Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gio Earns 20th Win

Gio Gonzalez became the first pitcher to reach the 20 win plateau this season after his Washington Nationals routed the Milwaukee Brewers 10-4 yesterday. The Nats had already scored nine times by the end of the fourth inning, staking their starter to a cushy lead.  That proved to be more than enough support for Gonzalez, who need only 90 pitches to cruise through seven innings.  Before Davey Johnson pulled him for a pinch-hitter (Chad Tracy), Gonzo had allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out five.   Both runs he allowed were unearned because of Bryce Harper's error, so his seasonal ERA dipped to a nifty 2.84 (a perfect match with his 2.84 FIP)

It's fitting that 2012's first 20 game winner is a member of the team with the best record, but that shouldn't take away from what has been a tremendous all-around season by Gonzalez. The Nationals gave up a lot of young talent (A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone) to Billy Beane's Oakland A's when they traded for him last winter, and he hasn't disappointed in his Washington debut. In addition to wins, the 27 year-old lefty leads the majors in fewest hits allowed per nine innings and fewest home runs allowed per nine. He ranks near the top of most pitching categories and figures to receive plenty of Cy Young consideration this offseason. With Stephen Strasburg shut down for the year, he is Washington's ace and needs to step up in what will be his first postseason appearance.  The Nationals are counting on him to deliver when it matters most.

I know wins have gone the way of RBI in sabermetrics era in that they have lost a lot of their luster, but 20 victories is still an impressive accomplishment no matter how you slice it.  Even as offensive levels have declined throughout the post-steroid era, it's still exceptionally rare.  Obviously one has to be put together a fantastic season, but he also needs his lineup to back him with run support and his bullpen to preserve the lead Check out how many pitchers have done it each year, going back to 2004:

2004-3 (Curt Schilling, Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt)
2005-4 (Dontrelle Willis, Bartolo Colon, Chris Carpenter, Oswalt)
2007-1 (Josh Beckett)
2008-4 (Brandon Webb, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina)
2010-3 (C.C. Sabathia, Halladay, Adam Wainwright)
2011-3 (Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Ian Kennedy)

That's 18 instances over the span of eight seasons, an average of about two 20 win campaigns per year.  Out of this group of 16 players, Oswalt and Halladay were the only repeat offenders.  It's even more mind-boggling to think about how many great pitchers aren't on this list: Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Jake Peavy, Felix Hernandez, and Tim Lincecum all come to mind.  That just goes to show you a) how difficult it is to record 20 wins and b) why wins are not a good barometer of a pitcher's talent.

But Gonzalez is likely to have some company in this year's 20 win club. Four other hurlers are within striking distance, and I'll evaluate their chances;

-R.A. Dickey earned his 19th W against the Marlins yesterday and will get two opportunities to notch his 20th.  On Thursday he'll face the Pirates in the midst of another late season meltdown, and then he'll get the Marlins again in his final start. Dickey's on quite a roll, having allowed two earned runs or less in nine of his past eleven starts (2.12 ERA over that stretch). Expect the Cy Young frontrunner to end his magical season on a high note.

-Jered Weaver has been money in September and won his 19th game today by limiting the White Sox to just one run. His next matchup is against the Rangers in Texas, where he has an ugly 9.31 ERA this season.  Fortunately his last start is a piece of cake; he draws the punchless Seattle Mariners at Safeco, though I should note his most recent loss occurred under those same circumstances. I like his chances.

-David Price and Johnny Cueto both have 18 and will need to win both of their remaining starts. Both of Price's starts are on the road, where his ERA is a run and a half higher than it is at the Trop. The southpaw should have no problem dealing with Boston's gutted lineup on Tuesday, but the White Sox are much more potent.  Cueto has stumbled lately by losing three of his past four turns and has the toughest road ahead. Wednesday's matchup with the rejuvenated Brewers hardly looks appealing, and his last start of the year will be in St. Louis against the Cardinals' high-powered offense. I say both end up with 19.

Miguel Cabrera Threatening Triple Crown

Cabrera's torrid hitting has him on the verge of making baseball history (CBS)
The Detroit Tigers mauled the Minnesota Twins 8-0 at Comerica Park yesterday to move within half a game of the division leading Chicago White Sox.  Doug Fister fired a complete game shutout, striking out seven and tossing 117 pitches to preserve Detroit's bullpen for today's crucial doubleheader.  Jim Leyland's Tigers scored early and often, scoring all eight of their runs in the first four frames and sending Twins starter Sam Deduno to an early shower.  Austin Jackson belted his first pitch out of the park and Detroit chased him from the game with a five run third inning keyed by Delmon Young's three-run jack.

Their scoring was punctuated by Miguel Cabrera's solo shot off Anthony Swarzak, a towering fly ball into into the left field seats. All Josh Willingham could do was admire the majestic drive as it sailed over his head and the fence.  It was Cabrera's only hit of the day, but he made it count.  This booming big fly was Miggy's 42nd of the season and tied Josh Hamilton for the major league lead. MC Hammer's .332 batting average is still tops in the Junior Circuit, and his 131 RBI lead both leagues. For good measure, the seven time All-Star also leads all hitters in slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases, extra base hits, and runs created (tied with Ryan Braun), building a compelling case for his first Most Valuable Player award. It's been a banner year for Cabrera, the finest of his Cooperstown bound career.

But right now, there's only one question on everybody's mind: can Cabrera win the Triple Crown?

