I wonder if anyone even notices that baseball is still going on. I wonder if anyone cares. I sure hope that somebody cares.
To be sure, not a whole lot has gone right in Seattle. The Mariners, once the offseason's media darlings, fell flat on their faces in a godawful May, dropping well out of the race just a third of the way into the year. Though the team is currently riding a six-game winning streak, they've actually lost ground in the division over that span, as the Rangers refuse to lose. While the M's weren't ever really much of a title contender, it's late June, and they're toast. This is, for all intents and purposes, about their worst-case scenario.
But even a colossal disappointment like this will have its bright spots. Jason Vargas has pitched out of his mind. Doug Fister has pitched out of his mind. Felix Hernandez has continued to throw like an ace. And Cliff Lee has been as flawless as any starting pitcher can be.
The Lee acquisition was supposed to be one of those moves that put the M's over the top. As it turns out, it wasn't enough, but that doesn't take anything away from how spectacularly good Lee has been through his first 11 starts of the year. After missing nearly all of April with an oblique injury, Lee has come back to throw 86.2 innings, whiffing 76 while allowing 26 runs and a preposterous four walks.
Four walks, in 86.2 innings. That translates to a BB/9 of 0.42. The league average for an AL starting pitcher right now is 3.08. Following are the best full-season, modern-era BB/9 rates for pitchers with at least 80 innings thrown:
1) 2005 Carlos Silva, 0.43
2) 1963 Hal Brown, 0.51
3) 1962 Bill Fischer, 0.56
4) 1994 Bret Saberhagen, 0.66
5) 1983 Dan Quisenberry, 0.71
Cliff Lee is on pace to narrowly break an impressive modern record. And unlike 2005 Carlos Silva, 2010 Cliff Lee is also missing bats. He's not just putting the ball in there for easy early contact.
When the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee, they knew they were getting a special pitcher. What they didn't know was that he'd only get better. Every single one of Lee's meaningful statistics is better in 2010 than it was in 2009, and a guy who was already a successful strike thrower has only taken it to another level, throwing 72.6% of his pitches for strikes, against an average of 63.5%. He's gone 0-1 on 59% of his batters faced, against an average of 48%. He's gone 0-2 on 28% of his batters faced, against an average of 18%. Cliff Lee is in control. He's always in control, no matter the situation.
What Cliff Lee has done is put himself in excellent position to be traded for a haul. A free agent after the year, it makes little sense for the Mariners to keep him around. And with the way he's throwing, he's put all of the injury questions to rest, and he's made an argument for being the best pitcher in baseball. A guy who might be the best pitcher in baseball is a guy who can make a difference for a contender. There's not a team in the league that couldn't use that kind of arm, and given that Lee is exactly the sort of player that could turn a good team into a great one, look for his name to be all over the rumor sites.
Cliff Lee was already an ace. Now he's something else. Something better.
I don't think it's any secret that Tim Lincecum's changeup is his best pitch. Granted, all of his pitches are good, from his low-90s fastball to his dynamite change to his occasional slider to his sharp, biting curve, but the changeup is the pitch that makes Tim Lincecum Tim Lincecum. The changeup, and, I suppose, the delivery.
But it's easy to say that this or that is a pitcher's best pitch. Easy and altogether meaningless. It's more fun to break them down and look at their results. And the results that Lincecum's been getting on his changeup so far have been, rather predictably, out of this world.
Lincecum has thrown 1651 pitches in 2010. According to Texas Leaguers, 359 of them have been changeups. Here's how his pitches score:
Changeups: 73% strikes, 30.1% whiffs
Non-Changeups: 61% strikes, 7.2% whiffs
A lot of pitchers have offspeed pitches they can control really well, or offspeed pitches with enough movement and deception that they're difficult to hit. Lincecum's changeup is both. He throws it for strikes nearly three-quarters of the time it gets called, and batters can't touch it.
For reference, Cole Hamels' change grades out at 71% strikes and 26.4% whiffs. Very good, but not on the same level. Johan Santana's change isn't close. Jason Vargas' change isn't close.
I don't know if Tim Lincecum's changeup is the best pitch in baseball. There's no easy way to figure that out, for a number of reasons, most notably being that it's difficult to get great accuracy when identifying individual pitchers' individual pitches. But Tim Lincecum is a right-handed pitcher with a career 3.0 K/BB ratio against left-handed batters, and that doesn't happen unless you throw something exceptional. Tim Lincecum is a video game pitcher, and his changeup is a video game pitch.
When the Tigers participated in a three-way trade that sent Curtis Granderson to New York and Edwin Jackson to Arizona, they weren't only doing it to get their hands on Austin Jackson. Jackson, of course, was a big part of it, but another part - perhaps a bigger part - was landing Max Scherzer as well. Scherzer - the 11th overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft - made 30 starts for the Diamondbacks in 2009 and struck out better than a batter an inning, and the Tigers felt that his punchout power stuff would play very well with Justin Verlander in an imposing front of the rotation.
This season, of course, saw Austin Jackson jump out to a scorching start. Scherzer, though, didn't follow suit. Though he spun six shutout innings in his first game of the year, the strikeouts weren't there, and neither was the repertoire. On May 14th, Scherzer stood with a 7.29 ERA and a 5.6 K/9 through eight starts, and shortly thereafter he was sent down to AAA. The arm the Tigers thought could develop into an ace instead showed up without its power, and without its power, it didn't get its results.
