Back In The New York Groove: The Yankees Are Rolling

This six game winning streak the Yankees have put together is building momentum for the team to be contenders in the AL east. This next series can put them over the .500 mark if they win 2 out of 3, so it is important that they take an aggressive approach to this series and they have.

At the beginning of the season the Yankees were not playing like this because of injuries and the suspension of Aroldis Chapman. Now that the bullpen is together and starting pitching has been solid the team is making their competition look rather easy.

Now that the team is playing as one they can help each other out on offense and defense and win big.

Great starting pitching has been a big help in their recent success and that has been supplemented by a high powered offense. In the past six games they have been scoring an average of 5 runs per game. 5 runs should be more than enough with the way the Yankees have been pitching. Making the load lighter on starting pitchers is paying off because they are allowed to have more efficient innings while they have a comfortable lead. The defense is feeding off of the offense and that strategy is the key to keeping a good balance on the field.

The Yankees have also been capitalizing with runners in scoring position. Earlier in the season they would strand runners on second and third, and sometimes with the bases loaded. That was a problem that could not continue or they would have remained in their losing rut.

At some point during the season all of the players will have a drought because it is hard and impossible to stay hot all 162 games. Other teammates are there to pick up the slack and get runs in.

Opposing pitchers should stay away from walking batters because the Yankees have been driving in those runs.

Another reason the run production has been so high is because of capitalization on errors. Errors don’t happen often maybe one or two a game, but when they do the Yankees have taken them and turned them into runs. During the series against the Oakland Athletics they had a total of 6 errors. They Yankees swept and that was a big reason why. Turning mistakes into runs is a different dynamic the Yankees have used that has given them insurmountable leads and helped them win games. Scoring opportunities are important and the Yankees are taking them every chance they get.

Joe Girardi deserves credit for this winning streak and the Yankees getting back to .500. The way he has been managing the pitching staff has helped the starting rotation and the bullpen. He has been using the big 3 when they are needed, but he has given them a chance to rest due to great starting pitching and run support. The Yankees have made winning look easy, but it all starts with the manager and Girardi has found what works for his team.

The Yankees will try to continue their winning streak tonight in game 2 of the Blue Jays series. They will have to be as great as they have been because Toronto can be dangerous with their power hitting lineup.

New York Baseball Role Reversal

The New York Mets and the New York Yankees have always been compared to each other when it comes to which New York team is better. Over time the conversation has been sliding more toward the side of the Mets.

The reason this is happening is because the team has been consistently improving over the past few years, and the Yankees have been rapidly declining in team productivity.

Yankee fans can always point to the 27 championships that the team has accumulated, but that seems like a distant memory. Here are a few reasons the Mets have taken the role as New York’s best baseball team.

Pitching Staff

A big part of the Mets success has been their pitchers. Say what you want about their nicknames or the way they look at the plate, but they get the job done. In the National League they are making the number nine hole of the batting order a problem for their opponents.

Bartolo Colon hit his first career homerun against the San Diego Padres in a 6-3 win. Odds are he is not going to hit one every start he makes this season, but he is an example of how dangerous this team has become.

Run Support

Having a high powered offense helps when you are pitching well, but being part of that offense and producing is a deadly one-two punch.

Another pitcher in the Mets starting rotation Noah Syndergaard or “Thor” as he is referred to by Mets fans showed his batting talents by hitting two homeruns in a game and capturing a win.

Players Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto are keeping carrying the team with hot hitting. Things have looked good in Queens, but in the Bronx it has been a different story. The Yankees have not been getting runners across the plate and the pitchers have been suffering.

Veteran Leadership

David Wright and Curtis Granderson are player that have been in the league for a while and they know the importance of winning. They show the younger players that they mean business when they play. They run hard and make plays on defense to help the team.

The Yankee veterans Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez are only trying to help with their bats when healthy. One veteran that has been the best player on the field for the Yankees is first baseman Mark Teixeira.

At 36 years old he is the type of player that can spark the Yankees when he needs too.

Who’s Better?

The Yankees will have an opportunity to bounce back and become one of baseball’s better teams again in years to come. They are in desperate need of young talent, and need to let go of some older players.

The days of core four are gone and the only way to get back to the glory days for the team is to get better younger and more talented players.

For now the Mets are at the top and they look like they are on a path straight back to the World Series. If the Kansas City Royals can make it back to back years the Mets have the same plan in mind with a better outcome this time around.

The Son of Seattle: Ken Griffey Jr. a First Ballot Hall of Famer

The Seattle’s favorite son is finally in Cooperstown. And it was not close. Ken Griffey Jr. , the #1 overall pick of the 1987 draft by the Seattle Mariners, has been elected to the Hall of Fame. He set the record, earning 99.3% of the votes. When thinking of all of the criteria that the voters must consider: pure hitting, power, clutch, defense, speed, smarts, impact on the game and character, Griffey aces the test in all categories.

