Chris “The Condor” Sale is quietly soaring

He doesn’t have the dazzling repertoire of Yu Darvish, or command the buzz of a hot young pitcher like Jose Fernandez. He wasn’t a can’t-miss no. 1 pick like Stephen Strasburg; in fact, he was passed over by an additional 8 teams after he was supposed to be drafted. He can only dream of Felix Hernandez‘s track record. He doesn’t have the hardware of Justin Verlander, nor anywhere close to belonging in Clayton Kershaw‘s tax bracket. None of that really matters, because even without such typical acknowledgement, Chris Sale belongs in the conversation with those aforementioned peers as one of the very best pitchers in the game.

Since finally being drafted out of Florida Gulf Coast by the Chicago White Sox 13th overall back in 2010 (he had been projected to go no. 4 to the Kansas City Royals after the surefire top three picks of Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado, but they instead took Christian Colon in a perfect illustration of #RoyalsbeingRoyals), Sale has become, as described by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, “one of baseball’s unquestioned aces, a high-inning, high-strikeout, high-groundball, low-walk, homer-scarce, left-handed monster.” 

Now admittedly, there were legitimate concerns over Sale when he was coming out explaining his fall in the draft; with a painful-looking contortion act also known as his pitching mechanics (see Ben Lindbergh’s excellent 2012 post if you want to be truly grossed out by the lefty’s delivery), and his 6-foot-6, 180-pound, 82-inch wingspan, there were literally no player comps for teams to go off, and significant worry about his ability to stay healthy. As a result, despite his impressive college stats, many teams saw him strictly as a future reliever.

Sale would in fact, debut in such a role for the last two months of 2010 and stick in the pen the next season, before making the transition back to being a starter for the 2012 season. Since then, quite simply he’s been a man on a mission to prove the teams that doubted his ultimate durability that they were very, very wrong in doing so; since becoming a starter (to the start of the 2014 season), “The Condor” has made 59 starts and thrown 406.1 innings, and aside from a brief dead arm scare been the picture of health. More than simply making it out onto the bump every fifth day though, Sale has been dominant too, further rubbing salt into the Barret Loux- (Arizona), Karsten Whitson- (San Diego) and Deck McGuire- (Toronto) shaped wounds of those that passed on him; since moving into a starting role, he has racked up 10.5 WAR, an ERA+ of 140, and posted not just the third-highest K/9 (9.3) of any major league starter, but the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.3) in that time. 

He might just be getting better too. Sale is throwing harder than ever, with every one of his pitch types so far in 2014 having picked up velocity after jumping up last year, and maintaining his mid-90s heat deeper into games. Additionally, he’s also throwing smarter;  having originally been highly dependent on his fastball/slider combination when he moved into the rotation, Sale has  continued on the usage alterations which he made last year, relying on his killer changeup much more this season – a good move considering how over the last two years and change, it rates as the 4th best in the American League by Fangraph’s Pitch Type Linear Weights. It’s probably at this point too I should mention how Sale is signed to an extremely team-favorable five-year, $32.5 million contract that also gives Chicago a 2018 option for $12.5 million and a 2019 option for $13.5 million.

If any Sale skeptics could possibly still remain at this point, all they need to do is go watch his performance against the potent Red Sox offense at Fenway Park last night; going toe-to-toe with Jon Lester, the ace of the Pale Hose took a no-hitter into the sixth before ceding the only hit he would allow – a solo jack by Xander Bogaerts – eventually striking out 10 over seven innings of work**. It marked yet another great start for Sale, who has so far allowed just 16 hits in his four starts (27.1 innings), and currently has a career-low (as a starter anyway) 2.30 ERA. Even more encouragingly for Sox fans, especially considering their anemic offense’s inability to put runs on the board behind their ace, and the team’s dismal record over the past couple of years, their ace has also picked up 3 wins already as the Pale Hose have jumped out to a surprisingly hot start. 

Whether Chicago keep it up or not, Sale deserves to finally get his in terms of national recognition. After two full seasons of flying under the radar, quietly putting up effectively the same numbers of his flashier – and better-compensated – peers, “The Condor” should this year finally grab the unbridled attention of more than just worried doctors and opposing hitters.


*I’m sorry, but it’s not a Sale piece without at least one pun. I promise that will be it.

** We can talk more fully about how Robin Ventura left him out there for 127 pitches some other time, but given his ace’s mechanics, how IT’S EARLY APRIL (!), and the recency bias of so many pitchers going down injured, it didn’t seem an especially prudent managerial decision – regardless of the 14-inning game the night before, which taxed the bullpen to the point of utility man Leury Garcia being forced to pitch.

Next man up: Gregory Polanco’s time is fast approaching

Release the prospect hounds! Yesterday, they had George Springer‘s Astros debut to slather over; soon they should have another stud outfield prospect to get excited about too. After Pittsburgh’s starting right fielder Jose Tabata left yesterday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds with “mild” concussion-like symptoms* - an injury sustained when he crashed into the fence making a spectacular catch – the Pirates have a decision to make: do they simply continue on their NL Central quest with Travis Snider manning RF everyday, or do they call up top prospect Gregory Polanco from AAA to the majors? If you were wondering, the correct answer is the latter option.

