SweetSpot: Shelby Miller

Baseball's future is in good hands. And good arms. A year after Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes burst on to the major league scene, 2013 gave us Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig, two players who have the ability to win even bigger awards than rookie of the year in the future.

Fernandez outpointed Puig for National Rookie of the Year in one of the more interesting rookie votes in recent seasons: Pitcher versus hitter, both explosive talents with unrivaled raw talent. Maybe the most surprising part of the seasons these two put together is that back in March neither was supposed to be here, let alone be this good.

Fernandez had spent 2012 in Class A ball. Considering he wouldn't turn 21 until July, he was expected to begin the year in Double-A, maybe Triple-A. The Marlins were heavily criticized when he opened the season in the rotation, with analysts wondering why the team would rush him to the bigs and start his arbitration and free-agent clocks so quickly. As Fernandez showed, however, the Marlins couldn't keep him down -- he was too good.

Puig is a couple years older than Fernandez, but after signing with the Dodgers last summer he played just 23 games in the minors, none above Class A. After a torrid spring training, he began the year at Double-A Chattanooga. With the Dodgers struggling in early June and facing injuries in the outfield, Puig got the call after just 40 games in Double-A. Like Fernandez, he was ready.

I think the voters made the right selection in both cases. Fernandez, also one of the three finalists for the NL Cy Young Award, went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts, striking out 187 in 172 2/3 innings. Baseball Reference estimated his value at 6.3 WAR, third among NL pitchers. Puig, in 104 games, hit .319/.391/.534, with 19 home runs, 42 RBIs and 66 runs. Baseball Reference estimates his value at 5.0 WAR.

How good was Fernandez? Over his final 18 starts he allowed more than two runs just twice -- and both of those times he allowed just three. His ERA over that span was 1.50 and opponents hit just .161 against him. For the season, opponents hit .182/.257/.265. Basically, he turned the entire National League into Mario Mendoza.

If there's an argument for Puig, it was that he played a major role in helping the Dodgers reach the playoffs while the Marlins lost 100 games. The Dodgers were scuffling in June when Puig was recalled (and Hanley Ramirez returned from the disabled list); they took off soon thereafter with that historic 50-game run. In games Puig appeared in, the Dodgers went 66-38.

But the award isn't the most valuable rookie, so while MVP Award voters consider things such as quality of teammates (sorry Mike Trout), the rookie of the year voters focus on the individual contribution and ignores a team's place in the standings.

So Fernandez it is. A historical rookie season and now a shiny trophy for his fireplace mantel.

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The American League crop was pretty uninspiring, with all three of the top candidates being partial-season players. Wil Myers became the first AL Rookie of the Year position player who played fewer than 100 games (he played 88 for the Rays) but still won the vote easily, collecting 23 of the 30 first-place votes.

By uninspiring, I don't mean that as a knock against the Myers' future, or that of Jose Iglesias or Chris Archer. I don't think this is Chris Coghlan beating out J.A. Happ.

I do think the voters got this one correct as well. In fact, look back to that Coghlan vote in the NL in 2009. Andrew McCutchen finished fourth that year with similar numbers to Coghlan (and much better defense). It was pretty obvious, however, which player was the better bet for the future and McCutchen would have been a more astute choice.

Should rookie of the year voters factor that in? Certainly, between Myers and Iglesias, Myers is the guy everyone would bet on to make the bigger impact over the next decade. I would argue that if you have two rookies who had similar value, go with the guy with more upside. NL voters did this a year ago in choosing Bryce Harper over Wade Miley and AL voters did it in choosing Myers over Iglesias.


You know how the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Michael Wacha? Yes, with the 19th pick of the first round of the 2012 draft.

But you know how they acquired that pick? The got it from the Los Angeles Angels.

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha's delivering an easy answer for whether or not he should start in the postseason.
For losing Albert Pujols as a free agent.

So not only did the organization save $240 million in salary on a player in decline, they acquired a pitcher who is looking like a future star. After his near no-hitter on Tuesday against the Washington Nationals in his ninth career major league start -- Ryan Zimmerman's infield hit with two outs in the ninth made everyone sad -- it seems pretty clear that Wacha has to be in the Cardinals' postseason rotation.

Wacha is 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in 64 2/3 innings (he has made six relief appearances as well) and has allowed no runs in three of his five September starts. He did allow 12 hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings in his last outing, but that came in Colorado, so it comes with an asterisk. When Wacha is commanding his mid-90s fastball like he did against the Nationals, it makes his changeup all that much more unhittable, a pitch opposing batters are hitting just .190 against without a home run.

The question for manager Mike Matheny: Assuming the Cardinals hold on and win the division, do you go with two rookie starters in your four-man playoff rotation? Here's how the other four starters have fared of late:

Adam Wainwright: He gave up 15 runs in back-to-back starts against the Reds in late August/early September, but has looked good with a 2.12 ERA and strong peripherals over his past four outings.

Lance Lynn: After a rough five-start stretch from Aug. 15 to Sept. 5 (43 hits, 25 runs in 27 1/3 innings), he has allowed just four runs in his past three starts (two of those came against the Brewers, the other against the Rockies in Colorado).

Joe Kelly: In his second year, the righty has a 2.32 ERA since moving into the rotation in early July. His strikeout rate isn't impressive but he gets ground balls with that hard, sinking fastball and keeps the ball in the park (just three home runs allowed his past 75 innings).

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Where would you slot Michael Wacha in the postseason for the Cardinals?

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Shelby Miller: The other rookie, he's 14-9 with a 3.12 ERA, although he has a 4.23 ERA and a poor 15/13 SO/BB ratio in 27.2 innings over his past five starts.

Certainly, Wainwright draws the Game 1 start. But do you slot the veteran Lynn in the No. 2 hole? While he has been better of late, do two good starts against the Brewers have you convinced that he's back on track? Plus, Lynn has experience in the bullpen from 2011 and didn't pitch well in last year's postseason. Maybe he's best utilized like the Giants used Tim Lincecum last year, as a multi-inning long reliever. But Miller hasn't been as strong down the stretch and the Cards presumably want to watch his innings anyway (he's at 167).

I'd probably go Wainwright, Wacha, Kelly and Lynn, keeping Lynn on a short leash and hoping Miller can amp it up a bit in a relief role. The fact that Wacha has only nine starts could actually be to his advantage as opponents just haven't seen him.

The rotation isn't the only issue for Matheny to resolve. Trevor Rosenthal got the final out on Tuesday and now has saves in back-to-back games. Is he now the closer over Edward Mujica? If so, does that make Mujica the eighth-inning guy? But is one role really any more valuable than the other? Do you demote Mujica and put him in a role in which he may pitch with more runners on base?