His bat alone should have been enough. His 630 home runs, 1,836 RBI, 2,781 hits, .907 career OPS and .538 slugging percentage just scratch the surface of what kind of player the Kid was. He was the poster child for the all-around baseball star.

You could spend days looking up all of his defensive highlights, diving catches and robbing home runs while crashing into fences made of a variety of materials. He won 10 Gold Gloves (all consecutively from 1990-1999). He won 7 Silver Slugger awards and was voted to 13 All-Star teams.

He hit 56 home runs for the Mariners in back to back years from 1997-1998. He was the MVP in 1997.

Yet all these numbers aren’t what Mariners fans think of first when they think of great moments by the Kid. They remember the 1995 American League Division Series against the Yankees. It was game 5, bottom of the 11th inning and the Mariners were trying to reach the ALCS for the first time in franchise history. Down 5-4 to start the inning in the Kingdome, Joey Cora led off with a single. Ken Griffey singled as well, with no one out. He represented the winning run.

Edgar Martinez (who also needs to be inducted very soon) stepped up to the plate and delivered the most clutch hit in Mariners history. A double down the left field line. Griffey used his speed to race around the bases and beat the throw, winning the game and the series for the Mariners. Had it not been for his home run earlier and for his speed in that moment, the Mariners don’t win that game. That’s Hall of Fame stuff.

There was a whisper that the Mariners were going to relocate in the mid-90’s. That play and that season saved baseball in Seattle. To this day, Mariners fans are grateful and celebrate that playoff run as the pivotal moment in keeping their M’s. Because of Griffey, the Mariners were relevant and he really helped them build Safeco Field in the late 90’s.

To people in the Seattle area, Ken Griffey Jr. was more than a baseball player. He was a savior of sorts. They watched him grow up from an 18 year-old #1 draft pick out of Archbishop Moeller High School to playing just 130 games in the minor leagues to making his major league debut as a 19 year-old on April 3rd, 1989. He played his first 11 seasons with Seattle then finished with parts of two years with the Mariners in 2009 and 2010 after an extended period with his hometown Cincinnati Reds.

He will have his number 24 retired by the Mariners this season, their first retired number in franchise history.

He is remembered as an all-time great that did it the right way. He was a good teammate and to this day is a great person. He is truly worthy of a nearly unanimous vote into Cooperstown.

 

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Marco Estrada and the Toronto Blue Jays Hold On To Force ALCS Game 6

Marco Estrada and the Toronto Blue Jays held on to their season as the defeated the Royals 7-1 to force a game six of the ALCS.  Game one winner Edinson Volquez came in to game five on Wednesday to try to close things out and send the Royals to their second straight World Series.  Volquez was out-dueled by Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada.

The game opened with a perfect first inning by both pitchers and a perfect second by Estrada. In the bottom of the second, Chris Colabello blasted a change up from Volquez over the left field walls of Rogers Centre. The score stayed 1-0 in favor of the Jays as the Royals were not able to do anything off of Estrada, who carried a perfect game into the fourth inning, when he allowed a single to the red hot Blue Jay killer Alcides Escobar (who had 4 RBIs in game four on Tuesday). The next batter, Ben Zobrist, grounded into a double-play to keep Estrada at the minimum number of batters faced.

The Royls did not tally another hit off of Estrada until the eighth inning, when Salvador Perez homered to right field; by that time, the Jays had already added six more runs to their impressive lead thanks to RBIs by Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki (3 RBI) and Jose Bautista. Estrada pitched into the eighth inning and was replaced by Aaron Sanchez after allowing a Sal Perez bomb and an Alex Gordon single. Sanchez allowed an eighth inning single but was able to end the threat.

Danny Duffy pitched the eighth for the Royals and allowed one run courtesy of an RBI double by Kevin Pillar. Roberto Osuna finished off the Royals and secured the Jays another baseball game.

In game four on Tuesday, the Royals offense scored 14 runs on 15 hits; on Wednesday, the Royals were only able to tally one run on four hits. Toronto put up seven runs on eight hits. The Royals 2-3-4-5-6 hitters went a combined 0-17 on Tuesday afternoon.

Royals starter Edinson Volquez finished with 5 IP, 3 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 2 SO and 1 HR.  Marco Estrada dazzled and dealt; he finished with 7.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO and 1 HR. The Royals’ bats cooled down and the Jays brought theirs to life and were able to savor their season for at least one more game.

