Monday, July 14, 2008

Terrific Texas Twosome

Sure, neither of their teams may make the 2008 playoffs, but how about the individual efforts thus far by a Houston first baseman and Texas outfielder?

Entering the All-Star break, Lance Berkman is a bona fide Triple Crown threat, and Josh Hamilton is not far off.

Do either of these sluggers have a chance?

Sure they’ve got a chance, but there is two and a half months of baseball remaining, let’s not quite heat up the Triple Crown talk. I mean, we’re talking about a feat that hasn’t been accomplished for over 40 years (Carl Yastrzemski, 1967). Let’s just take a look at these two players and analyze their MVP chances.

First up is Berkman.

Through his team’s first 95 games the 32-year-old Astros slugger has a .347 batting average, 22 home runs and 73 RBI. What’s more impressive? The 10-year-veteran has compiled these numbers for a team that ranks near the bottom of National League in many offensive categories.

Houston, as a team, has scored 414 runs. Of these, Berkman has touched home plate 79 times. That’s more than one-fifth of the Astros’ run total; pretty impressive for a power hitter. The hefty first-baseman is able to compile such a lofty run total because he’s not only a talented hitter, he’s a smart hitter.

Berkman leads his team in runs by a 19 point margin, but he leads the Astros in walks by an even larger amount. The 6-foot-1-inch slugger has earned 56 free passes this season – Carlos Lee is second with 29. The walk total, in addition to that high batting average has Berkman ranking third in the National League with a .443 on-base percentage.

While walks, batting average, on-base percentage, are all key attributes to a team MVP, Berkman has helped out Houston with other facets of his game.

No, he doesn’t have Jose Reyes’ speed, but Berkman has stolen 15 bases, which ranks at the top among MLB first basemen.

As far as run production, Berkman’s 73 RBI doesn’t lead his team (Carlos Lee has 76), but he still fares well among league leaders. Only Ryan Howard (84) has more than the Berkman or Lee.

While Howard – who also has a league-leading 28 homers – and Atlanta’s Chipper Jones (who’s currently hitting .376) may stand in Berkman’s way in terms of the Triple Crown, the MVP award could be a possibility if he can maintain his ’08 success during the second-half of this Major League season.

Okay, so how about Hamilton?

Wow, what a story. If Hamilton is able to break Hack Wilson’s legendary RBI record, we almost have to give him the MVP, right?

Through his first 95 games, Hamilton has 95 RBI. Wilson had 191 in 1930. Okay, to break Wilson’s record, Hamilton would need to keep his pace and then some.

Thus far, in 2008, Hamilton has a .310 batting average and 21 home runs to go along with his league-obliterating RBI total.

Isn’t it something, though? As good as Hamilton has been, he’d still have to drive home 96 runs over the remaining 67 games of this 2008 season just to tie Wilson.

Well, beyond Wilson and the single-season RBI record, let’s take a look at what else this Rangers outfielder has done this season.

I believe Hamilton’s odds at winning an MVP are team-based. As opposed to Berkman’s Astros offense, Hamilton’s Rangers rank at the top of American League offenses with 538 runs scored. In fact, Texas has scored 43 more runs than second-place Boston.

The key cog is this offensive juggernaut is none other than Hamilton.

Cleveland’s Grady Sizemore has 23 homeruns and Hamilton’s teammate Ian Kinsler leads the AL with a .337 batting average, but the Texas slugger still has Triple Crown potential this season.

Kinsler is one of the main reasons Hamilton has been having a monster year. The Rangers second-baseman also leads the AL in doubles (34) and runs scored (84). In fact, those stats, as much as they bode favorably to Hamilton’s success, might also be reasons for him not to win the MVP. If Kinsler can maintain his 2008 first half through the second, he too could bear claim to MVP; but, that’s another story.

Okay, back to Hamilton and his 2008 AL MVP chances. I think they hinder on Texas’ continued offensive success. Kinsler has been a fine table-setter for Hamilton, but several other players are vital to Texas’ offense as well. Players like Milton Bradley, Michael Young and rookie David Murphy have all contributed to the Rangers’ run-producing success.

Bradley, who’s primarily been Texas’ DH, is hitting .316 with 19 home runs and 57 RBI; Young has scored 63 runs, posted a .302 batting average and driven in 52; while Murphy has hit 13 homers and 60 RBI. If these Texas hitters can keep up its offensive production and enable the Rangers to keep its AL-leading team batting average (which is currently .285), Hamilton should be in good position to succeed.

At 27 years of age, 6-feet-4-inches and 235 pounds, Hamilton is poised to continue putting up big numbers in what is really his first full MLB season (he had 298 at-bats for Cincinnati last season).

