Lagares wins Defensive Player of August

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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AP Photo/John MinchilloThe eyes of Mets fans have been on the great glove of Juan Lagares.

To assess the defensive abilities of New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares, we called upon a former major leaguer whose defensive skills were also top-notch.

“Juan Lagares’ ability to be in the right place makes me think we need a stat to measure teleportation accuracy,” said "Baseball Tonight" analyst and former outfielder Doug Glanville.

Unfortunately, we can’t quite provide what Doug is looking for. But we can try to do Lagares’ month justice in words, numbers and pictures. Lagares won the voting for our Defensive Player of the Month for August on the strength of his major league-leading 13 Defensive Runs Saved. It’s the second consecutive August in which Lagares copped the award, this time beating out Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick.

Lagares entered September with 30 Defensive Runs Saved for the season. He’s the first outfielder to post back-to-back seasons of 25 Defensive Runs Saved since 2003, when Baseball Info Solutions (a data-tracking service for teams and media) began tallying the stat.

Click on these three plays for a few demonstrations of Lagares’ skills.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIOne of many nice plays this month.

Aug. 2: Lagares makes a sprinting, leaping catch in left center field to rob Brandon Belt of an extra-base hit. Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) calculates that balls hit to that spot with that hang time are hits 76 percent of the time over the past calendar year.

Aug. 5: Lagares charges in to make a diving catch and take a hit away from Denard Span.

BIS has this charted as falling in for a hit 80 percent of the time.

Aug. 26: Lagares comes in and makes another diving catch of a hard-hit line drive by Braves pitcher Alex Wood. BIS has this as being a hit 98 percent of the time, though Lagares did have the advantage of playing shallow with the pitcher up. Regardless, it was a pretty tough play.

We didn’t even reference Lagares’ arm, which last season garnered 15 assists. This season, he only has four, but that’s largely because there is a reluctance to test his throwing arm. Last season, opponents took an extra base (went first to third or second to home on a single, or went first to home on a double) on 42 percent of hits that Lagares fielded. This season, that number dropped to 35 percent. In August, he held runners to a 24 percent extra-base advancement rate.

Case in point came in the Mets' most recent series against the Philadelphia Phillies when Ben Revere (who entered September with 40 steals) held at third on a Lagares-fielded hit. We’d venture to say Revere would have tested any other center fielder in the game.

Mets manager Terry Collins has frequently compared Lagares to former Gold Glove winner Devon White. Mets first base coach Tom Goodwin had another name in mind while talking with ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, one who actually tormented the Mets with great plays with his glove and arm regularly while playing for the Braves -- Andruw Jones.

“He gives himself an opportunity to make the plays that he needs to make," Goodwin said of Lagares. “And then when you throw his arm in there as well -- and he plays shallow, he knows when to come in -- he’s going to have a pretty good chance of throwing somebody out at home. It makes him that kind of dual- or triple-threat outfielder.

“He gets good jumps. And a lot of guys have to slow down when they’re coming up to the ball in order to catch it. He’s one of those guys who can maintain his speed and still be under control enough to make an accurate throw. Those things are hard to do. I had enough trouble myself, when I was playing, just trying to catch it. So I always had to slow down. And then I’d have to try to pick up my momentum. But he seems to be able to maintain that speed while he’s coming up to catch the ball and he maintains it all the way through.”

It’s not just those on Lagares’ team who feel this way. "I saw him last year, and he was impressive,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said at Citi Field last week. “I said to my coaches, he might be the best center fielder in the National League. Now, a year later, there's no doubt about it.”
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Monday's game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians set up to be one of those much-anticipated September pitching duels between aces on playoff contenders: David Price versus Corey Kluber, the team everyone expected to win the American League Central against the team that has suddenly turned it into a three-team race for the division crown.

Miguel Cabrera would like to tell everyone: Remember me?

Cabrera was coming off an August where he hit .252 with one home run. He had just two home runs in July. He'd been more Jolbert Cabrera than Miggy Cabrera of late when he stepped in against Kluber in the top of the first inning, one out and Ian Kinsler on third after a bloop triple to right field. Kluber entered on a roll that has turned him into one of the game's top starters, posting a 1.69 ERA over his previous 13 starts, with a .207 average allowed and 105 strikeouts in 96 innings. Cabrera, battling a sore ankle, hadn't homered since Aug. 2.

Cabrera took a fastball for a strike and then muscled an 0-1 changeup just over the fence in left field. It wasn't a good pitch from Kluber; catcher Yan Gomes wanted it down, but the pitch was up and too far inside. Cabrera has struggled lately driving hard stuff inside, but he didn't miss the 87 mph changeup.

As it turned out, it wasn't Kluber's day, as he was knocked out in the third inning after throwing just 57 pitches, his shortest outing of the year. He gave up three home runs after allowing just four over those previous 13 starts. Cabrera would add another home run in the eighth inning off rookie reliever Bryan Price, making his major league debut, and Price rebounded from his disastrous nine-hits-in-a-row outing to pitch Detroit to a 12-1 victory.

Cabrera is one of the key players to watch in September. He's still the main cog in that Detroit lineup, capable of doing great things and leading the Tigers to a fourth straight division title. Here are some other important players for September, one for each playoff contender.

Trevor Bauer, Indians: The right-hander has tossed two straight scoreless starts but got knocked out before the fifth inning in two of his previous three starts. That inconsistency has been the case for him all season. Terry Francona won't ask much more than six innings out of him, but he needs to deliver those six, not three or four.

Yordano Ventura, Royals: He continues to walk a tightrope but scraped together another "just good enough" start to get the win in Monday's 4-3 victory over the Rangers. But you wonder if the rookie right-hander is about to hit the wall as he's walked 17 in 24 2/3 innings over his past four starts. The Royals haven't had to dig very deep in their rotation -- only nine starts beyond their top five guys -- but watch Ventura closely. He's at 152 innings after throwing 149 last year between the minors and majors.

Kendrys Morales, Mariners: Lloyd McClendon continues to think Morales is his cleanup hitter, even though he's now hitting .227/.270/.327 on the season and has three home runs in 33 games with Seattle. Heck, those numbers aren't better than what Justin Smoak can offer -- who, by the way, was back in the lineup at first base in Monday's loss to the A's.

Matt Shoemaker, Angels: With Garrett Richards out for the season, Shoemaker is suddenly the Angels' best starter. Nobody will call him the ace of the staff ahead of Jered Weaver, but the rookie right-hander is 7-1 with a 1.12 ERA over his past eight starts, with 43 strikeouts and six walks in 48 1/3 innings. The Angels' rotation is in scramble mode even as the team has jumped past the A's in the AL West standings, but it's also leaning on more great work from Shoemaker.

Brandon Moss, A's: He went 0-for-3 in the win over Seattle and is now homerless since July 24 -- hitting .163 with just three extra-base hits in 31 games. Adam Dunn would help relieve some of the power issues the A's have had without Yoenis Cespedes, but Moss needs to start hitting like he did in the first half, when he made the All-Star team after hitting 21 home runs.

Nelson Cruz, Orioles: The Orioles would love to see Cruz rediscover the hot bat he had early on. He did have six home runs in August and hit his 36th on Monday, but has hit just .181 with a .254 OBP since the All-Star break. Buck Showalter has kept him in the cleanup spot but the all-or-nothing approach has since a little too much nothing in recent weeks.

Bryce Harper, Nationals: Washington will win the East so it's all about getting Harper in a consistent groove for the postseason. Minus Ryan Zimmerman, Harper's power could be a key to a long October. The thumb is finally looking healthy and he launched two long home runs on Sunday in Seattle. The pressure isn't on him to carry the team -- he's batting sixth -- but he's starting to provide that presence behind Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond.