3 Stars of the Game:
#3- (TOR)- RF Jose Bautista- 2-3, RBI, BB, run
#2- (TOR)- SS Troy Tulowitzki- 2-4, 3 RBI, run
#1- (TOR)- SP Marco Estrada- 7.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO, 1 HR

Royals Yordano “Ace” Ventura will look to clinch his team a spot in the World Series in game six on Friday night in Kansas City. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have won four straight elimination playoff games.

David Price takes the mound for the Blue Jays as he will now try to keep their season alive and force a series deciding game seven that would take place on Saturday night in Kansas City.

First pitch of game five will be at 8:07 PM ET, 5:07 CT on Friday at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

Is Miguel Sano the Missing Link for the Minnesota Twins?

(Photo courtesy of Twincities.com)

Top prospect promoted by Minnesota

The Minnesota Twins needed a power bat to help the production from the middle of their lineup, and they decided to turn to third basemen Miguel Sano to help in that area.  After being wrongfully connected to allegations that he was lying about his age when he originally signed out of the Dominican Republic, Miguel Sano eventually became one of the Twins’ top prospects.  Coming off Tommy John surgery last season, Sano was able to make a return to full as the Twins made sure he completed his minor league development before promoting him this week.  Sano’s size has allowed him to develop a significant power hitting tool throughout his years of development in the Twins’ minor league system.  His hit tool is nothing to be overlooked either, as Sano’s pure hitting ability allowed him to move quickly through the Twins’ system leading up to the point where he went on the disabled list with Tommy John surgery last season.  Sano’s primary defensive position right now is third base, but the Twins currently have Trevor Plouffe playing good baseball at that position.  The elite talent that Sano possesses is not going to be blocked from getting playing time in the Twins’ lineup however, as he can appear on their lineup card as a designated hitter or first basemen.  A further look at Sano’s skills and minor league performance, will help to determine if he truly is the player that can fuel a run at a playoff berth for the Twins in the second half of the 2015 MLB regular season.

Elite power from the third base position

Sano has set himself apart at the MLB level even before making his debut, because he possesses power that is typically seen in first basemen, yet he makes his defensive home at third base.  Sano has rare size at 6’4″ and 260 pounds, and this allows him to display power that is only evident in players like Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton .  He was able to put this on display in a recent ballgame for the Twins, where he hit a ball off the centerfield wall in Kansas City after mishitting the ball off the end of the bat.  Sano’s power was regularly on display throughout his minor league career, as he registered a .564 slugging percentage over 445 career minor league games .  Sano’s ability to crush the baseball was apparent as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, and it is now even more apparent at age 22 in Major League Baseball.  With his ability to mishit the ball through a gap, or to hit a half-swing line drive into a corner, Miguel Sano presents a very real power threat in the middle of the Twins’ lineup.  If he is able to play the third base position for most of his career, Minnesota will have a significant edge over their division rivals with elite power at the third base position that can be complemented by other power hitters at first base and in the designated hitter’s slot in the lineup.  Even though Miguel Sano has only hit one MLB homerun, pitcher’s know exactly when he is due to hit each inning, and they pitch the Twins’ lineup with his presence in mind.

What to expect from Sano as a rookie

Miguel Sano is already showing that he is not overmatched by the pitching he is facing at the MLB level, and this leads us to the expectations for this young man in his first half season at the MLB level.  He can be expected to produce a batting average of .250 or better, because of his strong hit tool that has already been put on display at the MLB level this season.  Since pitchers respect his power hitting ability, and he has a great eye at the plate, it is not unreasonable to expect his on base percentage to be about 100 points higher than his batting average.  Even though Miguel Sano is only going to log just over three months of MLB action this season, his power should allow him to produce 15-20 homeruns in 2015.  Of course he will face some transitions and adjustments at the MLB level, but Sano is a young man who is fully capable of overcoming any short periods of struggles he may face in 2015.  The area where he will likely need the most work, is adjusting to the speed of the game at the hot corner in Major League Baseball.  If Miguel Sano hopes to be the Twins’ long term solution at third base, he will need to show he can handle the demands of that position throughout his MLB action this season.  Overall the expectations for Miguel Sano are very high, which could make him the missing link for the Twins as they try to make a push to qualify for the American League postseason in 2015.

Is Miguel Sano the missing link?

It is very rare for a rookie position player to be called up in the middle of a pennant race, and go on to have significant success for their MLB team the rest of the season.  Miguel Sano may be the exception for the Minnesota Twins however, as he appears to be ready to lead at just the age of 22.  With plenty of confidence in his abilities at the plate and at the hot corner defensively, Sano has positioned himself to be a franchise cornerstone for the Twins from day one.  Management for the Twins understands the importance of their star third basemen to the team, and they have decided to put him in big situations early.  By already delivering from the cleanup spot in the Twins’ batting lineup, Miguel Sano has proved he was the missing link on this Minnesota team that has been making a push for a playoff berth in the first half of the 2015 season.  With Miguel Sano hitting his first MLB homerun last night and the early power he has already put on display, Twins’ fans can expect many more homeruns from him this season and in future seasons at the MLB level.  Sano’s presence as an impact player in the cleanup spot for the Twins, makes the team a true contender with all the strong role players on the team complementing him throughout the nine other spots in the lineup.

