SweetSpot: Tommy Hunter
The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.
1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.
2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.
3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.
4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.
5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.
6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).
7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.
8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.
9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.
10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
@dschoenfield has any team suffered more crushing defeats than my O's this year? It's been excruciating.— Josh Powell (@JoshuaCPowell) September 12, 2013
Here are some of the position players to suit up for the Yankees in 2013: Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Austin Romine, David Adams, Zoilo Almonte, Luis Cruz, Ben Francisco, Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, Thomas Neal, Corban Joseph and Travis Ishikawa. (What you don't remember the two at-bats -- both strikeouts -- Ishikawa received?)
Those 16 players had combined for 1,988 plate appearances entering Wednesday's game in Baltimore, about the playing time of three full-time players. None have provided a positive offensive contribution, Nunez being the best, and he's hittng .257 with one home run. This group had combined to hit .223 with 24 home runs and 162 RBIs and on-base percentage well south of .300.
Those totals don't even include the 73 awful plate appearances Derek Jeter made or the 63 bad ones from Mark Teixeira or the 118 from Kevin Youkilis. You get the idea. This is a Yankees team that the rest of the American League should have kicked to the curb, elbowed in the stomach and then thrown into the gutter alongside the Astros and Mariners.
For much of the season, it's been a team with a $228 million payroll fielding a replacement-level lineup. Well ... replacement level plus Robinson Cano.
It's the ninth inning on Wednesday night. The Yankees had trailed 3-1 before Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez tied the game with home runs in the fifth and sixth. You can guess which guy received a loud chorus of boos as he rounded the bases.
Left-handers were hitting .175 off Brian Matusz. Showalter didn't bring him -- and, no, it doesn't look like rest was an issue. Matusz had thrown 14 pitches on Tuesday, his first appearance in eight days. Troy Patton is another lefty in the pen although he hasn't been all that great against lefties this year, .275 with five home runs allowed. Still ... Tommy Hunter. Left-handed batters were slugging .527 off him before this night; he'd allowed nine home runs on the season, all to lefties. He crushes righties; he's not good versus lefties. Clear?
Cano saw two pitches. He fouled off a 95-mph fastball. Then he swatted an 88 mph changeup to center field. The Yankees would add another run when Adam Jones misplayed a catchable deep fly ball into a Granderson triple, a key run as it turned out when the Orioles scored once off Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Yankees 5, Orioles 4.
Orioles fans forced live through another ninth-inning meltdown. Yankees fans, somehow seeing their underdog team getting a game closer to the playoffs. Tommy Hunter versus Robinson Cano, a matchup that never should have happened.
* * * *
Occam's Razor: It's a Naked Gun 2 1/2 hostage scenario. RT @dschoenfield: Joe Maddon ... not so genius-like lately.— Jason Epstein (@Southfive) September 12, 2013
We're in the top of the 10th inning in St. Petersburg. Rays manager Joe Maddon had already run through five relievers, including closer Fernando Rodney, who had thrown 15 pitches in the ninth. Closers don't pitch two innings these days -- even Maddon, the guy all the smart kids love, doesn't buck that trend -- so Joel Peralta started the 10th. Dustin Pedroia walked. Shane Victorino sacrificed him to second, bringing up David Ortiz. You can actually argue that John Farrell should have let Victorino hit away considering (A) Victorino has been hot; and (B) Maddon would likely intentionally walk Ortiz.
Which is what he did, a predictable move since he'd already used his two best lefties in the pen, Jake McGee and Alex Torres.
Like he did in the third inning, when he walked Ortiz to load the bases to face Mike Napoli (who singled in two runs), Maddon again elected to face Napoli. He replaced the fly-balling Peralta with the ground-balling Roberto Hernandez. The right move? Overthinking it? Hernandez versus righties: .254/.281/.377; Peralta versus righties: .206/.287/.299.
Napoli walked on four pitches. Oops.
Farrell sent southpaw-swinging Mike Carp up to hit for Jonny Gomes. Hernandez has a huge platoon split -- lefties were hitting .303 and slugging .529 off him. Maddon did have one left-hander left in the pen in Cesar Ramos but he was starting to run out of relievers by now, so he stuck with Hernandez, still hoping for a double play.
Rays pitching coach Kevin Hickey visited the mound. We can assume his advice was not "Throw a first-pitch hanging slider."
Carp crushed it to dead center for a grand slam. With expanded rosters and with the depth the Red Sox have coming off their bench, it's hard to win a matchup game with them right now. Maddon tried and got burned.
* * * *
Did Showalter and Maddon make mistakes? Hey, we all second-guess when the moves don't work. The key is to second-guess before it happens. I was definitely surprised Showalter didn't bring in Matusz to face Cano; it's just not a good matchup for Hunter. Maddon had started his matchup game back in the sixth inning -- he used Wesley Wright to get Jackie Bradley Jr. to get out of a jam and then McGee got Ortiz to ground into a double play in the seventh. That kept the game close, which the Rays eventually tied in the eighth, but limited Maddon's options later in the game. I think he got a little too cute there in the 10th. He probably should have just let Peralta pitch to Ortiz. Any intentional walk helps increase the chances of a big inning. That's what happened.
