What we're watching: Beckett, Felix aim for for 12th victories

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– Josh Beckett and Felix Hernandez both have opportunities to become
the AL’s first 12-game winner tonight. Beckett goes first, and one has
to like his chances with a home start against the A’s on the schedule.
He beat the A’s on Oakland on July 7 and is 6-0 with a 2.44 ERA in nine
starts at Fenway this season. King Felix will pitch against the Blue
Jays in a 10 p.m. EDT start. The Marlins have won each of his last
eight starts, even though they’ve average just 4.4 runs per game in
those contests. He’ll be going up against Ricky Romero, who is 8-4 with
a 3.44 ERA.

– The Yankees capitalized on a 10-game homestand to build a 2 1/2-game
lead over the Red Sox. Now they’ll play nine straight on the road,
beginning with a series in Tampa Bay. A.J. Burnett, riding a four-game
winning streak, will take on James Shields in the opener. He’s 1-0 with
a 3.21 ERA in two starts against the Rays this year. Shields hasn’t won
since June 20 and is 1-6 with a 5.73 ERA against the Yankees in his
career. This will be his first start against the Bombers in 2009.

Game of the Night

L.A. Dodgers vs. St. Louis – After falling out of first place in the
NL Central on Sunday, the Cardinals will look to Chris Carpenter to
help them bounce back against the team with the best record in
baseball. Carpenter would be 4-0 this month if not for Ryan Franklin’s
blown save last Wednesday. He’s 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four career
starts against the Dodgers. Starting for the Dodgers will be Randy
Wolf, who has turned in 13 quality starts this year — including five
in a row — yet has just five wins to show for his 3.45 ERA.

Which teams improved and declined the most in 2015?

Joe Maddon
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I was curious about which MLB teams changed their fortunes the most this season compared to last year, so I crunched the numbers.

First, here are the biggest win total improvements from 2014 to 2015:

+24 Cubs
+21 Rangers
+16 Astros
+15 Diamondbacks
+13 Twins
+11 Mets
+10 Blue Jays
+10 Cardinals
+10 Pirates

The top five teams on the biggest-improvement list all had managers in their first season on the job, led by Joe Maddon joining the Cubs after tons of success with the Rays. Also worth noting: Of the nine teams with the biggest win total improvement, eight made the playoffs. Only the Twins improved to double-digit games and still failed to make the playoffs.

Now, here are the biggest win total declines from 2014 to 2015:

-20 Athletics
-16 Tigers
-15 Orioles
-14 Brewers
-13 Nationals
-13 Angels
-12 Braves
-12 Reds
-11 Mariners

Not surprisingly, a whole lot of those teams have changed managers, general managers, or both. And a couple more may still do so before the offseason gets underway. Oakland retained manager Bob Melvin despite an MLB-high 20-win dropoff and just promoted Billy Beane from general manager to vice president of baseball operations.

MLB games were six minutes shorter this year

Pitch Clock
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According to STATS, INC., the average game in 2015 was 2 hours, 56 minutes. That’s six minutes faster than games in 2014.

The gains came in the first half, when games averaged 2:53. Second half games averaged three hours even. One can probably thank the expanded rosters in September for that, as games then see many more pitching changes. Of course, it’s likely that second half games were faster in 2015 than 2014 as well given the rules changes.

Those changes: agreement to enforce the rule requiring a hitter to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box and the installation of clocks timing pitching changes and between-inning breaks in ever ballpark.

It remains to be seen if MLB stays satisfied with that modest improvement or if chooses to go the way Triple-A and Double-A leagues did. They installed 20-second pitch clocks and started penalizing violators with balls and strikes. Triple-A’s two leagues, the International and Pacific Leagues, saw game-time decreases by 13 and 16 minutes, respectively.