Signed as an international free agent back in 2009, the toolsy outfielder from Santo Domingo emerged from nowhere in 2012 to post a .325/.388/.522 line at Low-A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, with 16 home runs and 40 stolen bases in his 485 plate appearances to boot. Having earned a ranking as the 51st best prospect in baseball from Baseball America, Polanco’s breakout continued last year, the then 21-year-old batting .285/.356/.434 (and accruing 12 home runs and 39 stolen bases too) across three stops, finishing the year at Triple-A Indianapolis. Having appeared in 44 Dominican Winter League games in which he produced a .922 OPS, the fast-mover homered off of David Phelps in his very first at-bat of Spring Training this year, eventually posting a very respectable .804 OPS in his 10 games played. Everything then looked in place for Polanco to make his big league debut with the Pirates sometime after the Super-2 deadline in June.

In conjunction with Tabata’s injury, Snider’s own health problems/lack of production, and Pittsburgh’s slow start, the 22-year-old’s incredible showing so far in 2014 may have accelerated that original timetable; rivaling the much-ballyhooed production of Springer, Polanco has so far batted a ridiculous .426 with two home runs and six extra-base hits in his 47 at-bats for the Indianapolis Indians. Perhaps even more incredibly, considering how he’s still learning to identify and handle breaking balls, according to J.J. Cooper, as of Tuesday Polanco had swung and missed at only six of the 170 pitches he had faced so far this year, one of which was to protect on a steal attempt. In the words of former Double-A coach Carlos Garcia, “You are talking about the next superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This kid is unbelievable.”

While the full extent of Tabata’s ailment is unclear as of yet, Pittsburgh could certainly do with the shot in the arm Polanco has the potential to provide offensively. Continuing the positional malaise of last year (Pittsburgh’s right fielders combined to bat .242/.299/.385 with 16 home runs, 62 RBI and 144 strikeouts in 675 plate appearances, good for 0.8 collective fWAR), the 2014 platoon of Tabata and Snider have so far combined to hit just .231/.275/323 with only two home runs and 4 RBI through their 69 plate appearances. Their struggles however, have only been a microcosm of the team’s offensive woes; the Bucco’s currently have a team batting average of .223 (third-worst in the majors, propped up only by Houston and Tampa Bay), and a ghastly on base percentage of .294 (26th in the ML), while their 57 runs scored place them in the lower third of NL production. It’s likely however, that the Pirates will at least wait a little while to see what Snider can do in an everyday role, though his own brittle injury history (the 26-year-old set a personal high when he played in 111 games for the Pirates in 2013) and lack of production (he owns a .641 OPS in 471 plate appearances in his time as a Buc) don’t offer much hope of a breakout ahead.

Already possessing the range of a center fielder thanks to that foot speed that so aids him on the base paths, Polanco would thus likely be an instant upgrade not only at the plate, but in the field as well; along with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, his presence would almost instantly elevate Pittsburgh’s to one of the most exciting outfield trios in the game**. Given the competitive nature of the NL Central – with the perennial win-machine Cardinals, frisky Brewers, and my Reds coming around too – and how their other top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon (out for the year due to Tommy John surgery) and Tyler Glasnow (lower back tightness) are both on the shelf, Pittsburgh probably can’t afford to wait much longer for Polanco’s impact. The Pirates need to get their season going if they’re to seriously push once again for the playoffs. Calling up Polanco – especially now that there is a spot in the lineup available – would certainly be one way to move into a higher gear.

And really, if Houston can promote Springer already, given their more pressing circumstances, Pittsburgh have little excuse not to.


* I will for once resist arguing that there is no such thing as a “mild” concussion.

** Baseball Prospectus, in fact, wrote of the impact of such a defensive triumvirate, “the gaps in the PNC Park outfield will be the newest graveyard for doubles and triples.”

What the heck do you do with Ryan Braun?!

A hot topic ever since his one-man assault on Kyle Kendrick and the boo-birds of Philadelphia just over a week ago, what to expect from Ryan Braun in 2014 is a true quandary for the fantasy baseball community, and one which shows no signs of being answered soon. The volatile combination of sensational past performance, a lingering injury, and his return from a 65-game PED suspension that ended his 2013 have all contributed to make the 30-year-old Braun one of the most intriguing names out there in fantasy circles this year – and an absolutely  infuriating player to own (I should know – more on that later). Consider this then, frustrated owners, your Braun-primer, recapping what there is to know about Braun’s current situation, and (hopefully) helping in answering that nagging question; just what the heck do you do with Ryan Braun?!

Let’s start with some history. Pre-2013 – whether artificially aided or not – Braun was one of the most dependable first-round selections around, averaging a .312-34-109-22-105 line in his first full five seasons in the majors (2008-12), twice securing a top-3 finish on ESPN’s Player Rater. Furthermore, he played 150 games or more in every one of those five seasons – a necessary component to being a true fantasy stud.

2013 however, drastically altered the perception of Braun (in more ways than one); a thumb injury landed him on the DL for the first time in his career, and would eventually cost him 38 of the first 97 games of the Brewers’ season. Then came the unexpected hammer blow to owners everywhere – the season-ending suspension which ensured the righty slugger a final finish of 369th overall on the aforementioned Player Rater (89th among outfielders). Typically drafted third overall behind only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, there was perhaps no bigger bust than Braun (though the injury-plagued Matt Kemp and his 388th place Player Rater finish might have run him close).