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Franco or Bryant? Who is the better rookie third basemen?

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Both rookies with 10 homeruns

Two rookie third basemen in the National League have been made their presence felt this season with great defensive play at the hot corner, and power hitting at the plate.  Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco both have ten homeruns so far this season, despite not being in the big leagues to participate in each of their team’s games so far in 2015.  Bryant has played in 66 of the Cubs 73 games on the season, while Franco has played in 38 of the Phillies 72 games played so far this season.  A recent power outburst by both of these rookie third basemen has them among the National League leaders for the third base position, while announcing their arrivals in the race for the 2015 National League homerun title.  Coming into the 2015 season, it was Kris Bryant who received more attention for his pedigree as one of baseball’s top prospects, but Maikel Franco has done a great job of putting the Phillies player development improvements on display.  With both of these young third basemen being similar in age, and both displaying great arm strength on the defensive side of their games, they each have a strong case for being the National League’s rookie of the year as the halfway point of the season approaches.  A further look at the offensive and defensive contributions from each player, will help to determine which of these third basemen has the edge as teams head into their fourth month of play in the 2015 MLB regular season.

Kris Bryant

As a player who was regarded as a top five prospect in the game coming into the 2015 season, Kris Bryant has lived up to the hype while helping to solidify the hot corner and cleanup spot in the Cubs’ batting lineup.  Even though Kris Bryant has registered a significant strikeout rate in his rookie season at over 29 percent, when he puts the ball in play it leaves his bat with well above average velocity .  Bryant has made up for his strikeout rate with a significant walk rate, that allows him to use his solid base running skills to help contribute to the Cubs’ run scoring efforts on a regular basis.  Bryant’s 13.4 percent walk rate has him ranked among the best walk percentages in the National League this season .  On the defensive side, Bryant has 8 errors in 63 games so far on the 2015 season, which puts his fielding percentage at a .949 rate as a National League rookie.  Neither of these numbers are great for Bryant, as it puts him below the league average at third base in both categories.  Even though these numbers are not great for Bryant, his defensive game includes plenty of range and smooth glove work that bodes well for him in the future.  With 24 extra base hits in 66 games, Bryant’s offensive game has lived up to the hype so far for this highly touted rookie, with 12 doubles, two triples and 10 homeruns through 241 at bats .  Bryant’s offensive game makes him one of the best rookies in a fantastic rookie class, but fellow third basemen Maikel Franco is giving him a run for his money.

Maikel Franco

Before the Phillies drafted J.P. Crawford in 2014, Maikel Franco was the organization’s top prospect, even though he was never ranked very high in the top 100 lists from national publications.  Signed as a Dominican amateur free agent with strong potential at the third base position, the Phillies are now seeing the benefits of the work done by their scouting department in the Dominican Republic.  Having ten homeruns in just 40 games played this season, has Franco on a fantastic offensive pace in his rookie season.  With 20 extra base hits in just 156 at bats, Franco is showing off the type of power that the Phillies scouting department was hoping for when they signed him as a teenagerWith only 9 walks in 40 games played so far, Franco does not have the walk rate to put him among the league’s elite in that category, as it stands at 5.5 percent .  Franco has been putting the ball in play at a very high rate however, and this has led to much of his success with a batting average around .300 in the early going of his rookie season.  By striking out in just 14.7 percent of his plate appearances, Maikel Franco has been able to produce nine doubles, one triple and 10 homeruns already in his rookie seasonFranco’s six errors and .929 fielding percentage, suggest that like Bryant, his defense is a work in progress .  Both of these third basemen have already flashed some star power in their rookie seasons, with the potential to become elite defenders despite some early struggles in that area of their games.

Who has the edge in the National League Rookie of the Year competition?

Maikel Franco has announced his arrival at the MLB level with a barrage of homeruns, to establish his at bats as must see events throughout the games on the Phillies 2015 schedule.  It is Kris Bryant with an elite walk rate, and a higher wins above replacement number that currently has the edge in the race for National League Rookie of the Year.  Both Bryant and Franco may develop into the next two big stars at the third base position in baseball, but right now Bryant’s walk rate has him in position to sustain the great performance he is putting together in his rookie season.  The defense for both of these players is likely to develop into an area of strength, as they gain experience that allows them to have a better understanding of what plays can and can’t be made.  Strong throwing arms for both of these third basemen, allow them to have a very bright future at third base defensively as they look to become fixtures in the everyday lineup for the Phillies and Cubs.  Baseball fans will have some entertaining battles to watch, as these two rookie stars look to continue their production throughout the second half of the 2015 MLB regular season.

