Alex Gordon for MVP?

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
12:10
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The Kansas City Royals have an MVP candidate, albeit one without the super-flashy numbers. And now he has a signature hit, the kind that make differences in close races for division titles, like the one the Royals are locked in right now.
Alex Gordon
Gordon
Alex Gordon's walk-off home run gave the Royals a 2-1 come-from-behind win over the Minnesota Twins and kept their AL Central lead at 1½ games.

What makes Gordon a viable candidate alongside the Mike Trout’s of the world?

How he has hit
Gordon has respectable offensive numbers: a .283 batting average, .810 OPS and 16 home runs. Eight of those long balls have come against left-handed pitching (including Tuesday’s against Glenn Perkins), matching the most he has had against lefties in a single season.

As the Royals have surged, so too has Gordon. He has a .314/.368/.545 slashline in 33 games since July 22. His slugging percentage and OPS in that span ranked sixth-best in the American League at the game’s conclusion. The Royals are 25-8 in that span, easily the best record in baseball.

How he fields
It is on the defensive side where Gordon separates himself. His 22 defensive runs saved are the most any American League player at any position. Those come from a combination of his throwing arm and his ability to turn batted balls into outs.

With regards to the former, Gordon only has four outfield assists, after totaling 27 the previous two seasons, but there’s a reason for that. No one runs on him.

Only 19 percent of baserunners have taken an extra base on Gordon (in other words, gone first to third or second to home on a single, or first to home on a double). That’s half the rate of the average left fielder and accounts for more than one-third of Gordon’s defensive runs saved total.

In terms of the latter, this is an area in which Gordon has made significant improvements to his game. He has 12 defensive runs saved due to his range after totaling 13 the previous two seasons. It helps to have two fantastic defenders alternating in center field in Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain, who have combined for 27 defensive runs saved of their own.

The whole package
Some may scoff at the notion that Gordon ranks fourth among position players in the American League with 5.5 wins above replacement.

But the legitimacy of his value is that an outfielder who combines Gordon’s skills is hard to find.

He’s one of only two players in the sport with at least an .800 OPS and 20 defensive runs saved this season, along with Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson. Only two players hit that combo last season- Carlos Gomez and Shane Victorino.

And though it’s a small sample, it’s worth noting that when Gordon doesn’t start this season, the Royals have struggled, with one win in six games.
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MLB

Tillman stepping up into ace role

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
12:26
AM ET
Yes, the Baltimore Orioles hit five home runs in their win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night.

But also noteworthy was the continued run of terrific pitching by Orioles starter Chris Tillman.
Chris Tillman
Tillman
Tillman allowed one unearned run in seven innings, lowering his ERA in five August starts to 1.26. He ranks second in the majors for the month in both ERA and WHIP (0.65) and could move up to the top spot if the Orioles beat up on Rays starter Alex Cobb (1.04 ERA in August) on Tuesday.

As the Orioles move closer to an AL East title, Tillman looks to be moving closer to being known as a bona-fide ace.

How he’s winning
Tillman is a pitcher who tends to live up in (and above) the strike zone. In this five-start run, he has netted 66 outs and yielded only 11 hits and walks on pitches in that area.

That ratio changes to 34-to-1 if we change our parameter to the upper-third of the zone and above.

The biggest improvement that Tillman has made within this month-long stint is in his walk rate, as noted in the chart on the right. Tillman's first-pitch strike rate, which was 57 percent the first four months of the season, is 64 percent in August. He threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of 25 hitters on Monday.

Tillman also has gotten a fair amount of cooperation from his defense. He has allowed only 17 percent of opposing hitters who put the ball in play (in other words, not hit homers) to reach base.

That may stem from the fact that opponents are not hitting the ball hard against him.

A video-tracking service, which rates each batted ball as hard, medium or soft-hit and provides that data to teams and media, has Tillman with a hard-hit rate of 9 percent this month, fifth-lowest among starting pitchers (the average pitcher allows hard-hit contact in 15 to 16 percent of his at-bats).

Tillman did allow a hard-hit ball to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, one that center fielder Adam Jones made a homer-robbing catch on and subsequently turned into a double play.

Jones has seven home-run robberies over the past six seasons. Only Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez has more in that stretch, with 11.

The quirk
One odd nugget when it comes to Tillman’s performance us looking at his home-road splits.

Tillman is 4-5 at home, but with a 2.54 ERA. His ERA is considerably higher on the road (4.34), but his record is much better (7-0).

There’s still time for his record to catch up to his performance. Four of his next five starts should come at Camden Yards.

Ace-worthy?
How does Tillman stack up against other playoff-contending No. 1 pitchers?

His 3.41 ERA this season would rank fourth-best among starting pitchers on the Tigers and third-best on the Athletics, and it’s fair to say he’s not in the same class as the likes of David Price, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Sonny Gray.

But he stacks up well alongside pitchers such as James Shields of the Royals and Jered Weaver of the Angels.

