Monday, September 28, 2015

Sox Sweep Fenway Finale

Holt celebrates after scoring the first run of Sunday's game (Washington Post)
The Red Sox put their fans through a lot of pain and suffering this summer. But on a beautiful fall weekend in New England, they treated the Fenway Faithful to their best baseball of the season.
With Baltimore in town for the season's final series at the Fens, Boston did not allow a single run in the three-game set. In just their third sweep of the season (all at home), they had more shutouts in one weekend than they did in the previous three months.
Friday night featured another dominant start by Rich Hill, who has struck out 10 batters in each of his three starts since joining the Red Sox two weeks ago. The area-native was near-perfect, allowing just two hits and one walk as he breezed through a tough Orioles lineup. Boston backed him up with plenty of run support, breaking through for three runs in the sixth to send Kevin Gausman to the showers and give Hill a 5-0 advantage.
It was 7-0 when he came back out for the ninth, seeking his first complete game shutout since 2006 and just the second of his career. He nearly lost it with one out to go when Chris Davis launched his 116th pitch of the evening towards the right field bullpen, only to be saved by a spectacular leaping catch at the wall by Mookie Betts--the kind of catch Torii Hunter just missed making two Octobers ago.
If Hill's shutout was unexpected, surely nobody thought the Sox would get another one on Saturday--Boston's bullpen day. Interim manager Torey Luvollo gave Craig Breslow his first career start. Breslow--terrible this year and last out--baffled the O's through four in the longest outing of his career. A half-dozen relievers followed him out of the bullpen as Heath Embree worked out of a two-on, two-out jam in the fifth, Matt Barnes kept Baltimore at Bay in the sixth and seventh, and a different pitcher recorded each of the three outs in the eighth. 24 year-old rookie Jonathan Aro closed out the ninth,.
Once again Boston's bats were quiet in the first half of the game but erupted in the second. Held scoreless by Wei-Yin Chen through four, the Red Sox got on the board thanks to a RBI double from Josh Rutledge. Though they left the bases loaded, their bats had come alive and would add another run in the sixth, two more in the seventh, and four in a lead-padding bottom of the eighth. Only two of Boston's eight runs were earned, however, as Baltimore committed three errors in the field.
That sloppy defense persisted on Sunday, as Orioles outfielders lost a pair of fly balls in the early-autumn sun. Neither time did the Red Sox capitalize, though they did break the ice on a wild pitch by the notoriously erratic Ubaldo Jimenez, who has led his league in that dubious statistic twice in the past five years. His errant offering to Big Papi bounced up off the glove of Caleb Joseph, rolling far away enough for Brock Holt to score easily off his terrific jump. Boston doubled its lead on a Blake Swihart home run--his third of the season, and that proved plenty on a sleepy afternoon for both offenses.
Because while Jimenez was actually quite good, Henry Owens was even better. For the second time in 12 days, he pitched 7 and 2/3 scoreless against the Orioles. It was, according to GameScore, the best outing of his young career, which consists of the 10 starts he's made since his early August call-up. He's now gone at least seven in each of his last three starts after doing so just once in his first seven.
Owens walked off the mound to a thunderous cheer from the Fenway crowd (paid attendance: 33,306), but that was nothing compared to the receptions given to Larry Lucchino and Don Orsillo. Both received outstanding video tributes as well as a big hand from the fans. But while Lucchino was named honorary President/CEO and threw out the first pitch, it was Orsillo who felt the warm, loving embrace of the fans. Sad to see their popular play-by-play announcer go, the Fenway Faithful followed a stirring highlight reel of Orsillo's most memorable calls and hijinks (which NESN, true to form, did not show) with a full-throated standing ovation. Many of whom hoisted cutout images of  of the recently-fired TV commentator's face, while even more chanted his name. Orsillo returned the salute with one of his own, grateful for the groundswell of support he's received throughout this entire episode, then sat in silence, momentarily unable to describe what was happening on the field.
It hasn't been a pretty year for the Red Sox, a season most would like to soon forget. But yesterday, which ended with thousands of fans circling the bases as the sun set over their beloved ballpark, was one that many, myself included, will always remember.
We'll miss you, Don (ESPN)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Papi Powers 500th

Ortiz follows through on the 500th moon shot of his career (
They say baseball is a young man's game, and with a few notable exceptions, they are right. David Ortiz is one such exception.

