One of the craziest games of recent years took place on Monday, when the Phillies scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 6-5 lead, only to blow it in the ninth when Dan Uggla hit a grand slam for the Braves off Jake Diekman.

One reason it turned into a crazy game was Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon was unavailable, having pitched the three previous days, saving a 6-3 game, pitching an inning in a tie game and then saving a 4-3 lead on Sunday.

Ryne Sandberg certainly isn't unique in not using his closer for a fourth day in a row. Last season, only one relief pitchers pitched five days in a row -- Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers, on the final four days of the regular season and the tiebreaker game against the Rays. A reliever pitched four days in a row just 33 times and most of them weren't closers. The only closers to do it more than once were Edward Mujica and Joe Nathan.

Anyway, what I wonder: Is this something new, not using your closer four days in a row? Maybe not. The Captain's Blog tweeted this on Monday after I tweeted that Goose Gossage would have pitched four days in a row:



The Captain wasn't quite right. Gossage also pitched four days in a row, Sept. 5-8, 1980. Of course, as Gossage himself would be quick to point out, closers didn't just pitch the ninth inning back then. Gossage pitched two innings four times in those eight appearances (and in 1978 even had a seven-inning relief appearance).

Mike Marshall was another 1970s reliever. In 1974 he won the National League Cy Young Award for the Dodgers, pitching in 106 games and 208.1 innings. From May 17 through 24 that year he appeared eight days in a row, pitching a total of 14.2 innings. OK, Marshall was sort of a freak. So let's check a few other guys to see how often they pitched at least four days in a row:

Rollie Fingers: 7 (most: 6)
Bruce Sutter: 5 (most: 6)
Dan Quisenberry: 12 (most: 4)
Lee Smith: 12 (most: 6)
Dennis Ecksersley: 1 (most: 4)
Billy Wagner: 6 (most: 4)
Trevor Hoffman: 10 (most: 4)
Mariano Rivera: 4 (most: 4)
Jonathan Papelbon: 0

No real surprises here. Since total appearances for closers hasn't really changed much in 30 years it's not a big surprise that the '70s and '80s guys didn't pitch all that often four days in a row. Eckersley was clearly handled very carefully and as you can see, Papelbon has never done it (and, in fact, has appeared three days in a row just 19 times).

I think what has changed in recent seasons is managers announcing before a game that a reliever isn't available. I guess they want to stop the second-guessing before it can begin.

By the way, the record for most consecutive days (not games) pitched is Kent Tekulve, who pitched nine days in a row for the Phillies in 1987, giving up one run in 9.1 innings. He pitched in 90 games that year, totaling 105 innings. That wasn't even the biggest workload of his career. In 1978-79 with the Pirates, he pitched in 91 and 94 games and 135.1 and 134.1 innings.
The other day, SweetSpot TV co-host Eric Karabell said to me, "It seems like a third of managers are hitting their worst hitter first or second."

True or not? Well, here are some examples:
  • The impetus for our discussion was Tony Gwynn Jr., a career .245 hitter with no power who owns a career OPS+ of 75. After Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg benched Ben Revere for dropping two fly balls, Gywnn took over in center -- and took over Revere's leadoff spot for four games. Remember, Gwynn wasn't even in the majors last season.
  • When Toronto lost Maicer Izturis to an injury, the Jays called up Munenori Kawasaki. In his first game, he hit second, which sabermetricians will say is one of the spots you want your best hitter (second or fourth). So one day he's not good enough to be on the team, the next day manager John Gibbons hits him second. In over 400 career plate appearances, Kawasaki has hit .221/.307/.288. Instead of leaving Edwin Encarnacion batting fifth, why not just move everyone up? Jose Bautista second, Adam Lind third and Encarnacion fourth?
  • The Padres have hit Alexi Amarista second three times since Sunday. He hit a home run earlier in the season, but he's still a career .234 hitter with a .280 OBP and little power. On Monday, Amarista hit second, while Will Venable, a good hitter, batted eighth (against a right-hander, so no lefty in play for Venable). Venable is off to a bad start, but still ...
  • Xavier Nady hit cleanup for the Padres on Wednesday night, which maybe says more about the Padres than Bud Black. Nady was out of the majors last year after hitting .184 in 2012. The last time he had an OPS above league average was 2008. But, hey, lightning in a bottle or something, I guess.
  • B.J. Upton continues to hit second for the Braves, as Fredi Gonzalez pulls the opposite of Black and refuses to react to small sample sizes (Andrelton Simmons, off to a .333 start with no strikeouts, hit eighth Wednesday). Of course, there is last year's sample size for Upton to consider.
  • The Royals called up Johnny Giavotella last week for one game. He hit second.
  • Buck Showalter has hit Delmon Young second four times. Against a left-hander, I guess I could reluctantly accept that. But three of those games were against a right-hander. Young had a .293 OBP last year against righties. In 2012, it was .279. In 2011, it was .288. He also grounds into a fair number of double plays. But, hey, otherwise he's the perfect No. 2 hitter. (To be fair, Young probably isn't the worst hitter on the Orioles. Boy does that team have some OBP issues. They're third in the AL in batting average but 14th in OBP.)
  • When Michael Bourn started the year on the DL for Cleveland, Nyjer Morgan made the team. He hit leadoff seven games. He actually played well (.348), but when Bourn returned Morgan was sent down to the minors. Terry Francona did catch a little lightning there.
  • Bryan Price, of course, continues to hit Billy Hamilton leadoff. But he's not even the Reds' worst hitter right now: That's Zack Cozart and his .109 average. Plus, Price has moved Joey Votto up to the No. 2 spot, so he deserves credit for a solid sabermetric-approved decision there.
  • The Marlins have hit Adeiny Hechavarria first or second five times in 16 games.
  • Derek Jeter has hit leadoff once and second 10 times. (I kid, I kid!)