The one thing that those two have which Tillman doesn’t is postseason experience. Shields and Weaver have a combined 10 postseason starts. Tillman should get his first chance at October glory in about five weeks.

SEC leads tight race in Power Rankings

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
1:36
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Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesWith a new college football postseason format comes a new trophy for the national champion
With the dawn of the college football playoff, conference strength will be examined more closely than ever before.

As the selection committee has noted, strength of schedule will be a factor in their decision making process. That means that both out-of-conference and in-conference schedules will be examined.

Tom Osborne, former Nebraska coach and a member of the selection committee, noted, “A lot of teams are going to be at the mercy of the strength of their conference.”

After all, at least one of the Power Five conferences will not have a team selected into the playoff.

Given the increased importance of conference strength, it is time to bring back ESPN Stats & Information’s conference power rankings.

What are the Conference Power Rankings?
Over the past few years ESPN Stats & Information has published weekly rankings of the FBS conferences during the college football season. The formula was originally crafted by then-Analytics Specialist Albert Larcada and has been adapted over the years.

In 2014, the formula is an equal blend of the rankings from the AP Poll (including the others receiving votes section) and ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI).

The AP Poll will not only add a human element to the rankings, but it will also measure the relative strength of the top schools in each conference. Conversely, the Football Power Index will measure the relative strength of every team in the country to determine conference power from top to bottom. For more information on FPI, click here.

The AP Poll and FPI will be weighed equally and the results will be calculated on a 0-100 scale in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the FBS.

SEC Leads Preseason Rankings
It should not be surprising that the SEC leads the conference power rankings after finishing at the top of these rankings in all four years of their existence.

The SEC begins the season with eight teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll, including five teams ranked in the top 13.

After having the most players selected in the NFL Draft for an eighth straight year, the SEC is ready to reload with more ESPN 300 players signed in the past two years (235) than the next two conferences combined.

However, the Pac-12 is gaining ground. After finishing last year in a distant second (14.1 point differential), the Pac-12 begins the 2014 season just 4.1 points behind the SEC as the top conference in the FBS.


USA TODAY SportsHeisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota (left) and Brett Hundley (right)


A lot of the Pac-12’s strength is based on the projected strength of its offenses. Ten of 12 starting quarterbacks from the Pac-12 return in 2014, including Heisman favorites Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley.

In comparison, only six of the SEC’s 14 starting quarterbacks from a year ago return, which leaves gaping holes for top teams such as Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M.

Some believe that this is the first time in years that the Pac-12 makes a legitimate run at the SEC for the top conference in the nation.

Elsewhere in the rankings, the Big 12 comes in as the third-best conference in the country, largely because of its depth in comparison to the Big Ten and ACC.

Many would expect the Big Ten to slide in the rankings after the news of Braxton Miller's injury. The conference actually did not take too big of a hit because Ohio State remained in the top 15 in FPI even when accounting for its new starting quarterback.

However, the component of these rankings that measures the AP Poll remained unchanged. To give an idea of what a drop in the AP Poll would mean: if Ohio State falls to 10th in the AP Poll, the Big Ten would lose an additional three points in the conference power rankings.

Among Power Five conferences, the ACC is considered the weakest by both the AP Poll and FPI. That means that if the top four conferences place a team in the playoff, it would leave the ACC on the outside looking in. Yet, there is a lot more that goes into those decisions, including the fact that the ACC has the clear No. 1 team in the country. Florida State received 57 of 60 first place votes in the AP Poll and has by far the best chance (39 percent) to finish the season undefeated according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

However, what if Florida State loses a conference game? Does the relative strength of the ACC come into play? Similarly, what if Marshall from Conference USA or Houston from the American Athletic Conference finish the season undefeated? Does the fact that they played in weaker conferences exclude them from the playoff?

All of these questions may arise throughout the season. Stay tuned after an exciting Week 1 of non-conference matchups that could significantly impact the conference power rankings going forward.


Kernels: Capitol Gains

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24
9:04
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Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesThe Nationals won via walk-off five times this week.
Congress always takes an extra-long recess in August because Washington gets really hot in the summer. Our weekly look at the interesting and unusual in Major League Baseball concurs: Washington has been pretty hot in August.

After walk-off wins last weekend against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Washington Nationals ran that streak to three with Adam LaRoche's 11th-inning homer on Monday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. That gave the franchise just its second streak of three straight walk-offs, the other being July 26-28, 1988, against the Cubs and Cardinals (Mike Fitzgerald had two of those, one a pinch-hit grand slam). It was the team's first set of back-to-back walk-offs in the 11th or later since June 2009.

They weren't done. The Nats walked off twice more to close the Arizona series, with both game-ending hits by Anthony Rendon. In the process they became the first team with four walk-offs in five days since the Kansas City Royals did it from April 10-13, 2000 (Johnny Damon, Brian Johnson, Rey Sanchez, Carlos Beltran); and the first team with five in six days since the Houston Astros won five straight via walk-off from July 19-23, 1986.

