The Ray-Do: Can I get a mulligan on Tampa Bay?

While streaming my awesome-binge-watch show of choice during some downtime yesterday afternoon (I’m now on to season 3 of The Wire after finishing Breaking Bad a couple of weeks ago), one particular internet pop-up caught my eye. This site wasn’t as sinister as it may at first sound – I only noticed it because it pictured Tony Parker hypothetically rising up for a dunk (I know, never going to happen right…). It was in fact, an advert for the Bovada Sportsbook.

Anyhow, this illicit prompt triggered a memory of a gambling-related post I wrote way back in Spring Training whilst March Madness was taking place, ‘Busted Bracket? Try some baseball betting!’, a piece in which I unfortunately expressed the following sentiment:

I love, love, LOVE me some Rays action this year… I’ll be taking them to win the whole darn thing. With David Price still leading a loaded pitching staff, Wil Myers’ mighty presence in the offense all year, and Joe Maddon’s usual defense/matchup innovation, at +1500 on sportsbook.com, Tampa Bay represent a terrific value to go all the way.

Sound logic at the time, but boy… just yikes. With the benefit of hindsight (well, about a third of a seasons worth of results anyway), it’s clear there are plenty of rough calls in that piece (hey Prince Fielder: HR Champ!), but that one truly sticks out. Rather than live up to the hype that infected not just I, but numerous other baseball prognosticators too, the Rays have been truly abysmal so far in 2014, and are showing little signs of turning things around (they’re currently on a 6-game losing streak). What has changed then, for the Rays to so suddenly fall off the wagon?

Jonah Keri did a great job of breaking the Ray’s slow start back on May 14th in a piece asking pretty much the same question, ‘Why Do the Preseason Darling Rays Suddenly Look Like the Devil Rays?’. At that point, they were 16-23, and only 4½ games out of first place in the AL East. In other words, there was still some hope, and Keri managed to find some silver linings (I will not plumb the pun depths for ‘Rays of hope’). Since then however, things have continued on in the wrong direction; the Rays are now 23-34, and 4 games back of fourth place, let alone the 10.5 games behind Toronto in first. Their chances of reaching the playoffs now sit at a paltry 5.3%.

The rash of pitching injuries that Keri cited, decimating the starting rotation, remain the inherent problem. Matt Moore is of course out for the year after undergoing tommy John surgery, while Jeremy Hellickson is still yet to make his debut after starting the season on the disabled list. Alex Cobb, after missing time with an oblique strain, is back at least, but his helpful return (I liked him as a good dark horse at 33/1 to win the AL Cy Young award), hasn’t been enough to offset the combination of bad luck and below-par performance currently afflicted David Price; the nominal ace of the Rays staff has a 4.27 ERA after 12 starts, but a 3.24 FIP.

Price hasn’t been alone in his struggles – young starters Chris Archer (4.00 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) and Jake Odorizzi (5.13 and 1.54 in the same categories) have been remained healthy, but have failed to live up to expectations. Combined with their relative ineffectiveness (Tampa as a whole has only 19 quality starts this year, last in the majors), throw in the lack of stamina of Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos, the other two pitchers to have started for the Rays this year, and the bullpen has been taxed – hard. Grant Balfour and Joel Peralta, previously excellent high-leverage relievers, both sport horrendous numbers. Josh Lueke remains horrid, on and off the field. Only Jake McGee has really excelled in the usual Tampa Bay reliever fashion.

But the Rays haven’t been much better on offense either. After securing AL ROY honors last year, Wil Myers was expected to play Robin to Evan Longoria‘s Batman. Instead, Myers has experienced a brutal sophomore slump (not in his bat-flip game mind you), and was hitting only just .227 with a .666 OPS before he was placed on the DL with an ailing wrist over the weekend. Longoria meanwhile, with 5 home runs and a 98 OPS+ mark, has been anonymous as one of the Joker’s masked henchmen, and unable to buoy an offense anchored by the worst catching production in the majors thus far; for all of Jose Molina‘s and Ryan Hanigan‘s framing abilities, a combined .182/.254/.257 triple slash line with terrible base running should be unacceptable.