Look, it's early and these are just a few scattershot examples. If Upton continues to hit .180 and Simmons .300, Gonzalez will make a change soon enough. None of these are Alcides Escobar-type situations yet, when Ned Yost was still hitting Escobar second into July last season despite a sub-.280 OBP.

Still, with all the information that front offices use -- and some of that has filtered down to the field level (such as all the shifting that now takes place) -- it's still strange that managers continue to muck up the batting order or overreact to a few games. The odd thing is most managers probably obsess over this as much as any part of their job. I still think they're too beholden to the conventional approach of a fast guy hitting leadoff and then your two best hitters batting third and fourth. Because usually want a decent hitter following their two best hitters, that often leaves a mediocre guy batting second.

The other problem? There just aren't enough good hitters these days to fill out a perfect lineup card.
There were 15 games played Wednesday. One-third of those games featured a shutout. Teams hit a collective .220 and averaged 2.8 runs per game. The Cubs played a doubleheader and didn't score a run, the first time that has happened since 1962 (the Cubs lost 103 games that year). Felix Hernandez allowed one run and didn't win, the 17th time since 2010 he's pitched at least seven innings, allowed one run or fewer and didn't get the W. Cliff Lee allowed one run and fanned 13 and didn't win. The highest-scoring games featured just 10 runs and both went extra innings, and one was decided when a utility infielder had to pitch.

So, yes, just another day of baseball. Quick thoughts ...
  • The Red Sox beat the White Sox 6-4, scoring twice in the 14th inning off infielder Leury Garcia. I'd say the 14th inning is a little early to run out of relievers, especially when your starter goes six innings. The White Sox were nursing a 4-2 lead in the eighth, but manager Robin Ventura burned through four relievers in getting just three outs as Boston scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth. Ventura was trying to match up and brought in lefties Scott Downs and Donnie Veal to face one batter, which led to a thin bullpen in extra innings. Rather than try to get a fourth inning out of Daniel Webb (who had thrown 59 pitches) or use a starter in relief, Ventura used Garcia. The White Sox bullpen has an MLB-worst 6.38 ERA and the bullpen walked 11 batters in this game. It was a concern heading into the season, and Doug Padilla writes that changes could be in order.
  • Julio Teheran continues to impress despite low strikeout totals. He beat Lee 1-0 with a three-hit shutout with just four strikeouts. Teheran threw 23 changeups (22 to left-handers), after having thrown only 15 in his first three starts. It worked as the Phillies went 0-for-6 against it. Teheran has only 13 strikeouts in 28 innings, but has allowed only four extra-base hits and walked six. The impressive thing about Wednesday's effort was going back out there in the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With Craig Kimbrel still day to day with a sore shoulder, Fredi Gonzalez even left Teheran in to face Chase Utley after Jimmy Rollins had singled (and stole second with two outs). Utley grounded a 3-1 sinker to second, Teheran's 115th pitch. Compare that to Lloyd McClendon, who pulled Hernandez in the eighth inning after 96 pitches and saw his bullpen and defense lose it in the ninth.
  • It's only three starts, but Masahiro Tanaka looks like a No. 1 to me. OK, it was the Cubs. And the Cubs can't hit (Michael Pineda & Co. shut them out in the nightcap). Still, that splitter is a wipeout pitch. Maybe hitters will learn to lay off it, but as Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara showed last season, hitters can't lay off it, even when they know it's coming. Tanaka has 28 strikeouts through three starts. Since 1900, only Stephen Strasburg and J.R. Richard had more strikeouts in their first three career starts.
  • Johnny Cueto had a brilliant three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout for the Reds over the Pirates, giving Cincinnati its first series win of 2014. Keep an eye on Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, however. Clint Hurdle didn't start him as he had struck out three times in each of the previous two games and now has 24 in 68 plate appearances (35 percent strikeout rate). He's hitting .250/.338/.383, but all the K's are becoming a concern. The Pirates need him to be more than just a great defensive left fielder; they need him to hit or this offense is really going to struggle to score runs.
  • Jose Fernandez, after getting roughed up and struggling with his command in his last start, was cruising along into the sixth inning against the Nationals with a 3-0 lead, having allowed only one hit with six punchouts. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrible play with pitcher Tanner Roark bunting. The bunt was short and in front of the plate and while Salty had a possible play at third, with a 3-0 lead you just take the out at first. He threw wildly and everyone was safe. After a strikeout and infield pop out, Fernandez should have been out of the inning. Instead, Jayson Werth did this, lining an 0-1 fastball down the middle just over the fence in right-center (the review confirmed it was a home run). Fernandez ended up with 10 K's in seven innings, but the Nationals won it with three in the eighth.
  • Big win for the Angels to avoid a sweep to the A's. A night after tying it in the ninth but losing in extra innings, the Angels again tied it in the bottom of the ninth and this time won in extra innings, on Chris Iannetta's 12th-inning walk-off homer against Drew Pomeranz. Mike Trout, who homered Tuesday to tie it, got the tying rally started with a base hit. Losing leads in the ninth is always wrenching, but especially so against a division rival. The Mariners lost to the Rangers in similar fashion (Jeff Sullivan writes it as only a Mariners fan can: Baseball's back).
  • Buster Olney wrote on George Springer's major league debut for the Astros. Springer went 1-for-5 with a dribbler for a base hit, a walk and two strikeouts in the Astros' 6-4 loss to the Royals in 11 innings. He also got picked off (one of two Astros to get picked off). The Royals won despite making four errors. Some game there. The Astros, by the way, are hitting .189.
  • Injury watch: Cardinals starter Joe Kelly is likely headed to the DL after pulling his hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit; Hanley Ramirez left the game after getting hit on his hand, but X-rays were negative and he's day-to-day; Kole Calhoun is out 4-6 weeks for the Angels after spraining a ligament in his ankle (J.B. Shuck hit leadoff in his place last night).
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We don’t see these matchups as often you may expect, ace versus ace, best in the game versus best in the game. For the third time in their careers, Felix Hernandez faced Yu Darvish. The first two battles, both in 2012, went to King Felix: He allowed one run in eight innings and then pitched a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem, as Darvish struggled in both outings.

