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Writers for ESPN.com receive a voluminous amount of reader feedback, and much of it comes from fans whose passion outweighs their judgment or even their grip on reality. Readers accuse us of East Coast bias, big-market bias or other personal agendas that require lots of time and energy to decipher. Sometimes it's a challenge to keep track of which teams we ostensibly "disrespect" or enjoy slighting the most.

Unlike some of my more prudent colleagues, I'm enough of a masochist to read the comments at the end of a story, and I've found that few fan bases can discern a hidden motive in a column or a turn of phrase the way Atlanta Braves diehards do. During one particularly rugged stretch last fall, I got taken to the woodshed by Braves fans for failing to include Evan Gattis in my top 3 in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and for writing a story reflecting the industry sentiment that Atlanta's impressive 2013 regular season might not translate into an extended run in October.

Folks who feel strongly enough to defend their team's honor might not believe this, but it's nothing personal. As ball writers, we survey the landscape, weigh the numbers, sprinkle in some gut instincts and make calls based on the information at hand. A lot of times we're wrong. But sometimes the rigors of a 162-game season prove we're not as clueless as we appear.

The endless give-and-take came to mind recently when I dug up ESPN.com's preseason predictions and found that 40 of our 44 so-called "experts" picked the Washington Nationals to win the National League East this season. The consensus was less a knock on the Braves than a prevailing sense that the Nationals were a deeper, more well-rounded and balanced team, and poised for success after a 32-16 late run left them short of a playoff berth in 2013.

It's taken almost five months, but the March prognostications have developed a sense of clarity. As the Braves bounce from winning streaks to losing streaks and try to put together an extended run to escape the wild-card mosh pit, it's becoming evident the Nationals are who we thought they were.

The NL East is starting to have a "foregone conclusion" feel to it as September approaches. The Nats, who've earned a reputation as a puzzling and sometimes underachieving bunch, are putting together a season-defining run under first-year manager Matt Williams. In the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, Arizona’s Jordan Pacheco threw a ball into a camera well to allow Denard Span to score from second base and give Washington a 1-0 victory. It was the Nationals' 10th straight win, tying them with the Kansas City Royals for the longest streak in the majors in 2014.

When Span described the Nationals' recent run of victories as "magical," he wasn't kidding. Washington is the first team since the 1986 Houston Astros to record five walk-off wins in a span of six games.

Shortly after Span received a Gatorade bucket drenching from teammate Anthony Rendon, the Braves took the field in Cincinnati and blew out the Reds 8-0. But they're left with some daunting math. With 5½ weeks left in the regular season, Coolstandings.com gives Atlanta a 1.6 percent chance to win the division and 39.1 percent odds to earn a wild-card spot. Even though the Braves have a 22-10 record against the Nationals over the past two seasons, they face Washington only six more times this year, so they're going to need some help.

The biggest reason to buy stock in Washington right now is its pitching. During the Nationals' 10-game streak, the rotation has a 1.34 ERA and the entire staff has allowed a total of 23 runs. Gio Gonzalez was lights-out with seven shutout innings against Arizona on Thursday. But if the postseason were starting today and Williams were going strictly on merit rather than pedigree, he might have a hard time starting Gonzalez over Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark. Fister (4-1, 0.88 ERA) and Roark (4-1, 2.30) have the best numbers of the group since the All-Star break.

Even though Rafael Soriano has had some hiccups lately, the Washington bullpen has been exceptional as well. Nationals relievers rank third in the NL with a 2.85 aggregate ERA and fourth in opponents' OPS at .628 this season.

"They might have the best pitching staff from 1 through 12 not only in the league, but in all of baseball," said a National League personnel man. "And they have power pitching. It wouldn't shock me if they go very far [in the postseason]."

In hindsight, the Braves had an awful lot to overcome losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in spring training, then watching Gavin Floyd go down with a fractured right elbow in June just when he was hitting his stride. General manager Frank Wren and his group did what they could by signing Ervin Santana in March and picking up Aaron Harang after he was released by the Cleveland Indians. But Julio Teheran has been forced to carry a heavy burden at age 23, and Mike Minor's disappointing performance can be traced back to January, when he got a late start in his training because of a procedure on his urinary tract. All things considered, it's amazing that Atlanta leads the majors with 89 quality starts.

The Braves need all the pitching they can get, with an offense that's middling at best and prone to streakiness. Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman are having fine seasons, but Dan Uggla is gone and it's long past obvious that B.J. Upton will not be giving the franchise anything close to a $75.25 million return on its investment.

September still has the potential for intrigue in Atlanta, as the Braves parry with the NL Central runner-up and the loser of the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants competition for one of the two NL wild-card spots. It's encouraging that Minor has pitched well in his past two outings and Freeman and Justin Upton have been torrid in August. But even if the Braves make it to October, they'll have to advance the hard way, with a one-game playoff and all the minefields that entails. Do the words "infield fly rule" ring a bell?

Personally, I'm not crazy over their chances of a deep postseason run. If I'm wrong, Braves fans, please feel free to drop me a note and vent.

Losing Richards changes Angels' season

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
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Here are six names: Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards. These are the only pitchers to start a game for the 2014 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. It’s a small list that is an example of good health and good luck. For context, the Texas Rangers have relied on 13 different starting pitchers, seven more than the Angels, so far in 2014.

The Angels' barely-larger-than-necessary catalog of starters also helps explain some of their success this year. Where that current success ends up this season will be seriously challenged the rest of the way, because in the bottom of the second inning during Wednesday night’s game in Boston, the Angels' rotation suffered a potentially devastating blow. Boston Red Sox third baseman Brock Holt hit a grounder to first baseman Albert Pujols; as Richards ran to cover first base, his left knee buckled. He fell to the ground in pain and had to be carted off the field. The severity of the injury is not yet known, but Angels fans would do well to withhold optimism.

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AP Photo/Elise AmendolaGarrett Richards' knee injury looked ugly from the moment he went down near first base.
The descriptor "ace" is tossed around a lot, and, although coming into the season Richards might not have been considered a major league ace -- or even a staff ace -- he has performed like one this season. Richards leads the Angels with a 2.53 ERA and a 2.59 FIP. He's striking out nearly a batter per inning and is walking fewer than three per nine. In terms of WAR, his 4.5 mark is more than double that of Weaver's second-best 2.0. Richards is also among the best pitchers in the American League. He has the fifth-best ERA in the AL and has pitched 31 percent better than league average.

With Richards hurt and Skaggs out for the year for Tommy John surgery, the four known occupants of the Angels rotation are Weaver, Wilson, Santiago and Shoemaker. Who will fill Richards' spot should he miss a significant amount of time is unclear, but the potential names currently in the organization are uninspiring. In June, the Angels acquired Wade LeBlanc off waivers from the New York Yankees. LeBlanc has pitched only 7⅓ innings in 2014; he pitched 55 last season between the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros for a 5.40 ERA.

Another possibility is Randy Wolf, whom the Angels signed in late July. Wolf is with his fifth organization of 2014, as he was signed and released by the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks, Marlins and Baltimore Orioles before signing with the Angels. The 5.26 ERA Wolf posted while with the Marlins resembles his 5.28 ERA from 2012, the last time he pitched in the big leagues before this season.

