This American League wild-card race is more like a race to mediocrity than a race to the playoffs. Don’t know which team to root for? Here’s a quick guide, although it’s OK to admit you’re really rooting for the chaos of an eight-way tie.
Minnesota Twins: They haven’t made the playoffs since 2010 and haven’t won a playoff game since 2004, having been swept in three straight Division Series. ... Lost 103 games in 2016, most in the majors, so going from worst to the playoffs would be a similar story to 1991, when the Twins went from worst in the AL West to a World Series title. ... Watching Byron Buxton play center field is to dream of the impossible. ... They traded closer Brandon Kintzler at the trade deadline, so even management didn’t really believe in this team, and there’s nothing like the front office not believing in you to rally a team together. ... Before Miguel Sano landed on the disabled list, his performance was simultaneously awesome (on pace for 37 home runs) and frightening (228 strikeouts). ... Max Kepler is from Germany, so if the Twins make the World Series, that would help the World Series TV ratings in Germany! ... Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios would actually give the Twins a puncher’s chance in a short series if they advance past the wild-card game. ... They resisted trading Brian Dozier in the offseason. ... Bartolo Colon is on this team, and who doesn’t want to see the possibility of Bartolo Colon beating Clayton Kershaw to win Game 7 of the World Series?
Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout. ... To appreciate the greatness of shortstop Andrelton Simmons, the MVP candidate nobody talks about as an MVP candidate. ... No, seriously, check his numbers. He’s second among AL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR and fourth in FanGraphs. Only Mookie Betts has more defensive runs saved, plus Simmons is having his best year at the plate. ... Mike Trout. ... OK, so he’s more Luis Pujols these days than Albert Pujols, but it still would be the chance to put an all-time great in the postseason spotlight again. ... The chance for an Angels-Dodgers World Series. ... Bud Norris, postseason closer? ... Given the state of the Angels' rotation, maybe manager Mike Scioscia actually starts a reliever in the wild-card game and goes all-bullpen for nine innings. ... Their top starter right now is JC Ramirez, a guy claimed off waivers last June from the CINCINNATI FREAKIN’ REDS, a team with historically awful rotations the past two seasons. The Reds didn’t want this guy! Now he could start a wild-card game. ... Their No. 2 starter is Parker Bridwell, a guy with a name that sounds like he should be tossing a Frisbee around the expansive front lawn of The Hotchkiss School, with his collar turned up while wearing his $325 sneakers from Burberry. He was acquired from the Orioles in April. The Orioles -- another team with major rotation woes -- didn’t want this guy! ... Mike Trout has 15 career postseason plate appearances and that makes everyone sad.
Seattle Mariners: They have the longest playoff drought in the majors, last appearing in 2001. ... Would have made the playoffs or tied for the wild card if there had been two wild cards in 2002, 2003 and 2007. ... Missed wild card by one win in 2014 and eliminated on final weekend in 2016. ... In other words: These fans deserve a playoff game. ... You know who else deserves one: Felix Hernandez. ... Assuming the Yankees are the first wild card, a healthy James Paxton probably gives the Mariners the best chance of beating the Yankees of all the starters on all of the wild-card contenders. So if you’re anti-Yankees, you should be rooting for Seattle. ... You can argue that no team has persevered more than the Mariners. Manager Scott Servais has used 16 starting pitchers, and at the moment four-fifths of the projected opening rotation is on the DL. They’re surviving with what is really their third-string rotation. ... Nelson Cruz in October, he of the .669 career slugging percentage in 41 playoff games. ... Who doesn’t want to see the Seager brothers squaring off in the World Series? ... Ben Gamel's hair. ... Because good outfield defense is fun to watch. ... FOR THE LOVE OF THE BASEBALL GODS, LET ME REPEAT: FELIX HERNANDEZ HAS NEVER PITCHED IN A POSTSEASON GAME. Imagine him starting a playoff game in Seattle, in front of the home fans, all decked out in their King Felix T-shirts. It makes me almost cry just thinking about it.
Texas Rangers: Despite all of their success since 2010, this franchise has never won a World Series. It’s time! ... More Adrian Beltre is always a good thing. ... They traded Yu Darvish to the Dodgers, which means the front office kind of gave up on the season, and yet here they are with a chance to make the postseason, so it would be a perfect finish to stick it to the boss and defeat Darvish to win Game 7 of the World Series. ... It could happen: Joey Gallo becomes the ultimate poster child of modern baseball when he goes for 12-for-70 in the postseason with 12 home runs and 58 strikeouts. ... Rangers versus Astros in the Division Series, thank you very much. ... Alex Claudio, the team’s new closer, throws 86 mph, which is awesome. ... Party at Napoli’s. ... Cole Hamels has allowed 16 runs in 16 2/3 innings in three winless postseason starts with the Rangers, so it would be an opportunity for redemption. ... Elvis Andrus might touch Beltre’s head in the middle of a victory celebration.
Kansas City Royals: Because when they were 7-16 at the end April everybody wrote them off and said they should trade all of their free agents. ... Melky Cabrera is hitting cleanup these days and nothing would sum up the AL wild-card race better than the winning team batting Melky Cabrera cleanup. ... #nedyostdevilmagic ... If they make it to their third World Series in four years and win, we get to debate whether the Royals should be considered a dynasty. ... Among qualified regulars, Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar rank 153rd and 154th out of 154 players in wOBA and yet here they are. ... Mike Moustakas is going to break Steve Balboni’s franchise record for home runs, and a Steve Balboni mention is always an awesome thing. ... The possibility of Jason Vargas winning Game 7 of the World Series after Escobar and Gordon homer off Clayton Kershaw. ... Ned Yost, Hall of Fame manager with two World Series wins?
Baltimore Orioles: The possibility that Buck Showalter once again doesn’t use Zach Britton in a wild-card game that goes extra innings. ... The possibility that Showalter does use Britton and he throws like three innings as the Orioles beat the Yankees. ... They’re 29th in the majors in rotation ERA and yet here they are, and that defies everything we think we know about baseball. ... Manny Machado has had a monster second half so far and it would be fun to see him carry the Orioles through October. ... They have the most wins in the American League since 2012, but nobody ever gives them any credit. ... Last World Series appearance: 1983. ... I’d love to see Adam Jones have a big postseason. ... Camden Yards deserves a World Series spotlight, and imagine all the crying from Red Sox and Yankees fans if that happens. ... Everyone will realize what a superb season Jonathan Schoop has put together. ... How about an Orioles-Nationals World Series in which the winning manager makes the Hall of Fame? ... Or Orioles-Dodgers with Britton, the left-handed reliever the Dodgers didn’t acquire, facing Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger with the season on the line.
Tampa Bay Rays: Because it would be hilarious if the Rays and their $70 million payroll beat the Dodgers and their $250 million -- with former Rays general manager Andrew Friedman at their helm -- in the World Series. ... Chris Archer's slider is that awesome. ... If they get everyone in the rotation healthy, they could actually make a serious run and pull off some upsets. ... Evan Longoria, a career .191 hitter in 30 postseason games, with a chance to redeem himself with a glorious postseason run. ... You know you’ve always wanted to see Logan Morrison in the playoffs. ... No playoff games will be rained out at Tropicana Field. ... Kevin Kiermaier in center field is always worth the price of admission.
Toronto Blue Jays: An entire nation roots for them! ... They also lead the AL in attendance and that support deserves to be rewarded. ... No World Series appearances since 1993. ... Two words: Justin Smoak. ... Two more words: Bat flips. ... Marcus Stroman is one of the most enjoyable starting pitchers to watch and he’s having a terrific season with a 2.99 ERA. ... Because they seemed doomed after that 1-9 start and 8-17 April when they looked horrible. ... They’re next to last in the AL in runs and are still in this race, and with guys like Smoak, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales, the offense could get hot at the right time. ... With Stroman, Marco Estrada (better of late), J.A. Happ and a hopefully healthy Aaron Sanchez, the Jays actually have the best rotation of all these teams and thus the best chance to actually do damage in the playoffs.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 22, 2017
Granderson hit a grand slam last Thursday in his final plate appearance for the New York Mets. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, he's the first player in major league history to his two grand slams over a four-game span for two different teams.
His first L.A. grand slam was a huge one, as it turned a 3-1 deficit to Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates into a 5-3 lead. The Dodgers now have eight grand slams this season, two more than any other team. Also, Monday's win marked the fourth time this season they've won a game they trailed by three-plus runs entering the seventh. They had one such win in the four-year period from 2013 to 2016.