Scherzer spent his time with AAA Toledo working on tweaking his mechanics. Normally, that's the sort of thing to which you don't pay much attention. But then Scherzer made two starts with Toledo and whiffed 17 in 15 innings while allowing one run. Reports said that his stuff was back. And when he was recalled to the Majors to start against Oakland on May 30th, Scherzer struck out 14 of the 24 batters he faced.
That was encouraging. And overall, since coming back up, Scherzer has made five starts, with a 3.48 ERA and a 3.7 K/BB that's even better than the 2.8 he managed with Arizona in 2009. Max Scherzer, it seems, isn't just back in the bigs. He's back to being Max Scherzer.
All of a sudden, the numbers are there. And more importantly, even, the stuff is there, too. Here's a comparison:
2009 Scherzer: 93.5mph average fastball
2010 Scherzer, pre-AAA: 91.8mph average fastball
2010 Scherzer, post-AAA: 94.1mph average fastball
Whatever was plaguing Scherzer earlier in the year appears to be a thing of the past, as he's now throwing even harder than he did with Arizona. And it isn't just the fastball velocity; his change and slider have gained some velocity, too, and also missed more bats. While it would be easy to look at the lineups he's faced since returning and conclude that it's just a mirage, his numbers are supported by the fact that he's throwing his own pitches again after taking a month and a half-long vacation.
It's time for Tigers fans to climb back aboard the Scherzer train. In case they haven't already. He's a very talented young pitcher, and it seems that he's conquered his adversity.
Given all the numbers that people like to throw around, and given the popularity of the term ‘home-field advantage,' sometimes it amazes me how little attention the average fan pays to whether a team is playing a game at home or on the road. As the term implies, playing at home gives an advantage. It gives an inarguable boost, and though the boost is difficult to analyze, it certainly exists.
So far in 2010, the home team has won 56.2% of its games. In 2009, it was 54.9%. In 2008, it was 55.6%. In 2007, it was 54.2%. And so on and so forth. Playing at home increases a team's chances of winning. It increases them rather substantially. I don't know why this is, but sometimes you don't need to know the why. Sometimes the what is good enough.
Now, obviously, home-field advantage evens out over a full season. Each team plays 81 games on its own turf, and 81 games on someone else's. It's something that you generally only care about over smaller samples, like a single game or a single series, where one team spends less time at home than the other.
But it's with this in mind that I'd like to point out that the NL East-leading Braves have played just 31 of their 72 games at home. 31, or 43.1%.
At the 72-game mark, the average team will have 45 remaining home games and 45 remaining road games. The Braves have 50 and 40. The rival Mets, meanwhile, have 45 and 46, while the rival Phillies have 47 and 46.
The Braves are clinging to a narrow division lead, just 0.5 up on New York and 3.5 up on Philadelphia. In a tight division, the significance of little things is amplified. So in the NL East, the fact that the Braves get to play a bunch of games the rest of the way at home is meaningful. It means that, at least in this regard, their path will be a little easier.
Now, the location of a game or series of games clearly isn't the biggest determinant in how they turn out. The Rays are 24-12 on the road. The Indians are 12-20 at home. Bad teams struggle everywhere, and good teams always play well. But we know that the Braves are at least as good as their competition, and the fact that they play 50 more home games and just 40 more road games projects to help them by roughly an extra win. And that one win looks all kinds of important.
It's just something to keep an eye on. Friday evening, the Braves kick off a nine-game homestand against Detroit, Washington and Florida. This could be an opportunity for them to go on another run and really put some distance between themselves and the competition.
Stop me if you've heard this before - the Giants can't score. Not very often, at least. At 4.27 runs per game, the Giants are just below the league average, and Pablo Sandoval's struggles certainly haven't helped a lineup that was already dealing with a number of question marks. Already armed with the pitching and the defense, it's been the offense that's held San Francisco back from becoming one of the NL's elites.
One guy you can't blame for their trouble, though, is Aubrey Huff, who - at 33 - has batted .304/.394/.538 to lead the team in both OBP and slugging percentage. Huff has spent the entire year batting in the heart of the order, and he's delivered with both power and patience, consistently either cleaning up or setting up. The veteran signed a $3m contract after a miserable 2009, but his performance has to have come as a surprise even to the veteran-faithful Brian Sabean, who couldn't have expected this much productivity.
It's remarkable how different Huff looks, given that his approach hasn't markedly changed. Though he seems to be a little better about chasing bad pitches than he was before, it's not a huge improvement. Where he's seen the most improvement is actually in simply making contact:
Huff, Career: 83.1% contact rate
Huff, 2009: 81.7% contact rate
Huff, 2010: 86.5% contact rate
It's the opposite of what we usually see from players as they age. With a slightly better eye and an improved ability to put the bat on the ball, Huff has lowered his strikeout rate from 13.0% to 9.9%, and given that he's always been powerful, those extra balls in play are helping him out. He's swinging the bat like he was as a promising Ray earlier in the decade, when he hit .307 over a three-year period with an .887 OPS and 11.1% strikeouts.
With Huff, you can never be too sure. He followed a big '03 with a worse '04 and a bad '05. He followed a mediocre '07 with a big '08, and he followed a big '08 with a miserable '09. He's never been the picture of consistency, and Giants fans are sure to remain skeptical of his bat for as long as it's around. But all the indicators here are positive, and though Huff is no one's idea of a great long-term acquisition, it would appear that he found a good spot in San Francisco. His career has made a remarkable turnaround, and after wallowing in Baltimore and struggling with Detroit, Huff could end up being a surprise star who helps push the Giants to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.