As Keri pointed out too, there’s not much help on the way; in addition to drafting terribly over the past few years, and graduating a lot of the prospects who did in fact make it (Price, Desmond Jennings, Moore, Myers kind of etc.), the Rays are tapped out financially. Team GM Andrew Friedman acknowledged as such after a winter in which management gave out multiyear deals to the aforementioned Balfour, Hanigan, and James Loney, and then made an expensive mistake on Heath Bell; at over $80 million, this years payroll is a franchise record, and unsustainable in the long-term.

With Toronto streaking away, Baltimore’s free-agency commitment to winning now, Boston turning it around, and New York looking capable of an above .500 season, contending for the AL East in 2014 is already looking out of the question for the Rays. Besot by injuries, bad luck, and bad form, the trades might soon be coming in order to address that depleted talent pool and over-extended budget, David Price being the obvious candidate to be moved. The rebuild could be well and truly on by October, when by my prediction, they should have been playing for a championship.

The Rays are now +3500 to win it all. And it’s no longer even a decent value play.

The Designated 15: AL Power Rankings – Week 9

Throughout the season (minus last week, when I was vacationing at Safeco Field), I’m 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 The Senior Class: Week 9, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 9! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).

  1. Oakland Athletics (7-6 over the last fortnight, 33-22 overall)  With a run differential of +112, the A’s are lapping the rest of the American League; the four other teams who can boast a positive differential – Detroit, Toronto, LA, and Seattle (Seattle?!) – when combined, have a +98 mark. I would highlight a single player, Josh Donaldson for example, and point to their individual success as fuel to the team’s fire, but everyone – Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Yoenis Cespedes, even Kyle Blanks since being acquired from the Padres – has been getting it done of late. As usual, the A’s are winning without runaway star contributors, and as usual, no one is batting an eyelid. 
  2. Detroit Tigers (5-9, 31-21)  
  3. Toronto Blue Jays (10-3, 33-24)  Speaking of turning heads, I present the Toronto Blue Jays, and most particularly, Edwin Encarnacion, in the month of May. Perhaps inspired by the Raptors’ #WeTheNorth campaign, The Jays turned up in a big way over the past 31 days, going 21-9 in that span, including a 9-game stretch in which they consecutively swept Boston, Oakland, and Tampa Bay. Plenty has been made of Encarnacion, who in tying Mickey Mantle for the most home runs in the month of May by an AL player launched balls over a mile and a quarter, and the rest of the powerful Toronto offense (they’ve failed to hit a long ball in just two games over the past fortnight), but it will be pitching that will keep the Jays at the AL East summit. Even with Mark Buehrle continuing to defy the advanced metrics, and top prospect Marcus Stroman living up to the hype in his first start (the diminutive righty held the Royals to one run on five hits with no walks and five strikeouts over six innings yesterday), the club remain linked to Jeff Samardzija. One of just two teams not to make the postseason this millennium, and considering the current state of the AL East, pushing all their chips into middle by trading for Samardzija, might not be a bad idea for team GM Alex Anthopolous.