Not since 1967 has somebody led the league in home runs, RBI and batting average so late in the season. That player was Carl Yastrzemski, of course, the last man to win a Triple Crown.  With a week and a half of games left to play, Cabrera is poised to accomplish a feat that hasn't been achieved in 45 years. If he pulls it off, he will make some pretty impressive history. Since 1900, the Triple Crown has been achieved 13 times by eleven different players (Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams won it twice) but never by a third baseman. In fact, no infielder has done it since Lou Gehrig in 1934.  A Detroit Tiger hasn't hit the trifecta since 1909 when Ty Cobb became the first and only Motown masher to do so.

But Cabrera has always been a perennial Triple Crown threat. He's a machine.  Every year he stays healthy, puts up monster numbers and finds himself at or near the top in multiple offensive categories. He's already won a batting title (last year), been a home run champion (2008) and ranked first in RBI (2010), just not all in the same season. Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols are the only other active players with "career" Triple Crowns. He's clearly surpassed Pujols as the premier right-handed batter in the game. Joey Votto may still be the better pure hitter, but a torn meniscus sidelined him for much of the summer and he's failed to go yard since returning to action on September 5th. Right now, Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball, and it's not really close.

Fueled by a late season power binge (ten homers in his past 20 games), Detroit's slugging third baseman has finally caught Hamilton, who's dealing with a sinus issue and recorded just one at-bat this week. The 2010 AL MVP flew back to Texas for some tests and will miss today's series finale with the Mariners, but his status beyond the weekend remains uncertain. And with the Rangers guaranteed to clinch a playoff berth any day now, don't expect them to rush Hamilton back.  They'll want their superstar healthy and fully rested for October as they look to capture their third consecutive American League pennant, something no team has done since the days of Joe Torre's 1998-'01 New York Yankees dynasty.

Cabrera has used his September surge to capitalize on Hamilton's absence, but he's not in the clear just yet.  His RBI lead appears to be safe, but Mike Trout is still in the mix for the batting title, and he's fully capable of catching fire at a moment's notice. Hamilton is always a threat to go on a tear, depending on when he returns.  Edwin Encarnacion trails the leaders by just two home runs, while Curtis Granderson and Adam Dunn are sitting on 39 bombs.  Any of them could make up that ground in one game.

Today's doubleheader represents a prime opportunity for Cabrera to feast on Minnesota's feeble pitching staff.  The Twins have the worst ERA in the American League and have allowed the second most home runs despite calling pitching-friendly Target Field home.  Expect Miggy to inflict additional damage today at their expense, for he owns a 1.282 OPS and 21 RBI in 13 games against them this season.  P.J. Walters and Scott Diamond are today's probable starters/victims.  If the Tigers sweep and Chicago loses, Detroit will vault into first place.  They will be alone at the top of the division for the first time since July 22nd.

And for that they can thank Cabrera, their one-man wrecking crew.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Melky Cabrera Forfeits Batting Title

Thanks for giving up the batting title, Melky. How about that All-Star Game MVP?
In an unprecedented but well-received gesture, Melky Cabrera voluntarily disqualified himself from the 2012 National League batting race.  The All-Star Game MVP is currently serving a 50 game suspension triggered when he violated the MLB drug policy by testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. His .346 average leads the major leagues, and he was poised to join another cheater--Barry Bonds--as the only members of the San Francisco Giants to win a batting crown in this millennium.

The battle for the batting title now becomes a two man race between MVP candidates Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey, Cabrera's partner in crime.  Pittsburgh's centerfielder leads San Francisco's backstop .338 to .335, but there is still a week and a half of baseball yet to play.  At the moment, these two seem to be trending in opposite directions. McCutchen was batting as high as .373 on August 1st, but since then has batted an uninspiring .263 as his Pirates plummeted out of the playoff picture.  Over that same span, Posey batted a robust .370 and is showing no signs of slowing down.  There's history to be made here; he's trying to become the first National catcher to capture a batting title since Ernie Lombardi did it in 1942.  Besides Lombardi, Bubbles Hargrave is the only other Senior Circuit receiver with a batting title under his belt.  Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Mike Piazza never won one (and Piazza batted .362 one year, for crying out loud, albeit at the height of the Steroid Era. A Coors Field-aided Larry Walker edged him in both the batting race and the MVP race that year).

Obviously this competition could go either way, and will likely be decided by a handful of hits.  It could come down to a single base knock--who legs out that infield single or bloops a flare in front of a charging outfielder. I'm tempted to think Posey will continue his torrid second half and pass McCutchen, as Miguel Cabrera did to Adrian Gonzalez last year. Nevertheless, I'm putting my money on 'Cutch.  He's started to heat up again in September, and even though he probably won't see too many good pitches to hit I think he can hold off Posey down the stretch.  Like Mike Trout, Posey has been so hot for so long that I feel like he's due to hit a speed bump sooner or later.  And, since he has fewer at-bats than McCutchen, an 0-for-4 day at the plate has a greater impact on his batting line (by that some token, so does a 4-for-4).

I'm just glad Cabrera was wise enough to step down and allow a (presumably) clean player to capture the batting title.  He made the correct call by accepting the consequences of his actions. It would have been wrong for him to accept a "tainted" award for an enhanced performance, just as it would have been wrong for Ryan Braun to keep his 2011 MVP trophy had he been forced to serve his own 50 game suspension in the spring (Matt Kemp deserved it anyways, but Braun's going to get screwed over in this year's voting, so it evens out).

Cabrera can't undo what he did, just as he can't take back all the runs he scored or all the games he helped the Giants win.  But give him credit for changing the outcome of something he could still control.

