No long, flowing intro this time. Wait, I'm sorry, Tim. There's a lot to get to this week, and no, I didn't mean any harm. Please don't toss me. Please! NOOOOOOOOO!!!
It's Week 20 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
Ian Desmond returned to the lineup on Friday, marking the first time the Nationals have been able to field something close to a full-strength roster since early May. The Nats were the only team not to make a trade in July, a nod to the pending returns of Jayson Werth and Desmond. The biggest trouble spot at that point appeared to be Bryce Harper. Eating up at-bats from the second spot in the order, Harper hit an abysmal .203/.275/.288 over a two-month stretch spanning mid-June to mid-August, which made you wonder if he'd hit a rookie wall, or if being a 19-year-old facing major league pitching just might not be as easy as Harper made it look at first. Hopefully the Mets just cured whatever ailed him: Harper banged out four hits in eight at-bats over the weekend, including two home runs and a triple.
CC Sabathia's targeting his return from the disabled list for Friday. The Yankees' rotation remains in good hands until then. There were generic concerns that a 37-year-old right-hander leaving the NL West and the pitcher-friendly environment of Dodger Stadium for the AL East meat grinder and the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium might have a tough time surviving, much less thriving this season. But those generic concerns ignored Hiroki Kuroda's specific skill set, which includes pinpoint command and a smart approach that keeps hitters off balance wherever he's pitching. Kuroda tossed eight innings against the Red Sox Sunday night, allowing one run, striking out four, and walking none. He's now struck out 36 and walked five in his past seven starts. He owns a 2.96 ERA for the season, with a 3.71 FIP. #HIROK, indeed.
Even with the league, division, and ballpark switches, Kuroda came to New York with some expectations. Much less was expected of Freddy Garcia. Though a pleasant surprise for last year's Yankees (3.62 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 2.2 WAR), he figured to serve as a swingman/spot starter/Phil Hughes placeholder, someone who could soak up innings and be better-than-awful until more talented pitchers were ready to step in. He's been a lot better than that. Facing the potent Rangers offense Wednesday, Garcia tossed 6⅔ innings, ceding two runs, four hits, and one walk, striking out six and earning the win. Typical stuff for Garcia, who's yielded three or fewer runs in eight of his nine starts since joining the rotation June 2.
Too bad about Joey Votto's injury, else the Reds would have a shot to sweep this year's awards. Cincinnati has two strong candidates for Cy Young: Johnny Cueto, who leads the NL in both wins and Wins Above Replacement, and Aroldis Chapman, who isn't considered a leading candidate by advanced metrics due to the inherently limited number of innings a relief pitcher can throw, but is still attracting attention for his Eckersley-like numbers out of the pen. Bryce Harper got the early attention in the NL Rookie of the Year race, but the leading candidates at this point should be D-backs lefty Wade Miley (143 IP, 2.96 ERA, 3.14 FIP) and the Reds' Todd Frazier (.288/.342/.547 in 339 PA). We talked last week about Ryan Ludwick's insane numbers over the past couple months; he didn't rebound from a major injury or anything, but a 34-year-old outfielder shaking off a down year by boosting his OPS about 250 points would seem a strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.
Ryan Dempster has been awful so far with the Rangers. After leaving the Cubs with an NL-leading 2.25 ERA, he's put up the following numbers: 17⅓ innings, 30 base runners, five home runs, 8.31 ERA. Dempster has already allowed four homers on his slider in three starts for Texas, vs. three slider homers in 16 starts for Chicago.
Less-heralded starters have come to the rescue. Matt Harrison gave up just two hits and fanned seven against the depleted Jays on Sunday, thus becoming the first lefty Rangers starter to win 10 road games in a season. Scott Feldman wasn't even expected to crack the rotation this year. But with Neftali Feliz hurt and Roy Oswalt scuffling, Feldman seized the starter's role and has run with it. In his past seven starts, opponents are hitting .087 (2-for-23) against Feldman's curveball. Want a larger sample? In his past nine outings, encompassing eight starts and one relief appearance, Feldman has chucked 53⅓ innings, struck out 35 batters, walked just eight, and posted a 3.38 ERA.