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When Should the Phillies Promote Aaron Nola?

(Photo courtesy of Philly.com)

2014 first round pick dominating the double-A level

The title here suggests that Aaron Nola deserves a promotion, but the next promotion he would be in line for would be a promotion to the triple-A level.  The Phillies 2014 first round draft pick was not only the best player available to them with the seventh overall pick, but he was also the most MLB-ready pitcher from the draft class.  Phillies fans may be somewhat interested about the timetable for Nola to be promoted to triple-A, but the date they want to know right now, is when Nola will make his MLB debut this season.  With Aaron Nola turning 22 years old this coming week, he is approaching the age where some of the games’ best prospects get promoted to the MLB level.  His dominant efforts at the double-A level this season, suggest that he needs to be challenged further in order to continue his development.  Before his 22nd birthday however, that challenge does not include a promotion to the MLB level where he may have to deal with unwarranted adversity during the Phillies defensive transition that they are currently making.  The challenge of pitching to top prospects and minor league veterans at the triple-A level is the next test that Nola faces.  A month or two at the triple-A level will help him to prepare for the next challenge of facing players like Bryce Harper at the MLB level when he arrives later this season.  A further look at the numbers that Nola has produced so far this season will help to determine how quickly this could all happen for the Phillies top pitching prospect.

Mastery of the double-A level

Just the first glance at Aaron Nola’s numbers with the Reading Fightin Phils this season, shows that he has mastered that level through two months of play this season.  His 6-3 record and 1.81 earned runs average indicate that he has done very solid work at the double-A level this season, but his most significant improvement has been in his strikeout rate.  After struggling to strike out batters with Reading last season with 15 strikeouts in 24 innings, Nola has improved that with 50 strikeouts in 64 and two-thirds innings this season for a nearly 7 strikeouts per nine innings pitched rate .  His command has been very strong as well this season, which has allowed him to avoid issuing free passes while keeping his walks plus hits per inning pitched rate below one.  With a walk rate of 0.97 per nine innings, it is evident that Aaron Nola is repeating his delivery well enough to no longer be challenged by the competition at the double-A level .  These dominant command numbers also suggest something about his upside once he does reach the MLB level.  Typically pitchers are able to maintain their walk to strikeout ratios as they advance to face higher levels of competition and grow as professional baseball players.  If Nola is able to maintain a walk rate below two as he pitches at the triple-A and MLB levels, this gives him the opportunity to produce at rates that suggest he is a top of the rotation starter in the making.

How will Nola’s stuff play at the triple-A level?

Nola should not face much of an adjustment period as he makes the transition to the triple-A level in the coming weeks.  His fastball is one of three above average offerings, and he is able to pound the strike zone even with the great movement on his two-seam fastball .  Knowledge of the art of pitching will play to Nola’s advantage as he makes this transition, looking to prove that he knows when a change up or curveball are the best option to throw to a hitter based on their reaction to the last pitch he threw.  Nola has already demonstrated some of this throughout his college and early professional career, and the move to triple-A is a significant milestone in his preparation for becoming the next top of the rotation starter on the Phillies’ pitching staff.  Nola may give up a few homeruns at the triple-A level against some of the smarter veteran hitters who like to attack first pitch fastballs, but ultimately he should have the success needed to prove that he is MLB ready.  The repeatable delivery, the deep repertoire of above average pitches, and the knowledge of when to change speeds will be the three key areas that ultimately get Aaron Nola onto the Phillies 25 man roster this season.

When will this promotion take place?

After making 10 starts at the double-A level to being the season, it is reasonable to expect Nola to get at least half that amount of starts at the triple-A level before a promotion to the big leagues.  If the Phillies decide to wait for Nola to make two more starts at Reading before moving him to Lehigh Valley, it then becomes likely that he would make five or six starts at Lehigh Valley before a promotion to the MLB level.  Nola has made significant progress in his first full season in professional baseball, and it is not in the Phillies best interest to hurt that growth by pushing him too quickly.  The Phillies may decide to go with a different timetable in this promotion process for their top prospect due to super two status and other factors involving big league service time.  However, based on the way Nola has dominated the double-A level through ten starts and based on the expectations he has created for himself at the triple-A level, it is likely that he will be MLB ready by the time the Phillies have played their 81st game on the schedule.  By continuing to show the ability to strike out batters and limit walks after a promotion to triple-A, Aaron Nola should position himself to make his MLB debut sometime this summer.