While uncertainly can create some nervousness, it can also create flexibility, which can be a good thing since you're not stuck with pre-designated roles. A smart manager knows you don't -- and shouldn't -- manage October that same way you manage April through September.

And if that means two rookies in your rotation and a rookie closer, I'm OK with that. I see no reason why the Cards can't win it all doing that.

Young pitchers play big roles for Cardinals

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
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Joe KellyDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesJoe Kelly has allowed just three home runs in nine starts since moving to the rotation.
ST. LOUIS -- Something catches your eye during batting practice. As a ball flies high toward center field, one of the Cardinals' rookie relievers tosses his glove into the air in an attempt to see whether it will catch the ball. Ah, youth. Do you remember doing that as a kid at practice when the coach wasn't looking? Of course, the glove in the air never caught the ball, but it was always an experiment worth trying.

For the Cardinals, reliance on young pitching is more than tossing chance in the air and hoping to catch something good. The plan has been in the making since the 2008 draft, and in 2013 the results are showing.

St. Louis has used 12 pitchers age 25 or under this season, the most in the majors. The Astros are second with 10, and only one other team has used more than seven. The young Cardinals pitchers have combined for 31 wins, 489 2/3 innings pitched, a 3.31 ERA and 468 strikeouts.

"These guys have great stuff," injured closer Jason Motte said. "What it comes down to is just going out there and believing in what you have, believing in your stuff out there and being yourself. You know, you have a guy like [Seth] Maness, he doesn't try to go out there and be like [fellow Cardinals pitcher] Trevor Rosenthal and throw it 100 miles per hour. These guys know what they have, and they don't try to do too much."

Veteran reliever Randy Choate joined the club this season and has been impressed with the talent and character of his younger teammates.

"I don't know if it's necessarily the Cardinal way or what, but they've obviously drafted guys that are well-rounded," he said. "They have a personality where they don't have that big of an ego."

[+] EnlargeSeth Maness
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesSeth Maness has surrendered just one earned run in his past 16 appearances, a span of 15 2/3 innings.
Joe Kelly, who starts Tuesday night against the Reds, was a third-round pick in 2009 out of UC Riverside. The 25-year-old right-hander relies primarily on a 95 mph sinker and four-seam fastball but added a curveball and changeup after getting drafted.

After beginning the season in the bullpen, he moved to the rotation, where he's gone 5-1 with a 2.25 ERA in nine starts.

"It's been different because I was in the bullpen at the beginning of the year, then got a start, then go back to the bullpen," Kelly said. "[I had] 15 days before outings one time. I just have to show up to the field every day and be mentally tough and don't think about how many off days I've had, just be prepared to pitch every single day. It's different, but I guess being versatile like this is key."

Kelly offers another important skill to the club.

"Everyone thinks I'm the best dancer on the team," he said. "In the clubhouse one day I started dancing, and I just keep doing it more and more."

Rosenthal disagreed with Kelly.

"Um, I mean I'm a pretty good dancer, too, so I don't know if Joe can say that," Rosenthal said. Seth Maness also had his doubts. "That's a big statement for Joe, especially with his locker being right next to mine. I'm good at singing. I train dogs, too. I'm really good with animals. In the offseason I train animals."

These guys love to joke around with one another. When asked what pitch he would feel most comfortable throwing if the bases were loaded and the game was on the line, Maness said, "I'm going to take Trevor Rosenthal's fastball," eliciting a laugh from Rosenthal, whose heater has made him one of the best eighth-inning guys in the league, with a 2.49 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings.

But they're also serious about their craft -- and learning how to improve.

"The curve was hard [to learn]," Kelly said. "The changeup came a little bit quicker than the curveball. The curveball took a little longer. But yeah, coming from the bullpen to starting you had to learn those pitches. There's a comfortable grip that I have. I started playing with that every day. Worked on it a lot. ... It's not even that great right now, either, but I'm still working on it."

Rookie starter Shelby Miller has received the most attention of the young pitchers, owing to his 12-8 record, 2.90 ERA and six scoreless starts. Like his teammates, he's quick to credit instruction he received in the minor leagues. "I think my biggest learning experience last year was Blaise [Ilsley] at Triple-A when I was really struggling early on. He's a big factor in my mechanics, the change in my second half and why I started to succeed a little bit more. But at the same time, Gerdy [Memphis pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd] and Dennis Martinez, who won 250 games in the big leagues, I learned how to throw a really good curveball from him."

Michael Wacha, a first-round pick last year who made his major league debut in May, also praised Eversgerd for helping him with his mechanics in Memphis. He also listens to the veterans on the St. Louis staff.

"I guess after my first start guys started getting a little bit of a scouting report, so you know I've just been talking to Waino [Adam Wainwright] and the other starters," he said. "They just really help me on not tipping your pitches, with the off-speed pitches, how to command those a little bit better."

Successfully developing young arms is not just about pitch velocity or movement, health or good mechanics. Now that the Cardinals' youth movement is here, if you look closely, there's an organizational foundation in place to make good pitchers great and gifted pitchers productive for the long term. One things Cardinals starters will do is watch one another's bullpen sessions.

Wainwright said he hopes he imparts some knowledge to the younger guys.

"I certainly learned from some of the best, Carp (Chris Carpenter), Dave Duncan, even Lilli (Derek Lilliquest) now," said Wainwright. "The reason we started watching bullpens back in the day even before I was even here was that sense of oneness that comes along with it, that thought that your starting staff is not just five individual guys but one family and so with that thought in mind that's kind of how we do everything."


Rosenthal also said veteran guys on the team have consistently told him that not every team in the majors has what the Cardinals have -- teammates working together.

"It's really special," Rosenthal said. "Especially for the young guys to be able to have that relationship and be able to talk to them and learn from them and be comfortable on the basis where we have the opportunity to learn more often."

There is still one unanswered question: Which pitcher really is the best dancer? No one knows them better than Eversgerd. If he had to project (because baseball is all about projections, right?), who would win a dance-off?

"Here's what I'm going to say. I think you have to break it into categories," Eversgerd said. "So, I'd say as far as classic dancing moves, formal dancing, I'd say Maness. But as far as doing a lot of quick feet, quick movement -- break dancing or something like that -- I'd have to go with Kelly."

We have a great matchup Thursday afternoon between rookie starters Jose Fernandez of the Marlins and Gerrit Cole of the Pirates. Tristan Cockcroft discussed that matchup and some great young pitching combos in the majors in this edition of SweetSpot TV.

I thought I'd also rank my top 10 young pitchers, based on predicted long-term success. I considered rookies or guys with limited exposure before this season, so I included Matt Harvey (he just missed rookie eligibility) but not Patrick Corbin (more than 100 innings last year) or Trevor Rosenthal (a reliever, for now).

