Throughout the season 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 10, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 10! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Oakland Athletics (5-2 last week, 38-24 overall) → Like their Bay Area mates the Giants, Oakland are lapping the field in terms of run differential (their mark of +118 is more than double the next best team, the Blue Jays). Unlike San Francisco however, the rest of their division is looking pretty frisky too, with only the Astros rocking a losing record amongst the other four AL West teams. They might well be the best team in the AL, but the A’s are going to have to be on their game all year long to stay at the summit of their own division with such stellar competition.
- Toronto Blue Jays (5-1, 38-25) ↑ As a starter, Marcus Stroman has pitched 12 innings of 1.50 ERA ball, walking two while striking out 13. As a reliever, he was rocked for 9 earned runs in just 6.1 innings, and had a 2.21 WHIP. A small sample size admittedly, but lets keep handing Stroman the ball to start games, rather than finish them, eh Mr. Gibbons?
- Detroit Tigers (2-4, 33-25) ↓ Three weeks ago, the Tigers looked like they were pulling away from the rest of the AL Central. Having just swept the Red Sox in a three-game series at Fenway Park, getting some measure of revenge for the 2013 ALCS, they stood seven games clear in the division, at 27-12. Since then however, Detroit has gone 6-13, and seen their division lead cut back down to 4. Surprisingly at the forefront of the Tigers’ struggles is their usually dominant pitching; Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer have both been excellent, and Rick Porcello his steady self, but Drew Smyly has failed to live up to expectations since being promoted to the rotation in place of the departed Doug Fister, and Justin Verlander looks to be a shell of his former self. Remember the panic this time last year when the 2011 AL MVP had a 3.71 ERA after 13 starts? Well this year, he’s gotten off to an even worse start – through 13 starts, he has a 4.19 ERA, a heightened walk rate (3.7 BB/9 compared to a career mark of 2.8, and a 2.0 figure in that career 2011 season), and is displaying a diminished strikeout rate (just 6.4 k/9 after averaging 9.0 over the prior four seasons). In return for collecting $20 million in salary this year, Verlander has been distinctly average, as proven by his 101 ERA+. Of course, Verlander rebounded in the second half last season, and might still be getting back into the swing of things after offseason core surgery, but at 31 years old, and owed $28 million per season for the next five years, I’d say there’s significant cause for concern amongst Tigers fans.
- Los Angeles Angels (3-3, 33-28) →
- Baltimore Orioles (4-2, 31-29) ↑
- Seattle Mariners (4-1, 32-29) ↑
- New York Yankees (2-5, 31-30) ↓ New York’s record in games in which Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t pitched you ask? 21-28. First on the list of pointers for improvement, stop playing Brendan Ryan at first base while riding with Derek Jeter at shortstop! If you couldn’t tell, this drives me insane.
- Chicago White Sox (3-3, 31-32) ↑ Just as I was about ready to gush about how amazing Chris Sale had been of late, Mike Trout happened. Oh well. Prior to the eighth inning last night, Sale had allowed just 5 hits in 31 innings, a mere 7 to the last 107 batters he had faced, and owned a 0.72 ERA over his last four starts. Of course, after 93 pitches and seven scoreless innings last night, aided by an error, he allowed all five Angels he faced in the bottom of the eight to score, as L.A. erased a 5-0 deficit in the blink of an eye. Still, as of right now, I’m of the belief that the man known as ‘The Condor’ is the best pitcher in the AL. Mike Trout is the Most Valuable Horse after all.
- Cleveland Indians (5-1, 31-31) ↑ In his second game back off the 7-day concussion DL, Carlos Santana yesterday went 2-2, with 2 walks, a home run and a single, lifting the Tribe to an 8-3 win over the Rangers. No more games behind the plate for Mr. Santana methinks…
- Boston Red Sox (1-5, 27-34) ↓ They lose 10 in a row. They win 7 in a row. They lose 6 in a row. Why Boston, must you make it so incredibly difficult for me to rank you?!
- Texas Rangers (3-3, 31-31) ↓ Just hours after Kendrys Morales, you know, a designated hitter/first baseman type, signed with the Twins, Mitch Moreland, you know, Texas’ designated hitter/first baseman type, who had replaced Prince Fielder, you know, the Rangers’ presumed first baseman/designate hitter type after he went down with injury, was announced to be in need of reconstructive ankle surgery, and out for the next three months. The Rangers now have made 19 DL moves this season. No other team has made more than 12.