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Pittsburgh Pirates Storm back into National League Playoff Picture

(Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Winning streak led by hot hitting

The Pirates had their seven game winning streak snapped on Friday night in a game where their offense was only able to produce two runs.  With great pitching for most of the season so far, the Pirates were able to put together their recent winning streak by having their offense start to produce up to their potential.  Early season offensive scuffles had the team floundering below .500 through 40 games played on the season, but strong production from key impact hitters in the lineup allowed the Pirates to get right back into the race.  The April struggles of Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison were the key factors to consider with the Pirates outscoring their opponents but being unable to produce a winning record until recently.  During the Pirates recent seven game winning streak, each of their starting pitchers earned a victory to accompany strong efforts in each of those games.  Throughout the winning streak the Pirates were able to outscore their opponents by a combined 29 runs, as the team put all their best attributes on display.  While the Pirates have yet to find the consistency necessary to overtake the Cardinals in the National League Central, a further look at their accomplishments will help to determine whether or not that is possible for them.

Defense, pitching and offense

With Pedro Alvarez switching defensive positions, from third base to first base, the Pirates infield defense has seen some significant changes this season.  Alvarez has slowly worked his way into playing solid defense over at first base, but not without significant mistakes in the transition process.  By attacking balls hit where the second basemen can field them, and some uncertainty about when he should cover the bag, Alvarez has given away some outs that are recorded at a high rate by more experienced first basemen.  Meanwhile on the other side of the diamond, newcomer Jung-Ho Kang has gotten plenty of playing time at both shortstop and third base for the Pirates.  Kang has shown off an impressive arm and a good glove to help convert a high percentage of ground balls into outs, but his transition from playing in the KBO has not been mistake free.  In the outfield, a blooper where Polanco tripped at Wrigley Field before getting to a shallow fly ball, has been the defining moment for defensive mistakes made there.  However the Pirates outfield like their infield, possesses plenty of defensive range that has led to some highlight reel plays being made by each of their three outfielders this season.  The Pirates defense has made their fair share of mistakes early in the season, but as they round into midseason form they have been able to put their talent on display quite frequently during the team’s recent winning streak.

Overall the efforts of the Pirates pitching staff have been brilliant throughout much of the first two months of the season, with their top three starting pitchers all striking out batters at a significant rate.  Gerrit Cole has emerged in the running for the National League Cy Young Award with his early season efforts, while A.J. Burnett has made use of his sinker to give the team quality start after quality start.  Francisco Liriano is on a similar pace to his breakout 2013 season with the team, as he is currently striking out 11.31 batters for every nine innings he pitches .  Charlie Morton has made his return from late 2014 hip surgery, to make two quality starts, earning two victories while recording most of the outs via the ground ball.  While both Vance Worley and Jeff Locke struggled in the absence of Charlie Morton, Worley has now been sent to the bullpen as a long reliever and Locke has managed to improve his pitching efforts some.  Strong starting pitching has been complemented by a solid bullpen, but that area of the team has not been without struggles.  Mark Melancon had to work through early season dead arm to return to his recent form that has largely been in line with his production over the last two seasons.  Other than allowing an opening day three run homerun to Todd Frazier, Tony Watson has been nearly automatic as one of the most dominant eighth inning relievers in the game this season.  Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero have shared the seventh inning as the Pirates third and fourth best relief pitchers this season, giving Caminero the opportunity to flash his dominant potential with a 25 strike outs in 22 and one-third innings pitched so far in 2015 .

The Pirates early season offensive efforts were the biggest reason for the team being below the .500 mark after 40 games played in 2015.  The combination of size, speed and strength among the Pirates position players translates well into offensive potential, to go along with their strong defensive capabilities.  Significant struggles through the first month of the season for both Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen, left the Pirates offensive contributions to come from Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez.  While those three did their jobs well in April, it was not a consistent enough effort to earn wins in a high percentage of the ballgames that were available for the taking behind strong pitching.  The strong contributions of Korean star Jung-Ho Kang, combined with Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen contributing at a strong rate, has led to the Pirates recent hot streak.  The youngest player in the Pirates starting lineup in Gregory Polanco, has experienced the most peaks and valleys so far through two months of the season, but his efforts have been strong enough to earn plenty of at bats at the top of the order this season.  Despite losing Russell Martin during the off-season, the bottom of the Pirates order has been anchored by consistent strong production from catcher Francisco Cervelli.

What is the ceiling for this team after recent hot streak?