At this point, they need only 14 wins to even make the playoffs:
But Monday's win didn't come easy, as Pittsburgh tied the game off methodical Dodgers set-up man Pedro Baez. The Dodgers won in extra innings, though, thanks to Yasiel Puig's 22nd homer in the 12th. Puig also won the day with this eclipse spoof:
— Yasiel Puig (@YasielPuig) August 22, 2017
Meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw's three-inning simulated game went so well that he tacked on a fourth inning. Next up is a start for Triple-A Oklahoma City on Saturday against Omaha. It'll be only 60 pitches or so, but if you happen to be driving down Mickey Mantle Drive toward Bricktown Ballpark on Saturday, you might want to pop in. Kershaw against Triple-A hitters? That will be something to see.
Standing headline: "New York Mets pitcher injured." The Mets announced Monday that starter Steven Matz is done for the season. He'll have surgery on the ulnar nerve is his left elbow, a procedure similar to the one teammate Jacob deGrom went through in September.
Matz and deGrom were part of the Mets' rotation in the 2015 World Series, along with Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey. Since that Fall Classic, it has been a never-ending string of calamities for the foursome that was supposed to spearhead a new golden age for National League baseball in New York.
This is Matz's third disabled list trip since the Series; his 2016 season was truncated by a shoulder problem. Syndergaard has been on the DL since
May 1 because of a torn lat muscle, an injury with a complex backstory of its own. Harvey has been out since June 15, his third DL trip since the 2015 Series.
Only deGrom has enjoyed a healthy season, as he's on pace to make a full contingent of 32 or 33 starts*. Among the group last season, only Syndergaard made at least 30 starts. If none of the pitchers currently on the shelf make it back before the end of the season, Matz (13), Harvey (13) and Syndergaard (5) will have combined for 31 starts this season.
*Note: deGrom leads the NL with 165 innings pitched. He has thrown 17 innings more than last season. So might the Mets want to tread carefully over these last few weeks?
Pitchers get hurt. Every team deals with it. The unlucky ones see injuries cluster together. It can undermine entire seasons or spur franchises to pivot into a rebuild. We're probably not there yet with the Mets, who can look to shuffle the position player lineup this winter and hope that the fragile foursome can bounce back in 2018. It's the same script as this season.
But it's not great optics that Matz has apparently been pitching through pain for quite a while.
Matz said injury affected him between starts pic.twitter.com/m7qwEnbYr6
— Matt Ehalt (@MattEhalt) August 22, 2017
The Mets have been at least four games under .500 since the middle of May and have never been part of any kind of playoff race this season. Given all the problems they've had keeping their young pitchers healthy, it boggles the mind that Matz has been pitching hurt. It's not like he was pitching well: Matz's ERA is 6.08. What could possibly have been the point?
Eventually, the Mets need to review their processes for keeping players upright. It has to be done; why wouldn't it? Even if they are convinced they have been guilty of nothing but bad luck, why would you not throw everything you have in investigating if there isn't a better way? Obstinance solves nothing.
As for Harvey: Harvey is gamely trying to work his way back and made a rehab start for Double-A Binghamton on Monday. He went three innings, giving up four hits and two runs while striking out three. Reports on Twitter from those who watched pegged his velocity as ranging from 89 to 92 mph. He also allowed this homer to Anthony Alford, one of Toronto's top prospects.
Matt Harvey starts the 2nd with a strikeout on an 89 MPH pitch pic.twitter.com/2zyHY8X2zi
— Astro (@Astromets31) August 21, 2017
Not a particularly encouraging outing, but again, Mets: There's no rush here.
Buxton rampage continues. The Minnesota Twins began a long day Monday by putting star third baseman Miguel Sano on the DL because of a stress reaction in his left shin, a malady caused by fouling a ball of his leg the other day. Still, Minnesota improbably hangs in the thick of the American League wild-card race, and there seems to be enough offense even without Sano.
For one, Brian Dozier is again going off in the second half of a season. He homered in the second game of the Twins' doubleheader split in Chicago and is now hitting .313/.392/.646 since the All-Star break with 13 homers and 32 RBIs in 35 games. Dozier pulled this act last season, too, hitting 28 of his 42 homers during the season half.
More pertinent for the future of the young Twins has been the amazing offensive turnaround of Byron Buxton. Buxton has been one of baseball's best defenders all season, but during the early part, you had to wonder just how long Minnesota could carry such an offensive non-entity no matter how great his glove might be.
Buxton was hitting .195 with a .552 OPS and had struck out 80 times (nearly a third of his plate appearances) through the end of June. He also homered on Monday, and is now hitting .350/.395/.573 since July 1 with five homers -- four so far in August -- and 23 RBIs. Given his defense and 22 stolen bases in 23 attempts, Buxton once again looks like a coming star.
All this has kept Minnesota afloat, along with Paul Molitor's amazing job of juggling his outmanned pitching staff. To wit: In Monday's doubleheader, the Twins started Tim Melville and Dillon Gee. Neither pitcher had started a game for the Twins all season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, a team hadn't debuted two starters on the same date this late in a season in 20 years.
Heading into the week, I suggested the Los Angeles Dodgers needed to go 5-0 to improve their chances of breaking the record of 116 wins. With five games against the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, it was a golden opportunity to put together a perfect week against two struggling clubs. They came close, winning their first four games before running into Justin Verlander on Sunday to end the week 4-1.
It was a pitchers' duel for five innings as Verlander and Kenta Maeda each took a no-hitter into the sixth, but the Tigers scored four runs off Maeda while Verlander ended up giving up just two hits and one run in eight innings as Detroit won 6-1. The Dodgers matched their season low with three hits; the last time that happened was a 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals on June 7, a victory that actually kicked off this amazing run of baseball.
Record: 87-35 (.713 winning percentage)
Last week: 2-0 vs. White Sox; 2-1 vs. Tigers
Pace: 116-46 ... or, to be more exact, 115.5. Except we don't have half-wins, so your choice: round up or round down
Record since June 7: 52-10 (.839)
Record needed to get to 117 wins: 30-10 (.750 winning percentage)
This week: at Pittsburgh Pirates (Monday-Thursday), vs. Milwaukee Brewers (Friday-Sunday)
The Dodgers, by the way, finished 16-3 in interleague play -- a key factor since the National League actually has a slim chance of winning interleague play for the first time since 2003 (the American League leads 134-127).
Game of the week. The Dodgers trailed the White Sox 4-2 on Wednesday entering the bottom of the ninth, but Cody Bellinger singled with one out, Logan Forsythe doubled down the left-field line, Austin Barnes singled and then Yasiel Puig stepped to the plate:
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 17, 2017
It was another good, patient at-bat from Puig -- he has had several of those lately -- as he fouled off two pitches with two strikes before lining the double in the gap. He has spent much of the past two months hitting eighth, but manager Dave Roberts moved him up in the lineup this week, slotting him sixth, seventh, sixth and fifth in the games he started. One reason: Puig's swing rate in August is 38 percent, below the 50 percent rate of the first four months. As he result, he posted just a 20 percent chase rate, so even though he's hitting just .208 in August, he has a .387 OBP and Roberts is rewarding the better approach.
Trade of the week. The Dodgers acquired Curtis Granderson from the New York Mets for minor league pitcher Jacob Rhame, because the Dodgers need more depth. Always a class act, Granderson was honored to put on the Dodger uniform on Saturday:
— Curtis Granderson (@cgrand3) August 19, 2017
This is more than just a move for depth, however, and it will be interesting to see how Roberts fits Granderson into the lineup. After a terrible April in which he hit .128, Granderson has been one of the best hitters in the majors, ranking 18th in wOBA since May 1 -- although his .406 mark only ties him with teammate Chris Taylor, who ranks behind Justin Turner and Bellinger. Against right-handers, Granderson ranks 16th in the majors with a .420 wOBA since May 1.
With those numbers, this isn't a guy the front office acquired merely to come off the bench. On Saturday against right-hander Michael Fulmer, he started in left field and hit fifth, with Taylor sliding over to center in place of Joc Pederson, who was optioned to Triple-A. Against Verlander, Granderson led off and again played left field, with Enrique Hernandez in center as Taylor got the day off. So the obvious loser is Pederson, who had been mired in a 2-for-41 slump.
Pederson's slump made the move to acquire Granderson even more reasonable. The Dodgers might have been more willing to let Pederson fight through this, but it doesn't help that his defensive metrics have been below-average this season. Even though Taylor has little experience in center field -- just the 20 games he has started there this year -- his metrics there were solid (zero defensive runs saved, which means league average). So the front office clearly has the belief that Taylor is capable of handling center in the postseason. Of course, Granderson also can play center (he started 56 games there for the Mets), but his range is best suited to a corner these days.