The final possible in-house replacement for Richards is Chris Volstad. Volstad spent 2013 with the Colorado Rockies, posting a 10.81 ERA in eight innings of major league action. That is, of course, a small sample size. The 4.94 ERA Volstad produced in more than 700 big league innings is a larger sample that's equally frightening in a playoff race.

Looking around the big leagues, there are quality starting pitchers who might be made available through a waiver deal, such as Jorge De La Rosa and Bartolo Colon, assuming the Oakland A's can't block the Angels with their own claim.

Richards' absence will be felt most in the playoff race. The Angels currently sit 1½ games ahead of the A's. It's entirely possible the division will be decided by a single game, and it's also entirely possible that losing Richards for the year will cost the Angels at least a win or two. As things now stand, it looks like second place in the American League West will earn one of the two wild cards, but that will come with an enormous disadvantage. An injury such as this one highlights how important it is to make it to the playoffs via a division title rather than a wild card. If the Angels finish in second place, they very well might be tasked with a one-game playoff against the Detroit Tigers, or maybe the Kansas City Royals, who would trot out James Shields to pitch, or perhaps Felix Hernandez and the Mariners. And the Angels would have to play that game without their own ace to send to the mound in a must-win game.

Richards' injury also forces us to re-evaluate the trades that general manager Jerry Dipoto made at the non-waiver deadline. The contrast between Dipoto's strategy and A's GM Billy Beane's is glaring: Dipoto reinforced the Angels' bullpen by acquiring Joe Thatcher, Jason Grilli and Huston Street, while Beane hoarded many of the available starting pitchers in Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel. At the time, Dipoto's moves appeared to shore up a critical piece in preparation for a playoff run. Now, however, the Angels are left with a deep bullpen, four starting pitchers and a stark reminder that good health and good luck are fleeting.

Eric Garcia McKinley blogs about the Rockies for the SweetSpot network affiliate Rockies Zingers. You can follow him on Twitter at @garcia_mckinley.
PHILADELPHIA -- Every once in awhile, Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon hauls out the video clip of his performance in the 1971 Little League World Series championship game and watches it for fun. But it’s more a bonding ritual with his 26-year-old son, Bo, than a desire to cling to baseball heroics from a distant past.

“I’ll look at it and freak my son out, because I look just like he did at that age,” McClendon said, laughing. “And he’ll tell me, ‘Turn that off.’”

The LLWS is attracting a lot of attention this summer because of some spirited competition and charismatic young players. Mo’Ne Davis, the star pitcher for Philadelphia’s Taney squad, is a “Sports Illustrated” cover girl with almost 20,000 Twitter followers. Mexico’s Ruy Martinez, all 4-foot-8 and 80 pounds of him, has emerged as the Jose Altuve of youth baseball. And the all-black Jackie Robinson team from Chicago is outpacing the Cubs and White Sox with its television ratings in the city. ESPN has provided blanket coverage of the tournament, with Barry Larkin and Nomar Garciaparra among the luminaries in the broadcast booth.

[+] EnlargeMo'ne Davis
AP Images/Gene J. PuskarMo'Ne Davis has fans everywhere right now, including in the Mariners' manager's office.
The event was a much quainter affair 43 years ago, when McClendon and his Gary, Indiana, squad made history as the first all-African-American team to advance to Williamsport. After leading Gary past opponents from Kentucky and Spain in the first two games of the single-elimination tourney, McClendon oozed shyness in an interview with Jim McKay and Mickey Mantle that aired before the finale with Taiwan on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Although McClendon finished with five home runs and five intentional walks in 10 plate appearances in Williamsport, Gary lost to Taiwan 12-3 in the finale. He reacted like a typical preteen, but some comforting words from his father and coach endured long after the sting of losing had passed. McClendon experienced some flashbacks earlier this week when David Belisle, coach of the Rhode Island Little League team, gave an uplifting speech to his players after they were eliminated by Chicago.

“I was very blessed,” McClendon said. “I came off the field crying, but the first words I heard from my coach and my dad were, ‘We’re very proud of you. You did the best you can do. Hold your head high.’ That’s such a powerful lesson for young players, but also for coaches and parents -- to understand the magnitude of what’s going on and how positive words can shape and form kids for the future.

“I hope these kids are gathering the same types of memories and friendships that we had when we were able to go there. I hope this isn’t about kids being exploited. The biggest problem is coaches and parents that want to win at all costs. Let the kids enjoy it. Let them have fun, because it’s their moment in the sun.”

Although McClendon’s schedule with the Mariners has prevented him from watching the Little League World Series in-depth, he's seen enough to become a big Mo’Ne Davis fan. He can join celebrities from Magic Johnson to David Price to Ellen DeGeneres in that club.

“God bless her,” McClendon said. “This is something she'll be able to tell her grandkids about and show them one day. I think it’s just awesome and well-deserved. I hope this community here in Philadelphia surrounds her and that team and keeps encouraging them. What they've done is tremendous.”

Iwakuma gives Mariners a second true ace

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
11:36
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Felix Hernandez has deservedly gotten most of the credit for the Seattle Mariners’ success this season, but he is not the only reason that fans in the Emerald City are on the brink of watching October baseball for the first time in 13 years. He's got a pretty good sidekick in the rotation, too.

Hisashi Iwakuma delivered another gem on Tuesday night, blanking the Philadelphia Phillies over eight innings with a season-high 11 strikeouts and no walks to lower his ERA to 2.57 this season.


When you come to the United States from Japan in the same offseason as Yu Darvish and you pitch in the same rotation as King Felix, it's easy to get overlooked. But the degree to which Iwakuma is underrated is almost a crime.

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Bill Streicher/USA TODAY SportsHisashi Iwakuma has been a not-so-secret weapon in the Mariners' rotation all season long.


He is easily the most anonymous ace in baseball, and all the proof you need is in this list of qualified American League starters that have a lower ERA than Iwakuma (2.63) since his first MLB start on July 2, 2012:


Yup, that would be no one.


Iwakuma was an All-Star last season, but missed out on being selected to the game this year as he struggled through a rough four-week period in May and June during which he posted a 4.67 ERA over seven starts.


But since the calendar turned to July, he has produced a King Felix-like run, going 7-2 with a 1.63 ERA. The only American League pitcher with a lower ERA in that span is Corey Kluber (1.31) and no pitcher in the majors has more wins than Iwakuma since July 1.


He has gone at least seven innings in eight of those 10 starts, allowing more than two runs just once. Perhaps the most impressive statistic of this dominant stretch is this: 65 strikeouts, four walks.


That last number should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Iwakuma this season. His control is approaching historic levels, as he now has a mere 12 walks in 147 innings. This rate of 0.73 walks per nine innings easily leads all major-league starters and puts him on pace to enter the record books.


Only two qualified American League pitchers in baseball history have posted a walk rate that low in a single season: Carlos Silva (0.43 in 2005) and Cy Young (0.69 in 1904).


Iwakuma doesn't have an overpowering fastball (averaging 90-91 mph) but he has incredible command of four pitches and a devastating splitter that is nearly unhittable. His combination of outstanding control, an above-average ability to generate grounders and a solid strikeout rate puts him in elite company.


The only other pitcher this season with a walk rate of less than four percent, a ground-ball rate of at least 50 percent and a strikeout rate of 20 percent or better is ... Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Otherwise known as the best pitcher in the world, the NL Cy Young favorite and legitimate candidate for the NL MVP award.


