The 10 Biggest Takeaways from August's MLB Action

Matthew SmithCorrespondent IIIAugust 31, 2014

The 10 Biggest Takeaways from August's MLB Action

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    Bryce Harper taught us something about the Washington Nationals this past month.
    Bryce Harper taught us something about the Washington Nationals this past month.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    There are usually plenty of MLB takeaways in the month of August.

    After all, it is the month when division and wild-card contenders begin pulling away from the pack and each general manager finalizes plans for the postseason roster.

    It is also the time for players to hit the waiver wire, making for interesting discussions as clubs in need of an upgrade have the chance to make additions after the MLB July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. To be sure, there haven't been many trades this season, but that hasn't stopped the speculation from running rampant.

    Let's take a look at 10 of the bigger takeaways from the last month.

MLB's Official Playing Rule 7.13 Has Got to Go

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    When MLB and the MLB Players Association announced Rule 7.13, which is intended to "prohibit the most egregious collisions at home plate," it was "on an experimental basis for the 2014 season," via an MLB press release.

    Well, the experiment is over.

    The rule needs to be changed before the playoffs start. Heck, the rule needs to be changed before the second week of September.

    To be clear, this isn't a call for a return to the days when runners could bowl over the catcher with impunity. Rather, this is a call for an immediate modification to include some form of common sense.

    It's just a mess right now.

    Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran does a nice job of making the argument that the umpires are simply interpreting the rule the wrong way, providing examples of similar plays called differently in the replay booth. His argument is that while hard to fathom, umpires and replay officials simply "don't understand" how to call it properly.

    He's right, and umpires are ready to pass the buck.

    USA Today's Bob Nightengale reports that several veteran umpires "will opt not to call it during the postseason, instead leaving interpretation to replay officials in New York." That is not what anyone wants heading into the final weeks of the season.

    Now, we are not here to propose changes. That is for others to do. But when the same play is being called two different ways and umpires are throwing their hands up in the air, saying, "Here, you deal with it," there are problems.

The Discord in Houston Is Real

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    "Losing exacerbates the tension for every club," wrote Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, "but the Astros appear to be dysfunctional on multiple levels."

    Those are strong words indeed. And if this past month has shown us anything, it is that the Houston franchise is sure to undergo significant changes this offseason.

    At the root of the problem is the tempestuous relationship between general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter. Last Friday, for example, Evan Drellich from the Houston Chronicle wrote:

    Luhnow's criticism of in-game management is said to be one of Porter's chief concerns. As the only member of the Astros' management trio who gave extensive comment Friday — Porter did so during his regular pre-game media session in the Minute Maid Park home dugout before a night game against the Rangers — the manager did not say anything to dispel the notion that he and his GM are opposed.

    Porter has legitimate reasons to be upset too.

    Multiple players, like Jon Singleton, Domingo Santana and Michael Foltynewicz, have been promoted from the minor leagues when they weren't necessarily ready, putting him at a disadvantage. Sure, he has a better roster this year than he did last season, but it still isn't very good.

    The question that will be answered is whether the lack of results will be used to judge Luhnow's process or Porter's ability to manage a major league roster. Arguably, they are both complicit, making the decision difficult.

    Either way, there is too much going on in Houston for both men to be with the franchise much longer. Make no mistake: The chaos is no small part of the reason the Astros are still struggling on the field.

In Today's MLB, Standing Pat Doesn't Work

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    Cincinnati Reds GM Walt Jocketty.
    Cincinnati Reds GM Walt Jocketty.USA TODAY Sports

    On the day of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Toronto Blue Jays held a three-game lead over the Seattle Mariners for the second wild-card spot in the American League. The Cincinnati Reds were within 4.5 games of the No. 2 wild-card spot in the National League.

    Yet when play began Saturday, their respective chances of reaching the postseason were 0.4 and 0.6 percent, per Baseball Prospectus. Why?

    Well, a large part of the reason is that they didn't make any trades of consequence, choosing to go with what had gotten them to that point. And in today's MLB, that doesn't work.

    Even seemingly minor moves, like the addition of Josh Willingham by the Kansas City Royals, can pay dividends. He had a .210/.345/.402 slash line when the Royals acquired him from the Minnesota Twins but has provided a tangible spark for the team. It was in every way a calculated gamble on the part of general manager Dayton Moore.