This is what makes September baseball so much fun. Every move gets scrutinized. Every bad pitch that turns into a bad result gets amplified. We debate, discuss, watch the out-of-town scoreboard with intense scrutiny and suffer through the pain or revel in the joy when Robinson Cano and Mike Carp turn into heroes.
AL Wild-Card Standings
Texas 81 64 --
Tampa Bay 78 66 --
New York 78 68 1
Cleveland 77 68 1.5
Baltimore 77 68 1.5
Kansas City 77 69 2
Thursday night: Yankees at Orioles, Red Sox at Rays. Let's do it again. The five-way tie is still very much in play!
It was 86 degrees in Baltimore on Wednesday night, the ball was flying and we had one of the most exciting games of the season, a 9-6 Orioles victory over the Washington Nationals and one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, including a six-run rally in the seventh inning.
Here are 30 thoughts/observations/random tidbits on the game ...
1. Chris Davis. It was Chris Davis T-shirt night at Camden Yards and he didn't disappoint, slamming his 18th and 19th home runs, going 4-for-4, scoring three runs, driving in three, selling pretzels between innings. After his second home run, the camera panned to him a few moments later in the dugout, his helmet off -- and if you ever want to know the look of a man in the zone, Davis had it. Sort of part-bemused, like he was reliving the moment, part-amazed, like the first time you see the Grand Canyon, eyes wide, soaking it all in.
2. Electric atmosphere. As the Orioles announcer said, it had the feel of a Friday-night college crowd, with a buzz going all game, the fans exploding after each hit during Baltimore's big seventh. Baseball at its best.
3. Last season, it seemed Orioles fans were a little reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, as the support -- at least as shown in attendance figures -- was slow to get going, certainly understandable after years of losing. Looks like the support is getting back to levels we saw in the mid-1990s, when you couldn't get a ticket to an O's game.
4. Davis versus Miguel Cabrera. For all the attention that Cabrera has rightfully been generating for chasing the Triple Crown again, Davis is having the better season at the plate:
Davis: .359/.447/.755, 19 HR, 18 2B, 50 RBIs, 1.214 OPS
Cabrera: .368/.444/.656, 15 HR, 13 2B, 59 RBIs, 1.099 OPS
5. Of course, as one Tigers fan tweeted to me the other night, let's see the numbers at the end of the season.
7. Fifteen players have slugged .700 in the first half since 2000, but only two since 2009: Albert Pujols in 2009 (.723) and Jose Bautista in 2011 (.702).
8. This isn't the same Chris Davis who had a big breakout season last year, when he hit 33 home runs. Last year, he struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 6.6. This year, those figures are 21.9 and 13.2. A man with his power and better control of the strike zone is a scary proposition. OK, so maybe he's not a .359 hitter, but he's not doing it by accident.
9. Manny Machado hit another double. That's 24. He's on pace for 73. The record is 67, set way back in 1931 by Earl Webb.
10. He doesn't turn 21 until July. That's Machado; Webb is dead.
11. Will it upset everyone to suggest that Machado -- with his brilliant defense at third -- has arguably been as valuable as Davis and Cabrera? I mean ... he's hitting .332/.365/.517 and has more range than Meryl Streep. Baseball-Reference wins above replacement leaders, American League, entering Wednesday: Machado 3.4, Dustin Pedroia 3.0, Cabrera 2.8, Davis 2.7. FanGraphs: Machado 3.1, Davis 2.9, Cabrera 2.9, Mike Trout 2.9.
12. It's a legitimate argument if you can look beyond RBIs.
13. Ryan Zimmerman, have a day. Tough to hit three home runs -- he homered his first three times up -- and get upstaged, but that's what happened. Is it fair to say that Zimmerman is one of the most important players in the National League? With the Nats' offense struggling -- although a little better of late -- it desperately needs a second big bat behind Bryce Harper. Zimmerman has to be that guy, or maybe Adam LaRoche. Or, preferably, both. Zimmerman's throwing troubles have been an issue all season, although also better of late.
15. Jordan Zimmermann was due for a bad game, but did make some bad pitches. Davis' first home run was off a slider over the middle of the plate. Nick Markakis' home run came off an 0-1 fastball that Kurt Suzuki wanted in but was also over the middle of the plate.
16. Both were hit to the almost identical location in right-center -- in fact, you can see the same guy in the white tank T-shirt reaching for both homers.
17. Steve Pearce's two-run shot off Zimmermann just cleared the fence in left-center. On another night, with a little more luck, it's maybe three long outs to the warning track.
18. Davis' second home run, off an 0-2 changeup from Tyler Clippard, was the most impressive of the night as he showcased his huge raw power, with an easy, almost one-handed swing. How strong is this guy? This one landed near where T-shirt dude was sitting as well, except he must have been off in the beer line this time around.
19. Zimmermann hadn't walked a batter since May 8. So now he has 10 in 11 starts. Terrible.
20. The Orioles can hit. That's 10 or more hits in 27 of their 53 games.
21. The Nationals' bench was supposed to be a big strength heading into the season, but it's been a weak spot. Roger Bernadina did homer, but he's hitting .149. Tyler Moore is hitting .149. Chad Tracy is hitting .170. Steve Lombardozzi is hitting an empty .234. And they've had to play a lot, accumulating more than 300 plate appearances among the four of them so far. Along with struggling Danny Espinosa, they're a huge reason the Nationals are just a game over .500.