Now, going back to weighing Berkman and Hamilton’s MVP, or dare say it, Triple Crown odds …

Berkman has always hit for average (he’s a career .304 batting average) and, obviously, has more experience than Hamilton; but as far as sheer power goes, the young Ranger phenom packs a bit more punch.

In the end it comes down to team baseball. Come September, I don’t see the Astros competing with Chicago or Milwaukee in the NL Central. As far as the Rangers, however? Well, they’ll need to pitch better, but this offense is so potent that I could definitely see them making a run at Anaheim, which is why I’d say Hamilton has a better chance to earn any type of prominent individual accolade.

It’d be really neat to see Hamilton’s Rangers offense continue to soar. Texas pitching, however, ranks dead last in AL pitching with its 5.10 team ERA.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rays of Hope

If you’re a baseball fan – especially if you’re a follower of an American League east team – one burning question branded in your mind is “Are the Tampa Bay Rays for real?”

Through 90 games of this 2008 MLB season, the answer appears to be yes. The Rays are 55-35, have a dominant 36-14 record in their domed home of Tropicana Field, and lead the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox by two games.

All this sounds nice, but where are these Rays coming from? Who are they? And, do they have what it takes to battle the Red Sox and Yankees for American League East supremacy?

No, it’s not possible. It’s Tampa Bay. These guys are perennial losers. There’s just no way these guys can win more games than Boston or New York, right?

Well, let’s take a closer look.

True, Tampa Bay has been a losing franchise. Since its inception in 1998, the Rays (formerly the Devil Rays) have compiled a miserable 645-972 record – good for an MLB-worst 39.8 winning percentage over those 10 seasons.

Of those 10 seasons, they owned the worst record in the Major Leagues five times and finished dead last in the AL East in all but one of those seasons.

So, how have they been able to turn this around?

Pitching, thus far, has been the main reason. As of July 9th, Tampa Bay ranks ninth in American league defense and seventh in batting; however, the Rays pitching ranks third.

Thus far, the Rays have a team ERA of 3.60. This includes a 36-22 record and 3.67 ERA among its starting rotation. That’s great, but who are these pitchers and can they sustain their pitching prowess?

Since 2005, many faces have changed, but one pitcher has remained strong and reliable for Tampa Bay. Scott Kazmir is this pitcher. The Rays left-handed ace was an All-Star in 2006 and totes a career record of 42-33 with a 3.53 ERA.

Kazmir has been a stalwart for Tampa’s pitching staff through some very tough seasons.

From 2005 through 2007 Tampa Bay posted a 194-292 record. Despite the lack of team success, Kazmir was 33-28 and posted a 3.52 ERA through 537.1 innings pitched. The left-hander also recorded 576 strikeouts during that time-frame – including 239 in 2007.

Complementing Kazmir is Tampa’s current strikeout leader, right-hander James Shields. Through two-plus seasons with the Rays, Shields is 25-21 with a 4.06 ERA.

Thus far, in 2008, Kazmir and Shields have not disappointed. Kazmir is 7-4 with a 2.69 ERA. Shields, meanwhile, leads the team with 96 strikeouts and is 7-5 with a 3.64 ERA.

It’s after these two pitchers where the Rays have some question marks.

Tampa’s three, four, and five starters – Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine – have combined for a 22-13 record and 3.93 ERA. These stats look good for now, but we’re talking about three pitchers who – prior to Sonnanstine’s 10 wins this season – had yet to win more than seven games in a season.

Garza had two seasons with Minnesota prior to joining Tampa this season. In these two years, the 24-year-old righty achieved an 8-13 record with a mediocre 4.46 ERA.

Jackson has a bit more experience than Garza, but not much success. The Rays right-hander lost 15 games for the Devil Rays in 2007 and owns an 11-19 record and 5.16 ERA through five seasons of MLB pitching prior to 2008.

Finally, perhaps the Rays greatest overachiever thus far is Sonnanstine. The Rays 25-year-old righty currently leads his team in wins (10), but went 6-10 with a 5.86 ERA last year for Tampa Bay – his only experience as a Major Leaguer thus far.

Besides the lack of success, these pitchers lack experience. Entering the 2008 season, Tampa’s starting five have a combined 14 years of MLB experience entering and they are an average of 24.6 years of age.

These things do not bode well for Tampa Bay down the stretch.

Also, as the Rays recently dropped three straight to the Yankees in New York as Boston swept a sizzling Minnesota Twins team in three games at Fenway.

So, are the Rays finally beginning to sink or will they be able to keep up its heated battled with Boston and New York?

Don’t be surprised if the Rays make a nice run, but playoffs? A winning season will be a step in the right direction for Tampa Bay this year, then, in 2009 or 2010, the Rays can start thinking about earning its first post-season bid.

Of course, you never know, if Kazmir and Shields stay healthy and the other three starters can maintain their 2008 success, get ready folks, Tampa Bay will have a baseball team ripe and ready to root for in October.