013. What's interesting about Brown's production is that he's done it while being more aggressive -- his walk is down (he's hitting .282 versus .235 last year, but his OBP remains level) but that obviously helped him attack pitches with better results. At 25, maybe he just figured out what works for him; he's looking like a good example of why you don't give up on a kid with talent.
With apologies to the nice starts of the Pirates and Rockies, the most important story line of April has been the Braves' opening up a 3.5-game lead over the Nationals in the NL East.

Considering the importance of winning the division and avoiding the ridiculous wild-card play-in game, the last thing the Braves wanted to do was dig a hole and try to catch the Nats from behind. Atlanta's 16-9 start -- which includes a 3-2 win over Washington on Monday when No. 5 starter Julio Teheran faced off against Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg -- is even more impressive when you consider everything that has gone wrong for the Braves so far:

  • Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann hasn't played a game.
  • First baseman Freddie Freeman missed 14 games.
  • Jason Heyward is hitting .121 and is currently on the DL after an appendectomy.
  • B.J. Upton is .146.
  • Dan Uggla is hitting .177.
  • Teheran scuffled through 5.1 innings on Monday but allowed just two runs -- lowering his ERA to 5.08.
[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
AP Photo/Evan VucciJustin Upton is batting .304 with 12 home runs for the first-place Braves.
Plus, they Braves had to play 16 of their first 25 games on the road. Of course, a lot has gone right, beginning with Justin Upton hitting .304 with 12 home runs, Andrelton Simmons playing Gold Glove defense at shortstop, Evan Gattis emerging from Double-A to his six home runs, drive in 14 runs and turn into a cult hero while filling in for McCann, and the bullpen going 5-1 with a 2.07 ERA.

Most importantly, the Braves are now 4-0 against the Nationals, which means the Braves earn an A as I hand out my grades for April in the National League. Justin Upton earns an A+ for his monster month -- only four players have hit more home runs in April (Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols share the April record with 14) and only Bob Horner (14 in July 1980), Andruw Jones (13 in June 2005) and Ozzie Virgil (13 in May 1987) have hit more in a calendar month in Atlanta Braves history.

The Nationals, meanwhile, earn a C- for a lackluster 13-13 start -- they're 5-1 against the Marlins and 8-12 against the other major league opponents on their schedule. The Nationals also reported that Strasburg experienced forearm tightness during Monday's game and will be examined on Tuesday. Strasburg walked four while allowing just two runs in six innings against the Braves, but he hasn't been the Strasburg of 2012, or at least the Strasburg of the first three months of 2012. His strikeout rate is down, left-handed hitters have a .391 OBP against him and his ERA is 3.13, ranking just 26th in the NL. Strasburg earns a C, but teammate Bryce Harper earns an A+.

Some other NL grades for April:

Pirates bullpen: A. A key to Pittsburgh's lead in the NL Central has been a pen that has gone 6-2 with a 2.59 while pitching the second-most innings in the majors and allowing a .202 average, second behind Kansas City's .201 mark. Closer Jason Grilli has gone 10-for-10 in saves and has allowed one run in 11 innings.

Matt Harvey, Mets: A. I'd give him an A+, but he actually allowed a run against the Marlins on Monday. Harvey is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and has held opponents to a .153 average. He did throw 121 pitches in just 5.1 innings against the Marlins, but more than anything that serves to show that Harvey has room to get even better. Which is a scary idea if you're a National League hitter.

Marlins: D-. Last in the majors in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS and ownership.

Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, Reds: A. It seems like there's a perception that the Reds are an explosive offensive team, but that wasn't the case last year (ninth in the NL in runs scored despite playing in a hitter's park) and while the Reds are second in the NL in runs scored in 2013, they also rank ninth in slugging percentage. The Reds rotation, however, was terrific last year and has been terrific again, second to the Cardinals with a 2.97 ERA. Latos and Bailey remain two of the more underrated starters in the NL. Latos threw six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Monday, picking up his second win and lowering his ERA to 1.83. Bailey is 1-2 thanks to poor run support but has a 2.81 ERA. The two have combined for 69 strikeouts and just 17 walks, and when Johnny Cueto returns from the DL, he might give the Reds the best starting pitching trio in the league.

Cardinals bullpen: F. St. Louis starters are 14-6 with a 2.20 ERA. St. Louis relievers are 0-5 with a 5.89 ERA and .301 average allowed.

Pablo Sandoval's waistline: F.

Pablo Sandoval's bat: B.

The decision by the Brewers to sign Yuniesky Betancourt: D-. I mean, really ... Yuni was going to help the Brewers?

SportsNation

Who has been the NL MVP for April?

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    59%

Discuss (Total votes: 17,432)

Yuniesky Betancourt: B+. He's hitting .286/.305/.532 and has five homers and 20 RBIs in 23 games, helping the Brewers to fight through injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. Don't you love baseball?

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: A. He's back, he's hitting, he's fielding and the Rockies are in first place. The Rockies have to hope that the strained shoulder Tulo suffered on Sunday isn’t serious (he sat Monday’s game, but there are no plans for a trip to the DL).

Matt Kemp, Dodgers: D-. Heading into Monday's games, FanGraphs rated Kemp 33rd among 36 full-time NL outfielders in WAR -- ahead of only Juan Pierre, Jon Jay and Ben Revere.

Starlin Castro, Cubs: C. I have to remind myself he's still just 23, but Castro is in his fourth season and just hasn't that much with the bat. He's hitting .271 with two home runs, but his approach -- just three walks -- is still limiting his upside. A hitter with an OBP under .300 just isn't that valuable.

Weather in Colorado: F. Please, baseball, don't play games when the weather is below freezing.
These are five guys I like for 2013. They're already good players, but I think they will take a big leap and become more than good players.

1. Mat Latos, SP, Reds. With Johnny Cueto having a Cy Young-caliber season and Aroldis Chapman dominating out of the pen, there weren't many headlines left for Latos in 2012. With Latos coming over from the Padres in that big offseason trade, some projected that he would suffer moving out of Petco Park, but he finished 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA. He did allow a few more home runs, but that's going to happen in Cincinnati -- 18 of the 25 home runs he gave up came at home. Importantly, however, he didn't let the home runs affect his approach, and he actually finished with a lower ERA at home than on the road.

