10 reasons to keep on watching MLB in 2011

By David Schoenfield

September is around the corner, that time of year when baseball fans pretend to care about that little sport called football. The pennant races and wild-card chases don’t look too dramatic right now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of reasons to remain excited about the final five-plus weeks. Like these 10.

1. Justin Verlander’s pursuit of awesomeness.
Like phenom Dwight Gooden in 1985 or defying-his-age Nolan Ryan or painting-the-corners Greg Maddux or unhittable Pedro MartinezJustin Verlander has become appointment viewing in 2011. He had another superb effort Monday night, pitching seven innings of three-hit, one-run baseball, beating the Rays to run his record to 19-5, lower his ERA to 2.28 and lower his opponents’ batting average to .185.

We’ll dig into this a little deeper at some point, but isn’t it time to start thinking of Verlander’s season in terms of all-time dominance? For example, let’s start by checking all pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings since 1901 with a WHIP below 1.00. That gives us a list of 147 pitcher-seasons. A lot of those seasons came in the dead ball era, when offense was scarce and low ERAs and few baserunners common, so let’s use only those pitchers with an ERA+ (which adjusts for era and home park) of 150 or better.

That cuts the list down to 96 seasons. Of those, only 20 allowed opponents to hit .200 or less. Verlander is one of those 20 right now. He probably has six starts remaining. I recommend you watch them.

2. The Phillies’ pursuit of regular-season history.
With their 10-0 shutout against the Mets on Monday, the Phillies improved to 82-44, a pace of 105 wins. Only two National League teams since 1910 have won 108 games — the 1975 Reds and 1986 Mets — and the Phillies would have to go 26-10 the rest of the way to match that achievement. It’s a longshot, especially with Jimmy Rollins out for a couple weeks and Charlie Manuel likely backing off a bit on the workload of his starting pitchers, but only 14 of those remaining 36 games are against teams currently with a winning record, so it’s possible.

3. The pursuit of MVP awards.
Last year’s MVP announcements were anticlimactic, as Joey Votto received 31 of 32 first-place votes and Josh Hamilton received 22 of 28. The 2009 announcements were anticlimactic, as Albert Pujolswas a unanimous selection and Joe Mauer received 27 of 28 first-place votes. This year’s races are not only up for grabs, but up for grabs among several candidates in both leagues. In the NL, Ryan Braun,Prince FielderJustin UptonMatt Kemp and Shane Victorino will all have their supporters. In the AL, Jose Bautista will stake his numbers against likely playoff performers Curtis GrandersonJacoby EllsburyAdrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia. And don’t discount Verlander, although a starting pitcher hasn’t won since Roger Clemens in 1986.

4. Young players pursuing their big league dreams.
The most intriguing possibility may be Diamondbacks right-hander Trevor Bauer, the third overall pick in the June draft. Would they throw him into the heat of a pennant race? Besides Bauer, however, we may see names such as Yankees slugger Jesus Montero and left-hander Manny Banuelos; Nationals right-hander Brad Peacock, who has a 167/44 strikeout/walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A; Cubs center fielder Brett Jackson, the team’s No. 1 pick in 2009; Reds catcher Devon Mesoraco; and Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin. We may also see a lot more of previous call-ups such as superstud of the Angels Mike Trout and the Braves’ Julio Teheran.

5. Michael Young’s pursuit of his second batting title.
Young was vilified in the offseason when he initially balked at being moved from third base to designated hitter, asking the Rangers for a trade in early February. Unable or unwilling to move Young and his $16 million salary, the Rangers and Young were stuck with each other. Both made the best of an uneasy situation, as Young has started 61 games at DH, 27 at third base, 26 at first base and 13 at second base. He’s had one of his best seasons at the plate, hitting .338, second in the AL to Adrian Gonzalez’s .343. He also surpassed 2,000 career hits, with 3,000 suddenly looking like a possibility. Long maligned by statheads for being overpaid, overrated in the field and a beneficiary of a favorable home park, it’s also time to appreciate Young as a guy who never misses a game and a pretty nice guy to have on a ball club.

6. The pursuit of answers from Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa.
Are we seeing the final days in St. Louis of the two Cardinals icons? Pujols hits free agency and the Cardinals may decide to part ways with La Russa after 16 seasons. You won’t get much in the way of sound bites from either guy, but it’s a storyline that will be unavoidable.

7. Jose Valverde’s pursuit of “perfection.”
The Tigers closer has a 2.72 ERA and he’s walked 30 hitters in just 56.1 innings. He even has four losses. But he has somehow walked that tightrope and not blown a save opportunity all season.

8. A.J. Burnett’s pursuit of a postseason rotation slot.
Right now, the Yankees know CC Sabathia will start Game 1 of their postseason. But who starts Game 2? When the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, Burnett was actually that guy and he responded with a stellar outing in Game 2 of the World Series, after the Yankees had lost the opener.

Burnett has been terrible of late, making it appear likely he won’t make the Yankees’ postseason roster, let alone the rotation. As for the No. 2 guy, rookie Ivan Nova has won nine of his past 10 starts, with a 3.48 ERA. Stay tuned.

9. Stephen Strasburg pursues a return to the majors.
So dominant as a rookie a year ago, Strasburg is rehabbing from last summer’s Tommy John surgery and a September call-up looks probable. I can’t wait for him to make it back.

10. The Diamondbacks and Giants pursue NL West title.
Lest we forget, we still have one dramatic race going — at least for now. Can the Giants make the playoffs to defend their title? Can the Diamondbacks become the underdog of October? The key dates: Sept. 2-4 in San Francisco and Sept. 23-25 at Arizona.


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