Despite his impressive resume, Iwakuma works in relatively anonymity, quietly mowing down lineups in the shadow of the King. He doesn't have a cool nickname or a devoted following of fans, but Iwakuma's consistent approach is a perfect complement to the utter dominance of a pitcher like Hernandez.


Seattle's offense has come alive during August (4.8 runs per game), but that hides the fact that they still have the lowest on-base percentage (.302) and OPS (.677) in the American League. And yet somehow the Mariners have the second-best run differential in the AL (+99) and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001.


It's hard to imagine where the Mariners would be without their dynamic duo of Iwakuma and Hernandez at the top of the rotation. The playoffs would certainly be a pipe dream. But thanks to the combination of baseball's most anonymous ace (Iwakuma) and most deserving ace (Hernandez), Seattle is now in prime position to give its fans something besides football to cheer about in October.

Katie Sharp blogs about the Yankees for SweetSpot network affiliate It's About the Money, Stupid, and can be followed on Twitter at @ktsharp.

Cardinals' chef helps team eat healthy

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
10:03
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ST. LOUIS -- Chef Simon Lusky strolled through a supermarket just outside of Philipsburg, Pa., with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Adams and his parents. The country store looked like a slice of Americana and they were looking for a lean piece of meat.

They found a small butcher shop in the store with fresh venison for sale. It was December of 2012, snow was on the ground, baseball was a few months away and Adams’ eating habits were about to change.

The Cardinals organization had just begun a groundbreaking endeavor. In 2012 the club hired Lusky to prepare healthy food. With a team effort from the medical staff, clubhouse staff, strength staff and coaches, food has become a source of fuel for the players instead of empty calories. Manager Mike Matheny played a big part in Lusky getting hired but the push also came from the front office.
[+] EnlargeSimon Lusky
St. Louis CardinalsSimon Lusky makes sure the Cardinals get something good to eat.

"John Mozeliak, he's really into health and eating right and working out," Lusky said of the team's general manager. "He's all about it too, so organizationally everybody is on board with it."

To really make an impact though, Lusky had to help Adams become self-sufficient with his food choices in the offseason.

"He flew in for a couple of days and took us out to eat, and taught us what to look for on the menu out at a restaurant -- healthy options," said Adams, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound first baseman who weighed a few pounds more that winter. "Then we went to the grocery store and went through all the aisles."

Adams, who debuted in the majors in 2012, was living with his parents; both are busy, hard-working people. So Lusky, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Johnson and Wales, put an emphasis on showing them quick and healthy meals.

"A piece of salmon takes just as long to cook as it does to heat up a Stouffers lasagna," Lusky said.

Adams and his whole family watched and helped prepare the food as Lusky taught them how to cook healthy. "His mom, his dad, his uncle, his aunt, a cousin, they were all like, 'What’s kale?'" Lusky said. "They never had asparagus or brussels sprouts."

Adams lost 25 pounds after the 2012 season, then another 20 pounds after the 2013 season; his dad lost 30 pounds and now enjoys healthy eating so much he maintains his own vegetable garden.

Adams said he is seeing results on the field. His body is not breaking down. "I’m feeling strong and waking up with energy and ready to go on a daily basis," he said.


From doughnuts to gator jerkey

Before Lusky was hired as the team chef everything in the clubhouse was catered. The players were getting a wide variety of foods but it was not the right food.

"There was a big emphasis on pastas and cream sauces," Lusky said. “Fattier meats, not leaner cuts. Maybe a lack of vegetables with some certain meals."

He helped them make a cultural change in how they viewed food.

"Before, they said they'd go through four or five dozen doughnuts throughout the course of the game," Lusky said.

Now, the clubhouse walls are lined with dispensers of all different kinds of nuts. The most popular in-game snack is a protein bar homemade by a childhood friend of St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. The team focuses on nutrient-dense foods with a lot of good calories. This helps their muscles and their recovery time.

"A handful of nuts can be as high as 400 or 500 calories depending on the nuts," Lusky said. "I tell the guys to snack on nuts constantly, constantly. Any time you are feeling just a little hungry grab a handful of nuts."

Fruit is also always available.

"The whole fridge is full of nectarines, apples, and oranges and bananas, kiwis," Lusky said. "We have every type of jerky; we use a company that specializes in wild game jerky -- pheasant, gator, elk -- every sort of animal you can imagine in jerky form, a bunch of different flavors.”

Besides healthy snacks, the meal he prepares for the club every home game consists of lean proteins like chicken breast and turkey, but no fried meats.

"Red meat is fine, we eat a lot of red meat," Lusky said. "It's a clubhouse full of guys so if we took red meat away my head would be on a stick. The biggest thing I do as a chef is I vary the protein." Besides red met, he'll have pork, lamb, wild boar, shrimp and different types of fish.

Lusky has a very simple motto: green, clean and lean.

"I always tell the guys get some green vegetables on your plate, get some clean carbs -- a clean carb is quinoa, sweet potatoes, something that's not going to be a white rice or a white pasta -- those are things we don't have. If we're going to have a pasta, it's going to be gluten-free or whole wheat."

When the team is on the road, Lusky also ships food to about half the team -- about 120 pounds to every destination, at a cost of about $1,000.

Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, like many players, struggles to keep weight on during the season, or he'll run out of energy during the game.

"Now we have a little routine where I do a smoothie for him," Lusky said. "I don’t say anything. I just go at the end of the third [inning] and I make him a smoothie and I put it where the bats are underneath the dugout and just leave it there, and he goes at it."

"Diet is one of the things you don’t think about," infielder Daniel Descalso said. "You think about working out, you think about taking batting practice and ground balls, but diet is a huge part of what goes into maintaining your health and well-being through the entire season."

Change in baseball isn't always easy, however.

"A guy when I first met him who I thought would never want to get on the healthy board was Randy Choate," Lusky said of the veteran reliever. "He was like, 'I eat doughnuts and Coke for breakfast, and I love fried chicken and McDonald's.' He was an uphill climb from the first day. He was outspoken about it."

This past offseason, Choate and his wife had Lusky come to their house to teach them how to eat healthier.

"To say it hasn't made any difference would be a lie," Choate said. "I definitely came in this year with less body fat and it had a lot to do with the things he showed us at our house, to help us cook healthier."

Still, baseball players have their superstitions.

"On day games, it's called the doughnut diet," Choate said. "I have one doughnut, and that's just my theory for a sinker -- you've got to eat one to throw one."

Beyond baseball

The crux of Lusky's influence is worrying more about the person than the ballplayer.

"Anything [teams] can do to help keep these guys healthier and on the field, you are going to see the Matt Hollidays playing another year, longer careers, happier fans, happier players and healthier lives when the game is done," Lusky said.

In Lance Lynn’s car, driving to the airport, Lusky saw a light click in Lynn's eyes as they talked.

Lusky had just spent the week with Lynn and his wife. "He taught us what to look for on the back of the box, and all the way to how to prepare it," said Lynn, who has lost 70 pounds.

Lusky told Lynn he wanted to see him succeed and get a huge contract one day. "But I was like, 'Really, you are going to play baseball for 10 years, let's be honest, you'll be 35 by then. You'll have a lot of your life left. If you keep eating, and doing what you are doing right now, it's not healthy. You can shave years off of your life, and that's less time with your family.'"