And to throw a wrinkle into all this: Adrian Gonzalez also was activated off the disabled list and played first base in all three games against the Tigers, going 2-for-12. With the DH in those games, it was easier to get everybody into the action, but as the Dodgers move back to NL games, Roberts will have to find playing time for Gonzalez, Bellinger, Granderson, Taylor and Puig. With such a big lead, maybe it's not a big deal, as Roberts can simply rotate everybody in and out of the lineup and give Gonzalez a chance to see if he can actually help the team (he's hitting .249/.294/.333). Taylor could even see some time at second base, or Bellinger in center field.
All these options are fun and great, but you'd also think Roberts will want to settle on some roles once the postseason rolls around. The key guy is Gonzalez; if he hits, that moves Bellinger to a corner outfield slot and then there's the ripple effect from there. Stay tuned.
DETROIT -- If you could have this version of Justin Verlander for one postseason run, what would it be worth to you? The Detroit Tigers ace did his best to add a couple of layers of complexity to that hypothetical question Sunday.
Baseball's unstoppable force -- the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers -- ran smack into peak-form Verlander, who brick-walled their six-game winning streak. It's no sweat for the Dodgers, who remain 52 games over .500, but that kind of dominance ought to pique the interest of general managers from other prime contenders. I'm primarily referring to the Houston Astros, of course, but we'll get back to that.
Verlander took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, the third time he has done that this season. His bid was broken up when old friend and former teammate Curtis Granderson took a borderline two-strike, 98 mph fastball, then hit Verlander's next offering off the right-field foul pole. But Verlander rolled through eight innings, giving up only the one run and two hits and striking out nine as the Tigers avoided a sweep with a 6-1 win.
"He did an amazing job of hitting all the pitching zones," Granderson said. "Top of the zone. Bottom of the zone. Inside, outside. Not too many balls in the middle of the plate."
Some nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information:
- Verlander said his fastball had "extra life," and it showed in the numbers. L.A.'s 28 percent miss rate on his fastball was Verlander's best mark since May 14.
- Verlander threw first-pitch strikes 78 percent of the time Sunday, his best figure since Aug. 26, 2016.
- When Verlander did fall behind, it didn't hurt him. For the second time this season, he didn't give up a hit after starting a plate appearance with a ball.
Verlander not only beat L.A., he did so when the Dodgers' starter, Kenta Maeda, was matching zeros, throwing five perfect frames before Detroit broke through with four runs in the sixth.
"The way it was going through the first five innings, the margin for error is so slim," Verlander said. "You get in more of a rhythm because you're out there so quickly. That's why playoff games are so draining. You have to remind yourself that every single pitch can be the difference between a win and loss. That's kind of how if felt today."
Ding, ding, ding: Verlander in postseason mode! That aside, what was of particular interest in Verlander's repertoire was that he broke out a new pitch for the first time all season, a second slider that had a little bit of cutting action. While Verlander acknowledged it was a new pitch and he hadn't used it, he seemed exceedingly hesitant to discuss the matter.
"First time," was as much as Verlander was willing to say on the matter, though he did so with a sheepish grin on his face.
But it wasn't just Verlander's pitching line or how impressively he executed his pitches. It's that he did it against the Dodgers.
This is where the Astros-themed quandary comes into play. Verlander trade rumors have been floating about for months and, frankly, none of them have seemed particularly plausible. He's still an above-average pitcher, but his ERA this season remains near 4.00 and his fielding-independent metrics confirm that's an appropriate measure of his production. He's on the books for $28 million in both 2018 and 2019, before coming up on an option year in 2020, and he has a no-trade clause that allows him to control his destiny.
Unless the Tigers are willing to swallow a huge chunk of money, the marginal upgrade Verlander's macro-level numbers suggest just doesn't seem worth it. However, if Verlander gets on a roll, there really isn't anyone who can beat him, as is the case with only a few pitchers in the game.
"If Justin Verlander is pitching well, it doesn't matter who is on the other side," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "You put the '27 Yankees out there and he's going to pitch well. The numbers are going to look good for him at the end of the game if he pitches like he did today."
Among Verlander's postgame comments, what caught my attention was his description of the approach he had for the game.
"I went out there against the best team in baseball, and this morning I just kind of told myself I was going to take a playoff type of intensity out there and not let these guys sweep us," Verlander said.
"It's impossible to really create a playoff atmosphere without being in the playoffs, but I tried my best to do that and use that much more focus and intensity on every pitch."
It's almost as if he took out a full-page ad in a Houston paper saying, "This is Justin Verlander dialed up to postseason intensity."
Verlander's game score Sunday (82) was his second of the season over 80. He has had 25 such games in his career and seven since the start of the 2015 season. The latter figure is tied for the seventh most among all starters during that span. Here's the thing about an 80 game score: You don't lose. There have been 366 such performances since 2015, and in those games, starters have gone 318-2 with 46 no-decisions.
Yet, can you gamble that much money on the possibility of a Dodgers-stopping (or Red Sox- or Indians-stopping) kind of outing, one that on average occurs about one every 11 starts for Verlander?
"He's a competitor," Granderson said. "Probably the most competitive teammate I ever had. If I was right-handed pitcher coming up out of high school or college, he would be a guy I would emulate, from his work ethic to the way he studies and learns."
Not long ago, I made the argument that the healthy version of an Astros roster is good enough as constructed. Houston keeps coming up in the conversation, though GM Jeff Luhnow told reporters he doesn't expect to make a splashy addition. My stance remains that he's right to take that stance.
But what if you could get the Sunday version of Verlander and all it would cost is money? Lots and lots of money?
That's the question Luhnow and other contending GMs have to deal with between now and the end of the month. Because it looks as if Verlander is intent on making his case to get back to the postseason.
This was pretty funny, however:
Bend the knee. =Q pic.twitter.com/LjqudpzD9N
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) August 18, 2017
That's a "Game of Thrones" reference. That's this show about the battle for the Iron Throne, and there's this mother of dragons and this other evil queen and this guy Jon Snow trying to fend off the army of the dead and ... well, it's all very confusing and a little bloody, and there seems to be no resolution in sight -- kind of like the American League wild-card race, except with English accents.
Anyway, Judge went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the Yankees' 7-5 win over the Mets, but Gary Sanchez hit two home runs and drove in five runs. Here's one of those home runs:
El Gary =™ August. He's hitting .333 with 6 HR and 11 RBI this month! pic.twitter.com/HS2R7oTIxT
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) August 17, 2017
That's some big-boy power there. It looked like he was lunging at a pitch to slap a base hit to right field, but it carried over the fence in left-center. So much of the talk about Sanchez this season has been about his defense, but he has quietly had an impressive season at the plate, hitting .277/.352/.526 with 22 home runs and 64 RBIs. Sanchez homered in three of those four wins over the Mets and has hit .333 with six home runs in August.
As Judge has slumped, Sanchez has helped pick up some of the slack. He's a big reason that the Yankees are four games back of the Red Sox as the teams get ready for another clash this weekend at Fenway Park. I'd also argue that the emphasis on Sanchez's defensive struggles has been overstated. Does he need to improve on balls in the dirt? Yes. Is he killing the Yankees? No.
Entering Thursday, the Yankees had allowed 54 wild pitches, which was eighth-worst in the majors but just nine more than MLB average. The Yankees were second in the majors with 15 passed balls, six more than the MLB average, and Sanchez was leading the majors with 12. That's 15 more extra bases allowed on passed balls and wild pitches than the average team. It isn't insignificant, but it isn't reason to start acting like Sanchez's future as a catcher is in doubt.
Let's break down those wild pitches. Sanchez had allowed 32 in 616 innings, one every 19.3 innings. Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka had allowed 22 in 450 innings, one every 20.5 innings. That means the rate with Sanchez is slightly worse but not large enough that you'd notice without examining the numbers.
Then there's his arm: Sanchez has thrown out 36 percent of base stealers. Romine is at 14 percent. Finally, there's pitch framing. The estimates at Statcorner.com rate Sanchez as basically average in this regard.
Here's the point: Sanchez's shortcomings on balls in the dirt aren't so bad as to outweigh his positive contributions at the plate.
Jon Lester's injury. The Reds beat the Cubs 13-10 at Wrigley as this happened:
Jon Lester is the only pitcher in the last 30 seasons to allow 9+ runs in an inning multiple times in a single-season.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 17, 2017
The Reds had seven hits off Lester, including Joey Votto's home run, in scoring nine runs in the second inning. After the game, it was revealed that Lester left due to tightness in his left lat muscle, which explains why his velocity was down.
"When a pitcher of his stature is potentially injured, of course you're a little bit concerned," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "But I'm not going to jump to any kind of negative conclusions."
Lester will undergo an MRI on Friday, but it sounds like he's headed to the DL. Pitchers with a lat strain often miss four to six weeks (longer if it's a tear), so this could mean that Lester will miss the rest of the regular season.
