Mike Trout’s 1st Postseason Key to Cementing Place as MLB’s Best Player

They say Mike Trout can do anything. Apparently, all you have to do is ask.

Here goes then: Hey, Mike Trout. Simon says dominate in your first postseason.

...Or else.

OK, maybe that ominous "or else" is overstating the consequences that await Trout, the Los Angeles Angels' 23-year-old megastar, if he doesn't dominate his first October like he's dominated his first three full major league seasons. He won't face charges or be smitten by angry baseball gods.

But you know how it is. Whereas star players who succeed in October are treated as lords of all, the ones who don't give sports media and fans a darn big nit to pick. In Trout's case, struggling in his first October would be an excuse for the cynical among us to wonder, "Hey, maybe this guy's not so great after all."

To Trout's credit, it doesn't sound like he's putting too much pressure on himself.

"You can't get out of your game, try to do too much," he recently told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com. "Ever since I got brought up, it's been a lot of pressure. But once the game starts, you just go out there and play."

Easier said than done, right? Having never played in the postseason before, Trout can't possibly fathom what the pressure of October baseball is actually going to be like. It's surely inevitable that postseason success will come after his first experience instead of during it. 

Actually...meh, not really. Postseason experience isn't a prerequisite for postseason success.

Here, take it from Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus:

There is no evidence that postseason experience (and I attempted five different definitions of 'experience') has any effect on players in the postseason over and above their previously established talent levels...If it were true, we would see some sort of departure from what we would otherwise expect based on regular-season stats. It’s not there.

With this being the case, Trout is free to be himself in the postseason, beginning Thursday with Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals

And "himself," of course, is a guy who's been unquestionably the most productive player in Major League Baseball over the last three seasons.

Whether you need a refresher or just plain like looking at Trout's stats, get a load of what he's done since he Kool-Aid Man'd his way onto the scene in 2012 (via FanGraphs):

Outside of scoring runs, Trout hasn't been better than everyone else at dominating the baseball card stats. But his league-best WAR is best seen as a reflection of how nobody in the game has mixed hitting, power and speed like Trout has, all while playing a premium defensive position in center field.

The catch, such as it is, is that Trout didn't spend 2014 getting even better while Miguel Cabrera, his nemesis in the last two American League MVP races and "best player in MLB" discussions, got worse

Trout was still outstanding, mind you, notably rating as baseball's best offensive player and once again leading everyone in FanGraphs WAR. But the strikeout habit he developed hurt his consistency, he only managed 16 steals and the defensive metrics rated him as a below-average center fielder.

This doesn't necessarily mean it's become difficult to argue for Trout as baseball's best player. But it's at least made it difficult to argue he's baseball's most perfect player. It also means that, just like in 2012 and 2013, there's something for his skeptics to latch on to.

And you better believe that said skeptics will only become louder if Trout doesn't seize his first chance at adding postseason dominance to his budding legacy.

Somewhere along the line, the denizens of the sports world got it in their...OK, fine, our heads that a great player isn't truly great until he conquers the postseason. Sometime after that, we got it in our heads that great players who are conquered by the postseason are something less than great.

Heck, "subhuman" might even be the best word for it.

Think of all the guff Tony Romo and even Peyton Manning take from NFL people for not being world-class postseason performers. In the NBA, it's Carmelo Anthony and, even after two NBA Finals victories, LeBron James. In the world of MLB, there are a number of guys who fit the bill.

Prince Fielder (career .620 postseason OPS) comes to mind. So does Robinson Cano (.686). And Nick Swisher (.575). Outside of his amazing run in the 2009 postseason, Alex Rodriguez has often been highlighted as a postseason choker. It was the same with Barry Bonds before he went off in 2002.

And so will it be for Trout if his first postseason gets the better of him. The knock on him will be that he shrinks when the bright lights are on, and scenes like this one described by MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince would surely become more common:

It would happen. You know it would.

But then, of course, there's the flip side of all this. What if Trout does seize his first postseason opportunity?

Man, if you think he's celebrated now...

One can think of all sorts of athletes whose career accomplishments are enriched by postseason success. You think of Michael Jordan. You think of Kobe Bryant. You think of Joe Montana. You think of Tom Brady. 

