Three Up, Three Down
As we enter the season's final stretch, hope seems to be a changing concept across the nation. In some markets, hope has been restored by a midseason surge in the Wild Card standings. In others, the dog days of summer have not been so kind and hope is pushed back yet another season. Some places are just hopeful for one player, be it a potential phenom or an established star.
Today, we run through what hope is left, from the Wild Card, to the MVP voting, to the top level pitching prospects.
Rich: Happy Wednesday, Bryan. There are three items that are of primary interest to me. I'm going to cover them one by one.
First up on the agenda is none other than the Los Angeles Angels-Oakland A's three-game series. Both teams came in with identical 64-47 records. The Angels have been pretty consistent all year long while the A's went from having one of the worst records in baseball at the end of May to the one of the best by early August.
This series is the first of three remaining. Whichever team wins six of the ten games will have a two-game advantage over the other for the remaining 41 games. If either the Angels or A's happen to win seven, I would imagine that would be enough to lock up the division. The good news for the second-place team is that the Wild Card is there for the taking. Cleveland and New York might have a say in the matter, but the so-called loser between the Angels and A's has the inside track to make the playoffs as the fourth and final team in the A.L.
With that in mind, let me ask you this, Bryan. If you don't finish with a better record than Boston and ergo win the home-field advantage in the first-round of the playoffs, are you better off finishing first and playing the Red Sox or finishing second and playing the White Sox?
Bryan: I go back and forth on the merits of the White Sox more than Shareef Abdur-Rahim changes teams. Right now I'm supportive of the team I have not seen lose in person this year in eight outings to U.S. Cellular. When I look at the argument of which color Sox is better -- or rather a worse playoff opponent -- I look in the direction of pitching and defense. I think the A's and Angels look at these two lines, and realize they have something worth fighting for:
Option ERA H/9 BB/9 HR/9
A 3.49 8.56 2.36 0.92
B 4.33 9.13 2.36 1.03
The White Sox, option A, are clearly better in the 1-4 spots in the rotation. Note neither of those rate stats include two of the best postseason pitchers alive, Orlando Hernandez and Curt Schilling. Instead, the difference can probably be attributed to Mark Buerhle, the best pitcher in Chicago. And don't say Jon Garland, please, because that's like voting Dontrelle ahead of Pedro in the NL Cy Young race.
Maybe the Angels used that comparison as motivation last night, because they quickly grabbed hold of the division lead and the chance to play the Red Sox. Vladimir Guerrero's second inning grand slam was all the doctor ordered, as John Lackey continued his very good, quiet season on the mound. The A's showed little life until the eighth inning, when they scored both their runs off Angel mop-up man Joel Peralta.
Of the Wild Card contenders, it was the Cleveland Indians who showed the most resiliency on Tuesday. On a day in which both the A's and Yankees lost, the Indians moved a game closer in the Wild Card standings in dramatic fashion. Down 7-2 in the top of the ninth inning against the lowly Royals, the Indians scored eleven runs to win the game. Grady Sizemore had two at-bats in the inning that led to RBI, and the quietly resurging Aaron Boone doubled home the go-ahead run.
In fact, there may not be a more fitting term for the Indians than quiet at this point, who are now 12-4 in their last sixteen games. Cleveland has their offense to thank for that, as the club has scored more than five runs in nine of those sixteen games. This is an organization that should also thrive down the stretch given a weak schedule that includes nineteen more games against the Royals or Devil Rays. The AL West teams? Just nine combined games against the AL bottom feeders, equivalent to the number of games they have left against each other.
I don't doubt the Indians have a chance to use that scheduling to their advantage, and rather quietly steal the division from the second AL West team. Just don't expect it to happen, as both the A's and Yankees are far more experienced with meaningful September baseball, a fact that can't be ignored.
Rich: Sticking to the A.L. West, the second of my three big stories involves Felix Hernandez. How ironic was it that the 19-year-old made his major-league debut on the day Roger Clemens turned 43? Despite getting tagged with the loss, young Felix did nothing to embarrass himself in that game. I would think that a 5-3-2-1-2-4 line is gonna win more games than it loses.
Well, Hernandez decided not to leave such things to chance in his second outing on Tuesday night. He almost single-handedly beat Minnesota with an eight-inning, five-hit, no-walk shutout. This guy is the real deal. A strikeout pitcher who throws 96-97 MPH and gets the bulk of the other outs on the ground always gets my attention, whether they are 19 years old or 43 years old.
I don't know if the man (boy?) they call King will be the next Rocket or not, but Bob Feller wouldn't be so bad either.
RUNS SAVED ABOVE AVERAGE
AGE < 20, MODERN (1900-2004)
1 Bob Feller 49
2 Gary Nolan 27
3 Dwight Gooden 24
4 Wally Bunker 21
5 Don Gullett 15
6 Rube Bressler 14
T7 Don Drysdale 13
T7 Pete Schneider 13
9 Billy McCool 12
T10 Jack Bentley 10
T10 Joe Wood 10
My only concern after reviewing the above list involves longevity. Gary Nolan was a teenage idol. A hard thrower who came up at the same time as Tom Seaver and was thought to be every bit as good as him, Nolan was out of baseball before he turned 30. Dwight Gooden was all but done at 30. Wally Bunker was literally finished at 26. Don Gullett retired when he was 27. Rube Bressler and Billy McCool hung up their spikes at 25, Joe Wood changed positions at 26, and Pete Schneider was history at 23. Don Drysdale and Jack Bentley made it all the way 'til the age of 32. Feller was the only one who had a long career and even his was interrupted by three years serving in the military during World War I.