One interesting note: Nine of the 10 are National Leaguers.

1. Matt Harvey, Mets

Repertoire: Fastball (average velocity: 95.8 mph; max: 100.1), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Harvey's average fastball velocity is tops in the majors among qualified starting pitchers.

What makes Harvey so tough is that four-pitch offering, all quality pitches, all thrown with command. He will hang the slider from time to time and I wonder if the curveball eventually becomes his No. 2 offering after his great fastball. He leads the majors in lowest OPS allowed -- better than Clayton Kershaw. The reason I like him more than Fernandez is primarily the age difference; Harvey is four years older and a better bet to stay healthy. Fernandez, even if handled carefully, still has to get through those precarious age 21 to 23 years.

2. Jose Fernandez, Marlins

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 94.8; max: 99.0), curveball, slider, changeup.

Fun fact: In 81 plate appearances ending with his slider, batters have six hits, 49 strikeouts and no walks.

Fernandez doesn't quite have Harvey's command yet, but he's just as tough to hit. In 21 starts, he's allowed just 21 extra-base hits -- 11 doubles, two triples and eight home runs. Compare that extra-base ratio to, say, Mike Minor, who is a pretty good pitcher. Minor has allowed 53 extra-base hits. Fernandez's curveball and slider are both proving to be wipeout pitches. Check out the heat map below:

Jose FernandezESPNJose Fernandez is 8-5 with a 2.54 ERA thanks to a curveball and slider that batters can't touch.


That's a lot of blue. Batters are hitting just .127 against those two pitches -- with 89 strikeouts, 11 walks and two home runs. If Fernandez gets ahead in the count with his fastball, batters basically have no chance. Right now, he throws his curve about twice as often as the slider; both pitches have big movement and that slider reminds me of the one a young Kerry Wood threw, sweeping across the plate, nearly impossible to make contact with.

3. Shelby Miller, Cardinals

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 93.7; max: 97.9), curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Among pitchers with 100 innings, the only ones with a higher percentage of fastballs thrown are Bartolo Colon and Juan Nicasio.

Miller has basically been a two-pitch guy -- fastball, curve. If he can refine that changeup, he'll be even tougher against left-handed batters.

4. Julio Teheran, Braves

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 91.9; max: 95.7), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Since getting roughed up in his first three starts, Teheran has a 2.38 ERA since April 23, fifth best in the majors.

Teheran has made the slider his No. 2 offering and essentially ditched the changeup he used in the minors (he's throwing it just 5 percent of the time). He may need to eventually bring back that pitch, however, as left-handed batters have an .804 OPS off him.

5. Gerrit Cole, Pirates

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 95.8; max: 101.0), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Cole has thrown the fastest pitch of any starter this year.

Cole's velocity is as good as any starter in the majors, but right now his fastball isn't a swing-and-miss pitch; it's straight and batters see it pretty well. Among pitchers with at least 10 starts, Cole's swing-and-miss percentage on his fastball (11.8 percent) ranks 106th out of 153 pitchers. He's shown good command of it, but it will be the development of his off-speed stuff that determines whether he'll be an ace or settle in as a No. 2 or No. 3 guy.

6. Chris Archer, Rays

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 94.9; max: 98.8), slider, changeup.

Fun fact: In eight starts from June 23 to Aug. 2, he went 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA and .185 average allowed.

Archer was on a roll, commanding his fastball after some shaky outings after his June recall from the minors, but he left Wednesday night's start with a tight forearm. Obviously, let's hope he's OK. Archer primarily uses that explosive fastball and wicked slider; his changeup hasn't yet proven to be an effective pitch. You can get by with being a two-pitch guy, but he'll get more strikeouts if the changeup develops.

7. Zack Wheeler, Mets

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 94.5; max: 98.4), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: The five picks ahead of him in the 2009 draft: Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), Dustin Ackley (Mariners), Donavan Tate (Padres), Tony Sanchez (Pirates), Matt Hobgood (Orioles).

There's no denying the upside talent here, but he's a long way from being a polished pitcher. While he brings it in the mid- to upper-90s, his fastball hasn't yet been a dominating pitch. He's allowed seven home runs off it in nine starts with 27 strikeouts and 22 walks. He's thrown the changeup only 32 times, so that remains a pitch to work on, as well. For Wheeler, it's all about command. We'll see if he gets there.

8. Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 90.1; max: 94.6), changeup, slider, curveball.

Fun fact: He's 5-1 with a 1.83 ERA at home.

At 26, he's the oldest guy here, but he's proven to be the polished left-hander the Dodgers believed they were getting when they brought him over from Korea. His fastball may not match up with the guys above him but he's a four-pitch guy who commands his pitches and keeps the ball down in the zone.

9. Tony Cingrani, Reds

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 92.1; max: 96.3), curveball, slider, changeup.

Fun fact: Among those with at least 10 starts, Cingrani's swing-and-miss percentage against his fastball is sixth best in the majors.

Cingrani basically throws high fastballs, relying more on deception than velocity. He throws the fastball 81 percent of the time -- even more often than Miller -- but hasn't reached 100 innings yet. Some believe hitters will eventually catch on to him, and he'll always be a little prone to home runs, but I think it's a package that can still work, especially if the other offerings improve.

10. Jeff Locke, Pirates

Repertoire: Sinking fastball (average: 90.2; max: 94.8), curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Locke has seven starts allowing zero runs. Only Hiroki Kuroda with eight has more. (Miller and Yu Darvish also have seven.)

Locke has his skeptics, due to his fastball velocity and poor strikeout rate. It's possible the skeptics could be right -- he's allowed 27 hits in 16 1/3 innings in his past three starts. But he does keep the ball down in the zone (only seven home runs allowed). You can win without racking up big strikeout totals but he'll have to find that balance between issuing too many walks (4.2 per nine) and throwing too many hittable pitches to maintain long-term success. I like his chances more than most, but I understand the reasons not to believe in him.
Shelby Miller threw two pitches in his national TV start against the Dodgers, was struck with a line drive on his right elbow on the second pitch and left the game. If it was your first time to see Miller pitch other than in highlights, you missed an exciting young pitcher with a big fastball. His rookie season has exceeded any reasonable expectations as he has grown into the Cardinals' No. 2 starter behind Adam Wainwright.

He was diagnosed with a right elbow contusion, so presumably he'll be OK. As I write this, I won't speculate on whether he'll miss a start or not, but maybe missing a couple starts will be a blessing in disguise, as the Cardinals were already facing the dilemma of watching his innings in his rookie season, as Jerry Crasnick wrote on Wednesday.
[+] EnlargeShelby Miller
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Cardinals can't afford to lose Shelby Miller for too long, but does his early exit have a silver lining?