In baseball, you certainly think of Reggie Jackson. Of Derek Jeter. Of David Ortiz. Of Carlos Beltran. Shoot, it often seemed like Jack Morris' Hall of Fame argument was built on a single postseason game.

Granted, Trout isn't going to establish himself as an October legend in just one postseason. No matter how well he does. But if he does catch fire, he'll at least have one thing in common with the aforementioned names: the distinction of being both great and clutch.

And given the circumstances, Trout has a shot at being labeled a special brand of clutch if he does come through.

That the Angels finished with an MLB-best 98-64 record suggests that Trout is surrounded by plenty of talent and that, as such, he doesn't need to carry his team in the postseason. Realistically, this isn't true.

The Angels lost their best pitcher when Garrett Richards' knee buckled underneath him in August. Without him, the team really doesn't have a starter capable of matching up with the top No. 1's in either league.

More recently, Josh Hamilton has been battling aches and pains serious enough to render his postseason status a question mark. Elsewhere, Matt Shoemaker's rib cage injury will likely force past-their-prime versions of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson to lead Mike Scioscia's postseason rotation out of the gate.

With issues like these, the Angels are baseball's best team only in record. That puts them in a perfect position to be carried by one player.

To that end, well, shoot. Who better than the one guy who's been better than anyone else over the past three years?

Such is the road immediately ahead of Trout. Crash and burn in October, and the debate over whether he's truly the best player in baseball will rage on. Succeed, however, and he'll have shown that he can not only handle the pressure, but that he's so unfazed by it that he can even carry a team in October.

Do the latter, and Trout will have inspired a grand realization best summed up like so: He really can do anything, huh?

 

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

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

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MLB About to Enter Most Wide-Open Postseason in a Long Time

Here's something that might sound weird coming from a guy who's supposed to know baseball:

I have no idea who's going to win the 2014 World Series.

Of course, I will make a pick at some point. What the heck. Everyone else does. But picking a winner this year presents a unique challenge. One that, as we'll get into later, hasn't come around in a while.

This challenge: Whereas most postseasons have at least one obvious favorite, the 2014 postseason does not. You can look at all 10 playoff teams and find just as many potential downfalls as advantages.

This is true even of the best of the bunch. The Los Angeles Angels won an MLB-best 98 games and, according to Baseball Prospectus, have an 18.8 percent chance of winning it all. But they're also a fine place to begin a breakdown of why this year's 10 teams are simultaneously poised to win and doomed to fail.

 

Los Angeles Angels (98-64, AL West champs)

Why They'll Win

Well, Mike Trout is baseball's best player. And around him in the Angels lineup are other quality hitters like Albert Pujols, Howie Kendrick and Kole Calhoun. Also, don't overlook how the Angels bullpen, as manager Mike Scioscia put it to USA Today's Wayne Epps Jr. in August, "fueled our charge" in the second half with a 3.12 ERA and league-best WAR.

 

Why They're Doomed

With Garrett Richards sidelined until 2015 and Matt Shoemaker still recovering from a rib-cage injury, the totally non-threatening duo of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson currently sits atop the Angels' playoff rotation. Factor in Josh Hamilton's ongoing injury troubles, and baseball's winningest team has as many glaring weak spots as a video game boss.

 

Washington Nationals (96-66, NL East champs)

Why They'll Win

In Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, the Nationals are bringing an excellent starting rotation into October. They also finished the year as one of the top five run-scoring teams in the second half, and more recently have enjoyed Bryce Harper's return to form. And unlike in 2012, inexperience isn't an issue.

Why They're Doomed

That Washington's offense strikes out more than any other National League postseason offense doesn't bode well knowing that power pitching reigns supreme in October. Also, the Nationals bullpen regressed mightily in the second half. Lastly, the one guy who didn't get postseason experience in 2012 is the guy lined up to be Washington's Game 1 starter: Stephen Strasburg.

 

Baltimore Orioles (96-66, AL East champs)

Why They'll Win

After leading the league in home runs, the Orioles are bringing a powerful offense to the postseason. They can catch the ball, too, as Baseball Prospectus rates the Orioles as the No. 4 team in defensive efficiency. And through a combination of talent and Buck Showalter's managing, the Orioles bullpen had the league's top ERA after the break.

