Staying up to date on the battles for all the various MLB playoff spots is a full-time job that requires daily attention -- and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this space, for the rest of the season.
The big news: White Sox beat Detroit 5-4 to take a three-game lead in the American League Central.
The little news: Matt Wieters crushed the ball again (3-for-5, homer) to lead Baltimore to a 10-4 win over Seattle; the Orioles are half a game behind the Yankees in the American League East. … Tampa Bay lost to Boston to fall five games back in wild-card race.
Who is in: The Rangers and White Sox both have three-game leads in their divisions. The A’s, Yankees and Orioles are all in playoff position right now, but what kind of playoff position is still very much in the air.
Statistical quirk: Chicago’s Addison Reed picked up his 27th save despite his rather unseemly 4.88 ERA. He could become the third American League pitcher to save 30 games with an ERA higher than 5.00 (Mike Henneman for Texas in 1996; Joe Borowski for Cleveland in 2007).
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Chicago’s Adam Dunn is hitting .213 for the season and any day now will become just the third player in baseball history to strike out 200 times in a season. For this, he will probably win the American League comeback player of the year award. And he probably DESERVES to win the comeback player of the year award. For one thing, that .213 batting average signifies a more than 50-point jump from last year. But more seriously, batting average and strikeouts hardly have anything to do with it.
Adam Dunn is a kind of player people have been arguing about for a long time now. In today’s “what do stats really mean” environment, he’s become a touchstone player, the sort of guy who divides certain kinds of baseball fans from other kinds of baseball fans. Dunn is what’s known as a “three true outcomes hitter” because he, like others of his ilk, often ends his plate appearances with one of three outcomes:
3. Home run
People have been arguing about three-outcome hitters since the 19th century, really. See, for many years -- and in some ways this is true even now -- hitters were judged to be good at their job if they hit for a high average. And, to hit for a high average, it helps if the hitter does not strike out a lot. Guys like Wee Willie Keeler (who hit .341 and struck out just 126 times in his 16-year career) and Joe Sewell (who hit .312 and struck out four times one season) and Nellie Fox (who struck out 13 times in his MVP season) are in the Hall of Fame, and they, among many others, represented a certain kind of sturdy ballplayer. When Babe Ruth came along and hit all those home runs and struck out all those times and walked a ton, there were many who thought his was a vile way to play baseball.
But Ruth was so good that he also hit for a very high average, and of course he was a dominant pitcher first, and people sort of had to concede his greatness. But what about the players who hit homers, walked a lot and struck out a lot who were NOT Babe Ruth? Well, I think Ralph Kiner might have been the first real three-outcome guy. He led the league in home runs every year from 1946 to 1952, and he led the league in walks three of those years and walked at least 100 times five years in a row. He struck out quite a bit for his time, leading the league in strikeouts once and finishing in the top three four times. But nobody really struck out that much then.
Kiner was a lightning rod. His batting averages were all over the place (based, essentially, on how many fly balls left the yard and how many walks he drew), and his teams were dreadful every year. It was Kiner who inspired the famous “we could have finished last without you” blast from Branch Rickey. He was painfully slow, a defensive nightmare, and even though he led the league in home runs SEVEN STRAIGHT YEARS, and his career .398 on-base percentage was as high as Joe DiMaggio’s and higher than Willie Mays', it took him the full 15 years on the ballot before he was elected to the Hall of Fame. There were many who thought Kiner was more freak than star, more oddity than great baseball player.
As time has gone on, it seems to me, the three-outcome guys have been underrated. Of course, others would say they were overrated. That’s the point. Harmon Killebrew hit 573 home runs in his career, led the league six times and walked 100 times in a season seven times, but it still took three years for him to get elected to the Hall of Fame. His defensive problems, his low batting average (.256) and seven seasons with 100-plus strikeouts scared some people off.
And others who were not quite as prolific as Killer and Kiner? I say underrated. Just about all of them. Darrell Evans was a three-true-outcomes guy; he hit .248 for his career and struck out 1,410 times (three times over 100 times in a season). But he also hit 30-plus homers four times, twice topping 40, and he led the league in walks twice and was top-10 in walks 15 times. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, he was 55 wins better than replacement over a long career -- there are more than 70 players in the Hall of Fame with a lower WAR than Darrell Evans, including his contemporary Willie Stargell. He received eight Hall of Fame votes his one and only year on the ballot.
Jack Clark ... Boog Powell ... Ron Cey ... Jay Buhner ... Jimmy Wynn ... Brian Downing ... Robin Ventura ... Andre Thornton ... John Mayberry ... Gene Tenace ... Mickey Tettleton ... Dick Allen ... Rico Petrocelli ... to various extremes these were three-outcome hitters and to various extremes they were underrated.
I don’t think the reasons are too hard to explain. For one thing, as mentioned, players who strike out a lot tend to have low batting averages -- fewer balls in play mean fewer chances for hits, obviously -- and baseball people have always given batting averages way too much weight. But an even bigger factor, I think, is the disdain so many people in and around baseball have for the slugger who walks. Disdain. There’s really no other word for it.
I believe there are many people in baseball -- I’m talking about MANY people, based on my conversations in and around the game -- who believe a walk is in many cases worse than an out. They might never say it exactly that way, but you can hear it in their voices when they talk about how middle-of-the-lineup hitters gets paid to HIT, they get paid to DRIVE IN RUNS, they get paid to ATTACK. They aren’t paid to just, you know, sit there and watch four balls go by and ..... oh, the ignominy.