Miller is already at 121 1/3 innings pitched, after totaling 150 1/3 IP last season between Triple-A and the majors. The Cardinals expected him to come in at around 175 innings -- with that total potentially affected by a deep October playoff run.

To complicate matters, the Cardinals are locked up with the Pirates in a tight race in the NL Central, making it a more difficult decision to back off on his innings. The Cardinals also have to be a little concerned about the state of the rotation behind Wainwright. No. 3 starter Lance Lynn is certainly a solid innings eater with 143 innings and a 3.78 ERA, although his 13-5 record is a product of good run support. Lynn also tired down the stretch last year in his first full year starting, concluding with two poor starts in the National League Championship Series, so that's worth monitoring.

Jake Westbrook and Joe Kelly have OK ERAs but poor peripherals. Westbrook entered in relief of Miller and the Dodgers pounded him for six runs in the second inning, raising his ERA to 4.11. Westbrook does get ground balls, but he has more walks than strikeouts on the season and that's a tough way to make a living. Kelly recently entered the rotation and has a 2.98 ERA, including 1.82 in six starts. He's relied on a lot of at-'em balls as a starter as he has just 18 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings. The results have been good so far but the deeper analysis suggest a pitcher living on the line.

The Cardinals do have other options in rookies Tyler Lyons, who may now get called up to start Thursday in place of Westbrook, or Michael Wacha, who was up earlier.

But this is a team that is heavily counting on Miller. The Cards will fall three games behind after Wednesday's results. They host the Pirates next week for three games, a chance for some revenge after losing four of five in Pittsburgh last week. Even if Miller misses that series, he'll get his opportunity to get after Andrew McCutchen & Co. -- the Cardinals and Pirates meet two more times after that series. But with the Pittsburgh rotation continuing to roll, the pressure is on the St. Louis rotation to match that production. Let's hope Miller is OK and back on the mound soon at 100 percent.
1. Jose Fernandez, the 20-year-old Marlins rookie, was brilliant in pitching eight scoreless innings on Miami's 4-0 win over the Padres, matching his season-best with 10 strikeouts and allowing just two hits.

2. Seventy-five of his 100 pitches were fastball, touching 97 and averaging 95.1 mph.

3. As Curt Schilling said on Baseball Tonight on Monday: "I've seen more kids reaching the big leagues this year and throwing in the mid-90s than I've ever seen before."

4. He got four strikeouts on his curveball and three on his slider. The pitchers are similar, with the curveball having a tighter break when Fernandez is on with it and the slider possessing a wider, sweeping motion while throwing a little header.

5. Fernandez has allowed a .193 average -- the same as Clayton Kershaw, fourth-best among starters behind Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish. That's some company to hang out with.

6. Is this a good time to remind everyone that Fernandez had fewer than 150 innings in the minor leagues?

7. The Marlins have been very careful with him. Monday's game was just his third 100-pitch outing, although all three have come in his past four starts as Mike Redmond has started extending him deeper into games.

8. Fernandez's Game Score: 87. The last 20-year-old pitcher with a higher one? Kerry Wood's famous 20-strikeout game in 1998. Umm.

9. Shelby Miller had the early lead in the NL Rookie of the Year Race, but Miller has struggled some his past four starts and now it's an interesting race. The numbers:

Fernandez: 5-4, 2.72 ERA, 92.2 IP, 6 HR, 33 BB, 94 SO, .193 AVG
Miller: 8-6, 2.79 ERA, 93.2 IP, 8 HR, 22 BB, 101 SO, .223 AVG

10. From the readers:



11. Not to ignore Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is 6-3, 2.83, and may end up pitching a lot more innings depending on what kind of workload Fernandez and Miller are held to.

12. By the way, notice that the National League has all the best rookies so far? Fernandez, Miller, Ryu, Julio Teheran, Trevor Rosenthal, Gerrit Cole, Tony Cingrani, Yasiel Puig, Jedd Gyorko, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna, Nolan Arenado. The AL has Jurickson Profar, Wil Myers and Nick Franklin, although none have played too much yet.

13. Marlins are 14-7 over their past 21 games.

14. Imagine Fernandez and Harvey together. Well, it could have happened. The Mets drafted high school outfielder Brandon Nimmo with the 13th pick in 2011; the Marlins took Fernandez with the next pick.

15. The air of confidence. On his final out in the eighth, Fernandez snared a one-hopper back to the mound, counted the seams and finally tossed the ball to first.

16. I suspect we'll see Fernandez at the All-Star Game in a couple weeks.

Breaking down the NL Cy Young race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zimmermann doesn't have overpowering stuff, but succeeds by keeping runners off the bases by limiting walks and inducing weak contact. His 17.3 percent infield popup rate is the best in baseball at the moment, and his 51.5 percent ground-ball rate is the 12th highest. One might think that relying on success on balls in play is a recipe for disaster, but Zimmermann has been doing this for nearly 500 innings and has shown no signs of slowing down.

NL's latest rookie crop shining bright

June, 2, 2013
6/02/13
12:40
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When it comes to this year's rookies, as fans I think we sort of came into this season like the kid at Christmas the year after you got the bike and the pony, or the new car and the Red Ryder BB gun. Because, let’s face it, the year after Mike Trout and Bryce Harper arrived on the scene had to be something of a letdown, right?

Turns out, not so much, at least not in the National League. The difference is that this year the kids are all right on the mound. Hyun-Jin Ryu has been one of the few bright spots on a Dodgers team desperate for something worth bragging about beyond its price tag. But the Cardinals’ Shelby Miller just got his ERA down to 1.82, almost a full run lower than Ryu’s, while catching the Korean southpaw in the win column for at least a day, what with Ryu set to take the mound Sunday.

It’s a showdown between a pair of outstanding candidates who press many of the hot-button issues about Rookie of the Year voting every season. Some fans -- and perhaps more than a few voters -- might favor the future value they anticipate when they see Miller. Some might have qualms about voting for a foreign leagues veteran, MLB-rookie status or no. But as long as Miller keeps pitching like a man who belongs with teammate Adam Wainwright in the conversation on who the best pitcher in the league might be, two months into the season it’s Miller’s race to win -- if he pitches all year.

[+] EnlargeShelby Miller
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesShelby Miller improved to 6-3, and lowered his ERA to 1.82, in the Cardinals' win over the Giants.
That said, it is a long season, and as the Nationals' decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 reflected, pitchers might be excused for factors that have nothing to do with performance.