Mike Montgomery, who pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief of Lester on Thursday, would take over Lester's spot in the rotation, but that removes a valuable piece from the bullpen. The good news in the rotation is that Jake Arrieta has been much better of late, with a 2.10 ERA in his past eight starts. Only three of those starts came on four days of rest, however, and given the tight race with the Brewers and Cardinals, Maddon might not have the luxury of giving his starters five or six days off between starts. With just three more off days the rest of the season, he's going to have to start riding his top guys more than he has.
The Cubs don't play the Brewers again until Sept. 8 and the Cardinals until Sept. 15. Considering that the Cubs haven't yet gone on that hot streak everyone is expecting, it now seems less likely that they'll go on that hot streak. That three-way race in the NL Central might stretch deep into September.
Joc Pederson stepped to the plate at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game mired in a 1-for-38 slump. The bases were loaded, but there were two outs, and it looked as if it might be one of those rare games that could slip away from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The fans were making noise and manager Dave Roberts watched intently from over the dugout railing, but I'm not sure anyone had much confidence in Pederson coming through.
Then again, when the baseball gods love you, they really love you.
Pederson took a fastball for a ball, then a changeup for a strike. Chicago White Sox reliever Jake Petricka fired another fastball and plunked Pederson in the back of his thigh, just below his pants pocket. The go-ahead run scored, the crowd stood up and raised their arms in joy, then the floodgates opened as the Dodgers tacked on four more runs, pulling away for a 6-1 victory.
This is how you set a pace of 116 wins: A lot of talent, a lot of depth, a lot of good vibes in the clubhouse and maybe a little good fortune here and there. The 2001 Mariners and the 1906 Cubs hold the single-season record of 116. With 43 games remaining, the Dodgers have a chance at history.
Here's the thing, though: The Dodgers don't care about the record. They certainly don't care about what they've accomplished so far, seemingly unimpressed even by going 50-9 since June 7.
"We're not looking back right now, we're looking forward," closer Kenley Jansen told me last week in New York. "To be honest, when [Justin Turner] and I signed, we knew what kind of group of guys we had and wanted to come back here. We had unfinished business, we saw how far we got last year and we're playing for that one goal: To win a championship."
Veteran starter Rich Hill echoed similar thoughts.
"I don't even like talking about wins and losses, because that's not really what it is for us at the end of the day," he said. "It's really about the effort we give out on the field and the consistency of that effort. If you look at this team, there is something different, and it's that intensity all 25 guys bring every single night."
Hill said there had been no talk about the record in the clubhouse, and that even if the Dodgers had a shot at it near the end of the regular season, that the team wouldn't be discussing it. "I don't think so," he said.
"Don't me get wrong about the wins and losses," he reiterated, "but it really is about the consistency of everybody doing what they need to do."
This is in stark contrast to how the Mariners viewed things in 2001. That team started off hot and never cooled off. They went 20-5 in April and 20-7 in May for a 63-24 first half. The All-Star Game was in Seattle that year, and by then, the talk had already started. The city became consumed with the record.
"For the last month and a half, the chase was for the record," Mariners second baseman Bret Boone told Art Thiel in his book, "Out of Left Field."
"The worldwide media coverage was intense in the countdown. Once we [tied the MLB mark], it was kind of a relief: 'Oh, it's over -- no, wait a minute, next is the playoffs.' Not to use that as an excuse, but the grind and the scrutiny kind of beat us down."
The Mariners reached the American League Championship Series but lost to the New York Yankees in five games. Manager Lou Piniella had pushed the team pretty hard down the stretch. Mike Cameron, for example, started 33 of the final 34 games. Boone missed three games because of a minor ailment in mid-September but sat only two other games the final two months. Ichiro Suzuki played 157 games. Of course, facing Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens might have had to something to do with the loss to the Yankees, but some suggested the team was simply worn down by October.
"I don't think you can say we shouldn't have gone for the record," Boone said in the 2003 book. "If you can do something in a sport that's never been done, you gotta go for it. That's greatness. Lou did the right thing. Take your chances. No matter how bittersweet the end result, everyone on that team and in that organization will be a footnote in history."
If the Dodgers keep this up -- they pulled off another dramatic victory on Wednesday, rallying for three runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Chicago White Sox again -- they will start facing the same pressure as the Mariners, with the same questions day after day and a new throng of national media closing in on them.
So far, like the Mariners in 2001, they've been able to remain focused.
"That's the mindset we have," Jansen said, "thinking of that one goal every day, just being in that moment and coming to the ballpark and expecting to win every day."
If it all sounds a little bit like the advice Crash Davis gave to Nuke LaLoosh, well, it's working for the Dodgers. Baseball players are creatures of taking it one game at a time, of forgetting the previous day's results, of focusing only on the game ahead. The big picture? Going after 116 wins? That's for the fans and the media to have fun with.
If the Dodgers do bear down on 116 wins, Hill says he believes the makeup of the team is a reason it won't become a distraction from the more important goal.
"The mixture of the ages that is in here is great for a club to come together," he said. "Nobody treats anybody different. That's something that's very unique in this clubhouse that you might not necessarily see everywhere. It's a cool thing because it cultivates a learning environment, it cultivates creativity. That's the other side of it, that guys are allowed to be themselves. That starts at the top with Dave."
At one point in New York, Pederson strolled through the clubhouse and high-fived the row of interpreters sitting in one corner. "Hello to my Japanese friends," he joyfully shouted, maybe not even aware that one of the interpreters had just joined the team, coming over with Yu Darvish. Jansen specifically mentioned how Roberts has done such a terrific job handling Yasiel Puig, who always seemed to be in constant friction with Don Mattingly.
That's one of the remarkable things about this team. The constant influx of new faces and roster turnover hasn't been a problem. The Dodgers have made more than 100 transactions already.
"We dealt with this last year, so we're pretty used to it this year," Corey Seager said with a laugh.
While the Mariners used only 15 pitchers all season -- and two of those pitched fewer than 15 innings -- the Dodgers have already used 23. It's one reason everyone was so accepting of Darvish coming over. He's just another new pitcher, albeit one with a good fastball.
That gets to the big question, though: Should the Dodgers care about the record? After all, somebody wins the World Series every season. Only two teams have ever won 116 games, and one of them did it more than 100 years ago. I'd suggest that chasing down the record is a more impressive accomplishment than winning some postseason tournament.
Of course, I get that it is all about the World Series, that teams ultimately are judged by who wins the final game of the season. Just ask the 2016 Golden State Warriors. Still, consider this: Since the wild-card era began in 1995, 10 teams won games at a .636 or better clip (103 wins). Only three of them won the World Series. That's the same number of teams that have won the World Series since 1995 with fewer than 90 wins.
It seems pretty clear that Roberts won't push the Dodgers the way Piniella pushed the Mariners. Roberts will be much more concerned about making sure Clayton Kershaw is healthy and ready for October or that Alex Wood doesn't wear down than about winning 116 games. There is plenty of depth here to give the position players rest, especially once the rosters expand in September.
The record? Next question. "Nobody pays attention to that," Seager said. "Nobody is worried about it, nobody is worried about the win streaks and all that. It's been our philosophy from the beginning to grind at-bats, to grind out series, to be as relentless as possible."
It seems the Dodgers would agree with Mariners infielder Mark McLemore. After losing to the Yankees, he said, "You don't play to set records. You play to win the World Series. When you don't, it's very disappointing."
So the goal is clear. Don't be disappointed.
Aaron Judge hit his 37th home run on Wednesday, a shot that landed on one of those car-repair shops that line the streets outside Citi Field:
Judge just hit one to Monument Park ... from Queens. pic.twitter.com/WldmZksKbv
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) August 17, 2017
The official measurement was 457 feet, which seems about right, give or take a couple of city blocks. New York Yankees players weren't buying 457 either.
"Five hundred thirty feet. That's what I told everybody," Didi Gregorius told ESPN's Mark Simon after the game. "I said it on ESPN too. They said 450. There's no chance. That's one of the furthest, I think."
Jaime Garcia added, "Somebody said that was 457. I don't buy that. I feel like it was 550. It looked like it."
Chase Headley was more succinct. "If that ball only went 450, no ball's going 500," he said. "That ball was crushed."
(MLB Network must have received a barrage of complaints on the distance because it felt compelled to explain that Judge's home run was such a moon shot with a high degree of launch angle that it was coming straight down when it landed rather than flying more horizontally.)
You know, Judge's second-half slide -- he's hitting .185 with seven home runs in 31 games -- means he's no longer the clear MVP front-runner. But he still has a strong case considering he leads the American League in home runs, runs and OPS while ranking second in on-base percentage and fifth in RBIs.
Consider this as well: The MVP award is basically about three areas: numbers, whether your team makes the playoffs and the buzz factor. Home runs like his blast in a 5-3 win over the New York Mets mean Judge remains a topic of conversation.