This was the moment where Lynn understood: Not eating well is not only bad for baseball, but it's not good for life.

With long games, a difficult schedule and the demands of baseball on the body, Lusky wants to see baseball do more for the players.

"You can change baseball," Lusky said. "We're not only helping our team right now, but we are making the game a healthier game."

Pirates must rely on big reinforcements

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
12:29
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This is a big week for the Pittsburgh Pirates, perhaps even a defining week. Monday night’s loss to the Atlanta Braves was their sixth straight. They’re now two games back in the wild-card standings, with the Braves between them and the Cardinals and Giants.

The big factor that people no doubt worry about is that they’ve gone 5-9 since the grudging acknowledgment that reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen had to go to the disabled list. Add in that second baseman Neil Walker has been healthy enough to make just five starts in August in what had been his best season since his rookie year, and the Pirates have had to get by a whole lot of Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez. Some of those losses have been especially tough, including getting swept over the weekend in a trio of one-run losses to the Nationals, and losing four one-run games during McCutchen’s absence. Operating without their best hitter, as well as their best starting pitcher -- Gerrit Cole -- and those margins are that much tighter.

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With Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole returning this week, will the Pirates make the playoffs?

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Discuss (Total votes: 41,271)

I’d argue that the absences of Cole and Charlie Morton have been every bit as critical as the losses in the lineup. Since the break, the Pirates have averaged 4.6 runs per game, and even 4.1 with McCutchen on the DL, slightly above league-average for the NL. But on the pitching side, since the All-Star break the Pirates have seen some things unfold that they have to have anticipated: Jeff Locke’s transient magic once again fading with repeated exposure to National League lineups that have cranked out a 1.60 WHIP in his last six starts, while Edinson Volquez has been looking very much like nothing more than a No. 5 while allowing 4.9 runs per nine in his six turns in that time. These are not the guys you’re going to win a division with; they’re whom you get by with when Cole and Morton are out. The happier news is that Vance Worley looks like a keeper, but we’ll see if he pushes past Volquez to enter postseason rotation consideration.

One of the things you can consider a lesson learned is that the enthusiasm for the Pirates’ young outfield is still mostly deserved. Starling Marte has been excellent since the All-Star break, with an 1.132 OPS. Gregory Polanco, not so much (.632 OPS), but it’s too soon to see if he’s going to have to join Pedro Alvarez on the team’s growing pile of disappointing superstars-to-be (or not). But another happy surprise is that Josh Harrison seems as ready as Omar Infante was to make people eat those “that guy’s an All-Star?” taunts, hitting .331/.369/.570 since the break.

The weeks to come are going to provide all sorts of interesting questions for Clint Hurdle and company as they try to get back on top, because the Pirates and Hurdle have proven themselves reliably creative when it comes to lineup solutions in particular. I think it’s fascinating to see them play Harrison at shortstop these last four games. Breaking out a rare “small sample-size” caveat this late in the season, it hasn’t been lovely (the first three games were at a minus-38 Defensive Runs Saved level for a full season), but if by some chance he proves that he can play short as a regular, that creates an expanded range of options in the lineup. It might even provide Alvarez a chance at redemption at third base, at least against right-handed pitching -- if the choice is between Jordy Mercer (.656 OPS, career) or Clint Barmes and Alvarez (.790 OPS) against a righty. I’d like to see a loose Alvarez-Mercer platoon in the lineup. Maybe Harrison is only affordable at shortstop on days when Cole pitches (because of his large number of strikeouts) or Worley (because he’s a fly ball-out guy), but it’s interesting to see Hurdle and the sabermetrically savvy Pirates experiment, even at this point of the season.

And that’s because, with 37 games left, everything is still possible. The good news is that they’ll get McCutchen back from the DL on Tuesday, and Cole should make his return from the DL on Wednesday, in time to face these Braves. Sometime around Sept. 1, they should have Morton back to start for them as well.

As long as the Pirates are within a game or two, when you’re talking about adding that kind of talent, you’re talking about a team with a chance. Last year’s playoff appearance should not be a one-time thing. And after what Pirates fans endured for two decades, you have to hope it wasn’t.


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

Pitching carrying first-place Angels

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
12:55
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Much attention has been paid to Oakland this season for its play on the field and its acquisitions off the field. The A's have been atop the ESPN Power Rankings for eight consecutive weeks. They've revamped most of their starting rotation by trading for Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. And the A's are one of three teams in baseball with at least 70 wins -- but they're now the only one not leading its division.

After defeating the Texas Rangers 5-4 and watching Atlanta defeat Oakland 4-3, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim now boast the best record in the American League West and the best winning percentage in all of baseball. The victory over Texas was the club’s fourth consecutive win, while Oakland's loss to Atlanta was the A's fourth consecutive defeat.

The most recent time the Angels held as much as a share of first place, it was on the first day of the 2013 season -- a season that went horribly wrong and was highlighted by the foot troubles of Albert Pujols and the disappointing play of Josh Hamilton.

The 2014 Angels roster was still talented enough for them to be considered a decent favorite to contend for a playoff spot in the American League, but most pundits pegged the Oakland Athletics to repeat as AL West champs for a third consecutive season. Oakland kicked off the second half of the 2014 season with a win against Baltimore that put them 24 games over .500, at 60-36 -- two and a half weeks after beginning the revamping of their pitching staff. After a 13-1 win against the Astros on July 24, the A's were 25 games over .500.

Despite the Athletics' hot play and the notable roster makeover, the Angels remained just two games off the pace as they, too, went through their own roster reshaping. While Oakland could dangle the carrot of a highly regarded prospect such as Addison Russell to bring in help, the Angels’ farm system lacked that kind of token to offer teams to get help. The Angels have the fourth best team-weighted on-base average (wOBA) this season at .319, and the 3.81 ERA by their starting pitching staff is in the top half of the league. The issue was with a bullpen that had one of the worst ERAs in the league at 3.89 and a relief pitcher in Ernesto Frieri, who was not getting the job done.

General manager Jerry Dipoto made a series of small moves to shore up the leaky pen by acquiring Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher, Vinnie Pestano and, finally, Huston Street to take over the closer role. Since the All-Star break, the bullpen had posted a 2.24 ERA heading into play on Saturday night. Street closed out Saturday night's win in Arlington and gave young hurler Matt Shoemaker his 11th victory of the season and the team its 14th win since the break. That, in and of itself, is impressive, considering how ice-cold the Angels’ offense has been since the break.

The team’s .279 team wOBA and .229 batting average are the worst in the American League and the third worst in baseball since the break. MVP candidate Mike Trout is hitting .234/.317/.439, Pujols is hitting .245/.33/.415, and Hamilton is hitting .214/.278/.347 in the second half. Only Kole Calhoun and David Freese have batting averages over .250 since the break, and nobody on the team has an on-base percentage over .340 during that time.

The Angels' 14-12 second-half record has come while playing a very tough schedule. Each game in the second half of July came against playoff contenders (Seattle, Baltimore and Detroit). They opened August against one of the hottest team in baseball in Tampa Bay and then took on their crosstown foes for four games before the schedule gave them a break. The Angels looked that gift horse in the mouth and dropped two of three to Boston and narrowly avoided a sweep to the last-place Red Sox by stealing the middle game of that series in 19 innings. The Angels then swept Philadelphia in two and have now taken the first two games in this three-game set against Texas.