The concerns over his thumb (and the presumably lost effect of the PEDs – a factor I personally never bought into*) led to his stock dropping over the winter, with many critics doubting his previously unparalleled combination of hit-for-average, hit-for-power and base-stealing ability to still be fully present. A solid spring (he launched three home runs and had a .806 slugging percentage in 16 Cactus League games), eased doubt though, the Hebrew Hammer eventually securing an average draft position of 15.3 – his ADP only .1 behind 5th-ranked outfielder Adam Jones, and considerably higher than the previously mentioned Kemp (72.0).

Which brings us to the present. Milwaukee’s no.3 hitter is currently rocking a .269-3-10-2-9 line, good for a 6.43 value and 25th place ranking on the early Player Rater; no great shakes then, the consensus second-rounder performing slightly below expected, but superficially at least (and especially when considering how young the season is – Alexei Ramirez, Dee Gordon, and Charlie Blackmon are ranked in the top 5 two weeks in) far from a disaster. The real trouble though – and the cause of the Braun dilemma – comes when you look beyond the simple 5×5 stats. 

According to MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, the same thumb injury that so affected his pre-suspension playing time last year (numbness in the thumb that affects his grip and in turn leads to blisters), is back. The different tactics employed by Braun and the Brewers’ medical staff (per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, padding on the bat or in his batting glove), haven’t apparently worked; his trouble not just swinging the bat effectively, but throwing the ball without issue had already kept him out of one game before it was earlier announced he would be rested for today’s tilt against the Cardinals. Throw in his slow start to0 – aside from that Philadelphia game, the Milwaukee man’s fantasy line would be just .234-0-3-2-6 – and there are very legitimate reasons for Braun owners to be worried about their investment.

Now if it weren’t for the thumb, I wouldn’t be so worried about Braun’s slow start – we’re two weeks in remember, and with a potent Milwaukee offense around him (Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy have been particularly great so far) the counting stats would almost certainly come around. But the lingering effect of that ailment, aside from likely cutting into his offensive output, will almost certainly also effect the newly-converted left fielder’s playing time – much like in 2013 – and thus dent his overall production. What with his problem sounding like a classic sort of daily-maintenance and eventual surgery injury too, the occasional off days, designated-hitter games, and likely DL stint will make Braun a fantasy nightmare for those in weekly leagues, and someone whose everyday availability will require constant surveillance in daily leagues.

It’s unclear then, whether Braun is worth the hassle. On the one hand, he might find a solid management option, play most-everyday, and provide tremendous statistical worth. More likely, at least in my opinion – I traded Braun in one of my leagues this week – he’ll be in and out of the lineup, and provide merely above-average value on a per-game basis. That’s not bad by any means, but not what you paid for, and a real pain in the proverbial. I would suggest then, that if there’s any residual buzz in your league left to be exploited from that Philly outing, you swing him – but for no less than 70 cents on the dollar.

80% of Braun is still valuable after all, no matter how frustrating he is. But if you still can, let someone else ponder that annoying fantasy thought every morning: ‘I wonder what I’ll get out of Ryan Braun today…’


*I’m no doctor, but I doubt the PEDs had much actual impact on his on-field performance, ie. I find it hard to believe Braun is actually a 15 HR guy who was merely masquerading as a power hitter. More likely, the drugs allowed him to recover quicker from the niggling injuries he naturally picked up over the long 162 game season, and possibly allowed him to push through a couple of games when he would have otherwise been unable to play. Again though, I’m no doctor – just a humble English literature student.

Bat-Flip Royale: Jayson Werth is your early leader for the 2014 belt

Believe it or not, but we’re still only two weeks into the 2014 MLB season. Maybe it’s been the mounting injuries, or relatively expected results so far, but it feels like it’s been a lot longer. Anyhow, what with players still working out the small sample size kinks, and my unfortunate obligation to write an essay on Robinson Crusoe by tomorrows ENG 321 class, today there won’t be any serious analysis going on. Rather, I figured I’d have some GIF-related fun, and document some of the first-class bat-flipping we’ve already witnessed this season. Last year saw a strong rookie effort from now-notorious preener Wil Myers, and a breakout showing by Carlos Gomez (who has been at it again on shallow sacrifice flys so far in 2014). Both however, were edged last year by Yasiel Puig, who’s monumental performance in the NLCS secured him the 2013 bat-flipping belt. Where better to start then, with the reigning champion, a man who in the very first game of the Opening Series in Australia, turned a HBP into a bat-flip exhibition. Tremendous stuff indeed (not from you though Trevor Cahill).

Now, if this were merely a celebration of bat-drops, I’d need look no further than Atlanta. The quick, punchy swing that barrels the ball over the fence; The lumber being brought back across the body just as rapidly, and at almost the exact same angle – like a rocket-fueled, 33-ounce pendulum; The exquisite drop into the opposite batter’s box after maintaining the two-handed grip throughout. There is no better bat-dropper in the ML than Justin Upton, which make his home run binges all the more enjoyable (and, for the causal observer at least, maybe not for Atlanta fans though, more than make up for the subsequent dry spells).