The Pirates recent hot streak puts the team in position to meet their spring training goal of winning a National League Central Division Title.  While they currently sit six games back of the St. Louis Cardinals who have played their best baseball in April and May, the Pirates have been able to overtake the Chicago Cubs in the division standings to move into a second place tie.  With a great pitching staff that is generating ground balls and strikeouts at a very significant rate, this Pirates team appears poised to make a third straight postseason appearance.  The top four pitchers in their starting rotation have pitched as well as any other top four around the game of baseball through the first two months, with Gerrit Cole’s efforts appearing to be very sustainable based on his peripheral stats.  The Pirates offense is likely to continue the recent trend they have established over the last few seasons, where cold starts have stabilized into strong efforts throughout the summer months.  From 2012 through 2014, the Pirates have produced some of the best records in baseball throughout the months of June and July.  In 2015 they now head into those warmer months of the season above .500, with the opportunity to meet their goal of establishing themselves as the best team in the National League.

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National League MVP Race Shaping Up with Two Early Contenders

(Photo courtesy of Fox Sports)

Huge month of May has Harper leading the race

After never hitting more than 22 homeruns in a single season before, at 22 years old, Bryce Harper appears to be in position to have a huge breakout season.  With 11 homeruns hit in a stretch of 45 at bats recently, the month of May has been very kind to Washington’s young superstar outfielder.  By pushing his homerun total to 16 as the final week of May approaches, Harper has put himself in position to pass his career high in homeruns by the halfway point of the season.  Bryce Harper is not the only National League power hitter who is producing at an elite rate however, as Diamondbacks first basemen Paul Goldschmidt hit his 11th homerun of the season while pushing his RBI total close to a rate of one per game played.  Goldschmidt’s presence in the Diamondbacks’ lineup has helped the team to stay alive in the standings through the first quarter of the season, despite not having much power around him.  Goldschmidt does not play a defensive position that allows him to add as much win value to his team as Bryce Harper in the outfield, but with excellent defensive work at first base, he has been a strong contributor.  A further look at all the ways each of these players are contributing so far this season, will help to determine who has the edge throughout the rest of the season in the National League MVP race.

Bryce Harper

At just 22 years old, Bryce Harper is already in his fourth season with the Washington Nationals as a member of their 25 man MLB roster.  With the 139 games played in his rookie season being the most games he has played in a single season throughout his young MLB career, it is quite evident that Bryce Harper has not been fortunate enough to experience good health early in a season until 2015.   With the current state of his development, his maturity as an MLB player and added strength, Bryce Harper is living up to the expectations that made him the first overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft.  So far this has resulted in Bryce Harper contributing in nearly every category to help his team, as his two stolen bases in five attempts have been the category where he has contributed the leastWith 16 homeruns, one triple and eight doubles already in the early going this season, Harper is proving to be the homerun hitter that many thought he would be when he was drafted .  After three straight seasons where Harper produced a batting average right around the .270 mark, an improvement in his walk to strikeout ratio has him hitting over .330 through almost two months of the 2015 season.  With a strikeout rate of just 23 percent, compared to a walk rate of 20 percent so far this season, Bryce Harper has been able to post numbers that are on par with what the National League’s elite have done the past few seasons .

Paul Goldschmidt

After finishing second in the MVP voting in 2013, Paul Goldschmidt is a name that many baseball fans know and associate with excellence based on what Arizona’s first basemen has been able to produce early in his career.  After his season ended early due to a hand injury last season, Paul Goldschmidt is right back on the MVP track with his 12 homeruns early in 2015Like Harper, Goldschmidt is also batting above .330 this season because of his impressive 21.1 percent strikeout rate so far on the 2015 seasonHis 15.7 percent walk rate puts his plate discipline on display, showing that even as a run producer he is willing to do what is best for the team by being a base runner without making an outWith nine doubles and one triple, Goldschmidt’s power goes well beyond just his abilities as a homerun hitter, and his 22 extra base hits have been the key in helping him to drive in 38 runs for this season .  Goldschmidt’s contributions go beyond just what he has done at the plate however, as his excellent defense has helped the Diamondbacks to win games in the first two months of the season.  With four defensive runs saved already this season, Goldschmidt’s contributions have been enormous defensively at the first base position .

Who has the edge?

Right now Bryce Harper has the edge because he is taking Major League Baseball by storm with his production at the plate.  Paul Goldschmidt is right up there among the league’s elite however, and Goldschmidt has played better defense at first than Bryce Harper has played in right field.  Over the course of the 2015 season however, Bryce Harper’s fantastic throwing arm should come into play by allowing him to save some runs defensively for the Washington Nationals.  Paul Goldschmidt and a few others will be waiting right there just in case Bryce Harper falters, but as of right now his 3.5 wins above replacement on the scale provided by Fangraphs, has him ahead of every other player in the National League .  It is unlikely that Bryce Harper maintains a slugging percentage above .700 throughout all of the 2015 season, but with the raw power he possesses, a slugging percentage of .600 or better is likely.  Bryce Harper at 22 years old is putting on a show that very few players before him have been able to produce.  Now baseball fans around the nation can sit back and enjoy the show as Bryce Harper looks to continue his fantastic production as the Washington Nationals right fielder throughout the summer of 2015.

