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: Washington manager Davey Johnson announces that if the Nationals clinch the division early -- the magic number is five -- he will rest his starters. You can agree or disagree with the philosophy in Washington, but I think we can all agree that we'd love to have these guys as OUR bosses. Man, it would be vacation days galore. Maybe they pick that up from Congress.
The little news: The Cardinals won their third in a row and, with Milwaukee's loss, now have a substantial 3½-game lead in the race for the second wild card.
Who is in: Things seem just about wrapped up in the National League. Cincinnati and San Francisco have clinched their divisions. Washington has clinched a playoff spot and is on the brink of a division title. Atlanta could clinch its playoff spot as early as tonight. And as mentioned, the Cardinals now have a 3½-game lead for the last spot.
Pittsburgh update: The Pirates lost to the Mets to fall three games under .500. As you already know, Pittsburgh has finished with a losing record for 19 consecutive seasons. The Pirates now need to win seven of their last nine to finish above .500. This leads to a ruling question: If the Pirates win six of their last nine and finish exactly .500, is the streak over? Is this is a streak of LOSING seasons, or is this a streak of NON-WINNING seasons? I leave this up to the citizens of Steel City.
Quirky statistic: Remember when Ryan Zimmerman looked utterly helpless at the plate? On June 23, he was hitting .218 with three home runs, and he was slugging .305. I talked with several people in Washington who were convinced that he had to be hurt because the ball was just knocking the bat right out of his hands. Since then? He's hitting .332/.397/.603 with 23 doubles and 21 homers. If he had played like this the first two months of the year, he'd been the 2012 MVP.
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Just how good is Yadier Molina's defense? I mean, it's obviously REALLY good. He has been the best defensive catcher in baseball for years, and he's been doing it long enough that you have to start putting him up there with Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez and Jim Sundberg and Bill Dickey and all the rest of the greatest-ever defensive catchers. Here's just one way he's great: Yadi is throwing out 44 percent of the runners who try to steal bases, that's over his entire career, and that's amazing.
A few of the great defensive catchers and their caught-stealing percentage:
Roy Campanella: 57 percent
Gabby Hartnett: 56 percent
Jim Hegan: 50 percent
Ray Schalk: 49 percent
Yogi Berra: 49 percent
Ivan Rodriguez: 46 percent
Yadi Molina: 44 percent
Thurman Munson: 44 percent
Johnny Bench: 43 percent
Jim Sundberg: 41 percent
Bob Boone: 40 percent
Bill Freehan: 37 percent
Gary Carter: 35 percent
Benito Santiago: 35 percent
Tony Pena: 35 percent
Mike Matheny: 35 percent
Of course, some of those percentages are skewed by the time when the catcher played. The fact that base stealers were only successful 43 percent of the time against Campanella is extraordinary … but base runners in generally were successful less than 60 percent of the time in that era. In Yadi's time, base stealers are successful more than 70 percent of the time. I'd argue, in context, Yadi's percentage is more impressive.
And, of course, catching is much more than just throwing out base runners. Yadi is brilliant at blocking the plate -- both from balls in the dirt and from aggressive base runners. He doesn't allow many passed balls (four this year), he is often praised for his game-calling skills and pitchers talk constantly about how comfortable it is to pitch to him. He doesn't often throw the ball away. Let's just say it again: He's an amazing defensive catcher.
So … what does that mean? There's no question that Molina is a legitimate MVP candidate for the first time in his career. He's right in the mix. This is mostly because he has become a really terrific offensive player. He's hitting .321/.379/.510, and it's that slugging percentage that is striking because coming into the year his career slugging percentage was .377. He's turning on the ball, really for the first time. He's absolutely mashing fastballs, really for the first time.
Offensively, as good a year as he's having, he's not quite in the ballpark with the other MVP candidates like Andrew McCutchen or Buster Posey* or Ryan Braun. Those guys are just a lot better offensively.
*Posey's basic numbers, at a glance, look similar to Molina's, but when you take into consideration the ballparks, they are really not. Posey leads the National League in OPS+ at 168 and his offensive WAR is 6.6. Molina's OPS+ is a good but not nearly as good 141, and he's almost two wins below Posey in offensive WAR.
So does Yadi's amazing defense make up the difference? The great thing about rating defense is that it is complicated enough to allow people to believe whatever they want to believe. Even the advanced stats disagree -- just look at Molina vs. Posey.
Baseball Reference WAR
Baseball Prospectus WARP
And so on. I think Molina's defense is amazing. Everyone can agree on that. Does it make him the league MVP? I suspect if you are a Cardinals fan, you will make a passionate argument that it does. I suspect if you are a Giants fan, you will make an equally passionate argument that it does not. That's why the awards are so much fun. I think I would vote for Posey. But I might wake up tomorrow feeling differently. It's that close.
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The big news: Texas' Adrian Beltre hit a two-run homer to tie the game in the seventh, then hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth to give Texas a huge victory over Oakland and build a five-game lead in the American League West. This is the most breathing room the Rangers have had since August.
