Midseason NL Cy Young Award

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This was a difficult call one third of the way through the season, when I went with a top three of Dan Haren, Chad Billingsley and Johnny Cueto, and not a whole lot easier now.

First, here’s the top 10 in ERA.

1. Dan Haren – 2.01 ERA in 130 IP
2. Tim Lincecum – 2.33 ERA in 127 2/3 IP
3. Matt Cain – 2.38 ERA in 117 IP
4. Josh Johnson – 2.74 ERA in 128 IP
5. Jair Jurrjens – 2.91 ERA in 114 1/3 IP
6. Javier Vasquez – 2.95 ERA in 119 IP
7. Wandy Rodriguez – 2.96 ERA in 112 2/3 IP
8. Adam Wainwright – 3.04 ERA in 130 1/3 IP
9. Johan Santana – 3.09 ERA in 116 1/3 IP
10. Clayton Kershaw – 3.16 ERA in 99 2/3 IP

Santana and Kershaw are easy cuts from being serious contenders, given
that Santana leads the entire group with nine unearned runs allowed and
Kershaw ranks tied for 38th in the league in innings.

No one further back rates consideration. While Chad Billingsley,
Yovani Gallardo and Ted Lilly have been at least as valuable as Santana
and Kershaw, they’re not in the top five. Jason Marquis leads the
league in wins with 11, but the Coors effect doesn’t counter his 3.65
ERA. 13 starts doesn’t put Chris Carpenter into the mix.

So, let’s move forward with those top eight in ERA. Here they are according to VORP:

Dan Haren – 51.2
Tim Lincecum – 42.2
Matt Cain – 40.2
Josh Johnson – 39.0
Javier Vazquez – 32.3
Adam Wainwright – 31.8
Jair Jurrjens – 28.5
Wandy Rodriguez – 26.0

That’s two measures, both clearly in favor of Haren. Haren is also
far in front in WHIP (0.81) and average against (.189). He’s second in
the NL in innings, one-third of a frame behind Adam Wainwright, who has
made 19 starts to Haren’s 18. Also, he’s doing all of this while
working in a hitter’s park half of the time.

So why is this still a tough call? Let’s go to FIP for a moment. FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, tries to remove defensive support from the equation.

Tim Lincecum – 2.06
Javier Vazquez – 2.58
Dan Haren – 2.77
Josh Johnson – 2.92
Wandy Rodriguez – 3.65
Adam Wainwright – 3.68
Matt Cain – 3.84
Jair Jurrjens – 3.87

Even though Haren wins in pretty much every other measure, there’s
still a way to argue that Lincecum has been the NL’s best pitcher this
season. I don’t truly buy it. FIP measures what might have happened,
while ERA, VORP and most of the rest are measuring what actually did
happen. To place Lincecum over Haren, I think you have to make a strong
case that Arizona’s defense is quite a bit better than San Francisco’s,
and most of the defensive numbers would say the opposite is true.

So, I’m going with Haren over Lincecum for now. The third spot comes
down to Cain and Johnson. Cain wins in ERA, while Johnson has him by 11
innings. Both have allowed just two unearned runs, which is an
especially impressive stat for Johnson in that he’s a modest groundball
pitcher in front of an error-prone infield. It’s almost a tossup, but I
put Johnson slightly in front.

Midseason NL Cy Young

1. Haren
2. Lincecum
3. Johnson

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.