Buster Olney: MLB

Yasiel PuigAdam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsThe average MLB game in 2014 has 15.4 strikeouts, the most in the history of the sport.
Brady Anderson swung as hard as he possibly could throughout the 1996 season and blasted 50 homers. He swung hard on the first pitch, he swung aggressively when the count was 0-2, he swung aggressively always.

He scored 117 runs and compiled 92 extra-base hits, 76 walks and 106 strikeouts, and late that season, Orioles hitting coach Rick Down mentioned that before Anderson, he had never seen anyone succeed with that approach. Most hitters made adjustments according to the count, Down noted at the time, cutting down on their swing when they reached two strikes, protecting against a strikeout.

But more and more, that sort of thinking has become outdated, and a whole lot of hitters are thinking like Anderson did. Swing hard throughout the entire count. Look to damage throughout the entire count.

The problem for them -- and for baseball, really -- is that this approach is not really working.
Adam WainwrightElsa/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright admitted to giving Derek Jeter "a couple of pipe shots" during the All-Star Game.
Adam Wainwright is earnest and honest and yes, he probably revealed a little more than he intended to about that pitch that he threw to Derek Jeter. But let’s put this into context. The tradition of pitchers working to provide a moment for a hitter goes back way beyond the first time the All-Star Game was played, and Wainwright is only different because he acknowledged what everybody already knew, when viewers could react in real time on social media.

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SamardzijaAP Photo/Ben MargotOakland acquired right-hander Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs last week.
The Oakland Athletics are on a pace to win 102 games and their third consecutive AL West title. But they need only 17 more wins to extend another streak that might be even more remarkable: The number of consecutive seasons in which they have won at least 74 games.

The last year they posted fewer than that, Jose Canseco was their designated hitter, Scott Brosius was their third baseman and they had just started to install a young infielder named Miguel Tejada into their everyday lineup. It was 1997, and Oakland finished that season with 65 wins and 97 losses.

Year after year since, the Athletics have ranked near the bottom of the majors in payroll, given the constraints of their market, and yet year after year, they have tried to win. There is something to be said for that.

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Johnny CuetoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesReds starter Johnny Cueto is just one of 27 pitchers with an ERA under 3.00.
The topic of parity came up Thursday on "Baseball Tonight," and Rick Sutcliffe mentioned how the sport has changed over the last decade, in the wake of the steroid era.

Many, many pitchers have used performance-enhancing drugs, for sure, but the simple fact is that since Major League Baseball adopted testing, offensive numbers have been in sharp decline. There is also less opportunity for hitters -- and, by extension, teams -- to distinguish themselves. The potential variance between clubs has declined.

The same sort of thing happened in the latter half of the 1960s, as pitching increasingly dominated. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, none of the 10 National League teams won less than 72 games, and only one team won more than 88 -- the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished 97-65. Every team averaged between 2.9 runs per game and 4.2 runs per game.

There was a greater range of performance in the American League in 1968, with the Tigers posting a record of 103-59. But every team averaged between 2.9 and 4.1 runs per game that year, and in the season before, 1967, the AL saw an incredible race because of the parity in another season of few runs. Boston led the AL with 92 wins, while Detroit and Minnesota won 91, the White Sox 89, the Angels 84. The Kansas City Athletics were the only AL team to win fewer than 72 games.

Baseball altered the rules in response to the decline in offense, lowering the mound, and if Major League Baseball wants something other than general parity and games with fewer runs, it will probably have to revisit this -- perhaps lowering the mound again, or changing the composition of the ball.

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Ernesto FrieriDavid Richard/USA TODAY SportsAngels closer Ernesto Frieri allowed a walk-off grand slam to Nick Swisher on Thursday.
An evaluator mentioned to me earlier this week that the Angels' bullpen is the worst he has seen on that team in 20 years. I disagree, but his point was that the team lacks relievers who consistently throw strikes and get ahead in the count.

His words could not have been seemed more prophetic. On Thursday, Cam Bedrosian and Ernesto Frieri kept throwing noncompetitive pitches -- so far out of the strike zone that hitters aren't even tempted to swing -- until they were backed into a corner. Then, with a 1-2 count and the bases loaded, Nick Swisher clubbed a walk-off grand slam.

The Angels rank 25th in bullpen ERA, just ahead of the Rockies and the Blue Jays, despite the fact that the team's relatively sturdy rotation has limited the number of bullpen innings.

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GausmanJoy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsKevin Gausman allowed just one run and five hits in six innings against Toronto on Friday.
Fourteen of the 15 American League teams are no further removed from the second wild-card spot than 5.5 games, as of this morning. In other words, 14 of the 15 AL teams should be working with a full dose of hope, including the Houston Astros, who lost 111 games last season, and the Boston Red Sox, who have started slowly after dousing each other with champagne last fall.

Fourteen of 15. All are looking for difference-makers, players who can propel them in the last 3.5 months, players who have provided hints that they are capable of giving a lot more. Players like the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman.

He struggled through some early-season injury trouble and had made one appearance in the big leagues this season before being called up to start against Oakland last weekend, and Gausman overpowered the Athletics, looking completely at ease, throwing his fastball in the high 90s and mixing in changeups.

