The third and fourth hitters in a lineup, respectively, are traditionally the most feared batters on a team. There are obviously quite a few exceptions. The Yankees bat Curtis Granderson second when everyone is healthy, and he has 36 home runs and leads the majors with 103 runs batted in this year. Ichiro Suzuki (who, despite a down year, is still the most feared hitter in Seattle’s lineup) and Jose Reyes almost always bat leadoff for the Mariners and Mets, respectively. But for a pitcher, there is nothing worse than seeing a dangerous No. 3 batter step into the box and looking over to the opposing dugout to see another dangerous weapon lurking in the on-deck circle.
Perhaps there is no 3-4 punch in baseball history quite as feared as the Yankees’ Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig duo was from 1926 through 1934 (Gehrig was the No. 5 batter on the 1925 Yankees). On the 1927 Murderers Row team, Ruth hit .356/.486/.772, Gehrig batted .373/.474/.765 and the pair combined to swat 107 home runs and drive in 339 runs. In 1930 Ruth had a .359/.493/.732 batting line, Gehrig hit .379/.473/.721 and the duo combined for 90 homers and 327 RBIs. The very next year, Ruth batted .373/.495/.700 at age 37, his final truly great season, and Gehrig hit .341/.446/.662. They smashed 46 homers apiece and drove in a combined 347 runs with Gehrig driving in 184 of them by himself, the most ever by an American League player in a season. In the nine seasons they batted third and fourth respectively, Ruth and Gehrig combined to drill 771 home runs with 2,748 RBIs. There has been no 3-4 combo that has been feared more or put up better numbers in all of baseball history.
A more modern example of the production Ruth and Gehrig put up from the three and four holes in the lineup, respectively, comes from the 2004 through 2008 Boston Red Sox. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez did not have the same longevity of Ruth and Gehrig, but there were equally as feared by major league pitchers. In 2004, their first season as a 3-4 combo and the year the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought to win the World Series for the first time since 1918, Ortiz hit .301/.380/.603, Ramirez batted .308/.397/.613 and the duo combined for 84 homers and 269 RBIs. The next year, Ortiz had a .300/.397/.604 batting line, Ramirez hit .292/.388/.594 and they combined to whack 92 home runs and drive in 292 runs. In their four and a half years as a 3-4 combo (Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers on July 31, 2008), the duo produced 354 homers and 1,120 RBIs and helped win Boston’s only two modern World Series championships.
No 3-4 combo today comes close to the Ruth/Gehrig standard of excellence. Nonetheless, there are still some very good ones that are very tough to pitch to, despite injuries limiting many of baseball’s most dangerous 3-4 duos this year. Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse don’t match up statistically (combined for 30 home runs and 106 RBIs) with the rest of baseball due to a Zimmerman injury that caused him to miss 58 games, but give the Nationals something to build around with their young and talented farm system. The Phillies have seen a similar problem with Chase Utley missing 51 games with an injury, and as a result, have seen their 3-4 duo combine of Utley and Ryan Howard combine for 36 home runs and 138 RBIs, well below what they normally produce together. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez has missed 46 games this year, but he and Mark Teixeira have still hit 49 homers and driven in 152 runs combined. Kevin Youkilis has missed 21 games for the Red Sox, but has combined with Adrian Gonzalez to blast 40 home runs and bring home 181 runs. The Rangers have lost Josh Hamilton for 40 games, but he and Michael Young have hit 27 homers and driven in 157 runs. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have missed a combined 42 games to injury, but have hit 50 home runs with 145 RBIs. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto and Jay Bruce have stayed healthy, each knocking in 84 runs and combining for 51 long bombs, but have been plagued by Bruce’s inconsistency all year long. However, healthy or not, none of these duos match the Milwaukee’s Brewers 3-4 punch of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
Braun and Fielder have terrorized opposing pitchers together since Braun reached the big leagues in 2007. Their first year together, Braun hit .324/.370/.634, Fielder batted .288/.395/.618 and the pair combined for 84 home runs and 216 RBIs. The 2009 season was another remarkable campaign for the anchors of Milwaukee’s order, combining for 78 homers and 255 RBIs while Braun owned a .320/.386/.551 batting line and Fielder hit .299/.412/.602. In what is likely their last year mashing together in the lineup because Fielder is a free agent at the end of the season, the duo have smashed 53 home runs and driven in 187 runs together, the most production of any 3-4 duo in baseball. Braun is posting career-highs in batting average (.333) and on-base percentage (.404), and is also leading the National League in slugging percentage (.592). Fielder meanwhile, leads the NL in RBIs with 101, is fifth in slugging percentage (.547), and is close to matching career-highs in average (.298) and OBP (.413).