Thursday's game was the franchise's first 1-0 win via walk-off since June 2011, and the first time they had won a game without an RBI since August 27, 1995. It was also the last in a 10-game win streak, tying the longest in the majors this year (Royals in June) and the longest in franchise history (last done in 2005).


"(R, Minnesota)"

No, not Republicans... runs. The Minnesota Twins piled up an MLB-season-high 20 in Friday's thumping of the Detroit Tigers. It was the team's highest run total since May 2009, and just the second time any team had scored 20 runs outdoors in Minneapolis. The Twins won a 20-11 slugfest with Oakland on April 27, 1980, at Metropolitan Stadium.

Five players scored three runs on Friday, the first time that's happened since the Cleveland Indians did it on April 18, 2009 (that's the game where they had a 14-run inning against the Yankees). The 20-6 game also came on the seventh anniversary of the Rangers' famous 30-3 win over the Orioles. (We predict a 10-9 game on August 22, 2021.)

Eduardo Escobar had five hits including a homer and a triple, the first player in the majors to do that this season, and just the second ever for Minnesota. Tim Teufel had two homers and a triple against Toronto on September 16, 1983. At the same time, Escobar committed two errors in the field, becoming (via Elias) the first player with five hits and two errors since Angel Berroa did it for the Royals in 2003.

Second baseman Andrew Romine pitched the ninth inning for Detroit, joining Danny Worth as Tigers position players to pitch this season. The last time the Tigers had two position players throw in the same year was in 1918. Player-manager Ty Cobb frequently put himself on the mound in the final game of the season if it didn't mean anything, and in that particular finale, left fielder Donny Veach relieved him.

Romine, for his part, gave up three runs including longballs by Oswaldo Arcia and Trevor Plouffe. He's the first position player to give up two homers in a game since outfielder Dane Iorg of the Padres did it in an 18-1 loss against the Giants on June 23, 1986.

The Twins added 12 more in the day game of Saturday's doubleheader, their first time scoring 12+ in consecutive games since September 13, 2008, when they swept a doubleheader in Baltimore. The 32 combined runs in two games were three shy of the franchise record. The Tigers then won 13-4 on Sunday, their most runs scored in Minnesota since July 4, 1999 (won 15-5). The 73 total runs were the most in any four-game series in over two years.

"(d, New York)"

The New York Mets have cornered the market on small "D"s over the last couple years, with Travis d'Arnaud, Jacob deGrom, and Matt den Dekker all on the 25-man roster at some point this season. That already made the Mets the first team with three "lowercase" players on the roster at once, but thanks to callups, injuries, and deGrom being a pitcher who only plays every five days, the three had never appeared in a game together. That changed Saturday when all of them started against the Dodgers, the first trio of lowercase players ever to appear in the same boxscore.

Top Stats to Know: Angels at Athletics

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24
4:14
PM ET

AP Photo/Ben MargotScott Kazmir is having a career year.

The Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics finish off their three-game series on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN/WatchESPN) in a dead heat for the AL West crown.


On Saturday, the Athletics beat the Angels to tie them atop the AL West. Here are the top stats to know as these teams battle for the division lead.

AL West race tightens up

On June 21, the Angels were six games behind the Athletics, marking their largest deficit of the season. Since then, Los Angeles has gone 36-19, the best record in the American League in that span (the Nationals have also gone 36-19).

Oakland is just 29-24 in that span. However, the Athletics have dominated the head-to-head matchup this season, winning eight of their 11 meetings, including all five at home.

Sunday night's starters
Angels starter Jered Weaver has the third-most wins (126) and third-most strikeouts (1,362) in franchise history. Only Chuck Finley and Nolan Ryan have more. Weaver has a 3.70 ERA this season, on pace to be his worst since 2009. There’s been a significant dip in his average fastball velocity, down to 86.1 mph from 88.7 in 2009.

Only three qualified pitchers this season have a lower average fastball velocity (minimum 400 fastballs).



Athletics starter Scott Kazmir is having the best season of his career. His ERA (2.73), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.6) and opponent OPS (.608) are all career highs, as are his 14 wins. He’s really taken a step forward in his performance against right-handed hitters.

Kazmir has allowed a .618 OPS to right-handed batters this season, on pace to be the best of his career. The only qualified lefties who have allowed a lower OPS to righties this year are Clayton Kershaw (.556), Chris Sale (.604) and David Price (.617).

Trout struggling
All-Star Mike Trout has had a rough second half of the season thus far. Since the All-Star break, Trout’s batting average is down 81 points, his on-base percentage is down 96 points, and his slugging percentage is down 177 points. Part of the reason could be pitchers are starting to throw him more pitches up in the zone; 43.9 percent of the pitches Trout has seen in the second half have been in the upper half of the zone or higher. In the first half, only 38.7 percent of his pitches were in that location.

Doolittle lights out
Athletics closer Sean Doolittle is having an excellent season. Doolittle has a 16.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio, on pace to rank third in any season by a pitcher with at least 50 innings. No pitcher with a minimum of 50 innings throws strikes at a higher rate than Doolittle (75 percent).