Friday, September 21, 2012

McCutchen Mashing Way to MVP

McCutchen struggled in August but has gotten his groove back (ESPN)
For much of the summer, Andrew McCutchen seemed to have a stranglehold on the National League MVP race.  His Pirates were winning, his stats were off the charts, and he was unquestionably the best player in the Senior Circuit.  From May 8th through August 8th, a span of 81 games (exactly half a season) he batted .393, belted 23 home runs, and slugged .700 (by comparison, Mike Trout batted .335 with 19 home runs and a ..611 slugging percentage during that same timeframe). The dread-locked five tool stud had developed into this year's Matt Kemp, a beast at the plate, on the basepaths and in the field.  This stellar all-around performance helped push Pittsburgh into the playoff hunt, for they led the second wild card with less than two months to go.

But then McCutchen cooled off, and the Bucs followed suit.  Over the next month 'Cutch batted a miserable .231 with only one home run, a summer swoon that may end up costing him his Most Valuable Player trophy.  Meanwhile the Pirates sputtered, enduring another late season collapse as the wheels came off their once promising season.  16 games above .500 as recently as six weeks ago, they're now saddled with losing record for the first time since late May.  They have been the worst team in the National League over that span and yes, that means even the lowly Houston Astros have outplayed them.  As a result, Pittsburgh's playoff chances have plummeted to half a percent.  They trail St. Louis for the second wild card by 5.5 games with 13 left to play, and barring some last-minute divine intervention will fall short of the postseason.  Now all the Bucs can do is try to avoid their 20th consecutive losing season dating back to the departure of Barry Bonds.

While the Pirates continued to fade in September, McCutchen is doing everything he can to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.   After that lengthy power outage the 25 year-old has re-emerged and once again looks locked in at the plate.  With six home runs in his previous eleven games, the Pirates center fielder has vaulted himself back into the MVP race with Ryan Braun and Buster Posey.  He now leads the National League in runs (102), hits (185) and bWAR (6.8--tied with Yadier Molina).  The two-time All-Star smacked his 30th home run of the season in yesterday's 9-7 loss to Milwaukee with a three-run jack off Mike Fiers, putting him on track to reach the century mark in RBI by the end of the season (he has 92).  Heck, with a strong finish he could still potentially wrestle the batting title away from Melky Cabrera, whom he trails .346 to .339.

Like Kemp last year, McCutchen clearly deserves the hardware based on his magnificent individual performance. The question is, will the voters overlook his team's horrific play during the season's most crucial  stretch?  Kemp was victimized by the Dodgers' lackluster record last season, but hopefully McCutchen will not suffer the same fate.  Unlike Los Angeles, the Pirates were in contention for much of the year, and that should still count for something even if they end the year with a losing record.

Besides, stiffing McCutchen would just add insult to injury for the Pirates and their fans, who have been forced to watch the same bad movie two seasons in a row. Last year they watched their team surge into first place in late July.  It didn't matter that their success was unsustainable, or that they lacked the pitching depth and offensive firepower necessary to survive the dog days of August. It made for great drama, and PNC park filled up with fans hoping the Pirates could at least   They were the talk of the town, the feel good story of the summer. And then, suddenly, they weren't.  After dropping a 19 inning marathon in Atlanta, the Pirates turned into pumpkins.  They were the worst team in the National League from July 25th onward as they skidded to a 72-90 record.  They never again won more than two games in a row.  The magic show was over.

And as their season went south, so did McCutchen's.  Following an impressive first half (.894 OPS), he disappeared after the All-Star Break.  Opponents took advantage of his weak supporting cast and pitched around him, but an impatient McCutchen abandoned his plate discipline and started going fishing.  You could see the face of the franchise pressing, trying to save Pittsburgh's season single-handedly. The pressure of trying to keep a sinking ship afloat seemed to wear him down.  The budding superstar limped to the finish line, batting an anemic .216/.330/.392 while striking out in more than a quarter of his at-bats.

This time around, McCutchen is ending his season on a high note.  It probably won't be enough to salvage Pittsburgh's season, but it should be enough to push him over the top in the MVP race.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pagan, Scutaro Sparking San Francisco

Posey has overshadowed the torrid hitting of Angel Pagan (left) and Marco Scutaro 
Ask the average baseball fan who has been the most valuable player on the San Francisco Giants this season, and the vast majority of them would probably give Buster Posey as their response (a month ago you could have said Melky Cabrera; now I'd be shocked if the writers give him so much as a courtesy nod).  The 2010 NL Rookie of the Year is leading the team in almost every offensive category imaginable, ranks fourth in the league in bWAR and is tied with Andrew McCutchen for the top OPS+ in the majors. Since starting the All-Star Game (in which he caught for Matt Cain) he's done his best Ted Williams impression--circa 1941--by hitting an absurd .392/.466/.656 to push the Giants past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the standings and build a cushy eight game lead in the NL West.  Considering all that, some have already tabbed him as the frontrunner for National League MVP, I'm not convinced he's separated himself from the pack.  There are still several other candidates worthy of consideration; Ryan Braun has the best stats, David Wright's put together a heck of a year and McCutchen is heating up again after a brutal August slump. If 'Cutch can carry his Pittsburgh Pirates (2.5 games out of the second wild card spot) into the postseason for the first time since the Barry Bonds era ended there two decades ago, I think he's a shoe-in for the trophy.

So if Posey wants to become the first National League backstop to earn an MVP award since Johnny Bench in 1972, he will need to sustain his hot hitting for two more weeks.  In the meantime, San Francisco's cleanup hitter should continue to get plenty of opportunities to drive in runs given how productive the table-setters have been at the top of the lineup.  While Posey's gotten all the ink for his second half surge, veterans Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro have been the X-Factors fueling San Fran's success in August and September.