The pair also has the longevity factor, as they will have been placed as 3-4 batters, respectively, in the Brewers’ lineup for five seasons by the end of this year. They have combined to pound 343 home runs and drive in 1,052 runs in their time as a 3-4 punch. Their production together is the closest baseball has had in a 3-4 duo since Boston’s Ortiz/Ramirez combination, and they are dangerously close to the numbers that Ortiz and Ramirez put up together in the four and a half years they spent destroying opposing pitching in the middle of the Red Sox order. The one thing the Ortiz and Ramirez were able to do together that Braun and Fielder have not is consistently win. The Brewers hold a 9.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and if they hold on, it would be the first time Milwaukee’s 3-4 punch has won a division and only the second time they visited the postseason. In comparison, the Ortiz/Ramirez 3-4 duo won one division but also two World Series titles together, going to the playoffs a total of three times. While it may end this offseason because Fielder is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, the Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder 3-4 punch is the most feared in the majors today – and the best in baseball since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez bludgeoned opposing pitching in Boston’s order from 2004 through the middle of the 2008 season.
After watching the San Francisco Giants acquire All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran and then take two of three games at Citizens Bank Park from the Phillies, Philadelphia general manager Reuben Amaro, Jr. knew he needed to upgrade a team that had lost its title as favorites to win the National League. All of a sudden, talks intensified between the Phillies and Houston Astros and outfielder Hunter Pence was sent north to don the Phillies’ pinstripes in exchange for four prospects.
The price is a lot to pay and will cost Philadelphia in the future, but Amaro, Jr. knows his team is built to win now. Not that Pence cannot help the Phillies in the future; The 28-year old outfielder is a two-time All-Star and is under team-control through the 2013 season. While he is not the kind of hitter Beltran is, Pence has hit 25 home runs in each of the last three seasons and is a career .290/.339/.479 batter. As he has entered the prime of his career this year, Pence is enjoying a career season, batting .308/.356/.471, career-highs in each category, with 11 homers and 62 runs batted in.
The key to this trade is that Pence provides a quality right-handed bat in the Phillies lineup. Philadelphia’s right-handed hitters with at least 100 at-bats this season are batting a combined .252 with a .313 on-base percentage. With the exception of switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, Philadelphia’s best bats come from the left side of the plate in Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. As a result, the Phillies have struggled against left-handed pitching, batting .235/.306/.354 as a team against southpaws compared to .254/.327/.401 against righties. Pence is a career .290/.340/.492 batter against lefties and should help balance the Phillies’ lineup to make them less vulnerable to left-handed pitching.
While Hunter Pence certainly does not have the pedigree of Carlos Beltran, who was recently dealt to the Giants, he certainly will have a large impact in Philadelphia. On a team that has struggled hitting lefties on the mound, Pence provides a solid right-handed bat for manager Charlie Manual to place right in the middle of the lineup. The addition of Beltran may have shifted the power in the National League to San Francisco, but dealing for Pence makes it a very close call as to who the favorite is to win the National League. Both teams have the two best starting rotations in baseball, Philadelphia with a 2.98 ERA and San Francisco with a 3.20 ERA. Meanwhile, the Giants have baseball’s most effective and deepest bullpen (2.81 ERA), featuring three lefties while the Phillies do not necessarily know what they will get from their bullpen (3.44 ERA) on a consistent basis. While neither lineup is dominating, Philadelphia certainly has the advantage there, especially with Pence providing a quality right-handed bat.
Both franchises have indicated their desire to win now in the last few days, respectively sending prospects for a player who has been an All-Star multiple times. After meeting in the National League Championship Series last season, the arms race for a World Series berth has continued between the Giants and Phillies this season. While the Atlanta Braves do have a very good team this season, the two favorites in the National League reside in San Francisco and Philadelphia. The Giants have staked their claim to NL supremacy with the acquisition of Carlos Beltran. The Phillies answered by trading for Hunter Pence. The move that works out better will determine the National League’s best team.