[+] EnlargeMat Latos heat map
ESPN Stats & InformationIf Mat Latos keeps throwing his slider here, look for another big season in 2013.
Latos got off to a slow start in April -- including a blow-up, eight-run outing in St. Louis -- but posted a 3.09 ERA over his final 28 starts, losing just twice. He's a big horse out there at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds or so, and he crossed the 200-inning barrier for the first time. Although he sets up his fastball/slider/curveball arsenal with a solid 92-95 heater that he throws up in the zone, it's his slider that is developing into his key pitch. As you can see from the heat map, he gets it down and in to lefties and away from righties, exactly where you need to go. In 247 plate appearances ending with the slider, batters hit just .169 against him -- righties .161 and lefties .185.

I view Latos as a guy maturing into a staff ace and a sleeper Cy Young candidate in 2013, although it will be tough keeping that ERA under 3.00 pitching half his games in Cincy.

2. Salvador Perez, C, Royals. Keith Law had Perez 12th on his 25 under 25 list for good reason: This kid can hit, and, with his strong throwing arm and quick release -- he threw out 42 percent of base stealers, tops in the American League -- he could be a future Gold Glove winner.

You might have missed Perez's excellent sophomore campaign because his season didn't start until June 22 after he tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee in spring training. He returned a few weeks earlier than expected and, in 79 games, hit .301/.328/.471. Remember, Perez is just 22 years old, which makes his hit tool even that much more special. Through 463 career plate appearances, he has an .810 OPS and 121 OPS+. Here's the list of catchers with at least 400 PAs through 22 who had a higher OPS+: Brian McCann and Johnny Bench. That's it.

Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects Perez to hit .286/.316/.422, not quite believing in his power potential. I do think Perez will outperform that; his ability to put the ball in play -- he had the seventh-lowest strikeout rate among those with 300 PAs -- should help him maintain a .300 average, even with his lack of foot speed. Perez doesn't walk much, at least not early in his career, but he isn't necessarily a wild hacker at the plate. He swung at 38 percent of pitches outside the zone, which did rank 30th (worst) in the majors, but below other accomplished hitters such as Josh Hamilton, Adam Jones and Adrian Beltre. He just looks like one of those rare hitters who can expand the zone and still make hard contact.

Here's how much I like Perez: Don't be surprised when he makes the All-Star team in July.

3. Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners. I've written about Seager before, and his .259 batting average in his first full season might not jump out at you. But he slugged over .500 on the road and finished with 20 home runs overall. With the Mariners moving in the fences at Safeco Field, their hitters will have a chance to put up better numbers at home, where Seager hit just .223 with five home runs.

Never as heralded as Dustin Ackley, his college and now major league teammate, Seager has surpassed him at the plate -- he had 56 extra-base hits last year to Ackley's 36. He just does a better job of squaring up the ball and hitting it harder. He has a good approach at the plate and, considering he has played fewer than 100 games above Class A, is still developing as a hitter. Like a lot of young left-handed hitters, he's much better against right-handed pitchers, but his seven home runs off lefties shows he wasn't completely helpless against them.

You can call Seager an overachiever. I call him a hitter on the rise.

4. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants. I know, I know … you're sick of hearing about Brandon Belt. Bruce Bochy finally gave Belt a chance to play in 2012 -- well, sort of, since he did start only 106 games -- and Belt hit .275/.360/.421, a solid line for AT&T Park, where home runs go to die.

If we dig into the sabermetric numbers on Belt's season, we see he grades out with a wRC+ of 116 -- in line with hitters such as Martin Prado, Curtis Granderson and Adrian Gonzalez. The odd thing about Belt's season is that, unlike most of his teammates, he actually hit much better at home -- .315/.401/.505 versus .237/.321/.341 on the road.

I'd love for Belt to get 600 PAs this year … he held his own against lefties, so I think it's time Bochy sees him as more than a platoon player -- and see what he can do. He's probably not going to be a big home run guy -- especially in San Francisco -- but I see a player who can hit .290 with 15 to 18 home runs and an on-base percentage approaching .400. That will make him one of the more valuable first basemen in the National League.

5. Derek Holland, SP, Rangers. The Holland bandwagon was in full tilt after a strong second half and dominating performance in the 2011 World Series. But then the 2012 season began and he allowed 32 home runs -- in just 175 innings -- and finished with a 4.67 ERA. He also lost some time to shoulder fatigue.

I'm going to jump back on the Holland wagon. Remember, he was just 25 years old last season, still learning to pitch. Hopefully he realized he can't just rely on his mid-90s fastball to blow hitters away. Aside from that, there were still some positive signs about his season: His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved, and he had five starts in August and September when he pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs, a sign that his shoulder was better.

He also pitched in some bad luck a year ago: His rate of home runs per fly ball was sixth-worst among major league starters. Some of that is pitching in Texas, of course, some of that is too many fastballs up in the zone, but some of that was bad luck. He has the power arm and stuff to adapt and lower that gopher-ball rate. I like a big comeback year, with an ERA below his 3.95 figure from 2011, and teaming with Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison to give the Rangers a "big three" starting rotation.
Our friend Jonah Keri has dared to brave one of those lists to end all lists -- he ranks the 50 most valuable trade properties in baseball. With the winter meetings slated for next week in Nashville and trade rumors flying violently across cyberspace, it's the perfect time for such a list. Like the one Bill Simmons does for the NBA or the Dave Cameron does at FanGraphs, this isn't simply a list of the 50 best players in baseball. Contracts, service time and age matter. Here's the first part of Keri's list (honorable mention to No. 32).

Since this is meant as great debate fodder, some quick thoughts.
  • SportsNation

    Which of these young starters has the most trade value?