Only five players have ever hit .300-plus and slugged .500-plus at age 40 or older (minimum 300 at-bats): Cap Anson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Harold Baines, and Moises Alou. At .313/.391/.525, Chipper Jones is on pace to become the sixth. He's shown a flair for the dramatic, too, hitting stirring walkoffs, even going yard twice on his own bobblehead night. All the reasons he has given for wanting to call it quits after this season — barking knees and a desire to spend more time with his family, which seems more genuine than when a .190 hitter who can't find a job says it — are certainly legitimate. But as baseball fans, we're selfish. If diminished Chipper can still crush fastballs and even put his team on his back, can't we have a little more? The good news is, if he keeps hitting like this, there's a good chance Chipper's career won't end at Game 162.
When reporters go looking for quotes after your team has just had a perfect game thrown against you, the expected reply typically includes some glowing words about the pitcher's performance. There'll be some soul-searching, some soft-spoken words about the team's hitting struggles, how they've got to keep their heads down and get through these tough times. You're expecting a somber tone, an outpouring of humility. Not from Joe Maddon. After Felix Hernandez became the third pitcher in just over three years to fire a perfect game at the Rays, reporters asked Maddon to expound on the meaning of this perfecto and what it says about this Tampa Bay team. "The last time we got perfect-gamed, we went to the playoffs, so "
There's a certain "we got this" cockiness about Maddon that endears him to his team, and also annoys those who aren't his biggest fans. But this season, that attitude is especially appropriate. Not so much because the Rays have made the playoffs three of the past four years while running payrolls a fraction of the size of their AL East rivals, and are threatening to do so again this season, leading the AL wild-card chase and winning 11 of their past 13 games. It's because the Rays and their manager have made a habit of looking absolutely terrible one day (or one week, occasionally even one month), then looking unbeatable the next. Get shut down by Jason Vargas and Blake Beavan; win the next two games by a combined 13-2 score. Get shut out by Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez in consecutive games; immediately go on a seven-game winning streak. So when Tampa Bay dropped two out of three to a mediocre Mariners team, the second of those two losses via perfect game, maybe we should have expected what came next: A four-game sweep of the Angels, on the road, against Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Zack Greinke, with the Rays scoring 37 runs during that span, their highest total for any series against any team in franchise history, capping an 8-2 road trip.
Tampa Bay's struggles with Evan Longoria on the DL largely happened because several players performed well below career norms and/or expected levels; bounce-backs by several of those players have fueled the Rays' recent run. Desmond Jennings hit .235/.301/.358 in the first four months of the season, .313/.366/.500 since. B.J. Upton has been on the biggest surge: In his past 16 games, he's whacked 13 extra-base hits, slugging .682. In a season with so many underachievers — Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, Sean Rodriguez, Jennings — Upton's weak numbers stung most of all. The no. 2 pick in the 2002 draft has been a useful contributor for years, but never the star that optimists expected after he posted an .894 OPS at age 22 five years ago.1 The Rays might've opted to trade Upton last offseason rather than spend $7 million on a limited budget for a player who risked delivering disappointing results again. Instead they kept him, and for four months looked like they'd end up with the worst season of Upton's career. A big final six weeks of the regular season could help redeem Upton's season, hike his value in time for the first multiyear contract of his career, and propel the Rays back to the playoffs.
They nearly matched the Rays' impressive road trip, rolling up a 7-3 record of their own. Three players have made especially big contributions:
• Hanley Ramirez is hitting .313/.374/.510 since coming to the Dodgers via trade.
• Chad Billingsley is 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA in his past six starts, with four of the six runs he has allowed in that span coming in one game.
• Luis Cruz, a journeyman who flashed an ugly .690 OPS over parts of 12 seasons in the minors, is hitting an improbable .286/.329/.474, including a 6-for-11 series against the Braves that helped the Dodgers take two out of three over the weekend.