The walk is a passive act. It is a passionless act. It is about accepting the pitchers’ inadequacies rather than taking a chance and crushing the pitcher’s spirit. Look into any major-league dugout after a guy hits a sacrifice fly or gets the bunt down or hits the ball behind the runner to move him over to third or hits the ball hard but into an out. What do you see? Teammates fist-bumping, pounding the guy on the back, high-fiving. Managers and radio announcers talk about these men as if they are war heroes -- they will do anything to win, they can be relied on in toughest spots, they do amazing things that simply cannot be seen by the unobservant or catalogued by the statistics.
Do you see a dugout react that way to a slugger who draws a walk? Rarely. Maybe never. Do you hear managers and radio announcers offer such praise for the big guys who walk a lot? Not often, no. In truth, you will hear people grumble about the slugger who takes the walk with runners on base rather than go out of the strike zone and try to make something happen. You will hear people moan about how slow guys who walk a lot clog up the bases, or how their sluggishness infects the ball club. There is a fascinating and lengthy interlude in “Boys of Summer” where Roger Kahn refers to how happy slugger Duke Snider was to take a walk. You got the feeling, really, that Kahn and others determined he was much TOO happy.
Adam Dunn is probably the all-time three-true-outcomes player. I guess statistically, the all-time three-outcome player is Jim Thome, who has hit 611 home runs (seventh all-time), walked 1,743 times (seventh all-time), and has 2,534 strikeouts -- second only behind Reggie Jackson. But Thome is a .277 lifetime hitter, which is pretty solid, and he hit .300 three times, and anyway, he’s a big lug of a guy you cannot help but love. Oh, he’s been underrated, too -- I actually hear people who wonder if he’s a Hall of Famer -- but he doesn’t inspire huge arguments.
Dunn does. Until last year, his consistency was downright freaky. He hit exactly 40 home runs four years in a row and followed them with two seasons hitting 38 home runs. He led the league in strikeouts three times and never struck out fewer than 160 times in a full season. He led the league in walks once and walked 100 times in six straight seasons.
His value is all wrapped up in the home runs he hits and the walks he takes. He’s an astonishingly bad defender; defensive WAR puts him 25 games WORSE than a replacement player, making him perhaps the worst defender who ever played extensively in the big leagues. His career batting average is .241 and dropping -- he goes into mind-boggling stretches where he cannot get a hit -- and he is one of only two players ever to strike out more than 190 times in a season FOUR TIMES.
These negatives have brought out extraordinary fury from Dunn’s detractors. You would think Dunn insulted their mothers. They said he doesn’t like baseball. They said he is a losing ballplayer. They said he puts up only meaningless statistics. They said he negatively impacts his team. It’s been pretty dark. Meanwhile there are those of us -- I include myself in this -- who concede Dunn’s inadequacies, but are willing to put up with a lot of inadequacy to get a player who gets on base 37 or so percent of time and bangs 40 home runs every year.
The anti-Dunn people had their dream season in 2011. Dunn went completely off the rails. He hit .159, the worst average for any player with 400 or more plate appearances. He slugged .277 for the season. Obviously a lot of things hit him all at once -- a new team, a new league, certain aging factors, maybe various things he did not want to talk about -- and it led to not just a terrible season but a season of historic ineptitude.
This year? He’s Adam Dunn again. The average is still frighteningly low, and the strikeouts happen more often now than ever. But his 39 homers and league-leading 97 walks have helped the White Sox outscore their expectations (they are fifth in runs scored) and have helped them stay in first place since the end of June when few thought that possible.
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The big news: No real big news on a quiet Monday in the National League.
The little news: The Braves won to pull within five of the Nationals in the East. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia won behind good pitching performances to stay within shouting distance in the wild-card race. The Giants won again and have a hammerlock on the NL West.
Who is in: The Braves are making a little noise in the East, but Washington (five games up), Cincinnati (11 up) and San Francisco (eight up) seem pretty secure. The Braves have the first wild card. The Cardinals and Dodgers are separated by one game for the second with several teams hoping to wedge their way into that race.
Statistical quirk: Cliff Lee has now made 27 starts, but he has only 13 decisions.
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Cliff Lee is having an amazing year. This is true on a couple of different levels. For one thing, as mentioned in the statistical quirk, though he has made 27 starts, he is only 6-7 on the season. The last person to make 30-plus starts and have only 13 decisions was Odalis Perez in 2004. He went 7-6, though he pitched almost 200 innings.
But Lee’s also having an amazing year by the “he’s pitching really well” standard. You would never know it -- probably because of that pedestrian won-loss record -- but Lee leads the National League in strikeout-to-walk ratio and fewest walks per nine innings. His 3.27 ERA puts him just outside the top 10 in the league, but since the beginning of July it’s at 2.50 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 95-to-9.
I watched him destroy the Mets Monday night -- eight innings, one run (on a bloop single), 10 Ks, one walk -- and thought, this guy is still the Zen master of pitching, still the hypnotist who befuddles hitters with the power of suggestion and makes them swing at bad memories. And, because of that record, it’s like nobody knows it. Fifteen times this year, he has given up two runs or less, and he has won only six of those. And when he gives up three or more, he has won zero.
His record might lead you to think there’s something wrong with Cliff Lee. But when you watch him pitch, you remember.