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      31%
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    Discuss (Total votes: 1,031)

    Keri lists a bunch of young starters as honorable mention -- Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Trevor Cahill, Mat Latos, Lance Lynn, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey, Trevor Bauer, all of whom have at least three years left of team control. While Keri groups all those guys together, he says to keep an eye on Harvey and Bauer. I completely agree on Harvey, who looked very impressive in his 10 starts with the Mets, both visually and statistically. I think Bauer rates behind all those other guys; I know the hype, but I see a guy who hasn't proven anything at the major league level with some command issues in the minors (4.2 walks per nine). It requires too much projection to put him on the same level as guys like Latos, Parker and Hellickson. But which one should rate highest? I'd probably go Parker, Latos, Harvey, Hellickson and Holland. What do you think? Let's put it to a poll.
  • No Matt Cain. The Giants owe Cain $121 million, thus the reluctance to include Cain in the top 50. That's a lot of money and pitchers are always big health risks, but Keri lists Wade Miley at No. 49. Yes, Miley is dirt cheap, but I'm pretty sure Cain would still bring a bigger haul -- in part because he is signed to a long-term contract, but also in part because Miley still has to prove he can do this again.
  • Honorable mention for Todd Frazier. Keri cites some sort of man crush on Frazier. I don't see it. Nice rookie season, but he's already 26 and never hit this well in the minors. I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop off next year.
  • Elvis Andrus and Andrelton Simmons at 46 and 45. I like both these guys, glad to see they made the top 50. In fact, they may be underrated. For example: Desmond Jennings at 39? If the Braves or Rangers called up and offered the Rays their shortstop for Jennings, I'm pretty sure the Rays think about 26 seconds before saying, "Done." Jennings was already 25 in 2012 and posted a .314 OBP. He does other things to help you win, but I love the defense and acceptable offense Andrus and Simmons offer.
  • Alex Gordon 34. Very underrated player. Signed for four more years at $44 million.
  • Mike Moustakas at 32. I know he's cheap for the foreseeable future and under team control for five more seasons. But he also posted a .708 OPS last year. That's, umm, not good. After a hot April, he hit .231 the rest of the way. Yes, first full season and all that, but I'm not quite on the Moustakas bandwagon. In fact, ignoring the prospect hype, is Moustakas any better than Kyle Seager? Yes, Moustakas is a year younger, but Seager had better numbers in a much tougher place to hit, playing in a tougher division. Seager hit .293/.324/.511 on the road; Moustakas hit .205/.260/.364.

Anyway, great list. The bottom part of it is actually a lot more fun to debate than the top 10. Part 2 on Tuesday on Grantland.

There was one more epic confrontation left for the San Francisco Giants before they could close out one of the great comebacks in playoff history.

Sergio Romo, the guy with the long beard, an 87 mph fastball, a nasty slider and the control of Dennis Eckersley, against Jay Bruce, a slugger with as much raw power as any other hitter in the game.

The Cincinnati Reds had scored one run in the bottom of the ninth, and Bruce represented the winning run with one out. After Wednesday night’s drama, you had the feeling something amazing was going to happen yet again.

My notes: 87 mph fastball fouled off; 87 chopped fouled again; 78 slider outside, Bruce Bochy pacing, fans chanting “Bruuuuuuuuce!!,” fouled off on low and outside; 87 fouled off; 87 fouled off Dusty Baker chomping on toothpick; 88 fouled back to screen; Bruce steps out, Buster Posey visits the mound; 82 slider low and away; 88 up and in, doesn’t get the call, 3-2; 79 slider, fly ball to left field.

What a showdown. A great at-bat by Bruce, fighting off all those pitches on the corner, with Romo throwing pitch after pitch on the corner. Romo won on the 12th pitch and then struck out Scott Rolen to begin the celebration.

The Reds had trailed 6-0 after Posey’s fifth-inning grand slam. They brought the tying to the plate in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. They brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth. They had 17 baserunners.

But the Giants found a way. The entire series, they found a way.

* * * *

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Buster Posey
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREBuster Posey's grand slam in the fifth inning created a 6-0 Giants lead and vaulted them into the NLCS.
In the end, the Giants made the big plays, and the Reds didn’t. In the end, the Giants had Posey, and the Reds didn’t. In the end, Bochy had a quick hook on his starter when he had to, and Baker didn’t. And, yes, in the end, the Reds had to win a series without their ace and with a hobbled Joey Votto.

Despite needing just one win at home to advance to their first NLCS since 1995, the Reds couldn’t get it done. Despite Homer Bailey flirting with a no-hitter in Game 3 and the Giants finishing with just three hits, the Reds couldn’t win that game. Despite knocking out Barry Zito in the third inning of Game 4, they couldn’t win that game. Despite again generating some offense against Matt Cain, they couldn’t win Game 5.

Give credit to the Giants for going on the road and taking three in a row. Give credit to Angel Pagan for a big Game 4 and to Tim Lincecum for his relief effort in that game. Give credit to Posey for crushing the decisive hit of the series, the grand slam off Mat Latos on Thursday that powered the Giants to a 6-4 victory.

Let’s start there. The game was 0-0 heading into the fifth, a pitcher’s duel as many had predicted. Latos had retired 11 of 12 entering the innings. Gregor Blanco led with a single to left, and then Brandon Crawford tripled into the right-field corner. During those at-bats, Latos was visibly upset with some calls by plate umpire Tom Hallion. After Cain tapped back to the mound, Pagan reached on shortstop Zack Cozart's error, scoring Crawford. Marco Scutaro then walked on four pitches, including a first-pitch pitchout. The bullpen began stirring as Sam LeCure took off his warm-up jacket.

Pablo Sandoval singled to left, loading the bases.

Now, you have to ask: Did Baker leave Latos in too long? Should he have had the bullpen up earlier? Was LeCure even the right guy? It’s an elimination game, and the last thing you want to do in an elimination game is leave your starter in to give up six runs. The Reds had the best bullpen in the majors during the regular season. Sure, if anybody could get you out of a bases-loaded jam, it would be a guy named Aroldis Chapman, only one of the greatest strikeout relievers in the history of the game, but that would require thinking outside the box. Baker had little option but to leave Latos in.

