B/R MLB 500: Top 40 Center Fielders

After checking in with relief pitchers, the B/R MLB 500 now turns its attention to arguably the most athletic players on the diamond: center fielders.

Center fielders will be scored as such: 25 points for Hitting, 25 points for Power, 20 points for Baserunning and 30 points for Defense, for a total of 100 points.

The Hitting category involves not only looking at how good guys are at putting the bat on the ball and how they hit the ball, but also things like patience and plate discipline.

The Power category is not so much about raw power. It's more of a look at how much power guys have in actual games, which involves looking into how they tap into their power for extra-base hits.

The Baserunning category could be complicated, but we're going to keep it simple by focusing on how good guys are at stealing bases, taking extra bases and avoiding outs on the bases.

For Defense, the main focus will be range. That's not to say it's all about speed, mind you, as range can also come from quick jumps, good reads and direct routes. Though arm strength is less important—or, at least, less expectedin center field, it will also be given some attention.

One thing we're not doing this year is a category for health. Rather than handle them separately, any health concerns we have will be applied to a specific category that could be impacted.

Please note that a score in the middle (i.e., 15/30 or 12/25) denotes average, not failing. And while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on 2015. Part of that includes B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum providing scores and scouting reports for some MLB-ready center fielders.

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB 500: Top 55 Relief Pitcher Rankings

After last visiting with the guys at the hot corner, the B/R MLB 500 now continues with a look at the guys coming in from the bullpen.

Relief pitchers will be scored like so: 25 points for Control, 30 points for Whiffability and 25 points for Hittability for a total of 80 points. Where most other players are scored out of 100, 80 points is as high as we want to go for players who generally only handle an inning at a time.

The Control category mainly concerns how good guys are at finding the strike zone and limiting walks. But it also considers command within the zone and if pitchers are good at toying with the zone.

The Whiffability category considers how good guys are at missing bats. The focus will be on what kind of stuff they're working with and how good they are at using it to get hitters to swing and miss.

The Hittability category is a little different. Missing bats is great, but pitchers can also help themselves by manipulating contact. Guys who can get ground balls are ideal, but we'll also be looking at proneness to home runs and line drives and for guys who just seem to have a knack for not getting hit hard.

One thing we're not doing this year is a reliability category, as talent and reliability are essentially one in the same. Nor is there a separate category for health this year. Any injury concerns we have will be applied to the category (or categories) that stand to be impacted.

Also note that a score in the middle (i.e. 15/30 or 12/25) denotes average, not failingAnd while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on 2015. 

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

Chris Davis’ 25-Game Suspension Could Impact O’s More Than You’d Think

Literally and figuratively, the Baltimore Orioles have lost a big piece for their upcoming trip to October.

The word came down late Friday morning: Chris Davis, the Hulk-sized first baseman who led Major League Baseball with 53 home runs in 2013, has been suspended for 25 games for testing positive for an amphetamine. He will miss Baltimore's final 17 regular-season games and, potentially, its first eight postseason games.

In a statement, Davis apologized and explained it was his use of Adderall that triggered the positive test.

"I had permission to use it in the past, but do not have a therapeutic-use exemption (TUE) this year," he said. "I accept my punishment and will begin serving my suspension immediately."

This being a story involving a star ballplayer and a performance-enhancing substance, behind Door No. 1 is the moral angle. With the reality that Davis had a TUE for Adderall in one hand and his comment to ESPN The Magazine last year about how it was "extremely frustrating that people would just assume I was on something because I'm having success" in the other, it's a complex situation.

But we'll leave that to someone else. What's of interest to us is Door No. 2: With Davis out of commission, exactly how hard might the Orioles be hit by his suspension?

It doesn't look so bad on the surface. With a 10-game lead in the AL East at the start of play Friday, a trip to the postseason is well in hand for the Orioles. And as ESPN Stats & Information was (perhaps too) quick to note, the Orioles have done fine when they haven't had Davis in the lineup anyway:

A performance like that matches up against Davis' own performance pretty well. After slashing an impressive .286/.370/.634 in 2013, he only slashed .196/.300/.404 this year. According to FanGraphs, his WAR dropped from 6.8 to 0.4.

By that measure, the Orioles are basically losing a replacement-level player. And with fellow first baseman Steve Pearce having a breakout season, the loss of Davis might come off as even less of a big deal.

But don't be so sure about that. If you consider how this Orioles offense operates and how Davis fit into it, his suspension looks like a big deal after all.

At the absolute least, one thing the Orioles will be missing without Davis is balance.

Take a quick look at what the Orioles have on offense, and what you'll notice is that Buck Showalter is forced to trot out lineups thick with right-handed hitters. Big boppers Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz both swing righty, as do J.J. Hardy, Jonathan Schoop and Caleb Joseph.

With Davis in the mix, Showalter had a threatening left-handed bat he could use to break up the righties. And for all that can be said about his inconsistency, Davis was at least a little more consistent against right-handed pitching.

With Davis gone and the switch-hitting Matt Wieters on the shelf with Tommy John surgery, Showalter is down to really just one good lefty swinger: Nick Markakis.

This won't cost the Orioles the AL East. It could, however, make life difficult if/when they come across a right-handed ace like Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jered Weaver, Sonny Gray or Jeff Samardzija in October.

And there's more. It's not just lineup balance that the Orioles are losing with Davis' suspension.

There's one thing the Orioles do better than anyone, and that's hit home runs. They lead baseball with 192 of them, outpacing the next non-Coors Field team by almost 30 dingers.

This, also, is something Davis could still do. He wasn't on his way to another 50-homer season, but his 26 dingers were good for second on the team behind Cruz's 39. Without that home run power, the Orioles might not be able to simply slug their way through October like we've seen other teams do.

But power's only the primary ingredient of this Orioles offense. Another more subtle—and arguably equally important—ingredient is getting hits when hits are needed most.

Just like in 2012, Baltimore's offense is owning high-leverage situations. According to FanGraphs, the Orioles lead baseball in average, OPS, wOBA, wRC+ and, well, pretty much everything in high-leverage situations.

Sure, we can argue about clutch hitting as a repeatable skill from year to year. But a team being really good at it within the confines of a single season? It does take more than blind luck for that to happen. A lot of the time, it happens because good hitters are at their best when their best is needed.

That's another thing about Davis: On a team full of good clutch hitters, he was the best.

Given how much clutch hits tend to be needed in October, the thought of the Orioles proceeding without the guy atop that table isn't a happy thought.

In light of this and the power Davis had to offer, it's therefore not just balance the Orioles offense will be missing for a while. It will also essentially be missing a part of its identity as an offense.

That's a lot for a mere replacement-level player to take with him. Taken together with the loss of Manny Machado for the season, Hardy's suddenly questionable health and the unspectacular second-half performances of Cruz and Jones, the Orioles now find themselves steaming ahead to October with a weaker offense than one they might have had.

If there's a bright side, it's that the Orioles will only have to last as long as eight games in the postseason before they can get Davis back. With playoff hopefuls like the Oakland A's, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners all playing up-and-down baseball these days, the prospect of the Orioles lasting that long is hardly far-fetched.

But without the slugger known as "Crush," it's not going to be easy either.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

B/R MLB 500: Top 35 Third Basemen

With shortstops in the bag, the B/R MLB 500 will now wrap up its trip around the infield at the hot corner.

Third basemen will be scored as such: 30 points for Hitting, 30 points for Power, 15 points for Baserunning and 25 points for Defense, for a total of 100 points.

The Hitting category involves not only looking at how good guys are at putting the bat on the ball and how they hit the ball, but also things like patience and plate discipline. 

The Power category is not so much about raw power. It's more of a look at how much power guys have in actual games, which involves looking into how they tap into their power for extra-base hits.

The Baserunning category could be complicated, but we're going to keep it simple by focusing on how good guys are at stealing bases, taking extra bases and avoiding outs on the bases.

For Defense, various amounts of attention will be paid to the various things that make a good third baseman: sure-handedness, arm strength, reaction time, range, etc.

One thing we're not doing this year is a category for health. Rather than handle them separately, any health concerns we have will be applied to a specific category that could be impacted. 

Please note that a score in the middle (i.e., 15/30 or 12/25) denotes average, not failing. And while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on 2015. Part of that includes B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum providing some scores and scouting reports for some MLB-ready third basemen.

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB 500: Top 35 Shortstops

After paying a visit to the guys at second base, the B/R MLB 500 will now move on to the jewels of the infield: shortstops.

Shortstops will be scored like so: 25 points for Hitting, 25 points for Power, 20 points for Baserunning and 30 points for Defense for a total of 100 points.

The Hitting category involves not only looking at how good guys are at putting the bat on the ball and how they hit the ball but also things like patience and plate discipline. 

The Power category is not so much about raw power. It's more of a look at how much power guys have in actual games, which involves looking into how they tap into their power for extra-base hits.

The Baserunning category is one that could be complicated, but we're going to keep it simple by focusing on how good guys are at stealing bases, taking extra bases and avoiding outs on the bases.

For Defense, various amounts of attention will be paid to the various things that make a good shortstop: range, sure-handedness, arm strength, etc.

One thing we're not doing this year is a category for health. Rather than handle them separately, any health concerns we have will be applied to a specific category that could be impacted. 

Please note that a score in the middle (i.e., 12/25 or 15/30) denotes average, not failing. And while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on 2015. Part of that means no Derek Jeter. it also involves B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum dishing some knowledge on a few MLB-ready shortstops.

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB 500: Top 35 Second Basemen

Having last checked in with starting pitchers, the B/R MLB 500 will now resume its trip around the bases to visit the guys manning second base.

Second basemen will be scored like so: 30 points for Hitting, 25 points for Power, 20 points for Baserunning and 25 points for Defense for a total of 100 points.

The Hitting category involves not only looking at how good guys are at putting the bat on the ball and how they hit the ball but also things like patience and plate discipline. 

The Power category is not so much about raw power. It's more of a look at how much power guys have in actual games, which involves looking into how they tap into their power for extra-base hits.

The Baserunning category is one that could be complicated, but we're going to keep it simple by focusing on how good guys are at stealing bases, taking extra bases and avoiding outs on the bases.

For Defense, various amounts of attention will be paid to the various things that make a good second baseman: range, sure-handedness, how well they turn double plays, etc.

One thing we're not doing this year is a category for health. Rather than handle them separately, any health concerns we have will be applied to a specific category that could be impacted. 

Please note that a score in the middle (i.e., 15/30 or 12/25) denotes average, not failing. And while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on 2015. Part of that includes B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum providing some scores and scouting reports for some MLB-ready second basemen.

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB 500: Top 150 Starting Pitchers

After checking in with the guys behind the plate, the next stop for the B/R MLB 500 is the guys they do business with the most: starting pitchers. 

We have 150 starting pitchers to get to, and they'll be scored like so: 30 points for Control, 25 points for Whiffability, 25 points for Hittability and 20 points for "Workhorse" factor for a total of 100 points.