I was reminded of the importance of this buzz factor in reading this Joe Posnanski column about Kris Bryant. Mike Petriello, the excellent analyst at MLB.com, had tweeted out a line comparing Bryant's 2017 wOBA to his 2016 wOBA. It's the same! Except last year, Bryant won the MVP award in a near-unanimous landslide. And this year, nobody is talking about him as a potential MVP. As Posnanski wrote:
But now we are getting to the heart of what wOBA does and what it does not do. It shows -- in superb ways, I think -- a player's offensive value. But it does not measure (and does not want to measure) what you might call: Buzz. A year ago, Kris Bryant had numerous memorable hits in what was a dazzling season for his team. This year, Kris Bryant is hitting .223 with runners in scoring position in a Cubs season that has felt shockingly lethargic.
Bryant also is hitting under .200 in "late and close" situations, so there are other reasons he hasn't generated much buzz. Plus, there are more players having great seasons in the National League compared to 2016 (although Bryce Harper's injury probably eliminated one MVP candidate).
Voters do a much better job than two decades ago, but in a close race, buzz can be a tiebreaker. It's how Josh Donaldson beat Mike Trout in 2015, when the Blue Jays had the big surge in August with Donaldson having a monster month. In 2011, Justin Verlander became the first pitcher to win MVP honors since 1992 over Jacoby Ellsbury and Jose Bautista largely because he generated more buzz throughout the season. It felt like the season of Verlander.
Jose Altuve and Chris Sale probably have better statistical arguments than Judge this year, but I'm not sure they beat him in buzz factor (although Sale does seem to be gaining). The Astros have had the AL West locked up for so long that we might not talk much about Altuve the final two months. Judge has a chance to remain in the spotlight as the Yankees fight for a playoff spot and division title.
In the NL, the statistical edge probably goes to Paul Goldschmidt or Max Scherzer, but Goldschmidt seems to trail Harper, Nolan Arenado, perhaps Scherzer and maybe even Giancarlo Stanton or Joey Votto in buzz. Now, by the end of the season, his numbers might show he's clearly the deserving winner and it won't matter, but it could be a factor.
Anyway, Judge will have to break out of this tailspin to keep up with Altuve and Sale. Maybe he'll even hit a home run longer than 457 feet.
The Cardinals suffer a terrible, horrible defeat. So many things happened in the ninth inning of Boston's 5-4 win. Let's recap:
1. Trevor Rosenthal starts the ninth with a 4-2 lead. Xander Bogaerts homers off a 91 mph fastball and Mitch Moreland walks. Matheny senses something is wrong and takes out Rosenthal (although he was back to 96 against Moreland).
3. With Brebbia pitching to Eduardo Nunez, plate umpire Chris Segal calls time. Yadier Molina and Matheny go crazy and start saying some very bad words. Matheny gets tossed. Quick thoughts here. Brebbia was taking forever to pitch to Nunez. Segal had been questioned the whole game, so the Cardinals already were in a bad mood. He's also a minor league call-up, which doesn't help (he has umpired occasional games in the majors since 2014). Mostly though, it's viewed as a breach of etiquette for the umpire to call time, especially in that moment:
Umpire Segal called time. Batter didn't. Told #cardinals he needed "a break" as Brebbia held ball. That was final straw for dugout, Matheny.
— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) August 17, 2017
4. Nunez pops out, but Mookie Betts would hit a two-run, two-out walk-off double off the Green Monster.
All that happened ... but the play of the game came in the second inning when this happened:
— #Statcast (@statcast) August 17, 2017
You saw that right. Tommy Pham singled and Matt Carpenter gets thrown out on Bradley's laser beam. Credit Bradley for an amazing throw, but it's also hard to tell if Carpenter was running hard the entire way. His look says, "Crap, I wasn't expecting that." No matter how you slice and dice it, that's bad baserunning, even if he wasn't sure whether Bradley would catch it.
The Dodgers win, because they're the Dodgers. The Dodgers were down 4-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, after an unimpressive game from Yu Darvish (three home runs and only two K's in six innings). Twenty-two pitches later, they won 5-4 on Yasiel Puig's two-run double into the left-center gap. Puig fouled off two pitches with two strikes before drilling the winning hit. The Dodgers are now 50-9 since June 7, on pace for 116 wins and every night it seems there's a different hero.
Should Buck Showalter have hit for Chris Davis? Wild ending in the ninth inning between the Mariners and Orioles. Edwin Diaz entered with a 7-4 lead, but he was wild, walking guys and hitting guys, and suddenly it was 7-6 and the bases were loaded with two outs. (Leonys Martin had helped save the day with a tremendous diving catch in right field.) Davis was up and Scott Servais pulled his closer for Marc Rzepczynski.
Now, Rzepczynski is in the majors for one reason: to get out left-handed batters. He has allowed a .400 OBP against righties the past two seasons. Even eliminating the intentional walks, he's not good against righties. He's a LOOGY in the absolute truest definition of the word. Davis bats left-handed. He's better against righties. Adam Jones happened to be on the bench, available as a pinch hitter.
Showalter didn't call on Jones. I get it: Chris Davis is making a gazillion dollars and you don't hit for him. Showalter clearly had a better option on the bench and the Mariners couldn't pull Rzepczynski because he has to face one batter, and he couldn't walk Jones if he had pinch hit because the bases were loaded. Jones remained on the bench. Davis struck out on three pitches. Orioles Twitter was angry.
Box score of the season. The Mets were down to two infielders due to injury (don't get me going on roster construction), so catcher Travis d'Arnaud started at third base. Except Terry Collins was alternating him between third and second with Asdrubal Cabrera depending on whether a lefty or righty was at the plate. Which gave us this:
Box score of the year: pic.twitter.com/SrpDdwdqE7
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) August 17, 2017
Best first pitch of the season. Presented without comment:
— Cut4 (@Cut4) August 17, 2017
Never change. = pic.twitter.com/kDGOTxJARD
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) August 17, 2017
Oh, and Joey Gallo homered again, the Rangers beat the Tigers, and now Texas is just a game under .500, which means they're right in the middle of The Race That Shall Not Be Named.
Like most of Giancarlo Stanton's home runs, it was a no-doubter. Swing and stare. This one came off an 0-1 slider from Madison Bumgarner in the bottom of the third inning at Marlins Park on Tuesday, smoked at 107 mph and delivered at an appropriate launch angle. It was Stanton's sixth consecutive game with a home run, his 11th in 12 games, his 18th since the All-Star break and his 23rd in his past 35 games. Slice and dice the numbers any way you want: The dude is on fire.
— MLB (@MLB) August 16, 2017
With this stretch of power hitting, Stanton has become the talk of baseball. The first half and then the Home Run Derby might have belonged to New York Yankees rookie Aaron Judge, but Stanton is making us lock in on the at-bats for a team four games below .500. For those of us old enough to remember, it sends us back to the joyful summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased down Roger Maris -- or maybe the less joyful march of Barry Bonds in 2001.
Joe Posnanski had the best description I've seen of Stanton in this column: "Every single thing about Giancarlo Stanton says star, from his Hollywood name to his perfect physique to the unnatural way baseballs jump off his bat. He has this unique charisma; he blends 'intimidating' with 'teddy bear,' like no one I can remember."
That's also a pretty apt description for both McGwire and Sosa in that magical summer, before public opinion turned against them years later after steroid scandals and their refusals to talk about the past. Stanton's remarkable 35-game stretch has been matched or surpassed by only three players: Sosa had 25 in 1998, Bonds had 24 in 2001 and McGwire had 23 in 1999. Just to compare:
As Stanton's season total climbs to 44 with 44 games remaining, the mention of those three raises a potential issue: They're the only players to hit more than 61 home runs. If Stanton stays hot and approaches Maris' total of 61, there will be cries that Maris holds the real home run record, suggesting we erase the memories of Bonds, McGwire and Sosa, or at least erase their numbers.
Sixty is certainly possible. Based on his season rate of home runs, he'd hit 16 over his final 44 games to finish with 60. If he hits them at the rate he has the past 35 games, he'd hit 29 and finish with 73 home runs -- tying Bonds' record. Obviously, he's going to slow down at some point. Let's say this closed stance he has used the past couple of months has made him better and split the difference between his rate through July 4 and his rate since. That gives him 20 home runs and he finishes with 64. So Maris' record could definitely be in play.
Sports-talk radio and TV shows will go crazy with this, of course. My take is the record is the record, and it belongs to Bonds. You don't have to like it. But this isn't the Olympics or the Tour de France; last time I checked, baseball hasn't taken away any World Series trophies from teams who employed PED users. We're still a few weeks from the hyperventilation going full throttle, and keep in mind that even chasing 61 will create enormous pressure on Stanton. Ryan Howard was at 56 home runs through 141 games in 2006 but hit only two in his final 21 games.