Latos grooved a 2-2 cutter to Posey that didn’t cut much. Posey ripped it over the fence in left-center.

Down 6-0, the Reds didn’t quit. Brandon Phillips doubled in two runs in the fifth. Ryan Ludwick homered leading off the sixth. Jay Bruce walked, and Scott Rolen singled to put runners at first and second. Then came one of the most surprising moves I remember in recent postseason play.

With catcher Ryan Hanigan up, the count went full. Now, Hanigan is a good contact hitter. He struck out just 37 times in 371 plate appearances this season; among players with at least 300 plate appearances, that was the 16th-best strikeout rate in the majors. Still, that means he strikes out 10 percent of the time. In 53 potential double-play situations, he grounded into six double plays -- 11 percent. Factor in that Cain is a decent strikeout pitcher and one with a low ground-ball rate (37 percent), and the odds tilt slightly away from a potential double play and a little more to a potential strikeout.

Baker sent the runners. Hanigan fouled off a pitch. Baker sent the runners again. Cain threw a fastball that tailed back over the black, Hanigan took it for strike three, and Posey gunned down Bruce at third. Look, it was an aggressive play. Baker obviously trusted Hanigan to put the ball in play, even against a tough pitcher like Cain. Bruce is not a fast runner, a guy with just 29 steals in 52 career attempts. Most managers sit tight there, not wanting to run themselves out of a potential big inning. Instead of making the Giants turn two, the Reds gave them an easy second out at third base.

“That was big," Posey said afterward on TV. "They had a lot of momentum going, putting a lot of good at-bats together.”

Unfortunately, that seems to be Dusty’s karma in the postseason. Back in the 2002 World Series, the Giants led 5-0 in the seventh inning in Game 6, only to lose. In 2003, the Cubs were up 3 games to 1 in the NLCS. They lost the Bartman game, and then Baker left in Kerry Wood to give up seven runs in Game 7. And now his Reds became the first National League team to blow a 2-0 series lead in the Division Series.

The Reds rallied twice more. They got two runners on in the seventh with two outs, but Jeremy Affeldt finally retired Ludwick on a bouncer to the mound after an eight-pitch duel. In the eighth, Crawford robbed Hanigan with a diving catch of a line drive, and then with two on and two outs, Pagan made another diving catch of Dioner Navarro’s soft liner.

In the end, the Reds were left with Chapman pitching the ninth inning with a three-run deficit. In the end, the Reds go home frustrated and disappointed. They'll be haunted by two plays at third base -- the Brandon Phillips play in the first inning of Game 3 and the one from Thursday. Two plays that the Giants made, and the Reds didn't.
That was one of the more entertaining games of the postseason, a classic pitching duel of sorts, with some interesting strategic decisions and some missed opportunities. The Cincinnati Reds will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of one of the best-pitched games in Reds postseason history and the San Francisco Giants will be wondering how they’re still alive in a game where they got three hits in 10 innings and struck out 16 times. For the rest of us, we’ll get more baseball!

Some thoughts on the Giants’ 2-1 victory:

  • As dominant as Aroldis Chapman was in the ninth inning, getting two strikeouts while throwing just 15 pitches, I was a little surprised he didn’t come back out for the 10th inning. Chapman pitched more than one inning eight times this season, but only twice after becoming the closer, a 1.2-inning save May 27 and a four-out save Aug. 10. Factoring in the shoulder fatigue that sidelined Chapman for 11 days in September, maybe Reds manager Dusty Baker is wary about using Chapman for more than an inning. The trouble is it’s a big drop-off from Chapman to Jonathan Broxton. Of course, it’s a big drop from Chapman to just about any reliever not named Craig Kimbrel.
  • As is, despite giving up two singles to start the inning, Broxton would have escaped the 10th if not for shoddy Reds defense. After he struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady, Ryan Hanigan's passed ball allowed the runners to move up and then Scott Rolen mishandled Joaquin Arias' chopper to third base. The sloppy defense in this postseason continues. Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a couple interesting choices that inning: He let Belt swing away with two on and no out. I would say most managers would have bunted there about 99 percent of the time. I didn’t mind the call. Belt has never had a sacrifice bunt in his brief career and he was the Giants' best chance to deliver a hit. Bochy then let pitcher Sergio Romo hit with runners at first and second. Again, I liked the call. Romo is the Giants’ best reliever; Bochy had used the other relievers you might want to use. Plus, Bochy had used up his bench; only backup catcher Hector Sanchez was left.
  • Xavier Nady and Xavier Paul. Discuss. Or not. Man, these two benches are horrible.
  • Keith Law and Eric Karabell talked about an interesting point on the Baseball Today podcast today, wondering if the Yankees aren’t better off moving up Robinson Cano in the order. He hit cleanup on Monday, and was left in the on-deck circle as Alex Rodriguez made the final out. Keith’s point is that batting lineups don’t matter all that much, but one obvious benefit of stacking your best hitters at the top is you may get them one more plate appearance. That’s the problem with the Reds batting Zack Cozart and his .288 OBP second. He made the final out, leaving Joey Votto on deck.
  • Not to bury Homer Bailey's awesome start. You can see why he pitched a no-hitter two starts ago as he took a no-hitter to two outs in the sixth (although the Giants had scored on a hit-by-pitch, walk and two sacrifices). The walk to No. 8 Brandon Crawford proved especially painful and kudos to pitcher Ryan Vogelsong for a good bunt and Angel Pagan for delivering the sac fly. Considering Bailey had thrown just 88 pitches, you can argue that Baker took him out too early. I can't fault Baker for handing the game to the best bullpen in baseball, but the Giants couldn't touch Bailey on this night.
  • Bailey’s game score of 80 was the fourth highest in Reds postseason history, behind Hod Eller’s 89 in Game 5 of the 1919 World Series against a team that wasn’t trying to win (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 SO) and Ross Grimsley’s 84 in Game 4 of the 1972 NLCS (9 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 SO). Jose Rijo’s win to clinch the sweep of the A’s in the 1990 World Series (8.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 SO) scores a 91. And, yes, this was just an excuse to mention Hod Eller.
  • Brandon Phillips' hustle effort in the first inning when he got thrown out at third base is one of those plays described as a “baserunning error” if you don’t make it but “heads-up baseball” if you do. The argument against trying to get the extra base is that with zero outs there is a little reward if you do make it (you’re already in scoring position) but a huge penalty if you get caught. As it turned out, Vogelsong labored through a 30-pitch inning and Phillips’ hustle cost the Reds a potential big inning.
  • Vogelsong did a nice job of settling down after that inning. He walked Votto and Ryan Ludwick in the third, but got Jay Bruce on a fly to left. Bruce swung at the first pitch, which isn’t necessarily the worst idea if he thinks a pitcher is going to groove something after two walks. Bochy hit for Vogelsong leading off the sixth, again not a bad idea considering the circumstances. Vogelsong had thrown 95 pitches, the Reds had Votto and Bruce due up the next inning and the Giants were still hitless at the time. It was the one opportunity Bochy knew he could use Aubrey Huff against a right-hander, without the possibility of the Reds bringing in Sean Marshall or Chapman. Huff just isn’t a big weapon right now.
  • As I write this, the Reds haven’t announced their Game 4 starter. It could be Johnny Cueto, but that seems unlikely. It could be Mat Latos, three days after throwing 57 pitches in Game 1. It could be Mike Leake, but to activate him they’d have to replace Cueto, which would make him ineligible for the National League Championship Series, should the Reds advance. If they go with Latos, that would likely mean starting Bronson Arroyo on three days’ rest in a potential Game 5. No easy calls here, but I’d probably go Latos and Arroyo, and rely on the deepest bullpen in the league. The Giants counter with Barry Zito -- and you know Bochy will have a quick hook. The Reds had a .770 OPS against left-handers compared to .710 versus righties, so if Zito struggles early don’t be surprised to see Tim Lincecum again in relief. Should be a good chess match yet again.