The Control category mainly concerns how good guys are at finding the strike zone and limiting walks. But it also considers command within the zone and if pitchers are good at toying with the zone.

The Whiffability category considers how good guys are at missing bats. The focus will be on what kind of stuff they're working with and how good they are at using it to get hitters to swing and miss.

The Hittability category is a little different. Missing bats is great, but pitchers can also help themselves by manipulating contact. Guys who can get ground balls are ideal, but we'll also be looking at proneness to home runs and line drives and for guys who just seem to have a knack for not getting hit hard.

Lastly, the Workhorse category is what it sounds like. It evaluates pitchers' capacities for eating innings, which is not just a matter of endurance. Efficiency also helps. So does good health. And a track record.

On that note, we're not doing a separate category for health this year. Any injury concerns we have will be applied to the category (or categories) that stand to be impacted.

Also note that a score in the middle (i.e. 15/30 or 12/25) denotes average, not failing. And while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on 2015. B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum has thus provided some scores and scouting reports for a couple MLB-ready starters, and we'll also be looping in a couple big-name pitchers who will be returning from injuries.

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB 500: Top 35 Catchers

With the B/R MLB 500 having gotten underway with a look at first basemen, it's now time to head 90 feet back down the line for a look at the guys wearing the armor.

Catchers will be scored like so: 25 points for Approach/Hitting, 30 points for Power, just five points for Baserunning and 40 points for Defense for a total of 100 points.

The Approach/Hitting category involves not only looking at how good guys are at putting the bat on the ball and how they hit the ball, but also things like patience and plate discipline. 

The Power category is not so much about raw power. It's more of a look at how much power guys have in actual games, which involves looking into how they tap into their power for extra-base hits.

The Baserunning category is one that could be complicated, but we're going to keep it simple by focusing on how good guys are at stealing bases, taking extra bases and avoiding outs on the bases.

As for Defense, we'll focus on three essential skills: receiving, blocking and throwing. Since receiving is what catchers do most and their talent at it can gain and lose strikes for their pitchers, it gets extra-special consideration.

One thing we're not doing this year is a category for health. Rather than handle them separately, any health concerns we do have will be applied to a specific category that could be impacted. 

Please note that a score in the middle (i.e. 12/25 or 20/40) denotes average, not failing. And while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on 2015. Part of that includes B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum providing some scores and scouting reports for a couple MLB-ready catchers.

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

MLB 500 2014: Top 35 First Basemen

Since a trip around the bases begins at first base, we'll begin this year's B/R MLB 500 the same way.

First basemen will be scored like so: 35 points for Approach/Hitting, 40 points for Power, 10 points for Baserunning and 15 points for Defense for a total of 100 points. 

The approach/hitting category involves not only looking at how good guys are at putting the bat on the ball and how they hit the ball, but also things like patience and plate discipline. 

The power category is not so much about raw power. It's more of a look at how much power guys have in actual games, which involves looking into how they tap into their power for extra-base hits.

The baserunning category is one that could be complicated, but we're going to keep it simple by focusing on how good guys are at stealing bases, taking extra bases and avoiding outs on the bases.

As for defense, we're going to look at how sure-handed guys are and if they have the athleticism to make tough plays. For this, we'll be using a combination of defensive metrics and the eye test.

One thing we're not doing this year is a category for health. Rather than handle them separately, any health concerns we do have will be applied to a specific category that could be impacted. 

Please note that a score in the middle (i.e. 20/40 or 17/35) denotes average, not failing. And while the discussion will be centered on 2014, we also have one eye on how things are shaping up for 2015.

Lastly, any ties will be resolved with the following question: "If we could pick only one, who would it be?"

When you're ready, you can read on.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB 500: An Introduction to This Year’s List

Grab your peanuts and Cracker Jack, and then find your seat. It's time.

Time for the B/R MLB 500.

This is Year 2 of the MLB 500, and the idea is the same as in Year 1: Gather up the top players at every position, score their assorted talents and then rank them accordingly. First come the individual position rankings, and later comes the big list of 500.

And like in Year 1, the idea isn't so much to rank the top players for the 2014 season as much as it is to look ahead to the 2015 season.

That means we'll be taking some 2014 performances and projecting whether they'll get better or worse. It also means that, with help from B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum, we'll be looping in top prospects who are poised to break through. We'll also be looping in some (not many) players who will be returning from lengthy or yearlong absences, albeit with conservative expectations for how they'll perform.

Lastly, there's this: We're not interested in players who won't be around in 2015. Sorry, Derek Jeter.

The big change this year? We've done away with the health component of last year's scoring system. Rather than score players on their ability to stay healthy, we'll just be applying any health concerns we have to the individual category (or categories) that might be affected.

As for how the scores have been determined, myself and Mr. Rosenbaum didn't completely ignore the eye test. But for the most part, the scores were influenced by something else:

Data.

It's impossible to watch every single game in a baseball season, so it's a good thing for us that we're living in the golden age of baseball data. We can take a hitter and look at how often he expands the strike zone, hits breaking balls for line drives and swings through high fastballs. Likewise, we can take a pitcher and look at how often his secondary pitches miss bats, how often his sinker gets ground balls and how good he is at pounding the corners. Simply put, the data sees everything.

Now that you know what the project is all about and how it came together, here's when you can expect to see everything:

Slideshow Date
 Top 35 First Basemen  Monday, Sept. 1
 Top 35 Catchers  Wednesday, Sept. 3
 Top 150 Starting Pitchers  Friday, Sept. 5 
 Top 35 Second Basemen  Monday, Sept. 8 
 Top 35 Shortstops  Wednesday, Sept. 10 
 Top 35 Third Basemen  Friday, Sept. 12 
 Top 55 Relief Pitchers  Monday, Sept. 15 
 Top 40 Center Fielders  Wednesday, Sept. 17 
 Top 10 Designated Hitters  Friday, Sept. 19 
 Top 70 Corner Outfielders  Monday, Sept. 22
 Full MLB 500  Monday, Sept. 29

Whenever you're ready to get started, first basemen are live and ready for reading. Enjoy.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Dissecting Nolan Ryan’s One-of-a-Kind Legacy, 25 Years After 5,000th Strikeout

Let's go back 25 years to Aug. 22, 1989, to appreciate Nolan Ryan doing something that hadn't been done before, hasn't been done since and may never be done again.

Ryan, then a 42-year-old veteran in his first year with the Texas Rangers, began a game against the Oakland A's needing six strikeouts to reach 5,000 for his career. Hardly a tall order for The Ryan Express, so the only real question was who would help him make history.

It turned out to be a fellow great in Rickey Henderson. In the fifth inning, he went down as so many opposing hitters had gone down before against Ryan: swinging at a fastball.

Afterward, Henderson took his new distinction in the record books like a champ.

"It was an honor to be the 5,000th," he said, via The Associated Press. "As Davey Lopes says, 'If he ain't struck you out, you ain't nobody.'"

With that, we now return to the present day to do what we usually do in the event of important sports anniversaries. We must speak of Ryan's legacy.

Which is actually a complicated thing, featuring as many question marks as exclamation points. But if we have to pick one of those two things to discuss first, it has to be the exclamation points.

Starting, naturally, with the strikeouts.

Ryan was born to strike guys out. Well before he had the numbers to prove it, that he had the right arm for it was obvious as early as 1964.

That was when New York Mets scout Red Murff saw a 17-year-old Ryan throwing for Alvin High School. As The New York Times noted in 2008, he reported back to the Mets that Ryan had "the best arm I've ever seen in my life."

Whether Ryan had the best arm anyone had ever seen became a legit question soon after he started his pro career. So much so that it was determined science was needed to answer it.

This is according to Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated, who wrote in 1975 that scientists had clocked Ryan's fastball at a record 100.9 miles per hour the year prior. And amazingly, that might actually be a conservative figure.

Here's Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated:

That speed was measured by a laser radar when it was 9-10 feet from the plate; if measured at the standard distance of 50 feet from the plate (as PITCHf/x does), that extrapolates to an astounding 108.1 mph.

So yeah. Take a 106-mph fastball by Aroldis Chapman and add two miles per hour, and you have an idea of what Ryan's best fastball might have been like.

Should we mention that he also had a hammer curveball that was clocked at 85 miles per hour, meaning it might have actually been more like 92 or 93? Yeah, let's mention that.

Ryan first got the chance to put this stuff to serious use in Anaheim in 1972 after the Mets traded him (and others) to the Angels for Jim Fregosi. The result was him striking out a league-leading 329 batters, thus announcing his arrival as baseball's strikeout king.

That was one of Ryan's six 300-strikeout seasons, tying him with Randy Johnson for the most all time. But Ryan holds the edge in 200-strikeout seasons, with 15, and in career 10-strikeout games, with 215.

Among the more notable entries in that list of games are a record four contests with at least 19 strikeouts and another effort that went down in Ryan's final start in 1973. Needing 15 strikeouts to match Sandy Koufax's single-season record of 382, he naturally collected 16 to finish with 383.

And so it continued all the way to number 5,000, and then to No. 5,714. Though Johnson charged hard at Ryan, the 4,875 strikeouts he finished with are more than 800 off the mark.

Now, in an age when seemingly every pitcher throws mid-90s heat with physics-defying secondaries, the thought of somebody having the stuff to make a spirited run at becoming just the second member of the 5,000-strikeout club isn't unthinkable.

That Ryan was able to hang on long enough to collect 714 more strikeouts after getting No. 5,000, however, is perhaps the ultimate reminder that it wasn't just stuff that got him so many strikeouts. 

Ryan played in 27 big league seasons. If that sounds like a large amount, it's not.

It's an absurd amount.

No other modern-era player has logged as many as 27 seasons. And even despite not becoming a full-time starter until his sixth season, Ryan still made a modern-era record 773 starts. And though he's not the modern-era leader with his 5,386.0 innings, he is the modern-era leader with 24 100-inning seasons

Even more amazing is how Ryan never stopped being a hard thrower. 

"On our radar gun at our Arlington Stadium home games, Nolan has topped out at 97 miles an hour," then-Rangers manager Bobby Valentine told The New York Times' Dave Anderson in early 1989. "And he's averaged 93 miles an hour. Averaged!"

How did Ryan do it? Certainly not without hard work, but he also granted a couple of years ago that, yeah, he really was a freak of nature.

"But the biggest thing is genetics," he said, via Daniel I. Dorfman of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "There were a lot of pitchers who wanted to pitch as long as I did. But because of their body type or injury, it didn't allow them to play as long as I did."

When you can hang around for as long as Ryan did without losing your stuff, you can do more than just pile up strikeouts.

You can also win 324 games. An antiquated point, sure, but there is something to be said about how Ryan won so many games while playing mainly for mediocre teams. From 1972 on, 15 of the 22 teams he played on were sub-.500 clubs. Ryan won 295 games anyway. 

We also can't forget Ryan's record seven no-hitters. Koufax is the only other pitcher with as many as four, and Ryan's seventh no-hitter in 1991 saw him top his own record for being the oldest pitcher to ever throw one at 44 years and three months.