Mike Minor, Braves: If the Braves win a wild card, it has to come from the pitching. As we saw in Monday's no-hitter, the lineup just isn't going to suddenly put it together. Enter Minor, so good a year ago but a guy who had struggled most of the season. But he's allowed just four runs his past three starts, allowing nine hits over 21 2/3 innings.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals: The numbers speak for themselves: 12-4, 1.83 ERA, 4.26 SO/BB ratio in the first half; 3-5, 4.68 ERA, 1.94 SO/BB ratio in the second half.

Ryan Braun, Brewers: Braun had an All-Star-caliber first half but he's hitting .229/.280/.414 since the break. The power is still there -- seven home runs -- but he's chasing a lot of pitches out of the strike zone (38 percent chase rate) and getting himself out too easily. Much the offense isn't going to carry the Braves, the pitching here isn't going to carry the Brewers. They need a huge September from their right fielder.

Gerrit Cole, Pirates: Cole took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the seventh against the Cardinals on Monday in a big game to kick off a three-game series. With one out, he gave up a single to Pete Kozma and then a two-run, pinch-hit homer to Kolten Wong, a 1-2 fastball, middle-in. Blame the pitch selection, blame the location, but games are won and lost on one bad pitch. Jon Jay then tripled and scored the go-ahead run.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: Let's see, if the Dodgers win every Kershaw start they probably only have to go about .500 in the other games to win the division. Fair?

Buster Posey, Giants: He's been one of the best players in baseball in the second half, hitting .342/.391/.565. Do that another month, beat Kershaw, and maybe the Giants win the West.

Derek Jeter, Yankees: Does he have one final legendary act in him?

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Does anyone remember combined no-hitters? Maybe not. There have been only 11 of them. I'm a Mariners fan and they threw one a few years ago against the Dodgers and I couldn't even tell you who started that game. (It was Kevin Millwood as it turns out, and it was only two years ago -- and Millwood pitched for the Mariners?)

Anyway, a no-hitter is still a cool accomplishment and the 34,000 fans in Atlanta who saw Cole Hamels and three Phillies relievers combine for the no-hitter in the Phillies' 7-0 win on Monday can now say that they've seen one in person.

Hamels left after six innings and 108 pitches. In this day of careful handling of pitchers, if there is one reason managers will leave starters in and disregard pitch counts, it's when a no-hitter is intact. Three of the four highest pitch counts in the past five years have been no-hitters: Edwin Jackson (149 pitches), Tim Lincecum (148) and Johan Santana (134). The fourth was Brandon Morrow with 137 pitches in his 17-strikeout one-hitter against the Rays in 2010 -- the lone hit coming with two outs in the ninth.
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AP Photo/John BazemoreCole Hamels delivers during his six innings from the Phillies' four-man no-hitter of the Braves.

But with Hamels sitting at 108 pitches after six innings -- he'd walked five batters -- manager Ryne Sandberg could see that Hamels wasn't going the distance on an 88-degree day in Atlanta. Hamels was fine with the decision to come out. "He was pretty well spent there," Sandberg said. "The early innings had something to do with it. The stressful innings, stranding the runners at second and third a couple of times, but he wasn't going to go nine. And he ran the bases the inning before."

In another disappointing season for the Phillies, it was a rare highlight in what could be the franchise's first last-place finish since 1997.

In the midst of this bad season, Hamels is having maybe his best season. You can't tell from his 8-6 record (he's allowed one run or zero runs in 11 starts but won just six of those), but his ERA is a career-low 2.50 and he hasn't been as prone to the long ball as in the past. He's still one of the premier lefties in the game, which means we'll once again be hearing his name in trade rumors all offseason.

Trouble is, the Phillies will face the same dilemma they faced when considering whether to trade Hamels in July: It's going to be difficult to get a team to give up multiple top prospects or young players and pick up the remaining $90 million and four years of his contract (or $110 million if a final fifth year vests). The Phillies reportedly wanted a ransom of Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Julio Urias from Los Angeles, the Dodgers' top three prospects. I'm guessing that phone conversation between Ruben Amaro and Ned Colletti didn't last long.

Unless Amaro reshapes his thinking on Hamels' value, that means Hamels likely returns to the Phillies in 2015. With Cliff Lee's season-ending injury and salary ($25 million in 2015 plus either a $12 million buyout or $27.5 vesting option for 2016), he's probably not going anywhere this offseason, either. Teams will want to see him pitch first.

Which puts the Phillies back to where they've been the past two seasons: Trying to win with an old and aging core and not enough young talent. A lot has been made of the Phillies not trading Jonathan Papelbon or not giving rookie Ken Giles a chance to close, but the truth is that Papelbon wouldn't bring much on the trade market, not with his salary ($13 million this year and next year, with a possible vesting option for 2016) and the fact that teams just don't give up much for relief pitchers, even good ones.

At least Hamels, Lee if healthy, and Papelbon have been productive. Chase Utley, 35, has also had a solid year and has played in 131 of the Phillies' 137 games. Jimmy Rollins has actually had his best season in years, with 3.5 WAR.

The biggest problems with the 2014 Phillies have been:

1. Ryan Howard. He's fourth in the NL in RBIs, which is enough of a trap that Amaro probably thinks he's even having a good year. He's not. Howard's WAR is -0.9, a reflection of his low on-base percentage (.308), low slugging percentage (.383) and terrible defense (-9 defensive runs saved). As rumored at one point this summer, the Phillies are better off just buying out Howard's contract and parting ways. He's not a replacement-level first baseman, let alone a championship-level first baseman. He's done a lot for the club in his career but you can't be sentimental in baseball.

2. Domonic Brown. He's gone from All-Star to All-Stiff. He's done nothing well this year. He hasn't hit for power, hasn't gotten on base and he's lousy in left field. Maybe you don't give up on him but you can't count on him remaining a starter in 2015.

3. Ben Revere, or at least his defense. He may win the batting title! He also has a .325 OBP and Phillies fans will attest to his poor routes in center and poor arm. Put him in left field and find a better glove for center.

4. Kyle Kendrick. OK, his defense doesn't help -- we just pointed out three big problems -- but that's exacerbated with Kendrick because he's not a big strikeout guy. But he has a 4.83 ERA the past two seasons, not good enough for this post-steroid era.

First base, center field, starting pitcher. That's where you start. That's not going to be easy considering the Phillies already have $127 million committed to just nine players next season. Is there room to go after a Max Scherzer or Pablo Sandoval or James Shields? Maybe there is, especially with a back-loaded contract, as the Phillies have $76 million in commitments for 2016 and $34 million in 2017, so there's flexibility down the road.

Trouble is that by then, Utley, Rollins, Lee and Papelbon will be gone or too old. Leaving Cole Hamels. Last man standing.

Good luck, Ruben Amaro. Or the general manager who will be taking on this team in the offseason.
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On a certain level, there was always the belief that Bo Porter was a placeholder, a manager to fill out the lineup card, play the young guys, take his lumps and not complain about all the losing. When the front office deemed the rebuilding process complete and the Houston Astros ready to win again, general manager Jeff Luhnow would bring in a different manager -- either one with more experience and a proven record of success or a younger, more sabermetrically inclined manager.

The Astros fired Porter with a month to go in the season; the timing isn't really a surprise, as it gives the Astros an early start over other teams that may be looking for a new manager in the offseason. Why wait to begin the search if you know you're going to fire Porter anyway?

This appears the key section of Luhnow's statement: "What we will seek going forward is a consistent and united message throughout the entire organization. It is essential that as an organization we create an atmosphere at the Major League level where our young players can come up and continue to develop and succeed."

Reading between the lines, I wonder if this is a direct shot at the Mark Appel incident, when the Astros' No. 1 pick from last year passed through Houston this summer for a throwing session on his way to a promotion to Double-A. Several anonymous Astros players voiced their opinion that Appel hadn't earned his way to a major league clubhouse -- even for a throwing session. Considering most Astros players have barely proven anything themselves at the major league level, it seemed a curious thing for a terrible team to get upset about. Even if it was just a couple of opinionated guys in the clubhouse, it came across as a bit of a poisonous culture, with Porter getting some of the blame, fair or not.