 
Mat LatosKelley L Cox/US PresswireMat Latos pitched four effective innings in relief to help the Reds top the Giants.

When Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto had to leave with back spasms after recording just one out Saturday, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price had four reasonable options:

1. Bring in reliever Sam LeCure, who didn’t start a game this season but had started 10 games in his career over the previous two seasons, and let him go as long as possible.

2. Turn into it into a bullpen game: Use LeCure and Alfredo Simon, another reliever who can be stretched out, and hope those two could get the game into the fifth inning.

3. Use Game 2 starter Bronson Arroyo, who last pitched on Monday.

4. Use Game 3 starter Mat Latos, who last pitched on Tuesday, meaning he’d be pitching on three days’ rest, something he’d never done before in the majors.

All were certainly defensible options. The Reds chose right: A combination of No. 1 and No. 4. LeCure got five outs to get the Reds through the second inning and then Baker gave the ball to Latos, who pitched four innings of one-run baseball, allowing only a home run to Buster Posey in the sixth inning. That decision proved key as the Reds beat the Giants 5-2 in their Division Series opener.

The smart thing Baker and Price did was to first use LeCure, a guy used to pitching in relief. That allowed Latos to go to the bullpen and conduct his usual pre-start routine and not potentially rush himself coming in for the injured Cueto. He wasn't dominant pitching on short rest, recording just one strikeout, but he got some help from his defense and bridged the gap to the back end of the Reds’ bullpen.

Defense -- and maybe a little luck -- was a huge key for the Reds. I counted six big defensive plays that saved bases and/or hits. In the second inning, Drew Stubbs cut off Gregor Blanco's double in the gap, preventing Brandon Belt from scoring from first base. Then, after intentionally walking Brandon Crawford, Matt Cain shot a hard liner to right field that Jay Bruce snagged. In the fourth, after Hunter Pence reached on an infield chopper, Belt rocketed a line drive that Joey Votto reached up and snared, allowing him to double off Pence. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, not known for his defense, made a diving catch on Belt’s blooper in the sixth and a running catch on Marco Scutaro's drive over his head in the seventh. Brandon Phillips also saved an extra base by backing up an errant throw on Blanco’s bunt single in the sixth.

Some good plays, a couple at them balls, some heads-up thinking. The Reds ranked fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, so defense like this is no surprise. The one aspect to watch moving forward is Votto’s mobility at first base with his bad knee; normally recognized as a pretty good glove, he had three scoop/reach plays and didn’t come up with any of them. It will be interesting to see if the Giants try a couple bunts on him in Game 2.

Offensively, the Reds rely on home runs, and that’s what they did, with Phillips clocking a hanging curveball from Cain just over the fence in left-center for a two-run shot and Bruce crushing a changeup 436 feet to right-center. Not a lot of balls are hit out in that area of AT&T Park (in fact, AT&T featured the fewest home runs by left-handed batters of any park in the majors). Bruce was my key hitter in the series for the Reds and he went 2-for-4, hitting a double and also a deep fly to center. A good sign for the Reds that he didn’t strike out. The Reds finished third in the NL home runs but just 12th in on-base percentage, so this is typical Reds baseball. When they hit home runs, they win.

As for Cain, he entered with a sterling postseason résumé from 2010, allowing just one unearned run in three starts. He just got beat on a couple bad pitches. Posey set up outside on the curveball to Phillips, but the pitch hung inside. The pitch to Bruce got too much of the middle of the plate.

I didn’t have a problem with Bruce Bochy hitting for Cain when he was due up leading off the bottom of the fifth. Considering the Reds’ bullpen -- it had the best ERA in the majors -- Bochy realized he had to try and generate some offense. The problem is Aubrey Huff and his .192 average (to be, fair, a .326 OBP, so at least he had a chance to draw a walk) was the choice. Other than Todd Frazier for the Reds, however, both teams have pretty weak benches.

