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We Still Haven’t Seen the Best of Noah Syndergaard

If you’ll allow me to make whatever the opposite of a hot take is, I’ll go ahead and assert that Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the majors. This is almost a law of the universe, at this point — a law I don’t intend to contradict here. As for who’s next on the list, though, there’s more room for reasonable debate. One might ask, “Who’s the second-best pitcher in major-league baseball?”

In fact, I did ask it. According to the highly unscientific poll I took of my Twitter followers, Max Scherzer is an extraordinarily popular answer – and for good reason! Over the past four seasons he’s posted a 2.95 ERA, 2.90 FIP, averaged 263 strikeouts a year, and won two Cy Young Awards. You could also make cases for guys like Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and the always underappreciated Johnny Cueto. For any of those pitchers to be the second-best pitcher in baseball, though, they’d have to surpass the guy who generates exceptional results while commanding what I might argue is the most jaw-dropping starting pitcher repertoire we’ve ever seen: Noah Syndergaard.

There’s a video-game performance quality to what Syndergaard does on a baseball field that I’m not sure we’ve seen since Barry Bonds retired. We’ve had elite players, sure – Kershaw and Mike Trout are pretty dang good, after all – but there’s a real “this shouldn’t be humanly possible” quality to Syndergaard’s pitching.

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The Angels’ Offseason of Run-Prevention

Projected standings in December have little value beyond serving as a conversation starter. By our depth charts, remaining free agents are still projected to accumulate more than 50 WAR this season. Consequently, projected standings will continue to change over the rest of the winter as more signings and trades occur. As I said, though, they’re good conversation starters, and one of the more interesting conversations they’ve started this winter revolves around whether or not the Angels might actually be good in 2017.

As things stand right now, the Angels are projected to go 85-77 and finish second in the AL West behind the Astros. Not only that, but those projected 85 wins represent the fourth-highest projected total in all the American League. Does that mean it’s time to start printing up postseason tickets in Anaheim? Of course not. It’s possible, however — even in the middle of the offseason — to get a sense of current roster strengths and weaknesses from the depth charts that appear here. That’s true of every team.

Take a look at the Angels’ depth chart, for example, and you’ll find that they’re doing A-OK in center field thanks to Mike Trout, but that left field is a bit of a weak spot due to the comparatively limited projected production of Cameron Maybin. That’s certainly a conclusion which passes the sniff test.

However, even the use of projections to diagnose roster weaknesses can be misleading. The Angels’ starting rotation currently profiles to finish almost exactly in the middle of the pack among major-league teams — 16th out of 30 — which would represent a significant improvement for one of the league’s worst rotations of the 2016 season. While noting this potential for improvement, though, it’s important to recognize the unavoidable potential for deception in assigning one clean, round number to projected numbers — numbers, that is, which disguise an inherent degree of uncertainty. If Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, and Tyler Skaggs are healthy and productive then, sure, the team is in good position to field an improved starting rotation. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out at the start of the offseason, however, all three of those pitchers carry significant health question marks.

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Where Will Todd Frazier Play in 2017?

With Chris Sale now employed by the Boston Red Sox and Adam Eaton preparing for a season with front-row tickets to the Presidents Race, there can be no question about the current objectives of the White Sox. The stars-and-scrubs strategy they’ve employed for the past few years can now be viewed as an abject failure as the team revamps and retools by cashing in those aforementioned stars for players like Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Yoan Moncada, who figure to be key future contributors.

The term “fire sale” is a bit cliché, but it’s undeniable that there is an “everything must go” sense of urgency to what the White Sox are currently doing. Which means it remains likely that Jose Quintana’s days in the South Side are likely numbered and first baseman Jose Abreu may soon be out there door. If you’re placing odds on White Sox players likely to be traded in the near future, however, none will have higher odds than third baseman Todd Frazier.

The power-hitting Frazier is entering his final year of arbitration and will be 31 years old when Opening Day rolls around. According to the arbitration projections run by Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors, Frazier is likely to command a salary next year in the ballpark of $13.5 million. Over the past three seasons, Frazier has hit 104 homers – a figure that is second only to Josh Donaldson’s 107 among major-league third basemen. His ISO (isolated power) since 2015 is .241, or just a shade above Kris Bryant’s .238 ISO. Securing the services of a player with that kind of pop to man the hot corner on a one-year, $13.5 million contract would be an absolute coup in the free-agent market, but will the White Sox be able to convert that into a decent return in the trade market?