Let's follow along with a running diary of the Texas Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

First inning

You certainly have to expect a low-scoring game. Darvish hasn’t allowed a run in his first two starts and faces a Seattle lineup that has been shut out in three of its past six games. Hernandez has allowed six runs in his three starts with an impressive 30-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/Brandon Wade
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect pitcher’s build, but if I could sculpt a pitcher out of Italian marble, he would look like Darvish -- tall and lean with a regal appearance, his uniform tailored perfectly. It’s a small data sample, but Darvish may be making one major change to his approach from last season, throwing more four-seam fastballs and fewer cutters. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Darvish threw 35 percent fastballs last year and 16 percent cutters. Through his first two starts, those numbers were 61 and 4. This makes sense; the cutter was his weakest pitch last year as opponents hit .271/.357/.500 against it. If he can command the four-seamer, he can ditch the cutter considering he still has his slider and curveball as wipeout pitches (plus an occasional splitter and even a big slow curve).

After a scoreless top of the inning, Hernandez takes the mound, top two buttons undone, pants legs down over the top of his shoelaces, his upper lip unshaven and a scraggly fluff of hair sprouting from his chin. Hernandez’s best weapon has been his changeup; batters are 2-for-27 against it with 18 strikeouts. It has been so good that he’s thrown it 28 percent of the time, up from 19 percent in 2013.

* * * *

Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal faced each other just four times, which seems odd to me. Marichal and Koufax were both starters from 1961 to 1966 and the Dodgers and Giants played each other 18 times a season back then, so you’d think they would have matched up more often. You’d maybe even expect the managers to purposely arrange their rotations for their aces to square off. Koufax pitched 26 times against the Giants over those six seasons and Marichal faced the Dodgers 30 times (remarkably, he never allowed more than four runs in those starts), so odds were they should have faced each other a few more times.

In the four games they did pitch against each other, Marichal didn’t even get an official plate appearance in two of them. Once, Koufax got knocked out in the first inning before Marichal hit. Another game -- the last time the two started against each other -- was Aug. 22, 1965, the infamous game when Marichal attacked Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro.

Koufax faced Bob Gibson five times, and they had some great duels. Twice, Koufax beat Gibson 1-0. He pitched a third shutout in another game.

Second inning

Nick Franklin, just called up from Tacoma, lines a first-pitch cutter into right-center for a one-out triple. Darvish strikes out Justin Smoak on a 1-2 fastball out of the strike zone but then works carefully to Dustin Ackley, walking him to face the right-handed Mike Zunino. Darvish starts out with a 94-mph fastball that Zunino takes for a strike, but the 0-1 pitch is a hanging slider in the middle of the plate and Zunino lines a soft single to center. Right pitch, bad execution. Abraham Almonte then plates Ackley, lining a 1-1 fastball into left field to make it 2-0.

Fourth inning

While Hernandez is sailing along through three innings (he started eight of the first nine batters with strikes), Darvish finds himself in a jam, thanks to some shaky defense. Justin Smoak singles past the statuesque Prince Fielder and then Zunino reaches when outfielders Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo miscommunicate on a fly ball. Almonte strikes out. Brad Miller gets ahead in the count 2-1, Darvish gets a gift call on a 2-1 curve that looks outside and then appears to strike out Miller on a good heater on the inside corner. But plate ump Ted Barrett calls it a ball to the displeasure of Darvish. The 3-2 pitch is a slider that Miller sends routinely to right field.

* * * *

Roger Clemens reached the majors in 1984, Randy Johnson in 1988. They were both in the American League through 1998 and in the National League in 2004, but they faced each other only twice, in 1992 and 1994. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez started just three times against each other, once in 1994 and twice in 1995, during Maddux’s apex. He tossed shutouts in two of those games.