Two months shy of his 40th birthday, Ortiz is still one of the best hitters in baseball. He's posted huge numbers for a lackluster Red Sox team, batting .275/.361/.556 with 34 home runs, 31 doubles and 95 RBI. It's another typically excellent season for Ortiz, who continues to defy his age as he reaches a point where most of his contemporaries have retired. Only four players who appeared in a game in 1997 are still playing today, and David Ortiz is one of them. He's aged like fine wine, amassing more home runs during his 30s than all but eight players in big league history.

This season--his 19th--has been a microcosm of his entire career. He started slow, casting doubts about his performance, only to turn it around and finish with a bang. A lot of people gave up on him, but as always he proved them wrong.

The Red Sox first gave him the chance to prove people wrong 13 years ago after the Twins released him. Although he'd swatted 20 home runs and slugged .500 in 2002, it was the height of the steroid era and teams weren't exactly clamoring for his services. If they had been, then Ortiz wouldn't have signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal to join Boston--a team that couldn't guarantee him regular playing time due to its logjam of corner infielders and DH-types.

At the time, nobody could have known that Theo Epstein, in his eighth week on the job as Boston's wunderkind GM, had just acquired one of the most prodigious power hitters in major league history--not to mention one of the best bargains ever. Not even in Epstein's wildest dreams did he foresee Ortiz being part of three championship teams (and counting), breaking Jimmie Foxx's single season home run record for a Red Sox, or setting a new franchise record for most 30-homer seasons.

There's also no way he could have envisioned Ortiz eventually joining the 500 home run club. When Ortiz signed with the Red Sox, he had just 58 home runs to his name--fewer than any other member of the 500 club had at the same age (by which point several had already hit that many or more in a single season), making 500 all but unattainable. To get there, he'd have to average 34 long balls per year until his 40th birthday--a near-impossible task for someone who had never topped 20 home runs in a season.

Ortiz needed a ridiculous run to reach the milestone--a monster peak in his late 20s/early 30s followed by a decade of sustained excellence. Had he tailed off in his 30s, like most players do, he would have fallen way short. Time and the odds were against him.

So when Ortiz started slipping in his mid-30s, averaging 27 home runs per year from age 32-36 after blasting 42 per year from 27-31, 500 looked out of reach. When the 2013 season began, the then-37 year-old still had 99 to go and injuries were becoming a problem, as he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury while rounding the bases on a home run in 2012 and opened 2013 on the disabled list. While his bat was still potent, his body was breaking down, and it seemed like only a matter of time before his vicious swing followed suit.

But Ortiz wasn't close to done. He responded with his seventh 30-homer, 100 RBI season in 2013, followed by his eighth in 2014. That put him within range--one big season shy of 500.
Ortiz gets a congratulatory hug from longtime teammate Dustin Pedroia (WCVB)
Still, it seemed unlikely Ortiz would surpass 500 this year, let alone with three weeks remaining in the season. Ortiz opened the year 34 homers shy of the milestone, a number he'd reached just once in the previous seven seasons. And while he'd finished 2014 with 35, the likelihood of him repeating that number again in his age-39 season was low.

Any hope of him getting to 500 appeared dashed two months into the season, with Ortiz mired in one of the worst slumps of his career. He'd managed just six long balls a third of the way through the year, putting him in serious danger of finishing a season under 20 for the first time since 2001. It looked like we'd have to wait until next year for number 500.

But as spring turned to summer, Ortiz rediscovered his power stroke. He crushed seven home runs in June and seven more in July. He socked nine in August, bringing him to within five of 500. With a decent month of September, he'd get there before fall arrived.

Ortiz remained dialed in through the first two weeks of the month, allowing him to reach the milestone with plenty of time to spare. He began this weekend's series in Tampa Bay sitting on 498. After slugging no. 499 his first time up Saturday, he wasted no time in drilling his 500th. Leading off the top of the fifth with Boston ahead 7-0, he belted a long home run into the right field bleachers off Matt Moore--a lefty who would have given Ortiz fits five years ago or even five months ago. But when Ortiz is locked in, he rakes everybody.