Unfortunately for Upton the Younger however, this is a bat-flip contest. You can’t bring a knife to a gun fight and expect to win, especially when there’s pitchers out there putting forth spectacular efforts like this:

It turns out that as well as a plus cutter and curveball, Madison Bumgarner also possesses an 80 grade bat flip. That fourth-inning shot (a grand slam by the way) off poor Jorge De La Rosa on Friday night, and MadBum’s fantastic pimping of it, had lingering influence apparently…

… for only two days later, it was teammate Brandon Crawford admiring a walk-off jack that ended up in McCovey Cove. Crawford earns extra hot-dogging points too for writing about his effort later – attributing everything he learnt about the bat-flipping art to Bumgarner in addition to admitting “I’ve watched the replay twice already, I’m not going to lie. I’ll go home and probably watch it again. I might keep it on a loop. Maybe make a GIF for my phone.” Do it Brandon, it’s not every day you take a lefty-killer like Rex Brothers deep for the win after all.

Such personal promotion can’t lift Crawford’s effort above Anthony Recker‘s walk-off bat-flip however. In fact, even with the writing, it might pale in comparison. By my count, the most handsome man in baseball (according to Baseball Prospectus anyway) is a full four strides down the first base line before languidly tossing the bat aside after his 13th inning solo shot off Matt Shoemaker. That he picked up a horrendously ugly Jose Valverde effort – probably ensuring Papa Grande’s role as closer for another week at least – doesn’t diminish such an otherwise aesthetically-pleasing performance by Recker.

The Mets’ backup catcher has a looong way to go before he can rival what Dayn Perry of CBSSports called the “Bat-Flip of Maximum Conquest Maximus” though. The utter disdain emanating from Jayson Werth – undoubtedly on account of the Marlins intentionally walking Anthony Rendon to get to him – is transferred fully into a bat-flip that might still be going off-camera. Sure it wasn’t a walk-off, but a no-doubt grand slam complete with an ESPY-worthy flip and stare-down combination? That’s a winning formula.

For now at least anyway.

Original Cin: The effectively simple approach of Tony Cingrani.

Just stop it you detractors out there – Tony Cingrani is legit. I may be an ardent Cincinnati Reds fan, but such an opinion isn’t bias; given the amount of time he’s been doing so, it’s time to recognize the big lefty’s dominance. His performance can no longer be considered a small sample size fluke, nor merely passed off as a high-wire act. I prefer to call it effectively simple. 

As noted by Mike Holian, “In 2013, Cingrani made 18 starts. Over the course of those outings, the third-round pick in the 2011 draft (did someone say absolute steal?) led the majors with 10.1 K/9 rate while allowing more than three runs in just one of those trips to the hill.” More than simply that though, the Rice product didn’t even allow more than five hits in any of those starts, let alone three runs – a mind-blowing fact considering his limited repertoire. 

Three starts into 2014 then, and the streak lives on – making a little bit of history in the process: his current run of 21 starts without more than five hits allowed hasn’t been done, according to Sean Lahman, in 100 years. Not that he’s benefited from being pulled early (and no, that is not some sub-shade being thrown at old manger Dusty Baker‘s tendencies); the 24-year-old has gone at least five innings in 16 of his 21 starts, meaning opposing hitters have had plenty of chances to ‘figure out’ Cingrani. Such opportunity hasn’t benefited them in the least so far – over 127 innings, Cingrani has a 2.83 ERA and 149 strikeouts, and with every start is looking more and more like a potential ace.

So why then, do some people still consider Cincinnati’s sophomore a fluke?

Brooksbaseball-Chart-2

Admittedly, the former college closer is rather a one-trick pony, or in Jerry Crasnick’s words, a “one-man Baskin-Robbins franchise,” but what a hell of a trick it is; last year, according to FanGraphs, he threw his fastball 81.5 percent of the time – a figure surpassed only by Bartolo Colon’s 85.5 percent among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings (for comparison’s sake, his mark would have been the 18th highest fastball percentage amongst all ML pitchers if the qualifier was limited to 10 innings). Mike Podhorzer additionally pointed out “What’s even more incredible is how Cingrani has such a strong history of high strikeout rates, yet the average fastball induces the lowest rate of swings and misses among all pitch types.” While the aforementioned Colon’s strikeout rate has sat around 14% to 15% in three of the last four seasons, Cingrani last year posted a 28.6% rate in the majors, that after putting up a ridiculous mark of 41.9% in Triple-A. 

Despite knowing what’s coming then, due in part to his hiding the ball extremely effectively, and also helped by his lanky limbs and deceiving arm slot, opposing hitters have so far been unable to catch up to Cingrani* – his 93mph gas often looking more like 97 or 98. So while Cingrani does possess a 79mph slider and a 86mph changeup (and even threw a couple of cutters and curveballs last year, which are yet to be seen in 2014), he just doesn’t throw them often. No, in his words, it’s all about that four seam offering - “I don’t even think about it. I just throw it… There’s literally no thought process. It just goes. That’s all it is.” 

Cingrani does apparently recognize that a quality starting pitcher will typically need a larger repertoire of serviceable pitches at his disposal than what he currently possesses - “To be the best, I say you have to have three really good pitches” – but seems to be getting by just fine anyhow in the meantime**. If those secondary offerings he’s been working on do begin to catch up however – as they looked to have done a little during his Sunday outing against the Tampa Bay Rays – then the Reds’ divisional foes best look out; while Cingrani may currently still be somewhat of a curiosity, albeit a dominant one, he could soon be a worst nightmare to face. 