According to research by RetroSheet researcher Tom Ruane, the two pitchers who faced off most often in their careers were Jim McCormick and Mickey Welch, who battled 40 times between 1880 and 1887. Since 1900, the most common matchup was between Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Three-Finger Brown, with 23. Brown’s Cubs beat Mathewson’s Giants 12 times to 11. Since World War II, it’s Warren Spahn and Bob Friend, with 21 games.

Two other Hall of Famers who pitched regularly against each other were Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, with 17 duels between 1970 and 1983. And duel they did. On Sept. 24, 1972 -- the year Carlton went 27-10 with an awful Phillies team -- Seaver beat Carlton 2-1, the game decided in the eighth on an unearned run. On Opening Day 1973, Seaver won 3-0 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. On Opening Day 1975, Seaver beat him 2-1, the winning scoring in the bottom of the ninth. In September of 1976, Seaver won 1-0 with a four-hit shutout.

If you’re getting the idea that Seaver had Carlton’s number, it’s kind of true. Or he had the Phillies’ number. The first nine times they faced each other, Seaver went 8-0 with a no-decision. Carlton always pitched well, but Seaver seemed to bring his best stuff. Carlton did finally beat him three times, but overall Seaver went 11-3 with a 2.74 ERA while Carlton went 3-12 with a 2.77 ERA (Seaver had two blow-up starts that raised his ERA). The last time they met was Opening Day 1983. Seaver had returned to the Mets after his exile to Cincinnati, where he had gone 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA in 1982. But the game was at Shea Stadium. Of course Seaver had to start. He tossed six scoreless innings. The Mets won 2-0.

Sixth inning

Darvish has settled down after some early issues with baserunners but he also ran up his pitch count. Meanwhile, the King is dealing, with eight strikeouts and three hits through six. While Darvish has thrown 98 pitches through six, Felix is at 79 (55 for strikes).

If you want a good lesson on what makes Hernandez so good -- and especially so good early on this year -- is that he can throw all four of his pitches on any count. So what has Hernandez done Wednesday night? All eight of his strikeouts have come on fastballs, at least according to MLB.com -- five four-seamers and three two-seamers. The guy is amazing.

(The MLB GameDay system I’m checking could be misidentifying some of his changeups as two-seam sinkers -- you know, because who else throws a changeup that’s only a couple miles per hour slower than his fastball. Readers on Twitter say several of the strikeouts were changeups, which is probably the case. We'll see what the data says after the game.)

Seventh inning

In what’s probably his final inning, Darvish cruises with a 1-2-3 frame, including his eighth strikeout. Solid effort for Darvish on a night he didn’t appear to have his A stuff. The one pitch he’d like to have back was that slider to Zunino.

Hernandez racks up his ninth strikeout, getting Kevin Kouzmanoff on another fastball, although at 88 mph it may have been another changeup.

Eighth inning

Darvish is done, and so is Hernandez after giving up a leadoff triple to Martin. I’m a little surprised at the hook since Hernandez is only at 96 pitches and has kept the Rangers off-balance all night. Felix did not look too happy when Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon took the ball from him, that’s for sure. You know this is the kind of game he at least wants to get the ball into the hands of closer Fernando Rodney.

The Rangers score a run on a sacrifice fly but Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina escape without further damage.

* * * *

In 1959, Lew Burdette and Robin Roberts faced off seven times, the last time two pitchers started that many times against each other in one season. Only one of them was much of a deal, Roberts winning 2-1 on July 4 as he scattered eight hits in a complete game. Another fun piece of data from Tom Ruane: Babe Ruth faced Walter Johnson five times in 1916. There were just 18 runs scored in those five games. How would you like to find a time machine and go watch one those matchups?

Ninth inning

Stop reading, Mariners fans. Rodney on for the save. Two quick outs. Kouzmanoff with a grounder to Miller's left that he dives for but can't corral it. He was shaded way in the hole and had a long ways to go, so it was not an easy play. Rodney falls behind Mitch Moreland with two balls, sending McClendon out to the mound (probably telling him to be careful with Moreland since light-hitting Josh Wilson is on deck). Moreland walks on a 3-2 pitch. Donnie Murphy bats for Wilson and hits a routine grounder right to Miller, who tosses the ball high to Robinson Cano at second base, pulling him off the bag. Everybody safe. Wild pitch. Game tied. Martin with a soft single to left. Game over.

What can I say? In what should have been a final sentence exclaiming the brilliance of Felix Hernandez we're instead left saying poor Felix.
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We have a good one tonight: Felix Hernandez versus Yu Darvish in Texas. With that matchup in mind, Eric and myself discuss the pitching matchups we'd most like to see.

Hernandez and Darvish have met just twice, both in 2012, and King Felix dominated both times. On May 21, he allowed one run in eight innings while Darvish exited early after walking six batters in four innings. On July 14, Hernandez shut out the Rangers 7-0 with a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance. That's the second-highest Game Score of Hernandez's career, behind only his perfect game against Tampa Bay later that season.

Considering the way both pitchers are going right now -- Hernandez has allowed six runs in three starts and owns a 30-2 strikeout/walk ratio and Darvish hasn't allowed a run in two starts -- and the fact that the Mariners have been shut out three times in their past six games and the Rangers have scored one run in three of their past five, we should expect a low-scoring game.