With a roster heavily upgraded by deadline moves, the archrival Giants weakened by Melky Cabrera's suspension, and Matt Kemp getting so fired up he's forcing mortified dads to stock up on earmuffs, the Dodgers have emerged as favorites in the NL West.
When players hit significant milestones, the natural reaction is to start thinking of their career achievements and size up their place in baseball history. For instance, Adam Dunn just hit his 400th career home run. Would he be Hall of Fame–worthy if he gets to 500 homers? 600?
The short answer is no. Dunn is a prolific slugger and collector of walks who's also challenged strikeout records and been a defensive disaster. His impressive-looking raw numbers look a lot less impressive given the sky-high offensive era in which he played. It seems crazy to think that a player who'll likely end up with 38 or more homers in eight out of nine seasons will have delivered less total value over that period than a light-hitting shortstop like Jason Bartlett, or Brian Giles, who retired three years ago and ceased being a useful player four years ago. But in a new landscape where every element of a player's résumé is considered — not just batting average, home runs, and RBIs — Dunn projects as a rich man's Dave Kingman, not an all-timer destined for Cooperstown. Still, Hall of Famer or not, Dunn's power output could play a significant role in Chicago's chances of holding off the Tigers down the stretch and avoiding more embarrassments like the weekend three-game sweep suffered at the hands of the Royals. On certain days, it could even make us laugh.
On July 26 of last year, a blown call by Jerry Meals handed the Pirates a heartbreaking 19-inning loss, a moment many pointed to as the beginning of the end for a once-promising and potentially playoff-contending season. On Sunday, facing the Cardinals in the rubber match of a pivotal intradivision series, the Buccos played another 19-inning marathon. This time, thanks to a game-winning homer by Pedro Alvarez, two strong relief innings by starter Wandy Rodriguez, and several other big contributions, Pittsburgh came out on top.
While it's tempting to ascribe season-altering status to one game or even one moment, the Pirates need more than juju on their side. Even after the series win over St. Louis, they've won just four of their past 11 games. Several members of the overachieving supporting cast have started to falter: Neil Walker is trying to make it back to the lineup after suffering a dislocated finger (he did pinch-hit in Sunday's game), Starling Marte just hit the DL with an oblique strain, and Erik Bedard has been terrible in three of his past four starts. The Bucs still hold a 1½-game lead for the NL's second wild-card spot, but the ship can't afford to spring too many leaks. After all, A.J. can't make everyone STFD.
When does losing two out of three to the team you're chasing in your division and the wild-card standings (despite a plus-85 advantage in run differential) offer an encouraging sign? When your no. 2 starter takes the mound for the first time in two and a half months, strikes out a career-high 10 batters, and walks none in eight killer innings of work. Jaime Garcia's successful return comes at a perfect time, with Lance Lynn coming apart at the seams (6.49 ERA and a .956 OPS allowed in his past five starts) and rookie Joe Kelly shunted to the bullpen to add relief pitching depth. One of the season's biggest tests is coming, too: The Cards get three games against the lowly Astros, before a stretch of 10 straight vs. the Reds, Pirates, and Nationals.
It doesn't get much worse than Coco Crisp's first 32 games this season; plagued by injuries and a deep slump, Crisp was hitting a pitcher-like .158/.213/.175. He's caught fire since, hitting .300/.365/.495 since June 7, including a homer and five RBIs in Sunday's 7-0 win over the Indians. The two-year, $14 million deal the A's gave Crisp last offseason still looks a little puzzling. But at least it's not the unmitigated disaster it appeared to be a couple months ago.
Melky Cabrera's 50-game suspension for elevated levels of testosterone was bad enough. That he also reportedly built a fake website that would lead investigators down the wrong path and potentially exonerate him under false pretenses is worse.