While Porter was apparently willing to buy into the front office's sabermetric bent -- the Astros lead the majors with 1,204 defensive shifts (the Yankees are second with 687) -- we also don't know what went on behind closed doors. Maybe Porter privately complained to Luhnow about all the shifts. Maybe he didn't like the front office's overall influence or some of the decisions like having George Springer start the season in Triple-A.

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Brian Blanco/Getty ImagesBo Porter was 110-190 in his stint as the Astros' manager the past two years.
Or maybe Porter's fate was sealed back in May of 2013, when he embarrassingly tried to replace a reliever who hadn't faced a batter. The opposing manager had inserted a pinch hitter and Porter thought he could then replace his pitcher. A manager who doesn't know the most basic of rules probably isn't the guy you want managing a team in a playoff game.

The Astros weren't going to win the past two years, with or without Porter. Was he ever going to be the long-term skipper? Probably not.

Luhnow's search will obviously begin with a manager comfortable working with young players -- whether that's a veteran retread skipper like Manny Acta or current Mets bench coach Bob Geren or a first-time manager remains to be seen. Last offseason's trend was to hire first-timers -- including Matt Williams, Brad Ausmus, Bryan Price and Rick Renteria, with Ryne Sandberg in his first full season after taking over the Phillies in late 2013. Only Seattle's Lloyd McClendon was a retread.

Luhnow's other mantra, as he said in his statement, is a guy willing to go along with the organizational plan. For the Astros, that means going along with new ways to think about the game -- shifts are just one element of that philosophy. Maybe they go with a recently retired player, like the Tigers did with Ausmus -- Jason Varitek is a popular name that has been thrown out there. A's bench coach Chip Hale interviewed last offseason with Seattle; coming from Oakland, he would probably understand the Astros' sabermetric mindset as well as any candidate.

Regardless, the Astros are on the verge of becoming a .500 team next year and maybe a playoff contender in 2016. This manager is the one they want to be there when they get back into the postseason.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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1. The NL West race is heating up.

The Giants pounded the Brewers 15-5 to win their sixth in a row. They had two blowouts over Milwaukee but the pitching had its best week of the season, giving up 14 runs in seven games (three of those coming late on Sunday when Tim Lincecum made a relief appearance). After beginning the week five games behind L.A., now they're 2.5 games behind the Dodgers and have just nine games remaining against winning teams -- three against the Tigers and six against the Dodgers (they're 7-6 against the Dodgers). To be fair, the Dodgers are also have nine games left against winning teams (subbing the Nationals for the Tigers), so it appears this race could come down to the head-to-head showdowns later in September. If Buster Posey hits like he did in August -- .336, six home runs -- the Giants, without Matt Cain, with Lincecum banished to the bullen, can catch the Dodgers.

2. The Indians suddenly matter.

Sunday's game in Kansas City was suspended in the bottom of the 10th with the Indians up 4-2 and will be finished later in September when the Royals visit Cleveland, but the Indians are now just 3.5 behind the Royals, 2.5 if they hold on to this lead. As Christina Kahrl writes, the Indians are now stealth playoff contenders, both for the division title and the wild card. Next up: A big four-game series at home against then Tigers, kicking off with David Price facing Corey Kluber.

3. Bryce Harper finally looks healthy.

Harper crushed two long home runs on Sunday, although the Nationals lost to the Mariners (but still won the series). When Harper first came off the DL, either his timing was off or his thumb was still bothering him, but he's in a groove now and looks much better. In his past 23 games, he's hitting .307 with seven home runs.

4. Alex Wood comes up big for the Braves.

Wood's line in a 1-0 win over the Marlins: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 12 SO. His final two outs were strikeouts before he turned it over to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Wood is 10-10 with a 2.92 ERA and the Braves may regret those nearly two months he spent in the bullpen after beginning the season in the rotation (and pitching well). Combined with Mike Minor's resurgence -- four runs, nine hits in 21.2 innings over his past three starts -- the Braves' rotation is once again looking as formidable as it did back in April.

5. The Tigers' defense is still a problem.

The four errors on Sunday were bad enough, but the Tigers are also 29th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. The defense was supposed to be improved from 2013 by moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and acquiring Ian Kinsler and Kinsler has been excellent with 15 DRS. But Nick Castellanos has been just as bad as Cabrera at third base -- if not worse -- with -27 DRS and Torii Hunter's predicable lack of range in right field (-17 DRS) has hurt. Rookie Eugenio Suarez hasn't been great at shortstop. If the Tigers miss the playoffs, defense will be a major reason why.

Indians rise to AL stealth contender status

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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Despite Sunday night’s rain-delayed outcome, one thing has become clear in the AL Central race: The Cleveland Indians are cutting in on a dance many might have anticipated just the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers were invited to. You might have been among those who had already written the Indians off when they checked in at the break at .500 -- and might have been lucky to be even that good, considering they had a negative run differential.

But in their past 30 games, the Indians have gone 19-11, putting themselves right back into the running for the AL Central or a wild-card bid. The only AL clubs who have been as hot or hotter in that time are teams you got to hear about throughout August, such as the Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles and the Royals. The Indians? They’ve been the darkest of dark-horse contenders, slipping back into the field with a month to play.

What have the Indians done to bring themselves back? Run prevention, pure and simple. In the first half, the Tribe averaged 4.4 runs scored per game, and have averaged just less than four runs per game since the break. But on the defensive side, they’ve gone from allowing 4.5 runs per game to 3.2. For this, you can spread the credit around liberally between the defense, the pitching staff and (yet again) manager Terry Francona’s hyper-aggressive use of his bullpen to compensate for a rotation that still struggles to get through the sixth inning.

Who are the heroes on the pitching staff? Corey Kluber you should already know about, but he has been joined by Danny Salazar since the hard-throwing youngster’s recall (4-2, 3.3 runs allowed per nine, 36/11 K/BB ratio in 38 IP). The Indians’ search for arms beyond those two and Trevor Bauer created a new opportunity for Carlos Carrasco to come back from the pen; the hard-throwing Venezuelan has rattled off three quality starts in a row.

But just as it was last year, another big factor in the Indians’ success has been their bullpen. Francona is averaging almost four relievers used per game since the break, and that frenetic turnover has worked. Between closer Cody Allen, set-up men Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison and C.C. Lee, and situational lefties Nick Hagadone, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett, the Indians’ core seven in the pen have allowed just two runs per nine in 107 1/3 IP since the break, while whiffing 102 and walking 23. You can’t ask for much better from a unit, and just as it worked for the Indians last year, it’s working again this year. And that sort of depth means the Indians don’t have to give up on a game in the fifth or sixth inning just because T.J. House or Bauer doesn’t have it. Francona can use a quick hook, control the pace of the game, and bury an opponent with the kind of depth that allows him to play matchups for three or four innings a night.

Breaking it down on defense, you can credit a number of in-season changes for the improved defense. In the early going with Carlos Santana giving third base his best shot, the Indians looked like they might post one of the lowest defensive efficiency ratings ever. But since moving Santana off third base, seeing catcher Yan Gomes overcome a fumble-fingered first month or two, and swapping in rookie Jose Ramirez at shortstop after trading away Asdrubal Cabrera, the Indians aren’t all the way to good, but they’re no longer awful. The biggest net gain has come at short: Translate the difference between Ramirez and Cabrera across a full season using Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved, and the Indians made a 15-run swing, the sort of stretch move teams spend hand over fist to add at the deadline.

These aren’t the only factors, of course. It has been a huge help that the real Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes stood back up. Whether you blame Santana’s struggles or Gomes’ in the early months on their defensive problems, in the second half they’ve been the engines fueling the Indians’ O, with Santana producing an .894 OPS, Gomes at an eye-popping .986. With Michael Bourn already back from the DL and with David Murphy and Ryan Raburn due back soon, you can hope that they and some of the still-struggling regulars -- Jason Kipnis, first and foremost -- can put together a strong final month to help expand the narrow leads the bullpen and defense have had to protect.