After Sunday night, seven games remain between the Angels and Athletics. The Angels have four of those games at home, but are just 3-3 at home against the Athletics so far this season.

Gordon projected to win at Bristol

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
8:26
PM ET

Will Schneekloth/NASCAR/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon picked up his third win of the season last week at Michigan.
Here are the projections for Saturday's Sprint Cup race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC). Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, prerace on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a .533-mile oval short track) and time of year.

With three races remaining until the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set, all drivers who have won races so far have mathematically locked themselves into the Chase (as long as they attempt to qualify for the final races). At least one winless driver is now guaranteed to make the Chase, as the field of 16 will be rounded out with the winless drivers highest in points.

Jeff Gordon picked up his third win of the season last week at Michigan, giving him his 14th career three-win season. That moves him into sole possession of the second-most such seasons in Cup Series history, trailing only Richard Petty’s 20. Gordon’s win was his first at Michigan since 2001, and his last win at Bristol came in 2002.

Jimmie Johnson has been slumping despite being tied with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski for the NSCS lead in wins. In the last eight races, Johnson’s Hendrick teammates (Gordon, Earnhardt and winless Kasey Kahne) rank first, second and tied for third in most points earned -- Johnson ranks 26th during that span.

Kyle Busch has finished 42nd, 40th and 39th in the last three races -- the worst stretch of his Sprint Cup Series career. Saturday night's race at the bullring could be a turning point, however, as he’s won 26 percent of his Cup starts at Bristol (the second-highest mark all time behind Cale Yarborough’s 31 percent). Entering this week, Busch has won 16 times at Bristol across NASCAR’s top three series, the most all-time.

QUICK-HITTERS
• Kasey Kahne: Four straight top-10 finishes at Bristol (top-two in two of last three)
• Matt Kenseth: 579 laps led in last six Bristol races (leads all drivers)
• Brian Vickers: Five straight top-10 finishes at Bristol (zero in first 14 career Bristol races)
• Paul Menard: Four top-10s in his last five Bristol races (five top-10s at Bristol tied for his most at any track)
• Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Zero top-5 finishes in last 12 Bristol races (last top-5 came in March 2008)
• Kurt Busch: In five of his last six Bristol races, he's been 17th or worse (five Bristol wins, but last in 2006)
• Kevin Harvick: One top-10 finish in last 11 Bristol races (zero top-5s); 34th and 39th in last two Bristol races

Richards tough to replace for Angels

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
12:39
AM ET

AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Angels were 19-7 (.731) in games Garrett Richards started this season.
Los Angeles Angels pitcher Garrett Richards is expected to miss 6-9 months after an MRI exam Thursday revealed a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. He sustained the injury while running to cover first base in Wednesday’s start against the Boston Red Sox.

With Richards done for the year, let’s review his breakout season and his importance to the Angels.

Breakout season
Richards entered the season 9-9 with a 4.37 ERA in 29 career starts (167 innings), but the 26-year-old figured things out this year. Richards will finish the year 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA over 168 2/3 innings. In 1 2/3 more innings this year, he gave up 32 fewer runs as a starter than the previous three years.

He has become one of the best starters in the American League, ranking first in opponent slugging percentage (.261), second in opponent batting average (.201), eighth in ERA (.261), 10th in strikeout rate (24.2 percent) and sixth in ground-ball rate (51.3 percent).

Richards’ opponent slugging percentage is the fourth lowest in a season in Angels history and the lowest since Nolan Ryan in 1977. It’s also the third lowest by any pitcher in the last 20 seasons. The only two lower? Pedro Martinez (.259) in 2000 and Greg Maddux (.258) in 1995, both of whom went on to win Cy Young awards those years.

So just how did Richards put it together this season? His plus stuff finally started missing bats. From 2011 to '13, Richards’ strikeout rate was only 15.2 percent as a starter. That ranked 168th out of 230 pitchers who started at least 20 games over that span. This season, he has increased his strikeout rate to 24.2 percent, which ranks 16th out of 95 qualified starters. In fact, only one starter in baseball has increased his strikeout rate more than Richards from last season to this season (Brandon McCarthy 8.0 percentage points; Richards 7.9).

Importance to Angels
The Angels are 19-7 (.731) when Richards starts this season and 57-43 (.570) when anyone else does. According to Elias, the Angels' .731 win percentage with Richards on the mound is the best for any starter in the American League this season (minimum 15 starts).

Richards has been worth 4.4 Wins Above Replacement this season. Entering Thursday, all other Angels starters had been worth 3.3 WAR combined. The loss of Richards could have an effect on the Angels' bullpen as well. No bullpen has thrown more innings since the All-Star break than the Angels (122).

Replacing Richards
While it’s unclear who will take Richards’ spot in the rotation the rest of the season, the Angels will surely look for their other starters to step up, as Matt Shoemaker did Thursday night against the Red Sox.