 

Why They're Doomed

With Matt Wieters and Manny Machado out with injuries and Chris Davis unavailable in the short-term due to a suspension, Baltimore's offense is not at full strength. And though they pitched well down the stretch, a starting rotation of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman doesn't frighten anyone.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (94-68, NL West champs)

Why They'll Win

Clayton Kershaw is the King of the Mound-ain. Oh, and Zack Greinke's also really good. Elsewhere, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford broke out their big bats and helped the Dodgers offense finish second in runs after the break. Yasiel Puig has snapped out of a funk in the last couple weeks. Then there's closer Kenley Jansen, who has been downright silly since mid-June. 

 

Why They're Doomed

There's a big drop-off in talent in the Dodgers rotation after Kershaw and Greinke, especially if Hyun-Jin Ryu's balky left shoulder doesn't start behaving. And though the Dodgers offense is strong, Hanley Ramirez isn't nearly the threat he was last season. You also wonder about the bullpen, which was perilously thin outside of Jansen down the stretch.

 

Detroit Tigers (90-72, AL Central champs)

Why They'll Win

Miguel Cabrera looked like himself in September. Justin Verlander also finished his season strong. If Miggy is really back, the Tigers have a fearsome lineup trio in him, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. If Verlander is also really back, how does a postseason rotation of Max Scherzer, David Price, Verlander and Rick Porcello sound?

 

Why They're Doomed

After being weak the last two seasons, this year's Tigers bullpen is so shaky it probably couldn't be trusted to protect an M1 Abrams tank from even so much as a swarm of butterflies. And while one wants to be optimistic about Miggy and Verlander, it's hard to ignore how they weren't themselves for most of the year. Then there's how both Price and Porcello have been up and down recently.

 

St. Louis Cardinals (90-72, NL Central champs)

Why They'll Win

In light of Adam Wainwright's dead arm period clearly being over, Shelby Miller's second-half breakthrough and Lance Lynn's year-long excellence, the Cardinals have a strong rotation trio. Just as encouraging is how Matt Holliday has found his power and how Yadier Molina has had a month to get back on track following an injury. They also like to use evil black magic—commonly known as "The Cardinal Way"—in October.

 

Why They're Doomed

Wainwright and Lynn are fine, but ERA estimators like FIP and xFIP suggest Miller drastically overachieved in the second half. And though Molina's had ample time to get on track, he hasn't hit a lick since his return. Matt Adams, meanwhile, hasn't hit a lick since the break. The Cardinals also have a closer in Trevor Rosenthal, who's had the command of Nuke LaLoosh in 2014.

 

Kansas City Royals (89-73, AL Wild Card)

Why They'll Win

The Royals are cut out to win close games. James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy make for a strong collection of starters. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland are a relief trio that can shorten games with the best of 'em. The Royals also have good defenders all around, especially in the outfield in Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Norichika Aoki.

Why They're Doomed

Joe Posnanski said it best at Hardball Talk: "run scoring for [the Royals] is like manual labor." With a league-average OBP and the fewest homers in the majors, this is absolutely true. And though the Royals have the talent to win close games, skipper Ned Yost has a tendency to mismanage said talent.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74, NL Wild Card)

Why They'll Win

Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano saved their best pitching for the second half, and the Pirates have a strong bullpen led by the underrated Mark Melancon. Their offense is deeper around Andrew McCutchen than you might think, especially after Josh Harrison, Russell Martin, Starling Marte and Neil Walker all had strong second halves.

 

Why They're Doomed

Problem No. 1: The Pirates are trusting Edinson Volquez to represent them in the NL Wild Card Game. Even if they survive that, Liriano's recent control problems, Martin's recent hamstring injury and McCutchen's relatively modest second half are all reasons for skepticism. And though he's pitched well for Pittsburgh, it's hard to trust Vance Worley as a playoff starter.

 

San Francisco Giants (88-74, NL Wild Card)

Why They'll Win

Madison Bumgarner is unhittable when he's on, and Jake Peavy has been on a roll since mid-August. Just as important, Buster Posey was arguably the best player in the league down the stretch. And if Tim Lincecum can be what he was in the 2012 postseason while Sergio Romo stays rejuvenated, Bruce Bochy's bullpen will be able to shorten games to, oh, about four innings.

 

Why They're Doomed

Though Hunter Pence can still give fine speeches, he and Pablo Sandoval were non-factors in September. Spark-plug leadoff man Angel Pagan is done for the year. On the mound, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong ran out of gas in the second half. Then there's this: After starting 43-21, the Giants were a sub-.500 club.