I had an argument recently with some friends on Twitter (Follow me: @Scott_Kornberg) about who the best left-handed starting pitcher was in baseball. There were a number of different responses. Some people went with arguably the most dominant pitcher of the last three and a half seasons, Cliff Lee. Others, looking towards the future, were very high on the 23-year old strikeout machine Clayton Kershaw. There were some who took the side of power lefties Jon Lester and Cole Hamels. Some even made an argument for David Price to be included amongst the top.
However, I was surprised at how quickly CC Sabathia, playing in the world’s largest market for the most successful team in the history of sports, was disregarded amongst the top. Only one person was adamant about putting him there. He was right. Sabathia has been dominant for a longer amount of time than Lee. He has just as many rings as Lester and Hamels, putting up better numbers than both of those pitchers. He eats far more innings than Kershaw. He has been much more consistent for a longer amount of time than Price. Lee, Hamels, Lester and Price might not even be the best pitchers on their respective teams. CC Sabathia is unquestionably the ace of the New York Yankees and the best left-handed pitcher in baseball.
Sabathia is an intimidating presence on the mound. At six-foot seven, 290 pounds, he has the body moreso of an NFL offensive lineman than of a pitcher. He mixes a fastball that can touch 97 mph (average speed: 93.5) with a killer changeup and stomach-lurching slider. His huge frame, killer stuff and knowhow as a pitcher have given him just as many finishes inside the top five in Cy Young Award voting (four) and Cy Young Awards (one) as all of those pitchers put together.
It is certainly not all about the hardware though. Sabathia pulls on the pinstripes and takes the ball in the hottest pressure-cooker, where the lights shine brightest, with the most eyes are upon him. He has led the league in shutouts three times, complete games twice, wins in each of the past two seasons and innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio once, respectively. However, Sabathia is so valuable to the Yankees, and before that the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, because he always puts his team in a position to win, no matter what.
CC Sabathia will do whatever it takes to come out on top on the scoreboard when he is on the hill. When he was traded from the Indians to Milwaukee in July of 2008, Sabathia carried the Brewers on his back. In 17 starts, he went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, 1.003 WHIP and 5.12 K/BB ratio. He averaged 7.2 innings pitched per outing, going at least eight innings in eight different starts while throwing seven complete games and three shutouts during that stretch. Sabathia even threw on three days’ rest on three separate occasions that year, lifting the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since they won the World Series in 1982.
Even when he does not have his good stuff, Sabathia still finds a way to do what he does best – give his team a shot to win. There have been countless starts where he has struggled through the first two or three innings, allowing three or four runs. Then you look up and Sabathia is back on the mound in the seventh inning, stopping the bleeding, keeping his team in the game and saving the bullpen. It is no coincidence that he has thrown at least 230 innings in four different seasons and is on pace to throw 267.2 this year. Of the pitchers listed above, only Lee has thrown at least 230 innings in a season even once, when he threw 231.2 between the Indians and Phillies in 2009.
It is also no coincidence that Sabathia consistently wins more than almost every other pitcher. In the era of bullpen specialization, Sabathia’s ability to pitch deep into games has helped him earn 170 career victories. He has won at least 15 games in six different seasons and is on pace to win 24 games this year. Lee, Kershaw, Hamels, Lester and Price have all combined for seven 15-win seasons. Only Lester (.710) has a better career winning percentage than Sabathia’s career .649 mark. If Sabathia finishes the year as projected, he would have 181 wins at the end of 2011, when he will be 31 years old. He has a chance to become baseball’s next 300-game winner, which, similar to a batter reaching 3,000 hits, is the ultimate sign of a long and successful career for a pitcher.
Some people will still point and say 2008, in which Cliff Lee won the American League Cy Young Award by going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA, 1.110 WHIP with a 5 K/BB ratio in 223.1 innings, was when Lee became the most dominant lefty in baseball. However, Sabathia’s numbers are eerily similar to those of Lee from 2008 through the first half of this season:
2008-2011 Lee: 112 starts, 57-31, 2.95 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.111 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 5.43 K/BB
2008-2011 Sabathia: 123 starts, 70-29, 3.01 ERA, 143 ERA+, 1.152 WHIP, eight K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 3.28 K/BB
During the past three and a half years, Sabathia has made more starts than Lee and won more games while having better strikeout numbers and a better ERA+ (adjusted ERA to the pitcher’s ballpark and the league ERA). Even though Sabathia walks about one more batter per nine innings than Lee, their WHIPs are nearly identical. Now let’s look at what they have averaged per season during the past three and a half years:
2008-2011 Lee (average season): 28 starts, 14-8, 201 innings pitched, 192 hits allowed, 31 walks issued, 168 strikeouts
2008-2011 Sabathia (average season): 31 starts, 18-7, 217 innings pitched, 191 hits allowed, 59 walks issued, 193 strikeouts
Keep in mind their averages are weighed down slightly by only just over half a season of baseball in 2011. However, Sabathia’s average year includes more starts pitched to a better record while throwing more innings and striking out more hitters than Lee. While Cliff Lee has been a very dominant pitcher over the past three and a half years, Sabathia has been slightly better during that same stretch.
