Biggest Takeaways from This Week's MLB Action
The final weekend of the first half of the season is upon us, baseball fans. Unlike many years, the sport didn't coast into the All-Star break this time around. With big-time performances, major injuries and season-changing moves, the baseball world has been turned upside down as the vast majority of those immersed in the game take a few days off.
Here at Bleacher Report, we don't ever take time off from baseball. After watching the games, analyzing the numbers and dissecting the rumors, the most important narratives from the week have emerged.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the last week of MLB action.
Clayton Kershaw on the Path to All-Time Greatness
When San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley hit a home run off Clayton Kershaw on Thursday evening, a 41-inning streak of scoreless baseball was snapped for baseball's best pitcher. Although the gifted lefty won't be matching or surpassing Orel Hershiser's 59-inning scoreless streak anytime soon, he's on the path to something bigger: all-time greatness.
As Kershaw's age-26 season continues, his career is starting to come into context among the greatest young pitchers in baseball history. Since 1901, only five starters have thrown at least 1,200 innings and posted a 149 ERA+ through their respective age-26 seasons, per Baseball-Reference.com (subscription required).
Kershaw, with his excellence in 2014 boosting the numbers, is among that group.
Furthermore, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) numbers will soon be the stuff of legend for future generations. Since FanGraphs began tracking the stat in 2002, only one pitcher has had three separate seasons in the top 15 of all qualified starters.
Again, that man is Kershaw.
Barring an injury or major dip in performance, Kershaw is on the path to being talked about alongside Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux.
Yankees Are Cooked Without Tanaka
When the New York Yankees arrived in Baltimore for a weekend series with the first-place Orioles, the most expensive roster in the American League owned a 46-45 record. However, the slightly above-average team will be missing its most important piece: Masahiro Tanaka.
After experiencing elbow discomfort following a start against the Cleveland Indians, the Yankees placed Tanaka on the disabled list. Soon after, doctors revealed a partially torn UCL ligament in his pitching elbow, a precursor to Tommy John surgery.
For now, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman tried to sound upbeat about Tanaka's eventual health and return, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today: "Hopefully no more than six weeks," Cashman said. "Time will tell. It's a disappointing situation and one that none of us wanted to be talking about or experiencing."
In the context of the 2014 season, it's more than disappointing for this Yankees team. In fact, it's closer to a season-ending story. When Tanaka has started this season, New York is 13-5. When anyone else toes the rubber, the team is 33-40.
Even if Tanaka returns in six or seven weeks, it's not enough to save the Yankees. If he's gone for 2015, the team could traverse through three consecutive dark Octobers at Yankee Stadium, something not seen since the 1991-1993 seasons.
Milwaukee Is Crashing Back to Earth
On June 28, Milwaukee Brewers fans woke up to this reality at Miller Park: the best team in the entire National League. At that moment, buoyed by a .614 winning percentage, 51-32 record and plus-46 run differential, there was little arguing around the dominance displayed by the surprising Brewers.
Since that day, a different story has emerged. Over the last 10 games, Milwaukee has lost nine. That run includes a four-game sweep, at home, by the morbid Philadelphia Phillies. Furthermore, the solid run differential has evaporated to just plus-17 and worse than the plus-25 mark of the suddenly hot Cincinnati Reds.
For as good as the Brewers were early in the season, they've been that bad as of late. Thanks to major injuries to the St. Louis Cardinals (Michael Wacha, Yadier Molina) and Cincinnati Reds (Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips), the idea of this Brewers team rebounding from a rough stretch to win the NL Central isn't crazy, but this division is looking like a four-team race as opposed to a one-team runaway train.
The AL Pennant Is Oakland's to Lose
When the Oakland Athletics completed a blockbuster trade to land both Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs, the best team in the American League got even better. Now, with a plus-147 run differential and no discernible weakness throughout the roster, it's time to call this A's team an overwhelming American League favorite.
Although Billy Beane has built excellent teams before in Oakland, this group is both talented and in position to capitalize on a weak AL. With the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers suffering through difficult seasons and the Detroit Tigers showing vulnerability, there's never been a better time for a Beane-built team to reach the World Series.
Using the phrase "now or never" is a fool's errand for any team when it comes to winning a championship, but this Athletics team may be the exception. The pennant is Oakland's to lose in 2014.
Baseball Will Never Have a LeBron James
Unless you live under a rock, the news of LeBron James' return to Cleveland overtook your Friday afternoon sports consumption. When the best athlete on the planet is a free agent, the sports world stops and waits for a destination.
For fans wondering if a baseball player could ever generate the type of buzz, interest and overwhelming reaction that James has during his NBA career, especially the last two jaunts into free agency, the answer is simple: no.
Due to a unique, all-time great skill set and outrageously valuable play on the court, James' stardom is enough to move moons in the NBA. When it comes to football, a special quarterback like Peyton Manning is similar. In baseball, one player has never been as valuable as James is on the court. That theory was tested by FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan in an eye-opening piece.
His conclusion: In order for a player to match James' value, a cross between Barry Bonds at the dish and Ozzie Smith at the plate would have to emerge, never get hurt and virtually put up unparalleled statistics across the board.
While Mike Trout is blazing a path to a special career, he can't do that. The closest, when it comes to media coverage, was likely Alex Rodriguez's free agency and eventual deal with the Texas Rangers after the 2001 season. When the Rangers suffered through losing seasons, despite Rodriguez's brilliance, the theory was confirmed.
In baseball, one player can't become the international, franchise-changing sensation as James has become in basketball. It's a fun idea, but baseball will never be privy to a "Trout Watch" along the lines of the recent coverage of NBA free agency.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and are valid through the start of play on July 11. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts (via Baseball Prospectus). Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
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