 

Oakland A's (88-74, AL Wild Card)

Why They'll Win

Jon Lester has been terrific lately. Same goes for Jeff Samardzija. And also Sonny Gray. Anchored by stud closer Sean Doolittle, the A's also have a bullpen that doesn't get enough credit. Oh, and they finished the year with the best run differential in the majors. That means they're better than their record, right?

Why They're Doomed

Um...no. Pretty much any compliment at this point is owed to the team the A's were, not the team they are. Worst of all is how they stopped scoring runs after Yoenis Cespedes was traded. Only Josh Donaldson and Josh Reddick pulled their weight down the stretch. And alas, Donaldson is all sorts of banged up.

 

Everybody get all that? Good, because it's quiz time.

No, not really. But you get the idea. A season characterized by parity has, not surprisingly, produced four heavily flawed wild-card teams and six division winners with their own flaws. It's difficult to look at this year's playoff teams and confidently say this club or that club might as well put the bubbly on ice.

Which, if you take a moment for a brief trip back through time, usually isn't the case.

There was at least one juggernaut-looking 100-win team in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011. In the years there weren't, at least one of the teams that fell short looked legitimately formidable.

In 2013, the Cardinals and Boston Red Sox were both 97-win teams that entered the postseason as very well-rounded clubs. Outside of them, the 93-win Tigers had a stacked rotation and the 92-win Dodgers were a team that nobody could beat once the calendar reached late June.

In 2012, the Nationals and Cincinnati Reds both had well-rounded clubs that flirted with 100 wins, while the 88-win Tigers had an excellent rotation backed by the first Triple Crown winner in nearly 50 years.

In 2010, a 97-win Philadelphia Phillies club had a pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and deadline acquisition Roy Oswalt, and they also entered the postseason off a 50-win second half.

In 2007, a 96-win Red Sox team had an exciting mix of veterans left over from 2004 and up-and-comers like Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury. A fellow 96-win Cleveland Indians team had a strong offense and a killer rotation duo in CC Sabathia and the former Fausto Carmona.

In 2006, both New York clubs won 97 games while a 96-win Minnesota Twins team rode a league-best second half and in-their-prime versions of Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Johan Santana and Joe Nathan into the postseason. 

Is the 2014 season really the most wide-open postseason in recent memory? If there are numbers that can say yes or no, they're darn hard to find. But in light of how all 10 teams are entering October with very real potential downfalls and how recent postseasons have featured clear teams to beat, this sure feels like the most wide-open postseason to come around in a while.

But here's the bright side: This is not a complaint.

It's hard to fathom how putting 10 flawed teams in one postseason won't result in back-and-forth games and, in turn, back-and-forth series. We might not watch the prettiest baseball throughout, but the games could still be thrilling and the series could all go long.

Though the 2014 postseason should be messy, it should also be fun.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

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

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Jordan Zimmermann’s No-Hitter Highlights Nationals’ Dominant Postseason Staff

Given the kind of firepower the Washington Nationals have in their starting rotation, it was just a matter of time before their starters had everyone's attention in October.

Jordan Zimmermann, however, decided to start the party a few days early.

If you're just now joining us, Zimmermann ended his regular season in style on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park. He tossed a no-hitter against the Miami Marlins to pace the NL East champs to a 1-0 win, striking out 10 and walking only one.

Confirmed: Yes, the extra N in Zimmermann stands for "nasty" (citation needed).

Not that the 28-year-old right-hander did it all on his own. His no-hit bid would have met a disappointing end had it not been for a sprawling catch by Steven Souza in left field that secured the final out.

"I thought that was a double for sure, and here he comes out of nowhere and makes the play," Zimmermann said afterward, via the Associated Press.

Beyond putting a cap on the first no-hitter in the brief history of the Nationals, Souza's catch also put a cap on yet another excellent season for Zimmermann. After compiling a 3.12 ERA between 2011 and 2013, he ended 2014 with a 2.66 ERA and an impressive 6.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 199.2 innings.

Oh, and here's one more thing Souza's catch put a cap on: An absolutely dominant finish to 2014 by Washington's top starters.