- Kansas City Royals (4-3, 30-32) ↓ Eric Hosmer home run alert! I repeat, Eric Hosmer home run alert!
- Minnesota Twins → (4-3, 29-31) The Twins came out of nowhere yesterday to ink Kendrys Morales to a one-year deal, thought to be “in the ballpark” of the $10 million contract that Stephen Drew signed with the Red Sox in May. After the 30-year-old hit .277 with 23 home runs and 80 RBIs with Seattle last season, he’ll likely slot into the DH spot which has preeminently been manned by Josmil Pinto (19 GP) this year. Jason Kubel was designated for assignment in a corresponding roster move.
- Tampa Bay Rays (1-6, 24-39) → The Rays are holding on to 14th place in these rankings by the skin of their teeth, probably because I still can’t comprehend fully how they are three games back of the Astros. Seriously, I look at the standings and think it’s a mistake. Things have got to a point with the Rays however, where Joe Maddon‘s optimistic tweets, have got about as much baloney to them as the sandwiches he makes in the clubhouse.
- Houston Astros (3-3, 27-36) → Not a bad way to get your first hit Jon Singleton.
Boy, the baseball Gods are in a vengeful mood this year. Anyone have any idea what has upset them? It’s evidently not Yasiel Puig‘s bat-flips like some of the old curmudgeon sports writers would have you believe – he’s still standing after all. Still, they’re smiting down other young, exciting, and crucial players at a depressingly prolific rate right now. It’s getting ridiculous – just ask the poor Texas Rangers, who can barely cobble together a starting rotation anymore. Is there a player we can send as some sort of sacrifice offering to appease them? No one would miss Josh Lueke I’m guessing – probably not even the Rays. Fine, too drastic a measure. Until you come up with something better to end the madness though, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more important figures who were sidelined over the past weekend, and a reason perhaps why the higher powers don’t want them taking the field.
In the case of Gio Gonzalez, the logic of the Gods is easy; in a year in which nearly every team has a starter missing from the rotation, why should one team allowed to be fully healthy? Boosted by the return of Doug Fister (who turned in a very nice seven innings of one run ball in his second start last Thursday), the Nationals had all of eight days with a fully healthy starting staff before Gio Gonzalez was given the special treatment. After being rocked for 7 earned runs in just 4.1 innings in his previous start against the Athletics, Gio was once taken behind the woodshed on Saturday, allowing 5 runs to the Mets of all offenses, lasting just 3 innings to boot. After telling the club he was struggling to find any consistency with his arm slot – a precursor for shoulder trouble – he was given an MRI on Sunday morning. The results came back negative however, so for now the 28-year-old lefty is only on the 15-day DL with slight shoulder inflammation, joining the likes of Bryce Harper, Adam Laroche and Ryan Zimmerman in watching from the bench.
It’s dubious exactly why, but poor Will Middlebrooks seems to have had the worst of injury luck in his young career. Maybe his two trips to the DL already this year are a form of karmic retribution for taking Jenny Dell away from us on NESN Red Sox broadcasts, but permitting a sixteen-year-old to take her to prom should surely make up for something. Anyhow, after seeing his promising rookie year cut short by a wrist fracture caused by a HBP, suffering through torn cartilage in his rib cage and lower back problems in 2013, and then injuring his calf earlier this year, Middlebrooks will once again be making himself comfortable in the Boston training room for a while after sustaining a non-displaced fracture of his right index finger during Saturday’s game against the Tigers. Ian Kinsler‘s scorching line drive apparently left the digit bent and discolored, and it will now be immobilized in a split for the next five to seven days. No return timetable has been set of yet, but batting .197 at the moment, maybe Middlebrooks needed some extended time off anyway. He gets to spend more time with Jenny now too, so it can’t be all that bad.