Which means, of course, we'll probably have an 8-7 final.
Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons hasn't struck out yet in 45 plate appearances. He's also yet to commit to an error. Have I mentioned that I love Simmons?

This won't keep up, of course. At some point he'll face Jose Fernandez and Fernandez will throw a 3-2 slider that will break from behind Simmons' rear end to the opposite side of the batter's box and Simmons will flail helplessly and wonder how somebody can throw a cowhide-covered piece of cork and yarn like it's a Wiffleball.

Still, it raises the fun idea: Is it possible for a player to have more errors in a season than strikeouts? In this day and age, with strikeouts in abundance and errors down, it's a difficult ratio to achieve. (Simmons had 14 errors last year while striking out 55 times.) But not impossible. In the past 10 seasons, four players have fanned 30 or fewer times in a season of at least 502 plate appearances: Jeff Keppinger (2008), Placido Polanco (2005 and 2007), Nomar Garciaparra (2006) and A.J. Pierzynski (2004). Marco Scutaro had the lowest total last year with 34 K's in 547 PAs.

Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez has led the majors in errors each of the past two seasons with 27. Ian Desmond committed 34 in 2010. Mark Reynolds, when he was playing third base, had two 30-error seasons. Garciaparra had a 25-error season in 2002 (alas, he struck out 63 times that year). So we just need somebody with Scutaro's contact ability and Alvarez's hands.

Diane Firstman of the Value Over Replacement Grit blog did more research on the topic and discovered the "record" since divisional play began in 1969 is nine more errors than strikeouts, by Gary Sutherland, who had 21 errors and 12 strikeouts in 1971, and Felix Fermin, who had 23 errors and 14 strikeouts in 1993.

She also found the all-time leader in this area. Check her blog for more info!
Mike Trout hit a two-run game-tying home run in the ninth inning on Tuesday night.

A less dramatic play came in the 11th when Trout reached on an infield single and stole second base -- his first steal of the season. After Albert Pujols was intentionally walked -- yes, the A’s put the winning run on base -- Raul Ibanez and Howie Kendrick grounded out and the A’s won 10-9.

Back in spring training, Trout said he wanted to get back to stealing more bases, after he dropped from 49 in 2012 to 33 in 2013. "I thought my stolen bases were down last year," he said. "I have to take advantage of taking that extra base."

Tuesday’s stolen base was his first attempt of the year. While the lack of stolen bases is certainly frustrating to his fantasy owners, Trout’s baserunning has also been a significant part of his value. Over the past two seasons, Baseball-Reference rates his baserunning -- including stolen bases, caught stealing and advancing on hits or fly balls and so on -- as worth 12.9 runs above the average player. Jacoby Ellsbury, at 10.4, was the only other player above 10 runs.

Another way to examine this is by looking at potential stolen base opportunities. In 2012, he had 246 opportunities when he was on first base or second with the base ahead of him open. He attempted 54 steals (22 percent of the time). In 2013, he had 40 attempts out of 326 opportunities (12 percent). This year, he’s one of out 21.

Is Trout’s speed already declining at age 22? I wouldn’t go that far just yet. In 2012, he did take the extra base (more than one base on a single, more than two on double) 65 percent of the time and that was down to 59 percent in 2013. So far in 2014, that number is at 100 percent.

Trout has hit second and Pujols third in all 14 Angels games and I wonder if Trout has seen the stop sign from Mike Scioscia in order to not force Pujols to take pitches and get down in the count. A similar thing happened last year. Trout spent most of April hitting second in front of Pujols and had just one stolen base through his first 16 games. (A quick Google search didn’t find any revealing quotes from Trout on his lack of steals thus far.)

It could just be that Trout doesn’t like to run as much in April. Of course, when you’re hitting doubles (3), triples (1) and home runs (5) there’s not as much need to steal a bag anyway.
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Eric and myself talk about the underrated Carlos Gomez and the Brewers' hot start.

Reds' Leake, Frazier have big parts to play

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:14
AM ET


When you look at the Reds and Pirates, it’s easy to get caught up in the big stars: Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto, both National League MVPs, both leading candidates for the face of the game, both of them engines to power the possible in two NL Central cities with postseason expectations. But after completing Monday’s slugfest and then seeing Mike Leake outpitch Pirates ace apparent Gerrit Cole on Tuesday night, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot more to both ballclubs.

If either team is going to make it to October, they’ll need more than just Votto or McCutchen doing their thing, so perhaps the most interesting things to take from two bruising boxscores were the performances of some of the other guys. A big part of any Reds’ bid to contend is going to be their getting big years from that young, sturdy rotation, and whether Leake can repeat last year’s breakout season is a big part of that.

So far, the indications are strong that he’s going to be able to continue beating people with that big sinker-change combo that started coming together for him last season after he worked hard to add a changeup to his repertoire in the spring. Beyond eight strikeouts Leake got nine ground-ball outs on Tuesday against just three in the air, a nice encore after a 17-5 grounder/fly split in his eight shutout innings against the Cardinals last time out. Short right-handers without a big fastball may never be reliably popular, but if Leake keeps inducing ground-ball outs at this rate, the Gap’s fences will end up seeming that much farther away. Add in his outshining Cole, and it had to be an especially satisfying game for Reds fans.