"I haven't gotten bored with no-hitters yet," he said to mark the occasion, via The New York Times' Jack Curry.

These are the exclamation points you think of when pondering Ryan's legacy. You think of the strikeouts and longevity first and foremost, and then the wins and no-hitters as icing on the cake.

But after the exclamations come the questions, and they fall under the umbrella of one in particular:

Just how good was Nolan Ryan?

That Ryan's right arm was a force of nature is good news and bad news. The good news is everything we discussed above. The bad news is how, like all forces of nature, there was no controlling it.

Just as Ryan's the all-time leader in strikeouts, he's also the all-time leader in walks. And not just because of his longevity, either. He averaged 4.67 walks per nine innings, easily the highest rate among 3,000-inning pitchers.

Elsewhere, Ryan's also the all-time leader in wild pitches and in the top 10 in hit batsmen. No wonder Oscar Gamble once told The New York Times' Dave Anderson that a good night against Ryan was "0-for-4 and don't get hit in the head."

With all this wildness, Ryan's strikeout habit wasn't just a rare talent. It was a necessity.

And even his strikeout habit could only help his ERA so much most seasons. Ryan only finished eight seasons with an ERA under 3.00—certainly giving him fewer chances to contend for a Cy Young Award that, shockingly, he never wonand retired with a 3.19 career ERA.

Using ERA+ to adjust for park and league standards, Ryan's career 112 ERA+ puts him in the same company as Al Leiter, Bartolo Colon and Josh Beckett. Good company, but far less than great company.

This is when you remember that Ryan paired a modern-era record 292 losses with his 324 wins. Of those, 254 came in those final 22 seasons we discussed. It's commendable that he won so many games with mediocre teams, but he himself wasn't entirely separate from that mediocrity.

All this leads us to the obligatory wins above replacement discussion. If you consult FanGraphs' version of WAR, Ryan is the sixth-most valuable pitcher ever. Consult Baseball-Reference.com's WAR, however, and Ryan is only 20th all time. 

Such is the essential conundrum of Ryan's legacy. As easy as it is to argue he's one of the greatest pitchers ever, it's just as easy to argue he's not. If you're in the latter camp, it boils down to how being born a great thrower isn't the same as being born a great pitcher.

This debate exists. This debate must be acknowledged. This debate will rage on.

And yet, something tells me it will never escape the background of Ryan's legacy.

Where Ryan ranks among great pitchers is not the point. His is more a legacy of feats. It's more appropriate, and indeed more fun, to remember him for the things he could do that nobody else could. 

That includes throwing a baseball at record speeds. And playing forever. And through those two things, making more hitters look puny than any other pitcher we've ever seen and perhaps ever will see.

All this was worth celebrating 25 years ago. It's still worth celebrating today.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Dark Horses Who Could Shake Up Major MLB Award Races Down the Stretch

Because Major League Baseball's season is six months long, the last six weeks shouldn't make much of a difference with the major awards races.

But hey, you never know when the "Chipper Jones Effect" is going to happen.

Remember when Jones won the National League MVP in 1999? The key was him hitting .324 with a 1.124 OPS in his last 42 games. After not even making the NL All-Star squad, Jones' hot finish helped lead him to a decisive victory in the NL MVP voting over Jeff Bagwell.

So what the heck. Let's entertain the notion that dark horses in the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards races might actually have a shot. That way we can zero in on which guys are worth watching.

 

AL Rookie of the Year

Current Favorite: Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

With Masahiro Tanaka and George Springer sidelined with injuries, the AL Rookie of the Year race is all about Jose Abreu. The White Sox slugger is hitting .306 with an AL-best .962 OPS, not to mention 31 homers and 89 RBI.

Abreu's ROY candidacy isn't ironclad, though. Some voters could take issue with calling a 27-year-old Cuban import a "rookie." He also might be wearing down, having recently told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today that the MLB season is getting to be "too much" for him.

If Abreu does falter, the AL Rookie of the Year race could be won by whoever finishes the season the hottest. So keep an eye on...

 

Dark Horse: Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays

You might know Odorizzi as one of the other guys the Rays got in the James Shields-for-Wil Myers trade. Unless you were watching him earlier this season, that is, in which case you'll know him as a generally terrible pitcher.

But things have changed since then. In 12 starts dating back to June 10, Odorizzi's been outstanding:

Further sweetening the deal is that the Rays are 8-4 in Odorizzi's last 12 starts. He's played a hand in their rise from the AL East cellar, a narrative that could later help him in the Rookie of the Year voting.

If Odorizzi does win the Rookie of the Year, Rays general manager Andrew Friedman is going to deserve some kind of award of his own. Getting two Rookies of the Year out of one trade is pretty good.

 

NL Rookie of the Year

Current Favorite: Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds

Hamilton probably wouldn't have even been in the discussion in last year's loaded NL ROY race, but he's the best it has in 2014. The Reds speedster is batting a modest .265 with a .682 OPS, but his overall value is boosted by his 44 stolen bases and excellent defense in center field. 

But with just a .200 average since the All-Star break, Hamilton's ROY candidacy isn't getting any stronger. The door is open for guys like Jacob deGrom, Jesse Hahn, Gregory Polanco and...

 

Dark Horse: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

A couple of months ago, Wong was best known for being the guy who ended a World Series game by being picked off, and for being such a disappointment in April that the Cardinals sent him back to the minors.

When Wong returned to the majors in mid-May, he apparently returned angry with a .381 average and .911 OPS in his first 10 games. And after a brief cool-off period, Wong has continued to be a steady force at the plate since early July, taking the following numbers into Saturday's action:

In the process, Wong has raised his OPS from .586 to .700. If he can keep up his hot hitting, there's a chance his OPS will be pushing .800 by year's end.

And in a year when an .800 OPS is about as good as it gets for NL rookies, that could be enough.

 

AL Cy Young

Current Favorite: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

And it's really not much of a discussion. Even after a tough outing against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night, King Felix still has a 13-4 record, a 1.99 ERA and 197 strikeouts across 185.1 innings. 

However, Saturday's tough outing can't be totally ignored knowing that Hernandez faded at the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Catching him might be possible, and one guy who looks up to the task is...

 

Dark Horse: Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

A quick glance at Kluber's numbers will tell you he's having a terrific season. The Indians right-hander is 13-6 with a 2.41 ERA and 197 strikeouts of his own in 179.1 innings, numbers that would look a lot more Cy Young-worthy without King Felix in the picture.

But here's the thing with these numbers: They're only getting better. Check out what Kluber has done in six second-half starts:

No other pitcher in MLB has been even close to as good as Kluber since the break. That's the opinion of FanGraphs WAR, anyway, which says Kluber's already been worth 2.3 WAR in the second half.

And Kluber might not be the only one who rides a strong second-half surge to a surprise Cy Young victory. There's a guy in the National League who could also do so.

 

NL Cy Young

Current Favorite: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Like with the AL Cy Young, it's really not much of a discussion. Despite missing a month with an injury, Kershaw took a 1.78 ERA in 19 starts into his Saturday night outing against the Milwaukee Brewers, with a 14-2 record and 163 strikeouts in 136.1 innings to go with it. 

Kershaw is not without real competition, however. Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright have been lurking in his shadow for a while now, and one guy who's forcing himself into the NL Cy Young discussion is...

 

Dark Horse: Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

Like Kershaw, Hamels is another guy who had injury troubles earlier in the season. But he's shaken those off to post a 2.44 ERA in 22 starts, with 149 strikeouts in 151.1 innings pitched to boot. 

But you know how Kluber's been scorching hot since the break? Hamels has basically been the National League version of that guy in his six post-break starts:

And it's worth knowing that Hamels' hot pitching extends back much further than the All-Star break. In 15 starts since the beginning of June, he's racked up a 1.60 ERA in 106.2 innings. He's punched out 105 and failed to go at least seven innings only twice.

Hamels is going to need some help from Kershaw, Cueto and Wainwright if he wants to win the Cy Young. But if they do happen to slump in unison while he continues his hot pitching, one of the more under-appreciated pitchers in the league will finally get his due.

 

AL MVP

Current Favorite: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

Unlike in the past two seasons, this isn't a controversial stance. Beyond leading AL position players in WAR (according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com), Trout has a .937 OPS, 27 homers and 86 RBI. All in service of an Angels team that's 72-49.

The trouble is, however, that Trout has been slumping of late. His OPS since the break is well under .800, and you have to go back to last Sunday (Aug. 10) to find his last hit.

The most obvious candidates to catch Trout in the AL MVP race are the Seattle Mariners' dynamic duo of Hernandez and Robinson Cano, as well as Oakland A's third baseman Josh Donaldson. But another candidate who could start generating some MVP buzz is... 

 

Dark Horse: Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

Those of you who are into WAR might be sitting there saying, "No duh." And rightfully so, as FanGraphs puts Gordon's WAR at 5.5. That's 0.1 points off Trout's 5.6 WAR.

And it's not just WAR that Gordon is rocking these days. Ever since the break, his bat has been on fire:

And this is before Gordon went out and collected two more hits on Saturday. His overall average is now .282 and his overall OPS is up to .790.

At the rate he's going, Gordon has a fair shot at finishing the season with a .300 average and an OPS around .850. If he can do that while also leading the Royals to their first postseason berth since 1985, winning the MVP will be surprisingly realistic.

An even bigger upset, however, is conceivably possible in the Senior Circuit.

 

NL MVP

Current Favorite: Uh...Well...

Heck, I don't know. Kershaw is probably the leading NL MVP candidate with Andrew McCutchen on the DL, but McCutchen shouldn't be considered out of it yet. And then there are guys like Giancarlo Stanton, Jonathan Lucroy and Yasiel Puig to consider. You can take your pick, really.

With so many leading candidates, it's hard to favor a dark horse. But if one guy can do it, how about...

 

Dark Horse: Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh Pirates

We all laughed when Mike Matheny named Harrison to the NL All-Star team. He was having a nice season and everything, but it was hardly All-Star-worthy.

He must have heard us laughing. It's the only way to explain the havoc he's wreaked since the break, taking the following numbers into Saturday's action:

And even these numbers don't really do Harrison's current value justice. His hot hitting is helping the Pirates withstand McCutchen's absence, and MLB.com's Andrew Simon was quick to note just how versatile Harrison has been on defense:

Given the wealth of strong candidates for the NL MVP award, I'll definitely stop short of calling Harrison a good bet for the award. 

But this being baseball, you shouldn't need me to tell you that stranger things have happened. A couple of months from now, maybe we'll find ourselves renaming the Chipper Jones Effect the "Josh Harrison Effect."

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Remembering the 1994 Expos: From MLB’s Best to Washington Nationals in 10 Years

On this day 20 years ago, baseball fans were robbed.

Aug. 12, 1994, was the day Major League Baseball players went on strike. The work stoppage eventually resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the '94 season and the World Series, bringing a premature end to numerous arresting storylines.

And of those, none was more arresting than what the Montreal Expos were up to.