From Arlington, the Angels travel to Boston for a four-game series before returning to the West Coast for a crucial three-game set in Oakland. The two teams at the top of the American League West face each other seven times this month and will not see each other again until the final week of the season in a three-game series at Oakland.

The Angels are being carried by their pitching these days, as the offense has cooled off from where it was earlier this season. Los Angeles will need the offense to heat up in a hurry to take full advantage of the head-to-head matchups against Oakland, given that they won't see them again for another three weeks. In between those series, the schedule sets up quite favorably for the Angels as it includes five games against Houston, four against Minnesota and six more against Texas.

The stars are aligning nicely for the Angels, who look to win the American League West title for the first time since 2009. The rebuilt bullpen and the performance of the starting pitching staff is now carrying the load for the Angels, but they'll need a complete team effort to ultimately best an Athletics club whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.

Athletics need to be worried for stretch run

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
1:47
PM ET
video

The A’s have been on top for months, with the best record in baseball to brag about, and they’re supposed to be the runaway winners in the AL West. But in case you’ve missed it, they’re not running away any more, and not just because the Angels have been the second-best team in baseball. If anything, the A’s are coasting, because while they still have the best record, we’ll see how much longer that lasts.
[+] EnlargeBrandon Moss
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesBrandon Moss' power outage since the break is a big problem.

That’s because the A’s have gone 15-15 in their last 30 games, and after Friday night’s loss they’ve slipped below a .600 winning percentage on the season. They haven’t won a series against a team with an above-.500 record since the Orioles immediately after the All-Star break. At this point, you can skip talk of winning 100 games, because the division title isn’t the only thing in danger with the Mariners, Tigers and Royals all making serious pushes for the postseason. Say they play .500 the rest of the way, and they’d wind up with 93 wins, which should at least get them into the wild card -- one-and-done territory, or not where they were supposed to be when they traded away their best prospect, Addison Russell, to purportedly win the World Series this year.

What’s gone wrong of late? It’s pretty much a team-wide problem. Let’s start with the offense. Since the All-Star break, they’ve put up a collective .698 OPS, a tumble from the .729 OPS they had in the first half. Those numbers get worse when you get into what they’ve done since trading Yoenis Cespedes: a .636 OPS in August, with the A’s averaging just 3.7 runs per game when they had averaged 4.9 in the first half.

Who are the culprits? Brandon Moss has struggled terribly, hitting just .213/.31/.303 with two homers since the break; for a guy who had 21 on his way to his first All-Star Game, suddenly hitting 30 again seems a long way off. Coco Crisp has been even worse as he struggles through a neck injury, putting up just a .395 OPS. Moving parts like John Jaso (.647 OPS) and Alberto Callaspo (.505), so important to manager Bob Melvin’s lineup-card dynamics, are slumping as well. If it weren’t for Josh Donaldson doing his thing and Josh Reddick’s rebound since returning to action (.904 OPS, four homers since the break), the picture would be even more bleak.

[+] EnlargeScott Kazmir
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesScott Kazmir is among the A's pitchers who are slumping in the second half.
Then there’s the pitching. Saturday’s starter, Sonny Gray, may have set off alarms for the beatdown he took two turns ago, but his velocity’s holding relatively steady; he may be the one guy you should worry about least. Instead, worry about the fact that Scott Kazmir’s strikeout rate since the All-Star break is 13 percent, 10 points lower than it was in the first half, or that Jason Hammel has one quality start in seven tries as an Athletic. Or that Jeff Samardzija’s run of greatness extends no further back than this season. Did the A’s need Jon Lester? You bet they did, in no small part because their investment in Kazmir and their getting Hammel haven’t paid off as well as they might have hoped.

And then there’s the interior defense. Losing Jed Lowrie to the DL isn’t something you’d normally associate with hurting your defense, but the problem it created is that it moved Eric Sogard from a position he plays well at second base (averaging plus-9 Defensive Runs Saved per season on his career) to a position he doesn’t at short (minus-14 career). Exacerbating that loss is that Alberto Callaspo has had to become an every-day player at second. Whatever Callaspo’s virtues as a multi-positional rover, one thing he doesn’t do well and has never done well is play second base: His performance this year is at a minus-11 DRS for a full season at the keystone, consistent with a career clip of minus-14. So instead of the benefits of getting Lowrie’s bat (even in an off year) at short and Sogard’s glove at second, the A’s now have neither, plus they don’t have Callaspo to plug in everywhere else they might have a day-to-day need either. And with Kazmir and Hammel looking so hittable, you can bet a worse infield defense is hurting.

And just stop with Sam Fuld already. The guy’s well-spoken, a great interview and a decent fielder, but c’mon now, he’s sabermetrics’ answer to Willie Bloomquist. A .370 OBP during two months in Minnesota do not define a guy, they’re just two nice months from someone whose career suggests he couldn’t keep that up. And sure enough, the guy the A’s got back in a ticky-tack trade with the Twins has not been Rickey Henderson reborn or Lance Blankenship or even Eric Fox; instead, it’s the same guy who came into the year with a .314 career OBP, and the same guy who was eminently cut-worthy by these same A’s earlier this season. The A’s need him because Crisp’s neck injury and second-half struggles make an insurance policy in center necessary, but you can forget about penciling in an every-day OBP north of .350. Tell yourself you’ll always have Minnesota to fulfill your Fuld fantasy, and just let that notion go.

Now, I know, this is where we can cite all sorts of happy stats to warm A’s fans’ hearts, like their huge run differential or their expected record, which is six games better (79-43) than where they’re actually at (73-49). But wasn’t this supposed to the team that was better than the sum of its parts, not worse? Admittedly, that was a sportswriterly narrative that wilts in the daylight of data, but to stick with the facts, a big chunk of the A’s run differential belongs to early-season blowout wins that this lineup hasn’t been cranking out of late, as well as that stack of close losses that you can blame on the early-season mistake of having Jim Johnson as their closer.

And the thing to keep in mind is that the A’s won’t get any of that back -- those runs, wins and losses are history and already banked, and that accrual doesn’t mean squat for the last 40 games. That’s because this team is a significantly different collection of players than that which stacked up that run differential in the first place just a few short months ago. You can’t expect it to continue or magically continue. A big win in May can’t do anything more to keep the A’s ahead of the Angels than it already has. The A’s relative run differential is shrinking, and even with Lester and Samardzija and Gray going strong, it’s probably going to shrink more.

This is why all you ditch that stuff about the A’s being the best team in baseball, or having the best record in baseball. It’s true for as long as nobody catches them while playing .500 brand of baseball as they have lately, and that won't be for much longer. So Oakland needs an in-season rebound, starting now. Beating the struggling Braves in this series may not sound like much, but the A’s have to start somewhere if they’re going to fulfill any of the expectations put on them, let alone stay a game ahead of the Angels.


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

Buck Showalter: Replay gamesmanship?

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:54
AM ET

The Cleveland Indians' past five games have gone like so: 3-0 win, 4-1 win, 3-2 win, 1-0 loss (12 innings), 2-1 win (11 innings). The 3-2 victory (over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first of a doubleheader) and Friday's 2-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles were both decided on Cleveland's final swing of the bat. Zach Walters and Mike Aviles, respectively, did the honors by way of solo homers.

