Commentary

Could be a September to remember

A rookie, a legend and a trio of strikeout artists on the verge of making history

Updated: September 1, 2012, 1:17 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Nobody loves a good nine-player, quarter-billion-dollar megatrade more than Rumblings and Grumblings. But this just in:

September is upon us. So enough with the trade rumors already.

One of the best things about September, in fact, is that it's the month when we finally get to tear our eyeballs away from the old transactions column and train them back on the field. And you know what? Out there on that field, some incredible, historic stuff is unfolding. No kidding.

So to help you refocus, Rumblings would like to direct your attention back toward five players you should be watching every second this September -- because they're traveling down a road few men have traveled before:

Mike Trout's Trifecta

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesHe can hit. He can run. He can play defense. That's why Mike Trout is MLB's overall WAR leader at 8.9.

There's barely enough room in cyberspace to keep track of all the historic feats Mike Trout has a chance to achieve. But here's one we've seen very little talk about:

He leads the American League in stolen bases. He leads the league in batting average. And he's just .001 point behind Josh Hamilton for the AL lead in slugging, after leading the league for much of this month.

So think about that. Could one player really be so multitalented that he could win a batting title, slugging title and stolen-base title in the same year? Oh, he could, all right. And if he does, Trout would be doing something no one else has done in … cue the percussion section, please … a mere 95 years.

Ready for the complete list of men who have led their league in those three departments in the same season? Here we go:

Ty Cobb -- in 1907, 1909, 1911 and 1917. And Honus Wagner -- in 1904, 1907 and 1908.

In other words, nobody in the live-ball era has done this. Nobody. And it's been 55 years since Willie Mays made the last serious run at it, leading the NL in steals and slugging in 1957, but finishing second to Stan Musial in the batting race.

And now along comes Mike Trout to give it a shot, as a rookie. At 21 years old. Nobody should be this great this young, friends. It's just not right.

Jeter and the .300/200 Club

The beautiful thing about baseball is that there's room for young and old. So what better transition than from Trout's historic season to Derek Jeter's historic season?

With 32 games left, The Captain is hitting .321 and finds himself only 24 hits from his eighth 200-hit season (and on pace for 219 hits) -- at 38 years old.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Jason Szenes/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter, 38, is batting .344 (65-189) with seven homers and 20 RBIs since the All-Star break.

So how many 38-year-old shortstops in history have hit .320 in a season? Only one. That aforementioned Honus Wagner, who apparently was pretty good.

Ah, but how many shortstops ever got 200 hits at that age? Not a one. Ever. So this is special territory for any shortstop in the alleged twilight of his career.

But then again, why confine this history lesson only to shortstops? No reason to do that, especially given that the list of players who have ever hit .320 with 200 hits, at any position, at age 38 or older, is almost as short as Jose Altuve.

There's Paul Molitor (.341/225) in 1996. There's Peter E. Rose (.331/208) in 1979. And that's it -- in the past 80 years.

But even if we go back in time another half-century, to the beginning of recorded big league history, we would add only two more names -- Sam Rice (.328./200 in 1928 and .349/207 in 1930) and Jake Daubert (.336/205 in 1922). And that's all. Quite a list.

Now, though, let's factor in Jeter's 14 home runs. And then let's ask: How many of the other four men in this group got to make that many home run trots? The correct answer? None of them. Of course. (Daubert's 12 leads that pack.)

So how amazing a season is this for the great Derek Jeter? Well, there's never been a season like it, if that's any indication. All he has to do now is finish it off in September. Which has always been the best month of his career (.862 September OPS). Want to doubt him? Feel free. But we wouldn't recommend it.

The Double-K Ranch

If you haven't perused the always-entertaining major league strikeout leaderboard lately, now would be a good time. Go ahead. Check it out. We'll wait.

Max Scherzer
Scherzer
Justin Verlander
Verlander

Well, now that you're back, did you notice something? The two pitchers who lead the big leagues in strikeouts happen to work for the same team. That would be Justin Verlander and his partner in swing-and-miss-ation, Max Scherzer, of your Detroit Tigers.

And, if they go on to pull off this quiniela, they'll be in rarefied territory. Since 1900, only five other sets of teammates have ranked 1-2 in the big leagues in strikeouts in the same season. Here's the group (and you've heard of them):

2003 Cubs -- Kerry Wood, Mark Prior
2001-02 Diamondbacks -- Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling
1976 Angels -- Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana
1962 Dodgers -- Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale
1930 Athletics -- Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw

So how about that for cool company? But if you'll zoom in a little closer, you'll detect something else: Just one of those deadly duos -- Ryan and Tanana -- rose to the top of that mountain while pitching in a league where pitchers didn't get to hit. In fact, Ryan-Tanana is the only set of AL teammates to pull this off in the past eight decades.

It's incredible to think that Bob Feller and Bob Lemon never did this. Or Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich. Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. Or even Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, for that matter.

But there's an excellent reason they never did it, obviously: It's really, really, really hard to do -- in any era. So appreciate just how dominant Verlander and Scherzer really are. And remember, that's one more reason the rest of the American League is pulling hard for the Tigers not to make the playoffs.