Until then, enjoy the big guy hitting. It has been quite a show.
Red Sox turn triple play! This came against Yadier Molina, and if you were going to pick somebody to hit into a triple play, Molina would be high on the list. Also, triple plays > cycles.
— MLB (@MLB) August 16, 2017
The amazing thing is that a 5-4-3 triple play usually happens when the third baseman is playing right next to the bag. Rafael Devers actually had to take a step back and still turned it. And speaking of Devers: He had two more hits in Boston's 10-4 victory to raise his average to .348 in 17 games.
Just another day at the park for Joey Votto. With three walks, he has stretched his streak of reaching base at least twice to 20 games, one short of Ted Williams' 21. And yes, I am absolutely and inexplicably enthralled with this streak; you should be, too. What's the saying? OBP is life. Oh, Votto also decided to chuck a baseball onto the roof at Wrigley Field:
Joey won't rest until he sends one into orbit. <=ð pic.twitter.com/dmHLEymZ1G
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) August 16, 2017
You'd think he was frustrated by another Cincinnati Reds loss, but they beat the Chicago Cubs 2-1 as Luis Castillo threw six scoreless innings. The Reds have certainly had issues developing starters in recent seasons, but Castillo, with his upper-90s heat and plus changeup, looks like the real deal. If he can develop a third pitch -- he does throw a slider, but it's not very effective yet -- he has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Colorado Rockies' offense gasping for air. The Rockies lost 4-3 at home to the Atlanta Braves, with the go-ahead run scoring on Nolan Arenado's throwing error in the eighth inning. But the story here is the lack of offense from the Rockies. They've scored three runs or fewer in eight straight games -- and three of those were even played at Coors Field. The Rockies and Diamondbacks both still have a five-game lead over the Cardinals and Brewers in the NL wild-card race, just close enough to get the heart beating a little faster for Rockies fans.
They're just not getting much offense from the lower half of the order, as Carlos Gonzalez (.305 OBP) and Trevor Story (.301) continue to be drains, although Story did homer Tuesday. Here's a thought: What about trading for Curtis Granderson? He was terrible in April, but since May 1 he has hit .262/.379/.560, ranking 21st in the majors in wOBA -- just ahead of Arenado. We're too deep into the season that the Rockies can't keep waiting for CarGo to break out. Granderson would be a nice upgrade.
Here's a long Joey Gallo home run. The Rangers beat Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers 10-4 as they refuse to die in The Race That Shall Not Be Named. Gallo's season is endlessly fascinating. He's up to 34 home runs and is slugging .566, even though he has only 20 singles and is hitting .208 while on pace for 199 strikeouts in fewer than 500 at-bats. Maybe opponents should go with a five-man outfield against him.
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) August 16, 2017
A few quick words on Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees beat the New York Mets 5-4 -- Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario both homered as Mets fans started dreaming about 2018 -- and while Sonny Gray pitched six solid innings of two-run baseball to win his Yankee Stadium debut, the big story in New York will be Chapman giving up two runs in the ninth on Rosario's homer. He also limped off the field after covering first base for the final out, although he said after the game that "it's nothing to worry about."
He has given up home runs in back-to-back games for the second time in his career and two runs in each game. In the game before that, he walked three batters. The swing-and-miss rate on his fastball, over 40 percent at his peak, is down to 25 percent this season. So you can imagine how the New York media is reacting:
If this keeps happening with Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson will be the Yankees' closer before September 1.
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) August 16, 2017
Should the Yankees be worried? Should they start considering a new closer? It's certainly a controversy manager Joe Girardi wants to avoid, but it's not going away because the Yankees really have five relievers who have been better than Chapman this season: Adam Warren, Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Dellin Betances have allowed a lower wOBA. It's hard to believe, but Chapman is arguably the team's sixth-best reliever. I'd call that a good problem.
Last week, we ran our All-Disappointment Team. Such negativity! This is the flip side to that: the All-Surprise Team.
Here are some happy thoughts on a bunch of guys you wish you would have drafted for your fantasy team.
Severino gave up 10 runs in his most recent start, raising his ERA from 2.92 to 3.32, but let's chalk that outing up to being "one of those days." In his previous five starts, he had allowed just five runs. With 166 strikeouts in 143⅔ innings, the guy who once looked like he might end up in the bullpen has pitched like an ace and ranks fifth in FanGraphs WAR among all major league starters. He still has to prove he can do this over 32 starts, not just 23, but the electric quality of his stuff backs up the numbers.
In contrast to Severino, the D-backs did move Bradley to the bullpen after he posted a 5.02 ERA as a starter in 2016. And in 2017, he has been one of the keys to Arizona's wild-card push while posting a 1.33 ERA. You're always reluctant to move an arm like Bradley's to the bullpen until you're absolutely sure he can't start, and given that he has made just 34 starts in the majors, there's always the chance he could be tried in the rotation again in 2018.
He was good last season, so this is more about confirming that he has become one of the best all-around catchers in the league. He is third in WAR, behind Buster Posey and Willson Contreras, and has made incremental improvements in his game: higher walk rate, lower strikeout rate, more power. He has thrown out 34 percent of base stealers, which is markedly better than the league average of 28 percent. He even runs well, hitting leadoff on a few occasions. Note to Derek Jeter: Don't trade this guy.
He started the All-Star Game, and he is proving his big first half wasn't a fluke, as he has been even better since the break. Given his age, past production and tenure in the majors, it's one of the most surprising seasons in recent memory. His career high in home runs had been 20; now he's on pace for 44. The obvious improvement is that he has matched his fly ball rate from 2016 (which was up from the previous two seasons) while also cutting his strikeout rate from 33 percent to 21 percent, so more balls in play means more home runs (the juiced ball is probably helping as well).
Schoop was rushed to the majors in 2014 when he was just 22 years old, and he was overmatched that first season, hitting .209 with 122 strikeouts and 13 walks. He flashed power over the next two seasons, reaching 25 home runs in 2016, but it appeared his overly aggressive approach would limit his ceiling. He already has hit 25 home runs this season, however, while batting .303 and ranking third in wOBA among second basemen, behind only Jose Altuve and Daniel Murphy.
Schoop has cut his chase rate from 41.9 percent to 31.6 percent. It's amazing what can happen when you stop swinging at so many pitches off the plate. His chase rate is still high and he doesn't walk much, but the improved patience has allowed him to attack more fastballs, and he's hitting .332 against them. The good sign is he has held his swing rate in check all season, so this looks like legitimate improvement in his approach.
Jose Ramirez of the Indians has taken his game to a new level, but Shaw's season has come out of nowhere. Brewers general manager David Stearns acquired him from the Red Sox for reliever Tyler Thornburg, and the trade looks bad now for the Red Sox, with Thornburg missing the entire season, while Shaw is hitting .292/.363/.553 with 25 home runs. But it’s not like Shaw was that good in 2016. He hit .242/.306/.421, a below-average bat and well below average for a third baseman/first baseman. At best, he looked like a second-division starter at third base or maybe a bench bat.
Like Schoop, he has benefited from cutting down his chase rate (31.4 to 26.6 percent), and his swing-and-miss rate is down nearly 5 percent. That has resulted in a higher well-hit average and thus a higher average on balls in play. The other impressive thing has been his solid defense at third base -- plus-3 defensive runs saved -- which is impressive for a guy who spent so much time at first base in the minors. That he has played at this level even though his newborn daughter had open-heart surgery in June is even more remarkable.
Cozart's breakout might be even more surprising than Smoak's. Let’s compare:
- Smoak, 2010-2016: 95 OPS+
- Smoak, 2017: 148 OPS+
- Cozart, 2011-2016: 82 OPS+
- Cozart, 2017: 153 OPS+
Cozart was worse, but now he has been better on a per-plate-appearance basis, thanks to a .404 OBP. Guess what: Cozart has cut down on his chase rate. Of course, it's not so easy just to say "swing less," but you do wonder why it kicked in so suddenly for a 31-year-old.
Perhaps the MVP of our All-Surprise Team, Taylor leads all left fielders in WAR (although he has started at five positions). He has hit for average, he has hit for power and his defensive metrics are good in left field, even though he had never played the outfield before this season. He also has taken over the leadoff spot lately.
The Dodgers acquired Taylor in a minor transaction last June, trading minor league starter Zach Lee to get him from Seattle. Lee never appeared in the majors with the Mariners before they waived him in December. Smart trade, but even the Dodgers will acknowledge they got lucky here, as Taylor turned himself into a better player.