  4. Los Angeles Angels (7-6, 30-25)  Mike Trout is out of the lineup today with back stiffness. Along with his OPS dropping to ‘just’ .929 this year, I’m beginning to think that maybe he isn’t a cyborg solely designed to break baseball records anymore, and might even have some human flaws. 
  5. New York Yankees (7-6, 29-25) 
  6. Baltimore Orioles (5-8, 27-27)  Nelson Cruz is being paid $8 million this year. Nelson Cruz has 20 home runs, a 186 OPS+, and a 2.2 WAR value. It’s the first day of June. 
  7. Seattle Mariners (7-6, 27-28)  After my Memorial Day visit, I officially love Safeco Field, which was made even better by the Mariners soundly beating the Angels. Seeing Chris Young throw five innings of no-hit ball was definitely unexpected, as was my mother taking a liking to Justin Smoak simply because of his name. The Mariners, even slow-footed Robinson Cano, victimizing poor Hank Conger on the basepaths for three stolen bases in one inning was pretty darn entertaining too. 
  8. Boston Red Sox (6-7, 26-29)  After enduring a brutal 10-game losing streak, the Red Sox have now amassed a six-game winning streak. In between a pair of walk-off wins, the continued war of words between David Ortiz and David Price, and Clay Buchholz‘s struggles though, perhaps most notably, some of the kids that Boston placed so much emphasis on prior to the season have finally started coming through; since the start of that dreadful losing streak, Xander Bogaerts has stormed his way to a .397/.465/.603 line, and Rubby De La Rosa, acquired in the Dodgers dump, impressively fired seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball yesterday, striking out 8 Rays along the way. Now, if only the Sox could get Jackie Bradley Jr. to improve his ghastly 66 OPS+ too…
  9. Texas Rangers (8-5, 28-28)  
  10. Chicago White Sox (7-6, 28-29) 
  11. Kansas City Royals (5-8, 26-29)  Reading Rany Jazayerli’s Twitter rants, whether they be concerning Ned Yost‘s latest gaffe, Dayton Moore’s continued incompetence, Kansas City’s punchless offense, another hitting coach being fired, potential James Shields trades, or Mike Moustakasquick demotion/promotion swing, never gets old. Being a fan of the Royals must get stale pretty quickly I’m guessing.
  12. Cleveland Indians (7-6, 26-30)  
  13. Minnesota Twins (4-8, 25-28)  Struggling center fielder Aaron Hicks has abandoned switch-hitting, and will now bat exclusively from the right side. Sounds like a good idea in theory considering his awful offensive production, minus the fact that Hicks has actually been substantially better from the left side so far this year; the 24-year-old has a .250/.400/.325 line as a southpaw in 2014, compared to a brutal .154/.280/.205 line as a righty. The Byron Buxton Era can’t come soon enough up at Target Field. 
  14. Tampa Bay Rays (4-8, 23-33)  Does much more need to be said? I suppose it could be mentioned that Tampa are in the midst of a 5-game tailspin, and Wil Myers is now on the disabled list too. 
  15. Houston Astros (9-5, 24-33)  Naturally, in the time I was on vacation, and thus not paying attention to my fantasy baseball teams, George Springer went off while slotted in one of my bench spots. In that May 24th to 29th span, in 34 plate appearances Springer had 6 home runs, walked more often than he struck out (5BBs to 4Ks), possessed a .417 average, and accrued a ridiculous 1.767 OPS mark. Even more ludicrously, the Astros went 6-0 and are now no longer the worst team (by record anyway) in the American League. Now excuse me while I go light myself on fire…