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The Time to Trade Chris Archer Has Arrived

Around this time of year, the free-agent and trade markets begin to feel like stacked dominoes – one domino falling sets many more in motion. The big domino to fall yesterday was, of course, Chris Sale’s trade to Boston. It’s only natural to wonder what the fallout from that trade will be. The Nationals were reportedly very interested in Sale: Will they look elsewhere for elite rotation help now that he’s no longer available? Other teams still said to be interested in top-of-the-rotation arms include the Braves, the Astros and even the World Champion Cubs. (I’m still practicing adding that “World Champion” qualifier on the Cubs. It hasn’t stopped looking weird, has it?) As long as teams continue to look for elite starting pitching, one name will continue to be thrown around: Chris Archer. Now that the Red Sox have added Sale and are clearly attempting to build the American League’s “team to beat,” is the time right for the Rays to finally pull the trigger and deal Archer?

A few weeks ago, Jeff Sullivan compared the potential trade value of both Archer and Sale. The first conclusion he reached – that Sale has been better than Archer – quickly passed the sniff test. The second conclusion is significantly more intriguing. Here’s what he had to say:

“Chris Archer might be a worse pitcher than Sale is, but his contract is more team-friendly still. And one should expect that to make a difference, these all being negotiations taking place in the 2016 industry landscape. If you want to trade for one of these starters, Chris Sale could be the more affordable of the two.”

Archer and Sale are six months apart in age and both under contract for just under $40 million, but Archer’s contract includes team options for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Sale’s contract, meanwhile, expires after the 2019 season. So, for essentially the same amount of money a club can acquire either three years of Sale or five years of a pitcher who has been nearly as good. Consequently, Archer’s contract provides — to use the hip lingo — more surplus value. In fact, due to those extra two seasons Jeff found that “Chris Archer’s surplus value is 152% of Chris Sale’s surplus value.” The White Sox just pulled in a player who has previously been listed by some publications as the No. 1 prospect in the sport. If the Rays can reasonably command an even higher asking price for Archer, then, at the very least, they have to be listening to offers.

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The Best Available Free Agent: Cespedes or Turner?

It’s no secret that position players are the big prize in this winter’s relatively weak free-agent class. Available top-tier starting pitching is essentially non-existent, but there are a few hitters who will be expected to be a big boon to their new teams. Even then, though, it’s not as if the ranks of available hitters are dripping with star-level talent. I keep going back to free-agent rankings ordered according to 2017 projection systems – here’s our free-agent depth chart and here are MLB.com’s projections – and grappling with the name atop the projections: Justin Turner. Is it actually possible that a 32-year-old infielder coming off his first major-league season as a full-fledged starter is the game’s best available free agent?

The most popular name to cite as this year’s “best” free agent is Yoenis Cespedes. He appears atop Dave Cameron’s top-50 free-agent rankings and all indications are that he’s the most likely player to lock-down a nine-figure contract before next year. Edwin Encarnacion is also available, and all he’s done is hit more homers over the last five seasons (193) than every player in the game except Chris Davis (197). But then there’s Justin Turner. As Cameron said when he listed Turner as the best potential free-agent bargain this winter: “Turner looks like this year’s Ben Zobrist: a good player who will get underpriced because he doesn’t feel as good as he actually is.”

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Should Teams Believe in the More Selective Cespedes?

Baseball players are human beings and – here’s some bad news about the human race – human beings are flawed. Perfection in human form does not exist and, consequently, neither does perfection in baseball-player form. The greatest players the world has ever known still have weaknesses on the field (and off it, for that matter). Some weaknesses are unfixable – sorry, Ben Revere, but you’re never going to be a power hitter – but some weaknesses can be addressed. Players who make improvements can elevate their projected value, which can come in handy during free agency. This year, one free agent who has answered questions about a long-standing perceived weakness and stands to benefit financially is Yoenis Cespedes.