Another nice development for Cincinnati? Seeing Jonathan Broxton nail down his first save of the season. Not that we should get too worked up about it -- the Broxton bandwagon might only come in a subcompact after several disappointing seasons since his Dodgers heyday -- but with so many teams struggling to find a serviceable guy to finish games, if Broxton can be adequate for a couple months, or even split the gig with Sean Marshall until Aroldis Chapman comes back, they could be better off than many teams with bigger names blowing ballgames in the ninth.
[+] EnlargeTodd Frazier
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTodd Frazier celebrates mashing his fifth home run of the season.

The other guys worth following closely in the early going were part of the reason why there so many crooked numbers in both boxscores. That’s because they both might have some breakout potential in them: Reds third baseman Todd Frazier and Pirates second baseman Neil Walker.

Frazier's happy news was his clouting the sixth-inning two-run homer to right field off Cole that gave the Reds the lead (cemented by Leake's two-run blast). It was his fourth homer of the year, a great start for a guy looking to forget his 2013, not to mention his epic collapse in September 2012. Not that it took much, but Frazier is already one of the most reliable righty power sources in the brief history of the Great American Ballpark since it opened for business in 2003. Among right-handed hitters with 500 or more career at-bats in the Gap, he’s fifth all-time in slugging percentage (.467) and Isolated Power (.210), trailing Rich Aurilia, Scott Rolen, Jonny Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion -- none of them still with the Reds. (Heck, Aurilia and Rolen are both out of baseball.) And while Brandon Phillips has lost sixty points of slugging when he’s hitting anywhere but in his home park (.463 home, .402 everywhere else), Frazier’s career .186 ISO on the road reflects a power stroke that should play anywhere.

Thanks to his hot start, if Frazier can put up something more like the .500 SLG he almost delivered as a rookie, he’s going to be a more important part of the Reds’ offense batting behind Votto and Phillips and Jay Bruce than headline hog Billy Hamilton will ever be starting in front of them. Indeed, as Mark Simon noted earlier today, Bruce is fighting a war of adjustments he isn’t winning early as infields shift heavily against him, while Phillips is being Phillips. The guy who might be able to step up for the Reds is Frazier.

As for the Pirates' Walker, they know something about anticipation too. In the broad strokes, you might wonder what happened to him after his rookie season in 2010, when he put up an .811 OPS. In the three years since, he’s bounced around on a slightly lower level, from .742 to .768 to .757, all good seasons, all reflecting a good player, but all that notch below his big rookie season and the expectations you might have spun from it. It’s the difference between a good player and the second star player the Pirates don’t really seem to have in their lineup beyond McCutchen. It’s the kind of seeming stability that encouraged a projected .748 OPS for him from Dan Szymborski before the season.

However, not that Walker is on a tear after ripping three home runs in his last two game, it’s worth identifying trends in his performance record that can make you think that maybe he’s just now putting it all together. Last year, his walk rate went past nine percent for the first time. His .167 Isolated Power in 2013 matched that of his career high from his rookie season. If not for a 50-point tumble in BABIP that same season, we might have been talking about a guy coming off a classic age-27 peak season last year. Instead, we got those aggregate numbers over the past three years that make it seem as if he’s been standing in place.

Which is a long way of saying we’re little more than two weeks into what should be an exciting season in the NL Central, and there’s a lot to look forward to.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Today is Jackie Robinson Day across Major League Baseball, when the sport honors Robinson's legacy.

When this date arrives each season -- this year is the 67th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers -- I'm always reminded of my father-in-law's love of Robinson. He was born and grew up in Brooklyn, a Dodgers fan during their heyday in the '40s and '50s. Robinson was his favorite player and he always tells me, "There was nothing like seeing Jackie dancing around on the bases. You couldn't keep your eyes off him." He's still a baseball fan but says no player has ever matched the excitement Robinson brought to the diamond.

That's also a reminder that Robinson was a great player. We remember him as a trail blazer, but we often overlook his ability on the field. Robinson was 28 when he reached the majors and played through age 37. In those 10 seasons he accumulated 61.5 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com. That total is 16th-highest among all position players since 1901.

Paul Lukas has a fascinating piece today on his Uni Watch blog titled "Decades Before Jackie." Paul has a photo of two African Americans from 1923 wearing New York Giants jerseys. Fans? Hardly. Paul writes:
Those two guys are Waller Irvin and Emmett Parker, who were hired as trainers for the New York Giants in 1923. That photo was taken during spring training of '23, and they appear to be wearing the Giants' 1922 home jerseys (although Irvin's was apparently modified to look more like a dress shirt, complete with a collar and sleeve cuffs).

When reader Bruce Menard showed me this photo last week, I initially thought these must have been Negro Leagues trainers. But no -- they worked for the New York baseball Giants. Here's a Palm Beach Post article about Parker being hired by the Giants, and you can see Parker and Irvin in this 1923 Giants team portrait.