Finally, you have to give the Indians credit for doing something that a number of marginal contenders have dared to do at the deadline: They went young instead of borrowing somebody else’s aging leftovers, ditching some of their free agents-to-be into the bargain. Guys such as Justin Masterson in the rotation, Cabrera at short, or John Axford and Vinnie Pestano in the bullpen were no longer among the Indians’ best options at their positions, regardless of whether you considered them a going concern as contenders or using the playing to evaluate their options for next year. Ditching those guys, even without getting much in the ways ready-now returns in the deals, was a clear case of addition by subtraction.

Does that mean the Indians can stay with the Royals and Tigers all the way down the stretch? I don’t see why not. The next two weeks will be critical, as the Indians start an 11-game homestand boasting one of the game’s best home records (39-25), but they start that with this four-game set against the Tigers, a series in which they'll see David Price, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Including those games, they still have seven games against the Tigers, and three against the Royals beyond the one they have to complete because of Sunday’s rain-delayed outcome. It won’t be easy, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Back in the day, Bud Selig waxed bureaucratic on the importance of “hope and faith”; you can bet Indians fans should have some now.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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When Garrett Richards, the best pitcher on the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and one of the best pitchers in the league, went down with a knee injury on Aug. 20, the consensus seemed to be: The AL West race is over; the Angels didn't have the rotation depth to survive his loss, especially with veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson not what they once were.

The West is over. Except it's the Angels, who finished off a four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics with an 8-1 win on Sunday, and not the A's, who are going to win the division. The sweep pushed the Angels' lead over the A's to five games, had winning pitcher Matt Shoemaker calling it a "huge series for us in regards to the playoffs," saw Angels fans chanting "Sweep! Sweep!" late in the game and caused normally placid Oakland manager Bob Melvin to call out his team: "They should be embarrassed."
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Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Matt Shoemaker has already come up huge for the Angels in the second half.

It was an energizing four days for the Angels -- they shut out the A's for 29 consecutive innings at one point -- and a demoralizing series for the A's, who finished August with a 12-17 record, their first losing month since May of 2012.

"We don't play like that," a glum Melvin said after the game. "The last three games here were the worst I've seen this team play in I can't remember how long. I feel bad for our fans to have to watch that."

What has gone right with the Angels? What has gone wrong with the A's?

For the Angels, let's start not with likely AL MVP Mike Trout -- who did homer on Sunday -- but the rookie Shoemaker, who continues to excel. Before the season, Baseball America didn't even rate the 27-year-old right-hander as one of the Angels' top 30 prospects. Perhaps understandable given his age, undrafted status coming out of Eastern Michigan and his pedestrian numbers the past two seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake, but the Angels were also rated to have the worst farm system in the majors -- for the second year in a row. How could this guy not be one of their 30 best minor leaguers? Put it this way: Shoemaker wasn't on anybody's radar as a potential key contributor.

But here he is: 14-4, with a 3.14 ERA and 115 strikeouts and 21 walks in 117.2 innings. There's nothing in those numbers that screams fluke: The strikeout rate is very good, the control is excellent, the BABIP isn't abnormal. Does he have an overpowering fastball? No, it averages just 90.6 mph, but he does have an effective splitter that has become a wipeout pitch. That pitch has accounted for 68 of his 115 K's and batters are hitting just .148 against it with one home run.

It's a pitch he initially learned to throw as a 14-year-old. "It just continues to get better," he said after beating the A's with seven scoreless innings. He threw it 30 percent of the time on Sunday, but considering he also mixes in a two-seam sinker, a slider and curveball, he's a five-pitch pitcher with a repertoire that resembles Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, and that has made him tough even without the blazing heater.

Or maybe it's the beard. He has grown a Brian Wilson-esque patch of fur on his chin. Hey, considering he's 7-2 with a 1.67 ERA since the All-Star break, I wouldn't shave either.

Another secret weapon for the Angels is catcher Chris Iannetta, who only has an on-base percentage better than Trout. Or right fielder Kole Calhoun, hitting .299/.346/.476 since June 6 and doing an excellent job setting the table for Trout. Or the bullpen. On Saturday, manager Mike Scioscia started reliever Cory Rasmus, who pitched three innings, and then used seven other relievers. The eight pitchers combined for a 2-0 shutout. It was an effective strategy as the Angels continue to scuffle for a fifth starter, one made possible by Scioscia's confidence in Shoemaker going deep into the game on Sunday.

As for the A's, the cop-out excuse is to say they miss Yoenis Cespedes. Maybe he did help provide a certain swagger, but that's not the reason they've struggled in August. Plus, have you eve know an A's team to lack swagger? Look at how their All-Stars have fared before the break and after:

Josh Donaldson: .238/.317/.449 to .314/.427/.529
Brandon Moss: .268/.349/.530 to .183/.318/.254
Derek Norris: .294/.402/.477 to .235/.300/.336
Scott Kazmir: 11-3, 2.38 ERA to 3-4, 6.21 ERA
Sean Doolittle: 2.89 43 IP to 11.2 IP (injured)

Only Donaldson, who has actually played better, has kept up his pace. Moss' struggles have created a power hole in the middle of the lineup, especially when combined with Cespedes' departure. The declines of Norris and Kazmir were predictable to some extent, two guys playing above their heads in the first half. Further, Sonny Gray had a 2.79 ERA before the break and 3.61 after; Jason Hammel has a 6.09 ERA since the break; Coco Crisp is hitting .172/.252/.284. Don't blame this slide on the Cespedes trade (and Jon Lester has been terrific).

Can the A's turn it around and catch the Angels? I don't see it. Yes, we've had teams blow five-game leads in September in recent years -- see the 2011 Red Sox in the wild-card race; the 2007 Mets had a seven-game lead on Sept. 12; and the A's certainly remember the 2012 Rangers -- Texas had a five-game lead over Oakland as late as Sept. 24 but the A's still won the division.

So never say never. But the Angels have the lineup depth with a superstar leading the way (they haven't even needed big seasons from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton); the bullpen is on a roll and deep enough that Scioscia doesn't need his starters to go deep into the game; 12 of the Angels' next 13 games are against the Astros, Twins and Rangers while the A's will have two series against the Mariners. On paper, it's going to difficult for Oakland to make up much ground the next two weeks.

Yes, the Angels' rotation is now depending on a 27-year rookie -- 28 later this month -- leading the way while the A's counter with a deep arsenal of starters.

But that's baseball, the most unpredictable of sports. We thought the A's getting Jeff Samardzija and Lester would be the big story in the AL West. Instead, it's Matt Shoemaker. Gotta love it.
When the Oakland Athletics traded Yoenis Cespedes to acquire Jon Lester, general manager Billy Beane had two beliefs:

(1) Lester would upgrade the rotation and give the A's a No. 1 starter for the postseason.

(2) They had enough offense to replace Cespedes, whose reputation was arguably bigger than his numbers, thanks to his subpar .303 OBP he had before the trade.

In the end, Beane believed the A's had a better chance of winning the division with Lester in the rotation, and winning the division would mean the A's had a better chance in the postseason, simply by avoiding the wild-card game.

Instead, the A's have stumbled to a 12-16 record in August -- their first losing month since May of 2012 -- and the Los Angeles Angels have surged, including wins over the A's in the first three games of this weekend's four-game series to take a four-game lead in the West entering Sunday's contest. In an attempt to add some power to the lineup that has averaged just 3.64 runs per game in August, Beane acquired Adam Dunn from the Chicago White Sox.

With the offense struggling, there have been a lot of echoes of "The A's miss Cespedes." As @EJRaoulduke1976 wrote to me on Twitter, "Sometimes you can underestimate what a single player means though, look at Oakland with Cespedes."