A year ago, Cespedes underwent a power surge. He’d always been a 20-homer guy, but, for the first time, he crossed the 30-homer threshold. He also set a career high in isolated power (ISO) with a .251 mark that ranked 12th among 141 qualified hitters. The great news for Cespedes is that he’s been able to sustain his heightened level of power this year by putting up a .251 ISO for the second consecutive season.

career-iso

The better news for Cespsedes, though, is that, in addition to strengthening an area in which he’d always shown some ability, he also demonstrated impressive improvement in an area of perceived weakness: walks and on-base percentage (OBP). From 2013 to 2014, Cespedes’ OBP hovered around .300; last year it increased to .328 thanks in large part to the influx of home runs (and their effect on his batting average). This year, however, Cespedes brought his OBP up to .354, a level he hasn’t reached since he posted a .356 OBP in his rookie season. The obvious cause of this impressive boost has been a dramatic reversal in his walk-rate trend.

career-bb

In 2015, Cespedes’ walk rate bottomed out at 4.9%; this past year, it soared to a new career high of 9.4%. One of the key questions facing teams interested in signing Cespedes this winter, then, is whether the boost is real. It goes without saying that a player with good power and decent OBP will be worth more to a team than a player with good power and poor OBP. Which type of player should teams expect from Cespedes going forward?

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Ian Kinsler’s Historically Great Season at Second Base

In baseball, it may not be possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to quantity of elite-level players. The sport is, almost by definition, at its best when great players face off against one another. If there’s a problem with a strong collection of elite talent, though, it’s that truly great players can get overlooked. It’s hard to distinguish oneself when surrounded by an array of other distinguished performances.

A look at the WAR leaderboard from the American League this past season reveals that four second basemen finished among the top 11 overall performers in the league by this metric.

We know MVP finalist Jose Altuve was outstanding and we know Robinson Cano had an absolutely tremendous season in Seattle. Slightly less heralded was the overall performance of the Twins’ Brian Dozier, although his 28 homers in the second half still garnered him plenty of attention. But what about the fourth second baseman on the list? Did we pay enough attention to Ian Kinsler this year?

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Why Jason Hammel Is No Longer a Cub

Not even 72 hours removed from winning the World Series, the Cubs made their first roster shakeup of the offseason – roster decision deadlines wait for no hangover. Yesterday, the Cubs officially declined the $12 million team option on Jason Hammel and will pay the $2 million buyout instead. Typically there isn’t too much surprise with contract options. Ryan Howard at $25 million? Decline. Wade Davis at $10 million? Accept. Declining Hammel’s option was so curious, however, that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein took a break from his bender to issue 318-word statement on the matter:

Hammel signed a one-year deal with the Cubs prior to the 2014 season, was traded to Oakland with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell trade that July, and then returned to the Cubs on what would’ve been a three-year, $30 million contract had the option been picked up, but which has instead become a two-year, $20 million deal. In his two-and-a-half seasons with Chicago, he pitched 446 innings to a 3.59 ERA, 22.9% strikeout rate, and 5.9 WAR – and added 0.6 WAR with the bat, for good measure. Now, those stats might be disappointing for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but Hammel was functionally the Cubs’ fifth starter! Fifth starters aren’t supposed to be this good and the Cubs could’ve had effectively retained him for $10 million (his $12 million option minus the $2 million buyout), so why didn’t they?

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Cody Allen’s Postseason Dominance Cannot Go Overlooked

The dominant storyline of this postseason is reliever usage — well, the dominant storyline aside from the length of championship droughts, at least. Cleveland manager Terry Francona has freed himself to use elite reliever Andrew Miller when necessary rather than constrain himself to such trivial guidelines as save opportunities. Miller’s success (and Francona’s resultant success) has led people to ask whether this is a watershed moment for standard relief pitcher usage. Has Francona made it acceptable to more closely align optimal reliever usage with leverage rather than inning?