Happily, the NL field for first-year talent is wider than that tandem, even as Miller and Ryu contend for headlines. Just from among the hurlers, Jose Fernandez might have to labor in relative obscurity with the Marlins, marooned in the depths of a new-park hangover that has many Miami fans and voters asking themselves the coyote-ugly question about their franchise a year or two too late. But that has nothing to do with Fernandez’s talent, on full display as he mowed down Mets on Saturday. Like Miller, he’s striking out more than a man per inning, good enough to put him in the top 10 among NL starters in K/9. If it weren’t for Ryu and Miller, even in the spring of Matt Harvey, we’d be talking about Fernandez a lot more. So you can imagine how Julio Teheran, doing well as a rotation regular on a first-place Braves team, feels.

This year, you can really only say one NL rookie position player is generating anything like the same buzz. Atlanta's Evan Gattis deserves the love he’s getting, not for the backstory but for the production. This is not Chris Coste 2.0 -- not that a guy like Coste wasn’t as easy to root for as Gattis, but when you’re slugging north of .600 two months into the season, you’re not a passing fancy, you’re somebody hitting so well that demoting an eight-figure salary becomes something more than merely speculative.

Gattis is doing for position players what Miller and Ryu have done for the pitchers in terms of sucking all the oxygen out of the room. As a result, Jedd Gyorko of the Padres might not merit more than a courtesy mention now, but I wouldn’t count him out over the next four months. Gyorko has the power to slug .450 or better despite having to call Petco Park home as a rookie; if he cranks 60 extra-base hits while helping the Padres finish around .500, that’s an amazing season.

You could say much the same for the pair of rookies starting up the middle for the Diamondbacks. However overmuch attention has been given to Kirk Gibson’s clubhouse makeover or the likely big-picture penalties for trading away Justin Upton, the work Arizona is getting from Didi Gregorius at shortstop (and A.J. Pollock in center field) has helped propel the Snakes to first place in the NL West. As easy as it might be to say Gregorius has been helped by the D-backs’ bandbox ballpark, three of his four homers have come on the road. If he starts slugging at home, too, how do you count out a slick-fielding shortstop with power on a first-place team?

Even with their delayed call-ups, by this time last year Trout and Harper had already been strutting their stuff. Trout was putting up an .887 OPS for an Angels lineup that needed all the help it could get overcoming Albert Pujols’ slow start. Harper was hitting .274/.357/.504 in a little more than a month. They might not have been brought up until the end of April, but you already knew we were in for something special. But this year’s class? Its players might not compare directly, but they’re doing more than enough to pay attention to, now and down the stretch.

The American League, on the other hand ... well, you have to give the Rangers some unexpected due. I don’t know if anyone really expects Justin Grimm or Nick Tepesch to still be in this conversation at the end of June, let alone September, but their contributions have clearly helped keep the Rangers' riding to the league’s best record. But Conor Gillaspie? Yan Gomes? That they're among the top WAR-generating rookies in the AL so far just means that nobody has shown enough, for long enough, with the expectation that he’ll still have a job at the All-Star break. I wouldn’t rule out Nick Franklin or Jurickson Profar in partial seasons. I also wouldn’t rule out that the eventual AL Rookie of the Year hasn’t been called up yet. Or possibly even drafted yet -- who said Christmas comes just once per year?

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

We're just about at the one-third mark of the season (already!), so it seems like a good time for a quick look at the five most important story lines so far. ESPN Fantasy writer Tristan Cockcroft joined SweetSpot TV to weigh in with his thoughts.

My top five stories:

1. The disappointing starts of the Angels and Dodgers. Although the Angels may be turning things around after their eight-game win streak.

2. Miguel Cabrera again chasing the Triple Crown.

3. The emergence of more great young starters -- Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin and Jose Fernandez, to name a few.

4. The Yankees are 30-20 despite a slew of injuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Seager (138th overall, up from No. 162): But still below Brett Lawrie. I'll take Seager.
Reaction to Wednesday's games ...
  • Watched a lot of the Indians' 10-4 win against the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon as Cleveland knocked around Cole Hamels, who fell to 1-6 with a 4.61 ERA. Ignore the win-loss record since that's dependent upon run support. Has Hamels been as bad as that ERA? That ERA ranks 79th out of 110 qualifiers, which means Hamels isn't pitching like a $19 million pitcher. (Only five, or possibly six, years to go on his contract!) It's pretty easy to pinpoint his issue: Walk rate up 4 percent, which translates to 1.6 more walks per nine innings, strikeout rate down 1.5 per nine). Basically, he's taken one strikeout per game and turned into one walk; such is the fine line between one of the best pitchers in the game and a guy with a 4.61 ERA. A quick look at the numbers suggests his changeup has been fine (.077 average, no home runs), although he has walked seven batters on PAs ending with the pitch compared to just 10 all of 2012. Hitters have been pounding his fastball: Six of his nine home runs allowed have come off the pitch compared to 10 in 2012. Hamels is too good to keep struggling like this; pitchers of his quality don't usually lose their command overnight. Hamels will figure things out and since the Braves have come back to the pack, the Phillies are still just 3.5 games out of first.
  • The Indians, meanwhile, continue to score runs, ranking tied for second in the AL at 4.9 runs per game. While everyone pointed to Cleveland's rotation as the big problem in 2012 (and it was), the offense was equally bad. Only Seattle scored fewer runs in the AL as the Indians ranked 13th out of 14 teams in slugging percentage. They did rank sixth in OBP so there was some ability here. They just needed power and Mark Reynolds has been the big key there with his 11 home runs. Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer against Philly and after a slow start he's coming around, hitting .288 with six homers his past 16 games. It's a good offense, nothing flukey going on here. Now if the pitching ...
  • Watched Shelby Miller in his first start since last week's one-hit, 13-strikeout shutout. He struggled with his command, especially in the first two innings when he threw 45 pitches. He tried to mix in his changeup more, throwing it 10 times after throwing it only 10 times total in his first seven starts. (Congratulations, Mets, you are now used for practice purposes!) Mets announcer Keith Hernandez pointed out that Miller was tipping the pitch by slowing his arm motion down a bit. Only two of the 10 pitches were strikes, so the changeup remains a big work in progress for the young righty. Still, despite battling his stuff all night Miller still pitched 5.2 scoreless innings.
  • Obviously, a huge lift for the Dodgers as Zack Greinke returned from the DL and pitched 5.1 solid innings in a 3-1 victory over the Nationals. "Stuff was pretty good, just stamina needs to be a little bit stronger," Greinke said. "I was feeling pretty drained after the fifth." His fastball velocity wasn't great -- around 90 -- and I thought he got away with a few pitches, but he made pitches when he had to and didn't walk anybody. He replaced Josh Beckett, who hit the DL with a pulled groin, so the rotation is still a work in progress. Now if Matt Kemp can get his power stroke going ...
  • Another win for the Pirates as lefty Wandy Rodriguez shut down the Brewers' right-handed attack. Rodriguez is a solid 4-2, 3.25, and has walked just nine batters in eight starts. I still have doubts about the Pirates' rotation, but if Rodriguez can keep pitching like this, he's a nice No. 2 behind A.J. Burnett.
  • The Astros won in dramatic fashion as Miguel Cabrera flew out to the warning track with the bases loaded for the final out.

