Buster Olney: MLB

Jeffery LoriaSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOwner Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins are only six games behind the Nationals in the NL East.
Before you dismiss the notion that the Miami Marlins could be serious players in the market over the next few days, it's worth noting that after their wild comeback win over Washington on Monday, they are closer to their leader in their division -- six games behind -- than the Tampa Bay Rays, who are seven games behind the Baltimore Orioles, are.

Remember, too, that for all of his quirks and odd ballpark colors and home run sculpture, Miami owner Jeffrey Loria is an optimist at heart. And despite fielding teams with minimal payrolls, his expectations have always been high for his baseball operations employees. In 2003, he watched a bunch of youngsters named Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Juan Pierre revive themselves in midseason and go on to win the World Series. After it was over, Loria ran around the bases at Yankee Stadium. Loria is a dreamer, and staffers past and present talk about meetings in which they thought they would to be told to rebuild and cut their losses. Instead, they walk away having been ordered, in so many words, to find a way to win.
Cliff LeeMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesTeams in the playoff hunt are evaluating whether Cliff Lee would help their starting pitching needs.
There are two windows in every baseball calendar year in which small sample size really matters. In October, of course; as Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone and Dave Roberts can attest, bits and pieces of success can live forever.

The other time frame in which one game or one week can make a difference -- really good or really bad -- is just before the trade deadline. Multiple scouts were dispatched to watch Cliff Lee in his return to the rotation Monday, the 322nd regular-season start of his career. Rival executives are well aware of all that Lee had accomplished before Monday’s game, with the Cy Young Award and the four All-Star appearances and the postseason dominance, but all they wanted to know was how Lee is throwing the ball right now, in this moment of his career, as they assess whether to pursue a deal with the Phillies.

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Ryan Braun's power outage 

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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Ryan Braun AP Photo/Morry GashRyan Braun ranks 146th out of 163 qualified batters in percent of hits pulled (30.8).
An experienced and smart evaluator who has seen Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun a couple of times this year noted all the twists in his career in a conversation on Monday.

“Wins the Most Valuable Player Award [in 2011] hitting with all kinds of power,” he said. “Tests positive, [but] wins his appeal. Has another big year, with power, second in the MVP. Then, Biogenesis.”

Yes. He was suspended.

“He’s had a lot of injuries. Now he’s completely different.”

How so?

“Takes the ball to the opposite field a lot,” said the evaluator. “I think he’s more of an opposite-field hitter than almost anybody in baseball. He doesn’t really pull the ball anymore, and I don’t think he hits the ball as far as he used to.”

On home runs?

“No, in general. I don’t think the ball goes nearly as far.”

Braun is having a good season, without question, with a .354 on-base percentage. He’s on track to accumulate a respectable 63 extra-base hits -- but with 19 homers and 37 walks, very different from his 2012 totals of 41 homers and 63 walks.

The observations were interesting, so I asked “Baseball Tonight” senior researcher Justin Havens, half of the podcast Fireball Express, to look more deeply into Braun’s performance, to see how close the evaluator’s eye test is to reality.

What Justin found was amazing.

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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.

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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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