Taylor always hit in the minors, and he was set to be Seattle's starting shortstop in 2015, before he fractured his wrist in spring training. He hit .170 in 102 plate appearances with Seattle that year and fell out of favor. And after hitting .207 in 62 PAs with the Dodgers in 2016, he was viewed as roster depth more than potential contributor and began the season with Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Taylor, however, had remade his swing over the winter. He told the Orange County Register in May that he saw "the adjustments others players have made that have kind of turned their careers around." He worked with hitting consultant Robert Van Scoyoc in Arizona, added a leg kick and changed his hand position, but mostly he simply started driving the ball more.
"Pretty much my whole life I've tried to put the ball on the ground," Taylor said.
There's certainly a little luck involved -- he owns a .397 BABIP -- but he has become a key cog in the Dodgers' lineup.
Like Taylor, Pham began the season in Triple-A, which was a bit of an odd decision, considering Pham had proved himself as a competent fourth outfielder over the past two seasons. Pham wasn't called up until May 5 -- heck, the Cardinals even tried Matt Adams in left field before giving Pham a chance -- and St. Louis won the first six games Pham started, with him hitting .417 and three home runs. Manager Mike Matheny likes the hot hand. That start kept Pham in the lineup, and he has been the team's best hitter (along with Paul DeJong, another All-Surprise candidate). Like Taylor, Pham is riding an unsustainable .386 BABIP; but in playing every day, he has improved his walk and strikeout rates and played solid defense.
RF: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
OK, he has slumped in the second half, but a strong finish can still keep him in the MVP conversation. He wasn't a sure bet to keep the Yankees' right field job all season, let alone become the toast of baseball.
The 28-year-old utility player has been with the Astros since 2012 and has quietly served as one of baseball's top reserves during the past few seasons, adding a little pop and starting all over the field. Turn the page to 2017 and ... he has cut down on his chase rate! His overall swing rate is down, his miss rate when he does swing is down and all his numbers are up. This is why those idiots who scream at Joey Votto to expand the strike zone when he has runners on base are idiots. Swing at strikes, don't swing at balls. Anyway, Gonzalez has started at five positions and ranks 11th in the majors in wRC+. Incredible.
And I have to include this guy: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bellinger is slugging .620. The only Los Angeles Dodgers to slug .600 are Gary Sheffield, Mike Piazza and Adrian Beltre (plus Duke Snider, Babe Herman and Roy Campanella in Brooklyn). Bellinger has hit 34 home runs in 97 games for a pace of 57 over 162 games. He's the real deal, and he's going to rank among the home run leaders for many seasons to come with that sweet swing.
I see Chad Bettis sitting in the dugout after throwing seven scoreless innings at Coors Field. His pitching elbow is wrapped in a towel, and there's a smile on the face of Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black. The two men shake hands, and Black offers a little rub of affection on the top of Bettis' head. The handshake is a symbol of respect from manager to player for a job well done. Heck, seven scoreless innings at Coors Field is always a special moment, even if it didn't happen to be your first start of the season after undergoing nine weeks of chemotherapy for testicular cancer.
— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) August 15, 2017
We only see the side of Bettis' face in the video, but we can still read a million emotions, from joy to relief to exhaustion to pride to maybe most of all a sense of wonder at the moment itself -- like the first time as a kid when you connect perfectly on the sweet spot of the bat or the first time you see a rainbow or perhaps the first time you fulfill a simple chore and your dad gives you a little rub on the top of your head.
I don't see just a baseball pitcher who has beaten cancer and pitched the most memorable game of his career. I think of my own dad who died last year. I think of an old friend from work and her son who is battling leukemia. I see reasons for optimism in this week of despair. I see hope in this time of hate. It's just a baseball game, but sometimes it can represent so much more.
What a special night. Thank you @cbettis35! It may have felt like you pitched tonight for just the Rox, but you pitched for so many more!
— Ryan Spilborghs (@spillygoat19) August 15, 2017
After the game, Bettis would say he was fighting back tears until he took the mound.
"I don't think I was really in tune with what was going on until the fifth," he said. "Just so many emotions and I was trying to get them under control, but it was taking much longer than expected."
You couldn't tell watching him pitch. This was Bettis at his best. Remember: He won 14 games last season and was supposed to be the Rockies' Opening Day pitcher. He took the mound to a Danny Gokey song titled "The Comeback," although the Atlanta Braves nearly scored on the game's first batter, as Ender Inciarte's hit skipped past left fielder Gerardo Parra and Inciarte tried to turn it into an inside-the-park home run, only to be thrown out 7-6-2, with Trevor Story firing a great relay throw. DJ LeMahieu made a diving stop to end the fourth and save another run, but mostly Bettis cruised through his 90 pitches, inducing 12 ground ball outs and issuing no walks.
Funny thing is, the Rockies couldn't score, either. Julio Teheran matched Bettis with seven zeroes, and it looked like we might get just the second game in Coors Field history to go 0-0 through nine innings. This game didn't have Greg Maddux on the other side, however, and the Rockies finally broke through in the eighth, when Charlie Blackmon -- don't forget him in your MVP talk -- started a three-run rally with a leadoff triple. An error and Carlos Gonzalez's two-run single scored the winning runs.
Bettis didn't get the win since he wasn't the pitcher of record, but there's not one person who watched this game who cares about that. He already has given us one of the biggest wins of the season.
The New York Yankees' secret weapon. The Yankees beat the New York Mets 4-2, as Aaron Judge hit just his second home run of August, then Aaron Hicks and Gary Sanchez homered off Hansel Robles in the eighth inning to break the tie. Hicks' blast deep into the right-field stands is a reminder of how valuable he was before going on the disabled list with an oblique injury in June. This was his second home run in five games since returning -- although Robles apparently thought it was a pop fly:
— ‘ormerly ‘unhouse (@BackAftaThis) August 15, 2017
The secret weapon I'm referring to, however, is reliever Chad Green, who tossed 2T hitless innings to lower his ERA to 1.95. Really, he has been more dominant this season than Dellin Betances or Aroldis Chapman. In 50T innings, he has 74 K's and just 24 hits allowed, often pitching multiple innings. Among pitchers with at least 30 innings, only five have allowed a lower wOBA.
Green's key to success: A high spin rate on his fastball, which creates the illusion of a rising fastball that batters can't hit. His swing-and-miss rate on his fastball is 40.2 percent, the highest in the majors, and batters are hitting just .101 against it. As a comparison, Chapman's peak swing-and-miss rate with his fastball was 41.3 percent in 2014, but he's at just 25.1 percent this year. Manager Joe Girardi isn't wavering from Chapman as his closer -- at least not yet -- and considering Yankees starters don't go deep, Green's middle-inning role is vital. But it will be interesting to see how Girardi manages the roles of all these relievers down the stretch and into the postseason.
The prodigy. The day after Rafael Devers homered off a 102.8 mph Chapman fastball -- the hardest pitch anyone has homered off in the tracked velocity era -- he homered again on Monday, and then again. In his first 16 games, Devers has 21 hits and six homers while hitting .339. Alas, Edwin Encarnacion also hit two home runs, and the Indians beat the Red Sox 7-3.
Edwin Encarnación: 20th multi-HR game in last 5 seasons, tied with Giancarlo Stanton for most in MLB during that span. pic.twitter.com/ICKJUJ0J1n
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 15, 2017
Trevor Bauer gave up three solo home runs, but he did finish with 11 strikeouts in 6T innings as he continues to pitch much better of late and prove to Cleveland manager Terry Francona that he'll deserve consideration for a role in the rotation in the postseason (yes, I'm handing the American League Central to the Indians). In his past four outings, Bauer has pitched 28T innings, allowed six runs and fanned 33.
Kris Bryant is hot, and Joey Votto is hotter. The Chicago Cubs pounded the Cincinnati Reds 15-5 -- the Reds, by the way, are on pace to allow 269 home runs, which would break the MLB record they set last year -- as Bryant went 2-for-4 with his 22nd home run. That's 11 hits in four games for Bryant and 16 in seven games.
Just from the last 4 games, Kris Bryant has gone from
— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) August 15, 2017
Then there's Votto, who is so hot that Cubs manager Joe Maddon employed a four-man outfield against him:
Joey Votto: Breaker of shifts. pic.twitter.com/57lh5lrhRM
— MLB (@MLB) August 15, 2017
It's not the first time Maddon has employed a four-man outfield, as he used it against David Ortiz and Jim Thome when he managed the Tampa Bay Rays. Whitey Herzog once tried it against Jim Rice. The reason for the extreme defense: With three hits on Monday, Votto has now reached base at least two times in 19 consecutive games. Here are the longest such streaks since 1900:
- Ted Williams, 1948: 21
- Barry Bonds, 2004: 20
- Pete Rose, 1979: 20
- Joey Votto, 2017: 19
Curiously, that was not the year of Rose's 44-game hit streak, which came in 1978.
