Who’s this Berkman character?

Who in their right mind thought Lance Berkman would be leading the NL in OPS and SLG through the first 30 games of the season? I honestly thought it was a horrible signing for the Cardinals. I thought the 35-year-old had nothing left after watching him at the plate last year, plus I couldn’t imagine his legs being back in the outfield after a couple of years at first base and DH. Turns out, he’s been the best hitter for the Cards. Heck, for the entire NL and may also just be one of the best free agent signings of the year. I would have never of thought that prior to the season.

Berkman enters Friday’s game hitting .392/.462/.775 slash line with 10 home runs and a league-leading 32 RBIs in just 29 games. To put this into perspective, he hit 14 home runs total in 122 games with the Astros and Yankees combined. Even in the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, he connected for just one longball in 106 at-bat with the Yanks. Overall in 2010, he hit a homer about every 29 at-bats. But this season, he’s belting one dinger about every 10 at-bats. What a difference a year makes.

Obviously, I think Berkman is just more comfortable in the NL, especially in the NL Central where he knows a lot of the pitchers. Not to mention that hitting in the lineup around Albert Pujols doesn’t hurt matters. His home run total last year was the lowest of his career besides his rookie year and he last blasted 20+ home runs in 2009 (25 with Houston), he’s well on his way to eclipsing that total. Of course if he can stay healthy, which is always the question mark for an aging veteran.

Yankees fast start

The Yankees are tearing the cover off the ball so far this season, propelling them to an early one-game lead in the AL East. The offense easily leads the league in home runs with 46 while ranking fourth in runs scored. That’s all fine and dandy, it’s the Yankees and we have come to expect that from them. But at some point this year (playoffs or before during pennant races), the bats will cool off or run into better pitching and will the Yankees be able to rely on pitching?

They are currently getting by with AJ Burnett, who’s having a bounce back year so far, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Phil Hughes has been horrendous (13.94 ERA), Nova is posting an ERA above 5.00 and Colon has been a nice story in April, but I don’t see him staying right for the entire season. CC Sabathia has  been solid and he’s their ace no question, but their pitching depth is very thin and they can’t afford a midseason injury or a Hughes type blowup again if they are going to compete in the AL East come September and beyond.

Runs at a premium

I shouldn’t have surprised to find out that two teams are actually scoring fewer runs than the A’s. The A’s are scoring 3.4 runs per game while hitting a slash line of .237/.304/.355. I thought that was bad, but can you name the two teams that are worse? It’s the Twins and the Padres. One playoff team from a year ago and the other a division leader for most of the season before falling behind the Giants yet still winning 90 games.

The Padres are scratching out runs at a 3.34 per game with a .218/.299/.327 slash line, but the Twins take the cake with 3.1 runs per game and a pathetic .230/.292/.323 line. When you are getting on base at a .292 clip, that is awful. With those numbers, it shouldn’t surprise anyone of the Twins 11-18 record and the Padres 12-19 record. The 16-16 A’s are getting by on stellar pitching, something the Padres and Twins (minus Liriano’s no-hitter) lack this season. How bad has it been for the Twins? Liriano’s no-hitter dropped his ERA to a 6.61 mark.

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As the holiday season approaches (yes, Christmas is only one week away!), here are some offseason links on signings, trades and reactions from around the web…

MLB.com handed out their first GIBBY (Greatness in Baseball Yearly) awards during a one-hour show on MLB Network Friday night. The full list of winners can be found here.

Tom Boorstein of SNY.tv looks at life without Cliff Lee and what the Yankees can do from here.

The baseball world lost a legend earlier this week when news of Bob Feller‘s passing broke around the country. He was 92 years young. Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated remembers the Hall of Fame pitcher with a superb column on Feller’s career, and more importantly, his life.

Padres have been very active this month, especially this week when they finally acquired Jason Bartlett from the Rays. Today, they followed it up by signing infielder Orlando Hudson to a two-year deal. Dave Cameron discusses O-Dog’s underrated value over at FanGraphs.

Pat Lackey of WHYGAVS writes a detailed, passionate post on watching the broadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series on MLB Network. I missed the original airing last Wednesday, but have it DVR’d and plan to watch it as soon as I find the time.

Thought the Red Sox were done adding players this offseason? Think again. The Sox continue their own Christmas shopping with the addition of closer Bobby Jenks.