Here's Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington.com:

In addition to Zimmermann, Zuckerman is referring to Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. You have to go back to Gonzalez's start against the New York Mets on Sept. 11 to find the last time one of the five gave up even so many as three earned runs in a start.

And if you look back even further, you'll notice that these five have been dominating for longer than just a couple of weeks.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, here's what Washington's killer fivesome has done in the second half:

Only Gonzalez hasn't posted an ERA under 3.00 since the All-Star break. But that's slightly misleading, as he's been hot for well over a month at this point. In nine starts dating back to Aug. 10, he's posted a 2.78 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 55.1 innings.

"I'd like to always think it's not how you start but how you finish," the left-hander (and apparent cliché enthusiast) told MASNSports.com after his 12-strikeout performance against the Mets on Thursday. 

By FanGraphs' reckoning, Gonzalez's hot finish has pushed his WAR to 3.1. Alongside Roark, Strasburg and Zimmermann, that gives the Nationals four of only 31 qualified pitchers with WARs that high.

If you prefer ERA, it also has a favorable testament to give. Between Roark, Strasburg, Zimmermann and Fister, it features four of only 25 qualified pitchers with ERAs as low as 3.14.

This leaves little room to nitpick Washington's rotation. If you prefer to focus on the big picture, the Nationals are heading into October with four of baseball's elite starters. If you're a "What have you done for me lately?" sort, they're heading into October with five starters who are all hot.

Either way, Nationals skipper Matt Williams is looking at having one of those problems other managers would love to have: too many good starters to choose from for his postseason rotation.

If, however, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post is right in guessing that Williams' postseason rotation will be Strasburg followed by Zimmermann, Fister and Gonzalez with Roark going to the bullpen, it won't just be excellent regular-season numbers boding well for Washington's starters in October.

They'll have something else working for them, too: variety.

In Strasburg, the Nationals have one of the game's top strikeout artists. His good command of his mid-90s fastball sets up his curveball and changeup, which are both elite swing-and-miss offerings.

In Zimmermann, the Nationals essentially have the National League's Phil Hughes. He leans on his own mid-90s fastball for 70 percent of his pitches. That and his excellent command explain why he's one of the best strike-throwers in the game today.

Fister, meanwhile, is still a sinker-baller all the way. And though his ground-ball habit has actually taken a step back in 2014, he's still a better ground-ball pitcher than the average starter. And like Zimmermann, he's also an elite strike-thrower.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, is certainly not an elite strike-thrower. But in his own hard fastball, an excellent curveball and a solid changeup that he's trusting more than ever, he definitely has good stuff. And after seeing three righties with good command, having to face a wild lefty like Gonzalez won't be easy.

As such, going up against Washington's starting rotation in the postseason doesn't mean just going up against a handful of guys who all had success in the regular season. It means their opponents will have to win a game or two in a short series to get the same look twice.

This is not to say the Nationals can't be beaten in October. They're not a perfect team outside of their rotation. Beyond having the most strikeout-happy offense of any National League playoff team, their bullpen hasn't been able to maintain its first-half dominance in the second half.

They certainly should be feared, however. Dominant starting pitching alone can take a team far in October, and the Nationals have the goods to become the latest example of that. Theirs is a rotation that we could eventually look back on as one that simply got on a roll.

And that it was Zimmermann, of course, who really got it all started.

 

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

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

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Jordan Zimmermann’s No-Hitter Highlights Nationals’ Dominant Postseason Staff

Given the kind of firepower the Washington Nationals have in their starting rotation, it was just a matter of time before their starters had everyone's attention in October.

Jordan Zimmermann, however, decided to start the party a few days early.

If you're just now joining us, Zimmermann ended his regular season in style on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park. He tossed a no-hitter against the Miami Marlins to pace the NL East champs to a 1-0 win, striking out 10 and walking only one.

Confirmed: Yes, the extra N in Zimmermann stands for "nasty" (citation needed).

Not that the 28-year-old right-hander did it all on his own. His no-hit bid would have met a disappointing end had it not been for a sprawling catch by Steven Souza in left field that secured the final out.

"I thought that was a double for sure, and here he comes out of nowhere and makes the play," Zimmermann said afterward, via USA Today.

Beyond putting a cap on the first no-hitter in the brief history of the Nationals, Souza's catch also put a cap on yet another excellent season for Zimmermann. After compiling a 3.12 ERA between 2011 and 2013, he ended 2014 with a 2.66 ERA and an impressive 6.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 199.2 innings.