The Senior Class: NL Power Rankings – Week 9!

Every week throughout the season (minus last week, when I was vacationing at Safeco Field), I’m 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. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 9! (All records correct as of Saturday morning). 

  1. San Francisco Giants (9-3 over the last fortnight, 36-19 overall)  After initially hoping they’d be able to avoid a roster move, Matt Cain was finally placed on the DL yesterday, and Yusmeiro Petit will take his turn against the Cardinals today. With Pablo Sandoval and the rest of the offense rolling, and ten consecutive games against sub-.500 teams after this series with St. Louis is complete, there’s probably no better time for the Giants to lose Cain for a stretch. 
  2. St. Louis Cardinals (7-6, 29-26)  With Matt Adams banished to the DL with a calf strain, the Redbirds finally pulled the Super-2 trigger yesterday and called up their top prospect, Oscar Taveras. The jewel of St. Louis’ loaded farm system, Taveras was batting .325 in 49 games with Memphis with seven homers and 40 RBIs, and is being counted on to provide an injection to a languishing Cardinals offense that after leading the senior circuit in darn near every metric last year, is producing just 3.93 runs per game in 2014 (10th best among NL teams). The 21-year-old Dominican will apparently bat sixth in the order, and also presumably push Allen Craig to first base while he plays in right field. The real fun however, will come when the Cards finish up their early June interleague schedule and Adams returns; someone is going to be squeezed out of playing time, a problem shared by the…
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers (6-7, 29-27)  An awkward situation resolved itself on Wednesday when left fielder Carl Crawford was placed on the DL with a left ankle sprain. For the previous 5 days, Matt Kemp had found himself riding the pine, replaced in center field by Andre Ethiersomething that apparently didn’t sit too well with the highly-paid Kemp. Crawford’s injury permitted Kemp back into the lineup, but starting in left field for the first time since his rookie year, the 29-year-old hasn’t exactly excelled since his return; he’s gone 0-13 over the last four days, and is now batting .242 with a .719 OPS on the season. Given how Don Mattingly is making noise that he might not even start Kemp today, it might be time to go out and grab Joc Pedersen in your fantasy leagues. 
  4. Atlanta Braves (7-7, 29-25) 
  5. Milwaukee Brewers (6-7, 33-22)  After racking up 13 saves with a 12.9 K/9 ratio in April, the Francisco Rodriguez revival train came off the tracks in May. Over the past 30 days, K-Rod has allowed 7 earned runs and three homers in just 11 innings pitched, his strikeout rate falling to a meager 6.5/9 in that span. Paging Jim Henderson
  6. Colorado Rockies (4-7, 28-26)  
  7. Washington Nationals (4-8, 26-27)  Ryan Zimmerman went 0-3 as a designated hitter in his first rehab game at Class-A Potomac yesterday, but the bigger news is where he’ll be playing today. Working his way back into the swing of things after breaking his right thumb back on April 12th, Zimmerman will be playing left field, his first experience of the outfield, as the Nationals experiment with him at positions other than third. The 29-year-old will also apparently get time at first base, which he could man for the Nationals while Adam LaRoche remains on the DL.
  8. Miami Marlins (6-5, 28-26)  In some much-needed good injury news, right-hander Henderson Alvarez has been cleared to pitch Tuesday after complaining of a sore elbow in his most recent start. The last thing the Marlins need is another promising starter following Jose Fernandez to the operating table.
  9. New York Mets (6-7, 25-29)  Rafael Montero has been demoted, clearing the way for Daisuke Matsuzaka to start next Wednesday. I would argue, but the Mets have 35 quality starts this season, the third-highest mark in the majors. They must be doing something right. 
  10. Cincinnati Reds (5-8, 24-29)  With a team OPS of .673 for the season, the Cincinnati offense is officially floundering. Jay Bruce is back, but has done little, scratching his way to a .111/.111/.148 triple slash line since making his return. Perhaps worse, he’s now being out-slugged by Billy Hamilton. Only two members of the Reds starting lineup, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco rank above league average by OPS+. Joey Votto, the only other Red who can claim such a title, is eligible to come off the DL today, but unfortunately doesn’t yet appear ready to return. Thank goodness for Mike Leake, Johnny Cueto, and the rest of the excellent starting pitching, a staff should be further boosted by the imminent return of Mat Latos. Without them, my Reds would be dead and buried already. 
  11. Pittsburgh Pirates (8-6, 25-29) 
  12. Philadelphia Phillies (7-6, 24-28)  Ruben Amaro remains a contentious figure at best, but it appears he at least got something right – keeping Chase Utley. After receiving a lucrative contract extension in the midst of a successful streak last summer, the 35-year-old has continued his hot-hitting ways in 2014, batting .323/.379/.525 so far. At the keystone, that’s incredible production, and well worth the $15 million the Phillies have invested in him this season. Whether he can avoid injury and keep it up for the remaining length of the contract however, well into his late thirties, remains the funkier angle of Amaro’s logic. 
  13. San Diego Padres (5-7, 25-30)  
  14. Arizona Diamondbacks (5-6, 23-34) Believe it or not, the D’Backs have actually been relatively respectable in May, going 14-12 over the past month. Arizona’s pitching remains a mess, but with Aaron Hill supporting Paul Goldschmidt nicely, their offense isn’t half the train wreck. They travel to Coors Field this week, so expect the trend of horrific pitching, good hitting to continue. 
  15. Chicago Cubs (6-6, 19-33)  Going into Thursday’s game, Kris Bryant was batting .349 with 15 home runs and 44 RBIs for the Tennessee Smokies, with a .452 OBP (he’s added another home run since, obviously) .Accordingly, he was bumped up to no. 8 in Keith Law’s most recent prospect rankings, leapfrogging fellow Cubs prospect Javier Baez, who checked in at no. 9. The first round selection of the Cubs last year, Bryant has destroyed Southern League pitching to such an extent that a promotion to Triple-A can’t be far away, which will hopefully serve as a prelude to a September cup of coffee in the big leagues. Until then though, it’s another dull losing season at Wrigley.

Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 9!

A Friday Hypothetical: Which Injury-Ravaged Rotation Would You Rather Have?

Whilst I should technically have been listening to a lecture on Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge in my English class earlier today, I was instead thinking about Prince Fielder – and more specifically, the news that emerged earlier today that he had opted to undergo season-ending fusion surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. With Fielder becoming the 17th Rangers player to hit the DL this year alone, I naturally began to wonder whether any team in baseball had been hit so hard in terms on injuries. My Reds have had a few notable ones for sure, injuries striking down arguably three of Cincy’s top five players in Joey Votto, Mat Latos, and Jay Bruce. Both the A’s and Brave’s lost a pair of pitchers to Tommy John surgery before the season even started. But there was only one other team, in one particular element of the game, that I could draw a truly accurate comparison of hurt with – the New York Yankees’ starting rotation. 

After forty minutes of pretending to listen, but silently pondering, I still can not choose who’s in worse shape; the Rangers, or the Yanks. Let’s break it down;

At the head of each rotation is an unquestionable ace. For the Rangers, it’s Yu Darvish, he of the 2.35 ERA this year, a 2nd-place Cy Young award finish last year, and a mind-boggling array of pitches – wouldn’t you agree Torii Hunter?

For the Evil Empire, it’s their new Japanese Import and $155 million man, Masahro Tanaka, who has raced out to a 6-1 record with a 2.39 ERA while leading the league in strikeout to walk rate. He’s got some pretty nasty stuff of his own, as brilliantly detailed by Grantland‘s Shane Ryan earlier today. Little needs to be said about these two – ultimately they should both finish with top-five finishes in the AL Cy Young race this year, and cancel each other out in terms of our little contest.

It gets considerably dicier immediately after those two however, and all because of those pesky injuries.

It’s been a long while since he was as good as his reputation foretold, but C.C. Sabathia being out for six weeks with his degenerative knee problem might not especially hurt the Yankees considering how this year he has a 5.28 ERA in 46 innings. Losing Michael Pineda to first a suspension, and then a strained back muscle, has been a significant blow – the young righty had a 1.83 ERA in the four games he started earlier in the season. Ivan Nova too, after seemingly figuring it out at the end of 2013, is gone for the year after requiring the dreaded TJ. 

What’s left isn’t scaring anyone. Hiroki Kuroda has been a shadow of his former self, and with a 4.61 ERA at 39-years-old, looks cooked. Vidal Nuno has been similarly awful, but doesn’t have the excuse of needing a stick to walk out to the mound for his disgusting 5.82 ERA. David Phelps is David freakin’ Phelps, whereas Alfredo Aceves (who is listed as their fifth starter by ESPN’s depth chart but is yet to start a game) is really just a poor man’s version of Phelps – lacking incredible velocity, with marginal stuff and shaky command, the sort of pitcher who profiles best to a long-man relief role. That’s a whole lot of David Phelps mentioned right there. Eeesh…

Texas on the other hand, lost presumptive no. 2 Derek Holland before the season began in a curious incident with a dog (in the night time – read the book, if you haven’t already). Matt Harrison returned after missing the majority of last season, but would only give the Rangers one additional quality start before bowing out spondylolisthesis, a forward displacement of a vertebra which causes severe nerve irritation, in the lumbosacral joint (L5-S1) in his lower back (yes, I googled that). To add to their starting pitcher availability woes, free agent signing Tommy Hanson didn’t make the team, Alexi Ogando couldn’t be stretched out from the bullpen in time, and Neftali Feliz was moved back into a relief role (and is at Triple-A). 

All of which left the Rangers in their current situation, rolling out Nick Tepesch, Nick Martinez, and Scott Baker behind Colby Lewis and the aforementioned Darvish.  Things have gotten so desperate in Arlington that Joe Saunders, who lasted 3.2 innings and gave up four earned runs in his only start of the year thus far, will immediately step into the rotation when he returns from the DL soon, the same of which can’t be said for Tanner Scheppers. I might just have to give this one to the Yankees, but by the slimmest of margins.