The rest of Paul's piece details the history of African American trainers in the majors, decades before Robinson donned his Dodgers jersey. As Paul writes, "So as we celebrate Jackie Day, let’s remember these trainers, who are part of the larger story about blacks and baseball."
Well, needless to say we talked about Dan Uggla in Tuesday's chat. Braves and Nationals fans got into a heated war of worlds. We discussed instant replay. Plus Miguel Cabrera's slow start, Mike Trout's lack of steal, whether pitchers are cheating and much, much more!
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The Arizona Diamondbacks called up a starter from the minors to replace the struggling Trevor Cahill and it wasn't top prospect Archie Bradley. Eric and myself discuss.

Early trends: Bruce, Fielder, Rizzo, Heyward

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:30
PM ET
We've reached the point in the season where the first calls are coming into sports-talk radio. You know the kind. The ones that say "Bench (fill in the blank), he's terrible" or "(fill in the blank) is finally going to be a star."

But there are usually explanations for these small-sample spikes or sputters, the most common of which is "It's early!"

Nonetheless, some trends are starting to emerge. We'll see how long-lasting these are.

Jay Bruce
Bruce has been a victim of infield shifts this season.

He's 0-for-9 when hitting a groundball against a defensive shift and you can see from his spray chart that he's already got a fair number of outfield ground outs.

Bruce is a good example of someone for whom shifts have contributed to frustration in a number of areas.

Over the last five seasons, his batting average on groundballs has sunk from .314 to .275 to .205 to .185 to its current 1-for-14. That's what happens when you pull 71 percent of your groundballs, as he has this season.

Prince Fielder
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.

But his issue isn't with pulled balls, it's with getting the ball through the middle of the diamond.

Fielder is 3-for-18 when hitting a grounder or soft liner against shifts. He's 0-for-9 on the ground balls hit between where the second baseman and shortstop would typically play, as since they've shifted slightly, they're in ideal position to field his ground balls. Last season, on balls hit to those same locations he was 21-for-78 (.269).

Anthony Rizzo
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is off to a good start after a 2013 in which his numbers never reached anything near the expectation level the Cubs had for him.


Anthony Rizzo got a base hit on this pitch against the Pirates last week.
Rizzo is hitting .319 in his first 47 at-bats and he can thank his duck snorts for that start.

Rizzo is 10-for-33 on balls classified as either softly-hit or medium-hit after batting .156 when hitting those same types of balls last season.

The classic example of that is this -- Rizzo reached out and got a base hit on a pitch that was thrown to the spot noted in the image on the right. Those hits make a big difference in the numbers this early in the season.

Jason Heyward
Last season, Victor Martinez of the Tigers got off to a slow start. But there was reason to believe that Martinez's performance would eventually catch up with how often he was hitting the ball hard (a lot) and it did.

This year, it looks like Jason Heyward is headed down the Martinez path.




Heyward is hitting .160 and is 4-for-11 when hitting a ball that our video-tracking system classifies as hard hit. Over the previous two seasons, Heyward hit .746 and .718 on his hard-hit balls.

Heyward is 0-for-15 in 2014 when hitting a fly ball that doesn't go out of the ballpark. That includes a pair of well-muscled fly balls that found gloves against the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.

He's also 1-for-11 on his groundballs despite not being regularly shifted against and that might be a little misleading since he has reached base twice on errors (had those been scored hits, his batting average would have jumped 40 points).

Matt Wieters
At least for two weeks, Wieters has used the center of the field as his primary means for reaching base. From 2011 to 2013, Wieters pulled 43 percent of the balls he put in play and hit 28 percent of them to center field. This season, he’s reversed those numbers, pulling 29 percent and centering 41 percent.

The result of that has been more line drives. Last year, Wieters totaled 15 line drives to center field as a left-handed hitter. In the first two weeks of the season, he’s already got seven. The effort to pull the ball less often is a route that Torii Hunter went last season with modest success. We'll see if Wieters has made the adjustment or if it's just temporary results.

Official Rules: 2.00 Definition of Terms

A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.


Italics are mine. You think you know what a catch is? Here's a play from Monday night, with Rangers catcher J.P. Arencibia trying to turn a 1-2-3 double play. He appears to catch the ball and then drop it while making the transfer to his throwing hand. Home plate umpire Paul Schreiber initially called the baserunner out. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon appealed the play and after a four-minute instant replay delay, the call was overturned and Dustin Ackley ruled safe. Rangers manager Ron Washington came out to argue and was ejected.

The new definition of a catch emphasizes secure possession. A fielder must display secure possession when transferring the ball to his throwing hand. In the past, when a fielder dropped the ball after making a catch or turning a double play, it was almost always ruled an out. Last season, there's no doubt Arencibia's play would have been ruled as an out at home, as Schreiber initially called it. The controversy here isn't just that instant replay changed the call but that umpires -- and players and managers -- are still trying to adjust to this new definition of a catch.

Here's a play from a Mariners game Saturday, as Ackley drops the ball while making the transfer. Here's another one from the same game: Ackley appears to make a diving catch in left-center only to again drop the ball on the transfer.

Here's where things got really confusing, however: By the new emphasis of secure possession, neither play was a catch. On both plays, however, an A's baserunner was called out because of the confusion over whether a catch was made. On the first one, the batter, Yoenis Cespedes, left the field thinking Ackley had made the catch. On the second, the runner on first, Josh Donaldson, wasn't sure what happened and returned to first base. While it was ruled that Ackley hadn't made the catch, Brandon Moss, the batter, was called out for passing Donaldson on the basepath.