Oh, and here's one more thing Souza's catch put a cap on: an absolutely dominant finish to 2014 by Washington's top starters.

Here's Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington.com:

In addition to Zimmermann, Zuckerman is referring to Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. You have to go back to Gonzalez's start against the New York Mets on Sept. 12 to find the last time one of the five gave up even so many as three earned runs in a start.

And if you look back even further, you'll notice that these five have been dominating for longer than just a couple of weeks.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, here's what Washington's killer fivesome has done in the second half:

Only Gonzalez hasn't posted an ERA under 3.00 since the All-Star break. But that's slightly misleading, as he's been hot for well over a month at this point. In nine starts dating back to Aug. 10, he's posted a 2.77 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 55.1 innings.

"I'd like to always think it's not how you start but how you finish," the left-hander (and apparent cliche enthusiast) told MASNSports.com after his 12-strikeout performance against the Mets on Thursday. 

By FanGraphs' reckoning, Gonzalez's hot finish has pushed his WAR to 3.1. Alongside Roark, Strasburg and Zimmermann, that gives the Nationals four of only 31 qualified pitchers with WARs that high.

If you prefer ERA, it also has a favorable testament to give. Between Roark, Strasburg, Zimmermann and Fister, it features four of only 25 qualified pitchers with ERAs as low as 3.14.

This leaves little room to nitpick Washington's rotation. If you prefer to focus on the big picture, the Nationals are heading into October with four of baseball's elite starters. If you're a "What have you done for me lately?" sort, they're heading into October with five starters who are all hot.

Either way, Nationals skipper Matt Williams is looking at having one of those problems other managers would love to have: too many good starters to choose from for his postseason rotation.

If, however, Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post is right in guessing that Williams' postseason rotation will be Strasburg followed by Zimmermann, Fister and Gonzalez with Roark going to the bullpen, it won't just be excellent regular-season numbers boding well for Washington's starters in October.

They'll have something else working for them, too: variety.

In Strasburg, the Nationals have one of the game's top strikeout artists. His good command of his mid-90s fastball sets up his curveball and changeup, which are both elite swing-and-miss offerings.

In Zimmermann, the Nationals essentially have the National League's Phil Hughes. He leans on his own mid-90s fastball for 70 percent of his pitches. That and his excellent command explain why he's one of the best strike-throwers in the game today.

Fister, meanwhile, is still a sinker-baller all the way. And though his ground-ball habit has actually taken a step back in 2014, he's still a better ground-ball pitcher than the average starter. And like Zimmermann, he's also an elite strike-thrower.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, is certainly not an elite strike-thrower. But in his own hard fastball, an excellent curveball and a solid changeup that he's trusting more than ever, he definitely has good stuff. And after seeing three righties with good command, having to face a wild lefty like Gonzalez won't be easy.

As such, going up against Washington's starting rotation in the postseason doesn't mean just going up against a handful of guys who all had success in the regular season. It means their opponents will have to win a game or two in a short series to get the same look twice.

This is not to say the Nationals can't be beaten in October. They're not a perfect team outside of their rotation. Beyond having the most strikeout-happy offense of any National League playoff team, their bullpen hasn't been able to maintain its first-half dominance in the second half.

They certainly should be feared, however. Dominant starting pitching alone can take a team far in October, and the Nationals have the goods to become the latest example of that. Theirs is a rotation that we could eventually look back on as one that simply got on a roll.

And that it was Zimmermann, of course, who really got it all started.

 

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

Where Does Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame Career Stand Among His Peers?

This is it, you guys. The day has finally come. It's time to bid Derek Jeter his final farewell.

After the longtime New York Yankees shortstop plays one last game Sunday against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, he'll start making his way from the diamond to Cooperstown with a .309 career average, the sixth-most hits in history, 14 All-Star selections and five World Series rings.

And boy, was it fun to watch him accumulate these things. From the Jeffrey Maier home run to his famous flip play to him becoming "Mr. November" to him ending his last game at Yankee Stadium in the most Derek Jeter way imaginable, memorable moments define Jeter's career just as much as great achievements.

So yeah, it should suffice it to say that the book is about to be closed on a hell of a career.