While the 500 home run club isn't as exclusive as it used to be thanks to the steroid era, Ortiz's bomb was still special for a number of reasons. He joined former teammate Manny Ramirez in becoming one of four players to hit their 500th homer as a member of the Red Sox--the most of any franchise (pretty surprising, actually, considering Fenway Park is one of the tougher parks to homer in). Interestingly, the other two to do so--Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx--were also one-time teammates, with Foxx crushing his 500th during the Kid's rookie season.

That Ortiz reached the big number with a multi-homer game was also exceptionally rare: Albert Pujols is the only other one to do it. Fittingly enough, Pujols is also the only player with more home runs since Ortiz joined the Red Sox.

Lastly, Ortiz is only the fourth player with 500 homers and three World Series rings, but the first to have never won any of those rings with the Yankees. The others--Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson--won multiple championships in pinstripes.

With 500 in the books, the only question is how much higher can Ortiz climb? There's still plenty of time to pass Eddie Murray (504), by season's end, but he'll have to wait until next year before he can start really rising up the ranks. Another 30-homer season would put him in Mantle/Foxx territory, not to mention trigger his team option for 2017. If Papi has another 50 homers in his bat, that would put him above Mike Schmidt but behind Manny and Pujols, just outside the top-15. Should he struggle next year and decide to call it quits, he could still make his way into the top-20 if he belts #522 to pass Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, and Teddy Ballgame.

But no matter where he winds up, Ortiz has had a remarkable run. The once-nixed Twin has secured a place among baseball's elite, alongside names nobody was comparing him to 13 years ago. The Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers of the world have conditioned us to expect greatness from day one, but not every star is one from the start. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it requires patience. And sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Pats Open 2015 with Win

A free and fired-up Brady led New England to a win in its season-opener (
The New England Patriots know better than anybody that the best way to silence the critics is to go out and win.

That's what the reigning Super Bowl champs did in the NFL season opener, putting their whirlwind offseason behind them by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28-21, at Gillette Stadium.

On a cool, rainy night in Foxborough, there was surprisingly ample offense in spite of the damp conditions. Pittsburgh piled up 464 total yards, pushing New England's bend-not-break defense to its limit.  134 of those yards were gained on the ground, with DeAngelo Williams accounting for all but seven of those yards. Williams went to town, averaging just over six yards per carry. 

New England, on the other hand, didn't get much out of its running game (80 rush yards, though Dion Lewis performed well in his first career start), putting even more pressure on Tom Brady to produce. Brady didn't disappoint, turning in a near-perfect performance.  He completed 25 of his 32 pass attempts, including a franchise record 19 in a row (and his few strays didn't miss by much) en route to 288 yards and four touchdowns.

Three of those TD passes fell into the massive hands of Rob Gronkowski, who had a monster game with 94 yards on five catches. Pittsburgh had no answer for him when Brady reached the red zone, forgetting to cover him on several occasions (a costly and inexcusable mistake, given that he's usually the biggest player on the field at any given moment). The Steelers were also unable to contain Julian Edelman, who broke free for 97 receiving yards on 11 catches as well as nine rushing yards on a single carry. Brady's favorite target was his usual pesky self, getting open in the slot and talking tons of trash, even after getting slammed to the ground multiple times.

The game started slow, with a scoreless first quarter full of penalties. Things started picking up in the second quarter, with New England drawing first blood on its second series of the game via its first Brady-Gronk connection. Following a missed Josh Scobee field goal--his second shank in as many chances--Brady and Gronk struck again to put the Pats up 14-0. Scobee put Pittsburgh on the board by drilling a 44-yarder with seven seconds left in the first half, making the score 14-3 at the half.

The Patriots came out guns blazing in the second half, completing a 65 yard drive with Brady's third TD pass of the evening but first to a player not named Gronkowski. New England's other tight end, Scott Chandler, hauled it in. Pittsburgh answered right back with a touchdown on its first drive of the second half when Will Johnson jumped over New England's D-line, followed by a successful two-point conversion pass to Markus Wheaton. The Steelers scored on their next drive as well, cutting New England's lead to 21-14 early in the fourth.