It's a Dunn deal

Finally, there's no history quite like Adam Dunn history. So let's take a look at just some of the historic magic the most unconventional player in baseball has a shot to unleash on us in the next month:

[+] EnlargeAdam Dunn
John Sleezer/Getty ImagesChasing the Double Crown: White Sox DH Adam Dunn leads the majors in home runs (38) and strikeouts (188).

Son of Kong: Once upon a time, in 1982, Dave Kingman managed to lead the National League in home runs (with 37) even though his batting average that season barely stayed north of Mendoza-ville (.204). Not surprisingly, that's the lowest average by any home run champ of all time. But now here we are, 30 years later, and our man Adam Dunn is leading the AL in homers (with 38), even though his batting average is also a spectacular .204 -- 63 points lower than Stephen Strasburg's average! So can the Big Donkey break Kong Kingman's record? Sounds like an arcade game waiting to happen.

.500 or bust: Another fascinating number on Dunn's slash line is this one: .484. That, friends, would be the slugging percentage of a man who leads his league in home runs and is on pace to bop 47 homers. If this keeps up, Dunn would be the fourth home run champ in the division-play era (but the first in 31 years) with a sub-.500 slugging percentage. (The others: Tony Armas in 1981, Graig Nettles in 1976 and Bill Melton in 1971.) So at least there's precedent for that. But only one player in history has ever slugged under .500 while hitting 40 or more home runs. Want to guess who that was? Right you are. Adam Dunn his own self (.490, in 2006). Who else?

Last inaction hero: As much fun as it might be to have an aspiring home run king on your roster, the other side of employing Adam Dunn is that there are going to be many, many trips to the plate where just about nothing happens. At this rate, Dunn has a shot to make 350 journeys to home plate this season in which the ball will never get put in play. (Current pace: 234 whiffs, 115 walks, 1 hit-by-pitch.) And who has ever done that? No one -- of course. The all-time record is 323, by Mark McGwire, in a 1998 season that's remembered for, well, other stuff. And if Dunn goes on to hit 50 homers, which is possible, he could become the first man to have a season of 400 trips to the plate where the ball never landed on the field. (McGwire had 393 in '98.) Let's just say Juan Pierre never had a season like that.

But the awesome part of Dunn's season, and the seasons of all these men, is that just about nobody has ever had a year like the years they're having. So let the September madness -- and the September history watch -- begin.

Ready to Rumble

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
AP Photo/David J. PhillipRoger Clemens, 50, reportedly will make his second start for the Sugar Land Skeeters on Sept. 7.

• Maybe you were one of the skeptics. Ho-ho-ho. Maybe you believed Roger Clemens just wanted to get back on the mound once and have some fun, and that's all. Maybe you thought this guy couldn't possibly be crazy enough to think he could pitch in the major leagues again. Yeah, sure. Now that we have word that Clemens plans to make a second trip to the mound in Sugar Land, is there any doubt anymore that that's exactly where this is leading?

Astros players have told their buddies on other teams they think it's already a "done deal" that Clemens will pitch in Houston once or twice this September. And an old friend of The Rocket told Rumblings that he is convinced Clemens is pointing toward the big leagues and "trying to find out what he's got left."

The same friend also shot down theories that Clemens is doing this to delay his Hall of Fame eligibility. This is about a guy who enjoys pitching, loves competing, thinks he can do this and wouldn't mind restoring some of his lost popularity -- in Texas, if nowhere else.

"He wants to be liked, and he's not right now," the friend said. "He's trying to win that back. And what he does best, or has always done best, is pitch. So I bet it happens. And I know he wants it to happen."

Dodgers

• The Dodgers started the season with a payroll that was approximately $80 million under the luxury tax. Now, in the wake of all their stunning wheelings and dealings, they've raised that payroll so much, they're in line to pay some luxury tax next season.

According to computations by baseball-reference.com, they're already on the hook for $181.3 million in salaries to 17 players for next season -- meaning they're $3.3 million over the $178 million threshold right now, before they even add in benefits payments and fill out the rest of their roster.

Asked this week whether he thought it was still possible for the Dodgers to get below that tax threshold by next season, team president Stan Kasten never broke a sweat.

"I don't know. It's not something we've focused on yet," he said. "To us, that's a secondary issue. First, we want to put the best team on the field now and worry about other things later. We're not focusing on that yet."

In the long term, the Dodgers' brass envisions itself as a scouting-and-player-development-based franchise (as opposed to a bunch of spend-a-holics) that expects to have "a payroll about what other teams in similar markets have as their payroll," Kasten said. But in the meantime, while they rebuild the system, this team also is committed to doing what it takes to compete right now. And that means money is virtually no object -- obviously.

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• Another fascinating issue that has welled up, in the wake of the Dodgers' latest deal, is the increasing disparity in local TV money that's now either flowing, or is about to flow, toward the wallets of the game's marquee franchises, versus everyone else.