Pagan has quietly enjoyed a terrific campaign. Following a disappointing 2011 with the Mets in which he batted .262 and missed more than a month with a rib injury, the switch-hitting center-fielder was traded last offseason for Ramon Ramirez and Andres Torres. Installed by Bruce Bochy as the Giants leadoff batter, the 31 year-old Pagan has flourished in his Giants debut.  The speedster leads the major leagues in triples, with 13, plays solid defense, and has played like an MVP over the past six weeks. Since August 3rd, Pagan is batting a Posey-like .331/.389/.554 with 14 doubles, eight triples and 42 runs scored (one run per game).   He's been a catalyst at the top of the lineup, a light version Michael Bourn or Jose Reyes.

Batting right behind him is the well-traveled Scutaro, playing for his fourth team in the past four years.  He began the season with the Rockies, only to be dealt to San Fran on July 27th in exchange for Charlie Culberson.  At the time the move hardly looked like a game-changer, for in his brief tenure with the Rockies Scoots produced 0.0 bWAR and compiled a 73 OPS+.  Since donning the Giants uniform, though, the 36 year-old second baseman has looked rejuvenated at the plate batted a blazing .349/.367/.451 with 31 RBI and just 13 strikeouts in 215 plate appearances.  Every time you check the box score it seems like he's gone 2-for-4 or 3-for-5 (he has ten multi-hit games in September).  At this point in his career most of his value is tied up in base hits, since he lacks power, doesn't steal bases, and rarely draws walks (reminds me of Michael Young).  But when one bats in front of Pablo Sandoval, Posey and Hunter Pence, getting to first base is usually enough.

It's impossible to overstate how important the contributions (5.8 oWAR) of these two players.  Last year, the Giants missed the postseason mainly because they couldn't muster enough offense to support their stellar pitching.  Posey's ankle injury and Carlos Beltran's DL stint played a part in this, but it also didn't help that their table-setters simply weren't doing their jobs.

Batting first: .232/.292/.357
Batting second: .264/.308/.354

This season has been a completely different story.  Pagan and Scutaro have stabilized the top of the order and are getting on base for the big bats coming up behind them.

Batting first: .265/.335/.426
Batting second: .290/.335/.369

That's a 112 point jump in OPS out of the lead-off spot and a 42 point spike from the two-hole.  Their success, combined with elite production from Posey, has helped transform San Francisco from the lowest scoring offense in the league  last year to one that rates seventh (out of 16 teams) in runs this season.  The pitching has held despite disappointing seasons from Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson, so the Giants are poised to make a run at their second World Series title in three years.

Pagan has never played in the postseason.  Scutaro has, albeit once and six years ago.  But with the postseason just around the corner, both have taken their games to another level.

They just have to keep doing what they're doing.  Perhaps people will finally start to take notice.  Maybe then they'll get the credit they deserve.

And maybe, just maybe, Buster Posey will win an MVP award because of it.

Pats Come Up Short Against Cardinals

Stephen Gostkowski trotted onto the field with six seconds remaining in New England's home opener.  The Patriots, led by the one and only Tom Brady, had mounted a spirited fourth quarter comeback but were still trailing 20-18.  The loyal fans that remained in their seats had just witnessed a stunning turn of events; Arizona had the game all but locked up with just over a minute to play when Ryan Williams fumbled the football (recovered by Vince Wilfork). Two plays later, Danny Woodhead broke loose and rushed for what appeared to be the game winning touchdown, only to have it called back because of a penalty on Rob Gronkowski.  But that didn't matter.  New England was going to win; the only difference was in the margin of victory.

But as I scooted forward to the edge of my seat, I got this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

He's going to miss it.

It was just a gut feeling.  There was no evidence to suggest he would shank it.  After all, Gostkowski is perennially one of the top kickers in the league.  He had made 38 consecutive regular season fourth quarter field goal attempts. He'd already drilled four field goals that afternoon, including 51 and 53-yarders in his most recent attempts.  By comparison, a 42 yard field goal should've been easy. A lay-up.  Piece of cake.  The average kicker converts a kick from that range about three quarters of the time, and Gostkowski had made all but nine of his previous 35 career attempts from 40-49 yards out.

Well, so much for that.  Gostkowski's kick sailed wide left, and that was that.  Kevin Kolb (filling in for John Skelton-ankle) and company, the indisputable underdogs coming into the game, celebrated their second win of the season while the Pats trudged off the field in disappointment.  Tough pill to swallow for Bill Belichick's Patriots, who made costly mistakes and lost their first home opener since 2003 despite accumulating 142 more yards, limiting Larry Firzgerald to just one catch and putting forth a solid defensive effort.  To make matters worse, Brady lost one of his most potent weapons when Aaron Hernandez (ankle) left the game on crutches in the first quarter, leaving the offense shorthanded for much of the game.  His absence didn't stop Brady from compiling 316 yards on 28-of-46 passing, but #12 failed to throw a touchdown until just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.

The Cardinals have won nine of their past eleven games.  The Patriots travel to Baltimore, where they will play the Ravens on Sunday night.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Brewers, Phillies Rise from the Dead

For much of the summer, the Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies were considered major disappointments, and rightly so.  After winning their respective divisions a year ago both teams carried losing records deep into the summer.  At the end of July they were sellers in a buyer's market and found ways to unload some of their established talent.  The Brewers shipped former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to the Angels and Philadelphia parted ways with Joe Blanton plus All-Star outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence shortly after re-upping Cole Hamels. With their underachieving teams in ruins, both clubs seemed to be waving the white flag.