The game didn't remain close for long, however, as Pittsburgh's defense was unable to hold the line. The Patriots effectively put the game away when Brady found Gronk in the end zone for the third time, rebuilding their lead to 14 with 9:24 remaining. Ben Roethlisberger failed to lead Pittsburgh back, as the next two Steeler drives resulted in a three-and-out and an interception. By the time he got the ball back again, New England had run the clock down to three minutes. His 70-yard touchdown drive--punctuated by a nice pass to Antonio Brown--proved too little too late, as only seven seconds remained by the time Pittsburgh scored. Gronk recovered the onside kick, and that was that.

The Patriots will look to remain undefeated next Sunday in Buffalo, while the Le'Veon Bell-less Steelers shoot for their first win at home against the 49ers.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Boston Blows Middle Game to Toronto

The Red Sox fell flat on their face in a nightmare 10th inning (Boston Globe)
The Red Sox played phenomenal baseball for nine innings Tuesday night, battling the Blue Jays to a 1-1 draw through the end of regulation. In the tenth inning, however, Boston showed why its in last place with one of the uglier innings I've seen this season, which is saying something considering how many unsightly moments there've been this year.

As the game drew on, it was only a matter of time before Boston blew up. Leave a last place team on the field long enough, and sooner or later they're going to screw up. Face Toronto's fearsome lineup, which includes three 30-homer hitters and leads all of baseball in runs scored, too many times, and eventually you pay the price.

Basically, the Red Sox lost because they went through the Blue Jays lineup one too many times last night.

Which is too bad, because Boston pitching dominated Toronto its first four trips through the order, allowing just one run on three hits. Unfortunately the Red Sox were equally quiet, managing only one run themselves and a mere four hits.

Boston's best chance to win came in the bottom of the ninth. Robbie Ross Jr. had just retired the side in the top half, setting the Sox up to walk-off with the heart of their order due up. Aaron Sanchez kept Boston at bay, working around a walk to David Ortiz (immediately erased when his pinch-runner, Rusney Castillo, was thrown out trying to steal second) to send the game into extras.

Castillo's mistake proved costly, as he may have ran the Red Sox out of a rally. Instead of a man on first with one out (Boston's win probability at that point: 64 percent), there were two outs and nobody on for Travis Shaw (win probability:54 percent). Shaw, who'd tied the game with a solo shot in the second, was unable to muster his second long ball of the evening and grounded out to end the frame.

With the middle of Toronto's order coming up and Boston's bullpen thinning out, the Blue Jays were poised to broke through. The Red Sox had blown their best chance walk away with a win, and thus avoid facing the terrifying trio of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion for a fifth time. Interim manager Torey Lovullo sent out Alexi Ogando, his sixth reliever of the evening, to deal with the aforementioned sluggers.

Ogando got into trouble immediately, as Donaldson socked his second pitch off the top of the Monster for a leadoff triple. Following a fly ball to Bautista, Ogando intentionally walked Encarnacion to set up an inning-ending double play.

To his credit, Ogando got the next two batters--Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Colabello, to hit the ball on the ground, but neither found a Boston glove. Both squirted into the outfield for run-scoring singles, giving Toronto a 3-1 edge.

That's when things turned ugly for Boston. With light-hitting Kevin Pillar at the plate, Ogando balked in a run, then uncorked a wild pitch. Pillar lifted a fly ball to Brock Holt in left, which Holt delivered to the plate ahead of a tagging Colabello. The throw was a bit up the line, however, and actually conked Colabello on the helmet as he slide into home. Had his dome not got in the way, he probably would have been called out.

As it were, the Blue Jays built a four-run lead in the blink of an eye--plenty of insurance. The Red Sox went down 1-2-3 in their half of the tenth, and that was that. They'd played nine great innings but had nothing to show for it, getting saddled with a tough-luck loss.