But of course, it doesn't suffice to leave it at that. That's boring. What's fun is determining how great Jeter's career was. And for that, we need to put it in some kind of context.

Sort of like ESPN's Keith Olbermann did recently, save for two differences: I'm not interested in being that snarky, nor am I interested in figuring out where Jeter stands next to fellow Yankee and shortstop greats.

Let's pursue a more relevant question: Where's the best place for Jeter's career relative to the era in which he played? Where oh where does he stand among his peers?

Better strap yourselves in. This is a tough one.

I figure there are two ways of defining the "era" we're after. One is to consider Jeter's career in the context of the last quarter century (1990-2014) of baseball, and the other is to look at it in the contact of his own prime years (1996-2009).

Now, you'd think that focusing on Jeter's offense is the best way to make him shine bright among his peers, but you'd be surprised. He collected more hits than anyone else both in the last 25 years and in his prime, but his standing in other statistics amounts to a couple of mixed bags:

Note: There's a minimum of 5,000 plate appearances for the rate stats.

It's not all bad. In the last 25 years and in the window of his prime, Jeter fares well in runs scored and average. On the whole, though, he really wasn't one of the elite offensive players of either era.

We need something else. We need a stat that recognizes how Jeter was at least a good offensive player for a long time and that, even if he wasn't a good defender, there's value in how he stuck at shortstop.

In other words: Yeah, we need to consult Wins Above Replacement.

We have to be mindful of which WAR we pick, though. Choosing between Baseball-Reference.com WAR and FanGraphs WAR means choosing between Defensive Runs Saved (Baseball-Reference.com) or Ultimate Zone Rating (FanGraphs) as a defensive measuring stick.

And there is indeed a difference. According to FanGraphs, DRS says Jeter's defense has cost the Yankees 159 runs since 2002 while UZR says it's more like 74 runs. The latter agrees he was a bad defender but posits he wasn't that bad.

That's the opinion we should side with.

Why? Because Grantland's Jonah Keri had a point when he argued that Jeter's various "high-leverage" defensive plays like the flip, his dive into the stands in 2004 and his clutch relay throw in the 2000 World Series should negate "a handful of squibbers through the infield during random April games in Cleveland, even if they left him as a net-negative defender on the leaderboards."

On this note, here's what we get if we use FanGraphs WAR to find Jeter's place among the top position players and pitchers since 1990:

Note: I'm using FanGraphs' typical FIP-based WAR for the pitchers.

Seeing Jeter as just the No. 14 player of the last 25 years might not seem like much of a compliment. But relative to how several notable offensive stats didn't even place him as one of the 14 best hitters of the last 25 years, it's actually a fine compliment.

Also, we should note that WAR works best as a discussion starter rather than a discussion ender. That's our excuse to loop Jeter's postseason heroics into the equation.

Like so:

Former Yankees manager Joe Torre once told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated in 2000 that "the tougher the situation, the more fire [Jeter] gets in his eyes."

This is obviously confirmed by Jeter's reputation. More important, it's confirmed by how his career .838 postseason OPS outpaces his career .817 regular-season OPS. That and the large sample size are arguably a good enough excuse to nudge him over Ken Griffey Jr. and his small-sample-size .947 postseason OPS.

If you're so inclined, you can also choose to ignore the accomplishments of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens as punishment for their ties to performance-enhancing drugs. Do that, and a reasonable case has been made for Jeter as one of the top 10 players of the last quarter century.

If we shift the focus to Jeter's 1996-2009 prime, however, he doesn't need help to squeeze into the top 10.

In those 14 years, Jeter hit .318 with an .848 OPS and a 162-game average of 18 homers and 24 stolen bases. As far as UZR is concerned, he even had some solid defensive seasons along the way.

Not surprisingly, fWAR says he had few equals during his prime:

Only seven players were better than Jeter between 1996 and 2009. Disqualify A-Rod and Bonds, and only five were. If we grant that Jeter's outstanding postseason performance holds more weight than Curt Schilling's own outstanding postseason performance, only four were.

Long story short: Depending on your definition of his era, there are reasonable objective arguments for Jeter as somewhere between a top-15 and top-five player of his time. 

Exactly where Jeter really belongs among his peers, mind you, requires considering everything we just talked about—eras, WAR, postseason heroics, PED finger-waggingand molding them together to form a subjective viewpoint of Jeter's place in recent history.