When the strike hit, the Expos had an MLB-best 74-40 record and a six-game lead in the National League East. After enduring something of a close-but-no-cigar existence since 1979, it seemed a lock that the franchise's first World Series would follow just its second-ever trip to October.

If ever there was a day to remember these Expos, it's today. And while there's no way to do so without getting into the bad times, how 'bout we remember the good times first?

If you remember the '94 Expos as a flash in the pan, here's a hint: Don't.

Thanks in part to Felipe Alou stepping in for Tom Runnells, the 1992 Expos went 87-75 and finished in second in the NL East. The '93 club also finished in second, but this time at 94-68 and just three games behind the eventual NL champion Philadelphia Phillies.

As such, the plan for the 1994 Expos was to improve on a strong foundation. And fortunately, many pieces for the job were still in place.

In right fielder Larry Walker, center fielder Marquis Grissom, shortstop Wil Cordero and first baseman Cliff Floyd, the Expos had four homegrown players either established as stars or approaching starhood. Left fielder Moises Alou, acquired as a 23-year-old in 1990, was yet another promising young talent.

Catcher Darrin Fletcher, second baseman Mike Lansing, starting pitchers Ken Hill and Jeff Fassero and closer John Wetteland were added by then-general manager Dave Dombrowski in 1991, and Dan Duquette added third baseman Sean Berry in 1992 and left-hander Butch Henry in 1993.

All told, Duquette had just one major item on his shopping list for 1994. With veteran right-hander Dennis Martinez taking his 15-9 record and 3.85 ERA onto the open market, the Expos needed a starter. Preferably a cheap one with upside.

Duquette's solution was to make maybe the boldest trade of the 1990s, sending young second baseman Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young, slender right-hander named Pedro Martinez. 

"Now that was a trade, as intriguing as it was stunning," wrote Tim Kurkjian in Sports Illustrated. "Two young, proven talents were swapped even-up. Money was a factor, but the deal of the off-season was a trade of ability, not liability."

Granted, it was possible to look at Montreal's return and think that money was more a factor than ability.

Martinez had spent '93 merely establishing himself as a major league pitcher, and in relief to boot. DeShields, meanwhile, had hit .295 and stolen 43 bases in his fourth full season. Swapping him and his seven-figure salary out for Martinez, who made just under $120,000 in 1993, seemed like a classic case of the small-market, penny-pinching Expos being...well, the small-market, penny-pinching Expos.

But Duquette was definitely a believer in Martinez's talent. As Jonah Keri wrote in his (quite fantastic) Expos book, Up, Up, & Away, he saw Martinez as "the final ingredient for a great team." 

And great they would be. 

Because Duquette ended up leaving the Expos for the Boston Red Sox, he didn't get to see his prize acquisition live up to his lofty potential right out of the gate in 1994.

In 10 starts between April and May, Martinez racked up a 3.00 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 63.0 innings. The second start saw him flirt with a perfect game on April 13, one that was infamously broken up when he beaned Reggie Sanders and then suffered his wrath when he (stupidly) charged the mound.

Outside of the 22-year-old Martinez blowing hitters away, however, April and May weren't overly kind to the Expos. They went just 28-22, putting them 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the new-look NL East.

But then the Expos got hot, beginning June by ripping off six in a row and 12 out of 14. By the time the Braves arrived in Montreal for a three-game series in late June, the Expos were 44-29 and only 2.5 games out.

The first game of the series saw the Expos get to the seemingly invincible Greg Maddux—he had a 1.63 ERA through 16 starts—for five earned runs in six and two-thirds. The big hit was a two-out, three-run homer off Maddux by Floyd that turned a 2-1 lead into a 5-1 lead. The Expos would go on to win 7-2.

The Expos then won the second game of the series on a walk-off single by Larry Walker. And though the Braves avoided a sweep by salvaging the third game, the message had been sent.

"We feel we can play with the Braves," Expos GM Kevin Malone told The New York Times' Murray Chass. "People say they're the best team in baseball, but we've proved we can play with them."

The Braves series also proved that the oft-elusive Expos fanbase was catching on. After averaging, via attendance figures plucked from Baseball-Reference.com, just over 20,000 fans per game at Olympic Stadium before, over 40,000 fans attended each of the three games. After it, the Expos averaged nearly 31,000 fans the rest of the way.

Those fans continued to see good baseball. After going 19-8 in June, Montreal went 18-8 in July and 9-2 in August. By July 20, the Expos were in first place for good.

How does a team go 46-18 (with, to boot, a plus-116 run differential) in a span of two-plus months? Well, put it this way: It helps when virtually everyone is playing well.

Pictured here is Montreal's lineup becoming invincible down the stretch. And while only Kirk Rueter finished stronger than he started among Montreal's top pitchers, nobody really went into a slump given that the average National League ERA in 1994 was 4.21.

At the least, the '94 Expos were looking superior to the 1981 club that came within one win of the World Series. Heck, they were a juggernaut capable of stacking up with any team from recent memory.

As Floyd told Keri years later: "Our energy level was high. There was no thinking that we were going to lose. We knew we were going to win every night. We knew no one could beat us."

In the end, of course, the '94 Expos weren't beaten.

They were simply stopped.

When the strike came, the Expos were in an awkward position. 

On the one hand, they needed the strike the least. Beyond being baseball's best team, they were in the midst of a 20-3 stretch that made them baseball's hottest team.

But on the other hand, the Expos also needed the strike the most.

By Expos standards, the club was paying a lot for its 1994 roster. Richard Sandomir of The New York Times noted that their $18.8 million payroll was the second lowest in the league, but team president Claude Brochu insisted it was more than they could afford in a year when national TV revenue was down.

"The payroll should have been $14 million," said Brochu, apparently only half in jest.

And looking ahead, things were dicey. Walker was making about $4 million and due for free agency, and Alou, Grissom, Hill and Wetteland were all million-dollar players who wouldn't be getting any cheaper. To keep the '94 roster intact, the Expos were going to need more money.

And to that end, their best hope was what the strike was all about: revenue sharing.

The Expos were only one team that wanted the rich teams to share with the poor teams. But the rich teams, naturally, didn't want such a system taking money out of their pockets. Not when it could just as easily take money out of the players' pockets.

And that meant several things, chief among them being a salary cap, no more salary arbitration, restricted free agency and, as Keri noted in Up, Up, & Away, a drop from a guaranteed 58 percent of league revenue to 50 percent.

After the players (understandably) refused to budge, the 1994 season officially ended in mid-September when the owners cancelled the rest of the regular season and the World Series. Like that, what had a chance to be the greatest season in Expos history was no more.

It also kicked off a string of events that led to professional baseball in Montreal—a dream first realized in 1969—being no more.

The strike eventually did lead to revenue sharing, not to mention a luxury tax. Combined, these things would indeed slow the growth of the rich teams while also aiding the poor teams.

The catch is that these things weren't agreed to until spring 1997, two years after the strike ended and the Expos took a hammer to their 1994 roster by trading Hill, Wetteland and Grissom and watching Walker leave as a free agent ahead of a shortened 1995 season.

"We'll still be good," Malone told Chass. "We're going be younger and less expensive...But we've done it in the past."

Except not. With a good chunk of the 1994 team gone, the Expos staggered to a 66-78 record and a last-place finish. And though 1996 brought a return to respectability with an 88-74 record, it was not to last.

After 1996, Alou left as a free agent and Fassero and Floyd were traded. And after Martinez was a Cy Young-winning bright spot in Montreal's 78-84 season in 1997, Duquette reunited with him in Boston. It was in a Red Sox uniform that Martinez would win two more Cy Youngs.

In 1998, The New York TimesMurray Chass noted that the Expos spent just $8.3 million on a team that went 65-97 despite receiving $12.5 million in revenue sharing. But rather than use that money on payroll, then-GM Jim Beattie said the team needed it to simply avoid losing money.

"We're not operating for the good of the game right now," said Beattie, adding: "We can't move from that position until we get some assurance that we're not going to shoot ourselves in the foot all the time.''

A potential solution was a new ballpark to take the place of the dank, dark and literally crumbling Olympic Stadium. To this end, Keri noted in Up, Up, & Away that Brochu announced in 1997 plans for a 35,000-seat open-air stadium that would cost only $250 million.

However, at least $150 million would have to come from the government. Lucien Bouchard, then the Premier of Quebec, all but scoffed.

"We already have a big stadium," he said, via Keri, "which cost a few dollars and isn’t finished being paid for."

An alternate solution was a new owner who would be willing to spend on real improvements to the team. When Jeffrey Loria came aboard in 1999, it seemed like the Expos were getting such an owner.

Emphasis on "seemed."

"No more business as usual," was Loria's promise after buying a 24 percent stake in the Expos for $12 million, via Chass. Predictably, part of his plan involved "bringing in a winning attitude and winning players."

A fine idea, indeed. So long as you bring in the right players at the right prices, of course.

Which, alas, Loria did not do. His big acquisitions before 2000 were 30-something lefty reliever Graeme Lloyd, 30-something starter Hideki Irabu and 30-something first baseman Lee Stevens.

It was largely thanks to their additions that Montreal's 2000 payroll, via Cot's Baseball Contracts, grew to a very un-Expos-like $33.5 million. The three were also powerless to stop the 2000 Expos from going 67-95, and the club's attendance only increased from 9,547 per game to 11,435 per game.

This might as well have been the real beginning of the end for baseball in Montreal. Whatever hope Loria had of building momentum for a new stadium with a high-priced and talented team all but went out the window, and it didn't take long for him to make his first step toward the door.

According to Keri, Loria issued his first cash call to all Expos partners in the summer of 2000. He was the only one who answered, and this kicked off a series of cash calls that involved him ponying up while everyone else kept their wallets shut. Every time it happened, his control of the team grew.

By spring 2002, Loria owned over 90 percent of the Expos. This was, of course, after contraction of the Expos had not only been discussed but actually voted on in the winter of 2001. What happened instead was a unique three-way deal that saw the Red Sox bought by Marlins owner John Henry, who sold the Marlins to Loria, who in turn sold the Expos to MLB for $120 million.

Thus did the Expos end up in the hands of the very people who wanted them gone. Oh, boy.

Things could have gone worse, though. When a new collective bargaining agreement was reached in August 2002, it included a clause that blocked contraction until 2006. Meanwhile, a makeshift Expos team was improving on a 68-94 record in 2001 by going 83-79. Another 83-79 record followed in 2003. 

But whatever hope the Expos had of keeping it up hinged on re-signing Vladimir Guerrero, he of the .995 OPS and 222 homers in the previous six seasons. That didn't happen, as Guerrero left to sign a massive contract with the Anaheim Angels.

The Vlad-less Expos were hopeless in 2004, going 67-95 and finishing in last place. It was in late September that the decision was made: Major League Baseball in Montreal would end with the Expos moving to Washington, D.C., the following season.

Some 31,395 fans showed up to Olympic Stadium for the Expos' final home game of 2004 on Sept. 29. The Expos lost 9-1 amid an atmosphere that Joe LaPointe of The New York Times described as equal parts "peaceful" and "surreal," but not without an "undercurrent of bitterness."