One thing Bochy may have to consider is moving Belt up a spot in the order. With the Reds starting four right-handers, why not move Belt and his .380 OBP up to the fifth spot? (Or, arguably, ahead of Posey and moving Pablo Sandoval down to fifth). Belt had solid at-bats all night, drawing two walks. Pence may provide a veteran presence but he’s been terrible since coming over to the Giants, hitting .219/.287/.384.

The Giants made things interesting in the final two innings. Trailing 3-1 in the eighth, they got two on with two outs against Jonathan Broxton but Blanco took a 3-2 pitch on the low outside corner for strike three.

In the ninth, despite now leading 5-1, Baker brought on Aroldis Chapman. Remember, Chapman didn’t pitch for 11 days in mid-September and he hasn’t pitched in back-to-back games since returning. Why burn him with a four-run lead? The Reds had solid relievers in J.J. Hoover and Jose Arredondo available. As is, Chapman was wild enough to walk two guys, wild pitch in a run and allow likely NL MVP Posey to come up as the tying run with two outs. He finally struck him out on a high 100-mph fastball, but it took Chapman 28 pitches to get through the inning. It’s potentially a long postseason; now Baker has to wonder if Chapman will respond if needed on Sunday.

Obviously, the Giants don’t want to head back to Cincinnati down two games, so the pressure is on Madison Bumgarner to deliver a gem in Game 2, facing Arroyo. But the best news for the Reds: As of now, they believe Cueto will be OK to start Game 3.


We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming -- the American League playoff races -- to present Homer Bailey, the latest no-hit king in a season of perfect games, no-hitters and near no-hitters.

OK, that ball that bounded over Scott Rolen's glove on a do-or-die play in the third inning of Cincinnati's 1-0 victory is probably a called a hit 95 percent of the time. Hey, it was the Pirates' official scorer who ruled it an error and since it happened early in the game it wasn't one of those rulings made to help preserve a no-no.

Three highlight notes from ESPN Stats & Information about Bailey's gem:

1. After averaging 90 mph on his fastball through three innings and 90.6 in the middle three, Bailey amped it up to 92.1 over the final three innings. A little adrenaline, sure, but it's also an approach Justin Verlander has mastered in recent seasons, saving your best bullets for late in the game.

2. Bailey registered 17 swings-and-misses in the game, his second-highest total in 2012, so the pure stuff was excellent on this night.

3. He threw his fastball for strikes 76 percent of the time, his third-highest percentage of the season.

It's No. 3 that has finally turned Bailey from the perennial -- but disappointing -- prospect into a key member of the Reds rotation as they head into the playoffs. It's been a long road, but Bailey has matured and rewarded the Reds for their patience.

The seventh overall pick in 2004, Bailey's big arm shot him up immediately to the top of prospect lists. Entering the 2007 season, after a big year between high A and Double-A in 2006, Baseball America ranked him the No. 5 prospect in baseball. He reached the majors in 2007 and despite some control issues there (28 walks in 45.1 innings), Baseball America still ranked him No. 9 on its list. Its scouting report on Bailey in the "2008 Prospect Handbook":
Once he was healthy again in September, Bailey was back throwing in the mid-90s with his fastball and buckling knees with his curveball. They're both already well above-average major league pitches, and he has shown the ability to take a little off his heater. ... Bailey has no shortage of pure stuff, but he still has to refine his control and command to get big league hitters out and to work deeper into games.

Still, it's taken five seasons for Bailey to emerge as an elite starter. There were some minor injuries along the way, but he's refined his command. His walk percentage by year: 13.7 percent, 9.4, 10.5, 8.6, 5.9, 6.1. He made the big breakthrough last year and has maintained it in 2012. More importantly, he's remained healthy and will top 200 innings for the first time. Maybe he's not an ace, but he's become the definition of innings-eater. He keeps you in the game.

Interestingly, Bailey has been tougher on left-handers this year, holding them to a .248/.311/.380 line while right-handers are hitting .263/.304/.441 off him. Eighteen of the 26 home runs he's allowed have been to right-handers. Much of that difference in damage comes off his fastball. Right-handers are hitting .301 off the pitch, lefties .245. Let's check out his fastball heat maps:

Homer BaileyESPN Stats & InformationHomer Bailey's been tougher on lefties than righties, who have hit the majority of home runs off him.


It's difficult to see exactly what's going on there. It does appear he hits the outside corner a little more often against lefties, and if we break the percentages down, we get 7.8 percent of his fastballs against lefties are down the middle versus 9.5 percent facing right-handers. He also varies his vertical location a little better against left-handers.

The Reds will face an interesting dilemma as they set their postseason rotation: Whether they end up as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, they'll begin on the road. While he logically slots behind Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos (and maybe behind Bronson Arroyo) in the rotation, the smart move may be to start Bailey in the second game of the National League Division Series. As he showed on Friday, he's been much more effective away from Great American Ball Park. He has a 2.41 ERA on the road -- second-best in the majors to Jordan Zimmermann -- but 5.16 at home. As a fly-ball pitcher, it's no surprise that's all home runs: 21 allowed in Cincy, just five on the road.

I know what I'd do. What will the Reds do? Stay tuned.

And now back to your regular programming.

Relentlessly consistent Reds clinch Central

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
2:06
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The Reds came away with the National League Central title, a triumph of consistency that we could have anticipated for weeks. But that shouldn’t take anything away from their triumph -- indeed, the absence of drama in a feat built over 5½ months might represent a relief for a team that’s just going back to where it was in 2010, putting away a division it had the talent to win. Again.

There’s an easy mistake to make on the subject of consistency: You might recall that Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the hobgoblin of little minds, but you might have forgotten that it was "foolish consistency." There’s nothing foolish about the Reds’ brand of consistency, which is why they’re hoisting a tri-pennant as NL Central champs this weekend.

The Reds haven’t suffered a losing month all season. So far, they’ve won or split their season series with every opponent in the division, notably clobbering the Cubs and Astros for a combined 22 wins in 29 games. It would be hard to say anyone’s got their number, because they’ve been winding with the grinding reliability of death and taxes. If unaligned actuaries wanted to pick a ballclub, they ought to root for the Reds.