Neither staff is especially helped by their home park. Yankee Stadium is infamous for its short right field porch, and undeniably augments home runs – just ask Phil Hughes, who having escaped to the cavernous Target Field in Minnesota is looking like the solid pitcher many expected when he was a Yankees farmhand many moons ago. Globe life Park in Arlington too, is incredibly friendly to power hitters, particularly when it heats up. One of the biggest reasons why many predicted Prince Fielder would rebound this year was the fact that he’d be playing half his games in the Texas heat. Presumably this would not only aid his fly balls out of the park, but help him lose a little weight in the process while rounding the bases. All looks equal here then.

But the defense, oh the defense. To the left side of the infield in Texas, the combination of Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus gobble up ground balls. J.P. Arencibia is (mercifully) gone from behind the plate, and their outfield defense is stellar. In the Bronx on the other hand, though the outfield is solid, the infield is dire; Yangervis Solarte is a utility player manning third base, and Brian Roberts a statue at the keystone. Mark Teixeira is a long way removed from his gold glove caliber days. And then there’s Derek Jeter.

Advantage, Texas.

 

Jeff Samardzija and ending the fantasy ‘win’

By the metrics, Jeff Samardzija has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this year. After Johnny Cueto gave up six earned runs in his Tuesday start, the ‘Shark’ leads all qualified starters in ERA with a mark of 1.46. Through his 68 innings pitched, the 29-year-old has an obscene ERA+ number of 266, a figure 68 points better than his nearest competition (Mark Buehrle, if you were wondering). He’s tied for first with Cueto in pitcher WAR, both NL Central righties holding a 2.7 value above replacement. Though his strikeout rate is at its lowest since he became a full-time starter back in 2012 (7.1 K/9 in 2014, compared to a 9.1 average the prior two seasons), he is walking fewer batters (2.8 BB/9 in contrast to 3.1), and inducing more ground balls then ever before (after a 0.90 GB/FB ratio in 2012/3, Samardzija is currently inducing grounders at a 51.6% clip – good for a 1.06 ratio). Never before has Jeff Samardzija been as good as he is now. 

And yet after 10 starts, as good as he has been, Samardzija still has a big fat zero in the win column.

In the grand scheme of things, the fact that the Cubs have gone 1-9 in games he has started this year, doesn’t especially matter anymore; it seems most people associated with the sport have recognized that wins are driven by run support, good defense, and a solid bullpen. It’s now not completely unusual for stud pitchers to endure wonky looking seasons by record – just ask Cliff Lee (6 wins in 2012), or Cole Hamels (8 wins last year). Samardzija’s brilliance this year in fact, has perhaps only been shoved further into the spotlight by the fact that his team can’t muster up any support for him; nuggets like this, “Going back to last year, Samardzija has now gone 13 consecutive starts allowing two or fewer earned runs. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s the second-longest streak since the league started compiling earned runs in 1913,” via Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com, and this from Ted berg of usatoday.com, “Samardzija became the first pitcher in the live-ball era — and one of only two since 1917 — to open a season with seven straight starts of at least five innings with fewer than three earned runs and record no wins in the process,” have ensured Samardzija’s infamous dominance has gone down in lore. 

The Indiana native’s 0-4 record doesn’t seem to be hurting his trade value either. After being unable to come to an agreement with the team in regards to a long term contract this past offseason, articles linking Samardzija with trades to the Rockies, Blue Jays, Marlins, and of course the Yankees, have been abundant. Former Cub Matt Garza added fuel to the fire too, when he advised Samardzija to “pitch your way out of there.”

So why then, do standard fantasy leagues place so much value on the win ‘statistic’? Despite his high standing in all of the aforementioned metrics, Samardzija’s excellence lands him… 31st among pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater? While his closest comparisons in terms of underlying stats – Cueto and Adam Wainwright – rank first and second respectively, Chicago’s ace finds himself in the same fantasy realm as Aaron Harang, who is about to turn back into a pumpkin. Heck, he’s only six spots and .20 ahead of Giants reliever Jean Machi, who has somehow walked his way into five wins already this season. The importance attributed to the win category is quite frankly, baffling.