That the occasion was also a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the 1994 team—one complete with some members of the '94 team back in town and Ken Hill throwing out the first pitchwas really less of a celebration and more of a subplot. Rather than the past, what little future the Montreal Expos had left was the focus.

Or perhaps making a big fuss over the 1994 team was simply too painful for some. For if the 1994 Expos were an embodiment of anything, it was the Expos franchise itself:

Something that might have been, but in the end simply couldn't be, truly great.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Baseball Needs to Embrace Its Dynamic Personalities, Not Vilify Them

Let's acknowledge that Major League Baseball isn't completely stuck in the past. It's gotten its share of modern upgrades, from 24 new ballparks in 25 years to the gift-that-keeps-giving excellence of MLB Advanced Media to even (cue sarcastic tone) instant replay. 

But one thing that still needs a modern upgrade is the personality of the game itself. For this, the trick will be to allow players who'd rather play a kid's game than a gentleman's game to do so. 

A good way to start would be by giving bubbles a chance.

You see, there's this thing that the Los Angeles Dodgers do to celebrate home runs. When the guy who hit the homer returns to the dugout, a battery-operated bubble-blowing machine gets turned on, dancing commences and fun is had.

Here, watch:

What you see is a bunch of dudes acting like kids playing a kid's game. It's hard to watch without also feeling like a kid, and it's become hard to talk about Dodgers dingers on social media without referencing bubbles in some way.

These are things that should please MLB. As such, it's only natural that the Dodgers were told to knock it off.

That's the story according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, who reported Wednesday that MLB Executive VP/Master of Discipline Joe Torre "advised" the Dodgers to retire the bubble machine.

Since the bubble machine was present (and ultimately active) in the Dodgers dugout Wednesday night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, either the Dodgers ignored Torre or simply defied him. But regardless of what kept the bubbles blowing, that Torre's request even happened says a lot.

Cue Jesse Spector of The Sporting News:

Indeed. Whenever the line is drawn between "gentleman's game" and "kid's game," baseball all too often perpetuates its old-fashioned reputation by siding with the former. Typically for the sake of upholding the notion that the game must be played "The Right Way."

Granted, some parts of the unwritten "The Right Way" code shouldn't change. Running up the score in blowouts. Sliding with your spikes up. And especiallylooking in your direction, Arizona Diamondbacks—not trying to hurt guys with retaliatory beanballs.

But then there's the stuff about respecting the game. Beyond that apparently applying to dugout bubble machines, its other applications mainly concern players who dare to show a little personality.

Chris Archer just got bent out of shape over David Ortiz admiring a long home run. We've also seen Madison Bumgarner join a list of people who have ever taken exception to a Yasiel Puig bat flip, and Gerrit Cole actually picked a fight with Carlos Gomez over a bat flip. A couple years ago in 2011, we even saw John Lackey drill Francisco Cervelli merely for clapping after a home run.

Not that it's all pitchers versus hitters. It can go the other way too, such as when Jarrod Dyson whined about Chris Perez's tribute to John Cena in 2012, or when David Dellucci didn't appreciate it when Joba Chamberlain acted like, well, Joba Chamberlain in 2008.

The message: Respecting the game means showing good sportsmanship, defined here to mean playing the game without emotion. Because, you know, it's clearly too much to ask to define true sportsmanship to mean having the ability to let such things slide.

It doesn't have to be that way. Just imagine if it were the other way around. Imagine a version of baseball where displays of emotion serve to entertain rather than to provoke.

Actually, you don't have to imagine. We've seen it happen.

Take what happened a couple weeks ago, when Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, ahem, borrowed Fernando Rodney's arrow-shooting celebration after getting to him:

Typically used to celebrate saves, Rodney had gone to his arrow-shooting celebration after escaping an eighth-inning jam. Trout and Pujols clearly wanted him to know that he had spoken (or shot) too soon.

Rodney could have raised hell, either on the field or after the fact. Instead, he let it slide.

“They got emotional, maybe. They beat me. That’s all right," he told The Seattle Times.

For their part, neither Pujols nor Trout indicated there was any malice in their mockery. As Trout put it, all they were doing was playing the game.

“It was spur of the moment,” Trout said. “It’s baseball. We’re having fun. It was a pretty exciting inning.”

Damn right. And a newsworthy inning, too. What would have been just another rally became headline-worthy material for this site and many others, all for the sake of highlighting a fun bit of theater.

Since such theatrics are generally frowned upon in baseball, the headlines have a tendency to be negative when theatrics happen. As sampled above, the headlines tend to tell tales of curmudgeons stifling entertainers, thus signalling to the unaffiliated that baseball is a fun-free zone.

And that's not the look baseball needs these days.

I've avoided saying that we're talking about a new direction that's vital for baseball's survival for a reason. With an annual revenue stream approaching $10 billion, megarich TV deals all over and strong attendance figures, baseball's survival isn't as iffy as some people out there think.

But MLB does have growth to worry about. And to this extent, it's an open secret that baseball has a problem with the youth demographic.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, the average World Series viewer was 54.4 years old. Put both Championship Series together, and kids between the ages of six and 17 made up for less than five percent of the viewership. Also, MLB Advanced Media boss Robert Bowman said last year (via Royals Review) that sales of MLB.tv are poor with 18-25-year-olds. 

Maybe this has more to do with the game itself than anything else, especially knowing that we're in an age when even putting the ball in play is a challenge. However, there is something to be said about how baseball doesn't fit in its surroundings as well as it used to.

Here's Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated writing about how times have changed since World Series viewership hit its peak in 1986:

Many of the qualities associated with baseball are less valued in today's society than they were in 1986, qualities such as teamwork, humility, patience, pensiveness, perseverance, and strategizing. The qualities that have gained in cultural value are not associated with baseball, such as self-promotion, entrepreneurship, violence, action, noise and gambling. 

This might read like an old man telling everyone to get off his lawn, but Verducci is not wrong. Sports leagues need extra layers of entertainment on top of the sport itself to attract eyes and ears. And since the cameras and microphones are aimed mostly at players, it's mainly up to them.

This is where playing the game The Right Way is hurting baseball. The league needs players who are just as much entertainers as they are athletes, and right now it can only have so many because of how The Right Way stifles personalities.

As one MLB executive put it to Verducci: "The [younger viewer] is used to seeing celebrations and exhibits of passion. In baseball, that's not allowed."

To MLB's credit, the league clearly isn't demanding that its marketing arm sell baseball as a gentleman's game. If it were, then the league wouldn't be doing things like partnering with MTV or shooting videos that celebrate Yasiel Puig's bat-flipping habit. The league is trying to sell itself as something hip.

But that effort can only go so far, unless those within the game follow suit. That's not going to happen until the players set aside The Right Way code and accept that baseball can be well-played and fun.

Given how old baseball's code is at this point, that's no small favor to ask. But not an unfair one to ask, as it's not like there isn't incentive to rewrite the code.

It begins with "M" and rhymes with "honey." If more ballplayers turn into entertainers and more younger viewers start to be drawn to baseball, that's a larger audience. A larger audience means more revenue. More revenue means higher payrolls. Higher payrolls mean higher salaries.

And lest you think that baseball becoming as much a TV show as a spectator sport could be the death of the sport, if anything, it could make it better. More young fans watching baseball conceivably means more young fans playing baseball. Down the road, baseball's talent pool could grow as a result.

So go ahead, baseball. Start playing a kid's game instead of a gentleman's game. It'll be fun, and it could potentially be a big-time change for the better.

In other words: Nobody's bubble will be burst.

 

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Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A’s: Who Is the Team to Beat After Deadline Madness?

The American League is the Detroit Tigers' and Oakland Athletics' world. Everyone else is just living in it.

That's how it feels after Thursday's action, anyway.

The Tigers and A's made enormous upgrades to their starting rotations ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The A's picked up ace lefty Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox, and the Tigers acquired 2012 AL Cy Young-winning lefty David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays in a three-team trade.

Thus did the market's two best starters end up with clubs that have met in two straight American League Division Series. After losing both in five games, it's clear after dealing for Lester and their earlier trade for Jeff Samardzija that the A's aim to be ready for the Tigers this time. After picking up Price, however, it's obvious that the Tigers' goal to be able to beat the A's again.

We could just wait for an October rematch to find out which is the better team and, perhaps, the class of the American League. 

But nah. As people of the Internet, we have the option—nay, the obligation—to determine the answer now.

At the start of deadline day, the question we're after here really wasn't much of a question.

The A's began Thursday with a 66-41 record and a plus-162 run differential. Never mind the best marks in the AL—both were the best marks in the majors.

The Tigers, meanwhile, began the day at 58-46 and plus-41. Their record was good enough only for fourth in the AL, and their run differential was only good enough for fifth. As such, there was some distance between themselves and the A's in the discussion of the AL's best.

Such is life when you're dealing with one team that's considerably more well-balanced than the other. Behold, via FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus:

Based on all this, the Tigers needed to make a big trade if they wanted to bridge the gap behind the A's. After the A's traded for Lester, the Tigers then needed to make a really big trade.

Given his reputation, the Price acquisition feels like such a trade. But if we compare what the A's and Tigers actually gained and lost, it actually doesn't look all that significant.

Using FanGraphs' version of the stat, the A's gained a 4.6-WAR pitcher in dealing for Lester. In dealing for Price, the Tigers gained a 3.9-WAR pitcher. As far as right now is concerned, the A's did better.

It's not just WAR that says so, mind you. Lester's 2.52 ERA dwarfs Price's 3.11. And as hot as Price has been, Lester's been at least as hot. His 1.54 ERA in his last 10 starts is more than a match for Price's 2.05 ERA in the same stretch. 

Then there's the matter of what both clubs gave up. The A's sacrificed Yoenis Cespedes and his 2.3 WAR, while the Tigers said goodbye to Austin Jackson and Drew Smyly. Add Jackson's 1.2 WAR and Smyly's 1.1 WAR together and you get...2.3 WAR. By that measure, it's a push as to which team lost more.

But the Lester deal had other bonuses for the A's. They also received Jonny Gomes and his .875 career OPS against lefties. And because they didn't have to sacrifice any of their pitching depth, they were able to swing Tommy Milone for Sam Fuld.

The A's can now platoon Gomes and Brandon Moss (.820 career OPS against righties) in left field for an offensive combination actually more explosive than what they were getting from Cespedes, and Fuld is a defensive specialist who can step in when games get tight.

As for the Price deal for the Tigers, the loss of Smyly means their rotation didn't get any deeper with him joining the mix. And with Jackson gone, the Tigers don't have a true center fielder.

With Andy Dirks' return from back surgery recently hitting a snag, the Tigers might be forced to platoon Rajai Davis and soon-to-be-called-up left-handed outfielder Ezequiel Carrera in center. Davis hits lefties fine to the tune of an .802 career OPS, but Carrera only has a .664 career OPS against righties.