I suppose it's been that kind of season for the Red Sox. Even when they play well, they lose.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Red Sox Rolling

For Ortiz and the Red Sox, things are finally looking up (Sports Net)
Yesterday the Red Sox did something they haven't done in three months. They swept a three-game series.

Granted, they used their broomsticks on the Philadelphia Phillies--owners of the worst record in baseball. But if everyone swept the Phillies all the time, they'd be 0-137. By some miracle, they've actually won 53 games this year, which is only 11 fewer than Boston.

The last time these two teams met was at the start of the season, when the Sox took two out of three in Philadelphia. Since then, the Phils have played as well (or as poorly) as expected, while the Red Sox--tabbed by many to win the AL East, if not the American League--have not. They've fared worse, much worse.

But when the Phillies came to Fenway Park for a Labor Day weekend series, they ran into the streaking Sox. Though they'd just dropped two out of three to the Yankees, they were coming off their best calendar month of the season. Amidst a storm of controversy off the field, Boston finally started pulling out of its season-long funk.

At the beginning of play on July 30th, the Red Sox had the worst record in the American League and was tied with the Brewers for the third-worst in baseball. Since then, Boston's gone 20-14--the third best record in the American League.

A massive surge in offense has fueled the turnaround, with Boston increasing its scoring output by nearly 50 percent. The Red Sox have averaged 6.09 runs per game over the past six weeks, outscoring every team in baseball save the Blue Jays and the Mets. Before that they were scoring just 4.09 R/G.

After building what many thought would be the best lineup in baseball this year, the Sox are finally hitting as well as expected, albeit without many of the players that trounced Philadelphia on Opening Day. Dustin Pedroia is out, and Hanley Ramirez has missed time. Pablo Sandoval's season-long slump continues. Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino are gone.

And yet, for the first time all year, Boston's offense is firing on all cylinders. Travis Shaw and Jackie Bradley Jr. are hitting out of their minds. David Ortiz and Xander Bogaerts keep doing their thing, while Rusney Castillo and Blake Swihart have started to hit. Mookie Betts, currently on a 12-game hitting streak, has hit safely in 21 of 23 games since coming off the concussion disabled list.  With the exception of Sandoval, everyone is hitting.

That's why Boston is winning even though its pitching is only marginally better. Make no mistake, the starting rotation has improved. Joe Kelly has been a completely different pitcher since his recall, with a 2.72 ERA after spending much of the summer in Pawtucket. Wade Miley's continued to put his terrible start behind him, while Rick Porcello is just starting to do the same. Eduardo Rodriguez has rebounded from a brief rough patch, allowing just five earned runs in his past four starts. The bullpen's been exposed without Koji Uehara, but that hasn't mattered as much now that Boston's starters are going deeper into games and keeping opponents off the board.

If the Sox keep this up throughout September, they may salvage a .500 record and avoid finishing last for the third time in four years. It's too little, too late--Boston's still 7.5 games out of the second wild card and third from the bottom in the American League. But at least it's something.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Beltran Bouncing Back

Beltran's back after a poor 2014 and slow start to 2015 (Sports Net)
When the New York Yankees signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal two winters ago, he was already a player in decline. The formerly fleet center fielder and stolen base threat had lost his explosive speed to age and knee surgery. His bat, while still potent, had also slowed, as his OBP and slugging fell in consecutive seasons. That drop-off had become even more pronounced throughout the previous season (2013), as he experienced a 121 point erosion between his first half OPS and his second half OPS, almost all of which occurred in his slugging percentage.

The Yankees, however, were not scared off by his waning power, worsening platoon splits, or career-low walk rate for a full season. They saw a younger, more dangerous replacement for Ichiro Suzuki in right field. They saw a switch-hitter with life in his bat and a killer postseason resume. They saw a former Met who'd proven he could handle the pressure of playing in New York.

Nearly a decade after losing out on Beltran to the crosstown Mets, Yanks GM Brian Cashman, still liked him enough to buy out the rest of his 30s. It was a classic Yankees move, overpaying a former star for the twilight years of his career.