Oh, Andrew Cashner… My fingers are sincerely crossed that you aren’t the next young, hard-throwing pitcher to have caught the Tommy John plague, but I’m very concerned. You’ve tempted fate all year with that 2.35 ERA, 143 OPS+ and 2.76 K/BB ratio; we should have learnt by now that as baseball fans, we aren’t allowed nice things (see Harvey, Matt last year). So of course, with the Padres looking like coming around somewhat, the Gods were going to pick you next to reminds us of our cruel mortality. It would have been Nate Eovaldi, but that dreadful mullet you sport, and the fact they’ve already taken Jose Fernandez from the Marlins this year, swung it in your (dis-)favor. Hopefully your sore elbow will require nothing more than the 15-day DL stint set out for you, but with a history of injuries (albeit shoulder ones), you’re not giving us much reason for hope here.
Seriously though, why did you have to take down Jose Abreu though – is leading the major leagues in home runs as a rookie not sacred anymore? I can understand wanting to get Paul Konerko some extra playing time in his final year, but wouldn’t just Abreu having a tight back for a couple of days be sufficient? Instead, it had to be posterior tibia tendinitis in the ankle, a nagging injury that will likely plague the 27-year-old all year long rather than heal completely during his short time on the disabled list. Do you know how important the back foot achilles is to power hitters? Just look at Ryan Howard (though he wasn’t great to start with). Is this all some part of a weird Cuban vendetta? First it was Aroldis Chapman taking a liner to the head, then Fernandez, and now this.
Maybe Puig should be looking out for himself after all…
Throughout the season 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 7, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 7! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Detroit Tigers (5-1 last week, 26-12 overall) → Over their last 17 games, the Tigers have just 3 losses, and have swept away both their closest AL Central challenger (Kansas City), and the AL East leader (Baltimore). If they extend their winning streak to six tonight at Fenway Park, you can add the defending World Series champions Boston to that list too. Cleveland and Texas better look out this week, because Detroit are rolling…
- Oakland Athletics (5-1, 27-16) → … as are the Athletics, who have now won 8 of their last 9, outscoring their opponents 58-15 during that time. 58-15! Given how they’re an unglamorous team that plays in a sewer bowl though, no one is watching the Athletics no matter how good they’ve been of late – only 10,120 fans went to their Monday game at O.co Coliseum against the White Sox. At least they’ll be used to a lack of crowd noise for when they travel to play in front of empty seats at Tampa Bay this week.
- Los Angeles Angels (5-2, 23-19) ↑ Mike Trout is ‘struggling’ in May, not that it stopped him from hitting a three-run, walk-off home run against the Rays, or 41,959 fans (including over 4000 from his hometown of Millville, NJ) coming out to see him in his first trip back to Philadelphia. He’s still second in the AL WAR standings too, with 2.8, trailing only Josh Donaldson (3.3), and remains on pace for a career high value. Must be real hard being Mike Trout right now eh?
- Baltimore Orioles (2-5, 22-19) ↓
- New York Yankees (3-3, 22-19) → Masahiro Tanaka notched his first shutout in the US on Wednesday against the Mets, and in the process moved to 30-0 since the beginning of 2013. That $155 million contract that Brian Cashman handed out to the 25-year-old Tanaka is looking like more and more of a steal with every start he makes.
- Toronto Blue Jays (5-2, 23-21) ↑ Hands up if you had Drew Hutchison throwing a three-hit shutout and out dueling Yu Darvish on Friday night? Liars… In other news, after injury marred 2012 and 2013 seasons, Jose Bautista appears to be back in vintage form. His .998 OPS thus far is actually marginally better than his 2010 mark, a season in which he famously hit 54 home runs, though he still has a little way to go to match his 2011 total (1.055). Either way, along with Edwin Encarnacion, a healthy Bautista gives Toronto one of the most fearsome middle-order duos in all of baseball – which should help whenever Hutchison’s deal with the baseball Gods expires.
- Boston Red Sox (2-4, 20-22) ↓
- Kansas City Royals (4-2, 21-21) ↑ Mike Moustakas apparently didn’t appreciate all the speculation regarding whether he should be demoted – if you haven’t yet heard the audio from his post game ‘interview’ after Wednesday’s game, I’d recommend giving Buster Olney’s Baseball Tonight podcast from Friday a listen (skip to the end for Moustakas’ incredibly childish non-response to questions). I’d have sent him down just for that.
- Seattle Mariners (1-5, 20-22) ↓ Is it selfish for me to be praying that Seattle somehow have their schedule messed up a bit this week so that either King Felix Hernandez or Hisashi Iwakuma gets pushed into starting against the Angels on Memorial Day? Otherwise it looks like I’ll be watching Chris Young pitch when I venture north to visit Safeco Field.
