SweetSpot: Mike Napoli

Last offseason, the Boston Red Sox had agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract with catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, but a physical revealed a degenerative hip condition and the two sides eventually settled on a one-year deal. That contract worked out well: Napoli hit .259/.360/.482 with 23 home runs and 92 RBIs while playing in 139 games, and the Red Sox won the World Series.

So, Napoli enters the free-agent market again at age 32, coming off a better season than 2012, showing not only that his hip can withstand an entire season but also that he's a surprisingly good defender at first base. The Red Sox reportedly want him back, but other teams will be in pursuit.

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Napoli is one of the most consistent power hitters in the game, one of just 11 players with 20-plus home runs in each of the past six seasons. His batting averages fluctuate, but his ability to draw walks means he's going to give you an on-base percentage well above the league average. Although he no longer should be considered a catcher, his defense at first base was impressive, with plus-10 defensive runs saved, best among American League first basemen and fourth in the majors.

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Although Napoli is viewed as a guy who mashes left-handed pitching, his platoon splits aren't actually that severe. In his career, he has a .908 OPS against left-handers, .840 against right-handers; in 2013, that split was .899 and .813. He crushes lefties and mashes righties and was worth 4.1 WAR in 2013.

For teams looking to sign Napoli to a three-year deal, what should they expect? One similar type of player was Jim Thome -- he was better than Napoli but, like Napoli, a "three true outcomes" kind of hitter -- walks, strikeouts and home runs. From 29 to 31, Thome averaged 5.9 WAR per season; from 32 to 34, he averaged 2.7, but that included one 54-game season because of injury. At 35, he had 4.9 WAR, so the average of his 32, 33 and 35 seasons was 4.3 WAR; he retained about 72 percent of his value. Napoli has averaged 3.7 WAR the past three seasons, so 72 percent of that is a 2.7 WAR player. That would be worth about $52 million on a three-year deal, making a three-year, $39 million deal a pretty safe investment.

Paul Konerko is another best-case scenario, a right-handed hitting first baseman who hit .259/.351/.490 at age 31, a near-identical match for Napoli's 2013. Konerko averaged 2.5 WAR from 32 to 34 (with his fielding evaluated as worse than Napoli's).

You're not getting an MVP candidate or anything in Napoli, but you are getting a middle-of-the-order bat who is going to pop home runs, get on base, play better defense than expected and even serve as an emergency catcher if needed. For three or four years, he won't break your payroll.

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A slow first baseman with a questionable health history entering his age-32 season and coming off a career-high strikeout rate? That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Indeed, hidden in Napoli's superb 2013 season were some red flags. He struck out 187 times with a strikeout rate of 32.4 percent that was well above his career rate of 26.6 percent (when he had his monster 2011 season with the Rangers, he struck out less than 20 percent of the time). Napoli's BABIP was .367, despite which he hit just .259. His career BABIP is .310, so expect some regression in that area; if his strikeout rate remains high, his batting average could plummet back to the .227 he hit in 2012.

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There are many more worst-case scenarios here than positive comps. You want a first baseman in his early 30s with health issues? I give you Mo Vaughn. A 31-year-old first baseman with power who strikes out excessively? How about Richie Sexson? He hit .264/.338/.504 with 34 home runs at age 31; he was out of baseball two years later. Or Carlos Pena, the AL home run leader at age 31 with 39: His strikeout and walk rates that year were both better than Napoli's 2013 figures, but, from 32 to 34, he hit .206 and was worth 1.7 WAR per season. Or Ryan Howard: He hit .253/.346/.488 at age 31 in 2011. What has he done the past two seasons?

Napoli has a skill set you like: power and walks. But he's the type of player who doesn't age well. Throw in his hip condition and he seems like a risky bet.

No surprises in qualifying offers

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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Thirteen free agents received one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers from their previous team, meaning those players will have now a choice: See what the market bears or return to their team for that one-year offer (or negotiate a new contract with that club).

Those 13 players:

Stephen Drew, Red Sox
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Mike Napoli, Red Sox
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
Ervin Santana, Royals
Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Kendrys Morales, Mariners
Brian McCann, Braves
Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Shin-Soo Choo, Reds


These players are now tied to first-round compensation picks if the team that signs them doesn't own one of the top 10 picks (Astros, Marlins, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, Blue Jays, Mets). Those 10 teams would have to sacrifice a second-round pick for signing one of those 13 guys.

In the case of a highly sought free agent suc as Cano, Ellsbury or Choo, this will likely have little effect on contract offers they receive. However, for several of the players on the list this could drastically reduce their demand. We saw this happen last year with several players, most notably Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (who both ended up signing with Cleveland, which owned a protected top-10 pick), Kyle Lohse (who didn't sign with the Brewers until spring training was under way), and Adam LaRoche (who declined the Nationals' $13.3 million qualifying offer before eventually returning to Washington on a two-year, $24 million deal).

For example, considering Beltran's age, he was probably looking at a two-year contract. Would a contending team be willing to give up a first-round pick for two seasons of him? Perhaps. With Cruz coming off his PED suspension and given that he'll turn 34 next July, he's another guy who will now see limited demand. In both cases, it wouldn't surprise me if it pushes both players back to their original team, unless one of the bottom 10 teams come calling in hot pursuit (such as the Phillies). Coming off an injury, Curtis Granderson also could be headed back to the Yankees.

For Morales, this almost guarantees he returns to Seattle. The market for designated hitters has been slow in recent seasons and it's unlikely any team will give him $14.1 million, even on a one-year deal, and certainly not at the cost of a first-round pick. He'll probably go back to Seattle, maybe negotiating a deal similar to what LaRoche signed with the Nationals last year.

The most interesting guy could be Drew. He was a free agent a year ago and signed a one-year deal with Boston that paid him $9.5 million. After missing time in 2011 and 2012 with injuries, he had his best season at the plate since 2010. Considering he's the only top shortstop on the market, interest in him was expected to be high. But if you're, say, the Cardinals and wishing to replace Pete Kozma, do you want to give Drew a multi-year contract for tens of millions and lose that first-round pick? That's a tougher call.
World Series history is filled with dramatic Game 6 contests -- 2011 (Cardinals-Rangers), 2002 (Angels rally), 1993 (Joe Carter), 1992 (Jays clinch in extra innings), 1991 (Kirby Puckett), 1986 (Bill Buckner), 1975 (Carlton Fisk)... just to name a few.

We didn't get a classic Game 6 this time. Instead, we saw a lot of fear of David Ortiz, we saw Michael Wacha's October run end in sadness, we saw Red Sox fans celebrating a World Series clincher at home for the first time since 1918. Which is a cool way to end the baseball season.

Hero: Shane Victorino had missed the previous two games with lower back tightness, but returned wearing patriotic cleats and delivered the big hit of the game. With the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning, he drilled a 2-1 fastball from Wacha high off the Green Monster in left-center for a bases-clearing double as Jonny Gomes just barely beat the throw home for the third run. In the fourth, he singled home another run with two outs for a 6-0 lead.

Back to that double. It was set up by a few things. In order:

1. Ortiz's first-inning plate appearance, in which he worked a nine-pitch walk, fouling off three pitches before finally taking a curveball below the knees.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury's leadoff single in the third and Dustin Pedroia's broken-bat ground out to third base that moved Ellsbury to second. Think of the little things that can turn a baseball game: What if Pedroia doesn't break his bat and instead grounds into a 5-4 force play? That means first base would have been occupied. Instead, there was a runner on second and one out.

3. The intentional walk to Ortiz. "We are going to be careful," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before the game about pitching to the scorching hot Ortiz. "We haven't made it any big secret, and sometimes when we're doing that, it doesn't even work out how we're playing it. It's a situation where you have a hitter that we know and everybody sees, he's swinging the bat very well."

Sabermetricians are not big fans of the intentional walk, mostly because extra baserunners can lead to big innings. Matheny isn't usually a fan of the intentional walk -- the Cardinals ranked next-to-last in the National League in free passes handed out. But he decided to give the Red Sox a free baserunner; the Cardinals would pay the price.