Beltran was part of the costliest, most aggressive offseason any team has ever had. Having just missed the playoffs for the second time in 20 years, the Yankees went on one of their patented spending sprees, dropping nearly half a billion dollars on free agents. They inked Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Beltran, among others, while also a serious run at Robinson Cano.

Dollars doesn't always equal wins, though. After bringing in all that talent, the Yankees won one fewer game than they did the previous year, missing the playoffs again.

One reason why was that Beltran cratered, but it was hardly the only reason. He and McCann were massive disappointments. Tanaka missed most of the summer with elbow inflammation, and Alex Rodriguez sat out the entire year serving his season-long PED suspension. After playing 32 games between them in 2013, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira failed to return to their previous performance levels. CC Sabathia got hurt and pitched just 46 innings--by far the fewest of his career.

With all that going on, it was easy to miss Beltran enduring the worst season of his career. Hampered by injuries and a 62 point drop in BABiP (down to .252, easily the worst of his career), Beltran batted a paltry .233/.301/.402 despite playing half his games in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. The short porch in right didn't aid his power stroke, either, as his ISO plunged another 26 points after falling 32 the previous year. A liability in at the plate, in the field, and on the bases, he rated below replacement level for the first time in his career.
Image courtesy of CBS New York
This year brought even harsher struggles for Beltran, who began the year in a horrible slump from which he showed no signs of escaping. Through the first week of May he was batting below .200 and slugging below .300 with his OBP somewhere in between. Some suggested that he abandon hitting from the right side, as he'd shown a 142 point OPS platoon split in 2013 and batted below .200 against lefties in 2014. Given that such a move benefited Shane Victorino, it seemed like a good idea.

Beltran didn't give up on switch-hitting, and since then he's back to being the hitter he was before the Yankees signed him. He's batted .309/.374/.539 dating back to May 8th, and before going 0-for-4 yesterday he'd reached base in all but one of his last 33 games. His batting line has steadily improved throughout the summer, up to a more than respectable .279/.339/.477--right in line with his 2012-2013 figures. In other words, the Yankees are getting the Beltran they paid for.

The explanation for his return to form is simple: he's fixed his swing from the right side. His platoon splits are nearly identical (.803 OPS versus lefties, .826 OPS against righties) this year.

Of course, that's not the only reason Beltran's doing better. A return to health has done wonders for the 38 year-old, who's been on fire since coming off the DL after the All-Star Break. He's also had much better luck on balls in play, with his BABiP returning to normal as he's generated more line drives and fewer grounders/pop ups. After becoming a little too pull-happy last year, Beltran has done a better job of waiting back and using all fields, too.

Beltran isn't the only Yankee making a comeback. Teixeira and Rodriguez have been huge in the middle of the order, and McCann's back to being one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. Michael Pineda's pitched better than anyone could have possibly expected, and by some miracle Tanaka's stayed healthy. That's why New York, despite being the oldest team in baseball by a mile, leads the AL wild card and is only 2 and 1/2 out of first in the AL East.

Which means in a few short weeks, Yankee fans will see firsthand what Beltran can do in the playoffs, and why his team paid so much to acquire him in the first place. Based on how he's hit this year, he won't let them down.

Friday, September 4, 2015

MLB September Storylines

Dodger aces Greinke (L) and Kershaw are players to follow in September (ESPN)
Labor Day weekend is upon us (seriously, how did that happen?), which means there's but one month left of the regular season. Even with most of the divisions and playoff races already decided, several exciting stories have yet to be played out. Will the Blue Jays win their division, thus ending the longest postseason drought in American professional sports? Can Houston hang on in the AL West? And just who is going to put themselves over the top in various award races?

Even if your team is toast and you can't wait for football to start, there's still enough going on to keep fans engaged into October. Here's a sample:

1. David Ortiz's march to 500 home runs
It's been another tough year for the Red Sox but another great one for Ortiz, who's closing in on his 500th career long ball. He has five to go which, given his feverish home run pace (23 taters in his last 70 games), shouldn't take too long.

2. Clayton Kershaw's quest for 300 strikeouts
As Jeff Sullivan noted yesterday, Kershaw's up to 251 K's on the year after fanning 15 Giants in Wednesday night's masterpiece. With five or six starts remaining, he has a chance to become the first pitcher since 2002 to eclipse 300 punchouts. If he does that, a third straight Cy Young award may be in the cards.