- Minnesota Twins (5-1, 21-20) ↑ After surprisingly jacking seven home runs and stealing seven bases during April, I can’t say I was expected Brian Dozier to get better. But improve even further he has, pasting a further 4 long balls and pilfering another 6 bags so far in May, and batting .318/.420/.545 after an April in which he hit just .226. Factor in his tremendous defense at second base, and fellow keystoner Jason Kipnis‘ 2014 campaign being limited by injury thus far, and Dozier may well find himself playing an additional game at Target Field later this summer.
- Tampa Bay Rays (3-4, 19-25) →
- Chicago White Sox (2-4, 21-23) ↑ Jose Abreu hits the disabled list with tendinitis in his left ankle, as some evil genius out there strives to take away every exciting young player in baseball during half a season.
- Texas Rangers (1-5, 20-23) ↓ After starting the season 4-0 with a 1.42 ERA, including a pair of 3-hit shutouts, it did seem odd that Martin Perez would suddenly allow 19 runs in the 13 1/3 innings that constituted his next three starts – almost as weird as how the San Diego Padres could abruptly pepper Jose Fernandez. Well, like Fernandez, an MRI showed that Texas’ 23-year-old sophomore also has a torn UCL, and will require Tommy John surgery. The season-ending procedure will be administered this Monday by team physician Dr. Keith Meister. In another devastating blow to the Ranger’s rotation, Matt Harrison may require career-threatening spinal-fusion surgery. After being limited by injury to just six starts over the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined, it unfortunately seems that we’ve likely seen the last of Harrison on the mound. Throw in Prince Fielder needing a nerve-root injection yesterday due to a herniated disk in his neck (ending his consecutive games streak at 547), and the deluge of injuries that first began in Spring Training has officially drowned Texas’ chances in 2014. A lost season if there ever was one, and it’s only May 18th – sorry Rangers fans.
- Cleveland Indians (2-4, 19-24) ↓ From jumping three levels of the Indians organization in 2013 and pitching in the Wild-Card game, to surrendering a a 5.53 ERA and barely lasting five innings a start to begin 2014, the Danny Salazar rollercoaster ride continued on this week with the 24-year-old being sent back to Triple-A Columbus. On the plus side of things, his demotion will mean we should get to see Trevor Bauer again this week, who has gone 4-1 with a 2.15 ERA in his seven starts so far down at Columbus. He’s slated to square off against Justin Verlander and Detroit on Tuesday though, so it won’t exactly be a cushy re-introduction back into major league competition.
- Houston Astros (4-2, 15-28) → Are my eyes deceiving me? Did the Astros just have a winning week? You betcha!
Every week throughout the season 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 5, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 5! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Detroit Tigers (4-0 last week, 16-9 overall) ↑ You can only beat what’s put in front of you, and recently, Detroit have been doing just that. After playing just four games last week, bringing their season total to 25 (Seattle have played the next fewest in the AL, with 28), and handily winning them all, the Tigers finally have a full slate to look forward to over the next seven days. Considering how they’ll face Kansas City (once), Houston, and Minnesota, while being scheduled to send Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer to the mound twice apiece, Brad Ausmus‘ crew stand a good chance of remaining in single-digit losses by this time next Sunday.
- Oakland Athletics (3-3, 18-12) ↓ The A’s sure got their revenge on Texas by outscoring them 25-4 in their three-game sweep, but were comprehensively dealt with by Boston over the past couple of days. Having faced a pretty light schedule so far this season, today’s tilt at Fenway will serve as somewhat of a yardstick; are the A’s actually good enough to beat the cream of the crop, and compete all year with the likes of Boston and Detroit? With Sonny Gray on the bump to face John Lackey, the Oakland have a decent enough chance to prove they belong.
- Los Angeles Angels (4-2, 15-14) ↑ Scoring 5.38 runs per game, the Angels have by some distance the best offense in the AL thus far – not that much of a surprise considering Mike Trout‘s continued excellence (he once again leads the AL in WAR), Albert Pujols‘ solid bounce back, and Howie Kendrick‘s nice start at the plate (.314/.391/.441). Where Anaheim have stood out most so far though, has been on the mound, where they have allowed just 4.03 runs per game – the third best mark in the AL. C.J. Wilson, Tyler Skaggs and Jered Weaver have all been solid, but Garrett Richards has been the star so far; the 25-year-old Oklahoma product has struck out 40 and allowed an opponent’s batting average of just .184 in his first 38 innings (6 starts), posting a surprising 2.84 ERA. If the hard-throwing righty can get the walks under control (18 BB in the early going), the Angels might really have found something here.