There are a few big reasons to think Miller’s 2016 postseason isn’t going to change bullpens as we know them. First of all, Miller’s contract status makes him immune from the reality that relief pitcher’s earnings are intimately tied to save totals. Like it or not, save totals are of real consequence to relief pitchers who aren’t already receiving hefty salaries. Secondly, managers can do things in the postseason that simply aren’t practical during the 162-game regular-season grind. As an example, consider: even though Francona has utilized Miller in a notably flexible relief-ace role ever since Cleveland acquired him from the Yankees at the end of July, Miller also entered a game in the sixth inning or earlier just once in his 26 regular-season appearances. In the postseason, however, he’s entered in the sixth or early in four of his nine outings.

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, that Miller’s case is unlikely to cause any immediate radical changes in bullpen management, is one discussed by an aptly titled article at ESPN.com by Sam Miller: “Cody Allen makes the Andrew Miller experiment possible”. To avoid confusion (and the resultant mass hysteria) likely to be caused by their shared surname, we’ll refer to the illustrious writer as Sam, and continue referring to the pitcher as Miller. Sam rightfully points out that the mere existence of another elite reliever is what frees up Francona to utilize Miller in such unconventional ways.

“If there were no Andrew Miller, [Cody] Allen might be the talk of this postseason… But Miller’s brilliance has ensured that Allen’s brilliance has gone overlooked. The irony is that Allen’s brilliance had ensured that Miller’s brilliance has been possible.”

Although the ship has long since sailed on making Allen “the talk of this postseason”, we still can (and should) spend some time talking about the other elite reliever who’s helped to situate Cleveland one win away from their first championship in 68 years. Allen has pitched 11.2 innings this postseason — or, to put it another way, has recorded 35 outs. Of those 35 outs, 22 have been via the strikeout — giving him a positively obscene 17.0 K/9 rate. To put that in perspective, uber-reliever Miller is sporting a 15.4 K/9 this postseason and the only reliever ever to top 17.0 K/9 in a regular season is some guy named Aroldis Chapman, who reached 17.7 K/9 in 2014.

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Does Cleveland Even Need Danny Salazar?

When looking at postseason matchups, the quickest and most natural thing on which to focus is the relative strength of each club’s starting rotation. About a month ago, I wrote about this tendency to get caught up in starting-pitching matchups during postseason overanalysis — in part because it’s something that I myself tend to overanalyze. Which is why I looked at Cleveland at the start of the postseason and gave them little chance to advance to the Division Series or, certainly, the World Series. Lesson learned.

That piece focused on the string of starting pitcher-injuries at the end of the season and their impact on playoff rotations — including, of course, Cleveland. The loss of the No. 2 and No. 3 in their rotation — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — represented a devastating blow, and it was natural to wonder how it would impact their October chances. However, it was (and is) undeniable that the team had a tremendous bullpen, which is why this was my conclusion at the time:

“If the rotation can keep them competitive through five or six innings and the offense plays its part, there’s absolutely still a path to October success for Cleveland. Cling to that while all of the pregame overanalyses look unfavorably upon the majority of Cleveland’s starting-pitcher matchups this October.”

As expected, Cleveland’s bullpen has been simply tremendous. With just six earned runs allowed in 32.1 innings pitched, they’re sporting a 1.67 ERA. The significantly less expected development, though, is that the rotation has done a heckuva lot more than just keep the team competitive. The rotation as a whole has allowed a similarly impressive eight earned runs through 38.2 IP, giving that unit a tremendous 1.86 ERA. Obviously Corey Kluber has been a significant part of that success, but so too has Josh Tomlin’s three earned runs in 10.2 IP and Ryan Merritt’s delightfully shocking 4.1 shutout innings. The only starting pitcher for whom the bullpen has really been compelled to clean up is Trevor Bauer and his drone-afflicted pinky.

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The Constantly Evolving Marcus Stroman

Things could be going better for the Toronto Blue Jays. The only true “must-win” games are elimination games, but trailing Cleveland two games to none in the ALCS, there’s little doubt that tonight’s Game 3 feels like a must-win game Toronto. Should they lose tonight, all anyone will be able to talk about is how only one MLB team has ever come back to win a series after being down three games to none.

Could the Blue Jays become the second team to make such a comeback? Of course. They strung together a four-game win streak as recently as the Wild Card Game through their ALDS sweep over the Rangers, after all. But, naturally, facing a best-case scenario of four straight elimination games is not the outcome Toronto will be seeking in tonight’s game.