22. Remember when Nate McLouth was washed up?
23. He's 17-for-18 in steals. The O's lead the American League in home runs and are tied for the lead in stolen bases. When's the last time that happened?
24. I'm sure Orioles fans were a little nervous when Jim Johnson entered for the save in the ninth, considering his last outing in Toronto on Sunday -- his fourth blown save and fifth loss. But he had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, albeit against the bottom three hitters.
25. Tommy Hunter was unfair in the eighth inning. He threw a 100 mph fastball to Moore followed by a two-strike curve that Moore missed. No chance.
26. I still don't know what to make of Chris Tillman. Four home runs tonight, 11 over his past five starts. Yes, four of those games came at Camden, but he's going to continue having gopher ball problems with such a low ground-ball rate (37 percent on the season).
27. A Beltway Series would be fun in October. Nearly happened last year, but I think the Orioles will need to make a deal for a starting pitcher. I mean, Freddy Garcia goes on Thursday.
28. Buck Showalter can manage my team.
29. I still think second baseman Ryan Flaherty can produce some offense. He returned to the Orioles lineup' and had two hits. I'm less confident about Espinosa.
30. How do I get one of those Chris Davis T-shirts?
St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.
2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.
3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.
4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.
5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.
On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.
If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:
1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).
2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.
3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.
4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.
5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.
2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.
3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.
4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.
5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball
San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.
2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.
3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.
4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).
5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.
2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.
3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.
4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.
5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.
2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.
3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.
4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.
5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.
2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.
3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.
4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.
5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.
2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.
3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.
4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.
5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward
New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.
2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.
3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.
4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.
5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
As the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles played on in the late-afternoon shadows, the managers turned to Chris Archer and Tommy Hunter, a rookie with just 18 innings of big league experience making his first relief appearance of the season and a veteran starter banished to the bullpen, respectively.
This is pennant-race baseball.
In Anaheim, Angels ace Jered Weaver took the mound, making his first start in 11 days because of biceps tendinitis, and all he had to do was prevent the A's from completing a four-game sweep and keep the Angels within shouting distance of the playoffs.
This is playoff-race baseball.
In Houston, the Phillies -- who punted back in July when they traded two-thirds of their starting outfield -- had suddenly found themselves smelling the sweat of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates. They started a rookie named Tyler Cloyd, making his fourth major league start. Not only that, he was starting on three days' rest. I knew nothing about him, so I looked up a few facts. He was the International League pitcher of the year, but he's a finesse right-hander who rarely reaches 90 mph. He was an 18th-round draft pick in 2008 out of Nebraska-Omaha, but his lack of velocity meant he wasn't one of Baseball America's top 30 Phillies prospects entering the season despite good minor league numbers in 2011.
This is wild-card baseball.
I intended to watch the monumental Chris Sale-Justin Verlander showdown, two Cy Young contenders facing off in a crucial game in the American League Central, but that game was rained out, so I focused on the Yankees-Red Sox showdown at Fenway Park. Phil Hughes, a pitcher who had allowed the second-most home runs in the major leagues, was trying to pitch the Yankees back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. All he did was pitch one of the best games of his career, allowing no runs for just the second time this season.
This is baseball.
Archer had used a little magic in the 13th inning, when he escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam to extend the game another inning. During that high-wire act, he fell behind Matt Wieters 3-0 but came back to strike him out on a 94 mph fastball, his seventh consecutive fastball of the at-bat. No tricks, just heat, and it worked. I tweeted something along the lines of: "If the Rays win this game and eventually make the playoffs, remember this inning."
But Buck Showalter has been around this game a few years. They say he's pretty wise. In the 14th inning, Archer got the first batters out, but Adam Jones fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drew ball four. Endy Chavez singled to left. That brought up the rookie Machado, 0-for-5 on the day, 2-for-his-past-20. Archer fell behind 3-and-0.
You don't give a rookie the green light.
Buck gave Machado the green light.
Machado swung and lofted a sinking line drive near the left-field line. Matt Joyce ran in, dove, stretched out, his glove reaching for the baseball, reaching for hope -- to keep the game going, to give the Rays hope of getting a win closer to the playoffs rather than a loss further away. Off the glove. Base hit. Orioles win 3-2 -- their 13th in a row in extra innings; 27-7 in one-run games, the best percentage in history. How can you not believe in the Orioles?
Joyce came up a few inches short. If Sam Fuld, an outfielder with more range, had been in left field, he makes the play. But Fuld had been removed in the 13th inning when Joe Maddon had replaced him with Reid Brignac to give the Rays five infielders after the Orioles loaded the bases. And that strategy worked when the Rays got the first out of the inning on a force at home. Maddon used 26 players in the game, clawing for any little edge.
That's what you do this time of year.
* * * *
Cloyd pitched three scoreless innings against the Astros but then gave up a single -- single -- home run and got the hook. He was replaced by another rookie, B.J. Rosenberg, with an ERA of 9.00. Rosenberg pitched two scoreless innings. In the eighth, the Phillies clinging to a 4-3 lead, Charlie Manuel turned to yet another rookie, Phillippe Aumont, once the prize of the Cliff Lee trade with the Mariners. Big stuff, no command: He averaged 6.9 walks per nine innings in Triple-A. He walked a guy, but got a caught stealing. He walked another guy. He hit a batter.