In April, Jose Bautista had turned into a three true outcomes type of player: home run, walk or strikeout. He hit seven home runs and had a slugging percentage over .500, but was hitting just .200.

Was he just finding his stroke as he returned from last year's injury problems? Or was he no longer the MVP-caliber hitter of 2010 and 2011, when he hit 54 and 43 home runs, drew walks, and hit .260 and then .302?

He hit his first two home runs of May on Sunday in a 12-4 pasting of the Red Sox to raise his overall batting to .246/.360/.544 -- respectable, if not quite 2011-level Bautista. And the Blue Jays need 2011-level Bautista if they have any hope of recovering from their awful start.

I'm not quite sure he's there yet. While Bautista can crush any fastball -- he's hitting .333 with six home runs in 51 at-bats ending with a fastball this season -- it was his production against "soft" stuff that allowed him to hit above .300 in 2011. Check out these two charts on his batting average against soft stuff in 2011, and then the past two seasons:

Jose Bautista heat mapESPN Stats & InformationIn 2011, Bautista hit .291/.415/.591 with 16 home runs against soft stuff.

Jose Bautista heat map 2012-13ESPN Stats & Information Over the past two seasons, Bautista has hit just .180/.326/.365 against soft stuff.

As you can see, that's a lot of red (hot) in 2011 and a lot of blue (cold) since. This year, he's 7-for-51 (.137) with three home runs against soft stuff. He split his home runs on Sunday -- one came off a first-pitch Ryan Dempster fastball, the other off an 0-1 83 mph slider from Clayton Mortensen. Bautista is a dead pull hitter -- only one home run to center and one to right-center over the past two seasons -- which can leave him vulnerable to breaking stuff on the outside part of the plate.

I haven't seen enough evidence that he's going to punish those pitches like he did a couple years ago, so I would guess he'll be prone to ups and downs throughout the season. He's still a huge threat at the plate, but not the MVP bat of 2011.

REST OF THE WEEKEND

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Three stars
1. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. One hit. Twenty-seven down. In a 3-0 win over the Rockies on Friday, the St. Louis rookie became the fifth pitcher since 1961 to allow the first batter to reach base and then retire 27 in a row, joining John Lackey (2006 Angels), Jerry Reuss (1982 Dodgers), Jim Bibby (1981 Pirates) and Woodie Fryman (1966 Pirates). Miller had the Rockies guessing wrong -- or merely looking -- all night long, as he got 30 called strikes, the second-most by a starter this season. Eight of those closed out Miller's 13 strikeouts. Just a dominant performance. In fact, for all the attention given to Matt Harvey this year, compare the two young right-handers:

Miller: 5-2, 1.58 ERA, 45.2 IP, 29 H, 3 HR, 11 BB, 51 SO, .179 AVG
Harvey: 4-0, 1.44 ERA, 56.1 IP, 27 H, 3 HR, 14 BB, 62 SO, .142 AVG

2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Not to be outdone, Wainwright took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday, finishing with a two-hit shutout in another 3-0 win for the Cards. Wainwright improved to 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA and had strong words about his rookie teammate: "You follow Roger Clemens a couple times like I have been, it makes you focus a little bit more," he said. "Once you see Shelby mow through a lineup like he has all year, you want to go out there and do it, too." Kudos also to Cards manager Mike Matheny for leaving in Miller to throw 113 pitches, and Wainwright to throw 120. In this day when managers are too willing to yank starters at 100 pitches, it is good to see a manager let his guys go the distance.

3. Chris Sale, White Sox, and Jon Lester, Red Sox. Two more one-hit shutouts, Lester on Friday, Sale on Sunday. Can't anyone here hit anymore? Lester got 12 ground-ball outs as he joined Pedro Martinez (2000), Hideo Nomo (2001), Curt Schilling (2007) and Josh Beckett (2011) as Red Sox pitchers to throw a one-hit, no-walk shutout in the live ball era. But Sale threw his wearing the so-ugly-they're-cool 1983 throwback uniforms.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Evan Longoria, for his two-out, two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth home run to give the Rays a dramatic 8-7 win over the Padres on Saturday. My favorite part: There's some sort of picnic area in left-center (yes, "picnic area" and "domed stadium" is kind of an oxymoron) where the ball landed, and it looks like half the fans out there didn't realize it was a game-winning home run.

First off, credit Ben Zobrist for a drawing the two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch from Huston Street, working back from a 1-2 count. Street knew that was the batter he had to get. "You get him 1-2, you've got to make a pitch," he said. "I'm frustrated about that just as much as leaving a pitch to Longoria in the middle of the plate." The Rays had led 6-2 before the Padres scored five in the seventh, leading Joe Maddon to say it would have been one of Tampa's worst three losses of the year. "But you can't go to the dance playing like that. When you get leads, you've got to put the other team away. I'm not happy with that. That's inappropriate. That's got to stop," he said.

The Rays finished the sweep on Sunday, however -- their fifth win in a row -- and clawed a game over .500.

Best game
Well, that Padres-Rays game was pretty good. Miller's game was mesmerizing. Toronto's win over Boston on Saturday featured Adam Lind's go-ahead home run in the ninth off Junichi Tazawa, after the Red Sox had tied it in the bottom of the eighth. But I'll go with Cleveland's 7-6 win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on Saturday. Or Cleveland's 4-3 win on Sunday, in which the Indians tied it in the ninth and won it in the 10th, leading to this quote from Mark Reynolds, who delivered the go-ahead single: "With two strikes, I'm just trying to shorten up my swing and get something into play," he said. Wait ... since when does Reynolds shorten up his swing? Gotta love baseball.

The Indians took two of three from the Tigers to move into a first-place tie with Detroit.

Hitter on the rise: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
He had six home runs through April 21, but his average fell to .173 after a three-strikeout game on April 25. In 16 games, he's hit .419/.478/.694, with three more home runs, eight doubles and nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight). He has six three-hit games in that stretch, and he's showing he's more than just an all-or-nothing slugger. He's showing he's a guy who is going to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter for a long time.

Pitcher on the rise: Zach McAllister, Indians
Don't believe in the Indians? Don't believe in the rotation? McAllister is starting to look like another solid option alongside Justin Masterson. He didn't get a decision in Sunday's game but pitched a solid six innings. He's 3-3 with a 2.68 ERA and a decent 33/13 SO/BB ratio in 43.2 innings. He's a fly ball pitcher but has allowed just five home runs in seven starts. If he keeps the ball on the right side of the fence he has a chance to be successful.