Further, Chris Iott of MLive.com is right to wonder if either can make up for Jackson's lost defense:

This is not to suggest the Tigers didn't get better in trading for Price. At the least, they're still getting more WAR than they gave up.

They did, however, create a couple of needs when they made the deal for Price. You can't say the same of Oakland's deal for Lester, which created only fixable needs that were addressed immediately. After coming into the day as the AL's strongest team, they still hold that position at the deadline. 

Granted, the Tigers weren't entirely motivated to put a strong team together for the rest of the regular season when they traded for Price. Unlike the A's, they don't have worry about fending off a dangerous Los Angeles Angels squad.

No, Detroit's main goal was really more to get a pitcher who could give it a lethal starting rotation for the postseason. And in this, it succeeded.

Along with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the Tigers now have the last three AL Cy Young winners. More importantly, joining Price with Scherzer gives them two of the 12 best pitchers in MLB as measured by WAR. There's only one other team that can claim to having as many.

And it's not the A's. For all their starting pitching depth, the newly acquired Lester is the only top-12 pitcher they have.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that they won't have the starting pitching to match Detroit's if it does indeed come down to another postseason meeting.

Consider the following:

Note: That's Samardzija's full-season WAR.

No, WAR is not gospel. But if is good for anything, it's highlighting what's arguable. 

In this case, it shows it's arguable Lester would give the A's the advantage in any Game 1 matchup against the Tigers. He may not rival Scherzer or Price in reputation, but he does in performance.

Which, you know, is to say nothing of Lester's postseason track record. That includes a 2.11 ERA in 13 career postseason appearances, a 0.43 World Series ERA and two rings.

As A's shortstop Jed Lowrie put it to MLB.com: "Jon's a bona fide ace who has done it on the biggest stage. That experience, it's an intangible, having that knowledge that you've done it before."

Another thing WAR says is it's arguable the A's would have the advantage in any Game 4 matchup as well and, overall, how it's arguable they could trot out a postseason rotation with enough depth to overcome the top-heaviness of Detroit's playoff rotation.

And this is without even considering the Justin Verlander conundrum. If the Tigers were to trust that his (very real) struggles would go away at the sight of the A's in the postseason, they'd possibly be doing the A's a favor. With a 1.8 WAR to go with his 4.78 ERA, Verlander's not fit for any October rotation.

All told, things would look mighty different if Price had joined Detroit while Lester stayed in Boston on Thursday. The gap between the teams on paper would have been significantly narrowed, and the Tigers would once again be able to threaten the A's with death by starting pitching in the postseason.

But in getting Lester and patching up the needs the trade created, the A's strengthened their standing as the American League's top team rather than compromise it. And with Lester pitching better than ever this year, they lined up a postseason rotation that's a good match for Detroit's, even with Price.

Which, of course, means it's a good match for any postseason rotation they may come across. Already the class of the American League, the A's are now armed for October.

Good luck beating them. That goes for the Tigers and everyone else.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Jake Peavy Trade Could Be Giants’ Latest Reclamation Success Story

The San Francisco Giants have this special trick that they like to perform on seemingly over-the-hill veterans that involves turning them into, well, not over-the-hill veterans.

And now Jake Peavy could be next.

If you're just joining us, the Giants acquired the veteran right-hander from the Boston Red Sox early Saturday in return for left-handed prospect Edwin Escobar and right-handed prospect Heath Hembree, per MLB.com's Chris Haft. Peavy is already slated to start for the Giants on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Be it Peavy or whoever, the Giants definitely needed to make a trade for a starting pitcher. Their rotation has been shaky outside of Tim Hudson and Madison Bumgarner all season, and the club recently put Matt Cain on the 15-day disabled list with a cranky right elbow that may take some time to stop being cranky.

As for what the Giants are getting, let's go ahead and say it: On the surface, it doesn't look good.

In 20 starts with the Red Sox, Peavy racked up a 1-9 record with a 4.72 ERA, a 1.48 WHIP and a league-high 20 home runs. Bad numbers, those.

And the numbers beneath the numbers aren't so good either. We can go to FanGraphs and consult metrics like FIP, xFIP and SIERA for estimates of what Peavy's ERA should be, and they all agree that he indeed deserves an ERA well over 4.00.

From there, we can note that Peavy's strikeout rate is trending nowhere but down, that his walk rate is trending nowhere but up and that his average fastball velocity has fallen to just 89.9 miles per hour.

In so many words: Rather than the guy who won the National League Cy Young in 2007, yeah, Peavy looks like a 33-year-old with a lot of miles on his right arm. So why should anyone bother getting his hopes up?

Well, there's the Giants' track record when it comes to that trick they like to perform, for one.

Just in the last few years, they've performed it on the likes of Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Ryan Vogelsong, Marco Scutaro and, most recently, Hudson. And even after listing all those names, it feels like I'm missing a guy or two.

But more importantly, there's how Peavy is going to a much better place for his talents than the place he's leaving.

There's the obvious, and that's that Peavy will now get to pitch in the National League again. And obvious though that may be, his splits between the two leagues say this is no small bonus.

Via Baseball-Reference.com:

Granted, one thing about the NL numbers is that they were compiled when the former San Diego Padre was much younger and had much, much (seriously, much) better stuff. Unless there's a fountain of youth somewhere on the Embarcadero, he's not getting that stuff back.

There is, however, one thing that hasn't changed about Peavy since his youth. He's still a fly-ball pitcher, with FanGraphs putting his fly-ball percentage for 2014 at a par-for-the-course 42.2 percent.

That's a bad habit to have in the company of American League hitters and a dangerous habit to have at a stadium like Fenway Park. At AT&T Park, on the other hand, being a fly-ball pitcher might as well be recommended.

According to ESPN.com's Park Factors, AT&T Park has a ho-hum rating as the worst park in the majors for home runs. That's the park's huge dimensions at work, and said dimensions are a big reason why Giants pitchers are allowing just a .422 slugging percentage on fly balls.

That's compared to .499 for Red Sox pitchers and .536 for Peavy specifically. So yeah.

But hey, if you're still not convinced that the move to AT&T Park will be good for Peavy's super-fly-ball style, FanGraphs' Tony Blengino would urge you to consider this:

If you took all of Peavy’s 2013 fly balls allowed, and put half of them in Fenway Park, he would have allowed a .310 AVG-.870 SLG, 130 production relative to the MLB average. Put those same fly balls into AT&T Park, and it drops to .286 AVG-.777 SLG. This is not an insignificant difference.

There. You should be convinced now.

But Peavy's comfort level in San Francisco could be helped by something besides the NL surroundings and AT&T Park's dimensions. He'll also be reuniting with his old San Diego skipper in Bruce Bochy.

Which, according to ESPN's Buster Olney, was actually a driving force for the Giants to make the deal:

Here's guessing that Bochy himself might have had a hand in influencing Giants general manager Brian Sabean, as he told this to Janie McCauley of The Associated Press:

The excitement is more than likely mutual, as Steve Kroner of the San Francisco Chronicle recalled that Peavy called it a "sad, sad day" for the Padres organization when Bochy left for San Francisco in 2007.

Goodness knows what sort of difference, if any, reuniting with Bochy is going to have on Peavy. It could certainly make no difference at all.

But you never know. In situations like these, it's not unheard of for the right voice to make an impact. We saw a pretty good example play out in the place Peavy is leaving just last year, as reuniting with John Farrell seemed to help Red Sox ace lefty Jon Lester bounce back from a horrid 2012 season.

So despite Peavy's lousy numbers, his age and his diminished stuff, there are reasons to be optimistic about what he could do for the Giants the rest of the way. From a league, ballpark and managerial standpoint, the change of scenery is a good one for him.

It might be asking a lot of Peavy to help drastically increase the Giants' half-game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West. But if he can at least help them hold on to it, it'll be another successful reclamation trick in the books.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Will We Ever See Another Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Rotation Trio in MLB?

Baseball generally doesn't do one-of-a-kinds. Babe Ruth was one of a kind until Hank Aaron arrived. Same goes for Willie Mays until Ken Griffey Jr. And Sandy Koufax until Clayton Kershaw. And so on.

But allow me to present something that could prove to be an exception to the rule: the trio of starting pitchers the Atlanta Braves had in the 1990s.

Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine—who will go into the Baseball Hall of Fame together this weekendwere the two big ones, and there was also Hall of Fame hopeful John Smoltz. The three occupied the same rotation for seven straight years between 1993 and 1999, and they had little trouble cutting their way through an era of extreme offense.

Since this was a while ago at this juncture, maybe you only have a vague recollection of just how good they were. If so, don't worry. We can fix that with a full-on, grand appreciation session.

According to FanGraphs, Braves starters compiled a 3.27 ERA between '93 and '99. That was more than half a run lower than any other team's starters managed. And while Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood, Denny Neagle and Kent Mercker helped, it really was all about Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

Behold what they did individually in that span:

With a minimum of 700 innings, you're looking at three of only six pitchers between '93 and '99 to post ERAs under 3.25. They were also three of only eight pitchers with an ERA+ (ERA adjusted for parks and leagues) of at least 130. Lastly, they were three of only 15 to compile at least 25.0 WAR.

So depending on which stat you favor, the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio represented between one-fifth and half of MLB's elite starting pitchers in a seven-year span. The word you're looking for is "absurd."

And should we also mention that they took home five of the seven National League Cy Youngs in that span? Yeah, let's mention that, too.

What made it all possible? Certainly talent, first and foremost, but the domination of the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio was also a collaborative effort.

Here's Smoltz speaking to USA Today:

It was a good time of our lives, I could tell you that. To pick each other’s brains on each hitter and what they’d try to do was something I wouldn’t trade for anything. We spent a lot of time in the car, and a lot of time on the golf course and had our share of fun. But we also learned a lot and took pride in what we did. That’s why we lasted as long as we did.

We can look back now and know that there were at least two future Hall of Famers in the room every time Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz got together. This time next year, however, we could look back and know that all three of them were ticketed for Cooperstown.

All it will take is for Smoltz to get in on his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and there's at least a decent chance of that happening. He's the only pitcher in MLB history with 200 wins and 150 saves, and WAR rates him as one of the 25 greatest right-handers ever.

If Smoltz does join Maddux and Glavine in Cooperstown, be it next year or some other year, the Braves will be able to claim that the starting trio they had between '93 and '99 was the greatest ever assembled.

And they could do so with a straight face. 

There have so far been only two instances of a team carrying three Hall of Fame starters for at least five straight seasons: the Philadelphia A's with Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank and Chief Bender between 1903 and 1907, and the Cleveland Indians with Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Bob Feller between 1949 and 1956.

Here's how those trios stack up against Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz:

The Waddell-Plank-Bender trio was awfully good, but it was mainly Waddell and Plank. Bender was just starting out at the time.

The Wynn-Lemon-Feller trio was also good, but it happened at a time when Feller's prime years were already behind him.

Now look at Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. When they were in the Braves rotation between '93 and '99, each was in his prime age range. And while Maddux was clearly the best of the three, Glavine and Smoltz were also really, really good.