The most obvious aspect of Toronto’s game which needs to improve if they want to win is their offense. In the 18 innings they’ve played against Cleveland thus far, they’ve scored just one run – not exactly an ideal method for winning games. Of course, scoring runs at prodigious rates is something else we just saw Toronto do,what l when they tallied up 22 runs in their three-game ALDS sweep over the Rangers. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Josh Donaldson or Edwin Encarnacion or another key member of their lineup stepping up to the plate and delivering for Toronto. If they want to win tonight, someone is going to have to push runs across the plate and they aren’t lacking for players who can be that guy.

However, to state the obvious, a two-game stretch of inept offense does not change the fundamental realities of baseball for the Blue Jays. Hitting well isn’t their singular path to getting back into the series. Defense and pitching are just as important as ever. So far, Toronto’s pitching staff has done a tremendous job of keeping Cleveland’s offense in check, yielding just four runs over the two games. There are a multitude of paths to success in a baseball game, but among the simplest is to prevent the other team from scoring. Tonight, they’ll turn to starting pitcher Marcus Stroman in hopes that he’ll become their latest pitcher to keep Cleveland’s offense in check. One of the interesting things to watch tonight will be what Stroman looks like — aside from the diminutive bundle of energy we’ve come to know over the past few seasons — because Stroman is constantly evolving.

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Johnny Cueto Is Also a Giants Ace

The appeal of lists and rankings, whatever its cause, is very real. That thing you like? Sure, it’s good, but is it better than this other thing?! We’ve seen this carry over into baseball presumably since the sport began. Williams or DiMaggio? Aaron or Mays? Garciaparra or Jeter or Rodriguez? We’ve even clung to “Trout or Harper?” for as long as we possibly can. Whether this urge to create a clear hierarchy is good, that’s not for me to say, but it’s a tendency into which I’ve found myself constantly falling when thinking about one particular playoff team: the San Francisco Giants.

It goes without saying that the Giants are not in an enviable position. They’re down two games to none to the Cubs in the Division Series and their opponent is widely regarded as the best team in baseball on paper. But the Giants have been in a similar position before and come out alright, so it would be disingenuous to say they’re hopeless. Perhaps the biggest reason to maintain even a shred of hope that the Giants will fight back in the series is related to this fact: by at least one metric, the two best games pitched by a starter so far this postseason have been by Giants pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto.

Having two elite starting pitchers doesn’t guarantee postseason success for any team – one only needs look at the Texas Rangers for confirmation of that fact – but it’s also unequivocally beneficial. It may or may not be enough to help the Giants claw their way back in this series, especially considering Bumgarner and Cueto can only start two of the remaining three wins the Giants need. But it’s a situation that lends itself to an intriguing debate that I personally am incapable of avoiding — namely, the question of who’s better, Bumgarner or Cueto?

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Mike Montgomery: The Cherry on Top?

Remember the kid in high school who always got straight “A”s? While everybody else was going about their business doing their best to stay afloat, that kid would seek out his or her own challenges just to try to make school interesting. Whether you loved, hated, or were that kid, you’ll never forget the way he or she seemingly operated at another level. In major-league baseball this year, there were a few players worthy of a comparison to that kid, but right now we’re going to talk about the one team who warrants the comparison: the Cubs. Specifically, we’re going to look at one way they challenged themselves and how it might pay off in the playoffs.

How do you improve when you’re already the best? That’s a somewhat obnoxious oversimplification of the situation the Cubs faced prior to the July trade deadline, but it’s not without merit. The Cubs have had ups and downs throughout the season, but it would be disingenuous to attempt to contend that a team ranking atop the majors in wins, team RA9, position-player wRC+, and defense is anything less than the best. They enter the playoffs the easy favorites on paper and, remarkably, that probably would have been true even if the team had failed to make a single upgrade at the trade deadline.