Two outs, two on, the Phillies cannot afford to lose. They have a $50 million closer in the bullpen.
Manuel brought in yet another rookie, Jake Diekman. He gave up a two-run double and an RBI single, and the Phillies lost 6-4.
Jonathan Papelbon sat in the bullpen, and suddenly that playoff run seems a little less likely.
The victories are extra sweet. The losses extra bitter. Welcome to the best time of the season.
Here's the thing about baseball in 2012: The difference between the best teams and the worst teams isn't all that extreme. The New York Yankees, for example, have outscored their opponents by 99 runs. The Minnesota Twins, with one of the worst starting rotation in recent memory, have been outscored by 114 runs. That's 213 runs, which is significant, but maybe not as large as you might imagine. The Twins have played 129 games, so we're talking about 1.7 runs per game. What's 1.7 runs? A double here, a single there, an extra walk here, one play made on defense. It's not that much, but those three or four plays a game add up over 162 games.
This gets us to the Baltimore Orioles, the team that won't go away. For the past couple of months, most analysts have predicted them to slowly slide out of the playoff chase, especially those of us who look at the numbers. We kept to their negative run differential: It will catch up to them eventually, we said. The talent base isn't there; they won't keep winning all these one-run games; their luck will run out.
Well, it's late August and the Orioles have 34 games remaining. Forget what us so-called experts predicted -- they're still in the race; they're 3.5 games behind the Yankees; and if the season ended today they'd be playing the Oakland A's in the wild-card game. And they're still getting outscored on the season ... by 39 runs.
But here's the deal: A month ago, the Orioles were 52-49 and 8.5 games behind the Yankees. Their run differential at that time was minus-63. Since then they've gone 19-8 and outscored their opponents by 24 runs -- or nearly one per game. There's nothing that screams fluke about what has happened over the past 30 days. The Orioles might have lucked into a 52-49 record but at this point they're for real.
One reason for their improvement has been the emergence of Chris Tillman, the tall, talented right-hander for whom it seems the Orioles have been waiting since Bush 43 was still president. After struggling in 2009 (5.40 ERA) ... and 2010 (5.87 ERA) ... and 2011 (5.52 ERA), Tillman didn't make the Opening Day roster. He was sent down to the minors leagues, cleaned up his motion so it became more over the top. His fastball, which had averaged 90.5 mph in 2010 and 89.5 mph in 2011, has now averaged 92.8 in 2012, with good downhill plane generated from his 6-foot-6 frame.
On Tuesday night at Camden Yards, the Chicago White Sox looked clueless against Tillman, who pitched seven one-hit innings on the way to a 6-0 Baltimore victory. He did walk four but the White Sox couldn't measure his fastball, which he threw on 68 of his 109 pitches, a much higher percentage of fastballs than he normally throws (about 45 percent entering the game). He mixes in a curveball, slider and changeup, which he started utilizing more often late in the game. In other words, a classic approach since the days of rock-strewn infields and baggy wool uniforms: Establish the fastball early and then mix in the offspeed stuff.
The only hit off Tillman was Dayan Viciedo's infield dribbler in the fifth inning that J.J. Hardy couldn't field cleanly. Tillman actually said he didn't have his Grade A stuff on this night. "There were plenty of games where I had better stuff," he said. "There were some spurts there when I kind of got out of whack." Tillman had walked just 15 batters in his first nine starts.
Tillman's emergence -- he's now 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA -- symbolizes how the Orioles have revamped their rotation over the past month. Gone are Jake Arrieta (6.13 ERA), Brian Matusz (5.40 ERA) and now Tommy Hunter (5.95 ERA), to be replaced by the newly acquired Joe Saunders, who will start in Wednesday's series finale. Jason Hammel, the team's ace the first half, will also make a rehab start this weekend and could return to the rotation on Sept. 6. Arrieta, Matusz and Hunter combined to start 54 games -- and allowed five or more runs in 22 of them. Those are three main culprits behind the team's run differential. Well, that and the fact that Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds are no longer attempting to play third base.
Watching the Orioles the past two games, I've gotten a little bit of that "destiny" feeling. Lew Ford, out of the majors since 2007, homered both nights. Nate McLouth hit the big two-run home run Monday and added three hits Tuesday. As a Mariners fan, it reminds me of the miracle 1995 season, when the M's rallied from a 12.5-game deficit in late August to win the American League West. The team featured memorable big moments from guys such as Alex Diaz and Doug Strange and a way-past-his-prime Vince Coleman.
The Orioles are 24-6 (a .800 winning percentage) in one-run games, which would easily be the best record in one-run games during the wild-card era (the 2003 Giants went 28-12, a .700 mark). In fact, that would be the best of any team since 1901 -- the 1981 Orioles went 21-7 (.750). Of the top 10 one-run records from 1996 to 2011, eight of the teams made the postseason.
Team of destiny? Maybe, just maybe.