Thing is, losing Melky needn't be a death blow. For one thing, even star players will typically only be worth a couple wins over a period of time as small as six weeks, and it's conceivable that Cabrera's primary replacement, Gregor Blanco, picks up at least some of the slack. Furthermore, the Giants actually own the highest-scoring offense in the NL since the All-Star break, at 5.2 runs per game. The bigger source of worry might be the potential pumpkinization of Ryan Vogelsong. After challenging for the league ERA lead for much of the season, Vogelsong has now been tagged for 11 runs on 17 hits in his past two starts, in which he pitched just 5⅔ innings. When a player disappears for a decade, comes back in his mid-30s, and starts contending for ERA titles, all the while carrying merely decent peripheral stats, you start to wonder when the other shoe's going to drop. Or if you're contemplating worst-case scenarios, when the 30-foot eephus pitch is going to drop.
Your MLB strikeout leader? Justin Verlander, with 180 in 181⅔ innings. Your runner-up? Max Scherzer, with 178 Ks in just 140⅔ innings (best K rate in baseball at 11.4 per nine innings, just ahead of Stephen Strasburg at 11.2). Given that the Tigers have been about as bad as people expected on defense (only the Rockies, Mets, Orioles, and Indians have been worse by UZR), keeping as many balls as possible out of play seems like a wise course of action.
Another winning week, with four of Baltimore's six games decided by two runs or fewer, and the O's taking three of those four close games. As Danny Knobler of CBS Sports notes, the Orioles have a chance to join some elite company with their record in one- and two-run games, with a better record in those contests than any team since the 111-43 '54 Indians.
We've raved about the bullpen as a leading driver of Baltimore's success in tight games. But the O's have racked up plenty of timely hits, too, with Nick Markakis one of the biggest instigators. The right fielder's hitting .290/.355/.477, good for a .355 wOBA that would be his best mark in four years. Typically slotted around the middle of the order, Markakis has been a revelation from the leadoff spot, hitting .333/.385/.510 in 153 at-bats as a table setter. Nothing to crab about, that's for sure.
Last week we lamented the shaky nature of the Angels' no. 4 and no. 5 starter spots. The virus has spread, and the whole staff is now infected. C.J. Wilson was staked to an 8-0 lead Saturday before getting chased from the game in a seven-run fifth; he owns a 7.02 ERA in his past seven starts. Zack Greinke has now allowed four runs or more in four straight starts for the first time in his 223-start career. Even the staff ace joined in the wreckage, ceding nine runs to the Rays on Friday after coming into the game with a 1.23 home ERA. The damage goes beyond the 37-run beating the Rays laid on the Angels over the weekend's four-game set. The Halos rotation owns a 6.53 ERA in 18 August starts, with 22 home runs allowed in 103⅓ innings. Since the All-Star break, every reliever except Kevin Jepsen owns an ERA over 5.00 and Jepsen was the man who gave up Carlos Pena's go-ahead homer in the eighth inning Saturday, completing the Rays' gigantic comeback.
Mike Trout's still doing Mike Trout things, and supporting-cast members such as Torii Hunter, Erick Aybar, and others have come alive after slow starts to the season, to say nothing of the revitalized Albert Pujols (four homers in his past six games). But the Angels aren't going anywhere until they get their pitching in order.
Want a stealthy reason for the D-backs creeping their way back to within 4½ games in the NL West race? Try this: Since joining Arizona on August 24, 2011, Aaron Hill owns an .860 OPS. The only second baseman with better numbers in that span of almost exactly one year is Robinson Cano, with a .910 OPS (hat-tip to Arizona Republic beat writer Nick Piecoro). Hill cranked three homers in the final two games of Arizona's series against Houston over the weekend, helping the Diamondbacks to a sweep.
Funny thing about the supposed mutiny that wafted through the Red Sox clubhouse last month: Two of the players cited in leveling criticism at Bobby Valentine, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, have seen their performance take off since then. Jon Lester, whose 11-run humiliation against the Jays last month supposedly triggered the infamous text message that started it all, owns a 3.48 ERA and a 33-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his five starts since then, covering 33⅔ innings. None of that's likely enough to get the Sox back into the race at this late date, making the flap over Carl Crawford electing to have Tommy John surgery now to repair his ailing elbow seem odd. Everyone knows what Boston's brass really should be doing: lobbying the league to let the Sox play the Yankees 162 times a year, with the provision that Pedro Ciriaco (15-for-32, .469/.485/.625 against New York) gets to bat in all nine lineup spots.