The narrow victories have pulled Cleveland back into the tail end of the chase for the second wild-card spot, though at 61-60, they'll need to leapfrog the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers and Mariners and make up five games in the standings over their next 41. It's not impossible, though they'll need every last nail-biting win, but the team is so thoroughly a .500 squad that it's hard to imagine them making up the gap. Their run differential (+10) doesn't show a sleeping giant, their roster has more players who are at risk to trend downward (Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Corey Kluber) than upward (Nick Swisher), and their starting pitching, which essentially amounts to "Kluber and pray for a four-day deluge," is not of the quality they'd need to rip off six weeks of hot baseball.

Baltimore, meanwhile, finds itself in the opposite position. Even after Friday's loss, they have a big lead in the AL East, and the three teams behind them with even a quasi-realistic shot at winning the division are the Rays, who traded their ace, David Price, to Detroit; the Yankees, who have four starting pitchers on the disabled list, including their ace, Masahiro Tanaka; and the Blue Jays, who might have a roster capable of doing some damage but don't have the depth to cover for injuries to players such as Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion and consequently find themselves with seven games to make up and not nearly enough time to do so.

Still, whether a team has a clear path to the playoffs or a struggle just to stay halfway relevant, it's more fun to win close, extra-innings games than lose them, which might explain why Orioles manager Buck Showalter appeared to go out of his way to engage in gamesmanship Friday. To set the scene: Kluber had cruised along through seven innings and struck out nine Orioles while allowing four hits and two walks. After catching Chris Davis looking with an absurd 95 mph sinker on the outside corner, Kluber ran another of his filthy two-seamers in on the hands of Adam Jones, who tried to pull back his bunt attempt but wound up taking the ball off his fingers. Jones believed he successfully brought his bat back from the strike zone but neither home plate umpire Dana DeMuth nor first base umpire Ron Kulpa saw things his way.

After the usual back-and-forth that, as we've learned, attends all manager discussions with umpires prior to the men in blue donning headsets and chatting with their colleagues in New York, DeMuth and Kulpa did just that. The call, unsurprisingly, was upheld. Video technology is remarkable and improving every day, but getting a good, close look at the bat as a ball traveling 90-plus mph approaches the hands of the batter, which are themselves in motion? Whatever call the umpires made on the field was almost destined to stand. The standard for overturning a call, remember, is that the replay must provide "clear and convincing evidence," which requires the replay umpires be able to "definitively conclude that the call on the field was incorrect."

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter, Dana DeMuth, Ron Kulpa, Ed Hickox
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesWhile Orioles manager Buck Showalter pleaded his case with the umpiring crew in the eighth inning, Corey Kluber and the Indians waited.
All of this took a handful of minutes -- minutes Kluber had to stand around, tossing a ball with his teammates, waiting for them to end. Showalter, though, was not satisfied when DeMuth relayed New York's answer. He stayed on the field and chatted something less than amiably for minutes more. He even pulled a "start to walk back to the dugout but then turn around and continue arguing" move, perhaps to squeeze every last second out of the delay. As Cleveland's broadcast team grew ever more indignant, and as Indians manager Terry Francona stared on impatiently from the top step of his dugout, DeMuth, bafflingly, failed to give Showalter the heave-ho. The replay rules could not be clearer on this point:

Once Replay Review is initiated, no uniformed personnel from either Club shall be permitted to further argue the contested calls or the decision of the Replay Official. Onfield personnel who violate this provision shall be ejected.


Whatever Jedi mind trick Showalter had in his back pocket worked, though, and the umps let him stay in the game.

To be fair, we can't read Showalter's mind, and I, at least, can't read his lips. Perhaps he had a legitimate argument and felt honestly aggrieved by the outcome of the play. (Jones certainly did, as he barked at the first-base umpire after grounding out weakly once the game finally resumed.) Perhaps none of this was intended to ice a hot pitcher on a relatively cool Cleveland night. But Showalter has a history of delaying games to ice pitchers. And of psyching out hitters. And of throwing bulletin-board material at an entire slate of division foes.

Kluber had just thrown his 111th pitch of the night, so regardless, he was not long for the mound. Although he gave up a single to Nelson Cruz, who eventually came around to score the tying run, he had just retired Jones on a filthy breaking ball and handed the Cleveland bullpen a simple task: Prevent the slow-as-molasses Cruz from scoring from first with two outs. That Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were unable to do that can no more be put on Kluber than it can on Showalter.

Still, Showalter's non-ejection is one more annoyance in this first season of the expanded replay era, one more wrinkle to be ironed out. Fortunately, the answer is simple: Strictly enforce the rule requiring ejection for further argument. There's no reason not to; arguing about the results of a replay with the on-field crew, who have no input in the replay process, is pointless, as futile as reasoning with the lamppost you just ran your car into. Managers truly committed to the cause might holler and scream and delay the game via the histrionics accompanying an ejection anyway, but at least they pay the price for doing so. Given the outcome in Cleveland, what's to stop Showalter from pulling the same stunt again?

Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
10:36
AM ET
Pretty historic vote last night, as Rob Manfred was named the 10th Commissioner of Major League Baseball. A boisterous congratulations from us here at ESPN's SweetSpot Network. As the SweetSpot's own Christina Kahrl noted, there's lots of work ahead for the Commish-elect. Buster Olney and Gordon Edes also weighed in on the challenges and issues facing Manfred. Bud Selig leaves a complicated legacy, complete with some amazing highs (labor peace since '94, revenue explosion, revenue sharing, instant replay, wildcards, WBC, Jackie Robinson Day, expansion of PED penalties) and some reputational dents (the 1994 strike, PEDs, stadium woes in Oakland and Tampa Bay, the Marlins/RedSox/Expos "inside job" ownership exchange, the 2002 All Star game fiasco). It will be very interesting to see Manfred establish himself, having lead many of these key initiatives for Selig behind the scenes for so long.

Please weigh in on your thoughts on Selig, Manfred and whatever else moves you in the comments below. What changes would you make if you were Rob Manfred this morning?

Onto the best of the SweetSpot Network contributing sites from this past week...

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Jake Lamb: Welcome to the Show: the D-backs' trade of Martin Prado did more than clear payroll, it also cleared third base for prospect Jake Lamb. Jeff Wiser breaks down Lamb's minor league success and explains what to expect. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Chris Davis on Path to Fall Short of Mark Reynolds: Jon Shepherd notes that after a 2013 of Chris Davis chasing the home run record and settling for simply the Orioles' home run record, he is now chasing another one: most home runs with a batting average under .200. As of the time of writing, Davis was on pace to fall three homers short of Reynolds' feat of 32. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Back to the Cubs Future: A Look Back at the 2011 Cubs Top 10 Prospect List: Each year, Baseball America releases their top-10 list for each organization and projects the lineup three years out. Joe Aiello takes a look back at 2011 to see how they did now that 2014 is here. Hint: It’s not pretty. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
The Saddest Play In Rockies History: Eric Garcia McKinley reminisces on the last Rockies game before the 1994 strike. The exchange between Eric Young and Ryan Klesko was memorably tragic. Follow on Twitter: @garcia_mckinley

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Twins are Making the Right Moves: The Twins are finally embracing their rebuild, clearing out aging veterans to make room for the next wave, as Nick Nelson writes. Follow on Twitter @nnelson9

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Yankees Historically Bad Clutch Hitting: The 2014 Yankees are bad in the clutch. Katie Sharp shows everyone just how awful they've been and how they rank historically. Follow on Twitter: @KTSharp
Slump City, USA, Population Yankee Bats: Everybody slumps. Brad Vietrogoski examines how all the Yankees seem to be doing it at the same time. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Graph: MVP candidates by percentage of team WAR: One way to think of who is most valuable to his team is to consider the proportion of the player's contribution to his team's overall performance. Pip at Fungoes graphically displays each league's leaders in Wins Above Replacement, with their WARs as percentages of their team's totals. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Unsung pitcher: Jose Quintana

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
10:13
AM ET
In the days leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, there were suggestions out there that the White Sox should trade Jose Quintana, or that teams should be going after Quintana. Those aren't quite the same thing, but you can see why the idea percolated: (A) The White Sox weren't going anywhere, and he's one of the few valuable commodities they have, and (B) he could bolster a rotation but wouldn't cost you as much as a David Price or a Jon Lester.