Consider their strengths, the stuff victories are made of, now as ever, forever. After Mat Latos’ Saturday gem and a 6-0 victory, the Reds are neck-and-neck in the race for league lead in quality starts from their rotation with 93, one back of the NL-leading Phillies and Mets totals (94), while the Giants are a few steps behind with 89.

Now sure, it’s easy to pick on the quality start as a standard for starting pitching, especially if you’re old enough to be hung up on standards set in the low-scoring 1970s or the high-mound ’60s, with the expectations that starters pitched deeper into games, and before the hyper-specialization and expansion of bullpen responsibilities. My advice? Get over it. Fundamentally, if you’ve gotten six innings or more and three runs allowed or fewer from your starting pitcher, that’s a game your team can win, anywhere, against anybody.

The Reds’ tally is all the more remarkable because of some of the challenges they have to deal with, perceived and real. Perceived, in that Dusty Baker was the skipper who went to the whip down the stretch with the starting pitchers on his 2003 Cubs, a decision that didn’t work out so well then, or shortly thereafter for Mark Prior or Kerry Wood. But give Dusty his props: He isn’t the same manager when it comes to running a rotation, and as a result starters with troubling injury histories like Latos and Johnny Cueto have had excellent seasons with the Reds, just the way general manager Walt Jocketty expected when he was drawing up this season on a chalkboard.

And real challenges? Well, remember, the Reds have to call the Gap, one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball, home. Nevertheless, as a staff they’re allowing just 3.8 runs per game there, against 3.6 on the road. That adds up to a good-sized stack of winnable games over the 152 they’ve played.

Another thing the Reds do exceptionally well is field, and like having starting pitching in depth, that’s a gift that keeps giving, game after game, week after week. Whether you want to use a metric as simple as Defensive Efficiency -- how many balls in play they turn into outs -- or Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, with the Reds you’re talking about one of the better fielding crews in the league, thanks in large part to premium defenders like second baseman Brandon Phillips, center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop Zack Cozart.

Pair their contributions in the field with the serious boppers that the Reds carry in the corners, and you’ve got a lineup that lacks many black holes, keeping things simple on the offensive side of the equation. Thanks in part to their home park, they’re one of the three best teams in the league in Isolated Power and in scoring runs on homers, which they’re also third in the league in. That’s because even their most glovely defenders, guys like Stubbs and Cozart, can exploit that ballpark. That’s no faint praise -- not every team in baseball has a shortstop and a center fielder with some power. When you win as consistently as the Reds have, credit the design, because it works.

If there’s one cause for complaint about the Reds, it’s the absence of a high-OBP leadoff man. That problem’s big enough that Dusty has been giving Phillips a whirl atop the order since Joey Votto came back from the disabled list, but Phillips’ .328 OBP still leaves plenty to be desired there.

But will that matter in October? To take it back to the starting pitching, maybe not, because if Cueto and Latos and the defenses behind them keep opposing hitters in check, it only takes a mistake or two to put a win in the ledger -- the same as has worked for the Reds for more than five months, consistently and relentlessly on the road to October.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bronson ArroyoAP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Reds' Bronson Arroyo can't help thinking, how sweet it is!
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Latos shows why he's Reds' true ace

August, 3, 2012
8/03/12
11:10
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This past winter, when the Cincinnati Reds traded for Mat Latos, I remember there being a lot of talk that he would really suffer without having spacious Petco Park as his home field.

Of course, there obviously were going to be some difficulties for a pitcher moving from Petco to Great American Ballpark, and the big righty already has allowed 20 homers, a career high. But when you see Latos throw like he did Friday night, it doesn't matter what park he is in.

The 24-year-old dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates, shutting them out over 7 1/3 innings while allowing just seven baserunners and striking out five in Cincinnati's 3-0 victory. Most importantly, he was working down in the zone, and induced 13 grounders and just three fly balls. (As you well know, ground balls never leave the park.) Latos added a two-run home run for good measure and helped the Reds extend their National League Central lead to 4 1/2 games.

Latos definitely struggled a bit early on this season in his new digs, but in his past eight starts, he has a 2.13 ERA with 52 K's in 55 innings, and his talent is really starting to shine through. And while Johnny Cueto has better overall numbers, Latos is much better at missing bats and has the kind of stuff to thrive in the postseason, which is where the Reds appear to be heading. Long story short, if I'm Dusty Baker, I try to set my rotation to make Latos my Game 1 starter.

However, it should be noted that I might have a bit of a Latos bias.

Back in August 2005, I was working for Baseball America, and I was sent to Aberdeen, Md., to cover the Aflac All-American game. For those who are unfamiliar, it's a showcase of the best high school players in the country who are about to enter their senior year, and it is now known as the Perfect Game All-American Classic and takes place in San Diego.

Showcases like that are a lot of fun to cover because you know there are a bunch of future big leaguers there; you're just not sure who they will be. And as you can see at the bottom of this link, the 2005 class -- which featured Brett Anderson, Jordan Walden and Kyle Drabek, among others -- did not disappoint.

But as talented as those pitchers were, the guy who was generating the most buzz among scouts was Mat Latos. Given his 6-foot-6 frame and fastball that could then scrape 98 mph, it was easy to envision a 2006 first-round pick and a possible No. 1 starter. But there were murmurs about attitude problems, and Latos fell to the 11th round of the 2006 draft and signed with the San Diego Padres the following spring as part of the now-defunct draft-and-follow process for $1.25 million.

He looked like an immediate bargain and cruised through the minors in just two years, posting a 2.49 ERA and 10.5 K's per nine along the way. He finished eighth in the Cy Young Award vote in 2010, his first full season, and looked like he'd be in San Diego for a long time. But then the Padres decided to use Latos to rebuild, and traded him to the Reds this past winter for a package that included Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal.