- Baltimore Orioles (3-2, 15-13) ↑ Manny Machado returns, fielding nerds rejoice everywhere. Including me.
- New York Yankees (2-3, 16-13) ↓ With a -13 run differential, the Yankees are still somewhat getting by with a smoke and mirrors act. Visiting the Angels and Milwaukee for series this week, the Bombers will receive a stern test of their mettle – the Friday return of C.C. Sabathia to Miller Park should see a hero’s welcome from the Brewers fans however.
- Boston Red Sox (3-3, 15-16) →
- Texas Rangers (1-5, 16-14) ↓ I must have cursed Texas in this space last week; in likely their healthiest state since the start of the season, the Rangers were simply punted by AL West rivals Oakland and Los Angeles over the past seven days, with Martin Perez and Yu Darvish getting knocked about especially brutally. Things aren’t going to get much easier for the frontline pair this week either; Darvish is slated against the top-ranked Angels offense today, and will face Boston on Friday, whereas Perez will be tasked with stymying Colorado’s explosive offense during the days in between.
- Tampa Bay Rays (3-4, 14-17) → Heath Bell was finally DFA’d, but the equally terrible, yet much more despicable Josh Lueke remains on the team. Urgh.
- Kansas City Royals (3-3, 14-15) → Fun stat of the day: to start the season, the Royals are winless when scoring 3 or fewer runs (0-15) and unbeaten when scoring at least 4 runs (14-0). Bonus factoid: thanks to Billy Butler‘s first home run of the year on Friday, the Royals as a team are now one jack ahead (12) of Jose Abreu‘s individual bomb total (11).
- Toronto Blue Jays (2-4, 13-17) → Well, Dustin McGowan is starting again today, so I guess my Marcus Stroman love was a tad premature. With Brandon Morrow now out though, it can’t be long until the Jays call up the diminutive righty.
- Cleveland Indians (2-4, 13-17) → It’s probably not an encouraging sign for your team when Michael Brantley has been by far and away your best player. The 26-year-old is having a veritable breakout, hitting .271/.336/.458, while leading the team in HR (5), runs (15), and RBIzzzzz (23), but unless Carlos Santana starts mashing (he did hit .261 with 3 homers last week, though his average remains a ghastly .158), the Indians will be up against it with both Jason Kipnis (strained oblique) and Michael Bourn (hamstring/continued case of NL-to-AL-itis) out for the near future.
- Seattle Mariners (4-1, 13-15) ↑ Wouldn’t you know it, the Mariners become a somewhat frisky team when someone else along with Robinson Cano hits. Mike Zunino (1.071 OPS), Michael Saunders (1.033), and Kyle Seager (1.030) have been terrific over the past seven days, helping Seattle to an impressive 4-1 record over that time – the M’s taking two apiece from Texas and the Yankees. With no. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma making his return yesterday against the Astros too, it’s been a good week for Seattle. Shame they have to travel for a 4-game set against Oakland this week really then, a series which will likely set them back down the standings again.
- Minnesota Twins (1-4, 13-15) ↓
- Chicago White Sox (2-4, 14-17) ↓ Adam Eaton‘s hamstring strain lands him on the 15-day DL, and suddenly the offense that has kept the Pale Hose afloat so far becomes a little less potent. The Sox could badly do with their pitching picking up some of the slack – at 5.29 runs allowed per game, they are worst among Junior Circuit teams.
- Houston Astros (2-3, 10-20) → Through 66 plate appearances, the George Springer era has not got off to a good start. Known for his prodigious power/speed combination, the 24-year-old has yet to clear the fence, and has a 0 SBN number, all whilst batting just .180/.254/.213 and looking lost at the dish; even before his call-up there were worries about his plate discipline and contact rate – with 23 strikeouts to 5 walks, those concerns have been more than justified. Throw in his 5 errors in fifteen games out in right field, and its little wonder why Bo Porter dropped him from the lineup yesterday. On the bright side though, Collin McHugh!