The problem I had with the whole trade Quintana thing, even if they were just random suggestions and rumors: Quintana is the kind of pitcher you build around, not trade away. He's young (25), he's inexpensive, and he's really, really good.

It's that latter one that some people have a hard time believing. Quintana was never a top prospect; in fact, he was never really a prospect at all. Originally signed by the Mets out of Colombia in 2006, Quintana, then 17, tested positive that October for violating minor league baseball's drug policy. Suspended for the start of the 2007 season, the Mets released him in July before he had even pitched that year. He was out of baseball for four months, thinking his professional career was over.

"I feel like it was lack of orientation more than anything," Quintana told MLB.com in 2013. "I was just taking medicine. I wasn't trying to get anything else. I was going to a gym where they had a sports medicine guy."

The Yankees eventually signed Quintana as a free agent. He spent two years in the Dominican summer league and two years in Class A ball. He had decent numbers at Tampa in 2011, pitching primarily in relief, but the Yankees didn't put him on their 40-man roster, and the White Sox signed him as a minor league free agent thanks to some good scouting work from Daraka Shaheed and Joe Siers, who saw a potential starter.

Quintana quickly reached the majors in 2012, went 9-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 33 starts last year, and this year he's 6-9, but with a 3.14 ERA and solid numbers across the board. Don't blame Quintana for his win-loss record -- he has had seven starts where he allowed one run or no runs and won just two of those, with five no-decisions.

Those numbers the past two seasons are even more impressive when considering that he pitches his home games in a good hitters' park (or, more specifically, one of the best home run parks in the majors).

Quintana has a pretty typical repertoire: a four-seamer, a two-seamer he has been throwing more often this year, an excellent curveball and a changeup.

Here's one stat that helps explain Quintana's success even though his fastball averages 91.4 mph (decent enough for a lefty). His swing-and-miss percentage with his fastball is 45.4 percent; Price's is 45.7 percent. He pounds the strike zone with it, but what I like best about Quintana's approach is that he doesn't use it just to set up his curveball. He actually uses it a lot with two strikes to finish off batters -- he's seventh in the majors in strikeouts recorded with his fastball.

Anyway, it's hard for Quintana to get much attention pitching in the same rotation as Chris Sale. It doesn't help that the White Sox haven't exactly been in the spotlight these past two years.

By the way, here's one final stat, Baseball-Reference WAR, 2013-2014:

Quintana: 8.2
Lester: 6.4
Price: 5.7

To be fair, he's behind both on FanGraphs, but still 11th overall in the majors.

Either way, that sounds like an unsung pitcher to me.



video

Eric and I discuss Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw as MVP candidates. Justin Verlander won in 2011 but that's a rarity for a pitcher. Could both guys win MVP honors this year?

(For an excellent breakdown of the history of pitchers as MVP candidates, check out this piece from Dave Cameron at FanGraphs. I still can't believe Dwight Gooden didn't win in 1985.)

Nationals starting to live up to expectations

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
1:34
AM ET


Do the Nationals have the NL East won? It's worth asking now, because with a six-game lead over the Braves after their latest victory over the Mets on Thursday night, we might end up with the Nats walking away. That would no doubt be especially sweet for Matt Williams in what has already been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster of a season, but as the season nears the three-quarter mark, I would suggest it's remarkable that we've been able to talk about the Braves as a plausible rival this far into the season.


The number of things that people get hung up on about the Nationals is legion, especially as a traditionally sports-crazy town warms to theme of a team that gives it something to talk about day after day. Williams and Bryce Harper, mixing it up with the press and saying stuff that both of them probably shouldn’t? That’s just Fourth Estate hijinks at their best, the stuff of easy headlines and team media relations staff nightmares. They don't add up to much in terms of the things that have been telling us the Nats are going to win all along.


Take the way in which we can fidget over how star players aren't performing up to an ideal. As David Schoenfield wrote last week, Stephen Strasburg has failed to dominate the way you'd expect according to metrics like FIP, but as he pointed out, that's in part because of some easily identifiable problems, like how he’s pitched with men on base. That’s not only something you can diagnose, ideally, it's something you can fix. And, if not, heck, he wouldn't be the first guy with plus stuff and some fly in his statistical ointment. Nolan Ryan had an annoying tendency to have a worse real-world ERA than FIP for some of the same reasons.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIBryce Harper has ripped two homers in a week. Is it time to stop worrying about him this year?


Or take Harper's homering a second time this week on Thursday, leading Williams to say his swing looked more free than it has at any previous point this season. It's easy to fret over the performance this season as Harper has struggled through injuries, as my old Baseball Prospectus colleague Jonah Keri did for Grantland on Wednesday. And here again, that's diagnosable because of the expanding spread of statistical resources we have at our disposal, and, as Jonah noted, against something like what you can suss out of this year's hard-hit average from Harper, you have the rest of Harper’s career to look back on, which generated big projections, big expectations and a lot to look forward to. That didn't go away just because the kid got hurt and played through it, not if the underlying talent is still there. It just means his final season line won't be pretty.


And then there's Ryan Zimmerman's injuries, availability and his eventual position, and Gio Gonzalez doing less well this year, or Jordan Zimmermann's stack of frustrating non-decisions, or the bullpen having a bad week or two since the All-Star break, highlighted by Rafael Soriano blowing a couple of save opportunities. Put all of that together and you have no end of reasons to get worked up and start talking about why this team won't win … except when I look at all of those guys, all of that talent and so many of them parked in the middle of their peak seasons, and I think those are all things they can iron out by October because, once there, nobody's going to remember or worry about what Harper's May looked like if he's right by then, starting now.


All of that talent adds up to a run differential that is pushing plus-100 (at plus-89 so far) and an expected record of 71-48, five games better than they are. That's a pole position, not just a poll position, a level of performance that you might think is pulling them toward where they ought to be. Yet nobody on the Nats is having what I think any of us would call a career year. But they won't need it to win the NL East going away.


In contrast, without getting into the Braves in any depth, by run differential alone -- having allowed four more runs than they've scored -- they're essentially a team that you should expect to play .500 ball (60-61), and they are playing .500 ball (61-60). Is that about what we might have expected after they had to cobble together a rotation on the fly during the spring? Yes, I suspect it was. Is that about where they'll wind up? If they do, I'd consider it a moral victory.