My take: I'm not a fan of the intentional. Yes, Ortiz was hot. And I'm sure that first-inning walk influenced Matheny's decision. At that point, Ortiz had swung and missed at only three pitches the entire Series. But just because he was hitting .750 in the Series doesn't mean he's a .750 hitter. And if you walk him? Well, then he's a 1.000 on-base guy. The move is even riskier with just one out instead of two. As far as intentional walks go, it was certainly understandable as to why it was done. Don't let Ortiz beat us. But it also reminded me of Ron Washington walking Albert Pujols in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 6 of 2011 to pitch to Lance Berkman (who would knock in the game-tying run). When you intentional walk a batter in those situations you're assuming the next batter (or batters) are going to hit .000.

4. Hitting Gomes. Wacha struck out Mike Napoli with a 94-mph fastball that looked down the middle. At that point, Matheny's move looked like it would work out. Batters were 0-for-14 against Wacha in the postseason with runners in scoring position, wtih six strikeouts. He just needed to get Gomes. Instead, he hit him.

That brought up Victorino. He fell behind with a curveball inside and fastball below the knees. Victorino took a fastball on the corner but was still sitting 2-1 fastball and got one. Wacha had only thrown five changeups at that point (he got Pedroia on one) and you can certain second-guess going to another fastball there. But again: Bases loaded, can't walk somebody. Victorino cleared the bases, but the intentional walk helped set up the inning.

Goat: Cardinals offense. Look, for all the talk about whether or not to pitch to Ortiz, it wasn't Ortiz who had beat the Cardinals through the first games so much as the Boston pitching (Jon Lester in particular). But the Cardinals scored just 14 runs in six games, hitting .224. They did have nine hits in Game 6, but just one was an extra-base hit (they had just 10 in the entire Series) and Matt Holliday's two home runs (one hit while down 8-0 in Game 1) were the only two the Cardinals hit. The bats simply didn't produce with Matt Adams hitting .136, David Freese .158 and Jon Jay .167.

Big Papi redux: In the fourth inning Stephen Drew led off with a home run and Ellsbury doubled with one out. After Pedroia flew out, Matheny again elected to give Ortiz a free base. He again paid the price for not wanting Ortiz to beat his team. Down 4-0, the game and season on the line, he went to ... Game 4 starter Lance Lynn to face Napoli. Not Carlos Martinez. Not Seth Maness. Not John Axford. Certainly not Trevor Rosenthal (he's the closer!) or Shelby Miller (he was left on the runway in St. Louis). Again, I'm not sure Lynn was any worse of an option than Martinez, Maness or Axford, but it was a bit curious. Lynn faced three batters, gave up two hits and a walk and it was 6-0.

As Keith Law tweeted about yet another intentional walk, "It's almost like putting a hitter on base deliberately, refusing him the chance to make an out on his own, is a bad idea."

Lackey in control: John Lackey wasn't dominant but spaced his hits and worked out of a couple jams, most notably in the second inning when Allen Craig and Yadier Molina led off with hard singles. He retired Adams on another hard liner to deep left, got Freese to fly out to right on a 3-2 curve and then struck out Jay on another curve. Red Sox fans can look back at those two curves as the two big pitches Lackey would make. After that, he seemed to right himself, kept the ball, threw first-pitch strikes and became the first pitcher to start and win clinching games for two different teams (he started Game 7 for the Angels as a rookie in 2002).

Going out in style: Ellsbury is a free agent and with Jackie Bradley Jr. on the horizon, speculation is Ellsbury signs with another team. If it was his final game in a Red Sox uniform, what a game: He went 2-for-4 with a walk, starting both Red Sox rallies. Ellsbury was a late-season add back in 2007, hit .353 in 33 games to earn a starting spot by the postseason and then hit .438 in the World Series. He's had his ups and downs in his Boston career, but he makes the offense go from the leadoff spot and scored 14 runs in 16 postseason games.

Splitting hairs: And the final pitch: A Koji Uehara splitter that Matt Carpenter swung on and missed, the pitch diving off the plate something wicked. The single best pitch in baseball this season was the final one of the season. The guy without the beard let the beards begin the celebration.

The best team won: The best team doesn't always win. But the Red Sox were the best team in the regular season, tying for the most wins in the majors while playing in easily the toughest division. They were best team in the playoffs, beating a good Tampa Bay club, that lethal Detroit pitching staff, and a St. Louis team that was better than its 2006 and 2011 World Series winners. Congrats to the Red Sox.
Some random thoughts on a whole bunch of things as we wake up from Saturday evening's crazy, once-in-a-lifetime ending:
  • Everybody is talking about the obstruction call, of course, but as Jim Caple pointed out, Red Sox manager John Farrell is as much a goat as Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Will Middlebrooks. In the ninth inning, he let Brandon Workman bat with one out against Trevor Rosenthal -- Workman's first at-bat as a professional. Workman hit .481 as a senior at Bowie (Texas) High School, but never had an at-bat at the University of Texas. How many guys had their first professional at-bat come in the World Series? Not sure it's ever happened before, considering most American League starters will at least bat in interleague games and relievers rarely are allowed to hit in a postseason game.


    Farrell conceded that Workman facing Rosenthal was a mismatch, but said that he wanted to get an extra inning out of Workman with the game looking like it would go extra innings. But Farrell also basically admitted he screwed up, pointing out he could have double-switched when Workman entered, putting David Ross in for Saltalamacchia. It's interesting, whenever the World Series goes to the National League, everyone suggests the AL manager could be at a disadvantage. I don't know if anyone actually ever believes this -- I mean, how hard is it to double-switch? -- but it does appear as if Farrell's inexperience with the NL game caught up to him here. (To a certain extent he was also conceding they were unlikely to score off Rosenthal, but I'm pretty sure Red Sox fans would have liked to have seen Mike Napoli get an at-bat.)
  • With Clay Buchholz and Lance Lynn starting Game 4, there's a good chance both managers will have to dig deep into their relief corps. Buchholz's health is a question and he's unlikely to go deep into the game even if he's pitching well. Lynn has made four postseason starts the past two years and his longest outing was 5 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. In his other three starts he got knocked out before five complete innings. In the regular season, Lynn had a pretty large platoon split; he allowed a .299 OBP against right-handers but .361 against left-handers. Basically, his slider is more of a wipeout pitch against right-handers, but against left-handers he nibbles and ends up with more walks and fewer strikeouts.


    In the postseason, Lynn has changed his approach, throwing his curveball more -- a lot more. He increased his overall rate of curves from 10 percent of his pitches to 24 percent. With two strikes, he's increased from 11 percent curveballs to 39 percent. In the regular season, just 17 of his 198 strikeouts came via the curveball, but in the postseason it's been seven of 12. This doesn't mean the results have been better -- he's allowed a .304/.407/.457 batting line in 11 2/3 innings -- but it seems to suggest that he realizes his fastball/slider combo hasn't been that effective against left-handed batters.