Way, way back in my MLB Season Preview Series, I lamented how quietly the Chicago White Sox had quietly limped to a 99-loss season in 2013. In doing my research for the post, I’d been surprised to see quite how bad they had been, and wondered how they had pulled off such anonymous incompetence. I figured it had been their anemic offense, something an influx of exciting new players would help cure, and thus get the Pale Hose back on the national radar. Using that logic, I wrote about Adam Eaton as the key to Chicago’s turnaround.
In a way, I was right; Eaton has been every bit the leadoff force that many predicted of him back before injury derailed his 2013 season in Arizona (and before Kevin Towers traded him at his lowest value). In a larger respect though, I was dead wrong; while Eaton’s arrival has undoubtedly had a positive impact on both sides of the ball, it has been the South Sider’s other notable offseason addition that has garnered baseball’s attention so far. One month into his major league career, 27-year-old rookie Jose Abreu has crushed his way into the wider consciousness, and, in the words of Jonah Keri today, “turned a moribund White Sox team into a must-watch outfit every night.”
Signed to a six-year, $68 million deal back in October (the largest in White Sox history in terms of total money), the acquisition of the right-handed slugger was deemed “a calculated risk, but one we had to take,” by none other than Chicago GM Rick Hahn at the time. Even after putting up video-game numbers in Cuba (Abreu batted .316 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs over 83 games in 2013, while posting a .479 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage*), there were still concerns over how his perceived ‘long’ swing would hold up against American League competition, the usual cultural shift worries, and whether the heavy expectations upon his shoulders (he’d be replacing beloved face of the franchise Paul Konerko at first base) would further impede his production translating. That “bold and aggressive” move though, is looking like a stroke of genius on the part of Hahn so far in 2014.
Abreu has been sensational during his first four weeks in the majors, obliterating pitches and setting all sorts of records along the way. With a major hat-tip to ESPN’s Stats and Information crew, through last nights games:
– Abreu’s 10 home runs are the most by a White Sox rookie in any month, and the most for a White Sox player since Konerko had 11 in 2001 (Jim Thome hit 10 in 2006).
– His 31 RBIs set an MLB rookie record for March/April, beating the previous mark set by… Albert Pujols. His impressive total also established a new franchise record for the opening month, topping Konerko’s mark of 28 in 2002, and has tied Frank Thomas for the most by a White Sox player in any month (Thomas had 31 in August 2003)**.
– And (as illustrated in this excellent piece) he’s just destroying the outside pitch: Eight of his 10 home runs have come against pitches on the outer half of the plate or off the outside corner, which along with his .797 slugging percentage against similar pitches, give Abreu the highest marks in baseball (His six extra-base hits against pitches out of the strike zone rank second only to Mike Trout).
Less statistically significant, but still valid: he’s destroyed at least one backstop phone, been called ” the best player in the world … ever … right now,” by Evan Longoria (admittedly after he hit the above walk-off grand slam against Grant Balfour and the Rays on Friday), taken pretty good pitchers by the names of David Price, Justin Verlander and Chris Archer deep already, and taught Danny Salazar to never, ever, hang a breaking ball again.
More than anything though, Abreu has awakened the Pale Hose offense from its 2013 slumber; along with Eaton, he’s at the forefront of a lineup which leads the majors in runs scored (143), and is largely responsive for keeping Chicago afloat at .500 in the AL Central (especially considering how ace Chris Sale is out and the rest of the team’s pitching stinks – only Arizona have allowed more runs). His monstrous impact has even made Hawk Harrelson more exclamatory than usual. So while it’s a cert that he won’t keep up his torrid pace of record-making (if he hits 62 homers and 193 RBI, I’ll turn vegan), Abreu has already achieved something I thought far more improbable; almost single-handedly, he’s made the White Sox watchable again.
* Numbers which actually made it a below-average year for the big righty. Including postseason appearances, he batted .392 over the 2010-13 seasons, with 133 home runs, 337 RBIs, 311 runs and 278 walks.
** Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cuban defector is the first rookie with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in a calendar month since Al Rosen and Luke Easter both did it for the Cleveland Indians in June 1950.