Of course, they didn’t stay quiet in July. As you know, their big splash was the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman – a move which helped shore up their bullpen as well as address their lack of left-handed relief options. Chapman has been predictably great for the Cubs and figures to be an important part of their postseason run, but that’s not the move we need to talk about. The Chapman acquisition is important, but its impact is boringly straightforward. The more intriguing move was the acquisition of another left-handed pitcher: Mike Montgomery.

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Four Trivial Things to Watch This Weekend

Baseball matters this weekend, in as much as it ever truly matters. The division races are decided, but the Wild Card races in both leagues provide plenty of reasons to tune in and root for whatever outcome pleases your baseball-loving sensibilities. As things stand right now there are 13 teams with hopes of postseason play, but a week from now only eight teams will remain. Stakes don’t get much higher than that.

But the postseason pool is not the only thing that will be finalized this weekend (or, if #TeamEntropy gets its way, early next week). In a few days, the regular season will come to a halt and 2016 stat lines will be frozen forever. Is a batter a 30-home-run guy or did he stop at 29? A .300 hitter or a .299? A sub-3.00-ERA pitcher or one with a 3.03 ERA? These trivial distinctions will be determined over the next few days.

What should you watch this weekend? The playoff races. Obviously. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling. But if you’re a weirdo with an affinity for the trivial side of this sport like me, there are a few other things to keep your eye on this weekend. Here are the four I’ll be watching most closely:

The Dodgers’ Strikeout Rate

Two pitchers in major-league history have finished a career (min. 3000 IP) with a strikeout rate above 25%: Randy Johnson (28.6%) and Nolan Ryan (25.3%). The 2016 Dodgers currently have a 25.2% strikeout rate as a team. That’s right, the revolving door of healthy and injured pitchers has resulted in a Dodgers pitching staff that has struck out batters at a rate roughly equivalent to Nolan Ryan’s career rate.

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Injuries Are Attempting to Ruin Playoff Rotations

I don’t mean to stress out anybody whose teams are still fighting for a playoff spot, but the postseason is almost here. In less than two weeks fans of either the Mets, Giants, or Cardinals will be crushed as will fans of the majority of the (approximately) 82 teams vying for an American League Wild Card spot. When that time comes, the disappointed will be able to dry their tears while engaging in one of the great annual postseason traditions: overanalysis. For six months, we’ve been watching up to 15 games every night — a pace which lends itself nicely to broad, big-picture analysis more than football-esque gameday breakdowns. In the playoffs, however, that all changes and suddenly every game and series will be diced up and analyzed in every possible way, for better or worse.

One of the biggest ways this overanalysis creeps into our baseball consciousness is through an obsession over starting pitching. If you check a newspaper — I see you and I respect you, old-school newspaper folks — or open a game preview on the MLB.com At Bat app, the first thing you’ll find is that day’s starting-pitcher matchup. Is your team going to win on a given day? Better know who’s toeing the rubber to set your expectations correctly. Intellectually, we know that baseball is too unpredictable and complex to be effectively parsed down to a look at the day’s starters, but that won’t stop us. With that in mind, it’s been a rough stretch for a few playoff-bound teams who figure to see their starting rotations scrutinized under a high-power microscope over the next few weeks. I’m talking, of course, about Cleveland losing Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injury, the Mets losing Jacob deGrom, and the Nationals losing Stephen Strasburg.

The good news for each of those teams is that they all have at least one healthy ace-level pitcher remaining, but will that be enough when matching up against other ace-laden playoff rotations? Are any of them particularly well-suited to handle the loss? In preparation for overanalysis season, let’s take stock of what each of these injuries means to these teams and what their October rotations look like as things stand today.

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A Specific Kind of Golden Age for Shortstops

With three home runs in his past five games, Freddy Galvis is in the midst of a power surge that has made him the most prolific home-run-hitting shortstop in the league over the past 30 days. Go back just a tiny bit further and you’ll find that Galvis has 10 home runs and a corresponding .899 OPS since August 9th. Freddy Galvis. You know, the glove-first shortstop with a career 73wRC+. He entered the 2016 season with 20 career home runs in 1,153 plate appearances and has now nearly doubled that career total thanks to 19 homers this year in just 568 trips to the plate. It’s a mind-boggling surge on its own, but Galvis’ story is just one of many strikingly similar tales.