* Not only has he been hell on fellow southpaws, but Cingrani has also limited righties to a .193 average.

** With Mat Latos reportedly out a while longer too, the Reds will need Cingrani to continue on his current path if they’re to compete in the highly-competitive (hello Milwaukee all of a sudden!) NL Central.

The Designated 15: AL Power Rankings – Week 2

Every weekend throughout the season I’ll be separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Yesterday, in a shorter-than-usual edition of The Senior Class: Week 2, I ordered the NL. Today, in a similarly abbreviated post – I’ve a city to explore, and a Warriors @ Trail Blazers game to watch – it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 2! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).

  1. Detroit Tigers (2-3 last week, 6-3 overall)  The Tigers have the league’s best record, and split a throughly entertaining two game series with the Dodgers this week. After such an appetizer, would anyone mind those two facing off again in October? Now Justin Verlander has secured the first two hits of his career, I’m sure he won’t object. 
  2. Tampa Bay Rays (3-3, 7-5)  Matt Moore will apparently try throwing some more in an effort to avoid Tommy John surgery. I’m getting sick of typing that name next to those of young, talented pitchers this year. 
  3. Oakland Athletics (5-1, 7-4)  Sure they’ve been forced to move Jim Johnson out of the closer role, it’s not like Oakland – with their wealth of quality relief pitching – were especially reliant on him anyway. The A’s have rolled on regardless of the change, and have now won 5 of their past 6, jumping out atop the AL West early. 
  4. Seattle Mariners (2-3, 6-4) 
  5. Boston Red Sox (3-4, 5-7)  
  6. Cleveland Indians (3-4, 6-6) 
  7. New York Yankees (4-3, 6-6)  I was very harsh on The Evil Empire last week, perhaps too much so. Since then (barring the Ivan Nova/Vidal Nuno implosion on Tuesday against the Orioles), the Yanks have looked much better. Whether his performance has been boosted by pine tar or not, Michael Pineda has continued the promise of his spring, and along with Masahiro Tanaka, provided a welcome boost to a rotation which can no longer rely on the slimmed-down C.C. Sabathia. If the bats come around – like they did yesterday against the Red Sox, when behind Brian McCann‘s performance N.Y. tacked on 5 home runs to their season total of 7 – the East might well provide both AL Wild-Cards this year. 
  8. Toronto Blue Jays (3-3, 6-6) 
  9. Kansas City Royals (2-4, 4-6)  C’mon KC offense – pick it up and reward my faith in you! Scoring 29 runs through your first ten games isn’t exactly a winning formula, nor is it going to convince James Shields to stick around (not that I’m thinking anything will) past this season. All you needed was one measly run to pick up Yordano Ventura and give him a win in his electrifying 2014 debut, but you came up with nothing. The guy is throwing 102.9mph out there – help him out a little!
  10. Baltimore Orioles (4-2, 5-6) 
  11. Chicago White Sox (4-3, 6-6)  Credit to GM Rick Hahn, he’s apparently crafted quite an offense – across the whole ML, the south-siders rank 1st in runs (76) and OBP (.359) and second in batting average (.285) and slugging (.456). Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, both brought into the fray by Hahn this past offseason, have been particularly responsible for such an outburst; the former had himself two multi-homer games this past week and is quickly looking like a bargain, whereas the latter is so far batting .354/.448/.521 atop the lineup (and thanks to his mates, leading the Junior Circuit in runs). Now if only there was someone else aside from Chris Sale determined to keep runs off the board – the Sox have so far given up 73 (also tops in the AL), hence their middling run differential (just +3), and lowly ranking. 
  12. Los Angeles Angels (3-3, 5-6)  Just when things were looking up for Anaheim, Josh Hamilton had to go and (stupidly) slide head-first into first base – tearing the UCL in his thumb in the process. He will now be out for between 6-8 weeks. How many times does it have to be said: diving is not quicker than simply running through the bag!
  13. Texas Rangers (3-3, 5-6)  The hits just keep on coming – now it’s Adrian Beltre down with a sore quad. It’s feeling more and more like a lost season in Arlington…
  14. Minnesota Twins (3-3, 5-6)  Hey Joe Mauer homered
  15. Houston Astros (3-4, 5-7)  At -20, the Astros still have some way to go before their 29th-worst run differential challenges bottom placed Arizona (-30). So there’s that at least. 

Thanks for bearing with me as I write while traveling – I’ll be done gallivanting around Portland by Tuesday, so my Power Rankings will return more fully by next week. 

The Senior Class: NL Power Rankings – Week 2

Every weekend throughout the season I’ll be separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Today, on account of my traveling to Portland in order to not just ingest gallons of coffee, but take in the Nike Hoop Summit, it will be a rather abridged NL version, but one nonetheless. It’s The Senior Class – Week 2 (All records correct as of Saturday morning). 