He doesn’t have the dazzling repertoire of Yu Darvish, or command the buzz of a hot young pitcher like Jose Fernandez. He wasn’t a can’t-miss no. 1 pick like Stephen Strasburg; in fact, he was passed over by an additional 8 teams after he was supposed to be drafted. He can only dream of Felix Hernandez‘s track record. He doesn’t have the hardware of Justin Verlander, nor anywhere close to belonging in Clayton Kershaw‘s tax bracket. None of that really matters, because even without such typical acknowledgement, Chris Sale belongs in the conversation with those aforementioned peers as one of the very best pitchers in the game.
Since finally being drafted out of Florida Gulf Coast by the Chicago White Sox 13th overall back in 2010 (he had been projected to go no. 4 to the Kansas City Royals after the surefire top three picks of Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado, but they instead took Christian Colon in a perfect illustration of #RoyalsbeingRoyals), Sale has become, as described by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, “one of baseball’s unquestioned aces, a high-inning, high-strikeout, high-groundball, low-walk, homer-scarce, left-handed monster.”
Now admittedly, there were legitimate concerns over Sale when he was coming out explaining his fall in the draft; with a painful-looking contortion act also known as his pitching mechanics (see Ben Lindbergh’s excellent 2012 post if you want to be truly grossed out by the lefty’s delivery), and his 6-foot-6, 180-pound, 82-inch wingspan, there were literally no player comps for teams to go off, and significant worry about his ability to stay healthy. As a result, despite his impressive college stats, many teams saw him strictly as a future reliever.
Sale would in fact, debut in such a role for the last two months of 2010 and stick in the pen the next season, before making the transition back to being a starter for the 2012 season. Since then, quite simply he’s been a man on a mission to prove the teams that doubted his ultimate durability that they were very, very wrong in doing so; since becoming a starter (to the start of the 2014 season), “The Condor” has made 59 starts and thrown 406.1 innings, and aside from a brief dead arm scare been the picture of health. More than simply making it out onto the bump every fifth day though, Sale has been dominant too, further rubbing salt into the Barret Loux– (Arizona), Karsten Whitson- (San Diego) and Deck McGuire– (Toronto) shaped wounds of those that passed on him; since moving into a starting role, he has racked up 10.5 WAR, an ERA+ of 140, and posted not just the third-highest K/9 (9.3) of any major league starter, but the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.3) in that time.
He might just be getting better too. Sale is throwing harder than ever, with every one of his pitch types so far in 2014 having picked up velocity after jumping up last year, and maintaining his mid-90s heat deeper into games. Additionally, he’s also throwing smarter; having originally been highly dependent on his fastball/slider combination when he moved into the rotation, Sale has continued on the usage alterations which he made last year, relying on his killer changeup much more this season – a good move considering how over the last two years and change, it rates as the 4th best in the American League by Fangraph’s Pitch Type Linear Weights. It’s probably at this point too I should mention how Sale is signed to an extremely team-favorable five-year, $32.5 million contract that also gives Chicago a 2018 option for $12.5 million and a 2019 option for $13.5 million.
If any Sale skeptics could possibly still remain at this point, all they need to do is go watch his performance against the potent Red Sox offense at Fenway Park last night; going toe-to-toe with Jon Lester, the ace of the Pale Hose took a no-hitter into the sixth before ceding the only hit he would allow – a solo jack by Xander Bogaerts – eventually striking out 10 over seven innings of work**. It marked yet another great start for Sale, who has so far allowed just 16 hits in his four starts (27.1 innings), and currently has a career-low (as a starter anyway) 2.30 ERA. Even more encouragingly for Sox fans, especially considering their anemic offense’s inability to put runs on the board behind their ace, and the team’s dismal record over the past couple of years, their ace has also picked up 3 wins already as the Pale Hose have jumped out to a surprisingly hot start.
Whether Chicago keep it up or not, Sale deserves to finally get his in terms of national recognition. After two full seasons of flying under the radar, quietly putting up effectively the same numbers of his flashier – and better-compensated – peers, “The Condor” should this year finally grab the unbridled attention of more than just worried doctors and opposing hitters.
*I’m sorry, but it’s not a Sale piece without at least one pun. I promise that will be it.