    On the other end of the equation are the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were particularly aggressive in August, acquiring Roberto Hernandez from the Philadelphia Phillies and Kevin Correia from the Twins.

    In fact, every team that has at least a 40 percent chance of reaching the playoffs made a substantive move in the month of August or before the non-waiver deadline. That says a lot about what needs to be done to make a serious run at the postseason.

Corey Kluber Is the Ace the Cleveland Indians Need

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    USA TODAY Sports

    In case you thought the start Cleveland Indians right-hander Corey Kluber got off to was a fluke, August proved otherwise.

    After posting an 11-6 record with a 2.61 ERA, .234 batting average against (BAA) and 170 strikeouts in 158.1 innings through July 31, per splits over at Baseball-Reference, Kluber actually got better over his last five starts.

    In that stretch, he tossed a quality start in each outing. He put together a 2.10 ERA and .227 BAA and struck out 43 in 34.1 frames. The overall success isn't going unnoticed.

    Many sources, including FanGraphs and The Washington Posthave published pieces this past month detailing why Kluber is firmly entrenched in the conversation for the Cy Young Award.

    He has also impressed his coaching staff. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway flatly said that Kluber is "getting an air about him like a Nolan Ryan or a Roger Clemens," via MLB.com's Jordan Bastain.  

    And that is something the Indians and their fanbase have been waiting for—a pitcher with the moxie to match the stuff.

    True, Justin Masterson had a couple of fairly good seasons, but nothing that compares to this. Expect more of the same over the final weeks of the season as Kluber tries to close the gap on Felix Hernandez for the Cy Young.

The New York Yankees Will Not Go Down Without a Fight

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Regardless of the adversity, the New York Yankees will not fade away.

    They lost 60 percent of their Opening Day starting rotation for a majority of the season. They dealt with gaping holes in the lineup and shuffled players between the major and minor leagues.

    To address the issues, general manager Brian Cashman added Brandon McCarthy, Stephen Drew, Martin Prado and Chase Headley, among others, in advance of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Most recently, he acquired Josh Outman from the Cleveland Indians in an August waiver trade.

    This was a team in need of a midseason overhaul, and that is exactly what Cashman delivered. Even though the offense is 12th in runs scored in the American League and the pitching staff is stuck in the middle, the Yankees are only three games out of the second wild-card spot.

    All things considered, it could be a lot worse.

    Let's not forget that injured starter Masahiro Tanaka could rejoin the rotation in the coming weeks, although he did return to New York on Friday after reporting "general soreness," according to manager Joe Girardi, via The New York TimesDavid Waldstein.

    If it's just soreness, the Yankees are in great shape. If not, it stands to reason that the club will continue battling and take the fight all of the way to the last week of the season.

    It's what they have done all year. Why would that change now?

The Seattle Mariners Mean Business

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Like the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, the Seattle Mariners are proving they have what it takes in the AL West.

    No, the M's aren't on the verge of overtaking the Los Angeles Angels for the division lead, but they proved in August that they are a legitimate force.

    Entering play Saturday, they had scored 117 runs, allowed a mere 74 and had a 16-9 record for the month, per Baseball-Reference. Those are dominant team statistics.

    The club swept the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, took a two-game set from the Atlanta Braves at home and won two out of three games in Detroit against the Tigers. And while the Mariners lost a three-game series to the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles, they played very well in Camden Yards, losing two games by one run.

    Individually, several players stood out. Robinson Cano, Chris Taylor, Logan Morrison and Kyle Seager are among the six batters with a wRC+ over 100 for the month, via FanGraphs. Right-hander Chris Young didn't lose in four starts, while Hisashi Iwakuma had a 1.99 ERA and a 0.8 WAR, per separate splits over at FanGraphs.

    For as good as they were in August, though, September is the key to their playoff chances. They face the Oakland A's six times, beginning with a three-game set starting Monday, and square off with the Angels seven times in the season's final two weeks.

    If August showed us anything, however, it's that the Mariners are up to the challenge.

The Detroit Tigers Need Justin Verlander More Than Ever

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    CRAIG LASSIG/Associated Press

    Considering the uncertain status of Detroit Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez due to pain from scar tissue, as MLB.com's Jason Beck recently explained, Justin Verlander's success on the mound has never been more important.

    Without him pitching to a high level, the Tigers just don't have enough in the arsenal to make it to the World Series. As CBS Sports' Mike Axisa noted, "There are too many cracks in the pitching dam for them to keep pace during the day in, day out grind of regular season baseball."