Now I’m not advocating the win be erased from baseball altogether – like with the inherently unreliable RBI statistic as a harbinger of offensive excellence, if the win were to be erased fans of records would most likely march on Cooperstown and riot. But seriously, can it be done away with in fantasy leagues at least? Use another category, quality starts for instance – of which Samardzija has 8 already – when it comes to rewarding quality starting pitching. Every year otherwise, there will be another unlucky Lee, Hamels, or Samardzija type, plugging away on a crappy team while some fluke soft-tosser, or God forbid, a reliever, steals in a few wins and jumps ahead of them in value. I don’t even own Samardzija and am infuriated by the prospect of such an outcome occurring!

Next year then, do away with the win. Jeff Samardzija might be racking them up on another team by then, but some ace out there will be getting shafted. Make sure you aren’t going to be stuck owning their misfortune.

Hope in Cleveland: Lottery Wins, Johnny Football, & Michael Brantley

Widely predicted to challenge for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs prior to the 2013/4 NBA season tipping off, the Cavaliers instead endured a year from hell. The grand Andrew Bynum gamble was an irrevocable disaster, the bowling enthusiast turning practice into a spectacle worse than even his hair. Dion Waiters and the team’s star point guard Kyrie Irving allegedly fought. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett was an unmitigated flop. The coach they re-hired, and gave a five-year contract too in the process, was duly fired after one.

Naturally then, the Cavs landed the No.1 pick for the 2014 draft, and thus the right to presumably choose between Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.

There weren’t so many high hopes for the Cleveland Browns last season – the AFC North always looked to tough for them to truly challenge – but still, not much went according to plan. Jimmy Haslam, the team’s new owner, was (and still is) under federal investigation. Just as Brian Hoyer was starting to look good at the QB position, he tore up his knee. Coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after one year, as was Mike Lombardi – even after acquiring a first round pick for Trent Richardson.

Of course, they not only landed Justin Gilbert in the draft, but some kid called Johnny Football? With Manziel in tow, along with a ton of merchandise money, there’s now hope for the Browns.

The Cleveland Indians meanwhile, have so far been nothing but disappointing. After going to the Wild-Card game last year, they currently stand at 22-25, last in the AL Central. Danny Salazar is in the minors. Carlos Santana is batting .146. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the team’s big free agent additions a year ago, have alternately been battling injury and ineffectiveness. All-Star second baseman, Jason Kipnis is currently sidelined with a strained oblique. 2013 pitching ace Scott Kazmir is thriving, except he’s in Oakland now.

But if there’s one reason for optimism amongst Terry Francona‘s motley bunch, it’s the performance of Michael Brantley.

Now in his sixth season in the big leagues, the 27-year-old Brantley has been the lone bright star in what has otherwise been a gloomy quarter-season for the Indians. Case in point, the left fielder leads the team in darn near all offensive categories; batting average (.302), on base percentage (.370), slugging percentage (.523), home runs (9), RBI(zzzzzz) (36), hits (52), oWAR (1.6) – you name it, Brantley probably leads it. In fact, if it weren’t for Asdrubal Cabrera having one measly run scored more than him, Brantley’s name would head every offensive leaderboard for the team. With little help coming from elsewhere in the lineup, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the left-handed Brantley has almost single-handedly kept the Cleveland offense afloat amidst their early season struggles.

It hasn’t exactly been a fluke either. A career .277 hitter prior to the season, his 2014 success in hitting for average hasn’t been BABIP fueled; his current batted ball mark of .277 is actually 25 points below his career average. After being considerably limited by fellow southpaws in the past too (his average fell .30 against portsiders, whereas his slugging percentage dropped .80), Brantley has this year been an equal opportunities hitter, battering lefties (.288 average, .887 OPS) at a clip almost identical with his mark against right-handers (.292 and .872 respectively). Sure you can point to his 2013 Will Venable impersonation in regards to his HR/FB rate – which currently sits at a round 20.0% – and thus scream regression at his power totals, but having just turned 27 (and apparently, having carried his newborn baby around everywhere all winter too), is it totally unreasonable that Brantley is hitting for more power than ever? His approach at the plate certainly can’t be argued with – only marveled at; having struck out just 16 times in 192 plate appearances, ‘Dr. Smooth’ ranks fifth-lowest among AL qualifiers in K% with a mark of 8.3%. Thanks in part to his elite contact rate (91.2% for his career) and decent patience, he’s actually drawn ball four (17) more often than fallen victim to the K. 