    It gives Farrell some interesting lineup decisions. Stephen Drew is 4-for-44 with 17 strikeouts in the postseason, so Farrell could play Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Middlebrooks at third. But do you sit Drew and his left-handed bat, losing something on defense in the process, or play him since he's a better matchup against Lynn, his current struggles notwithstanding? Likewise, Saltalamacchia is hitting .188 with 19 strikeouts in 35 PAs. Does Ross get the start over the switch-hitting Salty? Buster Olney wrote about Boston's possible lineup decisions, including the out-of-the-box idea of playing Napoli at third base. I have a hard time seeing that happening since Napoli has never played there in the majors and Buchholz gets a lot of ground balls. But stranger things have happened, right?
  • As for Buchholz, ESPN Stats & Information points out that he's been leaving his fastball and cutter up in the zone against left-handed batters in the postseason. In the regular season, lefties hit .165 off those pitches; in the postseason, they're 9-for-17 with a 43 percent line-drive rate. With that in mind, look for Daniel Descalso to get the start over Pete Kozma at shortstop. Farrell is in a more desperate situation than Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, so he'll have to have a shorter hook on Buchholz. Felix Doubront looked good in throwing two scoreless innings on Saturday; he threw 25 pitches so he should be available as a long man for a couple of innings. I can't imagine Farrell has much faith right now in Ryan Dempster, but he's the other option as a long man. Workman started in the minors but threw 30 pitches Saturday night, so he's probably in more of a last man out of the pen role for Game 4.
  • Aside from that, Farrell has to get Koji Uehara in the game. He's now let one lead slip away in the seventh inning and started the ninth inning of a tie game without his best reliever on the mound. Yes, he finally brought in Uehara in Game 3 after Workman allowed a base hit, but maybe all the craziness never happens if Uehara starts the inning. The point: Having a guy who had one of the most dominant relief seasons ever isn't a big weapon if you don't use him in the most critical situations. If the Red Sox are going to win this game I think they may need to get six outs from Uehara, even if that means using him in the seventh inning to get out of a jam.
  • Carlos Martinez has pitched three times in four days, which he had never done, and threw just nine of his 20 pitches for strikes Saturday night. In other words, he looked more like the 22-year-old who had a 5.08 ERA in the regular season than the setup guy who had been so good in the postseason. You have to think Matheny will be reluctant to use him in a fourth straight game, so look for somebody else to pitch in the eighth inning if the Cardinals are leading. Matheny still has plenty of weapons down there -- Kevin Siegrist, ground-ball maestro Seth Maness, former Brewers closer John Axford or even exiled closer Edward Mujica. I suspect Axford gets the eighth inning unless Maness is still available. The other question: Is Shelby Miller on the roster? The Cardinals are carrying 12 pitchers but Miller has pitched one inning the entire postseason. I have a feeling we'll see him at some point in Game 4.
  • David Ortiz is now 2-for-2 against the Cardinals' lefty specialists -- a home run off Siegrist in Game 1 and a single off Randy Choate in Game 3. Matheny shouldn't let those results affect his decision-making in Game 4. You still want left-handers facing Ortiz in high-leverage situations.
  • Can't wait for this one. We may not get the crazy ending again, but the matchups, lineup decisions and reliever usage should be fascinating.
Thoughts on a Game 1 of the World Series that was over early and ended up 8-1, Red Sox over Cardinals ...

Hero: Jon Lester. The line score says it all: 7 2/3 innings, five hits, no extra-base hits, no runs, one walk, eight strikeouts. He tied his season high with five strikeouts on his cutter. Get this: Lester is the third southpaw to start Game 1 of a World Series for Boston. Babe Ruth pitched a shutout in 1918. Bruce Hurst pitched eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 win in 1986. And now Lester.

Goat: Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma made two costly errors, arguably leading to five runs (although only two of the five were charged as unearned). He dropped the relay throw on what should have been an easy inning-ending double play on David Ortiz's grounder in the first and then booted Shane Victorino's grounder in the hole in the second. Really, though, you can blame the entire Cardinals defense. Shane Robinson bobbled Mike Napoli's double that followed Kozma's error in the first, removing any shot of throwing out Ortiz at home. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina miscommunicated on Stephen Drew's popup leading off the second. And David Freese showcased his limited range when Dustin Pedroia's RBI single scooted under his glove later in that inning. Wainwright wasn't sharp but he could have easily escaped with no runs allowed.

Turning point: Second-base umpire Dana DeMuth originally and inexplicably missed the call on Kozma's first-inning error, even though Kozma clearly never caught the ball. Red Sox manager John Farrell went out to argue the call, the umpires gathered and correctly changed the call. Napoli followed with a bases-clearing double, lining a 2-0 cutter into left-center.

At-bat of the night: Has to be Napoli's double. How often does Wainwright fall behind 2-0? Including the playoffs, he'd thrown only 103 pitches with a 2-0 count, so that means just 103 batters out of 1039 batters faced -- just under 10 percent of the time. Even though Wainwright has that great curveball, he only threw it nine times out of those 103, usually throwing his fastball or cutter. Napoli was sitting on something hard, Wainwright caught too much of the plate and it was 3-0 in the first inning.

Revealing statistic: The first Boston batter to swing at the first pitch was leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury -- his second time up, the 10th Boston batter of the game. No team works the count like the Red Sox and Wainwright threw 31 pitches in the first (just the third start this season he threw 30-plus pitches in the first inning) and 60 through two innings. He had just four outs after 52 pitches.

Injury of the night: Carlos Beltran, playing in his first World Series game, robbed Ortiz of a grand slam but slammed into the low right-field fence in the process, exiting the game with a rib contusion and departing to the hospital for X-rays. Needless to say, if he can't go in Game 2 or beyond it's a devastating injury for the Cardinals.

Debate of the night: There was some debate on Twitter on whether Mike Matheny should have removed Wainwright after two innings, either to save him for a possible Game 4 start or just to get him out of there considering he's thrown more innings than any pitcher in baseball. The Cardinals have 12 pitches on their roster, including starter Shelby Miller available in relief, so Matheny has more pitchers than he can use. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher -- and smart guy -- Brandon McCarthy argued for leaving in Wainwright, that his pitch count was high enough that Matheny would be unlikely to start him in Game 4 anyway and he's your ace, so leave him in and give your team a chance to come back. Another argument for taking him out, however: In postseason history, the team that led by five-plus runs after two innings was 45-0. A comeback was extremely unlikely regardless (not that Matheny would have known that data, of course).

One swing and the Cardinals could have been back in it: They loaded the bases in the fourth with one out and Freese up. Lester induced a 1-2-3 double play. Since hitting .397 in the 2011 postseason, Freese is hitting .239 with two home runs in 25 games. So ... maybe he's not clutch and just happened to have a postseason for the ages?

Keep this one in your back pocket: Ortiz crushed a two-run homer (off a first-pitch fastball) in the seventh off rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist, who hadn't allowed a home run to any of the 84 left-handed batters he'd faced. This is a matchup we could see again, in a more crucial situation.

It's just one game, but ... The team that won Game 1 has won 21 of the past 25 World Series.
You like offense? Home runs make you happy and strikeouts make you sad? Then this is not the postseason for you.

But if you like dominant pitching and fastballs in the upper 90s and splitters that dive like Italian soccer players and changeups that dance around like whiffle balls, then this is the postseason for you. If you like tense, low-scoring baseball where one pitch, one swing of the bat, one miscue in the field can turn a game or an inning, then there’s been no shortage of October drama to appreciate.

The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers were at it again in Game 3, Justin Verlander dueling John Lackey, Verlander striking out six in a row at one point, Lackey matching him pitch for pitch. The scoreless battle ended in the top of the seventh when Mike Napoli hammered a 3-2, 96 mph fastball into the left-center bullpen, Verlander’s one mistake in a textbook display of power pitching.

The game’s other decisive at-bats would come in the bottom of the eighth, after Craig Breslow had walked the struggling Austin Jackson and the struggling Torii Hunter had singled with one out off Junichi Tazawa to send Jackson storming into third. Bringing up Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Red Sox manager John Farrell could have turned to lockdown closer Koji Uehara, he of the unhittable splitter. But there seems to be a building trend in these playoffs that closers can go four outs but for some inexplicable reason can’t go five outs.

Tazawa remained in the game and there may have been a good reason Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves kept him in: He throws harder than Uehara. And Cabrera, with his injury issues, has largely struggled with fastballs in September and the postseason.

The pitch sequence:

--94 mph fastball, swing and miss
--95 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss
--94 mph fastball way outside
--94 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss

Three swings, three swing-and-misses from Cabrera. During the regular season he swung and missed on 17 percent of fastballs thrown him, but in this game he swung and missed on eight fastballs. It was a poor at-bat by Cabrera; unable to catch up to the heat is one thing, but expanding the strike zone is something he rarely does.