Across the league, there are established major-league shortstops with unimpressive career power totals soaring beyond their prior home-run paces.

Newly Slugging Shortstops
Name PrePA PreHR 16PA 16HR
Brad Miller 1243 29 542 28
Marcus Semien 927 23 558 25
Xander Bogaerts 1298 20 654 19
Freddy Galvis 1153 20 568 19
Didi Gregorius 1302 22 539 18
Jonathan Villar 658 10 616 16
PrePA & PreHR = career PA & HR prior to 2016 season
16PA & 16HR = PA & HR this season

These newfound sluggers have all joined a plethora of other shortstops across the league in the 15-plus home-run club. All total there have been 15 shortstops to hit 15 or more homers this season.

2016 Shortstops with 15+ HR
# Player Tm HR
1 Brad Miller TB 28
2 Trevor Story COL 27
3 Corey Seager LAD 25
4 Marcus Semien OAK 25
5 Troy Tulowitzki TOR 23
6 Danny Espinosa WAS 21
7 Addison Russell CHC 20
8 Freddy Galvis PHI 19
9 Xander Bogaerts BOS 19
10 Asdrubal Cabrera NYM 19
11 Carlos Correa HOU 19
12 Didi Gregorius NYY 18
13 Jonathan Villar MIL 16
14 Zack Cozart CIN 16
15 Aledmys Diaz STL 15
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

According to Baseball-Reference, prior to this year there had never been more than 10 shortstops to hit 10 or more homers in a season — a record set in 2003 and tied in 2007. (As an aside, the only shortstops to make the list in both of those seasons were Miguel Tejada and Alex Gonzalez… not that Alex Gonzalez, the other one.) This year’s crop of 15-plus-homer shortstops is already half again as large as the previous record holder and it’s conceivable that the size of this year’s group could further extend its new record as Francisco Lindor is currently just one homer away at 14 on the season and Brandon Crawford, with a slightly larger mountain to climb, currently has 12 round-trippers on the year. In summary, shortstops be hittin’ lotsa long balls this year.

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The Dodgers Need Yasiel Puig Whether They Want Him or Not

In the eighth inning of Monday night’s game at Yankee Stadium, Yasiel Puig was asked to pinch-hit against a left-handed relief pitcher named James Pazos. With two outs, nobody on and the Dodgers already winning 6-2, the stakes weren’t terribly high. However, with Puig’s recent return from purgatory Triple-A, it was a good opportunity to give the right-hander an at-bat off the bench over the left-handed Joc Pederson. The result was the first pinch-hit home run of Puig’s career. However, beyond the actual outcome of this one at-bat, Puig’s pinch-hit performance served as a reminder of exactly how important he can be for the Dodgers in September and October.

The latest whispers and rumors indicate that, leading up to the August 31 waiver trade deadline, the Dodgers and Brewers were tantalizingly close to completing a deal that would have sent Puig to Milwaukee and Ryan Braun to Los Angeles. Reportedly, it’s a trade scenario that may be revisited this offseason. For now, however, Puig remains a Dodger. Whatever discord does or doesn’t exist between the player and team ought to be put on the back burner for now because the Dodgers have a role that needs to be filled and Puig is the one here to fill it.

There are a lot of different directions in which the Dodgers could go as they construct their postseason roster, but one of them includes taking the five pure outfielders currently with the team. Did you ever watch Sesame Street either growing up or with your own kids? You know that “One of these things is not like the other” song? Go ahead and sing it in your head while taking a look at the Dodgers five outfielders: Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson, Josh Reddick, Andrew Toles, and Yasiel Puig. (Yeah, that song will be in your head all day. Sorry.)

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Is This the Anthony DeSclafani Breakout We Expected?

Last September, a starting pitcher emerged who would go on to be one of the more popular under-the-radar “breakout” picks of the winter. Acquired from Miami in the Mat Latos trade, Anthony DeSclafani was a 24-year-old with middling results across his 31 starts last year, including a 4.05 ERA and a 12.2-point strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%). The results on their own were more than serviceable for an innings-eater type pitcher, but they weren’t exactly exciting. Until you looked at September, that is.