Brandon Phillips play of the week
This one was pretty.

Happy Mother's Day
Pablo Sandoval uses his pink bat to launch one into McCovey Cove. Tim Lincecum backed up Sandoval with his best outing of the year as the Giants took the final three of four from the Braves. Tough stretch coming up for the Giants, however: 20 of their next 30 on the road, including series in Toronto, Colorado, St. Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Team on the rise: Indians
They're 12-2 over the past 14, hitting .305 with 24 home runs -- and that stretch does not include that 19-6 win over Houston earlier in the season. The pitching staff has a 2.98 ERA with 13 home runs allowed. The Indians lead the majors in home runs and OPS, and guys like Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall have room to do better.

Team on the fall: A's
Awful week, losing four to Cleveland and then two of three to Seattle. They scored more than three runs just once in seven games as injuries to outfielders Coco Crisp, Chris Young and Josh Reddick have left them playing Michael Taylor and Brandon Moss in the outfield (with Daric Barton or Nate Freiman replacing Moss at first base). Jarrod Parker is still scuffling (6.86 ERA, four walks in 6.1 innings on Saturday). The A's just need to get healthy, and they didn't hit their stride last year until July (they were 37-42 and 13 games out on July 1), so they may be down now, but hardly out.
video

As you probably know, strikeouts continue to climb higher and higher.

In the chart at the right, are strikeouts per game:

As Dave Cameron wrote last week on FanGraphs,
Over the past 30 years, the strikeout rate in MLB has gone from 14.0 percent to the 20.0 percent it stands at today. It took 24 years to move from 14 percent to 17 percent, but it’s only taken six years to move from 17 percent to 20 percent. Those six years correspond perfectly to the PITCHF/x era.


Dave cites a piece from James Gentile that shows called strikes are rising much faster than swinging strikes, the suggestion that perhaps there is a relationship between the installation of the PITCHf/x cameras, their affect on umpires and thus the rapid growth in strikeouts in recent seasons.

Bill James also tossed out a theory that it's natural that strikeouts increase throughout history -- for pitchers, strikeouts are good, so it's a process of natural selection; but for hitters, strikeouts (to a point) aren't necessarily bad. You can strike out and still be a good hitter; but few pitchers succeed long term without striking out a certain percentage of hitters.

All this is very interesting and no doubt holds some truth. But maybe there is a simpler explanation: There are a lot of unbelievably talented young pitchers right now.

Look at the next generation of starters on the way, guys who have made fewer than 15 career starts: Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-jin Ryu, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Wily Peralta, Dan Straily. That's on top of last year's rookie group that included Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Wade Miley, Yu Darvish and Wei-Yin Chen.

Look at some other pitchers who debuted since 2008: Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer, Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos, Doug Fister, Madison Bumgarner, Jordan Zimmermann, Kris Medlen, Brett Anderson, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Alexi Ogando, Jeremy Hellickson, Brandon Beachy and Lance Lynn. Not to mention a plethora of relievers -- led by Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman -- throwing 95-plus mph.

Think of all the advancements that have helped pitchers over the past 20 years -- meaning tools or approaches this generation of young starters has benefited from:
  • Arms are better protected, not just in the minors and early in major league careers, but on the high school and college levels.
  • Better coaching, teaching proper mechanics, from the youth levels on up, including private pitching coaches.
  • Advancements in medicine and injury rehab -- the success rate for Tommy John surgery, for example, has improved.
  • Video technology. Once used mostly by hitters, now another weapon for pitchers to take advantage of.



Beyond that, these pitchers are bigger, stronger and throw harder than ever before. Consider Harvey, the Mets phenom who has a 2.21 ERA through his first 13 major league starts, with 95 strikeouts in 81.1 innings. He's 6-foot-4, 225 pounds or so. Maybe 25 years ago he's playing basketball or packs on 50 pounds and becomes an offensive lineman in football. Now more guys like him are playing baseball.

Some of these up-and-coming stars take the hill tonight. The guy to watch is Fernandez, the 20-year-old rookie for the Marlins who was in high school two years ago. He's been terrific in his first two starts, throwing mid-90s fastballs and showing a good feel for pitching. (He opposes Reds rookie Tony Cingrani, just called up to replace the injured Cueto; in three Triple-A starts, he didn't allow a run and struck out 26 in 14.1 innings.) Teheran faces the Pirates. And then Friday we have must-watch TV: Harvey against Strasburg at Citi Field.

Eric Karabell and I discuss five of these guys in the video above. Here's how I would rank them:

1. Matt Harvey, Mets. After 10 successful starts last year, Harvey's first three outings have been pure domination. Right now, he doesn't look like a future ace, but is already an ace. His fastball averages 94 and hits 97. Now, he has faced the Padres (without their two best hitters), the Phillies and the Twins so far, so we should restrain our enthusiasm a little bit until he faces better lineups, but if his changeup continues to improve -- and batters are 0-for-14 against it so far -- watch out.

2. Jose Fernandez, Marlins. Despite the lack of experience, he pitches with the confidence of a veteran. He matches Harvey with his mid-90s velocity and relies on a curveball as his primary off-speed pitch. He's thrown his changeup only 16 times in two starts, but if he masters that pitch, well ... watch out.

3. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. He pitched Wednesday night, retiring 15 Pirates in a row at one point. He's another fastball/curveball guy, although his fastball is a tick below what we've seen from Harvey and Fernandez. After a rough first half at Triple-A in 2012, Miller seemed to put everything together down the stretch. His strong start -- .169 average allowed, 18 K's and 5 walks in three starts -- bodes well that his command continues to improve.

4. Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers. The rookie from Korea doesn't throw as hard as these guys, but has shown to be as advertised: A polished left-hander in the David Wells mode (which includes physique as well as stuff).

5. Julio Teheran, Braves. The one guy of these five who has struggled so far. He had a monster spring training (26 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 9 BB, 35 SO) but it hasn't translated to a successful start, as he still has issues commanding his off-speed stuff.

If you haven't seen any of these guys pitch, check them out. And you'll understand one reason why strikeouts are still on the rise.

I flipped over to the Cardinals-Pirates game in the fifth inning, with A.J. Burnett starting to get serious about a no-hit bid. He was locked up with Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller in a 1-0 duel and would retire the first 16 batters before hitting Daniel Descalso in the sixth. Miller allowed four hits in the first inning but then retired 15 in a row before Andrew McCutchen reached on an infield single in the sixth and later scored on Neil Walker's bouncer up the middle.