That left it up to Fielder, 1-for-3 in this game and RBI-less in 14 postseason games going back to Game 1 of last year’s ALCS. He swung through a hittable 89 mph fastball, swung through another four-seamer down at the knees and then couldn’t lay off the 0-2 splitter, a weapon that’s as good as any pitch in baseball right now. For Prince, that makes it 15 postseason games without an RBI, a stretch that includes just one extra-base hit for Fielder. This is Fielder’s fourth postseason and he’s hitting .203 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 36 games. He’s an RBI machine … until October rolls around.

One more note on how one pitch can swing a game. Victor Martinez -- isn’t it time to move him up in the order? -- led off the bottom of the ninth with a single, bringing in a pinch runner and Jhonny Peralta to the plate. The 1-1 pitch -- Billy Beane has called that the most important pitch, the one that swings an at-bat more than any other -- was a fastball just below the knees. Except Ron Kulpa called it a strike. The next pitch was a splitter and a 6-4-3 double play.

You hate to panic in the playoffs, but you wonder if Leyland should change his lineup around a bit. Martinez and Peralta have been the Tigers' best hitters but are batting fifth and sixth. Jackson struck out twice more and has fanned 18 times in 33 at-bats in the postseason. His postseason struggles aren't a new story, and you wonder if he's just a guy who can't hit good pitching. (Per Baseball-Reference.com, he hit .118 against "power pitchers" this season and .220 last season. You're probably seeing fewer finesse guys in October.) Fielder's walk rate has deteriorated in his postseason career compared with the regular season. It could be a small sample size thing -- 152 plate appearances -- but maybe he, too, doesn't hit good pitching (his slugging percentages against fastballs has gone way down over the past two seasons).

In the end, the Tigers wasted another great performance from Verlander. He matched Cliff Lee as the only pitcher in postseason history with three straight games of 10-plus strikeouts and one run or fewer. But his loss continues an amazing stretch the past few days. Verlander, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have started games in their respective League Championship Series and combined to allow eight runs in those six starts.

And their teams didn’t win any of those games.

* * * *

This was the 11th 1-0 postseason game won with a solo home run. The other 10:
  • 2001 ALDS, Game 3: Yankees 1, A’s 0 (Mike Mussina over Barry Zito, Jorge Posada HR, aka the Jeter Flip Game)
  • 1997 ALCS, Game 6: Indians 1, Orioles 0 (Mussina vs. Charles Nagy, Tony Fernandez HR in 11th off Armando Benitez)
  • 1995 WS, Game 6: Braves 1, Indians 0 (Tom Glavine vs. Dennis Martinez, David Justice HR off Jim Poole)
  • 1986 NLCS Game 1: Astros 1, Mets 0 (Mike Scott over Dwight Gooden, Glenn Davis HR)
  • 1983 NLCS Game 1: Phillies 1, Dodgers 0 (Steve Carlton over Jerry Reuss, Mike Schmidt first-inning HR)
  • 1974 ALCS Game 3: A’s 1, Orioles 0 (Vida Blue over Jim Palmer, Sal Bando HR, six hits total)
  • 1966 WS Game 4: Orioles 1, Dodgers 0 (Dave McNally over Don Drysdale, Frank Robinson HR)
  • 1966 WS Game 3: Orioles 1, Dodgers 0 (Wally Bunker over Claude Osteen, Paul Blair HR)
  • 1949 WS Game 1: Yankees 1, Dodgers 0 (Allie Reynolds over Don Newcombe, Tommy Henrich HR leading off bottom of ninth)
  • 1923 WS Game 3: Giants 1, Yankees 0 (Art Nehf over Sam Jones, Casey Stengel HR)

The season's underrated defensive stars

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
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AP PhotoPedro Florimon and David Lough don't get a lot of press, but they have stellar defensive stats.


We've written frequently about the outstanding defense of Andrelton Simmons, Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gomez this season, but it should be noted that they;re not the only ones who have been terrific with the glove.

You may have read Buster Olney's blog today in which I made a statistical assessment of the clubhouse leaders for Gold Glove Awards. That hooks into something I've been wanting to do for awhile -- take a closer look at nine players having good defensive seasons that you may not have been aware. (Note that all data is entering Thursday).

Infielders
Mike Napoli, Red Sox 1B
Napoli was the most surprising name among the Defensive Runs Saved and UZR leaders. His 10 Runs Saved are most among AL first basemen.

What is he doing that those stats are rewarding?

It's fairly simple. Napoli doesn't go beyond the basic area he covers to make plays (his rate of out of zone plays per inning ranks in the bottom third among first basemen), but what he can get to, particularly on balls hit near the first-base line, he turns into outs.

Napoli entered Thursday with the best Revised Zone Rating among AL first basemen, though remember that group doesn't include Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez or a healthy Albert Pujols.

Brian Dozier, Twins 2B
Pedro Florimon, Twins SS

Dozier has handled the move from shortstop to second base with aplomb, netting 11 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, second-most in the AL (Dustin Pedroia leads with 16).

He leads AL second basemen in range factor (plays per game) and is one of those players who passes the eye test too.

Dozier's 83 Good Fielding Plays (think: Web Gem nominees) are only two fewer than the leader at the position, Pedroia (in 177 fewer innings). What's separating Dozier from being as good as Pedroia are the defensive misplays and errors. He has 31, 10 more than Pedroia.

Florimon has shown himself to be adept, particularly at getting to balls in the shortstop-third base hole (which helps, because Dozier covers a lot of ground up the middle). His 14 Defensive Runs Saved rank second-best among shortstops this season, dwarfed by Simmons’ major-league leading 39.

Juan Uribe, Dodgers 3B
Like Napoli, this one may merit an eye roll, but the numbers show that Uribe has been good. His 11 Defensive Runs Saved are second-most in the NL and the same as Evan Longoria (in nearly 450 fewer innings). Like Napoli, Uribe gets to balls and doesn't make a lot of mistakes.

Let me show you what I mean:


The two images show approximate batted ball locations for ground balls hit to a swath of the field that I think we can all agree are balls that are fielded (or missed) mostly by third basemen.

The image on the left shows how a team that ranks among the best in the majors in out conversion -- the Dodgers -- has fared against those balls. The image on the right shows how a team that ranks among the worst -- the Marlins -- fares against balls hit to that same swath.

The two players making most of those plays for the Dodgers are Uribe and Nick Punto, who has five Runs Saved in limited time at the position.

Uribe's performance is the bigger surprise. The last time he had a season with at least a dozen Defensive Runs Saved was 2004.

Outfielders
David Lough, Royals OF
The inspiration to include Lough came from seeing him crash into the right-field fence to make a catch for his third No. 1 Web Gem in Tuesday's win over the Indians. Lough has 17 Defensive Runs Saved in 666 innings and has done his best work getting to balls hit to the deepest parts of the park. His runs saved per inning rate ranks fifth-best among outfielders with at least 500 innings played.

Lough has a near 2-to-1 rate of good fielding plays to defensive misplays and errors in right field based on video review by Baseball Info Solutions. His rate ranks fifth-best among the 21 right fielders with at least 15 good plays this season.

Shane Victorino, Red Sox RF
Victorino has the most Runs Saved of anyone who hasn't been nominated for Defensive Player of the Month this year with 22, the best year of any in his 10-year career.

Victorino has had a good year with his arm (see the chart), but even at age 32, he's shown that he can go into the gap and get the ball. The Red Sox defense has improved considerably from a statistical perspective at getting to balls in the deepest parts of right-center. Victorino has been a key to that.

As we did for Uribe, we cut the field into a swath, one meant to show the charting (by hand and eye) of balls hit to the deepest parts of right-center that stayed in play at Fenway Park, and looked at the data.

In 2012, the Red Sox turned 16 of those 25 into outs. In 2013, they've turned 22 of 25 into outs. Six would-be doubles and triples (just at Fenway) may not sound like a lot, but it's the sort of thing that can help enhance the defensive value of someone like Victorino.