Owners of baseball's longest current winning streak at five games, and King Felix only tells part of the story. Check out Hisashi Iwakuma's numbers since moving to the rotation: 48 innings pitched, 42 strikeouts, 17 walks, 43 hits allowed, 3.37 ERA, 3.75 xFIP. Though Iwakuma's had some easier assignments (nearly any game pitching in Safeco Field, any start vs. the decimated Jays), the 30-year-old Japanese right-hander has also faced the powerful Rangers and Angels, as well as the Yankees, twice. Get this kid to go to all his starts, and the M's might really have something.
He would have needed to overcome voter bias against non-contending teams anyway, but David Wright might've been the National League's most deserving MVP candidate before recently falling into a deep slump. Heading into Sunday's game, Wright had hit just .244 with 37 strikeouts in 34 games, after fanning just 47 times in his first 82 games. Wright's now hitting .320/.411/.521, still big numbers, but also a bit behind Andrew McCutchen in the league's MVP team-independent pecking order.
Cole Hamels in August: 32⅔ innings, 30 strikeouts, three walks, 1.38 ERA, opponents hitting .229/.248/.322 off him. The curse of Carl Crawford, Joey Votto, and the many others who've signed big, long-term deals only to get hurt soon afterward? Thus far avoided.
Good news for fantasy leaguers: Jose Bautista could be back in the lineup on Friday against the Orioles, after missing nearly five weeks and counting so far. This might've been good news in real life, too, had the Jays clubhouse not been hit with one of the worst cases of injury devastation in franchise history.
Exhibit no. 4,287 in the case against overemphasizing lineup protection: Ryan Braun.
2011: 629 PA, 33 HR, 111 RBI, 109 R, .332/.397/.597
2012 (on pace): 656 PA, 44 HR, 114 RBI, 104 R, .305/.382/.594
It took not one but two replacement-level players to get knocked out of the way first — Yuniesky Betancourt got designated for assignment after playing exactly as poorly as anyone could have imagined, and Chris Getz got hurt. But 25-year-old Johnny Giavotella finally got called up to be the Royals' everyday second baseman for the rest of the season. Don't expect much fantasy impact even in a best-case scenario: Giavotella has never hit more than 11 homers in a single season at any level of pro ball, but only once has he stolen more than 13 bases in a season. There's hope that he can replicate some of the double-digit walk rates he flashed in the minors, slice his strikeout rate a bit, and develop into a solid on-base threat who can lash the ball to the gaps (43 doubles between Triple-A and the majors last year). Giavotella might want to ask Alcides Escobar for BABIP advice, given the shortstop's four infield hits Saturday and the 30 he has for the season. Or better yet, maybe he can develop the same Jedi mind tricks that made the White Sox walk Jeff Francoeur three times Friday night, two of those intentional. That's Jeff Francoeur, he of the .240/.287/.374 line that would be enough to get most starting corner outfielders benched, never mind walked intentionally multiple times.
The franchise sale finally got approved, giving San Diego businessman Ron Fowler and several members of the O'Malley clan the right to buy the Padres from John Moores for $800 million, effective August 31. The new owners will face plenty of work in the coming weeks and months, starting with finding a deal that will give the 42 percent of San Diegans who can't watch the damn games the ability to do so. Another interesting test will be Chase Headley. The 28-year-old third baseman is having a career year and has improved as the season has progressed, hitting .275/.366/.463 with a career-high 20 homers, including an MLB-high eight in August. Headley has two years left before free agency, at which time he'd hit the open market already on the wrong side of 30. But the hope should be that new ownership finds the best solution for Headley's future, even if it's an unexpected solution. While the rest of the world dreams up trades for players like him (and, to a larger extent, stars like Felix Hernandez), you'd like to think that the new ownership group (and the franchise itself) will be financially stable enough to justify a contract extension for Headley.
