SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the San Francisco Giants leaned over the dugout railing right after Buster Posey blasted his 20th homer of the season on "Sunday Night Baseball," and posed a rhetorical question.
"How does someone take funky swings like that -- and then hit a ball over [the] center field [fence]?" Posey's teammate asked, in the midst of the Giants' 4-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which extended San Francisco's lead in the NL West to a sturdy 5.5 games.
Posey is known as an excellent two-strike hitter, someone who is not afraid to get deep into the count and face a bunch of nasty stuff. Joe Blanton, who made Sunday's start for the Dodgers in place of Clayton Kershaw, felt he had thrown a ton of great pitches. Time after time, however, Posey fended them off, like a tennis player volleying at the net. But when Blanton finally threw an imperfect pitch -- the 10th pitch of the at-bat -- Posey's swing went from defensive to offensive, and he crushed the ball. From Alex Pavolic's story:
- "That's one of the best at-bats I've ever had off of me," Blanton said. "I threw him at least five put-away pitches, I thought. And he just kept fouling them off. I make one mistake and it's a homer."
Posey has an OPS of 1.100 since the All-Star break, the best in the majors by a margin of almost 50 points, and this surge has pushed him right into the middle of what has become a very interesting race for NL MVP.
Posey is to the Giants what Mike Piazza was to the Mets' lineup in the late '90s: He is the anchor, surrounded by complementary hitters. Piazza had Edgardo Alfonzo and John Olerud, and Posey has Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval. As we saw after Posey was hurt in 2011, the San Francisco lineup is so very different without his presence.
And as a catcher, Posey has a whole lot of other responsibility, as well -- and he's better defensively than Piazza was. He can throw out runners when given the chance, as he did Saturday, when he cut down three Dodgers.
Posey doesn't have the gaudy home run numbers that the other candidates do -- his homer Sunday was his first since Aug. 11 -- but his home park has something to do with that. Nevertheless, since the All-Star break, only Giancarlo Stanton and Jay Bruce have higher slugging percentages.
FanGraphs has Posey ranked seventh in the NL in WAR, but that's a statistic that doesn't apply as well to catchers as it does to other positions because of the difficulty in quantifying the value of defense.
But no matter how many extra-credit points Posey should get for being a catcher, this is clear: With 24 days left in the regular season, he's built a nice MVP-like resume.
The other candidates:
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates: A few weeks ago, it seemed he had begun to separate himself from the pack, but now the pack has gained ground on him. But McCutchen has had a spectacular season, with an OPS of .966 and 25 homers; he could win the NL batting title.
Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers: He has put up the best numbers in the National League this season, with a league-high 38 homers and .989 OPS, but the Brewers have been out of contention for a lot of the season. While they have surged in recent weeks, they still trail the second wild-card team by six games. The great unknown about Braun's candidacy is whether, in the aftermath of his positive test last fall, some writers may decide they won't vote for him because of that link to PEDs.
In my opinion, the positive test shouldn't be a factor, because Braun was cleared of wrongdoing through his appeal. But as we know, there is a massive block of BBWAA voters who won't consider any Hall of Fame candidate for the mere suspicion of the use of PEDs -- a stance that has essentially frozen Jeff Bagwell many votes short of induction. Not every writer gets to vote on the MVP Award -- rather, just two writers from every NL city vote, for a total of 32 votes -- and so it may be that among that group, Braun will be considered in the same way that the other candidates are.
But it may be that Braun will get hurt in the voting because of what happened last winter, or because the Brewers have struggled for a lot of this summer. The closer the Brewers get to the top of the standings, the more it could help Braun. Just ask Matt Kemp, who was hurt by the Dodgers' placement in the standings last year.
I wrote early in the season about how Braun's candidacy will be a challenge to the writers' stance in the Hall of Fame vote.
Yadier Molina, St. Louis: He's regarded as the majors' best defensive catcher, and he's hitting .321 with 18 homers and an OPS of .877, which ranks 12th in the National League.
Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds, and Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins: Both have put up strong power numbers, but Stanton will be hurt by the fact that the Marlins have never been part of the race, and Bruce is hurt by his low batting average (.267).
There are other players in the top 10, but at this point, it appears that Posey, McCutchen and Braun are running in the top three spots, with the final order to be determined by the tastes of the individual voters and by what happens in the next 24 days.
• The Arizona Diamondbacks spoke to multiple teams about Justin Upton during the season, and rival executives expect they will trade the right fielder this winter. But some club officials also believe Arizona will move center fielder Chris Young, as well. Arizona could go into next season with an outfield of Gerardo Parra, Jason Kubel and Adam Eaton if it deals both Upton and Young, and the team's clear focus will be adding a shortstop, such as the Rangers' Elvis Andrus.
• One of the more interesting decisions this offseason will be what the Giants do with reliever Brian Wilson, who is recovering from surgery. He's eligible for arbitration this winter after making $8.5 million this year and could be in line to make something in the $8-10 million range. The guess here is that the Giants, who have been masters of piecing together bullpens in recent years -- including this season, after Wilson got hurt -- will choose to turn the page. It would make sense for them to ask other teams if they're interested in a trade, but other teams will have the same concerns as the Giants will, and paying a reliever that much money coming off significant surgery is something almost never done.
From ESPN Stats and Information, how Milone beat the Mariners:
A. Seventeen swings and misses, second-most this year. All 10 strikeouts were swinging, five on fastballs and five on off-speed pitches. That's the same pitch split as his other 10-strikeout game in July, but three of those were looking.
B. Of 16 balls in play, only three were on the ground, Milone's lowest career rate (19 percent, compared to his 39 percent average).
C. Although swing rate was the same, the Mariners missed 46 percent of their swings against pitches in the upper third (versus 28 percent below that). They went 0-for-7 with 5 K's on those offerings.
• By the way: Brandon McCarthy has been moved from ICU, and on Sunday night he responded to a tweet I sent out about his condition, writing, in so many words, that he was using the bathroom a lot. His sense of humor is undented.
By The Numbers
From ESPN Stats and Info
10: There have been 10 three-homer games this season, surpassing the total of nine in 2011.
15: First-pitch homers hit by B.J. Upton, tied for second most since the start of 2011.
25: Called strikes for James Shields, his most this season, in the Rays' 6-0 win over Texas.
Dings and dents
Moves, deals and decisions
AL East notes
• From ESPN Stats and Info, how Shields won:
A. His strike percentage of 70.2 was his second best in the past 37 games. He went to a three-ball count on only one hitter (Andrus, who struck out looking).
B. Nine of Shields' 25 called strikes came on pitches that were out of the zone, according to MLB's Pitch F/X cameras; six were on the right edge of the plate (inside to right-handers). Appropriately, right-handed hitters went 0-for-13 on pitches on the inner half of the plate.
C. Both hits allowed were on his changeup, and both were on pitches out of the strike zone. Texas went 0-for-21 when the last pitch of a plate appearance was in the zone; that's the biggest collar in that category by any pitcher this season.
The Yankees are a bunch of experienced, tough veterans who have been through many, many pennant chases before, and they stepped up over the weekend to hold their ground in Baltimore. They will have to plow ahead without first baseman Mark Teixeira. John Harper wonders: Can they slug their way to a division title?
AL Central notes
• The Detroit Tigers had a miserable week, but Jim Leyland doesn't think they need a pep talk as they prepare to face the Chicago White Sox in a crucial series. The defense favors the White Sox in this series, writes John Lowe.
AL West notes
• The Angels' pitchers stepped up over the weekend.
NL East notes
NL Central notes
• The Pirates went through a lost weekend.
• Norman Chad has a take on the Strasburg thing.
• Darwin Barney's errorless streak has reached 125 games.
• A very happy birthday to Amelia Lincoln, my little sister, who continues to amaze. Oh, and she's been beating cancer, too, with help from the great folks at Dartmouth and Mass General.
And today will be better than yesterday.