Thanks to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information for research help.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
The Orioles are the team that won’t go away. For months now, they’ve been predicted to, expected to, and they have no end of excuses for why they’re supposed to be long since out of the expanded wild-card picture already. Injuries, run differential, relative anonymity plus generally underwhelming performances from most of the people you have heard of -- the Orioles are supposed to be goners.
They aren’t gone, but they might be going places. On Saturday, it was Zach Britton’s bend-don’t-break stylings that were their latest “that’s not really possible, is it?” feat. Seven shutout innings against the Tigers make for some sort of Saturday night special, not bad for the latest transient solution in Buck Showalter’s constantly fixed-up rotation.
Go by appearances alone, and it seemed like Britton had no business matching zeroes with the Tigers’ Rick Porcello, allowing nine baserunners to Porcello’s four through the first six innings. But three 6-4-3 double plays were enough to keep his head above water. Porcello had retired 11 men in a row heading into the seventh, but so what? A pair of dink singles and Chris Davis’ three-run shot later, it didn’t matter what Porcello had done beforehand or how good he looked doing it, because the O’s had a decisive lead thanks to Davis’ just-enough bit of bopping, making Britton a winner.
That in itself might be a bit of a surprise, considering that Britton’s shot at pitching this year was no sure thing in March, when shoulder surgery seemed likely. But opting for platelet-rich plasma (or PRP) treatments put him on the shorter road to rehab, and he’s been the skippable, sometime-fifth starter for a team that barely goes a week without having to change something in its rotation.
The Orioles have managed to keep the identity of their rotation’s third or fourth or fifth starter a matter of a near-weekly surprise to everyone, including themselves. Some of that has been a matter of effective roster management by general manager Dan Duquette: Early in the season, the Orioles could afford to flip the optionable Tommy Hunter back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk, rostering him only when they had to. Despite that time spent shuttling back and forth, it says something about Baltimore’s lot that Hunter is now second on the team in total starts because almost everyone queued up ahead of him has broken down or pitched his way out of a job.
This yo-yo role Britton found himself in on Saturday, as he was called back up into the latest breach in the rotation after already blowing his initial call-up after the All-Star break, getting clobbered in five of six starts. In the Orioles’ ad-hoc rotation, he was back up because he was on the 40-man roster and had four days’ rest, and little else -- he was four days removed from getting chewed up by Charlotte, pitching through a split nail on his pitching hand.
Britton briefly dealt with the burden of being blown up too soon as a sign of better times to come in the spring of 2011, after he notched a quick eight quality starts in his first 10 turns as a rookie in the big-league rotation. But just like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, his success didn’t last -- Britton managed just five starts of six innings or more and three runs allowed or less in his last 18 turns in 2011, putting him well on his way toward a new entry on the Orioles’ list of mound disappointments. But like every other expectation for an Orioles setback, it seemed to merely set the stage for this latest improbable bit of heroics.
Where the rotation woes of the Yankees or the Red Sox get featured prominently, the Orioles have been scrambling all season. Only Chinese import Wei-Yin Chen has lasted the season. Chen plus Britton, Hunter, former Mariners prospect Chris Tillman and journeyman Miguel Gonzalez represent the latest front-five confection in a rotation that has already had to use 10 starters. Every day, the four non-Chens are all pitching for their jobs, because Jason Hammel is on the mend and due back in another two weeks.
Contenders aren’t supposed to start TBD in three or four rotation slots this late in the season, are they? But this comes on top of their playing TBNL in left field. Davis was briefly their answer there, but so was Nolan Reimold, Endy Chavez, Xavier Avery and Steve Pearce. They’re down to a Nate McLouth-Lew Ford platoon that would be entirely plausible if we were talking about a contender -- in the International League.
All of which is part of what makes the Orioles so entertaining. As they scrape to keep pace with the Rays in the wild-card chase, it might be hard to call them the underdog, but that’s only if you keep your eyes peeled on payrolls. It’s easy to root for the Rays -- every statistically savvy smart kid goes fanboy on sabermetrics’ poster team. And they’re supposed to beat Baltimore -- they’re supposedly smarter, and stocked up on the really good players you already know, like Evan Longoria and David Price. And yet the Orioles still will not go away. Fun, ain’t it?
PHOTO OF THE DAY
1. While the eyes of the baseball world seem to be on every Red Sox-Yankees series, and this is again the ESPN Sunday Night matchup, more than 10 games separate these teams in the standings. Meanwhile out West, the Dodgers and Giants renew their long-time rivalry. Unless the Diamondbacks start figuring things out, it will be Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner starting a playoff game for the NL West champs -- or perhaps will start a playoff game due to the wild card. The Dodgers avoid Bumgarner this weekend, as well as inconsistent Tim Lincecum (you take a guess what he’ll do next outing). The last time these teams met the Dodgers did not score a run, quite literally: Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum helped the Giants outscore the Matt Kemp-less lineup 13-zip. Kemp is back now, Hanley Ramirez is here, too, and it should be more of a fair fight.
2. Say what you will about whether the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles will be legitimate contenders in September and therefore should be buying at the trade deadline, but naysayers will get a closer look when they meet at Camden Yards, each team firmly in the thick of the wild-card race. This is good for baseball! Oakland’s newfound offensive prowess is scheduled to be tested by Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and Wei-Yin Chen. Yeah, the Orioles could use a rotation upgrade or two.