He's not the only one saying that; I've been hearing and reading it for two weeks. But there isn't necessarily a direct correlation from "The A's aren't scoring runs" to "The A's aren't scoring runs because they don't have Cespedes." Cespedes' actual value while with the A's seems to grow with each Oakland loss.

For one, this talk creates the false assumption that the A's were scoring a lot of runs before the trade solely because of Cespedes, when we know that simply isn't the way baseball works. He was but one cog in the machine and not the biggest one at that. You can argue about his "presence," and while I won't completely dismiss that such an element may have existed, the fact is that Cespedes was hitting .252/.303/.464 before the trade and that's not exactly a line that pitchers fear.

One player does not make an offense. Just look at the Angels. They've gone 14-4 the past 18 games with Mike Trout hitting .219 with three home runs and nine RBIs.

Now, this doesn't mean the A's haven't missed Cespedes; his replacements in left field have hit .227/.336/.258 in August with no home runs and seven RBIs. They're actually getting on base at a higher rate but with a complete absence of power, something the A's have certainly missed.

But that's just one part of Oakland's offensive struggles in August. All-Star Brandon Moss -- who has played the most left field since the trade -- is hitting .178 with no home runs and a whopping 35 strikeouts in the month. All-Star Derek Norris is hitting .188. Coco Crisp is hitting .191 with a .255 OBP. Stephen Vogt and John Jaso, both of whom hit so well in the first half, have OBPs of .259 and .216 in August. Cespedes must have been some kind of secret weapon if he's the reason all those guys have gone in the tank at once.

And focusing just on the offense ignores that the rotation Beane built hasn't pitched well enough to carry the team -- Scott Kazmir has a 6.28 ERA in August, Sonny Gray 4.28 and Jeff Samardzija 3.92.

The A's are struggling in August because they haven't played well, not because they traded Cespedes. If the Angels go on to win the division, don't blame the Lester trade. Beane made his club better; it's just played worse.

Peavy a key to Giants' stretch-run potential

August, 31, 2014
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It almost looked like Peavy had a no-hitter in him Saturday night. He pitched into the eighth against the Brewers without allowing a base hit, and just enough things seemed to be breaking his way to make you think he’d wind up with his first career no-hitter.

Defense almost always has a way of making itself noticed, of reminding you almost every no-hit bid owes something to a somebody or two beyond the man on the mound. Brandon Crawford made a couple of exceptional plays at short, which robbed a couple grounders on which you might have said “hit” as soon as the ball left the bat. The second was a double play he started in the top of the seventh by shoveling the ball with his glove to Joe Panik for the pivot and barely beating Scooter Gennett going up the first-base line. Crawford’s DP was important not just because of the situation, but also because it quickly ended an inning in which Peavy might have had to work much more from the stretch while keeping his pitch count at 99 through seven -- and keeping the opportunity to notch a first no-hitter within reach in today’s game of managed workloads. Peavy had a couple of games throwing 120-plus pitches in 2012, but in a career almost as notable for injuries and carefully monitored pitch counts as it has been for great games.

It didn't matter in the end, after Mark Reynolds floated a one-out opposite-field single in the eighth, but it was enough to get you thinking, not just about Peavy's performance on this night, but also his importance to the Giants on so many nights to come. If you like Game Score as a quick and dirty way to evaluate how good a game a starting pitcher has just thrown, on Saturday night Peavy’s 82 suggests he just pitched the best game he’s had since April 2012 (when he tossed an 84 for the White Sox). It was his 20th game in his career that good or better but just his fifth since his Padres heyday.

It says something about Peavy’s career that the hard-throwing kid who came up with the Padres in 2002 hasn’t thrown one yet. Injuries, trades, playing on teams bad and good ... whatever the reason, it hasn’t happened, which might have surprised you to know a dozen years ago, when he was immediately recognized as a top-shelf talent and ranked as the 28th prospect in the game by Baseball America. When he came up, he was the instant ace on a Padres team managed by Bruce Bochy and won two ERA titles.

[+] EnlargeJake Peavy
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesJake Peavy's bid for his first no-hitter died in the eighth inning.

Peavy’s performance since his acquisition goes beyond just what he’s done, of course, because his impact on the Giants is bigger than that. Not only did Peavy essentially replace Matt Cain after the former ace was lost for the season to elbow surgery, but having him also telegraphed the opportunity to move Tim Lincecum into the bullpen again. With Ryan Vogelsong going strong behind Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson, picking someone to round out the Giants’ four-man rotation in the postseason suddenly had a great alternative to Lincecum’s highs and lows. Lincecum is managing just one quality start in his past six turns, so Peavy's having thrown four straight (including Saturday night) just made it that much easier. Lincecum’s demotion to the pen can be seen as prepping him for a postseason role as important as it was in 2012 -- not just an investment in the adequacy of Yusmeiro Petit as a skippable fifth starter with seven quality starts spread among his 14 turns as a spot starter for the Giants between this year and the past.

That might seem cold, but the Giants are reliably about “what have you done for me lately?” and it’s to their credit. Sergio Romo, closer? Not if he falters, which meant he lost his job to the guy he replaced, Santiago Casilla. Turning to rookie Joe Panik in-season at second base? Done. Finding ways to work around Brandon Belt’s injuries? Try Adam Duvall, bring Travis Ishikawa back, move Mike Morse around and play Gregor Blanco in left. Whatever it takes -- just win.

Winning is something Bruce Bochy has done quite well in his Giants incarnation. That's something you could expect from his days running a Padres ballclub that pinched pennies yet earned four postseason appearances on his watch before he left in 2006. Before you worry too much about a lineup counting on Morse, just remember that Bochy’s successful track record with veteran hitters many had given up on goes back years; Morse joins a list of thirty-something renaissances that already included Aubrey Huff, Wally Joyner, Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko.

It’s a Giants team that’s conjuring up the right answers at the right time, of which Peavy is one. With Panik finally settling in at second and Angel Pagan back off the DL and playing center, and with Peavy shining in a rotation now clearly firing on four cylinders, you can believe the Giants are beginning to look like a team ready to roll and taking shape as a team that might beat anybody in October again. As the stretch run revs up, it makes a reunion between Peavy and Bochy that much more special. Having come so far since, winning World Series rings apart, it’s a shot for two of the lonesome reasons to have cared about Padres baseball a decade ago to have a chance at winning another, but together.

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

Was Royals' Shields-Myers deal worth it?

August, 31, 2014
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Are you a Kansas City Royals fan? Perhaps the better question is, did you remain a Royals fan over the past few decades? If so, this season’s been pretty happy for you, and Saturday night’s action might even have seemed a bit fortuitous for you, despite the Royals’ eventual loss to the Indians. That’s because two pieces involved in the signature trade that helped make the Royals the AL Central leaders they are today were in action.

If you’re not a Royals fan, here’s a bit of background. After a mediocre 2012 season for the Royals, in which the fruits of their vaunted farm system spoiled to a 72-90 record, there was pressure to unseat GM Dayton Moore. Keeping the faith with his plethora of position prospects, Moore addressed the teams’ pitching needs by acquiring starters James Shields and Wade Davis from the Rays for a package of prospects including highly rated outfielder Wil Myers, first baseman Patrick Leonard and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery. There were quite a few detractors on the Royals’ side of the return; Myers was one of the more highly rated hitting prospects in the game, while Shields would only be under team control for another two years. But by making such a move, Moore had made it clear he believed the Royals had a window for contention in 2013 and 2014. Remembering 2012, skeptics wondered if the Royals could put together such a swing in such a short time.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
AP Photo/Colin E. BraleyWill "Big Game James" Shields deliver big games for the Royals in October?

It’s been just shy of two years since that big trade. Sure, there were other actions Moore took to make the Royals contenders, including the successful promotions of pitchers Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura while building a shutdown bullpen. But it was that trade that made headlines and got second-guessed, so let’s focus on that.