As I watched, it dawned on me: Shelby Miller is A.J. Burnett, circa 2000, when Burnett was a hard-throwing rookie with the Florida Marlins, with expectations to match his then-high 90s fastball and knee-bending curveball. Miller is a hard-throwing rookie with ability to develop into a staff ace.

So let me ask you this: If Miller ends up with Burnett's career, would you be disappointed?

That's a bit of a trick question, because while many do consider Burnett to be a pitcher who never reached his potential, he's still had a hell of a career, not that anyone ever suggests that. He has won 138 games and struck out his 2,000th career batter on Wednesday. He helped the Yankees win the World Series in 2009, which wasn't enough to erase the belief that he stunk up Yankee Stadium for three years.

But is it fair to evaluate a pitcher on what others believed he might have achieved? I don't know that it is. Sure, Burnett long had the reputation of the guy with the million-dollar arm and 10-cent head. But he never really had the command of his stuff to turn into a Cy Young-caliber pitcher. Besides, only 304 pitchers have ever won 138 games in the big leagues, and that includes guys who pitched underhanded in the 1880s while wearing collared uniforms and rosters consisted of 11 players. Only 68 pitchers have struck out 2,000 batters, although maybe you want to dismiss that since Burnett has pitched in the highest strikeout era in baseball history.

The point here: If Shelby Miller has A.J. Burnett's career, he will have done very well for himself, no matter what we think his potential is at age 22 and after just four major league starts.

Burnett took his no-hitter into the seventh inning of a game the Pirates won 5-0, but with two outs Carlos Beltran lined an 0-1 curveball into right-center for a double. Burnett's curve -- the rare knuckle-curve variety -- had been a good pitch for him, recording five strikeouts on the night, and Beltran's double was just the third hit off it this season (batters are 3-for-38 against it). Burnett was removed after that inning, finishing with a line of seven innings, one hit, no walks and eight strikeouts to earn his first win of 2013.

"My goal every time out is to throw a no-hitter. I know they are major league hitters that I'm facing and I respect them, but my job is not to give up hits. You should go to the mound with that mindset."

In 24 innings, Burnett had struck out 35, allowed just 17 hits and walked eight. At 36, maybe Burnett has finally learned the finer points of pitching. Which is kind of a shame, especially if Burnett follows through on his spring training suggestion that he may retire at season's end when his contract expires. Right when we learn to appreciate Burnett he may walk away.

Undoubtedly, some of his success with the Pirates -- he went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA last year -- is pitching in a comfort zone he never had with the Yankees. Last summer, Burnett said he had welcomed the trade to Pittsburgh because "it seemed like they really wanted me." Instead of being viewed as an underachiever, the Pirates viewed him as a good pitcher who could help the team.

As for Miller, he's off to a good start in his young career, with a 1.96 ERA through his first three starts. He doesn't throw consistently as hard as Burnett did when he was younger, but like Burnett, Miller uses a curveball as his primary offspeed weapon (hitters are 3-for-20 against it).

The promising start, while certainly a positive, will only serve to raise the already high expectations for Miller. But Burnett's career is a reminder that baseball isn't so easy, and no matter the talent a player possesses, let's not project stardom too quickly.
Joey VottoDylan Coulter for ESPN The MagazineDoes Joey Votto see his second NL MVP Award in his future?
Earlier, the SweetSpot bloggers overwhelmingly supported Mike Trout for AL MVP and Justin Verlander for the AL Cy Young Award. Let's see how the predictions line up in the NL.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
For the second straight, the SweetSpot bloggers select Reds first baseman Joey Votto as their MVP favorite. Votto won pretty easily, collecting 24 of the 47 first-place votes, with the other 23 distributed among nine different players. Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has big expectations in his sophomore season and he finished second in the balloting, ahead of Ryan Braun and Buster Posey, the past two MVPs. Will the Pirates make the playoffs? Andrew McCutchen actually received the second-most first-place votes but finished fifth in the vote.

Points on a 14-9-8-7-6 basis.

1. Joey Votto, 524 points (24 first-place votes)
2. Bryce Harper, 271 points (3)
3. Ryan Braun, 238 points (2)
4. Buster Posey, 212 points (3)
5. Andrew McCutchen, 196 points (6)
6. Jason Heyward, 148 points (2)
7. Matt Kemp, 139 points (4)
8. Justin Upton, 120 points (1)
9. Giancarlo Stanton, 65 points (1)
10. Adrian Gonzalez, 36 points (1)

Others -- Troy Tulowitzki (34 points), Paul Goldschmidt (24), David Wright (24), Allen Craig (19), Ryan Zimmerman (14), Matt Holliday (7), Jay Bruce (6), Brandon Belt (6), Carlos Gonzalez (6).

CY YOUNG
The bloggers predict a two-way Cy Young race between Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw -- who won the award in 2011 and finished second last year -- and Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, coming off a 15-6, 3.16 season in 28 starts. He received one more first-place vote than Kershaw, but Kershaw had more down-the ballot support to edge ahead. Six other pitchers received first-place votes, showing the depth of great starters in the NL.

Points on a 7-4-3 basis.

1. Clayton Kershaw, 229 points (18 first-place votes)
2. Stephen Strasburg, 214 points (19)
3. Cole Hamels, 56 points (4)
4. Matt Cain, 45 points (1)
5. Adam Wainwright, 30 points (2)
6. Cliff Lee, 17 points (1)
7. Gio Gonzalez, 14 points (0)
8. Mat Latos, 13 points (1)

Others -- Madison Bumgarner (12 points), Johnny Cueto (9), Jordan Zimmermann (7, one first-place vote), Yovani Gallardo (6), Jeff Samardzija (3), Roy Halladay (3).

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Twelve different players received first-place votes, so this race looks wide open. Obviously, playing time weighs heavily, so Shelby Miller of the Cardinals and Julio Teheran of the Braves, who won rotation jobs out of spring training, rank 1-2 in the balloting. The Cardinals have the potential for a great rookie class as Oscar Taveras, Trevor Rosenthal and Kolten Wong also received votes.

Points on a 5-3-1 basis.

1. Shelby Miller, 93 points (14 first-place votes)
2. Julio Teheran, 92 points (8)
3. Jedd Gyorko, 57 points (6)
4. Oscar Taveras, 39 points (5)
5. Adam Eaton, 36 points (4)
6. Travis d'Arnaud, 21 points (2)
7. Gerrit Cole, 15 points (2)

Others -- Yasiel Puig (10 points), Zack Wheeler (10), Billy Hamilton (9, one first-place vote), Tyler Skaggs (8, one first place), Trevor Rosenthal (7), Kyuji Fujikawa (6 points, one first place), Christian Yelich (5 points, one first place), Nolan Arenado (5 points, one first place), Hyun-Jin Ryu (3), Rob Brantly (2), Kolten Wong (1).

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