3. While Oakland is 16-3 in July, the division-leading Texas Rangers are 8-10. Only Kansas City, the Mets and, of course, Houston have fewer wins this month. The Rangers host the Chicago White Sox, a team that lost all its games last weekend in Detroit, then won all three games when it came home to meet the terrible Twins. Are the White Sox a crew that can stick with the good teams? The White Sox don’t see the Tigers again until the last day of August, and this will be a big test against Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and, at least for now, a scheduled Roy Oswalt on Sunday night. The struggling Josh Hamilton, hitting a mere .194 since June 1 (what does Nolan Ryan think of that?), should enjoy Sunday’s game against Gavin Floyd, who he’s 8-for-13 against. Playoff preview, perhaps?
Three more stats to watch:
15-0, 2.89: Zack Greinke could be a former Milwaukee Brewer before his scheduled Sunday start against the Washington Nationals -- or even by the time you read this -- but those are his career numbers at Miller Park. Nothing to worry about for the team that acquires him, right?
4-0, 1.26: That’s the July combined win-loss record and ERA for Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, scheduled to pitch in Milwaukee Friday and Saturday. Then on Sunday it’s Gio Gonzalez! Good luck to the defending NL Central champ Brewers, on a six-game losing streak. Meanwhile, keep talking about Stephen Strasburg and innings limits all you want, but the Nationals have depth.
0-3, 10.42: And we end with Red Sox-Yankees. Jon Lester won two of three starts at Yankee Stadium last season, but with a 9.20 ERA. That ERA is still better than Lester’s numbers for this current July. Yeah, he’s struggling. The Yankees will also face Aaron Cook and Felix Doubront.
Have a great weekend!
"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?
The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.
So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.
These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.
Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.
So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.
(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)
There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)
Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)
I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)
Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)
Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)
Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)
Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)
Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)
No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.
No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)
Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?
No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)
I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?
No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)
Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.
No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)
Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.
No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)
Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)
If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.
OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:
Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points
Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
- It's a big day for the Royals as prized first-base prospect Eric Hosmer gets called up. Craig Brown at Royals Authority looks at the issues surrounding Hosmer's promotion, including his future arbitration status. I think, in the end, if a player is ready, he's ready. The Mariners had to leave spring training with Michael Pineda in their rotation because he was clearly one of their best pitchers. In the end, this game is still about winning and the Royals believe Hosmer will give them a better chance to do that. Look, I'm skeptical about the Royals' chances, even with the 17-14 start and even in the AL Central, but stranger things have happened.
- Our friends at Crashburn Alley and Capitol Avenue Club preview the big Philles-Braves series. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Phillies' next 20 games are against winning clubs, after an easy first 30 games. This will be an interesting stretch.
- I think a running theme this season will be the continuing decline on offense. Dave Cameron of ESPN Insider has another piece of the puzzle: The diminishing power numbers of left fielders, who are hitting a collectively awful .226/.298/.340.
- An interesting piece over at Baseball Prospectus if you're a Bill James fan: A professional statistician analyzes Bill James the statistician.
- Buster Olney suggests on Mike & Mike that Derek Jeter should volunteer to move down in the order. I wrote this the other day. The Rays are now only 1 game behind the Yankees and the pressure on Joe Girardi will continue to build unless Jeter, you know, actually hits a ball hard sometime soon.
- Baseball Time in Arlington wonders what the Rangers will do with their rotation once Tommy Hunter returns.
- Jerry Springer tells Page 2 how the Yankees saved his life. Yes, really.
- Great post from Uni Watch guru Paul Lukas on the Dodgers once wearing some funky spring training uniforms.
With that, here's a scroll through the American League with some of the latest injury updates:
Curtis Granderson and Pedro Feliciano, Yankees: Granderson has a strained oblique but thinks he'll be ready for the first series. Feliciano, who hasn't pitched since March 9, sounds less promising, as he'll remain behind in camp. Steve Garrison might win his spot on the roster.
Brian Matusz and Justin Duchscherer, Orioles: The lefty had to leave a minor league game on Monday after getting struck on the biceps with a line drive, but should be fine to make his first start on Saturday. Duchscherer will start the season on the DL with a strained hip that sidelined him most of last season, opening up rotation slots for Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen.
J.P. Howell, Rays: He's still on track to start pitching in the minor leagues in mid-April and hopefully reach the majors by early May.
Dayan Viciedo, White Sox: He fractured his thumb on March 10 after getting hit by a pitch. He'll stay behind in Arizona until he's ready.
Jake Peavy, White Sox: He is to pitch three innings in a minor league intrasquad game today and then stay behind in Arizona. Phil Humber will be the team's fifth starter until Peavy is ready.
Grady Sizemore, Indians: He'll start the season on the DL, making Michael Brantley the starting center fielder with Austin Kearns in left. The Indians have no timetable for Sizemore's return from knee surgery.
Justin Morneau, Twins: As of Monday, Morneau still hadn't been officially cleared by doctors to play Opening Day, but Morneau is hopeful he'll be ready.
Joe Nathan Twins: He hasn't pitched great this spring as he comes back from Tommy John surgery, but he passed a test by going two innings in one outing and pitching on back-to-back days. Still, Ron Gardenhire as indicated Matt Capps might be used in some save situations early on.