Shoemaker no-hit the Red Sox through 6 2/3 innings and finished with 7 2/3 scoreless innings along with nine strikeouts. Since giving up a career-high eight runs against the Kansas City Royals on June 27, Shoemaker is 5-2 with a 2.51 ERA in seven starts.

What does Leonard Fournette bring to LSU?

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
12:05
PM ET

AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette ran for 7,619 yards and scored 88 rushing TDs in his high school career
In January, LSU landed the top recruit in the ESPN 300, running back Leonard Fournette. The New Orleans product was the first running back to top our rankings since Joe McKnight in 2007.

Fournette should be relied upon right away after the team lost lead back Jeremy Hill, who was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft by Cincinnati. Last season Hill ran for 1,401 yards while averaging a school-record 6.9 yards per carry (minimum 200 carries). However, given Fournette’s size, speed and pedigree, he should be able to step right in to fill Hill’s role, even as a true freshman.

Examining Fournette’s Role
Fournette’s upside was described this way by RecruitingNation.com. “If he can land in a downhill, two-back offense, we see big-time production at the next level.”

If that description is accurate, Fournette landed in the right place. No BCS-AQ (automatic qualifying) team ran more often in a two-back set than LSU last season.

LSU was also fourth among BCS-AQ teams in rushing yards between the tackles (136.4 yards per game).

Hill excelled in LSU’s downhill running scheme. He led all BCS-AQ backs, averaging 105.9 yards per game in two-back sets, and his average of 7.9 yards per carry between the tackles led BCS-AQ backs (minimum 50 carries).

With Hill gone, 203 carries have been freed up, with Fournette expected to take the majority of them. Physically, the two are very similar. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, the freshman is listed at one inch shorter and six pounds lighter than Hill. Yet Fournette has elite speed to go with that size. Last year, he ran a 10.68-second 100-meter dash to win Louisiana’s 4A regional title.

How Successful Can He Be?
Fournette will have help in the trenches. LSU returns four starters from an offensive line that carved big holes up the middle. Last season, the Tigers’ average of 3.9 yards before contact per carry on designed runs between the tackles was second-best among BCS-AQ teams.

Les Miles isn’t afraid to use freshmen running backs either. Two years ago, Hill led the team in rushing and set a school freshman record in touchdowns with 12. As the schedule got tougher, Miles rode his freshman more. In LSU’s last seven games – five against ranked opponents - Hill averaged 19.5 carries per game.

LSU did not sign a single running back in last year’s recruiting class primarily because of its pursuit of Fournette, so the Tigers should ride their freshman heavily. Over the last two seasons, four different SEC freshmen have rushed for 1,000 yards.

Only one Tiger freshman has rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, Justin Vincent in 2003. That year, Vincent was named most valuable player of LSU’s BCS Championship Game victory over Oklahoma. LSU hopes that Fournette can have a similar impact this season.

"We decided not to take a tailback," LSU head coach Les Miles said at his signing day press conference in February. "We will need a great one, one of those guys who has great speed, and ball skills and can run with power, and I'm thinking of him right now."

Cole brings the heat in return

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
12:02
AM ET

The most encouraging stat from the Pittsburgh Pirates' 3-2 comeback win over the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night? It might have been Gerrit Cole’s average fastball velocity -- 95.9 mph -- in his first start back from the disabled list. That was his second-fastest average velocity with that pitch this season.

A healthy and fully functional Cole looms large for the Pirates in their hopes to (at the very least) catch the San Francisco Giants for that second NL wild-card spot.

Cole succeeded on Wednesday against a free-swinging Atlanta Braves lineup, inducing a 34 percent chase rate that matched his highest this season. Braves hitters made eight outs against pitches from Cole that were out of the strike zone, his most in any start this season. Cole might have been a little rusty, as he walked a career-high four hitters, but he did enough to keep the game close.

Cole was able to rev his fastball to 97 mph 15 times, 10 of which came with two strikes. Braves hitters went 0-for-5 with a walk against those 15 pitches.

Another positive was his ground ball rate, which matched his season rate of 56 percent, ranking 20th best among the 140 pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings this season.

The Pirates would love to get the kind of length that Cole gave them Wednesday (seven innings) on a more consistent basis. They hadn't gotten seven innings from a starter since Aug. 9, when Francisco Liriano went seven innings against the San Diego Padres.

Longer starts would give much-needed rest to the bullpen, which has a 4.40 ERA this month, nearly a run higher than its season ERA entering the month (3.42).

The Pirates are 10-5 in games Cole has started this season. His record in those games is 7-4. Other Pirates starters are a combined 30-40.

Looking ahead
If the Pirates stay on schedule with their starting rotation and don’t skip any pitchers, Cole’s next two starts would both come against the St. Louis Cardinals. Cole has made four starts against the Cardinals (including two in postseason play) and allowed two earned runs or fewer in each one.