I have no doubt that Hernandez will be a star--did I mention that I picked him up in our fantasy pool back in May?--but I can't help but wonder how long his career will last.
Bryan: There is no question that we must exercise caution in predicting King Felix's career value. I mean, these are the Seattle "Where Pitching Prospects Go To Die" Mariners, for Ryan Anderson's sakes. Still, after just two starts in the Majors, I think we can argue that the 19 year old's stuff rivals that of most American League starters at this point. How many of the men on your list could say that?
Believe me, Hernandez is far closer to the talent of Feller and Drysdale than Nolan and McCool. I should also mention that players like Bert Blyleven, Fernando Valenzuela, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, and Dave McNally all 4-7 RSAA before 20, a total that makes more sense for Felix to land in.
Felix continued his quiet dominance yesterday, allowing just seven of his 24 outs via something besides the groundball or strikeout. So far in the Majors, he's allowed just six flyballs...in two starts. Furthermore, one of those flyballs was of the infield variety. His stuff is so 'heavy' that even when opposing batters make contact, they knock it into the ground. This talent of Felix cannot be overvalued.
One other subplot from Hernandez' rise to the Majors is that it opens up a spot for the honor of best pitching prospect in the minors. At this point, only four people can really make claims:
Matt Cain: The other phenom, also a teenager, Cain has not had the success of Felix at the AAA level. He allows too many walks and home runs, but both his hit and strikeout rates scream for future success.
Francisco Liriano: The flavor of the week, currently dominating AAA like no other pitcher alive. It would have been great for the Twins to substitute Liriano for Lohse tonight, giving us a look at two of the best young talents alive. Everything is hard for Liriano, and he is going to have quite a bit of success.
Justin Verlander: A recent injury to his often-sore pitching arm makes him fall down a few slots. Verlander's fastball might be the best on this list, and like Felix, he has many days ahead of him in a pitching park.
Chad Billingsley: You have to dig a bit deeper to find the good stats with Billingsley that you do with the aforementioned three, but they are there. Apparently the stuff has been there all season, and if you simply eliminate a few contests against Montgomery -- Delmon Young's team -- Chad's stats are worthy of his praise.
I'll go with that order for now, but this group is so close, it's changing with every start. Gone are the days of an uncontested #1, bad start or good, soreness or not.
(By the way, for a more detailed analysis of Felix, check out what Seth Stohs has to say).
Rich: Lastly, can Carl Yastrzemski sleep soundly knowing that Derrek Lee isn't going to become the next Triple Crown winner? Not to demean what your first baseman has accomplished this year, Bryan, but I find it somewhat ironic that he is no longer leading in any of the three categories--much less all three. In fact, his numbers (.349-33-84) are no better than what Albert Pujols (.341-31-89) has put up thus far.
Given that Pujols is playing for the team with the best record in the league and Lee is playing on nothing more than a .500 ballclub, I have to think this could finally be Albert's year when it comes to the MVP voting. Pujols, Lee, and Miguel Cabrera are probably 1-2-3 right now. Morgan Ensberg could slip in there if he continues to hit like Mike Schmidt and the Astros find themselves in the playoffs.
I guess we shouldn't dismiss Clemens as an MVP candidate. He is the answer to "Who was the last starting pitcher to be named the Most Valuable Player?" Oh, and the last starter to win the MVP in the N.L.? Bob Gibson. 1968. 1.12 ERA.
Bryan: Here you go with the Astros praise again. Morgan Ensberg? No thanks, I'd rather have the stellar season that Andruw Jones is experiencing, batting average be damned. Jones walks, hits homers at a superstar rate, and plays the best outfield defense in the National League. Furthermore, his team is feeling a little safer down the stretch than that of Ensberg and Clemens.
Still, Jones probably is fourth in the MVP race, south of Pujols, Lee and Cabrera. We can agree on that order, sadly, and I'm afraid it will only get worse for Derrek. He has looked bad lately, likely due to the shoulder injury that was not treated very delicately. This, of course, is due to the pressure put on Dusty to get Lee as many at-bats as possible. Yes, that's right, I have both handed a Cardinal my MVP vote and not blamed Dusty Baker for a Cubs problem in the same paragraph.
Am I delusional, you ask? Maybe, but that's what a seven-game losing streak will do to you. While as a Cubs fan I should have expected a fall like this to happen, I -- like Will Carroll -- expected the great activation to at least yield some victories. Instead, I've been left amazed at not the play of Kerry Wood or Nomar Garciaparra, but a more impressive return from injury: Ken Griffey Jr.
While Jason Giambi has garnered a lot of credit for returning from controversy to become the AL's best hitter in July, are we paying enough attention to the NL Comeback Player of the Year? Are we noticing that Griffey has 8 home runs in 77 at-bats since Detroit? Subtract a rough April from the numbers, and Griffey has been one of the NL's most dangerous hitters this season.
Hell, I'd vote him fifth for the NL MVP, right ahead of two Astros. Even seven straight losses can't confuse me that much.