Or, you know, an opinion. Mine is that Jeter can be fairly placed smack in the middle of the range we narrowed things down to:

  1. Barry Bonds
  2. Randy Johnson
  3. Albert Pujols
  4. Greg Maddux
  5. Pedro Martinez
  6. Chipper Jones
  7. Roger Clemens
  8. Derek Jeter
  9. Alex Rodriguez
  10. Ken Griffey Jr.

At the least, I can't put Jeter ahead of Randy Johnson, Albert Pujols, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez or Chipper Jones. They are the most dominant players of recent baseball history if the scope is limited to players without PED ties, and each owns his share of success in October.

And while I'm fine with dinging A-Rod for only putting together a short run of excellence before venturing down a dark hole in 2001, I can't ignore Bonds' domination of the 1990s. I'm also more on the fence over Clemens being a true contemporary of Jeter's than I am over his (somewhat questionable) ties to PEDs.

I'm not sure I'd give the exact same top 10 if you were to ask me each and every day from now until eternity. One thing I'm pretty sure of, however, is that Jeter would have to be in there somewhere.

There are ways to downplay what Jeter did between the lines, but there's a limit to how much we can do that. He was outstanding during his prime. He was outstanding in a lot of October games. And yes, it's admirable how he was clean when so many others were dirty.

And lest you think that even viewing Jeter as a top-10 player of his time isn't good enough, I urge you to consider the following. "His time" happened in an era that saw expansion lift the number of players in the majors from 650 to 750. Along the way, Major League Baseball's population became more and more a collection of the world's best players rather than mainly America's best players.

As such, it can be argued that Jeter played at a time when there was more talent in Major League Baseball than at any other time. Achieving greatness is more of an accomplishment in his era than in any other.

In that sense, it's safe to say it: We're about to wave goodbye to one of the greatest there ever was.

 

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 500 Players for 2015

After sizing up the top players at each position throughout September, the B/R MLB 500 is now ready for its grand finale: All 500 players, one list. 

If you're just joining us, the goal of the B/R MLB 500 is to assess players' individual skills with unique scoring systems for each position. In doing so, the idea is not to mimic wins above replacement and count up value, but rather to evaluate players as all-around contributors.

For position players, this meant looking at hitting, power, baserunning and, with the exception of designated hitters, defense. The distribution of points was tailored to fit each position, so first basemen were held to a higher power standard, catchers were held to a higher defense standard and so on. 

For pitchers, we looked at command, whiffability (missing bats), hittability (manipulating contact) and, with the exception of relievers, "workhorse" potential. Once again, the distribution of points was tailored to the position, which in this case meant holding starters to a higher command standard and relievers to a higher whiffability standard.

Another important thing to know is that we weren't strictly interested in looking back at the 2014 season. We were also interested in looking ahead to the 2015 season.

This involved determining whether certain skills could get better or worse, as well as looping in top prospects who could break through next season and a couple of notable players who will be returning from injury absences. It also meant ignoring players who won't be around next year. Namely: Derek Jeter.

If you're interested in reading the individual positional slideshows, all you have to do is follow these links:

Slideshow Date Published
 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

If you would rather skip ahead to the complete list of 500, just know that the analyses have not changed since publication and that ties were resolved by prioritizing the player (or players) we'd pick if forced to choose.

Begin Slideshow

B/R MLB 500: Top 70 Corner Outfielders

After a brief check-in with designated hitters, the B/R MLB 500 will now conclude its position-by-position tour with corner outfielders.

Corner fielders will be scored as such: 30 points for Hitting, 35 points for Power, 15 points for Baserunning and 20 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, we'll be putting more of an emphasis on arm strength than we did with center fielders. But range will still count for a lot, and that means looking not only at speed, but also reads and routes as well.

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 17/35) 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 corner outfielders.

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 10 Designated Hitters

With center fielders in the bag, the B/R MLB 500 now turns its attention to the guys who wield bats for a living: designated hitters.

Designated hitters will be scored as such: 35 points for Hitting, 40 points for Power and five points for Baserunning, for a total of 80 points. Whereas all other position players are scored out of 100, 80 is as high as we want to go for guys who don't play defense.

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.

Naturally, there is no defense category for DHs. Another 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., 17/35 or 20/40) denotes average, not failing. And 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

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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