There may be other lefties who come to mind in the discussion over who is the best southpaw starter in baseball. However, no one has been as dominant for such a long period of time as CC Sabathia has been. Sabathia has continued his claim to the throne with possibly his best season yet through the first half of 2011. In 20 starts, Sabathia leads the league in wins with 13, compared to just four losses. He has a 2.72 ERA and 1.160 WHIP in 145.2 innings. Sabathia is averaging 7.1 innings per start and is striking out 7.8 batters per nine innings while posting a 3.60 K/BB ratio. In a season in which pitching has dominated, no left-hander has been better than CC Sabathia. He is quite simply the greatest left-handed starting pitcher in baseball.
Scott Kornberg discusses the United States women’s soccer team, John Mackey’s death and the first half of the baseball season. Listen HERE!
As expected, the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies have proved to be the three strongest teams in baseball this year. However, the Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays continue to shock (most of) the world by being in contention for a playoff spot. The Rays are currently the furthest out of a playoff spot, just five games behind the Yankees in the American League Wild Card race and six games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. The Diamondbacks are just three games behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League West while the Pirates are just one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. The Indians currently stand 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.
There were two managers who had to be replaced already this year, yet neither was fired. Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez resigned after a horrific 1-18 start to the month of June (the Marlins finished the month 5-23). The Marlins began the month just two games behind the Phillies in the NL East but ended it 14.5 games back. Florida replaced Rodriguez with 80-year old Jack McKeon. McKeon led the 2003 Marlins to a World Series Championship, also taking over the helm in Miami at midseason during that year. Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics from 1940 through 1950 until the age of 87, making McKeon the second-oldest manager in baseball history. Florida was 32-39 under Rodriguez and are 11-8 with McKeon as manager.
The Washington Nationals also had to make a midseason managerial move. Washington was in the midst of an 11-1 run, putting them over .500 for the first time since the team moved to D.C. in 2005 when Jim Riggleman quit on June 23 due to a contract dispute with Nationals’ management over his option for next year. The Nationals tabbed Davey Johnson as his replacement. Washington is 6-8 under Johnson, but was 38-37 with Riggleman guiding the team.
There have also been some notable achievements by players through the first part of the year. Derek Jeter reached 3,000 hits with a home run at exactly two o’clock at Yankee Stadium to become the first Yankee to achieve that milestone. Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander each threw no-hitters within four days of each other, on May 3 and 7, respectively. Liriano walked six hitters and struck out two. Verlander struck out four and walked just one hitter in the seventh inning, beginning a streak of pitching at least eight innings in eight of his next 10 starts. Andre Eithier strung together a 30-game hitting streak that began on the second day of the season. The streak is the second-longest in Los Angeles Dodgers’ history and is the longest in the majors since the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman’s 30-game streak in 2009.
The first half of the season featured many close divisional races. In fact, there is no division separated by more than a 3.5 game lead. There are currently 17 teams, more than half the league, within 6.5 games of a playoff spot. This season is shaping up to have some terrific playoff races that will go down to the wire in September. Here are my predictions from the beginning of the season and how they stack up with what has happened so far this year:
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Chicago White Sox
2. Minnesota Twins
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Cleveland Indians
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Kansas City Royals
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
4. Seattle Mariners
1. Texas Rangers
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland Athletics
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Philadelphia Phillies (Wild Card)
3. New York Mets
4. Florida Marlins
5. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves
3. New York Mets
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Houston Astros
T-1. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
2. Colorado Rockies
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
1. San Francisco Giants
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres
Scott Kornberg and Ryan Baumohl discuss baseball’s divisional races and league awards at the season’s midpoint, as well as possible trades in today’s podcast: Listen Here!