All signs then, point to Brantley continuing to enjoy his ‘breakout’. The Cleveland front office will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of him doing so – prior to the season, they locked him up to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $25 million which will see Brantley in an Indians uniform through his age-30 season (a club option for a fifth year for $11 million could extend that to through 2018).  

God might still hate Cleveland, but there’s always room for optimism. He might not be a Wiggins-esque franchise savior, and is nowhere close to becoming a Manziel-level cash cow, but Michael Brantley is darn good. 

Anyone for some web gems?

I can’t say I was expecting much of an exciting game when I tuned into yesterdays game in Washington. The Nationals were sending Stephen Strasburg to the mound to face a Reds lineup minus both Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, batting Skip Schumaker in the two hole, and playing Brayan Pena at first base. Cincinnati meanwhile, had their hopes pinned to the perennially underrated Mike Leake, who would be looking to shut down a Washington lineup without Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Zimmerman. A high run total was not to be expected then, though a nice pitcher’s duel was in play.

Alas! Though they both pitched plenty well enough, combining for 13.2 innings and just 3 runs allowed, neither Strasburg nor Leake really had their best stuff working – Strasburg for example, only had 4 strikeouts against a team which employs both Billy Hamilton and Zack Cozart.

Still, on a night during which there were only four other games being played (bad job by the folks at MLB, especially considering there wasn’t a single day game), the game turned out more than alright as a spectacle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it went 15 innings (though unfortunately, no position player pitched – shout out to Drew Butera!). Secondly, minus one embarrassing drop by Jayson Werth, some of the defensive plays made were spectacular.

From the very first pitch of the evening, the standard was set; echoing Tyler Moore‘s play to rob Eric Young Jr. the night before, Wilson Ramos laid out, catcher’s equipment and all, to snag a pop-up bunt off the bat of Billy Hamilton.

Cincinnati would be up by two by the time the next highlight defensive stop occurred, a diving stop made by who else but Brandon Phillips. Now I’ve got on Phillips’ attitude before as an angry Reds fan, and his production at the dish has certainly dropped off the last couple of years despite his huge 2013 RBI(zzzzzz) total indicating otherwise, but boy can he still play the deuce effectively. He makes robbing Danny Espinosa‘s hard-hit groundball look easy. Of course (after the Nats had got on the board), in the very next frame – the top of the eighth – Espinosa would get some measure of revenge, making arguably an even better play at the keystone to deny Todd Frazier, and keep Washington’s deficit at one.

Neither highlight however, would ultimately be the crowning fielding moment of the night. Because first, in the bottom of the twelfth with runners on first and third and two outs, Phillips would top his earlier effort with an incredible pounce on Wilson Ramos liner behind the bag at second, preserving the game for the Reds.

Then, after substitute Neftali Soto made a great catch of an Ian Desmond foul ball while leaning over the tarp in the 13th, Billy Hamilton would hold off Washington from a walk-off win once again.

Poor Anthony Rendon must have thought he’d won it with a runner on third ready to stroll home. Hamilton however, quickly put an end to those dreams, ending the inning in the process.

Frazier would finally provide the breakthrough in the fifteenth, blasting a two-run homer over the right field wall off Ross Detwiler, and after Washington only managed one in response in the bottom of the inning, after nearly five hours (4.58 if you’re picky), the game was concluded – the Reds eking it out 4-3.

Having gone to the gym and back in the meanwhile, by then I didn’t care much about the result. I’d gone into the game not expecting much after all, just hoping that the Reds could pull it out, inch back closer to .500, and make up some ground in the NL Central. What I got then, was a pleasant surprise. With the big-names out, and the pitching merely above-average, I’d been treated to a thriller.

All because of some defense.