Warning, warning! Shameless plug approaching. Checkout these baseball blogs featured Friday morning on MLB Trade Rumors. Third one down should be rather familiar.

“I can’t play anymore. I can’t hit the ball when I need to. I can’t steal second when I need to. I can’t go from first to third when I need to. I can’t score from second when I need to. I have to quit.”  -Mickey Mantle

So after all the questions of if the San Diego Padres were for real and could hold onto the division lead they had controlled all season, fate would have it that they would lose in the final game to not qualify for the postseason.

While stellar pitching carried them all year, it was the anemic lineup that eventually did them in. No surprise there. Pitching dominates the game and you need it to win, but as the Padres would prove—you need at least some kind of competent hitting to win as well. The Giants also have the pitching, matching the Padres in Sunday’s game while their offense was able to muster just enough (which they’ve been doing all year) to scratch out some runs for the 3-0 victory and the NL West division title after trailing San Diego almost the entire season.

The Giants victory coupled with the Braves 8-7 win over the Phillies meant my dream of a three-team tiebreaker playoff was not to be. Oh well, it has to happen one of these years sooner or later I suppose. So it’ll be Giants-Braves and Phillies-Reds. I’ll have a full preview of these series tomorrow, but the Giants could be a real dark horse to come out of the National League. They may be the only team that can match the Phillies pitching starter for starter. And hey, two of my surprise teams ended up making the playoffs!

Over in the junior circuit, the Red Sox played spoiler against the Yankees and kept them from winning the AL East crown, which goes to the Rays at 96-66 for their second division title in franchise history. Who would have thought the Yankees would be going on the road to Minnesota to open the playoffs? The other matchup will be the Rays-Rangers with the Rays having home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. More on all four series tomorrow prior to first pitch.

I’m excited. There’s only one Oc-TOBER! Yeah, remember the terrible Dane Cook MLB playoff commercials a couple of years back? I can’t wait to see what they will come up with this year.

The San Diego Padres aren’t done just yet. The Padres faced a bleak chance in the playoff race heading into this weekend, needing to sweep the Giants on the road to win the NL West. Well, two games down and two victories by the Padres. On Saturday afternoon, San Diego used stellar pitching, go figure, to mow down the Giants in a 4-2 victory behind Tim Stauffer‘s 6.1 innings with one run allowed. That leaves one final game of the regular season, and the Padres will turn to their ace Mat Latos.

But not only is the NL West crown still up for grabs, but the wild card spot is also vacant on the final day of the season. This is where things get complicated thanks to the Braves losing two straight at home to the Phillies. It looked like the Braves were a lock for the postseason a week ago, but heading into tomorrow, there’s a real possibility that Sunday’s game could be Bobby Cox’s last. Let me attempt to easily break down the scenario for Sunday:

— If the Braves and Giants win: Giants are NL West champs, Braves are the wildcard. Padres are stuck wondering “what if” had they not lost 10 straight games last month.

— If the Braves and Padres win: There would be a three-team tiebreaker, the first in MLB history. This is definitely a scenario I’m interested in.

— If the Padres win and the Braves lose: Padres are NL West champs, Giants earn the wildcard and Braves are saying goodbye to Cox.

— If the Giants win and Braves lose: Giants are NL West champs and the Padres travel to Atlanta for a one-game playoff on Monday for the wild card.

What a finish it should be. As I mentioned above, Latos will be on the hill for the Padres. He’s been stellar this year with a 14-9 record and 2.92 ERA. The Giants will counter with Jonathan Sanchez (12-9, 3.15).

Meanwhile in Atlanta, the game will also feature two solid pitchers as Cole Hamels (12-11, 3.09) takes the mound for the Phils against Tim Hudson (16-9, 2.76). Hudson has been the Braves best and most consistent pitcher this season, so it only makes sense for their season to be on his shoulders.

It should make for a dramatic afternoon in the baseball universe during an NFL Sunday. Not only are these two spots on the line, but if the Yankees end up losing Game 2 of their doubleheader against the Red Sox (tied in extras right now), then the AL East division will also come down to the final day. Plus, we still aren’t sure who gets home field advantage in the American League between the Yankees, Rays and Twins.