But the Nats? They won't have to settle for that. They'll be winning the victories that count in the standings and living up to what so many of us predicted for them back on Opening Day.

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

Commish's election reflects owner issues

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
6:32
PM ET

After decades of Bud Selig's leadership, it's easy to forget that the history of Major League Baseball's executive suite is littered with tales of infighting, stubborn defenses of archaic business practices and a seemingly endless capacity for injuring the game in the pursuit of personal gain. John Helyar famously wrote about owners as the game's
"Lords of the Realm" three decades ago, but if you thought those days were long over, Thursday's election of a new commissioner provided a quick reminder that they never really went away.

The proceedings quickly resolved into a two-man race and a battle over Selig's legacy. In one corner, we had MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred. In the other, Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. In each case, there's a lot of projection based on past history, but it's been ever thus with commissioners. When people talk about Bart Giamatti, they prefer to remember the academic and the fan of the game, not the guy who won fans among baseball's owners by busting unions when he ran Yale, although that's what got him the job, not poetry or fandom.

Manfred is seen as the aspiring guardian of Selig's legacy, the palace candidate who's supposed to perpetuate Selig's commitments. Given the absence of work stoppages in recent years and the game's booming profitability, that might sound like an entirely good thing … until you remember baseball's screwups over performance-enhancing drugs, from Ryan Braun's transient "innocence" to the eventual deal with Biogenesis clinic founder Tony Bosch to get Alex Rodriguez, Braun and others -- all stuff which Manfred was involved in. More importantly, Manfred is the man commonly credited with talking Selig around baseball's limited form of revenue sharing. In baseball, that was a big, evolutionary step forward, although the game has further to go on that score to approach the standard set by the NFL.

From the outside looking in, Werner made for a strange choice as an alternative to Manfred, since Werner is best known for his association with sitcoms like "Roseanne," "The Cosby Show," and "30 Rock." His more recent contributions range from a lamentable run as the owner of the San Diego Padres, involving a fire sale of talent so egregious it generated a class-action lawsuit from fans. There's also his willing collaboration in one of Selig's most spectacular feats of sleight of hand: the ownership switcheroo of 2002 that put the Red Sox in John Henry's (and Werner's) hands while loaning Jeffrey Loria enough money to buy the Marlins to make the Expos community property (subsequently enriching all parties when the Expos were moved to Washington, D.C., and sold).

Those lining up behind Werner, apparently led by Jerry Reinsdorf, made for an odd assemblage. The White Sox's owner was believed to be the one orchestrating this cabal in his pursuit of a union-busting war to the death with the MLBPA, or perhaps just trying to tweak Selig's nose after not getting his way in the last major work stoppage in '94. But with the owners of the White Sox, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Angels, Nationals, Reds and Athletics reportedly all voting for Werner, the faction had the critical eight votes to prevent Manfred from getting the required 23 for election the first time around.

Manfred eventually won, but the Werner candidacy wasn't just some juvenile stunt, and it reflects a bigger problem -- not just with the 30 owners, but in the candidates and what they reflect. This might be best boiled down to the "vision" thing -- not that Manfred or Werner had a responsibility to publicly provide it up front, but what both candidates haven't given all of us is a sense of vision for the game that will contend with these substantive issues, let alone resolve its strategic challenge: the game's growing demographic problem, as the average age of its audience approaches 50, and its lower and lower television ratings.

Did either of these guys have answers? We don't really know yet. During his Wednesday interview, Werner couldn't really articulate a coherent strategy on revenue sharing, having been for it out of self-interest when he owned the Padres but against it now that he's minting money with the Red Sox.

That sensibility reflects who the commissioner serves and has always served: not you or me, and not the game, but the 30 owners as their employee. And as long as the 30 were each able to tell themselves, "I've got mine," they could work with Bud Selig -- originally one of their own, after all -- as he worked to create consensus around one issue or another.

Which brings us back to what was and remains important about Selig and his legacy. He wasn't just the guy who made the All-Star Game count or who worked to create the long peace the game has enjoyed since the disaster that he helped create in 1994. He's not just the guy who presided over an unprecedented wave of stadium construction across the industry. In short, he conspired to keep the game going despite the many owners who might prefer to win a labor war over a pennant.

To be sure, there's more than a little left undone, starting with the continued self-spiting insanity of baseball's television blackout rules. Or the nonresult in sorting out baseball's self-inflicted idiocy over territorial rights in the Bay Area. And the "vision" thing to find ways to make the game more popular with younger fans.

Maybe Manfred is the man to fix these things after years of having to work on them from the inside. But as a result, if you're wondering how he might succeed where Selig's genius for consensus could not, you're not alone. Today's wrangling reveals how hard it will be to work with the current 30 owners to recreate that capacity for forging consensus. It hardly bodes well for the game's future after Czar Bud, the Great Consensunator, departs.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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This could just be the circles I hang out in or the articles I read, but doesn't it seem like we've heard more about Javier Baez and Kris Bryant this year than Anthony Rizzo?

I mean, I get that we love prospects, we love the hype, we love to build these kids up as the next great thing. That's fun, it's even natural; after all, we're often bored with mediocrity and we can grow to detest lousy players.

The minor league exploits of Baez and Bryant -- and the recent major league exploits of Baez -- have certainly been enjoyable to follow, but their futures are unknown. Maybe they'll be great, maybe not; hype doesn't guarantee anything.

But the Chicago Cubs already have a great young player in Rizzo, who just turned 25 last week, and we seem to have widely ignored him, at least on a national level. OK, he hasn't been completely ignored -- he did make the All-Star team, after all -- but consider what he's done this year:
  • Second in the National League with 27 home runs. Maybe he doesn't hit them 800 feet like Giancarlo Stanton, but Rizzo has only four fewer home runs. I feel like I've seen every Stanton home run on the highlight reels but very few of Rizzo's.
  • He's seventh in the NL in on-base percentage and sixth in walks -- and walks are good. (Take note, Javier!)
  • He's third among major league first basemen in WAR, behind only Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Abreu, which means he ranks higher than Miguel Cabrera and Freddie Freeman.


I bring up Baez and Bryant because I think what happened with Rizzo flying under the radar this season is that after hitting .233 last year -- in his first full season in the majors, mind you -- fans sort of wrote Rizzo off to some extent. This is what happens with young players projected as potential stars; the expectations are high and the expectations are immediate. Will the same thing happen to Baez and Bryant if they don't hit 30 home runs in their first seasons?

Anyway, Rizzo still had a lot of positives in 2013: 23 home runs, 40 doubles, 76 walks. Those are all good things, even if they were lost in the .233 average. But he also may have been the unluckiest hitter in the majors last year. He had one of the lowest averages on balls in play (.258) in the majors, even though his "hard-hit" percentage ranked 24th among qualified batters. His line-drive percentage was league average. So there were no obvious pointers (like excessive infield popups) that explained the .258 BABIP.

He wasn't bad -- just unlucky. He still had the same skills that had impressed everyone during his partial season in 2012. This year, his BABIP is up (.297), his line-drive rate is up 2 percent and a higher percentage of his fly balls have cleared the fence instead of landing just short.

The exciting thing is he's still young enough to improve. Maybe you've moved on to Baez and Bryant. But the best Cubs hitter for the next six years? Don't be surprised if it's Rizzo.

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