Top stats to know: Angels at Red Sox

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
12:52
PM ET

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesGarrett Richards goes for his 14th win tonight. He had 11 in his first three years combined in the majors.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Boston Red Sox play the third game of their four-game series tonight on "Wednesday Night Baseball" (7 ET on ESPN2/WatchESPN). The Angels have won the first two games of the series.

Soaring Angels
After play on June 5, the Angels were tied for second place in the AL West with the Seattle Mariners, 5½ games behind the Oakland Athletics. Since June 6, Los Angeles has gone a major league-best 43-22 and sit atop the division, a half-game ahead of the A’s.

A big reason for the turnaround has been their bullpen.

Another key for the Angels has been the performance with runners in scoring position. Through June 5, LA hit .245 with RISP. Since then, they are hitting .288, second-best in the majors.

Pitching Matchup
Garrett Richards, who’s turning in a career year this season, will take the mound for the Angels tonight. In three August starts, Richards is 2-0 with a 1.19 ERA

One reason he’s having a career year has been the effective use of his slider. Richards is tied for the AL lead this season with 85 strikeouts in at-bats to end in his slider. Look for that success to continue tonight as Boston is hitting a major league-low .179 in at-bats ending in a slider from a righty.

Clay Buchholz will start for Boston tonight. He has a 5.79 ERA this season, more than three times higher than the 1.74 ERA he posted in 16 starts last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no pitcher in major league history has had his ERA triple from one season to the next while throwing at least 100 innings in each of those seasons.

Buchholz is throwing his cutter much more frequently this season, and it’s getting shelled.

He’s allowed two home runs this season with that pitch, after allowing just three in the previous five seasons combined. Perhaps the velocity loss has something to do with it.

Miscellaneous
• Mike Trout is hitting .378 with five home runs and 14 RBI in his career against the Red Sox. That’s his second-highest batting average against an opponent in his career (minimum 50 plate appearances).

• Josh Hamilton is 2-for-22 (both hits are doubles) in his career against Buchholz. His .091 batting average is his second worst among the 28 pitchers he’s faced at least 20 times.

• David Ortiz is hitting .455 with three homers and eight RBIs in the past six contests.

His 402 home runs as a Red Sox are 50 shy of tying Carl Yastrzemski for second on Boston’s all-time list (Ted Williams holds the franchise record with 521).

Martinez surges, Nathan skids; both integral

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
1:57
AM ET
Detroit Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez seems to be showing signs of breaking out of the three-week slump that caught him right out of the All-Star break.
J.D. Martinez
Martinez

Martinez hit another late-game homer in the Tigers' extra-inning win over the Tampa Bay Rays, this one a go-ahead solo shot in the top of the eighth inning.

The Rays would eventually come back against the Tigers bullpen, but Detroit would scratch out a win and survive another dicey closing effort from reliever Joe Nathan.

Martinez is hitting .355 with 11 hits and four extra-base hits in his last eight games.

His homer on Tuesday night came on a pitch on the inside corner, which Martinez crushed to straightaway center field.

Martinez has nine homers and a .626 slugging percentage against pitches on the inner-third of the plate or off the inside corner. The latter ranks sixth best in the majors.

Late-game penchant
Martinez has hit 11 of his 17 home runs in the seventh inning or later this season. That’s tied for the most homers that late in a game with Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins and Lucas Duda of the New York Mets.

Six of his 11 late-game homers have come when the score was within two runs either way.

How Nathan saved it
It was a rough 11th inning for Nathan, who earned his 26th save of the season despite allowing a run.

It was the sixth time this season Nathan allowed at least one run in a save, the most such saves in the American League. Addison Reed is the major league leader with seven.

Nathan actually had a good run for about three weeks (coincidentally, it was when Martinez was struggling), in which he allowed no earned runs in 11 of his 12 appearances. He’s since allowed three earned runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings over his last five appearances.

Nathan’s pitches have lost a little extra oomph from a few weeks ago. He hasn’t gotten a swing and a miss against the 40 fastballs he’s thrown in those last five games. Opposing hitters didn’t get any hits against his fastball from July 20 to Aug. 8 but have five hits against it since then.
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MLB

How Miller's injury impacts Ohio State

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
2:02
PM ET

Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsOhio State will have a huge void to fill with QB Braxton Miller out for the season.
ESPN and media reports indicate that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is out for the 2014 season after re-injuring his right shoulder in practice Monday.

Miller was one of several early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. He was tied for third with Georgia running back Todd Gurley on the most current Heisman Watch on ESPN.com behind only Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.

How valuable was Miller?
Miller was the only Big Ten quarterback to rank in the top 35 in Total QBR last season (he ranked 13th). He had the seventh-highest QBR among returning FBS quarterbacks (91.3).

Miller has been among the elite rushing quarterbacks in FBS over the past two seasons. His 2,339 rushing yards ranked second in FBS (Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois ranked first with 3,735 yards), nearly 200 yards more than Johnny Manziel in that same time.

A knee injury in Week 2 against San Diego State hindered Miller early in the season, but he averaged 131.6 rushing yards per game in the last five games.