Chris Denorfia, Padres OF
Denorfia has played three outfield positions and played them solidly, combining for 15 Defensive Runs Saved. He has five Defensive Runs Saved at each of the three outfield positions.

If that holds to the end of the season, he'd be the first player in the 11-season history of Defensive Runs Saved to have at least that many Runs Saved in all three of those spots.

Catchers
Welington Castillo, Cubs C
Castillo's season doesn't look great on paper, particularly the 10 errors, but he ranks second in the National League in runners caught stealing with 26 and has five pickoffs.

Castillo's stats also have gotten a spike from one area that BIS charts that might be hard to recognize -- the ability of a catcher to block pitches in the dirt.

Castillo entered Thursday having blocked 613 pitches in the dirt (without a baserunner advancing) this season, second-most in the majors to Salvador Perez's 622.

That's helped him accumulate a major-league high 17 Defensive Runs Saved at catcher.

Russell Martin, Pirates C
Martin has done more than his share of good things behind the plate for the Pirates. His 15 Defensive Runs Saved are his best total since he netted 18 in 2007.

The two reasons for that are:

(A) The Pirates' ERA is about half-a-run better when he's behind the plate compared to when he isn't.

(B) He's thrown out 28 of 75 of would-be basestealers, compared to only three of 35 by the rest of the team's backstops.

Martin probably won't win a Gold Glove, with Yadier Molina in his way, but his value has been as noteworthy as Molina's on the defensive side this season.

Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions contributed research to this article.
Thoughts on Wednesday's games ...
  • Have a night, Mike Napoli. First, he did this to Mark Buehrle. And then he did this to Esmil Rogers. Distances: 472 and 467 feet, making them the third- and fifth-longest home runs of the season, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker. Fun facts: Napoli leads the majors with 21 extra-base hits and the Red Sox have hit 16 home runs in five games in Toronto, one more than they've hit their other 22 games. Oh, the Red Sox won 10-1 as Clay Buchholz improved to 6-0, 1.01 with seven scoreless innings. While the ball flies out in Toronto, Buchholz once again kept the ball down in the zone and has allowed just one home run in 44.2 innings.
  • Here's what Ryan Raburn has done his past 14 plate appearances for the Indians, starting with his final at-bat Sunday: single, single, single, three-run home run, home run, line out, single, two-run homer, home run, single, infield RBI single, RBI double, single, strikeout. That's 12-for-14 with four home runs. Whew. The Indians beat Philadelphia and Cliff Lee, 6-0, and have won four in a row, outscoring the enemy 39-5. It's Ryan Raburn's world right now. I watched the early innings of this game and while Trevor Bauer, making his first start since April 6, only gave up one hit and no runs in five innings, it was hardly a pretty outing, as he walked six and threw just 50 of 93 pitches for strikes. He escaped but that's now 13 walks in his two starts. Command, command, command. (He walked six in his three Triple-A starts.)
  • The Diamondbacks' bullpen was supposed to be a strength but has now coughed up 10 blown saves/leads in 28 games. Brandon Belt delivered the big hit, a three-run homer off David Hernandez in the eighth -- off an 0-2 fastball with two outs. In the video, you can see catcher Miguel Montero wanting the pitch up, but Hernandez left it over the middle of the plate, about belt-high. (Sorry.) Hernandez has already equaled the four home runs he gave up last year, when batters hit .046 against him when the count reached 0-2 -- with 55 strikeouts and one walk.
  • Speaking of bullpens, Tampa's pen was outstanding last year, led by Fernando Rodney. But Jake McGee was dominant in middle relief, allowing 13 runs in 55.1 innings and holding batters to a .168 average and .213 on-base percentage. Proving the often-volatile nature of bullpen, McGree has already allowed 11 runs this season, including five in Wednesday's 9-8 loss to Kansas City, as the Royals overcame a five-run deficit. Jeremy Hellickson couldn't hold the lead. "The defense and offense came to play tonight and I didn't," he said. "It's as simple as that." I do wonder if those of us who picked the Rays to win the American League East didn't factor in enough bullpen regression, however. Meanwhile, after some early-season jitters, Greg Holland has now reeled off eight consecutive scoreless appearances for the Royals and recorded his seventh save.
Baseball teams don't have the same home-field advantage as, say, NBA teams, but it's still an important element of the game. Last season, 26 of the 30 teams had a better record at home, although a big home-field advantage isn't necessarily a path to the playoffs. The Astros, Cubs and Brewers each won 15 more games at home than on the road but finished a combined 199-287. The Tigers and Cardinals had the biggest home-field advantages among playoff teams, both going 50-31 at home and 38-43 on the road.

With the season under way, here's a look at some players for whom home-field advantage is an important thing to consider when evaluating how they may fare.

Tom Milone, P, A's. The soft-tossing lefty made his first start on Wednesday and showed again that he loves pitching at home. He allowed two home runs to Seattle in the first inning but settled down after that, throwing six scoreless frames and allowing just four total hits over his seven innings. Milone is a fly ball pitcher, which plays well with Oakland's big dimensions, but his splits were so extreme last year (2.74 ERA, 6 HR at home, 4.83 ERA, 18 HR on the road), that manager Bob Melvin should consider skipping him on the road whenever possible.

Jason Vargas, P, Angels. Staying in the AL West, Vargas moves over from Seattle, where he loved Safeco Field. He gave up 35 home runs last year despite pitching in a park that kills fly balls, especially to left-center. In his four years with Seattle, he allowed 34 home runs at Safeco but 57 on the road. Last year, his ERA was two runs higher on the road, where he allowed 26 of those 35 homers. Anaheim is still a pretty good park for fly ball pitchers (see Jered Weaver), but it will be interesting to see whether Vargas keep his home-field dominance intact.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWill Justin Upton hit with Atlanta like he did with Arizona?
Justin Upton, LF, Braves. Upton moves from one of the best hitting parks in baseball in Arizona to a more neutral environment. In general terms, every player performs a little better at home, but Upton's splits were pretty extreme with the D-backs. He hit .307/.389/.548 at Chase Field -- superstar numbers -- but a pedestrian .250/.325/406 on the road. So far so good: He's homered in his first two games at home, including smashing a low Roy Halladay fastball to right-center on Wednesday night.

Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes, Red Sox. One reason the Red Sox signed the two right-handed sluggers is their potential ability to take advantage of the Green Monster. Both have big raw power but can also pull the ball to left field. Over the past three years, 49 of Napoli's 80 home runs have gone to left or left-center. But what makes him even more intriguing is that he’s hit 18 to the “far right” -- meaning in the direction of the Pesky Pole. Fenway is a tough home run park to right-center, but very short down that right-field line. Napoli is that rare hitter who may take advantage of the Monster and the Pesky Pole. Gomes, meanwhile, is a dead-pull hitter. Over the past three years, 48 of his 50 homers went left or left-center.

Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies. Is Gonzalez a star hitter or just a guy who takes advantage of Coors Field? Over the past three years he's at .361/.421/.651 at home (55 HRs) and .263/.315/.440 on the road (29 HRs). I'd like to see better production on the road before I declare him the great player many believe he is.

James Shields, P, Royals. Shields has pitched 200-plus innings the past six seasons and the Royals hope their new ace makes it seven. But he leaves Tampa, a pitcher's park, for Kansas City, a neutral hitting environment. During his tenure with the Rays, Shields had a 3.34 ERA at lovely Tropicana Field, 4.51 on the road. Last year, it wasn't quite as extreme, 3.25 and 3.83, but I think Shields will be hard-pressed putting up the same numbers he did with Tampa (although moving to the AL Central could help in that regard since he won't have to face the Yankees and Red Sox eight times a year or so).

Nick Swisher, OF-1B, Indians. Swisher averaged 26 home runs per season during his four years with the Yankees, but it was not because the switch-hitter took advantage of the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium. Fifty-nine of his 104 home runs in pinstripes came on the road, so I see no reason Swisher shouldn't hit around 25 home runs for Cleveland.