The secure possession rule was invoked for infielders turning double plays or even the Arencibia type of play at home. But Donaldson explained to MLB.com's Jane Lee why the outfield catch creates havoc for baserunners:
"You have to go halfway, and you're going to have to watch it the entire time, and you might see guys get thrown out at the leading base because they can't get too far away from the other bag for the sheer fact they have to watch it the entire time. And some of these outfielders have really good arms, so them throwing it 120 feet is no problem."


This leads to another potential problem, as Dave Cameron wrote Monday on FanGraphs: Outfielders could possibly gain an advantage by purposely "dropping" the ball while making the transfer:
Under 2014 rules, when given a chance to do that again, Mark Trumbo should immediately stand up and take a step or two towards the infield with the ball in his glove. The only reasonable decision the runners can make at that point is to return to their prior base, because any further hesitation will result in a sure double play. Once Trumbo sees the runners retreating, he should immediately drop the ball on the transfer, pick the ball up, and throw it in to a shortstop positioned close enough to the second base bag to tag the runner on second once he realizes he now has to try and advance, and then easily flip the ball to the second baseman covering the bag to force out the runner from first trying to move up for a second time in the same play.


A crafty left fielder could potentially turn a routine fly ball into a double play. Now, it may not be that easy to pull off the play Dave describes with Trumbo. The definition of a rule states, "In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional." In other words, if dropping the ball on the transfer looks intentional, it's still a catch.

But that doesn't help the baserunner who is caught in no man's land. Instant replay only adds to the possible confusing outcome of a play.

It seems that baseball is going to have to address the outfield catch/transfer play. It may be that the ruling on the field has to stand and is not subject to review -- this at least gives the baserunner a chance to see what the umpire has called, thus avoiding plays like the Donaldson/Moss mess.

Albert Pujols pounds his 496th home run

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
2:56
AM ET


After pounding his 496th home run, you could feel a little bit of joy for Albert Pujols. Big money or no, the Los Angeles Angels slugger had taken quite a tumble from his days as the game’s best ballplayer. He’s apparently healed up completely from last year’s plantar fasciitis that “resolved” into a partial plantar fascia tear, ending his season two months early and sticking him with the worst numbers of his career: His highest ground-ball rate, his lowest power numbers (both in terms of slugging and Isolated Power). And it’s hard not to envision how a weaker Pujols wasn’t someone who was easier to get to make hit your pitch, contributing to a career-low walk rate and batting average on balls in play.

But that was last year, and his recent run of clouting four home runs in his past six games is a nice reminder of what Pujols can be when he can stand on two feet. And, more importantly, when he can dig in again and really use the lower-body strength that produced one of the best power hitters at any position, let alone first base.

Take a quick look at his heat maps between his injured 2013 and his 2014 season through Monday night’s game, and you’ll see a big difference between the guy who struggled to deliver last season and the guy whose ability to consistently mash stuff inside the zone will put him in Cooperstown, a skill that looks like it’s back in the early going:

Albert PujolsESPN Stats and Information


That’s great to see, because if you look at what Albert Pujols was, you’re seeing the guy the Angels thought they’d signed when they gave him $240 million. Pujols resembled that player in his first season with the Angels, ripping 80 extra base hits. But perhaps the real key to his dominance was Pujols’ complete dominance of pitches inside the strike zone. As Brooks Baseball’s data over at Baseball Prospectus reflects, from 2007-2012, pitchers might have tried to stay low and outside, but he consistently wouldn’t go fishing, offering on just 184 of 1,422 pitches (overwhelmingly the most pitches thrown to any zone against him). More often, that forced pitchers to come into the zone against him, where he’d just as reliably pound them. That 2013/2014 heat map contrast is a nice reminder of the Pujols of old.

That wasn’t the only bit of Phat Albert popping out of the wayback machine lately: He turned a 3-6-3 double play against the A’s on Monday, and whether you grew up thinking a young Eddie Murray or a clean Keith Hernandez was the acme of first-base play, you couldn’t help but love seeing that kind of footwork and anticipation around the bag from the former Gold Glover.

It might be too easy to say last year’s plantar fasciitis belongs to last year, but if Pujols has fended off for a few more years the move to DH that's expected to come at some point during his time as an Angels, so much the better. More importantly, when the Angels gave Pujols his 10-year deal, this is what they expected. Not forever, and not in the field, but they signed Pujols to be the kind of franchise-level bat who can carry them.

Remember, when the Angels signed him, how big Mike Trout was going to be was still a matter of speculation. If Pujols is not just some old indulgence Arte Moreno doesn’t have to apologize to his accountant for, but cranks out several seasons more like his American League initiation in 2012, that’s part of a lineup you can win with. With tough series against the A’s, Tigers, Nationals and Yankees to look forward to, the Halos can’t count on Trout being hot the entire time, lest they dig an early hole that endangers their relevance for months to come.

Most of all, the Angels need Pujols to age gracefully, to put Father Time on hold for another year, maybe four. They need his second act as an Angel of Anaheim to add luster to his Hall of Fame career, not tarnish it. In short, they need Albert Pujols. All it took was a hot streak like this to remind folks that they still have him.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

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