Kendrys Morales, Angels: He took batting practice Monday and will begin agility work on Tuesday. Mark Trumbo will begin the season as the team's first baseman.
Joel Pineiro, Angels: He might head to the DL with muscle soreness in his back, pushing his first start to April 8.
Andrew Bailey, A's: A strained right foreman has landed Bailey on the DL. He's also recovering from elbow surgery. No timetable on his return. Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour will share closer duties, according to manager Bob Geren.
Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners: He's likely to begin on the DL with a stomach ailment the team is still trying to diagnose. That leaves Michael Saunders and Ryan Langerhans as center field options.
Tommy Hunter and Brandon Webb, Rangers: The Rangers are having all kinds of issues with their pitching staff. Hunter is out at least six weeks with a strained groin while Webb is still in the midst of rehabbing his shoulder. A May return is the optimistic outlook. Meanwhile, C.J. Wilson left his last start with a tight hamstring and Arthur Rhodes has tendinitis in his wrist. Alexi Ogando appears to be the guy stepping in for Hunter.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
Feliz showed us last season just how dominant he could be out of the pen. He posted a 2.73 ERA and a 2.96 FIP while striking out 71 batters in 69.1 innings and walking only 18. He held opposing hitters to a very low 15 percent line drive rate while inducing the opposition to pop-up weakly to the infield on almost 17 percent of his balls in play (seventh best IFFB percent by a reliever in baseball, minimum 50 innings pitched).
Clearly, if Feliz could translate his bullpen success into the starting rotation, his value would be much higher. That, however, was going to be a tall order.
We've already established that Feliz was dominant in a one (sometimes two) inning(s) role, but what would happen if he had to throw more innings and go through an entire lineup several times?
In 2009, Feliz was at Triple-A being groomed as a starting pitcher, but the need arose for some help in the Texas bullpen. Feliz was converted to a reliever, and by August he was in the big leagues. Feliz has always had electric stuff, however -- just as many see Aroldis Chapman now -- Feliz lacked the command and control of an ace-level starter. As he reached the upper levels of minor league ball, that lack of refinement began to show as he posted a combined 3.9 BB/9 in Double- and Triple-A between 2008 and 2009. His control improved in 2009, but in large part due to his move to the bullpen after 13 Triple-A starts.
As a starter, Feliz would likely see a rise in walk rate, but the real issue is how his changeup would play in that role.
Feliz threw 1,072 pitches last season, 34 of which were changeups (this varies a bit based on what pitch f/x you chose, but the point remains). His change was also the least effective of his pitches, generating swings and misses only 8 percent of the time compared to his fastball and slider/curve, which produced whiff rates of around or more than 13 percent. If Feliz cannot develop his change, he may struggle as he tries to go deeper into games. A two-pitch pitcher can work in one-inning efforts, but as pitchers tend to lose their velocity and bite in extended innings, their effectiveness wears off -- not to mention that opposing hitters will have many more looks at all of his pitches.
This is not to say that Neftali Feliz can't become a very valuable starting pitcher someday, but he clearly needs more work in that role before taking such a big step. The Rangers, however, want to contend once again in 2011 and feel that the pieces to their rotation are more than solid. I may have some disagreements there.
C.J. Wilson, the Rangers' opening day starter, posted the 20th worst K/BB rate in baseball last season (minimum 150 IP) and his BABIP against was the 14th lowest in baseball. With a little less randomness (luck) in 2011, his results could very easily be a lot worse. And is no one concerned with the fact that he threw 131.1 more innings than his previous big-league career high (which was out of the pen in 2009)?
While I do like Colby Lewis to put up another solid season, it is going to be hard to count on Tommy Hunter and his K/9 of around five to win 13 games and post a sub 4.00 ERA again. Also, counting on a pitcher (Brandon Webb) who has missed almost two full seasons to come back and be his former self is hopeful at best. Derrek Holland has a chance to step up and be a big piece of the rotation, but overall there isn't as much depth as fans might think based on what happened in 2010.
Neftali Feliz has the stuff to be a shut-down pitcher in short-inning situations; there is little doubt about that. But apparently he doubts his role as a starter and rightfully so. However, by not at least trying to pitch in the rotation, he is ultimately less valuable to the Rangers in the long run. Bullpen arms come and go, but starting pitching can carry a team to glory. Just ask the Rangers themselves, who lost to the Giants and their shut-down starting rotation in the 2010 World Series.
Charlie Saponara writes for the SweetSpot Red Sox blog at Fire Brand of the American League as well as FantasyBaseball365.com and ProjectProspect.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
Now, even if the Rangers do advance to the American League Championship Series, Lee won't be available -- assuming the Rangers won't let him throw after anything except full rest -- until Game 3. Granted, by then he would have five days of rest and would figure to pitch even better than usual. And if the Rangers can extend the series, Lee would then be available to pitch Game 7 on four days' rest.
If the Rangers were willing to start Lee on short rest, he could have started Game 4 against the Rays, then Games 1, 4, and 7 against the Yankees. But that would have meant starting three times on short rest ... and Lee has never, not even once in his entire career, started on short rest.
Which is why I don't really buy the argument that Lee should have started today, because then he could have started Game 1 against the Yankees. Unless you completely chuck giving him normal rest most of the time, he's going to start just twice against the Yankees, and it doesn't matter a great deal whether he starts Games 1 and 5 or Games 3 and 7.