SportsNation

Which player will be most hurt by his new park?

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    51%
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    18%
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    12%
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    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,185)

Josh Hamilton, RF, Angels. Hamilton, of course, moves from one of the best hitter's parks in baseball in Arlington -- probably second only to Coors Field -- to Angel Stadium. Despite the initial inclination that the move may hurt Hamilton, Michael Veneziano of ESPN Stats & Info argued in December that he may not be affected. Michael looked at all of Hamilton's home runs from last season and figured that only one would not have gone out at Angel Stadium. In other words, when Hamilton hits them, he hits them a long way.

Zack Greinke, P, Dodgers. The other big free-agent signing of the offseason should enjoy his new home park. Dodger Stadium remains an excellent park for pitchers and Greinke has spent most of the past two seasons in Milwaukee, where the balls fly. Despite that, he pitched very well at home (2.98 ERA last season, which includes his time with the Angels, versus 3.98 on the road). If that home-field advantage carries over to Dodger Stadium, Greinke could be poised for the big season his contract suggests.

All Mariners hitters! The Mariners are moving in the fences -- primarily in left-center -- so after years of cool Pacific Northwest air swatting down fly balls and line drives, will Seattle hit better at home? This was a team that actually scored more runs on the road a year ago than the Rangers. We don't know the effect this will have on the Mariners' hitters (or how it will hurt Felix Hernandez and friends on the mound), but I suspect we'll see a few more runs scored this year at Safeco and the hitters will enjoy a little home cooking for a change.

The money is just getting insane

December, 5, 2012
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Five years and $75 million for a player coming off a .298 on-base percentage (B.J. Upton), and everyone is already referring to the deal as a bargain.

Four years and $40 million for a 31-year-old center fielder (Angel Pagan), and nobody blinks an eye.

Three years and $39 million for a catcher who hit .227 and likely will spend most of his time at first base (Mike Napoli), and the signing sort of makes sense.

Three years and $20 million for a 37-year-old second baseman who posted a .684 OPS in 95 games with the Rockies in 2012 (Marco Scutaro), and the contract isn't roundly criticized.

[+] EnlargeShane Victorino
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesEven after signing Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39 million deal, the Red Sox have plenty of room in their budget.
Now ... Shane Victorino. That signing finally seemed to stir up the masses. Considering the switch-hitting Victorino's struggles against right-handers in two of the past three seasons (.230/.295/.332 in 2012) and his age (32), three years and $39 million seem a lot for a player one executive told ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney he had expected to receive $6 or $7 million on a one-year deal.

So it's just crazy money at this point, which is why we're seeing $150 million to $160 million estimates on Zack Greinke's ultimate price tag.

I wonder if we're evaluating some of these deals in the wrong way, however -- in isolation, instead of in the context of where the team is. In Boston's case, these points may make it easier to understand the Victorino signing:

1. It gives them the flexibility to trade Jacoby Ellsbury for pitching, with Victorino playing center field.

2. It gives them some certainty on their roster moving forward; if they waited too long to sign Victorino, only the big-ticket players (Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher) are left, a direction the Red Sox don't appear to want to go.

3. The Red Sox have money to spend. Boston's Opening Day payroll in 2012 was about $175 million, so if we assume a similar revenue stream in 2013, we can assume the Red Sox would have a similar budget if so desired. With the departures of Adrian Gonzalez ($21.8 million), Carl Crawford ($20.3 million), Josh Beckett ($17 million), Kevin Youkilis ($12.2 million), Daisuke Matsuzaka ($10.3 million) and Bobby Jenks ($6 million), you can see plenty of room exists.

The Red Sox could sign Victorino and Mike Napoli -- even overpay to get them -- but stay well under budget and not destroy their long-term payroll flexibility if those players don't pan out. The Red Sox also have some highly rated prospects who could be ready by 2014 -- most notably shortstop Xander Bogarts and center fielder Jackie Bradley -- and if those players develop as expected, they'll get several years of inexpensive production, creating even more payroll flexibility.

Look, is there a chance Victorino is a bust? Sure. But even last season when his offense dipped, his defense, baserunning and ability to hit left-handers made him a two-win player. If he bounces back just a bit at the plate, the contract is more reasonable (he was a five-win player in 2011, although that appears to be a career year).

But the bigger point is that in analyzing where the Red Sox are as a franchise, it's easier to see their thought process. Plus, it's not our money; what do we care if the Red Sox overpay to sign Victorino? This wasn't an either/or situation, where signing Victorino and Napoli will prevent the Red Sox from pursuing Hamilton or Greinke; they weren't going to go the $100 million-plus contract route again this winter following the Crawford/Gonzalez disasters. Signing Victorino doesn't block a young player. And it could work out.

In the end, it's not dollars spent per win that matter, it's wins. Sure, you want to do that as efficiently as possible, but the free-agent market isn't set up for efficiency.
video

The Atlanta Braves playing a wild-card game where they committed three throwing errors, got burned on a controversial umpire’s call, and saw their fans delay the game after littering the field with debris?

Sure, I can envision all that happening.

But Joe Saunders doing this? Delivering 77 pitches of one-run baseball in his own personal house of horrors against a lineup that should devour a pitcher like him?

No way did I see that coming.

Welcome to postseason baseball. You just never know.

Here’s what the numbers said about Saunders: 0-6 in six career starts in Arlington with a 9.38 ERA. In 2012, right-handed batters hit .307/.349/.500 off him, meaning the typical righty becomes something akin to Albert Pujols or Adam Jones against Saunders. All 21 home runs he allowed were hit by right-handers.

The Rangers had eight right-handed batters in their lineup. Most with power.

So of course the Orioles eliminated the Rangers 5-1, on a night where Yu Darvish pitched well but received no support.

What I liked about Buck Showalter’s approach in this game is he clearly he had a plan. Certainly, it becomes it easier to execute that plan when your players perform. But he knew that given a tight game, Saunders wouldn’t pitch past Josh Hamilton (lefty on lefty, and Saunders crushed lefties this season) and Adrian Beltre (who hit much better against righties). So when Nelson Cruz came up with two out and nobody on with the Orioles leading 2-1 in the sixth, that was it for Saunders. No gambling by Showalter. No leaving in Saunders to give up a game-tying home run.

[+] EnlargeJoe Saunders
Tim Heitman/US PresswireJoe Saunders held the potent Rangers offense to a single run in its home park.
In the eighth, he knew he had another lefty waiting for Hamilton and Brian Matusz blew him away on three pitches. But he also left in Darren O'Day to start the inning -- instead of going to Pedro Strop -- because O'Day had cruised through four batters with just 14 pitches. O'Day ended up pitching two innings of one-hit relief.

Showalter had the bullpen stirring in the first inning when Saunders ran into trouble. He wasn’t going to let the game get away early from the Orioles. And you know Showalter had a plan if he needed to remove Saunders in the third inning or the fifth inning. Compare that to Fredi Gonzalez, who couldn’t figure out how to get Craig Kimbrel, who had the most dominant relief season in history, into the game until the Braves already trailed 6-3. Gonzalez had only one contingency plan for Kimbrel: Use him in a save situation.

Or compare to Ron Washington, who started Geovany Soto at catcher and Mike Napoli at designated hitter, but then lost his DH spot when he pinch-hit for Soto and inserted Napoli behind the plate. This potential problem could have been avoided by simply starting Napoli at first base and Michael Young at DH. The defensive advantage wasn’t so great as to be concern; Young ended up making a crucial first-inning error that led to an unearned run anyway.

Let’s not give too much credit to Showalter, however. Give it to Saunders, of course, for battling his way through 5 2/3 innings. After that, it wasn’t a surprise the Baltimore bullpen closed it out. That’s been the strength all season for a team that was 74-0 when leading after seven innings and 75-1 when leading after eight innings. Closer Jim Johnson's job got a little easier in ninth when the Orioles scored twice off Joe Nathan to pad their 3-1 lead. As is, the Rangers got the tying run to the plate with two out but Johnson got David Murphy to fly out to end it.