Giancarlo Stanton bashes six homers in six games at Coors Field. The longest one travels 494 feet, the longest homer hit in three years. Plus, enjoy the resulting home run porn.
Carlos Santana pre-All-Star break: 244 AB, .221/.339/.336, 5 HR
Carlos Santana post-All-Star break: 118 AB, .271/.404/.542, 8 HR
In a lost season, you take what you can get.
Brian Dozier's game-costing mental gaffe against the Rays earlier this month earned him a talking-to in the Twins dugout. That mistake, coupled with other holes in his game, also sealed his fate with the big league team (at least for now), with Dozier getting sent to Triple-A Rochester after Tuesday's game. Demotions such as Dozier's, along with injuries and Ron Gardenhire's interest in giving playing time to young players, thrust the following players into Friday's lineup: Matt Carson, Pedro Florimon, and Darin Mastroianni. If you know who all three of these gentlemen are, I will send you $40!2
Did the Cubs make a good deal in signing Starlin Castro to a seven-year, $60 million contract extension?
• The Mike Trout phenomenon notwithstanding, few players can hold their own at age 20 in the big leagues, much less actually play well. Castro was a .300 hitter in his rookie year as a 20-year-old, playing in 125 games while manning the toughest position on the diamond.
• He's shown progressively more pop in each of his three major league seasons, with Isolated Power numbers of .108, .125, and .147.
• The deal covers four years of arbitration eligibility plus three years of free agency, and includes a $16 million option for 2020. If the option gets picked up and Castro meets certain escalator thresholds, the deal could max out at $80 million. If he progresses as expected, he'll be well worth $80 million in those four would-be free agent years alone.
• After progressing a bit in 2011, Castro's hitting performance has dipped to .280/.311/.427, for a career-low .314 wOBA.
• Though advanced stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating do claim that Castro's defense has improved this year, both larger three-year statistical samples and scouting reports fret over Castro's defense, leading some to wonder how long he can stay at short before he has to switch positions someday. Or more accurately, how well he needs to hit to justify staying at short for as long as possible.
Ultimately, this is a risk worth taking, even more so for a team like the Cubs. With huge present and future revenue streams and a potential star player in play, you spend the money, knowing that even if Castro flames out, whatever he doesn't earn out of that $60 million can't and won't hurt you all that much.
Eric Young Jr. just completed a stretch in which he bagged 25 hits in 54 at-bats with three homers and three doubles, and mashed the ball both at hitter-friendly Coors Field and on the road. With Michael Cuddyer back on the DL and Todd Helton out for the year, the Rockies have no excuses not to see if the 27-year-old Young might be finally experiencing a mini-breakout and whether he'd make a worthy candidate for a starting job next spring. Meanwhile, right-hander Jhoulys Chacin is set to rejoin the rotation on Tuesday. Chacin's peripherals took a step back last season, but he still projected as the team's possible ace, given the lack of established pitching talent on hand. If you're looking for a reason Colorado's rotation imploded, the four-man rotation experiment ensued, and Dan O'Dowd more or less lost his job as Rockies GM, losing Chacin for more than three months counts as one significant cause. Though you'd never wish ill on anyone, having position players like Cuddyer and Helton out and veteran starters like Jeremy Guthrie and Jonathan Sanchez either already gone or injured gives the Rockies a chance to test-drive the types of young players they hope could be part of the next winning team in Denver.
Brad Mills was always a long shot to stay as manager. Not because he wasn't qualified or respected within the industry (he is, in both of those respects), but because new regimes like to bring in their own guys. Mills was hired before the 2010 season by the previous front office, the new guys got to evaluate him, and now GM Jeff Luhnow & Co. can set to work finding the exact candidate for their wants and needs, the way the Rays' new regime did when Andrew Friedman & Co. hired Joe Maddon to steer the ship. All part of a long, ongoing process that's in many ways still in its early stages.
Upton's flukish .393 batting average on balls in play in 2007 helped elevate expectations to those sky-high levels.
Checks will not be honored.