  1. Washington Nationals (4-2 last week, 7-3 overall) 
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers (3-2, 7-4) 
  3. St. Louis Cardinals (3-3, 5-5) ↓ Has anyone come up with a good reason why Mike Matheny opted to let Trevor Rosenthal hit with two outs and a RISP in the bottom of the 10th inning last night when he had Pete Kozma on the bench? I know Kozma isn’t exactly hot stuff at the dish, but jeez… #smrtbaseball.
  4. Milwaukee Brewers (6-0, 8-2)  Your early leaders of the Senior Circuit everybody! Having gone unbeaten over the past week - they secured a sweep against the reigning champion Red Sox to begin the week, easily despatched Philadelphia, and then took down the Pirates yesterday – the Brew Crew have now racked up seven wins in a row, have the best run-differential in the league (+24), and are officially scorching hot. Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and my pre-season krush Khris Davis are all raking, while on the other side of the ball, only one starting pitcher has an ERA above 2.60 (Kyle Lohse, at 4.50). If Ryan Braun can continue to respond to the boo-birds as well as he did in Philadelphia – and be able to stay on the field while managing his apparently lingering thumb injury too – Milwaukee could easily continue to surprise their competition all the way to a postseason berth. 
  5. San Francisco Giants (3-3, 7-4)  
  6. Atlanta Braves (2-3, 6-4) ↓ 
  7. Pittsburgh Pirates (2-3, 6-4) To steal from the ESPN Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast, if Milwaukee are bonafide, the Pirates are Bonifacio. Having had a run of luck last year similar to the 2012 incarnation of the Baltimore Orioles, many expected Pittsburgh’s record in one-run games and extra innings to regress back to usual levels this season; instead, five of the Pirates’ six wins have come by one run (as opposed to the Bucs only once losing by such a margin) and the club have gone 2-0 in extras. Yes, led by Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, they have an excellent bullpen able to lock down wins in the late innings, but having played the lowly Cubs six times already, their strength of opposition hasn’t exactly been overwhelming either. Though it might be a welcome addition for Andrew McCutchen and his .194 batting average, the regression monster surely must arriving at PNC Park soon.
  8. Colorado Rockies (3-3, 5-6) 
  9. San Diego Padres (3-2 – 4-6) 
  10. Cincinnati Reds (2-4, 3-7) There’s no rest for the wicked; after facing off for a second series of the young season against the powerhouse Cardinals and their loaded pitching staff, yesterday the Reds ran into a David Price-shaped buzzsaw. Today brings no respite either – as they’ll find Alex Cobb opposing them on the mound. There are some positive takeaways from a rough week for ardent Cincinnati fans like me however; Joey Votto will be batting second today (a win for bedroom-managers everywhere in terms of lineup construction), and Billy Hamilton (finally) showed some signs of life this week
  11. Miami Marlins (1-5, 5-6) 
  12. New York Mets (3-2, 4-6)When Bartolo Colon does this, you’re moving up in the rankings regardless of record. Of course, posting a .600 week is always nice too. 
  13. Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 4-9) ↓ #FreeArchieBradley!
  14. Philadelphia Phillies (2-4, 4-6) 
  15. Chicago Cubs (3-3, 4-6) 

Thanks for sticking with me as I ride by bus. Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings - The Designated 15: Week 2!

Paging Mr. Towers – Please call Triple-A Reno ASAP.

For a moment at least, I for once found myself agreeing with Diamondback’s GM Kevin Towers on something; on the morning radio show on Arizona Sports 98.7 with Doug and Wolf, Towers said of his team’s sluggish start, “We realize it’s April. We don’t want to panic, we don’t want the players to think we’re panicking. But to me, if things don’t get better, I think change needs to happen.” ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘he’s recognized that Arizona’s starting pitching isn’t up to scratch. Maybe now we’ll see Archie Bradley called up to the majors – let me go check my fantasy teams’ waiver wire.’ Alas, Towers had other plans; it has since been announced (as reported earlier by Jacobo Hakim on MLB Nation), that the D’Backs have instead signed Randy Wolf to a minor league deal, and also plan on transitioning Josh Collmenter back into the starting rotation after his beginning the year in the ‘pen. 

Not exactly the moves I had in mind, but at least an honest admission of the pitching incompetency behind Arizona’s early struggles.

At 4-8 (even after taking their last two games from the San Francisco Giants), Arizona have been repeatedly burnt by the negligible contributions of their starters. With presumptive ace Patrick Corbin pronounced out for the year before the season opener in Australia, darn near everyone who needed to step up in his absence has so far failed to do so; Trevor Cahill has been rocked to an 0-3 record, giving up 12 runs and 29 base runners through his first 13.2 combined innings (this after accruing a 6.95 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in 22 Spring Training innings). Brandon McCarthy – of whom I despise pointing out flaws purely because of his hilarious Twitter account – and his 7.82 ERA (with four home runs allowed through 12.1 innings) hasn’t fared much better. Randall Delgado too has been a welcome sight to opposing hitters, allowing nine earned runs in his first eight innings of work and posting a nauseating 2.88 WHIP along the way. Not even offseason addition Bronson Arroyo has been able to provided a spark – his typically ‘meh’ 4.82 ERA bettered only by Wade Miley (4.05 through his first three starts). With 72 runs allowed through their first 12 games – 32 alone resulting from pitches thrown by the CahCarthGado pu pu platter - if there was ever a team in dire need of rotation help, this Arizona squad would be it.