Six weeks later, they've somehow managed to claw their way back to .500 (Milwaukee is 72-71, Philly is 72-72).  They're closing in on St. Louis (76-68) for the league's second wild card spot, and one of them could wind up making the playoffs if they maintain their torrid pace for three more weeks.

How the hell did that happen?
On Friday the (July) 13th, Philadelphia began the second half at Coors Field with a 6-2 loss to the woeful Colorado Rockies.  Cliff Lee surrendered nine hits while Colorado's Christian Friedrich stymied a Phillies lineup featuring Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Placido Polanco, and the aforementioned duo of Pence and Victorino. The defeat represented Philly's fifth loss in a row, the eleventh in their past twelve, and it dropped them to 37-51 on the season.  A top heavy team that had adopted a stars and scrubs approach, constructed around a nucleus of aging superstars, had been ravaged by injuries and slumps to many of its key contributors (sound familiar, Red Sox fans?).  They were dead.

Except they weren't.  Since then, Philly has gone 35-21 despite continuing to field a lineup that is average at best (losing Pence and Victorino didn't help). They've scored in double digits just once since the beginning of June and lack the firepower necessary to build up big leads.  Every game they play is a tightly contested affair.  Most nights, they barely scrape together enough runs to win.

So if their unlikely resurrection hasn't been fueled by hot hitting, then the answer must lie in improved pitching. As a whole, Charlie Manuel's staff has trimmed its ERA by nearly a full run in the second half. The rotation has benefited from Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay returning to form, supplementing the success of Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley. The other major turnaround came within the bullpen, which has gone from lackluster to dominant in the span of two months.  Philly's relievers went 9-16 with a 4.76 ERA and 1.38 WHIP (essentially Ricky Nolasco) in the first half but are 12-8 with a 3.14 ERA and 1.17 WHIP so far in the second (similar to Hiroki Kuroda) while upping their K rate by more than two batters per nine innings. The team's biggest weakness and fatal flaw has become its main strength. But then again, the pitching was supposed to be good, so it was only a matter of time before they all got on a roll.
As for the Brewers, their renaissance has taken a different path.  On August 15th, the Rockies bested the Brew Crew 7-6, to cap off a three game sweep at Coors Field.  The Brewers fell to 52-64 on the season, a dozen games below .500 with six weeks to play.  At that point, most teams would have admitted that it just wasn't their year and mailed it in. Call up the reserves in September and start playing for next year.  But the Brewers didn't see it that way.  They looked at their soft schedule, saw a golden opportunity and seized it by the throat.  During the last month Milwaukee has gone 20-7, making the most of their 17 game stretch from August 20th through September 6th in which they played three slumping teams; the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Miami Marlins. The Brewers have lost consecutive games just once--back-to-back losses against Philadelphia over the weekend of August 18th/19th--but have won two or more games seven times and were practically unbeatable at home (11-2), where they've swept the Cubbies, Bucs, and Braves.

The Brewers boast the best lineup in the National League and have feasted off opposing hurlers all season long.  Despite losing Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers via free agency, their powerful offense leads the Senior Circuit in runs scored, home runs, and total bases (with so much pop, you'd think they be a station-to-station offense that stands around waiting for somebody to crank a home run, but they're not.  Manager Ron Roenicke is aggressive on the basepaths; his team rates second in the NL in steals). After a quick glance at the starting nine, it's easy to see how Milwaukee's bats have been so prolific.  Ryan Braun is putting together another MVP-caliber season.  Free agent addition Aramis Ramirez has rebounded from a slow start to post his typically strong all-around numbers.  Corey Hart needs just three big flies for his second 30 homer season since 2010.  Backstop Jonathan Lucroy has produced on par with Buster Posey when healthy.  Outfielders Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki have been productive.  Even Rickie Weeks, who's looked utterly lost at the plate this year, is salvaging his season with a torrid September.  Top to bottom, this lineup is stacked with heavy hitters. It's been even better in the second half, averaging nearly 5.5 runs per game while seeing a 58-point improvement in their OPS compared to the first half.

So scoring runs isn't an issue for the Brewers, but preventing them is (In this sense they remind me of the 2004 Red Sox before the Nomar Garciaparra trade; they can hit with the best of them, but streaky pitching and abysmal glove work have prevented them from taking off). Their defense is brutal; bringing in Alex Gonzalez to man shortstop couldn't cure that.  Their inefficiency in the field makes the pitching look worse than it is, but the arms have endured their own set of problems, too. The bullpen has been a mess all season long, primarily because John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have struggled in the late innings--that explains why Milwaukee is just 23-29 in one-run games.  The rotation is solid and has soldiered on without Greinke and Randy Wolf (released), but lacks consistency. Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada have been lights out lately, but Mike Fiers and Shaun Marcum are slumping.  If the Brewers are going to have any shot of sneaking into the playoffs this year, the bullpen will need to step up.  Every win counts, and they can no longer afford to lose close games by one run.

After digging themselves in such deep holes early on, the recent surges by both teams will most likely be too little, too late.  There are still substantial challenges to overcome as the season draws to a close, and these roadblocks may prove insurmountable. The Phillies have three more games in Houston (piece of cake), but from then on out they play all their games against their NL East rivals; three each with the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, and Miami Marlins, but six against the Washington Nationals, who have the best record in baseball and are closing in on 100 wins.  The hope is that with division all but wrapped up, Davey Johnson may begin resting his regulars/aligning his starting rotation as the postseason approaches.  Philadelphia is a combined 10-20 against the Mets and Braves this year, so those match-ups could spell trouble as well.  Expect the Brewers to continue to roll against New York and Pittsburgh, but their ten game road trip looms large for a team that has a .394 winning percentage away from home.  To make matters worse, seven of those games are against the red-hot Reds and Nats.  But if Milwaukee somehow survives that challenge with their playoff chances intact, they can look forward to six cushy games at home against the Astros and Padres to close out the season.