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HudsonAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinGiants starter Tim Hudson has 211 career victories and a career WAR of 58.2.
The time-worn expression for hitters when they are seeing the ball well is that it must "look like a grapefruit" to them. Or a beach ball. Something big and irresistible and impossible to miss. When you watch San Francisco Giants starter Tim Hudson pitch, however, you wonder what the heck the hitters are seeing and what they are swinging at, because it looks like every pitch that he throws is at the kneecap and diving.

It must look to the hitters like they’re swinging at a wrinkle on a raisin, or a dimple on a golf ball. I mean, the ball just disappears, and most of the time they either top Hudson’s pitches into the ground or they nub it foul or miss it altogether.

Hitters will talk about comfortable at-bats, about feeling like they can get a good look at the ball and take a solid swing, even if they make an out. That’s what the conversation has been about the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel this season: Although he is getting great results, the hitters feel comfortable.

Batting against Hudson, on the other hand, must be like swinging at a mosquito with a pencil.

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John LackeyAP Photo/Steve NesiusRed Sox starter John Lackey is set to make only $500,000 next season.
Let’s be 100 percent clear about this: To date, the only noise about John Lackey’s very unusual contract situation is coming from the media, including me. I’ve never spoken to Lackey about this, and as far as I can tell, the pitcher hasn’t really expressed his views on a matter that isn’t close to being a front-burner issue. For all I know, he might view it as a nonissue.

But it’s a really interesting set of circumstances that will be resolved in the months ahead. Lackey’s $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox calls for him to make $500,000 next season, at a time when the 35-year-old right-hander is throwing as well as he has in any season in his career: a 3.18 ERA in 13 starts.

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Victor MartinezOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesVictor Martinez's focus and consistency have been refined over 5,732 career plate appearances.
DETROIT -- Victor Martinez's walk from the on-deck circle to home plate is deliberate, a steady and unhurried amble. His walk-up music finishes, the pitcher, catcher and umpire wait, but Martinez will not be rushed. Ever. He gets in the box when he is ready, when he is prepared for the at-bat to begin. If the pitcher pushes the pace, Martinez will simply step out.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus says he has never been around a player with more focus on each pitch of each at-bat -- and this was not always the case. Martinez says that early in his career with the Indians, he grew to hate the feeling that he had given away an at-bat, that he had not been as prepared as he should have been.

As a catcher, he had a feel for how pitchers worked, for their pace, and he would watch Ichiro Suzuki prepare for each at-bat, stretching, bending, stepping out of the box for a practice swing.

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Alex RiosAP Photo/Carlos OsorioRangers outfielder Alex Rios is batting .321 with 23 extra-base hits this season.
The 2014 Texas Rangers are illogical, from the inordinate number of injuries that have hit them, all the way through Friday's victory over the Indians. The Rangers have lost their first baseman (Prince Fielder), second baseman (Jurickson Profar), catcher (Geovany Soto), three of their four best starting pitchers (Matt Harrison, Martin Perez and Derek Holland), the third baseman (Kevin Kouzmanoff) who filled in for the then-injured third baseman (Adrian Beltre), and one of their primary bullpen pieces (Alexi Ogando).

In fairness, that's a partial list.

And yet as of Saturday morning, Texas is above .500 at 31-30, a distant seven games behind the Athletics but right in the mix of wild-card contenders.

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MattinglyRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsDon Mattingly worked some magic in the second half of 2013; looks like he'll have to do so again in '14.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has seen this star-driven strategy play out before, back in the 1980s with the New York Yankees. His boss, George Steinbrenner, would collect a bunch of big names on a roster without thorough consideration on whether they could all fit, and then expect his manager to stitch it together.

This is how, in 1988, they wound up with 33-year-old Claudell Washington playing center field, flanked by Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson, with Jack Clark serving as the DH. Rafael Santana was at shortstop, and a young outfielder named Jay Buhner was swapped in a deal for 33-year-old Ken Phelps. The veterans were all good players -- Winfield and Henderson were future Hall of Famers -- but there wasn't a true center fielder, and they really weren't a good match, as their defensive abilities were merely a secondary consideration. The Yankees went 85-76 and finished fifth in the AL East.

Mattingly's current Dodgers team should be better than that because they have much better pitching, with Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Josh Beckett, etc., etc. They also have one of the best young players in the sport in the ever-improving Yasiel Puig.

But they don't fit.

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 Jimmy RollinsAP Photo/Kim Johnson FlodinPhillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins is set to have an $11 million vesting option kick in for 2015.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays are in free fall, and they could face the same question in the weeks ahead: Should they conduct a sell-off of marketable assets or hang on and hope for a turnaround?

But the quandary faced by these two teams is not really the same.

If Tampa Bay decides to take players into the market, they could dangle David Price, a former Cy Young winner who has another 1.5 seasons before becoming eligible for free agency. Price might not have as much trade value as a casual fan might think, but he’s got value, and there would be serious interest.