In September, his ERA clocked in at an unappealing 4.93, but the underlying peripherals were fantastic. He struck out 24.8% of batters while walking just 3.4% and maintained a solid 47.1% ground-ball rate — all of which left him with a 2.27 FIP for the month. A bit of bad luck in batted balls and sequencing made it possible for numbers-friendly fans to uncover what really happened with DeSclafani that month and feel like you were unearthing a great secret, because not only was DeSclafani putting on a hidden great performance, it was accompanied by the always enticing logical explanation.

DeSclafani 2015 Pitch Chart

Take a look at DeSclafani’s pitch-usage chart from 2015 and you’ll find that, at the end of the season, he largely scrapped his changeup and dramatically increased his curveball usage. Additionally, he decreased his reliance on the four-seamer. Great run-prevention numbers may not have initially accompanied the adjustment, but the peripherals indicated that DeSclafani had taken a step forward and could be in store for a strong 2016 campaign. And, as it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happened.

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So You Want a Cinderella Story?

According to our playoff odds, there are currently 13 teams which feature playoff odds below 2%. As that number grows throughout the month, an increasingly large percentage of baseball fans will be bidding farewell to the hopes that this is the year for their preferred teams and looking to adopt other rooting interests. There’s no full replacement for the satisfaction of your team winning in October, but playoff baseball is still worth enjoying as much as you can. So, for whom do you root this month?

In recent years, Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated has popularized Team Entropy — spending your September rooting for the chaos generated by ties testing the limits of baseball’s tie-breaker system. With a range of 5.5 games separating the seven teams atop the AL Wild Card standings, Team Entropy is as in play as ever. The theoretical implications of a three- or four- or five-way tie for a Wild Card spot are delightful to imagine. It would be a blast to watch and, as someone with no skin in the game this year, I’d enjoy the hell out of it. That said, my strongest loyalties lie with another team — I’m not Team Entropy, I’m Team Cinderella.

For me, there’s no more exciting storyline than a September longshot bucking the odds and finding its way into the postseason. Two years ago, the Pirates had roughly a 20% chance to make the postseason on September 3rd according to The Baseball Gauge and then proceeded to secure themselves a spot in the Wild Card game. But I’d argue an even more exciting September Cinderella storyline unfolded a year before that when the 2013 Indians finished off the season by winning 15 of 17 and beating out the Rangers for a Wild Card Spot despite possessing 15% playoff odds at the start of that final 17-game run. Now that’s my idea of brilliant September baseball.

It’s been a few years and, though it may be a virtue, patience is certainly no fun. It’s time for a new September Cinderella team, so let’s go searching for one. For this exercise, I’m considering the cases of the five teams with playoff odds currently in the 3%-20% range.

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Randal Grichuk’s Successful Unadjustment

Last season, a 23-year-old Randal Grichuk put together a tremendous rookie campaign. He posted a 137 wRC+ on the strength of a terrific .272 isolated-power mark. Add into the mix that he could handle all three outfield positions and, on the surface, it looked like the Cardinals had themselves a solid young contributor to build around. However, his performance was not without red flags, the most prominent among them being a 6.3% walk rate, 31.4% strikeout rate, and .365 BABIP. If Grichuk wanted to sustain his success into the 2016 season, it was reasonable to expect he’d need to improve his plate discipline to balance the likely BABIP regression.

The good news is that Grichuk was up for the challenge. He practiced his pitch identification using methods outlined by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch back in April. The early results showed that adjustments had, in fact, been made. Jeff Sullivan wrote at the time about the impressive decline in Grichuk’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone. A promising young player with a glaring weakness addressed and improved on that weakness! Fantastic! What could possibly go wrong?

In the first half, Grichuk’s strikeout rate fell all the way to 22.7% and his walk rate was up to 7.3%. Unfortunately, these improvements coincided with a massive drop off in his ability to crush baseballs. He hit just .226 in the first half thanks to a BABIP that cratered to .255 — and he posted a notably diminished .199 ISO — all of which left him with a terrifically disappointing 89 wRC+. In response, Grichuk has been demoted to Triple-A twice, once June and once at the start of August. Since his most recent return to the majors on August 11th, however, something has changed.

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