For the Rangers, it was the finale of a fairly epic collapse, leading the American League West by five games with nine to play, yet going 4-9 down the stretch and losing the division title on the final day of the season. The Rangers have shown us just how tough it is to win a World Series: They lost it in 2010, were one strike away in 2011 and now go home in bitter disappointment.

This anger was summed up when the fans booed Hamilton after he struck out in the eighth. Think about it: Miguel Cabrera hit 44 home runs and drove in 139 runs and Tigers fans think he had the greatest season of all time. Hamilton hit 43 home runs and drove in 128 and he gets booed. I know Hamilton had a strange season, but if that was his final game with Rangers, it seems a sad way to go out considering all the great memories he’s given Rangers fans.

For the Orioles, the miracle run continues against the hated Yankees. The best part of all this: Orioles fans will get a home playoff game, their first since 1997. The Orioles actually clinched a playoff spot on a plane ride to Tampa, so this will be a chance to acknowledge their fans and for the fans to acknowledge this magical season.

Not to mention the chance to beat the Yankees.

Kenny Williams never seems to get a lot of respect.

During his tenure as Chicago White Sox general manager, which began after the 2000 season, he's built two division winners, including the 2005 World Series champions. Maybe the most impressive aspect of his reign is that the White Sox are always competitive. They've been under .500 just three times, but two of those were 79-83. He's done this despite lacking the monster payrolls of teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies; despite only once having a pick better than 12th in the first round of the draft; despite never having a franchise superstar like Barry Bonds to build around or pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, like Brian Sabean has had with the Giants; despite a farm system -- in part because of ownership's unwillingness to spend in the draft and because of that lack of high picks -- that usually ranks near the bottom (Keith Law and Baseball America both ranked the White Sox system 30th heading into the season).

What I like about Williams is he never gives up. He's always trying to win, to build the best team he can given his resources. He never craters, never commits to a complete teardown and embarrassing on-field product, such as the one you're seeing from the Astros, Williams' 2005 World Series opponents.

This is why trading for Francisco Liriano is a typical Kenny Williams move -- high risk, perhaps mocked, but one with a potential nice payoff. Liriano's season numbers with the Twins look terrible -- 3-10, 5.31 ERA -- and his last start (against the White Sox, of all teams) was a rough, seven-run blowup. But after an awful April and temporary trip to the bullpen, Liriano pitched very well in a 10-start stint from May 30 though July 18, posting a 2.84 ERA with 77 strikeouts, 28 walks and 38 hits in 63.1 innings (a .171 average allowed). That stretch included back-to-back starts of 15 strikeouts and 10 strikeouts against the A's and Orioles on July 13 and 18, respectively.

In other words, there's a good chance Liriano will outpitch Zack Greinke the rest of the way, even though this trade will receive much less fanfare and required much less in prospect value: light-hitting infielder Eduardo Escobar and left-handed pitcher Pedro Hernandez.

In fact, despite the much-maligned farm system, the White Sox have received contributions from several rookies, most notably on the pitching staff with Jose Quintana, closer Addison Reed, and relievers Nate Jones and Hector Santiago. With Quintana still the big surprise in the rotation, Liriano presumably takes the place of Philip Humber, who did pitch well in a 5-2 victory over the Rangers on Saturday, but that strong start barely got his ERA under 6.00. With the hope that John Danks might return from his shoulder issues, the White Sox now have rotation depth and options in case of injury or if they want to conserve Chris Sale's innings.

The White Sox also have a lot to gain from a deal such as this; with a 2.5-game lead over the Tigers, winning the division title is obviously huge. There is a reason you're seeing teams contending for a division title making moves, while teams further back in the playoff chase -- such as the American League East wild-card contenders -- are more conservative. The reward for winning one of the two wild cards is essentially half as valuable as last season, with the one-game playoff plus the possibility that you've burned your best pitcher. But the payoff for the White Sox winning the division is worth taking a chance on Liriano.

As for the Rangers, they don't need to be as desperate as their division rival Angels, who gave up three good prospects to acquire Greinke. Yes, acquiring Greinke would have helped, but the Rangers have to ask: Do any of the other available pitchers make the team that much better? I agree with Jim Bowden: Probably not Insider.

The top three starters in a playoff series right now probably would be Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland (who has had a disappointing season but lately has looked more like the pitcher who threw so well in the second half and postseason a year ago). The fourth spot might be open as Neftali Feliz rehabs, but among Feliz, Scott Feldman, Roy Oswalt and maybe even Alexi Ogando, the Rangers have options. Do you want to give up Mike Olt or another top prospect for what might be just a minor upgrade in Josh Johnson (having his worst statistical season and would be expensive to acquire) or Ryan Dempster (who is unlikely to approve a trade to Texas anyway)?

Plus, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli are impending free agents, and there's no guarantee they'll be back, even though the Rangers have entered the upper echelon of payrolls. Maybe the Rangers will let one of those guys walk, spend some of that money elsewhere and give a starting position next season to Olt (with super prospect Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings).

The Rangers have options, but their best chance at holding off the Angels and surging A's might lie within: Namely, Hamilton and Michael Young finding their strokes. Hamilton was given a mental day off Saturday to clear his head. Since June 1, he's been one of the worst hitters in the league, batting .190 with a .274 on-base percentage. He's hitting .145 in July with 21 strikeouts in 19 games. Young is eating up at-bats at designated hitter and first base despite an empty .270 batting average. His OBP is less than .300, and he hasn't homered since May 7.

For all the talk of needing a starter, Young is a gigantic hole in the lineup right now. Kenny Williams filled one of his holes. We'll see whether Rangers GM Jon Daniels plugs his.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Chase UtleyDale Zanine/US PresswireAs quick as Chase Utley is to the ball, he's not so quick he'll beat the ball to first base.


When I was a kid, I loved filling out the All-Star ballot. When Alvin Davis was a rookie in 1984 and tearing up the league, my friends and I procured huge stacks of ballots and spent the entire game writing in his name (he wasn't on the ballot). We knew he had no shot of earning the starting bid, but we wanted to show our support for our guy.

So it's hard to fault Texas Rangers fans for their overzealousness in stuffing the All-Star voting box this year. Hey, the enthusiasm is coming from a good place. Plus, it's just nice to see sports fans in Dallas caring about something besides football. But here's the thing: Davis deserved to start the All-Star Game that year. He hit .287/.397/.536 with 18 home runs and 65 RBIs in the first half, monster numbers back then. The elected starter was Rod Carew, who hit .292 with nine extra-base hits. I mean, I know it was Rod Carew, but come on. And my friends and I certainly weren't stuffing the box for Bob Kearney or Barry Bonnell.

Rangers fans, in their eagerness, have gone hog wild in voting for their guys, however. Some of them certainly do deserve to start -- Josh Hamilton, of course, and Adrian Beltre is having a fine season at third base. You can certainly make a case for Elvis Andrus deserving to start over Derek Jeter, who leads the voting.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyIt's a safe bet to pencil in Texas' Josh Hamilton as an All-Star starter in July.
But ... Ian Kinsler is neck and neck with Robinson Cano for the starting second baseman, Cano leading by just 96,000 votes with one week left in the voting. Kinsler is a fine player, but Cano is hitting .302/.369/.572 compared to Kinsler's .267/.331/.428. And Kinsler is hitting just .249 on the road with a .308 on-base percentage. Mike Napoli is leading the catching vote over Joe Mauer and Matt Wieters. Napoli did have a career year in 2011 and he's still having a fine season, but Mauer is hitting .323 with a .419 OBP. Wieters has basically matched Napoli's offensive numbers and provides much better defense. Most egregiously, Nelson Cruz is fourth in the outfield voting, just behind Jose Bautista for a starting spot. Cruz ranks 21st among AL outfielders in wOBA, but he may end up starting.