** We can talk more fully about how Robin Ventura left him out there for 127 pitches some other time, but given his ace’s mechanics, how IT’S EARLY APRIL (!), and the recency bias of so many pitchers going down injured, it didn’t seem an especially prudent managerial decision – regardless of the 14-inning game the night before, which taxed the bullpen to the point of utility man Leury Garcia being forced to pitch.
Every weekend throughout the season I’ll be 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 a shorter-than-usual edition of The Senior Class: Week 2, I ordered the NL. Today, in a similarly abbreviated post – I’ve a city to explore, and a Warriors @ Trail Blazers game to watch – it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 2! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Detroit Tigers (2-3 last week, 6-3 overall) → The Tigers have the league’s best record, and split a throughly entertaining two game series with the Dodgers this week. After such an appetizer, would anyone mind those two facing off again in October? Now Justin Verlander has secured the first two hits of his career, I’m sure he won’t object.
- Tampa Bay Rays (3-3, 7-5) → Matt Moore will apparently try throwing some more in an effort to avoid Tommy John surgery. I’m getting sick of typing that name next to those of young, talented pitchers this year.
- Oakland Athletics (5-1, 7-4) ↑ Sure they’ve been forced to move Jim Johnson out of the closer role, it’s not like Oakland – with their wealth of quality relief pitching – were especially reliant on him anyway. The A’s have rolled on regardless of the change, and have now won 5 of their past 6, jumping out atop the AL West early.
- Seattle Mariners (2-3, 6-4) ↑
- Boston Red Sox (3-4, 5-7) ↓
- Cleveland Indians (3-4, 6-6) →
- New York Yankees (4-3, 6-6) ↑ I was very harsh on The Evil Empire last week, perhaps too much so. Since then (barring the Ivan Nova/Vidal Nuno implosion on Tuesday against the Orioles), the Yanks have looked much better. Whether his performance has been boosted by pine tar or not, Michael Pineda has continued the promise of his spring, and along with Masahiro Tanaka, provided a welcome boost to a rotation which can no longer rely on the slimmed-down C.C. Sabathia. If the bats come around – like they did yesterday against the Red Sox, when behind Brian McCann‘s performance N.Y. tacked on 5 home runs to their season total of 7 – the East might well provide both AL Wild-Cards this year.
- Toronto Blue Jays (3-3, 6-6) →
- Kansas City Royals (2-4, 4-6) ↓ C’mon KC offense – pick it up and reward my faith in you! Scoring 29 runs through your first ten games isn’t exactly a winning formula, nor is it going to convince James Shields to stick around (not that I’m thinking anything will) past this season. All you needed was one measly run to pick up Yordano Ventura and give him a win in his electrifying 2014 debut, but you came up with nothing. The guy is throwing 102.9mph out there – help him out a little!
- Baltimore Orioles (4-2, 5-6) ↑
- Chicago White Sox (4-3, 6-6) ↑ Credit to GM Rick Hahn, he’s apparently crafted quite an offense – across the whole ML, the south-siders rank 1st in runs (76) and OBP (.359) and second in batting average (.285) and slugging (.456). Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, both brought into the fray by Hahn this past offseason, have been particularly responsible for such an outburst; the former had himself two multi-homer games this past week and is quickly looking like a bargain, whereas the latter is so far batting .354/.448/.521 atop the lineup (and thanks to his mates, leading the Junior Circuit in runs). Now if only there was someone else aside from Chris Sale determined to keep runs off the board – the Sox have so far given up 73 (also tops in the AL), hence their middling run differential (just +3), and lowly ranking.
- Los Angeles Angels (3-3, 5-6) ↓ Just when things were looking up for Anaheim, Josh Hamilton had to go and (stupidly) slide head-first into first base – tearing the UCL in his thumb in the process. He will now be out for between 6-8 weeks. How many times does it have to be said: diving is not quicker than simply running through the bag!
- Texas Rangers (3-3, 5-6) ↓ The hits just keep on coming – now it’s Adrian Beltre down with a sore quad. It’s feeling more and more like a lost season in Arlington…
- Minnesota Twins (3-3, 5-6) → Hey Joe Mauer homered!
- Houston Astros (3-4, 5-7) → At -20, the Astros still have some way to go before their 29th-worst run differential challenges bottom placed Arizona (-30). So there’s that at least.
Thanks for bearing with me as I write while traveling – I’ll be done gallivanting around Portland by Tuesday, so my Power Rankings will return more fully by next week.