I don't think either one gets in.  The odds aren't on their side; gives Milwaukee a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason and the Phillies are even bigger long-shots with just a 2.7 percent likelihood.  But they're still breathing.  They're not out of the race.  They still have a chance and, given where they stood a month ago, that is nothing short of miraculous.

I guess the real question is; do you believe in miracles?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Harper Heating Up Again

After a protracted midseason slump, Bryce Harper is swinging a hot bat (CNN)
In the Washington Nationals' 5-3 win over the New York Mets yesterday, Bryce Harper enjoyed the first four-hit game of his career.   The way he's been hitting lately, it might not be too long before he does it again.

Over the past month, he's been one of the hottest hitters in baseball, in the same stratosphere as Mark Reynolds, Chase Headley, Adrian Beltre, and Giancarlo Stanton.   No exaggeration.  It seems that, at long last, Harper's summer swoon is finally over.  Baseball's LeBron James survived his first major league slump and has re-emerged as the budding superstar-in-the-making we all expected him to be.

Surely you still remember how well the 19 year-old freshman played during those first six weeks in the Show.  Following a strong showing in his much-anticipated big league debut, Harper took off and became a one man highlight reel.  He stole home against the Phillies, launched majestic home runs, and ran out every play like he had a bus to catch.  He dazzled us and spoiled us, but above all, he succeeded. In the first 40 games of his major league career, Harper hit for average (.307).  He hit for power (.553 SLG).  He drew walks, scored lots of runs, played good defense and was aggressive on the base-paths.  The five tool stud contributed in every facet of the game, and the spark he provided couldn't have come at a better time for his depleted Nationals, sans Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth for much of the first half.  Most of America was too busy falling head over heels for Mike Trout to notice, but this brash, cocky man-child was playing like an MVP candidate well on his way to putting together the best offensive season by a teenager since Tony Conigliaro's 1964 campaign.

But then Harper just flat-out stopped hitting.  His numbers tailed off at the end of June and continued to free-fall throughout July.  The skid didn't deter Harper's last minute selection to his first All-Star team as a replacement for Giancarlo Stanton, thus making him the youngest position player to ever appear on an All-Star roster.  The midsummer breather didn't rejuvenate his bat, though, as the young outfielder continued to struggle in the second half.  The strikeouts piled up, the frustrations mounted, and his power all but disappeared.  This famine of biblical proportions stretched deep into the dog days of August, and after taking an 0-for-5 against the Giants on August 15th his numbers hit rock bottom.  His once stellar seasonal averages had plummeted to .245/.321/.396.  How had that happened?  Over the previous two months, a span of 55 games, he batted .204/.273/.290 with just three home runs, 13 RBI and a whopping 56 strikeouts.  The pitchers had figured him out. He looked done.  Spent.  Like a dimming light bulb that had burned out under its own intensity.

Since then, he's shined.  While Trout's been fading down the stretch, Harper has kicked it into high gear. Re-entered beast mode, if you will.  Manager Davey Johnson rode out the storm, refusing to drop his struggling youngster/number two hitter down in the order, and that patience has paid huge dividends.  Since August 17th, Harper's batted a sizzling .344/.404/.715 while mashing eight big flies, producing ten multi-hit games and helping the Nationals lock up the NL East.  He's hitting for average.  He's hitting for power.  He's scoring tons of runs and driving them in, too. The only thing he's not doing is stealing bases; his last theft came all the way back on July 23rd.  His numbers have more or less returned to where they were at the All-Star Break. It might be too little, too late to push him past Todd Frazier and Wade Miley in the NL Rookie of the Year race, but if Harper can sustain his torrid hitting for a few more weeks his final numbers may be good enough to persuade the voters otherwise.

Don't bother asking Harper who he thinks should take home the trophy, though.  I think we all know how he would respond.

Sox-Yankees September Showdown: So What?

New York and Boston are limping to the finish line (ESPN Boston)
You know something's gone horribly wrong when the Yankees come to town for a September series at Fenway Park, and Red Sox Nation couldn't care less.

Don't let the sellout crowds fool you; these games mean nothing to Boston, who were just swept by the equally terrible Toronto Blue Jays.  That makes 11 losses in their past dozen contests, a slide that's dropped them to last place in the AL East.  Their season's in the toilet, and fans have already checked out and moved on.  I hear the Patriots are supposed to be pretty good this year.

On the other hand, these three games are crucial for the Yankees, who lead the division by just one game over those pesky Baltimore Orioles.  New York hasn't played well lately, and now finds itself in the unenviable position of fighting tooth and nail to hold on to the top spot in the AL Beast, a situation that seemed unimaginable on the morning of July 19th when they were up ten games in the standings. gives them a 50.7 percent chance of winning the division.  A coin toss.  Most teams, Red Sox included, would gladly take those odds, but not the Yankees, not when they should have had this race locked up already.