For starters, “Big Game James” Shields has performed as advertised and provided an average of 6 2/3 quality innings per start since his acquisition. He led a rebuilt pitching staff in 2013 to improve the Royals on the run prevention side of the ledger where as a team they allowed 145 fewer runs in 2013 than in 2012. Finishing 2013 with a record above .500 for the first time since 1994 was a feather in Moore’s cap. Shields has similarly pitched very well in 2014, as evidenced by his seven-inning, one-run performance Saturday against Cleveland.

Davis, however, did not perform as advertised in 2013. When he wasn’t walking more than a handful of batters, they were teeing off on him. In September, the Royals returned him to the relief role the Rays had converted him to, and he has been lights-out since then. Against the Indians, he came in for an inning in relief of Shields and promptly struck out the side. Among relievers in 2014 with at least 20 innings pitched, he is in the top five in baseball in strikeout rate and top 10 in WHIP, and he has allowed less than a baserunner per inning.

The problem with the Royals the past few years has been with their undeveloped offense. Despite drawing nine walks against Cleveland on Saturday, they lost 3-2 in extra innings, including missing an opportunity to score with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 10th. That issue could get worse in the playoffs because among the various American League playoff contenders and wild card aspirants, they have scored the fewest runs. And as much as the Royals’ run prevention has improved, they are still worse than every other contender in the non-Tigers category. Yes, they might make the playoffs, but their chances to go far aren’t all that good.

The Royals attempted to address their offense in the offseason by acquiring Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to provide some on-base skills while hoping their young position players would develop. Unfortunately, Aoki’s 2014 showing is a career low, while Infante hasn’t missed being on base this much since 2005. Further complicating issues is that aside from Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, virtually every Royals hitter has been more blah than bland.

Although Myers did not disappoint in 2013 for the Rays on his way to win the American League Rookie of the year, his injury-riddled and generally slow 2014 would still be comparable to Aoki’s production -- for a million dollars less. It is also arguable Odorizzi could have provided similar production to Shields and for quite a few more million dollars less. On that note, Odorizzi threw seven innings of one-hit, no-run baseball against the Red Sox this same Saturday night, which bettered Shields’ performance.

The Royals might end up achieving their goal of reaching the playoffs in 2014, but with the offensive prospects failing to develop, it’s reasonable to wonder if their chances are good to get to the World Series. In hindsight, perhaps keeping Myers and Odorizzi and planning for contention in 2015 would have been wiser and cheaper. On the other hand, I imagine Dayton Moore is just happy the Royals are on the verge of their first playoff appearance in a generation. The question then becomes: “Just how long will Royals fans remain happy?”

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies. You can follow him on Twitter at @RockiesZingers.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 30, 2014
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As some teams gear up for the playoffs, others, to put it kindly, are not. They say that losing can be the best teacher. So, based on the lessons learned, the reflection on 2014 and the planning for 2015 begins … hopefully.

Some of these teams can use as much help as they can get, so feel free to share your thoughts (in comments section below) on what you might do if you were in charge.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
La Russa Speaks, D-backs Must Adjust: Tony La Russa recently spoke out about improvements he'd like to implement. Jeff Wiser examines what La Russa means by "tweaking" position players' baserunning, approach to the strike zone, and play in the field. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24

Colorado Rockies: Rockies' Zingers
Can Corey Dickerson Get Better?: Adam Peterson, with help from Joey Myers of the Hitting Performance Lab, takes a look at one of the bright spots of the Rockies' 2014 season using a video analysis of his swing mechanics to his batted-ball data. Follow on Twitter: @playerTBNL

Series Preview – Cincinnati at Colorado – Aug. 14-Aug. 17: J.J. Buck previewed the games played for Todd Helton's retirement weekend. Combining video clips, stats and tweets, take a look back at what people were thinking going forward into that memorable weekend … because Colorado has had few other reasons for optimism this year. Follow on Twitter: @JBuck610

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Only One Spot to Address for 2015?: It's been another tough season for the Twins, but Nick Nelson suggests they'll have surprisingly few needs entering this offseason. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Can Yankees Pull Off A 1995-esque Run?: Matt Bove compared this year's Yankees team to the '95 club that made a late push into the playoffs to see if that magic can be repeated in 2014. Follow on Twitter: @RAYROBERT9

Pineda's Slider Was Straight-Up Disgusting Last Night: Brad Vietrogoski broke down how Michael Pineda used his slider to shut down the Royals on Monday night. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
Only True Rangers Fans Root for Futility in 2014: Eric Reining talks about how, in a lost season for Texas, you've really got to be a true fan to keep things in perspective and be OK with your team losing. Follow on Twitter: @ericreining
Seattle rookie James Paxton, whom scouts are raving about, pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday night to beat Texas and improve his record to 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA. The Mariners optioned him to Triple-A Tacoma the next day.

Why did they do this? Not because of his excellent performance but because the Mariners felt the starting rotation needed some rest, particularly after Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young all had perhaps their worst outings of the season over the weekend. By optioning Paxton and calling up Erasmo Ramirez to pitch Wednesday, they were able to give King Felix and the others not only one extra day of rest, but two, because Thursday was an off-day. It allowed each starter to pitch on six days' rest as the club heads into an unexpected but refreshingly welcome stretch drive.

[+] EnlargeJames Paxton
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSeattle rookie left-hander James Paxton is scheduled to make his next start Tuesday at Oakland.
Plus, the Mariners were able to do so without Paxton missing a single start. The Mariners will bring him back after Tacoma’s season ends Sunday and rosters expand, then slip him right back into the rotation.

The Mariners have been skillfully utilizing player options much of the season. They have been especially adept at optioning starting pitchers in and out to fill openings in the rotation and allow them to carry an eight-man bullpen that might be the game’s best. Other teams do this as well, but Seattle has an extra edge because their Triple-A affiliate is closer than any other club in baseball -- just 35 miles from stadium to stadium, so flights often aren’t an issue (though trust me, you don’t want to make the Seattle-Tacoma drive during rush hour).

“Instead of a 25-man roster, it’s like a 27- or 28-man roster," Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “It helps when you have guys who answer the bell."

That bell has rung often for Ramirez, who has shuttled between Seattle and Tacoma six times this season -- in April, May, June, July and twice in August. On three of those occasions, he was in Seattle just one day.

How are teams able to do this? Under the rules, players have three option years in which they can be optioned to the minors an unlimited number of times. As long as you are in an option year, the club can call you up and send you down as often as they like.

Normally, a player must stay 10 days in the minors after being optioned, but an exception can be made if his minor league team’s season ends before the 10 days are up. This is the case for Paxton. It also is the case for starter Kevin Gausman, whom the Orioles optioned to their Gulf Coast League team after his solid start Wednesday.

The players association generally doesn’t have any issue with options, but the union is mildly concerned with the Paxton case because it feels the team might have been manipulating the roster a bit. The option also will cut into Paxton’s earnings.

Depending on the contract, a player optioned to the minors can go from earning the pro-rated major league minimum -- roughly $2,700 a day -- to earning a minor league salary, which is considerably less, anywhere from $72 to perhaps $500 a day depending on the player and the minor league level.

In Paxton’s case, the option likely is costing him more than $2,000 a day. On the other hand, Ramirez got his salary bumped up. And Paxton probably won’t mind in the long run if the Mariners reach the playoffs and he reaps a postseason share.

Zduriencik also says there is no “manipulation," and the Mariners are simply following the rules in place. He says the key is communicating with the players.

Oh, by the way, the Mariners optioned Ramirez to Tacoma before their next game. Which was mostly because of his performance -- he gave up 10 runs in just three innings of a 12-4 loss to last place Texas. But as manager Lloyd McClendon stressed, the important thing is not how Ramirez pitched but how the extra rest helps Hernandez and the other pitchers this final month as Seattle battles for its first postseason appearance in 13 years.

"It’s all come together in a good way," Zduriencik said of the frequent options. “Some of it is health related, some of it is opportunity related, some of it is depth related. We have done a good job with the roster and a lot of the credit goes to Lloyd and his staff."