So if Smoltz does make it to the Hall of Fame, here's what we'll have seen between '93 and '99: the first and heretofore only time a team has had three Hall of Fame starters in their prime and in the same rotation for a lengthy stretch of time.

I'll be damned if that doesn't feel like a one-of-a-kind thing. And while baseball might be able to duplicate the feat, it's going to be really, really difficult.

To put together their excellent trio of starters, the Braves first had to develop Glavine and Smoltz into homegrown aces. That they were able to do so should not be taken lightly.

Even the best pitching prospects, after all, are prone to failure. In looking at Baseball America Top 100 prospects from between 1990 and 2006, Matt Perez of Camden Depot found that over 75 percent of top pitching prospects became busts and just 10.58 percent became great.

As such, a team turning just one pitching prospect into a Glavine or a Smoltz is a huge victory. A team turning two pitching prospects into such huge successes at the same time is something else entirely.

And after the Braves had Glavine and Smoltz lined up, they then had to sign Maddux as a free agent. That's not an impossible act to repeat in theory, but what's notable is that Maddux was only coming off his age-26 season at the time.

Thanks in part to the recent extension craze, it's become rare for a star player to hit the free-agent market that young. Most stars are hitting free agency in their late 20s or early 30s, leaving them with only so many prime years left to give. The notion of a team signing a free-agent ace and then getting as many as seven ace-like years out of him is presently laughable.

But developing two aces and signing a third aren't the only feats the Braves pulled off with the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio. They also kept the trio healthy right up until Smoltz blew out his elbow in early 2000.

The idea of a team keeping three pitchers of any quality healthy for as long as seven continuous years is yet another idea that doesn't fit in modern times. Pitchers have always had a knack for getting hurt, and now we're in the Golden Age of Tommy John Surgery. 

According to BaseballHeatMaps.com, there there have already been 65 Tommy John operations in 2014. This after there were 57 in 2013 and 80 in 2012. There are all sorts of explanations for this trend, but maybe the biggest is one MLB can do little about.

In a recently released paper, Dr. James Andrews noted (via CBSSports.com) that much of the damage being done to pitcher elbows is happening in their amateur years. In other words: Many, if not most, young pitchers begin their careers as damaged goods. 

Now, with the future being what it is, it is possible that things will be different later than they are now.

Maybe the development of pitching prospects will become an exact science. There's already an indication that teams are striving toward that, as FanGraphs' RA-9 WAR metric tells us that three of the eight best seasons ever for 25-and-under starters have happened in the last six years.

From there, maybe the extension craze will die down and free-agent markets will become more populated with in-their-prime stars. And who knows? Maybe MLB will find a way to influence how amateur pitchers are treated, hopefully while also keeping the pros healthy, too. And as B/R's Will Carroll recently noted, there's already an innovative piece of equipment that can help the war on elbow injuries.

So as tempting as it is to say definitively that we're never going to see a trio of starting pitchers like Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz again, "never" is a long time. Due to things changing and things simply happening, there may indeed come a day when we see a trio like that again.

But don't hold your breath. Things had to come together perfectly for the Braves to even so much as put the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio together, and then their good fortunes held for seven years. The total package is one of the great gifts the baseball gods have ever given.

So rather than wait for greatness that could be, here's recommending that you spend your time appreciating greatness that was instead.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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Is Baseball’s Era of Dominant Designated Hitters Coming to an End?

Get a good look at David Ortiz while you still can.

At 38 going on 39, with his bat beginning to show some cracks and no guaranteed years on his contract after 2015, Ortiz may not be around much longer. That alone is reason enough to get a good look at the great Boston Red Sox slugger, but then there's the notion that he could be the last of a dying species:

The true and dominant designated hitter.

There will still be good DHs after Big Papi is gone, but he could be the last guy we ever see make a career out of excelling at the position.

But first, a note on that first point: We know there will be good DHs after Ortiz is gone because the DH position itself isn't dying. If we use OPS as a measuring stick, Baseball-Reference.com says the league's designated hitters have a .752 OPS, which is 45 points above the league-average OPS of .707.

To this extent, the idea of the DH is still being satisfied. It's supposed to give clubs more offense, and it's still doing so.

If we're comparing what's happening now to the heyday of the DH, however, it's no contest. All the years that the DH position had an OPS of at least .815 happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Take a look back, and it's no wonder why.

Here's another measuring stick statistic: OPS+. It measures offensive production by adjusting for parks and leagues and putting everything on a scale of 100. Anything over 100 is above-average production.

We're going to use a 110 OPS+ as a baseline for "good" hitting and go searching for players who qualified for the batting title while also playing at least 51 percent of their games at DH.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, such players were plentiful in the late '90s. Between 1994 and 1999, there were no fewer than five DHs with an OPS+ over 110 in any given year.

But in 2014? Here's the list of good-hitting DHs in the league as of the All-Star break:

That's it. Just three. You have to go back over a decade to 2004 to find the last time there were as few as three good-hitting primary DHs in the league.

Now, what's noteworthy about that is that having as few as three good-hitting DHs was nothing out of the ordinary in 2004. Such players were plentiful in the '90s, but then there was a bit of a lull before things picked up again. Before there were at least four good-hitting DHs nine seasons in a row starting in 2005, 2004 was the fourth season out of five in which there were only three good-hitting primary DHs.

But rather than "one of those things," the modern dearth of good-hitting DHs is more likely a sign of the times. If it feels like clubs aren't allowing one guy to hog the DH spot anymore, that's because they're not.

That's reflected in how Ortiz, Victor Martinez and Adam Dunn represent three of only five batting-title qualifiers who have played the majority of their games at DH in 2014. This is after only four in 2013, and that was after there were at least six such players in six of eight seasons between 2005 and 2012.

Rather than a spot to get one hitter at-bats, teams are using the DH as a place to use platoons and give older players half days at the office. You can tell as much by taking a glance at the list of players who have logged at least 100 plate appearances at DH in 2014:

The notable platoon players here are Alberto Callaspo, Adam Lind and John Jaso, and also Corey Hart, to a certain extent. After them are older guys. Martinez, Dunn, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran, David DeJesus, Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano and Raul Ibanez are all at least 33.

There's not much hope of the platoon guys turning into dominant DHs, as they're platoon guys for a reason. When the matchup's not in their favor, they ride the bench.

As for the older guys, we might see a couple of them settle into roles as regular DHs once they can't hack it in the field anymore. Cruz stands out. So does Pujols, who conceded to USA Today's Bob Nightengale last year that he'll probably be a full-time DH eventually.

Thing is, success could be fleeting even if Cruz and Pujols do become full-time DHs eventually. They won't be in the same boat as Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez and, more recently, Dunn and Martinez, who became full-time DHs in their early 30s. Those seasons will be in the rear-view mirror by the time Cruz and Pujols are made into full-time DHs.

This is reflective of the general attitude teams seem to have toward position players these days. Writing for SB Nation, Cee Angi summed it up well:

Teams haven't necessarily lost interest in having a more traditional designated hitter, but in the cost-benefit analysis of home runs vs. players who have two or three tools, the security of having someone who can at least competently stand in the field seems to be winning.

A guy who can hit is a valuable asset, but a guy who can hit and at least hold his own on defense is a more valuable asset. That's due not only to how defensive contributions add to a player's value, but how not having a bat-only player on the roster means an open spot for a more versatile player.

As such, Cruz and Pujols might not be the last guys who won't become DHs until they're safely past their prime years and legitimately have nothing left to offer on defense. The same could happen with Miguel Cabrera, Brian McCann or Prince Fielder. For as much logic as there is in moving a guy to DH to prolong his career, enhanced roster flexibility is a strong incentive to hold off on doing so for as long as possible.

But it doesn't look like teams only have an aversion to making veterans into bat-only players. They also seem to have an aversion to developing bat-only players.

Refer to the table, and you'll notice that the only regular DHs under 30 this year are Billy Butler and Chris Carter. The latter is frankly lucky to be there, as Carter is so ridiculously flawed as a hitter that he likely wouldn't have a job anywhere other than Houston. That leaves Butler as really the only legit major leaguer since Travis Hafner in the mid-2000s to actually be groomed as a bat-only player.

Which very likely isn't an accident.

Angi proposed that the scouting and development process has refined itself to a point where teams are weeding out bat-only players in favor of better athletes in the draft. That seems logical in light of the sheer athleticism of the young players who have come along recently, but there might also be more of an emphasis placed on defensive instruction in the minor leagues.

For example, you can look at how a guy like Mark Trumbo eventually became a pretty good defensive first baseman and how the Los Angeles Angels now face the same challenge with C.J. Cron. Or how Matt Adams, he of the classic DH body, has been turned into a pretty good defensive first baseman in the National League.

And given that AL clubs don't even seem interested in developing bat-only players anymore, it's a good guess NL clubs won't suddenly develop an interest in it ifor when—the DH finally comes to the Senior Circuit.

As such, there's a fair chance we won't see any more Travis Hafners, Chris Carters or Billy Butlers in the future. If we don't, the DH position's transformation into a spot reserved for platoon guys and old guys will be complete. And when it happens, the former will provide only part-time excellence, and the latter will simply provide whatever they have left to give in their post-prime careers.

As such, David Ortiz could be it. He could be the last true, great DH we ever see. He began building his possible Hall of Fame career as a DH back when teams were plenty willing to embrace the idea of giving the DH spot to a single worthy hitter, and that time seems to have passed.

Maybe that's for the best. But if we all lean back and remember the exploits of Ortiz—and Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez before him, and Harold Baines, Don Baylor and Hal McRae before them—we can say this about baseball's era of dominant DHs.

It was fun while it lasted.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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How Billy Beane’s Evolution, Reinvention Is Taking A’s Back to the Top

To appreciate the Oakland A's, context really isn't necessary. If you can appreciate great baseball teams, there they are with an MLB-best 59-36 record and a run differential the size of the Bay Bridge.

But what the A's are doing is that much easier to appreciate with context. Specifically, with a sense of where they are on Billy Beane's Wild Ride.

The first stop was the fun one. Beane was hired as Oakland's general manager in 1998, and by 2000 he'd transformed the A's from a laughingstock into a superpower. They won 91 games that year, kicking off a run between 2000 and 2006 that would include five postseasons and a .586 winning percentage.

Only the New York Yankees did better in that span, and at a much higher cost than the small-market A's. While the Yankees hunted for stars, the A's hunted for, and found, undervalued players.

We discovered how when Michael Lewis published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game in 2003, with the main takeaway being that Beane and his staff had the good sense to value on-base percentage. It was an exotic stat at the time, and other teams overlooking it was a huge market inefficiency.

But then came the second stop, in which it all came crashing down.

After advancing to the American League Championship Series in 2006, the A's missed out on winning records each year between 2007 and 2011. When the Moneyball movie starring Brad Pitt as Beane was released in 2011, it celebrated what seemed to be a dying legacy.