But untimely injuries to C.C. Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova, along with the pre-existing ones to Mariano Rivera, Michael Pineda, and Brett Gardner, depleted the Bombers as their midsummer surge became a swoon (same thing happened to the Red Sox last year and, well, look how that turned out).  They haven't won back-to-back games since the middle of August and desperately need to get back on track against their rivals, whom they've beaten eight times in their twelve meetings thus far.  They'd love to cream Boston and gather some momentum for their pivotal weekend series with the Rays.  Most importantly, they want to stay in first place and maintain their status as division leaders, a title they've held each and every day for the past three months.

With the Sox rolling out a glorified version of the Pawsox most nights, this series is there for the taking.  All New York has to do is win (I know, I know, easier said than done).  Tonight Joe Girardi sends Hiroki Kuroda (13-10, 3.14 ERA) to the bump.  The 37 year-old free agent acquisition has quietly been the team's best pitcher this year as well as their hottest; over his past 19 starts he has a 2.58 ERA, averaging more than seven innings per turn with nearly five strikeouts per walk.  Bobby Valentine will counter with Jon Lester (9-11, 4.99 ERA), who's looked like the Jon Lester of old since he cratered against Toronto. With those two aces colliding, expect a pitching duel that should keep the Fenway Faithful in their seats for much of the game.

And while they are there, maybe they can ignore the standings posted on the Green Monster, close their eyes and pretend that Yankees-Red Sox still matters.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Patriots Topple Titans

The boys are back in town
I must say, it's great to have a winning team to root for again in Boston.  Time to put this miserable summer of baseball behind us and focus on football!

Yesterday afternoon the New England Patriots kicked off their 2012 season by topping the Tennessee Titans 34-13.  The home team took an early 3-0 lead following a 28-yard field goal from Rob Bironas, but from that point forward it was all New England.

Tom Brady, as always, led the way.  The three-time Super Bowl champion eclipsed 40,000 career passing yards, becoming just the 14th quarterback in NFL history to do so.  He put together another stellar game, notching 236 yards on 23-of-31 passing to go along with a pair of TDs, one each to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  Combined the tight-end tandem hauled in 12 of Brady's 13 targets for 119 yards.

Running back Stevan Ridley also shone for the Patriots by piling up 125 rushing yards on 21 carries and scoring a touchdown.  He even snagged a pair of passes for good measure.  I know it's only one game, but Ridley represents a clear upgrade over BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  He's quick, explosive and fun to watch; there were times yesterday when he made Titans defenders look terrible.

On the other hand, New England's defense played a great game against the Titans, limiting them to only one touchdown.  Even more impressively, they managed to hold Chris Johnson to just four rushing yards on eleven carries.

For Tennessee, 24 year-old quarterback Jake Locker looked a little shaky in the first start of his career.  His 229 yards on 23-of-32 passing were almost identical to the numbers posted by his counterpart, but the sophomore threw just one touchdown (to Nate Washington) and turned the ball over twice, including a fumble that rookie Dont'a Hightower promptly returned for a TD.  Several of his pass attempts were wild, but overall he did make some nice plays and had a decent performance until he departed in the fourth quarter with a left shoulder injury.  Matt Hasselbeck replaced him.

New England has won nine consecutive season openers, the longest active streak in the league.  Next week they take on the Arizona Cardinals at home.

Strasburg Shut Down

Stephen Strasburg is done for the season.  Finished.  He will not pitch again in 2012.  End of story. Stick a fork in him, coach.  He's done.

Even though he is perfectly healthy.  Even though he's the undisputed ace of Washington's staff.  Even though he's only 24 years old.

But we all knew this was coming.  We've known it since before spring training, when the rigid parameters of the Strasburg plan were etched in stone and set into motion. 

1. He would have his innings capped somewhere between 160 and 180 innings.
2. He would not receive extra rest between starts
3. He would not be shut down for a while, only to resume pitching if the Nationals were in contention or reached the playoffs

No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  There would be no compromise.  No negotiations. 

It's too bad his season ended on such a low note, as his final start of 2012 was a dud.  In fact, it was the second worst outing of his career as measured by the Bill James GameScore statistic.  On Friday night he lasted just three innings (tying a career low) against the Miami Marlins, who scored five times off him just ten days after pounding him for nine hits and seven runs (five earned). In this latest beating, Giancarlo Stanton and Rob Brantly took him deep, marking only the fourth time this season that Strasburg had surrendered multiple home runs in a game.  His two strikeouts were a season low and, for the first time in his major league career, he walked more batters than he whiffed.

Even though he was slated to make his final start against David Wright's New York Mets on September 12th, the Nationals had seen enough.  They pulled the plug on his season.  Thanks for all your help, Steve, but we'll take it from here.

Strasburg, who's been losing sleep for weeks, is devastated. He concludes his first full big league season with a 15-6 record, 3.16 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 197 strikeouts in just 159.1 innings, good for an NL best 11.1 K/9 rate.  Even with his low innings total, he pitched well enough to earn some Cy Young consideration this offseason.  Unfortunately, he won't pose a serious challenge to R.A. Dickey or Johnny Cueto and will have to wait at least one more year before he can make another run at the trophy.

He could have several of them waiting in store for him; he's that good.  While many fans and pundits alike have roundly criticized the Nationals for voluntarily stripping themselves of their best shorting pitcher, I admire the organization's commitment to the plan they formulated back in February.  Even if you don't agree with the strategy, at least give them credit for sticking to their guns in the face of overwhelming public pressure.  The bottom line is they're doing what's best for their hard-throwing franchise pitcher.  They're protecting him, his arm, and his future, and you can't fault them for that.  Tommy John surgery notwithstanding, Strasburg's messy mechanics/violent throwing motion place a lot of stress on his arm, putting him at an elevated risk of serious injury.   At the end of the day, the Nats want to avoid another flameout a la Mark Prior (just one victim of the curse of Dusty Baker). They want his arm healthy and strong, able to withstand many more seasons as a frontline starting pitcher. They want to squeeze the most out of the first overall pick from the '09 draft class.