The Rays' next ace: Alex Cobb

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Alex CobbAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Rays' Alex Cobb has been among the best pitchers in baseball this month.

To describe Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb’s unusual windup, his pitching coach Jim Hickey has to actually go through the motion as he talks on the phone from his hotel room in Baltimore.

“He has a lot of quirky things going on,” Hickey said with a laugh.

Quirky, but ultimately extremely effective for the repertoire Cobb possesses.

The Tampa Bay starting rotation has jointly teamed to fill the void left by the departure of David Price.

Cobb has come up big almost every time he has taken the ball of late. He’s 9-6 this season, but he is 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA and no home runs allowed in his last seven starts heading into Sunday’s start against the Red Sox. The Rays might be out of the postseason race, but he has the look of someone who is taking his game to a higher level.

Cobb is at or near the top of the list in two notable, important statistics that go hand in hand with his success.

FanGraphs.com tracks a “run value” statistic to measure the effectiveness of the various pitch types. Positive results (strikes and outs) add to the value number. Negative results subtract from it. The more important the game situation, the bigger the reward or debit for each pitch.

Cobb’s changeup, for example, has accumulated 20 runs of value, meaning it is a pitch that has gotten significantly better than average results. The only pitcher with a changeup whose value is greater than Cobb’s is Felix Hernandez (22 runs).

“He can throw the changeup in any count,” said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez, who had to prep his team for Cobb while coaching the Marlins and Astros. “It’s his go-to pitch. He has the ability to pitch backwards in one start [throwing a lot of changeups early in counts], then in the next start, he pitches off his fastball and keeps hitters off balance.”

Pitchers with elite changeups are hard to hit, and Cobb rates best in another stat -- hard-hit rate. Inside Edge, a video-tracking service that provides data to teams and media, charts every batted ball, rating each as hit soft, medium or hard.

Cobb has the lowest hard-hit rate of anyone with at least 80 innings pitched this season. He has allowed hard-hit balls in only 9 percent of the at-bats against him.

In Cobb’s past three starts, he has allowed a total of one hard-hit ball and passed White Sox ace Chris Sale for the hard-hit rate lead.

Pitching is an evolving process, and Cobb has discovered that what works best for him is different from what works for most other pitchers. His windup includes a pause point midwindup and a leg kick that would be best described as nontraditional.

If he hits his checkpoints (as Hickey referred to them), he’s in good position to throw any one of three pitches (fastball, curveball and the changeup) that have a similar spin.

“Most people do a leg kick where they bend their knee 45-degree angle to third base,” Cobb said earlier this week. “I try to reach to the catcher by squeezing my hip. That’s where the pause comes into play. It’s not to distract the hitter. I just want my arm to catch up to the rest of my body. A lot of people have told me that the pause messes with hitters. That’s just a bonus.”

“When he’s at his highest, he needs to be over the rubber,” Hickey said. “His arm is almost forming a C, it needs to feel like his arm is right over his head.

“That translates into a downhill plane. When he’s doing that regularly, you know he’s going to have a good day. You can usually tell from his first pitch or two in the bullpen.”

But getting to this point of 2014 wasn’t easy.

An oblique injury three starts into the season cost him six weeks and was one of several things that vexed the Rays early on.

When Cobb came back, he had a couple of good starts but also had a few in which he got pummeled, and there was a three-start span in which he lasted five innings in each.

“I hit a stretch where I was lost and I had to learn how to pitch all over again,” Cobb said. “Trying to do that while getting out major league hitters is not easy. At the All-Star break, I sat back, but I was still lost, wasn’t comfortable, was still all over the place, and I felt like I had exerted all the different types of problem-solving to try to fix it.

"I was talking with Hickey and Chris Archer, and they said I was too rotational, that the ball was sailing up and over the plate, rather than at a downward angle. I was playing catch before a game in St. Louis and the first ball I threw, it clicked; I threw seven scoreless innings.

"Besides the results, it was a relief to figure out the mechanics again. Now, I feel comfortable. When I throw, if I miss, I know why I miss. I get instant feedback.”

More often than not, Cobb has been right on. His changeup (which he throws more often than any other starting pitcher in baseball) drops similar to a split-fingered fastball, thanks to a grip that is a hybrid of the two pitches, and averages 87 mph (a drop of only 4-5 mph off his fastball). The amount of break on his curveball ranks among the top five in the game (it’s identical to that of Hernandez).

“If you’re a hitter, you can’t see the spin and say, 'That’s a changeup,'" Hickey said in explaining the success of the pitch. "It’s camouflaged. It really bottoms out. With the curveball, it’s the bite -- it has no hump. It comes out on the same plane as his fastball.”

With the Rays having traded Price and James Shields over the past two seasons, the team is ushering in a new era of pitching in which leadership is a tandem effort.

Cobb, Archer, Jeremy Hellickson and currently injured Matt Moore all have taken on important roles. They’ve welcomed in the new guys -- Jake Odorizzi (obtained in the Shields trade) and Drew Smyly (acquired in the Price deal), both of whom have fit in seamlessly.

“Our group adopted the Shields and Price attitude,” Cobb said. “I don’t think we’ve missed a beat because of what those two guys did when they were here. We knew it would be a tough transition.

"We all came up together," Cobb said of Hellickson, Archer, Moore and himself, "so I think it would be odd if one of us said, ‘I’m the leader of the staff now.’ When we have a new guy like Smyly come in, we collectively help him get comfortable.”

Cobb said that the idea of being an ace is more a tag for fans and media to latch on to. The way he has pitched lately, Cobb might hear more talk of that down the road.

“He has the makeup of a leader of a staff,” said one longtime major league scout. “His stuff and velocity won’t wow you, but his pitchability will. Does he have the stuff of Shields or Price? Not yet. But he has the other intangibles to get to that point. I’m a fan of his. He’s definitely going in the right direction.”

Five things we learned Friday

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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1. Another Friday, another no-hit bid against the Cincinnati Reds

Last week Atlanta Braves starter Mike Minor tossed 7 2/3 innings before the Reds put a hit on the board. Friday, it was Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Edinson Volquez who kept Cincinnati hitless for the first six frames. Volquez, a former 17-game winner with the Reds, was picked up off the scrap heap by Pittsburgh this winter and has been a pleasant surprise. Although his peripheral statistics don't necessarily support his 3.45 ERA, he is unlikely to turn into a pumpkin down the stretch after nearly 160 innings of work this season.

Volquez tied a season high with 114 pitches Friday. He was charged with one earned run on three hits and three walks. He struck out six. He pounded the ground with 10 ground-ball outs. Although he has done a lot of work close to the earth, it is his work in the air that has been the big key in 2014. Last year, opposing batters had a .310 average on fly balls against Volquez. This season, that mark sits at .172. Advanced metrics place the Pirates' outfield in a negative light, but someone is converting those fly balls into outs on a consistent basis.

Despite the lack of knocks, the Reds were able to keep both games close, losing in the 12th inning last Friday and briefly taking a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday before conceding the lead and the game soon after. The wins were important to Atlanta and Pittsburgh as both are still chasing the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card race. In fact, the Pirates' three-game winning streak has them sneaking back into contention in the NL Central as well.

For those interested, the Reds host the New York Mets next Friday at the Great American Ballpark.

2. DeGrom continues strong season

The Mets are in the midst of another lost season, but once again a trio of young arms gives the organization and its fans some hope. They lack the cool nickname of "Generation K," but Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom may be the foundation of a rotation that gets New York's other baseball team back to the postseason. DeGrom, the only active member of the trio, was on the bump Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Without the hype of Harvey or Syndergaard, deGrom has snuck up on most people this season. The lanky right-hander tossed seven strong innings against the Phillies, allowing just one unearned run. Of his 18 starts, deGrom has gone at least six innings in 14 of them. He has allowed three runs or fewer in 13 of those contests.