And then there's Mitch Moreland, fourth in the balloting at first base. OK, he's not going to pass Prince Fielder and Paul Konerko for the starting job, but he has more votes than Albert Pujols! This is Mitch Moreland we're talking about here!

Stuffing the ballot box is a long-standing tradition, of course. Back in 1957, Cincinnati Reds fans voted in seven Reds as starters. The Cincinnati Enquirer had printed up pre-marked ballots and distributed them with the Sunday paper, making it easy for Reds fans to send in their ballots. An investigation reportedly revealed half the ballots that year came from Cincinnati. Commissioner Ford Frick was so outraged he appointed Willie Mays and Hank Aaron starters for the National League, replacing Reds outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post. Fans were stripped of the vote and didn't vote for starters again until 1970, when baseball realized it was missing out on a great marketing opportunity.

Since most fans now vote via computer -- up to 25 times! -- it's even easier for fans to "stuff" the ballot box. Back in the day, you at least had to work hard to do it.

I'm being a little harsh here. For the most part, the fans do end up doing a good job. There isn't anything atrocious about the current vote leaders in either league. Fans did a terrific job last year, voting in guys like Alex Avila and Asdrubal Cabrera who weren't big names. This isn't like the year A's fans voted in Terry Steinbach when he was hitting .219 with 19 RBIs at the break. Or the year Darryl Strawberry started even though he was hitting .229 with 19 RBIs. At least Michael Young (.269/.296/.348, three home runs) is unlikely to catch David Ortiz in the designated hitter spot. I know Rangers fans love Young, but he's been terrible this season.

The problem, of course, is MLB wants the All-Star Game to be all things: It wants it to be a big event that can bring in millions in marketing revenue (last year, there were more than 32.5 million votes cast), but it also wants the game to count. Which it does; as we all know, home-field advantage for the World Series goes to the winning league.

If any group of fans should realize the potential importance of that, it should be Rangers fans. Or have they forgotten the Cardinals winning Games 6 and 7 of the World Series on their home turf? So, vote away, Rangers fans. Just be careful what the end result may lead to.

Then again, who knows ... the year Steinbach started? He hit a home run and a sac fly in the American League's 2-1 victory to win MVP honors.
Are we in a golden age for catchers? In the wake of the Carlos Santana contract extension, there was some debate on where he ranks among the game's elite backstops. My colleague Eric Karabell called him the best catcher in the game.

I'm not sure Santana is in that class yet, although his power/walks combo could make him one of the most valuable players in the game even if he hits just .260. What makes that declaration difficult to make is we have so many good catchers right now. In 2011, we had six that posted a 3.5 WAR or higher (via Baseball-Reference.com):

Mike Napoli, Rangers: 5.5
Alex Avila, Tigers: 5.4
Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks: 4.5
Matt Wieters, Orioles: 4.0
Yadier Molina, Cardinals: 3.9
Carlos Santana, Indians: 3.9

And that list doesn't include six-time All-Star Brian McCann (2.5 WAR), Nationals rookie Wilson Ramos (2.5) or Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, who battled injuries. On top of that are promising Royals youngster Salvador Perez, who will miss the first half of the season with a torn meniscus in his knee; plus Reds rookie Devin Mesoraco and Blue Jays prospect Travis d'Arnaud, two of Keith Law's top 10 prospects entering the season. What's even more remarkable about this list is Napoli is the oldest of the 13 at 30 years old.

Is this much catching talent unusual? I looked at all seasons since 1969 with at least six catchers who posted 3.5 WAR or better.


I think there's an argument that we have the most catching depth in the majors since the late '70s. Looking at the 1977 guys, Ferguson, Tenace and Munson were the oldest of the group, each 30. Ferguson was a guy who had been a backup catcher/outfielder with the Dodgers but got a chance to play more for the Astros in '77. He was never a full-time player again. Munson declined precipitously in 1978 before his early death in 1979. Johnny Bench was only 29 but only had a couple more good seasons left. Of the younger guys, Gary Carter, of course, developed into a Hall of Famer catcher, but the Mets' John Stearns (25 years old) and Butch Wynegar (21) never really grew from here. Stearns battled injuries and Wynegar's skill set never advanced beyond a guy who would take some walks. (Jon Shepherd of the Camden Depot blog looked at the number of 125 OPS+ seasons by catchers by decade.)

Still, you have an impressive group for 1977: Three Hall of Famers in Carlton Fisk, Bench and Carter; a borderline Hall of Famer in Ted Simmons; Gene Tenace, a Santana-like player who drew a ton of walks and hit home runs; a former MVP winner in Munson; and a longtime defensive ace in Jim Sundberg, comparable to Yadier Molina.

Unless Mauer bounces back or one of the younger guys turns into a superstar, our current crop may lack the top-end caliber of Fisk, Bench and Carter. But the depth is phenomenal, and the youth means these guys are going to around a long time. Enjoy them. It's a special group.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
The Texas Rangers signed pitcher Derek Holland to a five-year extension that includes club options for 2017 and 2018. Richard Durrett reports those options are for $11 and $11.5 million, salaries that will be a bargain if Holland stays healthy and pitches like he did over his final 15 starts of 2011, when he went 10-1 with a 2.77 ERA and held batters to a .230 average and .282 OBP.

This means the Rangers now have long-term commitments to Holland, Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus through at least 2015. Pitchers Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando are also secured through 2015 via service time and Matt Harrison through 2014. But the core of the offense will be heading to free agency over the next couple of seasons: Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli after 2012; Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz and Michael Young after 2013. Will the Rangers be able to afford all of them?

This is the price of success. The Rangers' Opening Day payroll in 2010 was about $55 million. Only Michael Young, Rich Harden, Vladimir Guerrero and Ian Kinsler were making at least $4 million, In 2011, the Opening Day payroll shot up to $92 million with seven $4 million players. In 2012, the Rangers will be at $120 million with 11 $4 million players.

Considering the salary increases given to Holland and Andrus plus the eventual arbitration increases Harrison, Felix and Ogando will receive, the Rangers are unlikely to keep all five of those hitters. In reality, they wouldn't want to sign all five. Consider their ages in their first seasons following free agency:

Mike Napoli: 31 in 2013
Josh Hamilton: 32 in 2013
Ian Kinsler: 32 in 2014
Nelson Cruz: 33 in 2014
Michael Young: 37 in 2014

Personally, I'd rank the priorities like this, factoring in age, production, health, position and salary:

1. Kinsler
2. Napoli
3. Hamilton
4. Cruz
5. Young

Young and Cruz will make a combined $26 million in 2013. You could punt on both and give some of that money to Kinsler or Hamilton. But there are also other future free agents to consider. The Rangers' top prospects are shortstop Jurickson Profar and third baseman Mike Olt (who may have to move to first base or left field with Beltre around). With much of the rotation locked up long-term, that would turn the Rangers' free-agent focus to outfield and first base. The best players at those positions hitting free agency after the 2012 and 2013 seasons:

2013 -- Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton
2014 -- Joey Votto, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adam Jones, Hunter Pence, Alex Gordon, Shin-Soo Choo

This is why I'd be wary about signing Hamilton to a long-term deal. Do you want to sign him to a five-year deal that carries from ages 32 to 36? Or would you be better off pursuing a younger center fielder like Bourn or Upton, good players who wouldn't cost nearly as much? Or should you roll the dice on going after Votto for 2014?

One thing to keep in mind: The Rangers haven't tapped out their revenue streams yet. Their TV deal with Fox Sports Southwest doesn't kick until their current contract expires after the 2014 season and will be worth a reported $80 million a year, revenue that would place them only behind the Yankees and Red Sox. Also, the Rangers still have room for attendance growth. They drew a club record 2,946,949 fans in 2011 -- but that ranked just 10th in the majors. The Yankees and Phillies both drew over 3.6 million. Imagine what another 500,000 fans per season would mean to the club's bottom line.

Who knows, by 2014 the Rangers may be able to afford Kinsler and Hamilton ... with a little Joey Votto on the side.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

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