Miller improved incrementally as a passer from 2011 to 2013 as the chart on the right shows.

He led the Big Ten in touchdown passes and ranked second in completion percentage and yards per attempt.

Miller and Drew Brees are the only players to win Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year multiple times.

Potential replacements
Senior backup Kenny Guiton graduated after last season, leaving Ohio State without an experienced backup behind Miller.

Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is listed as the team’s top backup. He was a four-star recruit in the Class of 2013, and was ranked the No. 11 dual-threat quarterback in that class.

Barrett’s senior season in high school was cut short by a torn ACL.

Redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones (two career pass attempts, both against Purdue) is the only quarterback other than Miller on the Ohio State roster who has attempted a pass in an FBS game.

Jones has played a total of 39 snaps against three opponents (Florida A&M, Penn State and Purdue).

Other losses
Losing Miller would be one extra thing the Buckeyes' offense will need to replace.

The team is dealing with a near total makeover up front.

Gone are second-team All-American left tackle Jack Mewhort, first-team Big Ten center Corey Linsley, first-team Big Ten left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Marcus Hall.

The Buckeyes' backfield stud, Carlos Hyde, is also gone. He was a second-round draft pick by the 49ers.

Hyde had a little more than 138 rushing yards per game, which was fifth in FBS last season. Over 57 percent of his rushes went for five or more yards, second best in FBS.

Miller was already looking for a new favorite weapon. Corey Brown led Ohio State in every major receiving category last season.

His 63 catches, 771 yards and 10 touchdowns were all best on the team. He was targeted 87 times in 2013, 14 more than any other wideout.

Ohio State’s schedule
Ohio State was favored in each game in the ESPN Football Power Index, with only one of its 12 opponents ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 (at Michigan State).

Before Miller’s injury, FPI projected the Buckeyes with a 41 percent chance to win the Big Ten, nearly twice as likely as the next-closest team (Wisconsin, 22 percent).

LaRoche finally gets biggest type of hit

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
12:45
AM ET
Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche has been getting big hits all month. On Monday, he got the one big hit that had eluded him throughout his career.

The Nationals won another kooky thriller by beating the Arizona Diamondbacks on LaRoche’s first career walk-off home run.
Adam LaRoche
LaRoche
LaRoche entered the day with 235 career regular-season homers, the second most of any player who didn’t have a walk-off home run. The only player with more is Mark Teixeira, who has 361, though Teixeira did hit a walk-off homer in the 2009 ALDS against the Minnesota Twins.

The hit continued a big run through August for LaRoche, who has a .306/.419/.677 slash line for the month, with six home runs and 12 RBIs in 17 games. His 1.096 OPS ranks third-best in the National League this month, trailing only Starling Marte (1.154) and Giancarlo Stanton (1.144).

He also entered the day with the seventh-highest Win Probability Added in the majors for the month. That stat, found on both Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs.com, measures situational performance.

This marked the second time in three days that he hit a key home run late in a game. On Saturday, LaRoche hit a game-tying two-run homer in the eighth inning against Pittsburgh Pirates lefty Tony Watson in a game the Nationals would go on to win.

How he’s hitting
LaRoche is doing this by crushing a pitch in a specific area, the outer half of the plate (and a little bit off the outside corner).

Five of LaRoche’s six home runs this month have come on pitches to that location. He entered the month with only six total home runs on outer-half pitches this season.

LaRoche’s value
LaRoche has been a big part of the Nationals’ success. Washington is 63-41 when he starts, 7-12 when he does not.

His 2.4 Wins Above Replacement are his second most in any major league season.

Elias Sports Bureau Stat of the Day
The Nationals' three consecutive walk-off wins matches a franchise record set by the Montreal Expos from June 26-28, 1988.
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MLB

Kernels: Football numbers highly frequent

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
9:15
PM ET
It's mid-August, which means football season is closing in rapidly. Perhaps that explains all the 7's and 14's we found in our weekly look at MLB's interesting and unusual happenings.

• Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates to earn his 14th win on Thursday. The strikeouts were a season high for Tigers pitchers and the second such game of Scherzer's career. He struck out 14 batters and allowed no runs in a 2010 game with Oakland, but threw only 5T in that affair. He's the first Tiger to throw eight innings, allow three hits or less, and strike out 14, since Mickey Lolich won a 1-0 game with the Milwaukee Brewers on August 23, 1970.

Speaking of the Brewers, Mike Fiers did his best Max Scherzer impression later on Thursday, also striking out 14 in only six innings against the Chicago Cubs. It was the fourth 14-strikeout game in Brewers history (Yovani Gallardo had one in 2012), and the first where a pitcher allowed zero runs.

As for two zero-run, 14-strikeout games on the same day, that hadn't happened since May 25, 2001, when Kerry Wood threw a one-hitter for the Cubs against the Brewers, and Boston's Hideo Nomo was separated from a perfect game against the Blue Jays only by a Shannon Stewart fourth-inning double.
* The Texas Rangers won their game on Tuesday when Adam Rosales drew a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the 14th. By inning, it was the latest "walk"-off in franchise history, and the latest in the majors since Mike Cameron drew one for the Marlins (scoring Emilio Bonifacio) on September 4, 2011.