How much of that sorely-needed help can be gained by signing Wolf and moving Collmenter however, seems dubious. How much help can Towers realistically expect from a 37-year old Wolf, who will be trying to resurrect his late-career comeback from a second Tommy John surgery after being (rather ignominiously) cut from the Seattle mariners this spring? The last time he was seen on an ML bump in 2012, Wolf was providing Milwaukee, and for a short spell, Baltimore too, with -1 WAR value and a 5.65 ERA. Collmenter too, figures to be of little help; the whole reason he was in the bullpen in the first place was because of his awry time as a starter (once his funky delivery was seen enough times, the Michigan man became home run fodder). Judging by his splits, the 28-year-old quite belongs in his current role as the team’s long man. 

No, the real help lies in wait in Reno – and via the school of ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ reasoning, can’t be called up soon enough. Back in my pre-season preview series I documented how Archie Bradley might be the difference maker for the Diamondbacks but would likely be held back with a view to limiting his service time, and as it turned out – to no one’s surprise – he was. Now though, with his big league ship plummeting quickly, it’s time for Towers to blow up that conservative plan of common logic lest he want to see Arizona’s season down the drain by the time Bradley would have originally arrived – the ninth best prospect in all of baseball per Baseball Prospectus is needed to keep the runs off the board at Chase Field right now rather than simply dominating down in Nevada. 

Propping up the NL West, 3 games back of the division leading Dodger and Giants after less than two weeks of play already, the Diamondbacks need to get going, and quickly, if they’re to be playing for any meaningful purpose come August. Quite rightly, they’re throwing everything against the wall in hope of something sticking, but I fear that instead of shoring up the rotation, the measures taken so far will rather merely have the effect of a band-aid on a gaping wound. Aggressively calling up Bradley, though a drastic measure, may well be Towers’ last hope in regards to salvaging 2014 in Arizona. 

It’s getting Uggly in Atlanta.

It has been 8 games worth of surprises for the Atlanta Braves. After losing Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm to free agency over the offseason, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in consecutive spring starts, and being forced to choose between Aaron Harang and Freddy frickin Garcia for the fourth, let alone the fifth, spot in their Opening Day rotation, the club currently leads the majors in starter’s ERA – their mark of 1.37 more than half a run better than the second-place Detroit Tigers. On the other side of the coin however, their offense – aside from the newly minted Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons – has so far been abysmal; The Upton brothers have cumulatively struck out 24 times in 62 plate appearances. Jason Heyward is batting .188. The team ranks 27th in slugging percentage (.331), 28th in OBP (.264), and last in runs (19). Things haven’t exactly been helped by Fredi Gonzalez‘s questionable lineup construction, but it’s clear something needs to change – in a much more competitive NL East than the walkover the division was last year, the rotation simply won’t be able to keep such a flailing offense afloat for much longer.

Speaking of flailing, Atlanta’s much-maligned second baseman Dan Uggla might well be the first to be sacrificed should the #Barves’ offensive woes continue. Signed to a 5-year, $62.5 million deal back in December 2010 after being acquired from the then-Florida Marlins in exchange for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn, the burly keystoner’s numbers have worsened in every year in ATL. After launching 27 home runs or better in each of his four years in Florida, notching a cumulative wRC+ of 118, and accruing 15.6 WAR (all while being paid just $14,286,000 total), Uggla has since hit only .213/.321/.401 as a Brave, and thus become one of the fans’ two whipping boys (along with B.J. Upton), the pair emblematic of Atlanta’s endemic failure to make consistent contact on offense, and frequent miscues in the field – both of which have doomed in the playoffs the past two seasons. 

It is at this point I should point out that Uggla’s 2013 was so particularly disastrous, even with his $13 million salary, he didn’t actually make the postseason roster; during the regular season, he had been an abject disaster at the plate, striking out 31.8% of the time on his way to hitting just .179 – the second lowest average for any Brave in Atlanta’s near 50-year history (Jody Davis, a catcher, notched the lowest mark - .169 in 1989), all whilst similar struggling in the field - not even his vaguely playable 2013 OBP of .309 could save Uggla from getting bench splinters when you factored in his -5.9 UZR. By the end of the year the 34-year-old had acquired -1.3 WAR in just 136 games.

 

Perhap to be expected of someone seemingly sliding down the aging curve so precipitously, not much has improved in 2014 thus far – Uggla is hitting just .194 early on, with a truly horrid .188 OBP and 15 wRC+. Even his trademark power has disappeared, his isolated slugging mark of .065 a disaster when considering how the slugger has also yet to take a walk in his 32 plate appearances. Small sample size be dashed, it’s truly apparent that Uggla is toast, in need of replacing – and pronto – if Atlanta are ever going to kickstart their potentially above-average offense into gear. Fortunately, should they eventually recognize that the $26 million they still owe Uggla over this year and next is a sunk cost, they already have just the man for the second base job.

Down in the minors at Triple-A Gwinnett, Tommy La Stella is drawing rave reviews from scouts –  per Baseball Prospectus‘ ‘What Scouts Are Saying: April 10th, 2014‘ one talent evaluator noted of the 25-year-old:

One of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues and yet you don’t hear many people talk about him. I get that he’s older and not going to win a Gold Glove at 2B, but what stops him from becoming the next Matt Carpenter? Look at the numbers, recognize the approach, and watch the swing, and it’s clear he is something special.