Enjoy the games tomorrow. Consider me at least one fan who’s rooting for the Padres and Braves, so we can see the first ever three-team tiebreaker!

After a short hiatus, let’s jump into an update on each pennant race going on around baseball. There are only two divisions pretty much wrapped up out of the six total, so it should be a very entertaining final month in Major League Baseball.

NL Central: A month ago I was pretty confident that the Cardinals would eventually beat out the Reds for the NL Central division title. Well, scratch that. Suddenly the Cards can’t win and the Reds can’t lose. The Reds 6-1 victory over the Red Birds Saturday gave them a nice eight game lead over St. Louis. Eight games?? Forget it, this race is OVE-VA! Who in their right mind had the Reds winning this division prior to the season? Oh wait, I had them as a surprise team in our 2010 outlook series. I need to take credit for something because I also had Baltimore in that list…whoops.

NL West: Another surprise team I had was the San Francisco Giants, who are currently just two games back of the sinking Padres. It’s actually amazing to think that the Padres have dropped nine straight and still lead the NL West by two games. The Giants stable of arms may have enough to leap past the falling Padres in this final month of the season. Plus, the Rockies are still hanging around as usual…5.5 games back in the division. A five-plus game difference is tough to make up in the final month, but the Rockies seem to find ways to go on a ridiculous run late in the year. This could be the closest race between more than two teams to watch in September.

AL East: Let’s head over to the AL East, where the Yankees are doing their thing—becoming a machine down the stretch that is immensely difficult to catch. The Bombers have won eight straight, and despite the Rays doing everything they can to keep pace, they remain 2.5 games behind New York. The Rays still have seven games this month against the Yankees, and if they don’t win five out of seven, we could be looking at another Yankees division title. In the end, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot because the runner-up in this division will end up with the wildcard.

AL West: Here’s how good it looks for the Rangers to be playing postseason baseball come October. Even if the A’s went on a tear and played .700 ball the rest of the way (19-8), the Rangers would have to go 10-17 in their final 27 games to lose the division to Oakland. Considering Oakland isn’t that good and the Rangers are pretty good, this isn’t going to happen. I’m excited about seeing what Cliff Lee/CJ Wilson tandem can do in the playoffs with this hitting behind them.

AL Central: Last year, it was a three-team race in September, but this year it’s only the Twins and White Sox battling to the end as the Tigers fell out of it a while back. The Twins are up today 3.5 games on the White Sox, but Chicago has been hot, winning five straight and seven of their past ten games. These two teams only meet up three more times this month in Chicago, but the Twins schedule is set up for them to win this thing. In their final 22 games that don’t include the White Sox, the Twins face the Royals six times, the Indians six times, the Tigers three times, the A’s three times and the Blue Jays three times. The Royals and Indians six times?? What a nice way to end it. If they end up blowing this 3.5 game lead, they only have themselves to play.

NL East: The Braves are clinging to a one-game lead as the Phillies are turning red-hot with their team getting healthy at the right time. This division looks like a clone of the AL East where the runner-up may be in the playoffs no matter what by earning the wildcard. If I had to pick a team to win the division though, I think the Phillies will still pull it out for another division title. The teams have six games remaining against each other with what could be a huge three-game series to end the season in Atlanta.

It’s the first of August and that can only mean good news for the Yankees, White Sox, Rangers, Braves, Cardinals and Padres. Historically speaking, the numbers show that teams leading their respective divisions on August 1 are pretty good bets to be winning that division at the end of the season.

Don’t believe me? Well let’s just take a look at the numbers. Since 1995 when MLB went to its six-division format (actually began in 1994, but there were no playoffs due to the strike), teams leading their division on Aug. 1 end up winning the division 82 percent (74-for-90) of the time. I’ll be honest, I knew the numbers were in favor of it, but until I researched it I never thought it was that high.

Breaking it down by league:

American League teams win the pennant 78% (35-for-45) of the time.
National League teams hold onto the division lead 87% (39-for-45) of the time.

Here are some other interesting notes:

– Two AL division leaders on August 1—Seattle in 2000 and Detroit in 2006—did not go on to win their division, but they still made the playoffs by earning the wildcard. So that adds two more teams to the numbers of division leaders making the playoffs.

– Speaking of the wildcard, the team that holds the wildcard spot on August 1 ends up as the wildcard 47 percent of the time. That’s decent news for the Giants and Rays, who currently hold those spots in each league.