The rookie boasts a full arsenal of pitches, but Friday night's game plan centered around a mid-90s fastball that he commanded well. It accounted for nearly 75 percent of his pitches thrown Friday, as deGrom honed in on the lower half of the zone to his arm side. The heater was the weapon of choice on 16 of the 22 outs he recorded.

It's been said before, but "maybe next year" for the Mets.

3. Orioles continue to pound away

After taking three of four from the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles were back at it Friday night, blowing out the Minnesota Twins 9-1. Baltimore's pitching staff has been largely mediocre this season, but its offense packs a powerful enough punch to push the O's past the opposition on most nights. The club's .163 ISO -- isolated power measures the ability to hit for extra bases by stripping singles from slugging percentage -- is tops in the AL, trailing only the Colorado Rockies in the majors.

Chris Davis is having a disappointing season after his breakout 2013 campaign, but he hit another home run -- this one a grand slam -- on Friday that gives him seven in August and 24 on the season. While that is a far cry from last year's pace, Davis appears to be getting a bit more into the swing of things even if his average sits below .200.

In Davis' void, Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce have picked up the offensive slack. Cruz signed a one-year deal with Baltimore after a difficult time finding work on the open market. His 34 home runs lead the majors. Pearce was once a top prospect in the Pirates' system, but has spent most of his career shuttling between the majors and minors. This season, he has broken out in a big way with an OPS approaching .900 and 16 homers in limited action. He left Friday's game with an abdominal strain. Considering Manny Machado's injury, the team can ill afford to lose Pearce, as crazy as that may sound.

4. Verlander better versus White Sox

The Detroit Tigers have one of the game's top pitchers (Max Scherzer) and traded for another one (David Price) on July 31. Meanwhile, the team's former top hurler was on the mound Friday night, looking to close the gap in the highly contested AL Central race.

Justin Verlander has been off his game for most of this season. His ERA is approaching 5.00 and he has allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2006. Friday's effort was not vintage Verlander; however, it was still encouraging since he is no longer considered the team's top gun.

Facing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, Verlander worked seven innings, allowing one run on nine hits and two walks. He struck out seven batters, throwing 77 strikes in 116 pitches. It was the first time since April 17 that he allowed one run or none in a start.

Despite a recent run of inconsistency, the Tigers are within arm's reach of the division lead. With Anibal Sanchez's future in doubt, Verlander once again becomes a key figure in Detroit's rotation. If he can be just part of what he once was, it may go a long way in the club's quest for a fourth straight division title.

5. Young Cubs on the prowl

The Houston Astros have been painted by some as the poster boys of "process." Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have also been in rebuild mode and, unlike Houston, which may have some sour grapes among its bunch, their organizational tree is starting to bear fruit at the highest level.

Javier Baez was first to capture the nation's attention this summer with his risk-versus-reward approach at the plate. His big swings have left nearly an equal amount of oohs and ughs depending on whether he made contact or not. This week, the club promoted Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to the big leagues. That decision is already paying dividends.

Though he is just three games into his major league career, the 22-year-old Soler has seven hits in his first 12 plate appearances. On Friday, he recorded his first multi-home run game, belting a pair of homers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Soler's first homer was a solo shot in the seventh inning that tied the game at 2-2. Baez put the Cubs ahead 4-2 with an RBI double the next inning, but the big blast came once again from Soler, who smacked a two-run homer to left field. Two innings, two at-bats and two home runs that covered 858 feet. Not bad for the third night on the job.

As exciting as the win was for the Cubs, it was equally devastating for a Cardinals team that is clinging to an NL wild-card spot by the slimmest of margins.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.
Remember way back in 2008, when CC Sabathia was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and made his final three starts of the season on three days' rest, helping the Brewers to their first playoff appearance since 1982?

That seems like a generation ago.

Last September, there were seven starts across the majors made on three days' rest, but all seven came following a relief appearance, and the best guy to do so was Tom Milone of the A's. In fact, there were only 37 starts all season made on three days' rest. The only one made by whom I'll label a "top" starter was Matt Moore of the Tampa Bay Rays. He started on May 31 but pitched only one inning and then started on three days' rest (and lasted just two innings).

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFelix Hernandez is third in the American League in innings pitched (191.0).
This year, we've seen just 28 starts on three days' rest. I'm guessing most of those were similar relief-to-start scenarios. Justin Masterson did start and throw 4⅓ innings on May 18 and then started again four days later. That might be the only "legitimate" start on three days' rest all season. Other than an occasional postseason game, the three-day start is all but extinct.

In just a few short years, we've gone from "can an ace pitch on three days' rest if needed down the stretch to help our team get into the postseason?" to "should we give our ace more rest?"

Take Felix Hernandez. The leading contender for the American League Cy Young Award was scheduled to start Wednesday against the Texas Rangers, but Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon instead pushed him back to Friday against the Washington Nationals, meaning he'll be starting on six days' rest instead of four since Seattle had an off day on Thursday. McClendon said he wants to give all of his starters the two extra days of rest as the team heads into the stretch run. The decision resulted in some controversy and discussion across TV and radio on Thursday, as Erasmo Ramirez was called up from Triple-A and got bombed in a 12-4 loss to the lowly Rangers.

It's also not the first time McClendon has pushed Hernandez back from his regular four days of rest. Back in July, he held him back a day so he'd have Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young -- his three best starters -- lined up to face the A's. That was a strategic decision, and the Mariners did win two of three in that series, although Seattle lost a "bullpen" game 4-2 in the series finale to the Minnesota Twins.

In early August, McClendon gave his starters an extra day, telling Greg Johns of MLB.com, "Every chance I get to give them an extra day, I'm going to do it. I think we've done OK with it. Last time I checked, we had the best pitching in the American League, so why break something that's not broken? Keep doing it. Keep resting them. I want to protect them."

In the first half, Hernandez made 12 of his 19 starts on four days of rest (not including his Opening Day start) and the other seven on five days of rest. But since the All-Star break, Hernandez's days of rest have gone: seven, five, four, five, five, four, five and now six.

I'm not necessarily knocking McClendon for this. As he said, he believes he's helping his staff stay strong. Considering the injury histories of Young (extensive) and Iwakuma (he was never completely healthy in consecutive seasons in Japan), he's not pushing Felix back just to keep Felix strong.

But the side effect is clear: In the end, you're still trading a Felix Hernandez start for an Erasmo Ramirez start, and that's a huge, huge drop-off. At the end of the season, those extra days of rest mean you're going to miss an extra Felix start or two you could have otherwise received.

(For what it's worth, in his career, Felix has a 3.12 ERA on four days' rest, 3.08 on five days' rest and 2.93 on six or more, so the difference is negligible. Now, you or McClendon can take those numbers for what they're worth; maybe they'd be predictive for 2014, maybe not. Throughout the majors in 2014, the numbers are 3.83 on four days, 3.81 on five days and 4.11 on six days, not exactly evidence that more rest helps, which, again, doesn't mean that it doesn't keep the pitchers stronger for the stretch run.)

It's an interesting tactical decision for teams to make. The A's pushed Sonny Gray back an extra day for his Thursday start against the Los Angeles Angels, giving Drew Pomeranz the start on Wednesday. But Pomeranz is better than Ramirez and the A's also get Gray going against the Angels instead of the Houston Astros. Gray is also in his first full season in the majors, and there is some intent to limit his innings a bit.

With Adam Wainwright struggling since the All-Star break, and perhaps a little fatigued after throwing more innings last season than any pitcher in baseball, there has been talk the St. Louis Cardinals will give him an extra day or two before his next start, as six of his past seven starts have come on four days of rest. But the Cardinals don't necessarily have a great option to step in for a spot start.

It's easy to suggest managers need to ride their best pitcher, much like the Brewers did six years ago with Sabathia. Is that realistic? It doesn't seem like it. Even with the strict limits on pitch counts (Hernandez doesn't even have a complete game this year), managers are more cautious than ever in how they handle their rotations.

In the Mariners' case, however, what if McClendon looks up after the final day of the regular season and sees the Mariners one game short of the wild card?

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