3. AL East showdown
As always, the AL East has become a dogfight between its top two teams, one being the Yankees of course. For once, however, the other combatant isn't Boston. It's the Blue Jays, currently clinging to a 1.5 game lead over the Bombers. Toronto will get every opportunity to widen the gap down the stretch with the rest of its games coming against sub-.500 teams and New York.  The Yankees have a similarly easy slate, however, so it wouldn't be surprising to see first place change hands several times over the next month.

4. How will the West be Won?
The fate of the AL West is still up in the air, for it's the only division where the third place team isn't more than 10 games out. It has been turned completely upside down this year, with Houston and Texas (both losers of 90+ games last year) rising to the top while Oakland and Seattle (winners of 88 and 87, respectively) sinking to the bottom. In between are last year's division champs--the Angels--still trying to find their way. LA's coming off a terrible August but could catch up if they play like they did in July. Houston's had control of first place for most of the year, but now find themselves holding on for dear life with a two game edge over the surging Rangers. So hold your breath, Astros fans, and don't exhale until this time next month.

5. Who will snag the second AL wild card?
The Pirates and Cubs have both NL wild card spots wrapped up, and whoever loses the Yankees-Blue Jays duel is guaranteed the first wild card in the AL. The second wild card berth, however, is very much up for grabs. Texas currently leads by one game over Minnesota, with Los Angeles and Tampa Bay looming not far behind. The Twins and Angels are fading fast, while the Rangers have rolled since trading for Cole Hamels. Fingers crossed for a tie, which would mean a play-in game for the play-in game!

6. Will Washington pull it together?
It's now or never for the Nats, who've hovered around .500 all summer and allowed the Mets to break away. They're still close enough (six games) that Washington could steal the division out from under them with a huge September, but time is dwindling. Which team will the Nationals be this month: the one that everyone predicted to win 100 games or the one that might wind up with a losing record? I say they finish strong but still miss the playoffs.

7. St. Louis shoots for 100
Improved parity has made 100-win teams increasingly rare--there were none in each of the past three seasons. Only one team has a legitimate shot to do it this year, and it's not the preseason favorites. The best team in baseball this year has been the St. Louis Cardinals, currently 86-47 and steaming towards their third straight division title. With 29 games remaining on their schedule, the Redbirds need only go .500 to reach the century mark.

8. Does anyone get to 50 homers?
There have been just two instances of a player surpassing 50 home runs during the past seven seasons, but it's possible we'll see two or more players crack that many this year. Nelson Cruz--last year's long ball champion and the current major league leader--needs 11 to get there while Chris Davis--the last to break the 50 barrier--is a dozen away. Look for Carlos Gonzalez, who's cranked 31 over the last three months, to make a run as well.

9. Award races
The AL MVP was seemingly Mike Trout's to lose until about a month ago, at which point he and his Angels went in the toilet while Josh Donaldson and the Blue Jays took off. Now Donaldson appears to have the upper hand, but that could change in an instant if Trout gets back to being himself and leads LA to the playoffs. The NL MVP belongs to Bryce Harper no matter how often Joey Votto reaches base, but Zack Greinke could become the second straight Dodger pitcher to win it if he continues to be lights-out in September.

Speaking of Greinke, he and Kershaw will duke it out for the NL Cy Young award. Wonder which Dodger (and former Cy) voters prefer; Greinke with his sparkling ERA or Kershaw and his gaudy strikeout totals and only slightly less-sparkling ERA? The AL trophy is probably going to Dallas Keuchel (who saw that one coming?), but don't count Chris Sale out just yet.

The AL Rookie of the Year race is a tight one too, with Carlos Correa, Miguel Sano, and Andrew Heaney all having strong cases. The NL field is a two-horse race between Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant, though Noah Syndergaard deserves consideration as well.