Can you really blame them?

Manager Davey Johnson carefully monitored Strasburg's workload all season long to prevent the All-Star hurler from burning through his innings limit by mid-August.  Strasburg averaged fewer than six innings per start and never pitched more than seven in any game. He threw 100 pitches or more in just ten of his 28 starts, twice eclipsing 110 pitches.  His season high was 119 in his June 8th start against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.  As the season wore on and Strasburg seemed to be fading (4.14 ERA over his last ten starts, including the three worst starts of his career based on GameScore), Johnson scaled back his workload even more.  In his past 14 turns, Strasburg came out for the seventh inning just once.

Plus, it helps that the Nats have been through this process before, albeit under totally different circumstances.  In 2011 Washington limited Jordan Zimmermann, to 161.1  innings in his first full season back from TJ surgery (but the Nats finished below .500 and nobody was calling for them to keep trotting him out there).  And you know what? It worked.  He's been even better this season.  Maybe the same thing will happen with Strasburg.  Maybe he will come back stronger as well.  The mere thought of him improving should have National League hitters tossing in their sleep winter long.

But as far as the rest of the regular season is concerned, this move isn't a big deal at all.  It doesn't change a darn thing.  The Nationals own the best record in baseball and are virtual locks to reach the postseason (99.9 percent likelihood according to  They still have more than enough starting pitching to carry them deep into October.  It's not like Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler are going anywhere. The lineup is still solid, and the bullpen remains unflappable.  A legitimate World Series contending team is left largely intact.  If any team could afford to shut down its ace with more than three weeks left to play, it's the Nationals.  They can, and will, storm to the finish line sans Strasburg.

But the postseason is a beast of a different nature.  Aces such as Strasburg, C.C. Sabathia, and Clayton Kershaw become even more valuable in a shortened playoff series, when every game is do-or-die.  A bona fide stopper is worth his weight in gold.  He's irreplaceable, priceless, and above all, vital.  It goes without saying that Washington's chances of winning the World Series decrease with Strasburg on the sidelines.  And while their talented young core (Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and the aforementioned starting pitchers) suggests the Nats will be October mainstays for years to come, nothing is guaranteed in sports.  Injuries and slumps can inflict irreparable damage to a roster.  Shit happens (just ask Boston and Philly). These playoffs might be their only shot at a title; the NL East is a tough division with the Braves, Phillies, and Marlins all blessed with established veteran stars and deep pockets.  Cincinatti is rolling and the Dodgers have assembled a veritable All-Star team out in Los Angeles.  This whole thing could blow up in Washington's face if the Nats wind up letting a championship pass them by.

But that's a chanC. Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo will have to take.  Because if Strasburg blew out his arm during the NLDS or fell apart next season, they'd be answering "what if?"s for the rest of their lives. So if he tears his rotator cuff next year and/or breaks down, at least they won't have to second guess themselves for all of eternity.  They can rest easy knowing they did everything within their power to preserve his arm.

So Washington will participate in playoff baseball in our nation's capitol for the first time since 1933 without Stephen Strasburg.  As for how far they can go, nobody knows.  Just as nobody knows how Stephen Strasburg's promising career will pan out.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reynolds Red Hot

Mark Reynolds is locked in at the plate (ESPN)
Look out, New York Yankees.  The Orioles are hot on your trail, and (with apologies to Adrian Beltre, Chase Headleyand Miguel Cabrera) they have Mark Reynolds, the hottest hitter in baseball right now.

Reynolds' recent tear shouldn't surprise anybody.  He is notoriously streaky, as are most high strikeout power-hitters.  Think Adam Dunn, Pedro Alvarez, Jay Bruce.  They're hot one minute, cold the next.  They'll look lost at the plate for weeks at a time, and then they go and homer in four straight games. They have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  The long balls come in bunches, and so do the whiffs.

With Reynolds, you get plenty of both.  From 2008-'11 he averaged 35 big flies and 208 strikeouts per season, so by comparison his 20 blasts and 129 whiffs this year are on the low side because he's missed 27 games.  But right now, he's so hot that his teammates should treat him like a fire hazard.  In his past seven games, Baltimore's slugging third baseman has clobbered eight home runs, driven in 16 runs and scored ten.  He just did in a week what many great sluggers need an entire month to do.

That one ridiculous week salvaged his season.  On the penultimate day in August, his batting line was an uninspiring .221/.343/.397.  Now he's up to a much more respectable .235/.353/.465, right in line with his career averages.  It's good to see Reynolds finally breaking out of his season long funk, especially after I talked him up before the season.  He started slow out of the gate with no homers and just three RBI in April, and as soon as his power came around he landed on the DL. He missed most of May and when he came back just couldn't get in a groove.  His timing might have been off, because he slumped for most of the summer.  As recently as August 5th he was hitting .203 with eight dingers and 32 RBI, well on his way to a repeat performance of Dunn's dismal 2011.  In the month of games since then, he has crushed everything in his path, batting .333/.444/.789 with a dozen moon shots, 26 RBI, and 18 walks.  He's killing it right now.

His resurgence couldn't have come at a better time for his Orioles, currently trying to unseat the visiting Yankees from first place in the AL East.  Reynolds has feasted on New York's pitching for six home runs in their past four meetings, and will have several more chances this weekend to add to his burgeoning power figures.