Why were the Dodgers able to take on a quarter of a billion dollars in contracts in one trade? Easy. Because their new TV deal, which will get negotiated this winter, might turn out to be worth $3 billion over the next decade. And that's not something that's ever going to be possible in, say, Cleveland.

But as always, the only people who see this disparity as a problem are the teams that aren't hitting the TV lottery. The teams that are cashing in say that if this was a concern for the industry, it should have been addressed long ago.

"The Yankees have had this same kind of separation from the rest of the sport [in TV dollars] for a decade now," Kasten said. "So it's not a new issue."

Red Sox

• As the Red Sox mull what to do with all the money they just saved on their car insurance, the signal they've been sending to agents and to other teams is: They're in no hurry to spend all that money just because they have it to spend. After all, didn't they just learn that's a great way to get your club in trouble?

And that's not just a lesson their front office has learned. It's also a lesson their fans -- and their owners -- have learned. So they're actually under less pressure to throw $100 million-plus at Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke or anyone else than they've been at any point in the past decade.

Baseball men who have spoken with the Red Sox brass since the Crawford/Beckett/Gonzalez extravaganza predict they're more likely to make "creative" moves this winter than they are to sign a major free agent or take on a contract some other team wants to subtract (a la those of Joe Mauer, Cliff Lee, etc.).

"I can't see the Red Sox as a dumping ground," one AL exec said. "Not now. The [payroll] flexibility is too appealing."

Cliff Lee
Lee
Joe Mauer
Mauer

• And now a word that probably best describes both Joe Mauer and Cliff Lee: Staying.

An executive of one team that checked in with the Twins on Mauer characterized the waiver-deal talk surrounding him in the past week as "garbage." The bottom line, he said, is that "Joe Mauer's not going anywhere, not unless ownership says they have to move that money. And that's not happening right now."

As for Lee, there's no doubt the Phillies listened on him before the trading deadline and might listen on him again this winter. But they showed which way they were leaning when they had a chance to move all $95 million he had left on his contract when the Dodgers claimed him in August -- and showed next to no interest.

"Considering their financial restrictions and their other issues, particularly the age of their team, you would have thought they'd have at least looked into it," said an official of one big-market team. "So to me, the fact that they didn't push it very far says they're probably not moving him."

• Was Stephen Strasburg's rough start in Miami this week (5 innings pitched, 7 runs, 5 earned runs) the first sign of a guy who's feeling the wear and tear the Nationals are so wary of? One scout who was there says no: "More lack of focus than fatigue, I thought," he said. "His velocity was fine. He just didn't have that look you usually see, that says, 'I'm going to get you out. And I'm going to dominate.'"

• Finally, it's time for another edition of Rumblings' Back to the Future department. So once again this week, we asked an NL scout and an AL scout to predict what the future looks like for three players who have reached a crossroads in their careers:

Daisuke Matsuzaka: It's the last year of Dice-K's deal. And now that he's back off the disabled list, "the next five weeks will really help determine his future," the AL scout said. "If he still wants to play in the United States -- and I think he wants to stay -- and he proves he's healthy and he can perform at an adequate level over the next four or five weeks, he'd be a guy worth considering. Maybe he's not a guy you'd guarantee more than a year to. But his stuff is still good." And now the dissenting view from the NL scout: "I'll let somebody else take that gamble. The risk is too big for me right now."

Dan Haren: If Haren had been a free agent this past winter, he would have gotten a gigantic deal. But after a season filled with ups, downs and back issues, he looks like a one-year contract waiting to happen -- but also like a guy whose upside is still enticing. "There are major concerns with his velocity, and his stuff is not the same," the AL scout said. "So buyer beware. But on a one-year deal, with a limited commitment, I think people would look at him as a guy who's one year removed from a very good season, who'll pitch at 32 and doesn't walk anybody, and roll the dice. He might end up being a good gamble." The NL scout agreed, saying: "I'd take a shot."

Jeremy Guthrie: So who's the real Jeremy Guthrie, the guy who went 3-9, 6.35 for Colorado or the guy who allowed zero earned runs in three straight starts as a Royal? "He's an enigma," the NL scout said. "He still throws hard. And he's still got pretty good stuff. But he makes a lot of mistakes out over the plate. … But would I put him at the back end of a rotation for a year, with the way he takes the ball? Yes." The AL scout's verdict: "Maybe for a year, but I'm not a huge fan. I'd take my chances on Dice-K and Haren before I would on Jeremy Guthrie."

Tweets of the Week

• From the funniest baseball tweeter in America, the Batting Stance Guy, Gar Ryness (@BattingStanceG):

• It's always confusing when sports and politics collide, as comedian Matt Goldich (@MattGoldich) so brilliantly captured after Hurricane Isaac wreaked havoc with the political schedule on Monday:

Headliner of the Week

And this just in from those parody-headline geniuses at the Ironic Times:

50-YEAR-OLD ROGER CLEMENS POISED FOR RETURN TO MAJORS
And cryonics experts hope to have Ted Williams ready for the playoffs

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com