Whatever they get for Price, whether they deal him in July or in the offseason, the Rays will add those young players to Alex Cobb and Chris Archer and Wil Myers. They will reload and move ahead.

A Phillies sell-off, on the other hand, might actually be bleaker than how they're playing now, because they don't really have movable pieces, and there really isn't a core they'd be adding to.

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Edwin Encarnacion and Mark BuehrleUSA Today SportsAt this point last season, Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Buehrle and the Jays were eight games under .500.
As Kevin Pillar dove across home plate Wednesday night with the run that extended Toronto's winning streak to nine games, the other Jays came spilling out of the dugout. It's as if they have stolen the winning formula from the 2013 Red Sox and are using it as their own: Wear down opposing pitchers with a relentless and deep lineup, sharing the information they've gleaned along the way, and create a margin for error.

The Blue Jays have broken away from the pack in the AL East by owning May, putting up some pretty incredible numbers in the process. Here are 11 numbers that encapsulate this team:

96: The victory pace of the Jays, who are 32-22 after the first third of the season.

22: The margin by which the Jays have outscored the second-highest team in May.

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Chase Utley Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesPhillies second baseman Chase Utley has a cumulative career WAR of 59.6.
The evaluator hesitated for about 0.2 seconds when considering the question asked over the phone: Who's the best player you've seen lately?

"Chase Utley," he said, and went on to describe how Utley is getting to low pitches in a way he hadn't for a few years, in how he's driving the ball, in how he's making better contact.

Utley missed 216 games from 2010 through 2013, or almost 1.5 full seasons, and by the spring of 2012 he looked as if might never get back to being what he had been in his prime -- an All-Star in five straight seasons, someone who finished in the top 10 in the NL MVP voting three times.

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The storms of the obvious must first be weathered by the Texas Rangers. Yes, the Prince Fielder injury hurts their chances to compete (although he wasn't playing that well, and whoever replaces him could be better). Yes, Texas would be well-served to give complete physicals to any player it has acquired (and its knowledge of what to test for just increased). Sure, the Ian Kinsler trade looks bad (and nobody has any idea how effective Fielder will be when he comes back next season).

But the more important question the Rangers must address is: What's next?

Seriously, now that Fielder, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar and others are out, what is next?

One answer would be to open the shop for business and retool for 2015. This organization, which has been in win-now mode for the past six seasons, twice made it to the World Series and came within one strike of winning a championship, could use this time to have a makeover, to gain more payroll flexibility, to add some young talent. The Rangers can find an opportunity in their misfortune, because they're in a position to send out a mass email to the other major league teams and inform them that they are open for trade offers.

It could be a seller's market, because there are very few teams willing to market players at this time of the season; most clubs will cling to the hope that they'll contend for a playoff spot. But the rash of injuries gives the Rangers a "get out of jail free" card. It's a logical course of action for them to trade some of their veterans in what looks to be a lost season.

They certainly have some players who could be attractive to other teams, such as:

Adrian Beltre, 3B: He's a future Hall of Famer who is closing in on 400 homers and 2,500 hits for his career, and while he's off to a slow start and some scouts say his defensive skills have regressed, he still brings a lot to the table. He's hitting .270 this season -- after batting .315 last season -- and he's nearing the end of his contract. Beltre is making $17 million this year, will make $18 million next year, and has a reachable vesting option for 2016 for $16 million. Texas could move him now while he still has value and before his decline -- a team like the Dodgers could be a fit -- and get a prospect or two in return.

Alex Rios, OF: He's making $12.5 million this season, and the Rangers hold a $13.5 million team option with a $1 million buyout for 2015. He's hitting .304 with 17 extra-base hits in 181 at-bats and a respectable .790 OPS. He'd be a great fit for the Kansas City Royals, given their current needs.

Elvis Andrus, SS: He's signed through 2022, and identifying his true value in trade talks could prove too difficult, but the Rangers' front office might as well have the conversations. The Tigers and the Yankees will be looking for shortstops.

Mitch Moreland, 1B: He's making $2.65 million, and he'll be more expensive next year as he gathers service time. At some point this season, another major league team will no doubt need to plug a hole at first base.

Joakim Soria, RP: He has been really good this season, with 21 strikeouts and two walks in 16 innings and a 2.25 ERA. The Rangers hold a $7 million option on him for 2015. As we get closer to the trade deadline, Soria will have more value to another team as a proven closer than to the Rangers.

The Rangers' preparation for 2015 can begin today, given all the injuries incurred by the team.

Here's this tidbit from ESPN Stats & Information: "It has been a rough year injury-wise for the Rangers. This month alone Martin Perez's season ended with Tommy John surgery. Fellow starter Matt Harrison hit the DL with lower back inflammation. Prized prospect Jurickson Profar has been shut down after re-straining his injured shoulder … and Prince Fielder's herniated disk in his neck may require season-ending surgery."

Most times using disabled list (2014)
Rangers 17*
Reds 13
Nationals 12
Dodgers 10
White Sox 10
Yankees 10
*Including Prince Fielder

And just when it seemed things couldn't worse, Jurickson Profar re-strained a muscle in his shoulder and has been shut down.

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