– A very interesting finding is that it’s rare to see teams that are leading the wildcard race on August 1 come back to win the division at season’s end. There’s been only three in 15 years, which is 30 tries (10 percent) with both leagues. Oakland did it in 2000 when Seattle was the division leader and fell to the wildcard in October. The Diamondbacks did it in 2001, which was the year they won the World Series, and Cleveland made up the ground in 2007 to win the AL Central pennant.

– The National League had a bit of a run in the late ’90s. Every Aug.1 division leader ended up winning the division in the final two months from 1996 through 2000. The same occurred from 2004 through 2006 for the NL. The AL was generally more inconsistent with its biggest streak coming two straight years in ’98-’99.

– Last note is that the last three teams in the AL to blow the division lead in the final two months after leading in early August have all been the Detroit Tigers. The ’09, ’07 and ’06 Tigers all lost their divisions, including a blown 7.5 game lead over the Twins in ’06. Ouch.

So does this mean the division leaders today are shoe ins for the playoffs? Absolutely not. Anything can happen especially with the plethora of close division races currently taking place. The largest division lead is Texas over the A’s by 8.0 games in the AL West. The next closest is the Braves 3.5 lead over the Phillies while the Cardinals-Reds and the White Sox-Twins are each within a half game of each other. The Yankees hold a two game lead over the Rays in the AL East, and the Padres only have a 1.5 lead on the Giants. But historically speaking, it may not be wise to bet against 80 percent of them making the postseason.

With one month of the 2010 season is in the books, what have we learned so far this year? Not too much actually. There have been teams who were expected to win that are winning while there has also been some surprises and bad starts in April. You can make certain observations from the first 23 games of the year, but they should be tempered to a point because the season is obviously still very new. I will attempt to sift through the early observations to pick ones that could be for real and others an aberration.

The Rays 17-6 start to lead the AL East—The Rays look scary good right now as they cruised to their best start in franchise history. I think this start is definitely for real. With that said, will they continue to play .740 ball? Of course not, but this team is for real thanks to their stellar pitching. The rotation of Matt Garza, David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis have all been great, which is what you need to be successful in the big leagues. Not only has the pitching been sterling, but the Rays are also leading the league in runs scored with 144. They will have to keep it up to compete with the Yankees for the division lead all year, but I think they have enough pitching and young stars to do just that.

Padres and Nationals fast starts—The Padres are leading the NL West with a 15-8 record while the Nats are off to a 13-10 start. I believe both of these starts are an aberration. Remember when the Nationals first moved to Washington and had a ridiculous first half due to one-run wins before it came crashing down in the second half? Well, the Nats did the same thing this April as most of their wins have been close ball games. Washington is in the bottom half of the league in ERA, so the pitching will not be there for this team to stay above .500 even if/when Strasburg arrives. On the other hand, the Padres pitching has been stellar but their 2.91 ERA is just too low to expect it to continue all year and their offense is still a problem, hitting just .248 in April.

Horrible starts by the Braves, Red Sox, White Sox, Dodgers—Before any fans of these teams start calling it quits on a season, just calm down. Isn’t the saying that every team wins 60 games and loses 60 games, but it’s what you do with the other 40 games that makes you a good or bad team. There are still about 140 games to the season for these teams to rebound. The Braves have already started a turnaround thanks to a visit from the Astros. The Red Sox are too talented to be under .500 for most of the year, so I expect them to turn it on soon. The White Sox pitching will get hot soon enough, but the Dodgers are one team that could be in trouble. Their pitching hasn’t been there, the defense has been shoddy at times and injuries to Vicente Padilla and Manny Ramirez are reasons for this slow start. Plus, when your GM starts blasting the team and their start center fielder in the first month of the season, it’s never a good sign.  And they can’t seem to beat the Pirates at this point, which is really not a good sign. It might get worse in Dodgertown before it gets good.

In short, the month of April cannot be trusted. A look at the standings on May 1, 2009 shows the Blue Jays in first of the AL East at 16-9 before stumbling to a 75-87 finish. The Mariners and Marlins were also in first place and the NL wild card winner (Rockies) was buried in dead last in the NL West. We shall soon find out who’s for real and who’s not in 2010.