"So much for the genius...He doesn't look so smart anymore, does he?" an American League scout told ESPN's Howard Bryant in 2010. "Let's see them make a movie out of that."

Actually, maybe they will. It can be about the currently ongoing everything-is-fun-again third stop on Billy Beane's Wild Ride.

The A's made their triumphant return with a 94-68 record and a postseason berth in 2012, and showed it was no fluke by winning 96 games and making it to October again in 2013. Add in what they're doing this year, and the A's are baseball's winningest team with 249 wins in the last two-and-a-half seasons.

For Beane, don't call it a comeback. Not without also calling it a reinvention, anyway. 

Take a close look at the A's now, and you'll spot some familiar hallmarks of the old Moneyball A's.

For example, the A's are still interested in walks, one of the primary building blocks of on-base percentage. According to FanGraphs, their 9.2 walk percentage since the start of 2012 is second in MLB. Not surprisingly, they're also tied for 10th in OBP at .321.

They also still have a knack for turning other teams' trash into their treasure. To this end, you can think of guys like Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, Bartolo Colon, Stephen Vogt, Jesse Chavez and goodness knows how many others who were picked up for cheap and turned into productive players.

But it's not all about mining deep for hidden gold anymore. Beane suddenly doesn't mind aiming higher.

You can look at how he gave a $36 million contract to Yoenis Cespedes in 2012, a record for a Cuban defector and an open-market record for the A's. This past winter, Beane gave out their second-largest open-market contract: $22 million for Scott Kazmir.

There have been trades, too. The A's played against type when they went after high-priced closer Jim Johnson and caught everyone by surprise earlier this month when they traded two top prospects to the Chicago Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

Cot's Baseball Contracts has Oakland's 2014 Opening Day payroll at over $82 million. That's about $30 million more than what the A's rolled into 2012 with. For some perspective, it wasn't until 2006 that the A's had an Opening Day payroll $30 million larger than their Opening Day payroll in 2000.

Not that more aggressive acquiring and spending is the only new approach Beane and the A's are using, mind you. They're working with a different philosophy on roster construction too.

Beyond the on-base percentage factor, another big takeaway from Moneyball was that stolen bases were too risky to be worth trying for.

Such was the simplified version, anyway, and the A's didn't do much to show the organization's perception of steals was more complicated. Between 2000 and 2011, they stole fewer bases than any other American League team.

But since 2012? The A's find themselves tied for eighth in the AL in steals, thereby turning a neglected part of their offense into a strength. Coco Crisp is responsible for a lot of that, but he's one of a handful of guys the A's have employed who can run.

And then there's the secret that's not so secret anymore: Oakland's platoon advantage.

Yeah, it's been noted that the A's have given manager Bob Melvin platoon-friendly rosters in the last few years, and that he's done a dandy of a job using these rosters. Even still, we can say this: Nobody's exaggerating about the good Oakland's platoon advantage has done.

If we look at which clubs have compiled the most platoon-advantage (either LHB vs. RHP or RHB vs. LHP) plate appearances since 2012 and how they've fared from an OPS perspective, we see:

Only the Cleveland Indians have enjoyed more platoon matchups than the A's, but they don't rank in the top 10 in OPS in both righty and lefty platoon matchups. And the other (highlighted) clubs that share that distinction with Oakland haven't logged nearly as many platoon plate appearances.

"We do it because we kind of have to," Beane told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today. "We're rarely going to find the perfect all-around player all in one guy, so we try to piece them together. Instead of looking for the perfect player, we try to put together the best 25-man roster that fits."

But next to the platoon advantage is yet another advantage the A's are exploiting more quietly.

Andrew Koo of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) was the first to notice it: The A's have been targeting fly-ball hitters. Not so coincidentally, they've been hitting a lot of fly balls. FanGraphs has their fly-ball percentage since 2012 at 40.7 percent. No other team is even over 37 percent.

Fly balls do come with certain disadvantages, chief among them being that they easily turn into outs. But when fly balls land, they often go for extra-base hits. And for a team that puts as many runners on base as the A's, they help a team avoid double plays.

And when runners are on base, double plays are avoided and fly balls are hit, all sorts of goodness can happen:

There's the beauty of an offense that puts runners on base and hits a lot of fly balls. An offense like that is much more likely to capitalize than it is to catastroph-ize.

By runs scored, the A's have MLB's fourth-best offense since 2012. Not the best, but certainly elite. Like the on-base percentage thing, Oakland's ideas for how to succeed on offense are working.

Of course, a good offense isn't worth much without good pitching. The A's have had that too, ranking fifth in baseball in ERA at 3.43 since 2012. So far in 2014, they're second in ERA at 3.09.

Which is baffling considering what happened before the season. The A's may have added Scott Kazmir, but they lost Bartolo Colon to free agency and then lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to Tommy John surgery. Per Wins Above Replacement, they thus entered 2014 sans their three best pitchers from 2013.

You'd never know it. Before Samardzija and Hammel arrived, the A's survived largely because they got good stuff out of Chavez and Drew Pomeranz while also reviving Tommy Milone

If it feels like having quality pitchers at the ready just in case is the plan, well, that's because it is the plan.

This is according to one of Beane's top generals, assistant general manager/director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. At an event I attended in the fall of 2012, he said this of the organization's attitude about starting pitching depth:

We don’t build a five-man rotation. We build a 162-game rotation. These days, there are very few guys that you can just assume are going to make 34 starts and pitch 200 innings...There’s really no guy that you can plug in and say, "Alright, one out of five rotation spots is taken care of."

Are there similar philosophies out there? Absolutely. But perhaps not to such an extreme degree, and certainly not as well-executed.

It's saying a lot about the monster Beane and his staff have built that it feels like we've only scratched the surface. But we've definitely hit the main nerves: more aggressive transactions, stolen bases, platoons, fly balls and starting pitching depth done right.

That these things were not in Moneyball is another credit to Beane. It's hard enough to get ahead of the curve once. That he's done it twice is remarkable.

It won't last, of course. Teams will see what the A's are doing and follow suit, and quite a few will do so with more money. Just like what happened with the strategies outlined in Moneyball.

Between now and then, though, this new A's empire has an open window to flourish. And knowing how Hollywood feels about sequels...

Well, paging Brad Pitt.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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Adam Wainwright Casts Unnecessary Cloud over Derek Jeter’s Joyous Farewell

Derek Jeter's final All-Star Game was perfect.

And a fraud. Partially, anyway...or maybe not at all.

It's hard to tell, really. The only thing that's true either way is that we've been handed an unwanted controversy that might stick around for a while, courtesy of Adam Wainwright.

First of all, if you missed Jeter's final All-Star appearance at Target Field on Tuesday night, you missed one for the books.

The longtime New York Yankees shortstop and soon-to-be retiree received a loud ovation when he was introduced as the American League's leadoff hitter, another when he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat and another still when he was removed in the top of the fourth inning.

In between it all, Jeter went 2-for-2. The first of those two hits was a leadoff double down the right field line off Wainwright, an all-too-perfect cap for a trip to the plate that began with Jeter tipping his helmet to the crowd and Wainwright even standing off the mound and applauding with everyone else.

Better yet, Jeter then came home on a triple off the right field wall by Mike Trout, scoring the first run of what would be an eventual 5-3 AL victory over the National League.

Yes, now there was a momentone of those All-Star moment-y moments, one to be cherished forever, and eventually recounted for grandkids.

But then Wainwright spoke.

The St. Louis Cardinals ace held court with reporters shortly after his one inning was complete. Among those there to pick up what he was dropping was Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports:

Oh. Well, he's joking, right? Surely he has to be joking.

Apparently not:

There might have been a moment of serene cyberspace silence after word came down from Passan and others about Wainwright's comments. But if there was, it didn't last long. Soon, Internet people were doing what Internet people do best: 

Freaking the heck out.

I don't know how many tweets there were. It was some unfathomable number, most likely. Then the blogs picked it up, including Drew Silva of Hardball Talk, Dayn Perry of CBSSports.com and Mike Cardillo of The Big Lead. And, as I said earlier, now here we are, and rightfully so.

The 2014 All-Star Game always was going to be about Derek Jeter. Given the kind of year he's been having—.272 average and .646 OPS—we could only hope that he'd be able to do something special. There he was doing special things, thereby earning all the attention he was getting.

And Wainwright stole it. 

It was inevitable that Wainwright would be forced to go into damage-control mode. As it turned out, he got going before the game even ended, appearing for an interview with Erin Andrews in the National League dugout in which he said the following, via Drew Silva of Hardball Talk:

Sometimes my humor goes … uh … gets taken the wrong way. I feel terrible about this. If anyone’s taking any credit away from what Derek Jeter has done tonight … I mean, it was mis-said. I made a mistake by that. I hope people realize I’m not intentionally giving hits up out there. I know this game means something.

I’m guessing people think I’m trying to give up home runs to Miguel Cabrera too. I’m very competitive. I think I said yesterday that I didn’t want Derek Jeter to get a hit. I think I said it today, even, before I pitched. So I don’t know. It’s a distraction and I do not want to be a distraction.

I wanted it to be all for Derek. If anything is taking away from his moment then I sincerely apologize. At no point in my career have I gone out and intentionally given up hits.

In so many words: "Geez, would you people lighten up? But before you do that, geez, I'm totally sorry. I fudged up, guys. Seriously. I'm sorry."

Should we believe Wainwright?

Well, you can go watch the video of the "pipe shots" comment over at The Cincinnati Enquirer's website. If you do, you'll find that Wainwright didn't give any obvious cues that he was speaking sarcastically. If he was kidding, it was in a super-dry, Wes Anderson kind of way.

It was either that, or he was being totally serious, which is what Passan is implying pretty heavily right here:

But maybe the thing to do is look at the pitch itself, which looked like this:

That was a 90 mph fastball at the knees. It's not an easy pitch for most hitters to handle, but maybe Wainwright had been reading up on the scouting report on Jeter. According to BaseballSavant.com, he's 5-for-15 (.313) on 89-91 mph pitches at the knees this season.

We're going to consider the myth neither confirmed nor debunked. We're simply going to consider it to be plausible.

And now we're all going to agree that this whole thing is a damn shame regardless.

Even for Wainwright. He could now be a villain in some circles, and he doesn't deserve to be no matter where you're coming from. Beyond being a fantastic pitcher, he's one of the league's true good guys.

He's more for enjoying himself than for causing trouble, and he's generally—and I'm speaking partially from experience herefantastic with the media. So it frankly sucks to see him involved in something like this.

It's also certainly a damn shame for Jeter. Goodness knows he's accustomed to dealing with silly controversies, but he probably wasn't planning on dealing with one at his final All-Star Game. And going forward, part of the overall legend of his final All-Star performance will always be how legit it was. He doesn't deserve that.

Last of all, this whole thing is a damn shame for Major League Baseball too. The league needs as many memorable All-Star Games as it can get, and the 2014 Midsummer Classic had a chance to be memorable for all the right reasons.

Now it's going to be memorable for at least one wrong reason. 

 

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