•  The San Francisco Giants benefited from a controversial replay call and went on to score seven runs in the seventh on Wednesday. It was their highest-scoring inning at home since Game 2 of the 2010 World Series, and their highest in the regular season at AT&T Park since September 7, 2008, when they hung a 10-spot on the Pirates.

The Boston Red Sox had their first seven-run inning of the season as part of Thursday's win, creating a string of four straight days with a seven-run inning (the Mariners on Monday and Angels on Tuesday both put up seven-run sixths). It's the first such string of four consecutive days since August 20 through 23, 2011.

•  The Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Indians played 21 innings of doubleheader on Wednesday after Tuesday's contest was washed out. Game 1 featured a walk-off homer by Zach Walters, the Indians' second walk-off homer in a doubleheader in the past 25 years. Shin-Soo Choo had the other in 2011.

The nightcap went 11 scoreless innings before Tuffy Gosewisch's RBI single in the top of the 12th stood up for a 1-0 win. It's the first 1-0 extra-inning game to occur as part of a doubleheader since September 26, 1998, when the Marlins walked off against the Phillies in the 13th on an Alex Gonzalez homer.

Arizona reliever Randall Delgado gave up Walters' walk-off but then was the pitcher of record in the second game when the Diamondbacks scored in the 12th. He's the first pitcher to get a win and a loss in the same day since the Phillies' Geoff Geary split a doubleheader with Atlanta on September 3, 2006.

•  From the "touchdown-plus-field-goal" department, Rangers starter Colby Lewis worked six innings in Saturday's game against the Angels. Although he gave up 10 hits and five runs, his pitching line also had the quirk of featuring 10 strikeouts. He's the eighth pitcher in franchise history to allow 10 hits and record 10 strikeouts, and the first in over two decades. Roger Pavlik held the Red Sox to two runs on 10 hits in an eight-inning win on August 24, 1993.

•  Minor-League Minute: Perhaps you've seen the play that left Twins top prospect Byron Buxton with a concussion (but amazingly nothing worse) earlier this week. The right fielder manages to hang onto the ball despite being shaken up. Pay close attention after the collision, though. There's a runner on first. In the wide shot you can see that he comes all the way around and scores.

Yes, it's a three-base sacrifice fly. While it may have happened in the minors, since sacrifice flies were first tracked separately in 1954, there is no known instance of a major-league player ever scoring from first base on a sac fly with no error.




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MLB

Oh, to be Young (and a winner) again

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
9:00
PM ET
Seattle Mariners pitcher Chris Young is having one heck of a comeback season.
Chris Young
Cabrera
Young, who has dealt with a multitude of injuries throughout his career, picked up his 12th win on Sunday and matched his career high for wins in a season. He previously won 12 in 2005 with the Texas Rangers.

The win moved the Mariners ahead of the Detroit Tigers in the wild-card standings and continued an impressive August run.

Young is 7-2 with a 2.45 ERA and an 0.91 WHIP in his past 12 starts. He has won four straight decisions.

What makes him so good?
As Fangraphs writer Bradley Woodrum noted, Young is inducing an inordinate number of infield popups, which is a notable factor in his success.

But also significant is a midseason change in Young’s strikeout and walk numbers.

In his first 13 starts of the season, Young struck out 35 and walked 32 in 73 1/3 innings. In this 12-start run, he’s struck out 57 and walked only 15. He has also cut his home runs allowed from 11 to eight.

Young wins with a fastball that averages only 85.2 mph this season, a speed faster than only Mark Buehrle (83.6) and R.A. Dickey (81.9) among ERA-title qualifiers.

But opposing hitters are only batting .238 against the pitch in 2014, which ranks 11th best in the majors.

Young typically thrives in big ballparks. He has a 2.35 ERA at Safeco Field. Sunday’s win at Comerica Park (also relatively spacious) dropped his road ERA to 3.93.

How he won Sunday
Young allowed no runs in six scoreless innings in Sunday’s victory, struck out four and walked only one. He kept his outfielders busy, as he induced 13 fly balls and pop ups, only one of which went for a hit. He also limited line drives and yielded only one.

Young got outs by effectively working the top and bottom of the strike zone. He threw 41 pitches in the upper third of the zone or higher, netted six outs and yielded only one baserunner. His 33 pitches in the lower-third of the zone (or below the knees) netted eight outs (one shy of his season high) and permitted only two baserunners.

Super starters
Mariners starting pitchers have allowed three runs or fewer in each of their past 15 games and seven earned runs over 54 2/3 innings (1.15 ERA) over their past nine games.

The Mariners now lead the majors in overall ERA (2.94) and rank second in starter’s ERA (3.20). Their starters' ERA of 1.69 in August is easily the best in the majors.
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