I think the more substantive argument is that if Lee had started Game 4 against the Rays, C.J. Wilson could have started Game 5. Obviously, under normal circumstances your chances are better with Lee and Wilson than with Tommy Hunter and Lee.
Most of us would guess, I think, that Lee on short rest is better than Hunter on full rest. But what about Lee on full rest versus Wilson on full rest? As good as Wilson is, isn't Lee better?
I will note, too, that Joe Maddon had almost exactly the same decision to make. ERA aside, David Price isn't Cliff Lee's equal. But Price is Tampa Bay's ace, yet Maddon didn't care to deploy him on short rest.
Conventional wisdom isn't always right. But the CW on this one is pretty well-established. You pitch your ace on short rest when A.) you're pretty sure he can do it, or B.) you're desperate.
In this case, neither condition applied. As someone else observed, there are only so many CC Sabathias. And Cliff Lee, for all his talents, probably isn't one of them.
- If ever it makes sense for Cliff Lee to lose his pitching-on-three-days’-rest virginity, to leap into that echelon of aces with enough mettle to test themselves and carry their team, it is now. The Texas Rangers will not ask him to, however, just like the Philadelphia Phillies wouldn’t last year, and that says all you need to know about how each team regards Lee.
The Rangers could have started Lee on short rest for Game 4 against Tampa Bay on Sunday and let him close out the series. If he didn’t, they would have C.J. Wilson – who threw 6S shutout innings in the series’ second game – on full rest for Game 5. And, most important, Lee could come back for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on full rest.
“There is not very many Sabathias out there,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
True enough. Lee just happens to be one of them.
Hunter is not. He dominated early in the season, then saw the league catch up to his mediocre stuff. Proponents will point to his 7-0 record and 3.06 ERA at Rangers Ballpark this season. They ignore that he has allowed 12 home runs here in 67T innings and that his fielding-independent pitching – a truer indicator of what he controlled, taking into account home runs, walks and strikeouts – is 4.87 at home. Moreover, the Rays view Hunter as eminently hittable. Never has he produced more than 11 swinging strikes in a game this season.
To summarize, Passan believes that either 1) the Rangers are foolish in not starting Lee on short rest, or 2) Lee doesn't have whatever it takes to pitch effectively on short rest. And if the latter is true, Lee's not worth the $25 million per season he'll be aiming for with his next contract. Or so Passan would argue, I think.
I'm not sure which of these is correct. If either.
I don't believe that Lee's inability or unwillingness or unenthusiasm about pitching on short rest significantly impacts his value. Sure, you could quantify the difference between a great pitcher who occasionally pitches on short rest in October and a great pitcher who doesn't. But that difference would be negligible. Maybe it knocks Lee's value from $25 million to $24.5 million. I doubt if the Rangers or the Yankees or whoever is going to worry much about a day's difference. You sign Cliff Lee because he's going to pitch brilliantly every fifth day for six months, and then again in October. You don't not sign him because he might not be available a couple of days in October.
And I'm not convinced the Rangers are foolish. Beginning on the 16th of August, Lee went through a four-start stretch in which he gave up 36 hits, including six home runs, in 23 innings. Granted, his strikeout-to-walk ratio remained brilliant, but he didn't seem quite himself. And after that fourth start, he didn't pitch again for nearly two weeks. In September, Lee's rest went 11 days, 5 days, 4 days, 6 days. In his last regular-season start, on six days' rest, he pitched seven innings, gave up one run, and struck out eight. In his first postseason start, on five days' rest, he pitched seven innings, gave up one run and struck out 10.
So it's not just that Lee thrives on regular rest. Lately he's been doing his best work on long rest. Which might explain why management's reluctant to start him on short rest. Just one month ago, Lee was suffering from a back injury that knocked him out for 12 days. Maybe it's just too soon to accuse anyone of foolishness or softness.
- Kevin Millwood hit his magic number Monday night when he got Oakland second baseman Mark Ellis to bounce into a double play in the fifth inning. The right-hander reached 180 innings to automatically earn a $12 million contract for next season and lock up a spot in the Rangers' 2010 rotation. After Millwood and 17-game winner Scott Feldman, though, there are no guarantees for the rotation.
Sure, Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland are strong candidates, but manager Ron Washington said that that rookie duo will have to earn a spot during spring training. "Once we get to spring training, everyone's going to be competing," he said. "Hunter and Holland, they've still got to compete. Doing good the first time around, the challenge comes the second time around to repeat."
Which I suppose is Washington's point.
Among the other candidates for next season's rotation: Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, Dustin Nippert, and Eric Hurley. Hurley has spent this season on the disabled list, and Harrison has joined him for much of the season. Nippert's 28, and has a 5.73 career ERA. This season's been his best, but he's still walked too many batters and given up too many home runs. Neftali Feliz. Well, we know about him, don't we? A starter during most of his professional career, Feliz has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen since joining the big club in August, and given up only 12 hits in 28 innings.
Feliz is even younger than Hunter and Holland, and one should not trifle with talent like his. Still, it's hard for me to imagine a winning rotation next season that doesn't include Feliz for at least half the season.