    And make no mistake: There are serious questions about Verlander's ability these days.

    Over the course of 18 starts from May 14 through Aug. 23, he lost nine times, compiled a 5.87 ERA and a .289 batting average against, gave up 15 home runs and walked 37 batters in 110.1 innings, per splits taken from Baseball-Reference. Those numbers are out of character.

    The struggles led CBS Sports' Jon Heyman to posit that a postseason move to the bullpen may be in order "considering his high velocity, repertoire and toughness." That may seem extreme, but given the lack of results, it is something to ponder.

    Thankfully, Verlander had the Chicago White Sox to kick around his last time out as he logged seven innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts. It was a performance reminiscent of years past.

    If that showing can propel him to sustained results, the Tigers will be in much better shape. If not, the road to the postseason will be a difficult one.

The Los Angeles Dodgers Are the Class of the NL West

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    USA TODAY Sports

    No offense to the San Francisco Giants, but the Los Angeles Dodgers look unstoppable.

    It didn't come easy either.

    As MLB.com's Sarah D. Morris noted, manager Don Mattingly's club was "besieged by injuries," losing seven players at one point. Despite the setbacks, the Dodgers managed to compile 14 victories in August as of game time Saturday, increasing their lead over the San Francisco Giants in the NL West by one game.

    There is more than one reason the Dodgers have persevered in the face of so much uncertainty, of course.

    For starters, general manager Ned Colletti added Roberto Hernandez from the Phillies and Kevin Correia from the Twins in two well-timed waiver trades. Another factor is that they had guys in the organization like Justin Turner to fill in for injured veterans. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig, who are having MVP-caliber seasons.

    Any way it's looked at, the Dodgers are a class unto themselves at the moment.

    Don't expect that to change anytime soon.

Having Bryce Harper Dominate Isn't a Prerequisite for the Nationals

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is as dynamic as they come. Unfortunately, he is turning in a rather unexceptional effort this season, and August was no different.

    According to game logs at Baseball-Reference, he had a .268/.327/.433 slash line with five home runs, 13 RBI and 34 strikeouts in 107 plate appearances. Not terrible, mind you, but certainly not what the world expects from the 21-year-old.

    It makes no difference, though.

    The Nationals kept trucking, winning 10 in a row at one point and 18 out of 27 August contests going into action Saturday. They have the No. 3 offense based on runs scored and the best pitching staff based on several metrics in the National League.

    They are sensational with or without Harper being their top player, which is something he is working on accepting. In a piece that spoke broadly of his maturation process, ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick wrote that he is "trying to contribute to a contender as more a complementary piece than a main cog."

    And that seems to suit the Nationals just fine.

The Los Angeles Angels Are the Best Club in MLB for a Reason

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    Like the Washington Nationals in the National League, the Los Angeles Angels are the standard of excellence in the American League.

    When play began Saturday, they led MLB in wins (81) and had a three-game lead over the Oakland A's in the AL West. And let's not forget that Oakland general manager Billy Beane has spent considerable energies overhauling his roster in hopes of finally reaching the World Series.

    Alas, it may not matter what Beane does. The Angels are that good.

    They had won 17 games in August as of game time Saturday, including four in a row and the first two of a four-game set with the A's at Oakland. They've had four walk-off wins this month and have a realistic chance of reaching 100 victories

    And it's not just Mike Trout either.

    Albert Pujols is earning his salary, compiling a 148 wRC+ in August. Catcher Chris Iannetta has a .799 OPS and a 134 wRC+ so far this month, and Kole Calhoun has scored and driven in 14 runs, via FanGraphs. That's total team effort on offense.

    The bullpen has been lights out to this point in August, with Fernando Salas, Kevin Jepsen and Huston Street all pitching to an FIP below 2.40, per FanGraphs. In the starting rotation, Matt Shoemaker shows no signs of slowing down during an impressive rookie campaign, and Hector Santiago has a 1.93 ERA in five starts this month covering 28.0 innings, per those same splits.

    Like the other clubs at the top of their division, the Angels are going to have to finish strong. Once they get to the postseason, though, the rest of the AL is in trouble.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics, including team rankings, are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and are accurate as of game time Saturday, August 30. Historical standings pulled from ESPN.com. Transaction, injury and game information are courtesy of MLB.com.

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