The little news: Yankees win to extend their lead in the AL East to 1½ games, White Sox win to maintain one-game lead in Central. Angels win their third in a row, Tampa Bay wins its fifth in a row as it desperately tries to get into the wild-card race.
Who is in: The Rangers' magic number is five now, but they have six games left with Oakland and three with the Angels, so their hunters will have their chances. The rest is a free for all. Yankees by 1½ over Baltimore. Chicago by one over Detroit. Oakland by two over the Angels for the wild card. Tampa Bay, now three games back in that second wild-card race, is trying desperately to make another miraculous last-gasp run for the playoffs, and the Rays do end the season with three games at home against Baltimore.
Quirky statistic: Adam Dunn hit two home runs Tuesday night, and now has 41 on the season. That moves him one home run behind Miguel Cabrera (and two behind league-leading Josh Hamilton). Wouldn't it be a kick in the head if it turns out that Dunn -- who hit .159 last year in one of the worst seasons a player has ever had -- thwarted Miggy's triple crown by taking the home run title?
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Why has it been SO HARD to win the Triple Crown in recent years? It wasn't always this hard or this rare. From 1920 to 1967, there were eleven Triple Crown winners in baseball, and a whole bunch of famous near misses. In 1949, Ted Williams' .343 average was just the tiniest bit behind George Kell's .343 average, those percentage points costing him a third Triple Crown. In 1948, Stan Musial finished just one home run shy of a Triple Crown … it has long been one of baseball's great myths that he had that home run washed away in a rainout (efforts to find that home run have proved frustrating). In 1953, Al Rosen hit .336, and lost the batting title -- and Triple Crown -- to Mickey Vernon by a single point.
Point is, it used to be a pretty common thing for players to win the Triple Crown or come heartbreakingly close.
But not only has there not been a Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, there really hasn't been a close call in a long time. The closest calls in the last 10 years are:
2011: Matt Kemp won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting title by 13 points.
2010: Albert Pujols won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting title by 24 points.
2008: Ryan Howard won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting title by 113 points (just missed).
2007: Alex Rodriguez won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting title by 39 points.
2006: Ryan Howard won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting title by 31 points.
2006: David Ortiz won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting title by 60 points.
2005: Andruw Jones won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting title by 72 points.
2002: Alex Rodriguez won the homer and RBI title, lost the batting by 49 points.
You can probably see the trend here. It has not been unusual for sluggers to lead the league in homers and RBIs. But batting average has been a big problem. Of these eight seasons, only one slugger stayed within 20 points of the batting champion. And only one player in the last decade has led the league in batting average and another Triple Crown category …
2007: Matt Holliday won the batting title and RBI title, lost the home run title by 14.
Let's look at it another way.
The average league-leading batting average since 1968: .348
The average league-leading home run title since 1968: 44
The average league-leading RBI total since 1968: 129
OK, how many players from 1920 to 1968 put up what you might call an "average Triple Crown season?" Answer: Fourteen. Babe Ruth put up six of them, Jimmie Foxx put up three, Lou Gehrig put up three, Mickey Mantle and Hack Wilson put up one each. Interestingly, Ted Williams never put up an "average" Triple Crown season. This because he never hit 44 homers in a season. He hit 37 and 36 home runs in his Triple Crown years.
Of course, that average of 44 home runs is inflated because of the Selig Era; that's what happens when you have to average in 73 homers, 70 homers, 65, 58, 57 and so on.
But, the question is: How many players since 1968 do you think have put up average Triple Crown seasons?
Yep. One. With all the comic book years by Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey and Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle, only one has topped a .348, 44, 129. That was Larry Walker in 1997, in the light air of Coors Field, when he hit .366 with 49 homers and 130 RBIs. And that year, he finished second in the batting title to Tony Gwynn (Gwynn hit .372) and third in RBIs (10 behind his teammate Andres Galarraga).
In other words: It has been all but impossible to lead baseball in all three categories over the last 45 years. The game has had great singles and doubles hitters -- Carew, Gwynn, Boggs, Brett, Ichiro -- who have locked up many of the batting titles. The game has had relatively low-average sluggers -- McGwire, Howard, Reggie, Schmidt, Kingman, Cecil Fielder -- who have won many of the home run and RBI titles. It's tough for someone to be great at both.
Tough … but I think it's changing. We now have a group of hitters who, I'm pretty sure, will make it happen, if not this year then in the next five. Miguel Cabrera has already won a batting title, a home run title and RBI title in his career (the career Triple Crown). So have A-Rod and Albert Pujols. Josh Hamilton will complete the career Triple Crown if he holds on to his home run lead this year. Ryan Braun is a Triple Crown threat, Matt Kemp if he stays healthy, Andrew McCutchen, and who is to say what the limits are for phenoms like Mike Trout and Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton?