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: Tigers beat Kansas City in a walk-off. White Sox lose to Tampa Bay in the ninth. The Tigers now lead the American League Central by two full games. Texas beats Oakland to drop its magic number to three. Yankees lose.
The little news: You have to give it up to Tampa Bay. The Rays looked absolutely done, but they have won eight in a row. They are still two games back in the wild card, and it will be tough. But for the second year in a row, they are making a near miraculous push in the last two weeks of the season.
Who is in: A little was cleared up. The Rangers, with their win over Oakland, now have a four-game lead in the West and only three left against the Angels and three more against Oakland. They are close. The Tigers, as mentioned, now have a two-game lead over the collapsing White Sox, and it’s hard to imagine the tide turning back Chicago’s way. The Yankees had a chance to expand their lead to two games with Baltimore off, but they were shut down by Toronto. The Yankees and Orioles are separated by one.
The Triple Crown: Miguel Cabrera went 1-for-4 with zero RBIs. He is definitely not hot -- he’s hitting .158 in his last five games with no homers and one RBI. But he still leads the league in two of the three Triple Crown categories and is only one homer behind.
Joe Mauer: .323
Mike Trout: .320
Josh Hamilton: 43
Edwin Encarnacion: 42
Adam Dunn: 41
Curtis Granderson: 40
Quirky statistic: On Thursday night, six starting pitchers threw at least seven innings and gave up three runs or less. Only two of them got victories. Detroit’s Doug Fister, who set the American League record with nine strikeouts in a row and who gave up just two earned runs did not get the victory. Chicago’s Jake Peavy, who threw 7 1/3 innings and gave up two earned runs, did not get the victory, and his team did not win the game.
It’s just another reminder how dumb wins and losses for pitchers can be. Texas’ Matt Harrison gave up four runs, Colorado’s Jhoulys Chacin went only five innings, Jonathan Broxton gave up two hits in his one inning’s work and they all got wins. The whole thing is just so obviously absurd.
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In talking about the MVP race, it cannot be ignored that Mike Trout has been fading offensively. After an 0-for-4 night on Thursday, he is now hitting .233 for the last month or so and slugging .358. His average is down to .320, the lowest since a 4-for-4 game in early June.
However, in talking about the MVP race -- with the emphasis on “V for Valuable” -- Trout has still been a very good player even as his bat has quieted. He may be hitting .233 since Aug. 24 with little power, but he walks a lot, and has scored 25 runs in those 31 games. He is six-for-six in stolen bases. He continues to play superlative defense. This is the Trout argument, that he helps the team win in so many ways. The Angels have been playing their best baseball of the season the last month -- 21-10 over those same 31 games -- and I would argue they have not been doing it IN SPITE of Trout, but with him contributing in many ways.
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Justin Verlander is, in so many ways, every bit as good as he was last year. He’s striking out the same number of batters, walking just a tick more, and allowing fewer home runs than he did last year. He has given up a few more hits. But he leads the league in strikeouts and innings pitched like last year and you can add in most complete games.
It is true that last year he led the league in ERA and he’s second now to David Price … but he again leads the league in ERA+, which takes into account the ballpark where they pitch. Verlander pitches in Detroit, which has evolved into a pretty good hitters park. Price pitches in Tampa Bay, a hitter’s dungeon.*
*Though it should be noted that both of them have been much better at home than on the road -- if anything Verlander’s split is more striking -- he is 9-2 with a 1.65 ERA at home; 7-6 with a 3.78 ERA on the road.
The point is that Verlander is basically the same guy he was last year. Only, last year he went 24-5. This year he’s 16-8. And that seems to make all the difference. Last year, he won the Cy Young unanimously and became the first starter to win the MVP since 1986. This year -- at least from what I can tell -- people hardly seem to be talking about him as a Cy Young candidate. I hear a lot of David Price and Chris Sale and Jered Weaver, and these are all worthy candidates. But, once again, I think Verlander has been the best pitcher in the American League.
It gets, once more, to the issue of sports narratives. Last year, Verlander was superman. He went into the playoffs last year as this force of nature … and the record will show that in the playoffs (an odd playoffs, admittedly, because of rain) he posted a 5.31 ERA and did not throw a single quality start. But the narrative was so powerful that people STILL kept going on and on about how gutsy Verlander was, how extraordinary, how Koufax-like, how he was almost single-handedly keeping the Tigers alive.
This year, the narrative has gone the other way, the narrative has been that Verlander has been, you know, eh, good but not the mega-monster he was last year. The narrative has turned instead into how now Miguel Cabrera is superman carrying the Tigers. Narratives are fun, but they aren’t necessarily true. Verlander really is just about as amazing as he was last year.
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The big news: There is no big news left. The Cardinals did not play, giving the wild card pseudo contenders a chance to make up a half game. The Dodgers did by pounding out 14 hits in bludgeoning San Diego. The Brewers did not, and they now trail by a nearly insurmountable four games. They will have to win out and hope for the best.
The little news: Washington and Cincinnati both won; the Nationals are one game up in the race for the best record in the National League.
Who is in: Four are locks -- Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta -- and the Cardinals are three games up for the last wild card.
Pirates Purgatory: Pittsburgh lost to the Mets -- congratulations to the delightful R.A. Dickey for his 20th victory -- and are now four games under .500. The dream is all but gone now. Pittsburgh needs to win five of its last six to finish .500 for the season and all six to have a winning record for the first time since 1992.
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R.A. Dickey is perhaps the best individual story in baseball. He has absolutely everything that a great baseball story needs. He’s an older guy who had to struggle through years of disappointment and failure. He’s a knuckleball pitcher, and as far as I know, there is not a single baseball fan on planet earth who does not love the knuckleball. He’s a very smart guy, a thinker, a funny guy. And he is having an extraordinary year for the New York Mets, by far the best year of his life. This story has everything. It is a Disney movie. It is a reality TV show. It is beautiful.
But here’s a different question: Is R.A. Dickey the best pitcher in the National League? Should he win the Cy Young?
My good friend Chris Jones of Esquire tweeted the other day that anyone who doesn’t vote Dickey for Cy Young deserves a swift kick to the, well, Chris is an opinionated guy. But I think he’s probably in the mainstream on this one. Dickey’s story is so good, his book is so good, his appearance on “Letterman” was so good … and he’s leading the league in complete games, shutouts, strikeouts, innings -- I mean who else could it be?
Who else? Well, interesting you should ask because that nasty statistic WAR suggests that Dickey has serious competition for best pitcher in the league.
Baseball Reference WAR
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati, 5.7
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles, 5.4
R.A. Dickey, Mets, 5.3
Gio Gonzalez, Washington, 4.6
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington, 4.6
Gio Gonzalez, Washington, 5.4
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles, 4.8
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia, 4.8
R.A. Dickey, Mets, 4.8
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati, 4.7
Now, there are a lot of people who have real problems with WAR as a statistic, ESPECIALLY for pitchers. But this is just a reminder that statistics don’t care about the narrative. Baseball Reference WAR deals specifically with runs allowed and innings pitched, then breaks those down by figuring the level of competition and the quality of the defense. FanGraphs WAR focuses more on what they believe are the three things that pitchers can largely control -- strikeouts, walks and home runs.
But let’s say you want to focus on more traditional stats. Dickey leads the league in strikeouts and shutouts as mentioned. But he does not lead the league in wins -- that’s Gio Gonzalez, with 21. He does not lead the league in win percentage -- that’s St. Louis’ Kyle Lohse who is 16-2. He does not lead the league in ERA; he’s a tick behind Clayton Kershaw. He does not league the league WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), that’s Kershaw again, with Matt Cain in second. He doesn’t lead in strikeouts to walks, that’s Cliff Lee.
And if you wanted to include relievers in there -- as many do -- then you cannot ignore Craig Kimbrel’s historic year in Atlanta. I mean 111 strikeouts in 60 innings, league SLUGGING .175 against him, 1.04 ERA, it’s absurd.
Now, before Chris starts kicking … if I was voting for the Cy Young in the NL, I think I would vote for Dickey. He’s at or near the top in just about every meaningful pitching category, and no other NL starter is having a truly dominant year (Kimbrel is extraordinary, but it’s still just 60 innings). There are probably three or four starters in the American League having better years than any in the National League.
The NL has its own Cy Young award, of course, and I’m pretty sure I’d vote for Dickey. It would be really close for me with Cueto and Kershaw and Gonzalez. But I don’t think the voting will be especially close. I think Dickey will win in a runaway … both because he’s having such an amazing year, and because that story is just too good.