10. September call-ups
No matter where your team falls in the standings, it's worth checking in on them throughout September as their future stars get a first taste of the big leagues. For instance, Corey Seager made his major league debut last night.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

V is for Votto

Votto has never been more locked in (CBS Sports)
While the American League MVP race is very much alive thanks to Josh Donaldson's amazing August and Mike Trout's mediocre one, the NL award has been sewn up for months. Ever since Bryce Harper took a torch to National League pitching in May, he's merely marked time until his inevitable christening as the Senior Circuit's MVP.

Here are his numbers through yesterday:

.333/.461/.630 (195 OPS+) 31 HR 78 RBI 100 BB 107 K 267 TB 6/10 SB in 531 PA

He's not the only National Leaguer having such a superlative season, though. Take a look at Joey Votto's numbers, also through yesterday:

.315/.458/.563 (179 OPS+) 26 HR 78 RBI 116 BB 101 K 252 TB 8/11 SB in 568 PA

Obviously Harper's been a little better, which also comes across in his superior bWAR total (he has eight to Votto's 6.5). But those numbers are awfully close--they even have the same number of hits (141).

The difference will be much greater when MVP votes are tabulated next month. While Harper is expected to walk away with the award, Votto will be lucky to get even one first-place vote. As great as his season has been, nobody's giving him the nod over Harper or Zack Greinke given how poorly his team has played compared to theirs.

Such is the curse of being an outstanding player on a terrible team. Unless you're a historically-great slugging shortstop, a la Ernie Banks or Alex Rodriguez, your chances of winning MVP are about as good as the Phillies' odds of winning the World Series this year.

Because he plays for an often-mediocre small market team, Votto is used to such snubs. Only once has he ever finished higher than sixth in an MVP race (when he won in 2010), and he couldn't even muster a hometown All-Star selection this year with Cincinnati playing host (Todd Frazier went instead). Even though he's been one of the league's three best players based on WAR and common sense, my guess is that he'll finish outside the top-five again as writers opt for the likes of Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen, and Anthony Rizzo (all younger, flashier, and playoff-bound).

Between Cincinnati's suckiness and his hot and cold first half, the soft-spoken Canadian flew under the radar for much of the summer. As recently as six weeks ago, nobody was talking about him as a viable MVP candidate. In fact, nobody was talking about him much at all.

Boy, how that's changed. Based on the recent batch of articles lauding his batting excellence, however (more on that in a moment), people are only now just realizing what an incredible season Votto's having. Meanwhile, Harper's hot start announced his leap to superstardom, and he's been riding the wave ever since. Harper's held baseball's attention all summer long, while Votto's showing up just in time for Labor Day.

The four-time All-Star might be late to the party, but he sure knows how to make an entrace! While Harper has more or less plateaued since his monster May, Votto's gone bananas since the All-Star Break. His second half slash line is an otherworldly .399/.581/.739, elevating his seasonal numbers into Harper's stratosphere (see above). It's those kind of numbers that got people talking about Votto. Finally.

The Ted Williams comparisons, while a bit exaggerated, are nevertheless fitting (Harper earned the same comparisons earlier this year). Votto, like Williams, has impeccable plate discipline, hits for high averages, and is blessed with tremendous power. Also like Williams, Votto has been subjected to endless criticism for being too selective, for refusing to alter his approach with runners on base (hence the low RBI totals). His gaudy stats are less impressive, the critics argue, because he doesn't help his team win.

It's easy to say that now because the Reds aren't winning, though they have made three postseason appearances during Votto's nine seasons. It's just bad timing that the finest campaign of his career has coincided with Cincinnati's worst. In a year where everyone seems to have a fighting chance at a playoff spot, the Reds have fallen a whopping 31.5 games behind the Cardinals. Of all the last place teams, they are in last by the most extreme margin.

As if to prove Votto's performance and the results of his team are mutually exclusive, the Reds have only gotten worse as their first baseman's caught fire. They cratered in August after trading Johnny Cueto, managing an 8-21 record last month. Imagine how much worse they'd have been without Votto's 1.140 OPS in August.

So with Cincy playing out the string, all Votto can do is ride out this scorching hot streak as long as he can. It won't win him his second MVP award, but at the very least it will keep him in the discussion. It's just crazy one of the best pure hitters in the game had to have a run like this to get noticed.