That’s a pretty ringing endorsement considering how Carpenter finished fourth in NL MVP voting last year in his first season as a full-time regular. But it’s true; the pair profile extremely similarly through their minor league careers, La Stella’s four-year average line of .328/.412/.495 actually comparing favorably to Carpenter’s .299/.408/.450 triple slash over the same span. Judged by Fangraphs to have “fringe-average” defensive skills, the 25-year-old would be a considerable upgrade over Uggla in the field, and with “a strong left-handed swing with good bat speed and excellent hand-eye coordination… a good eye and a patient approach,” a welcome contact-conscious addition to the whiff-happy Braves*.

It’s somewhat incredible already that he wasn’t called up to replace Uggla last year given his production, nor made the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, but after 8 games it should be clear; this shouldn’t even be a matter of whether the Atlanta offense needs a boost (which it most certainly does) – At this point, Uggla needs to find himself a seat, it’s Tommy La Stella’s time to surprise.


 

*Awesome geeky stat of the day: in La Stella’s four minor league seasons, he has accrued 1012 plate appearances, and walked 113 times compared to just 89(!) strikeouts. Uggla had his 90th strikeout by June 19th last year – in his 67th game of the season no less. 

 

So that Yordano Ventura kid’s pretty good huh?

Heading into yesterday’s game against Tampa Bay, I would have imagined not too many Royals fans would have been pleased with the how the young season had to that point played out. Tipped by many for at least a Wild-Card berth – if not more – the early returns hadn’t exactly been encouraging (Salvador Perez‘s performance excluded – the guy is incredible); the normally-dominant bullpen, already weakened by the loss of Luke Hochevar, was all of a sudden looking shaky – Greg Holland and the gang yielding walk-off wins to the Detroit Tigers in the first two games of the season, and leaking runs since. Ned Yost was still driving the diehards crazy with his lineup construction and in-game decision making – #Yosted and #smrtbaseball routinely appearing together on my Twitter feed. New second baseman Omar Infante was sidelined by a beaning – a loss made all the worse by KC management decided having a backup middle infielder on the 25-man roster was unnecessary. Emilio Bonifacio – their infield utility man from last year – was raking with his new team, the Cubs. The team was yet to hit a home run, ranking last in the ML with a .307 slugging percentage. The last thing Royals fans needed then, was to see reigning AL ROY Wil Myers and the Rays to come to town and serve as a reminder of how they likely only have 31 more starts of James Shields, and thus what might have been.

It’s amazing what a 102.9mph fastball will do however, to wipe a discouraging early season slate clean.

After having his first scheduled start of the season against the Detroit Tigers (perhaps fortuitously) rained out, the diminutive Yordano Ventura finally got his chance to shine yesterday – and boy, did he show out; as Michael Baumann put it on Grantland earlier today “my goodness gracious, was Kansas City’s Happy Meal–size top pitching prospect as good as advertised.” Yeah… that about sums Ventura’s performance up.

In six innings of work, the 22-year old allowed only two hits and walked none, striking out six batters and flashing incredible stuff – quite simply dominating the poor Rays hitters. His well-renowned four-seam fastball (Ventura already owned the fastest regular season pitch by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era, a 102.8mph offering that Yan Gomes somehow hit for a single last September) was just as advertised, the righty throwing his trademark heat 45 times out of his 98 pitches at an average velocity of 99.5mph. And no, that average is not a misprint – per Brook’s Baseball, his top velocity last night was actually 102.9mph, therefore giving him both the first and second fastest regular season pitches by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era.

The Dominican Republic native also flashed a 96mph cutter (which he threw 10 times), a 97mph sinker (2) and a 83mph curve (19 times) that on one occasion just froze Evan Longoria. But it was perhaps his changeup that was the star of the Ventura show; coming in at an average of 89.51 mph (and thus quicker than both fellow rotation mates Jason Vargas‘ and Bruce Chen‘s four seam fastball offerings), the pitch generated 4 swings and misses, and befuddled Wil Myers more than once (Myers would endure a particularly horrific evening, striking out 3 times – much to the glee of Royals fans). 

All in all, it would be a highly impressive showing from the young flamethrower, his dominant outing serving to not only dispel fears that his 5’11 frame might only limit him to bullpen duty and justify the spring decision to include him in the starting rotation, but alleviate the fan’s fears of losing Shields for nothing at the end of the year (especially given how the once-vaunted crop of young arms on the KC farm – Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi etc. – have either failed to develop or been traded away).

With Ventura in tow, there’s significant cause for optimism in Kansas City – the season is yet young, and the team simply too good (and the AL Central too weak) to continue slumping the way it has; the bullpen issue will resolve itself eventually. Infante will come back. Bonifacio won’t hit all season-long in Chicago. The team have already (finally) called up Johnny Giavotella to resolve the infield issue. Yost even employed a decent-ish lineup in today’s game! Things should turn around soon enough. But even if the Royals’ season does continue down the disappointing path it has initially taken, in Ventura, there will at least be a must-see pitcher on the bump every fifth day, pumping 100mph fastball after 100mph fastball for six innings at a time.

If Tuesday was anything to go by, that’s not a bad consolation prize.

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