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Matt Harvey, Gerrit Cole Meeting Spring Training Expectations

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Five wins halfway through the second month

Almost halfway through the month of May, Matt Harvey of the New York Mets and Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates are pitching some of the best baseball of all National League starting pitchers.  Both pitchers have displayed a fantastic ability to strike out batters this season, by leaning on a very good fastball to get opposing hitters to start their swings early when they turn to their plus off-speed pitches.  Both pitchers have posted elite walk rates this season, but 26 year old Matt Harvey has been even better so far in this category than 24 year old Gerrit Cole.  With solid peripherals, a significant win total and significant wins above replacement units accumulated so far, both of these starting pitchers are in position to challenge Max Scherzer as the best pitcher in the National League this season.  With neither Matt Harvey or Gerrit Cole having the opportunity to post back to back seasons with elite production in the National League, the start to the 2015 season is significant for each of these young starting pitchers as they look to establish themselves among the league’s elite.  A further look at what each of these young pitchers have been able to do as the ace starters on their teams, will help to determine whether or not they will continue to meet spring training expectations of being Cy Young contenders.

Matt Harvey

After pitching eight scoreless innings against the Cardinals on Monday night, Matt Harvey now has pitched 54 and two-thirds innings through his first eight starts of the season.  This has him averaging nearly seven innings per start, made possible by the efficiency he puts on display with his 0.91 walks plus hits per inning pitched rateBy walking only 1.3 batters per nine innings, Harvey has been able to limit his walks plus hits per inning pitched rate behind his strong strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine inningsWith a ground ball rate of only 41.3 percent this season, Matt Harvey has not had as many opportunities to have double plays turned behind him, but with the Mets not restricting his innings, he has had the opportunity to pitch deep into ballgames in each of his most efficient outings .  All of this adds up to Matt Harvey posting a 1.98 earned runs average through his first eight starts of the season, with peripherals that suggest he can sustain an elite level of pitching throughout the 2015 season.  While maintaining a 1.98 earned runs average over the course of 32 or more starts is extremely difficult, Harvey’s fielding independent numbers suggest he could finish the season with an earned runs average around 2.50, and his 1.6 units of WAR accumulated so far his ranked third in the National League in that category .

Gerrit Cole

Cole registered his second loss of the season with his last outing against the Chicago Cubs, where he allowed two earned runs over six innings pitched at Wrigley Field.  By adding eight strikeouts to his season total, Cole was able to maintain the elite pace he has established in the early going of 2015 where he has averaged just over six innings per start.  Cole’s latest outing has his strikeout total at 53 in 48 and two-thirds innings pitched, for a strikeout rate of 9.8 batters per nine innings pitchedBy posting a walk rate of just 2.4 per nine, to go along with a walks plus hits per inning pitched rate of 1.15, its not surprising that Gerrit Cole has been able to post an earned runs average of 2.40 with a fielding independent number of 2.43With a 5-2 record through 8 starts, and 1.4 units of WAR accumulated so far, Gerrit Cole is in position to establish himself as one of the best starters in the National League in his age 24 season .  Cole has not been quite as impressive as Harvey with his ability to limit walks, but the Pirates young ace is off to a fantastic start to the 2015 season.  With the peripheral stats and fielding independent numbers suggesting that Gerrit Cole is not overachieving, he should be able to challenge for the National League Cy Young award in a season where he is likely to register 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career.

Who ranks higher than these two starters in the National League?

Matt Harvey currently has accumulated the third highest WAR total of all National League starting pitchers which has him tied with Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Harang in the early going.  Max Scherzer at 2.2 WAR and Jake Arrieta at 1.8 WAR are the only National League starters who currently rank ahead of Matt Harvey as teams play out the mid-May portion of the MLB schedule.  Gerrit Cole’s 1.4 WAR ranks sixth in the National League behind the three mentioned above, along with Aaron Harang of the Phillies and Lance Lynn of the Cardinals.  With Scherzer, Arrieta and Harvey as the biggest threats to maintain more productivity than Gerrit Cole throughout the 2015 season, it appears that both these young starters could challenge for the National League Cy Young award.  With Matt Harvey just over a month past his 26th birthday, and Gerrit Cole turning 25 in September, these two dominant right handed starters appear to be candidates to become the faces of MLB’s elite starting pitching in the future.  With both of these starting pitchers missing significant time due to injury last season, baseball has become more interesting in 2015 with these young aces off to dominant starts in healthy campaigns for their teams.

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