It was easy to predict a drop in numbers for Latos since he was moving out of baseball's most pitcher-friendly park, but he is showing that his home park was just part of the reason for his success. (It reminds me of how people once thought Matt Holliday was a product of Coors Field until he proved he wasn't.) And while the Reds gave up a lot for Latos, they are in position to win their division -- and possibly a World Series -- because of his talent.

And those championship chances will only increase if he keeps pitching like he did Friday.
Mat Latos has a lot going on in his windup. He starts with his hands down at his belt buckle, raises his glove and pitching hand up near the bill of his cap behind his right ear as he steps into the pitch, and has a little flick with his left foot as he pushes off the rubber, landing with a stiff front leg.

At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds and possessing a mid-90s fastball and sharp-breaking slider, he can be an intimidating presence on the mound as he goes through that delivery, the kind of pitcher right-handed hitters don't exactly love to face.

Presence is one thing; results are another. On Monday night, the Reds finally got a glimpse of the results they expected to see when they acquired Latos in the offseason from the Padres.

On a beautiful 80-degree night in Cincinnati, Latos pitched perhaps the best game of his career, a complete-game four-hitter in the Reds' 3-1 victory over the Brewers. Latos struck out a career-high 13 in a dominating performance, perhaps leaving Reds fans wondering: Where has this guy been all season?

Latos entered the game with a 5-2 record, but with a 5.20 ERA. After holding hitters to a .233 average in 2011 and .217 in 2010 during his first two full seasons with the Padres, batters had roughed him up for a .274 average. He had one game where he allowed eight runs, two where he allowed seven. And this wasn't simply a case of being unlucky with a lot of bloopers and flares: He'd allowed 16 home runs, third-most in the National League, and 23 doubles, tied for fifth-most.

Left-handers, in particular, had been pounding his fastball, hitting .321 and slugging .623 against it. Latos' approach is to try and get ahead with the fastball and use his slider, curveball or changeup as his knockout pitch, the slider being his most effective strikeout option. But he has to get to that point in the count.

Chomping ferociously on his gum between pitches, Latos had everything clicking on this night. He struck out Ryan Braun three times, twice on high fastballs and then in the eighth inning on three straight sliders -- an 87-mph pitch with a hard downward bite that Braun fouled; an 89-mph slider on the outside corner that Braun swung through; and then an 88-mph slider off the plate that Braun futilely waved at.

That was the final out of the eighth and with Latos at 98 pitches and the Reds holding a 2-1 lead, Aroldis Chapman began warming up in the Cincinnati bullpen. Whether because the Reds added an insurance run in the bottom of the inning or because Dusty Baker figured Chapman had picked up four losses in his past seven appearances, Latos was back out there in the ninth.

He cruised through an 11-pitch inning to finish off his second career complete game. He threw a lethal 1-1 slider to Rickie Weeks that was unhittable, breaking like it fell off the ledge off a cliff, and then finished Weeks off with another slider out of the zone.

"It's an amazing feeling to finally do something good after the trade," Latos said after the game.

Is this a turn-the-corner game for Latos? Hard to say. After his last start, when the Indians pounded him for eight hits and three home runs in four innings, he hinted the Indians were stealing signs. "I was a little up in the zone. I thought I made some good pitches that they spit on with a runner on second base," Latos said after the game. “When you go back and look at video, a couple runners on second base, they put better swings on the ball than they did most of the time without a runner on second base."

Hmm. Of course, lefties have been pounding Latos all season and the Indians have some good left-handed hitters, so I'm a little dubious about that excuse. The Brewers, meanwhile, are the perfect matchup for Latos, considering they have no left-handed power. The only lefties in Monday's lineup were Norichika Aoki, who homered on a meaty fastball down the middle in the sixth, Nyjer Morgan and Cesar Izturis. Not exactly murderer's row there.

Still, as Latos punched his glove one, two, three times after the victory, you wonder if maybe this is the kind of start that can send a pitcher on a roll. I think there's little doubt that Latos is one of the most important players in the NL. The Reds have a legit ace in Johnny Cueto, who is in the running to start the All-Star Game, and they need Latos to step up as that solid No. 2 guy.

Some may point out that Latos' struggles are the result of switching from spacious Petco Park to The Great American Ball Park and its smaller dimensions. I'm not sure that's the case. He has allowed 12 home runs in 59.1 innings at home; but he's allowed five in 29 innings on the road. His road his ERA in six starts this season is 7.45. And during his three years in San Diego, his home run splits weren't extreme -- 17 home runs allowed in 184.1 innings at home, 22 home runs allowed in 243.1 innings on the road. His home run-to-fly ball percentage is high at 16 percent, and after studying his heat maps, his fastball location seems pretty identical to last year, so it's hard to say how if it's a matter of bad luck, pitch sequencing or sign stealing.

Whatever the cause, the Reds need to hope Latos found a solution Monday night. Dusty has enough other problems to sift through -- finding a reliable No. 2 hitter, figuring out if Scott Rolen has anything left in the tank, deciding who to play in left field and who to catch, wondering what's wrong with Chapman, debating how long to leave Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey in games -- without worrying about his No. 2 starter.

In other words, this team needs a few more dependable players than just Cueto, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. If Latos becomes that guy, the Reds may prove tough to beat in the NL Central.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Brooks ConradPeter G. Aiken/US PresswireWho needs dancing shoes when you're as light on your feet as Brooks Conrad?
With Eric Karabell on vacation this week, I co-hosted Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast with Keith Law. There was a lot of news to talk about ...

1. R.A. Dickey is unbelievable right now. We discuss the run he's on and his "hard" knuckleball.

2. Roger Clemens is a free man! But will this help his Hall of Fame chances?

3. Several injuries to discuss: Brandon Beachy, Kyle Drabek, Ryan Dempster. Why didn't the Cubs trade Dempster sooner rather than later?

4. Emails: Should we care that the AL is better than the NL? Is Robinson Cano a good defensive second baseman? How to vote on All-Star players?

5. A look ahead to Tuesday's games, including a Justin Verlander-Lance Lynn matchup and a Brewers prospect gets a start.

All that and more on Tuesday's big show!

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