Votto has raised his OBP from .415 to .447 during this streak, and he now leads the majors in OPS.
We can't go without another Giancarlo Stanton highlight. Yes, he homered (again), which makes it 22 in 34 games:
— MLB (@MLB) August 14, 2017
On Sunday, I wrote about how Stanton has closed his stance, perhaps leading to this hot streak. Hitting guru Bobby Tewksbary -- whose students have included Josh Donaldson -- breaks down Stanton's stance and why it has helped him.
Man, busy night. I didn't even mention the first two major league home runs by Rhys Hoskins of the Philadelphia Phillies or the first by the Kansas City Royals' Cam Gallagher. Gallagher's was a grand slam that also won a Royals TV viewer a $25,000 prize.
For most teams, a 4-2 week is a successful week. For the Los Angeles Dodgers, a 4-2 week actually lowered their season winning percentage.
As the Dodgers pursue the single-season record of 116 wins, let's review their week:
Last week's record: 2-1 at Arizona Diamondbacks; 2-1 vs. San Diego Padres
Record since June 7: 48-9 Season: 83-34 (.709 winning percentage)
Record needed to get to 117 wins: 34-11 (.756 winning percentage)
This week: vs. Chicago White Sox (Tuesday and Wednesday); at Detroit Tigers (Friday-Sunday)
A short week with two off days against two bad clubs? This is the kind of week the Dodgers need to take advantage of if they want to make a serious run at the wins record. Alex Wood and Yu Darvish will start the two games against the White Sox, both on five days' rest, so they should be primed for strong outings against a young Chicago lineup.
I've been watching a lot of the Dodgers lately, and no inning summed up why this team has been so good this season better than the sixth on Saturday night against the San Diego Padres. San Diego was up 3-1 when Craig Stammen entered in relief with runners on second and third with no outs. He just wanted to limit the damage. Yasiel Puig had a terrific at-bat, fighting off a couple of tough, two-strike pitches to remain alive in the count before finally taking a 3-2 fastball just off the plate for ball four. Stammen then got Austin Barnes to fly out to shallow right field and struck out Chris Taylor and had a chance to escape with no damage.
All he had to do was get through Corey Seager, who lined a base hit to right on a 3-2 fastball:
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 13, 2017
I love that Puig had the patience and willingness to work a walk. I love that Seager didn't swing from his heels and strike out, showing why he's hitting .360 with runners in scoring position. And I love that they got a little lucky there, with Seager getting caught in the rundown, then Puig breaking for home and beating a bad throw. Smart, good and lucky. That's how you play .700 ball.
Darvish goes 2-0 with the Dodgers, but about that bullpen Darvish's second start with the Dodgers came against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and while he wasn't as efficient as in his debut against the New York Mets, he still finished with 10 strikeouts in five innings. He fanned Paul Goldschmidt all three times he faced him and pumped his fist after getting Goldschmidt looking to end the fifth. That was a great inning, as Darvish fanned A.J. Pollock and Jake Lamb on curveballs, then froze Goldschmidt with a slider.
This is apparently Yu Darvish when he's not sharp pic.twitter.com/addeD9WYnM
— Daniel Brim (@DanielBrim) August 11, 2017
Darvish allowed two runs in what would end up an 8-6 victory for the Dodgers -- and that points to the bullpen, the one problem area in the week. Not Kenley Jansen; he pitched four scoreless innings in recording four saves. But the pen gave up four runs in that game and was charged with the two losses in blowing games the Dodgers led. Manager Dave Roberts is still trying to figure out the roles for everyone ahead of Jansen and whether he can trust Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani, the two lefties acquired at the trade deadline.
Watson picked up the loss on Tuesday when he allowed three runs and gave up a home run and two walks in two-thirds of an inning. Watson did pitch a 1-2-3 inning on Saturday, but given his struggles with the Pittsburgh Pirates before coming over to the Dodgers, he has a way to go before earning key outs once the Dodgers get to the postseason.
The guy who has forced himself into a key role is veteran Brandon Morrow, who has now appeared in 27 games and pitched 26⅔ innings with 33 strikeouts, six walks, no home runs and a .173 average against. He hit 99 mph on Saturday. The sample size is obviously small, but lefties are hitting just .079 against him. Goes to show you never know where relievers will pop up from. The oft-injured Morrow was 0-5 with a 7.20 ERA for Triple-A Oklahoma City before getting called up.
Right now, Roberts' best setup options are still going to be Pedro Baez and Morrow against both sides, Josh Fields against righties and Luis Avilan against lefties. Roberts seems to get this, as Baez has entered in different innings, based on the matchups and lineup order (Roberts likes to use him against the other team's best hitters). Sure, another lefty down there would be nice, but right now, Watson and Cingrani would remain low on the pecking order.
Clayton Kershaw update: Kershaw threw bullpen sessions on Friday and Sunday and is expected to throw a two-inning simulation game on Tuesday. It all points to the Dodgers' hoping to get Kershaw back in the rotation for September, similar to last year when he returned on Sept. 9 and made five starts before the postseason.
Seager for MVP? With Bryce Harper going down for an extended period -- he was probably the MVP favorite -- Seager's chances would seem to improve. Below are WAR leaders for National League position players entering Sunday.
According to Baseball-Reference:
- Paul Goldschmidt: 5.6
- Joey Votto: 5.4
- Nolan Arenado: 5.1
- Corey Seager: 4.9
- Anthony Rendon: 4.9
- Giancarlo Stanton: 4.9
- Bryce Harper: 4.6
According to FanGraphs:
- Goldsdchmidt: 5.2
- Rendon: 5.0
- Harper: 5.0
- Seager: 5.0
- Votto: 4.8
- Justin Turner: 4.7
It was Edgar Martinez weekend in Seattle as the Mariners retired No. 11, but the Los Angeles Angels did all the celebrating. They completed a four-game sweep with a 4-2 win Sunday, crushing the hopes of the Mariners right as Seattle had gone into the lead for the second wild card. The Angels climbed three games over .500 for the first time since they started the season 6-2 and climbed into prime position in the topsy-turvy wild-card race.
Here's how the series unfolded, with some guy named Mike Trout playing a big role:
Thursday: The Mariners scored three in the eighth to tie it 3-3, but the Angels scored three of their own in the ninth when Trout cleared the bases with a two-out double off Edwin Diaz.
Friday: The Mariners led 5-1, but the Angels scored four in the seventh when Trout walked to load the bases with two outs, Albert Pujols followed with a two-run single and C.J. Cron and Andrelton Simmons added RBI hits. Trout scored the winning run in the ninth when he walked with one out and scored on Jean Segura's error.
Saturday: The Mariners led 3-1 when the Angels scored twice in the seventh and three times in the eighth. Luis Valbuena hit a game-tying two-run homer, and Pujols' two-run double (Trout walked ahead of him) put the Angels ahead.
Sunday: The Angels scored three in the fifth to break a 1-1 tie. That rally started with ... a Mike Trout walk.
Trout had just three hits in the four games, but the fear of pitching to him played a vital part in all the key rallies. He drew six walks, scored four runs and had the big double in the first game. Walks aren't sexy, but they're one reason Trout is so valuable: He's getting on base and scoring runs, even if he isn't driving them in. He's hitting .341/.468/.690 with 57 runs and 55 RBIs in 74 games.
Still, his excellence alone hardly explains how the Angels are here. After all, they're last in the American League in scoring, with 4.29 runs per game. Their best starter has been JC Ramirez, who is 10-10 with a 4.26 ERA. Their two other regular starters have been Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez, who are a combined 11-22 with ERAs over 5.00 (Chavez is now in the bullpen). The Angels' projected top two starters, Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker, have combined for just 15 starts. The closer has been Bud Norris, who has a 4.60 ERA and has lost the job (Keynan Middleton got the save Sunday, Cam Bedrosian on Friday and Saturday).
Despite those numbers, the Angels are fourth in the American League in runs allowed. Parker Bridwell, a cash purchase from the Baltimore Orioles in April, is now 7-1 with a 2.88 ERA in 11 starts after a win Sunday. Let that sink in: The Orioles didn't want this guy. The Angels' bullpen depth has also been key; they even traded David Hernandez to the Diamondbacks at the trade deadline -- in part because they were 51-55 on July 31 and 5.5 games back of the Royals and didn't look like contenders. Now they are.
As for that second wild card, maybe we need to stop writing about it until the final 10 days or so because it seems unlikely that any of these teams is good enough to pull away. It's really a bunch of mediocrity. Check out the changes in the past week as the Angels passed five teams.
- Sunday: Royals, +0.5 (Angels 3 back)
- Monday: Rays, Royals tied, +1 (Angels 3 back)
- Tuesday: Mariners, Rays, Royals tied, +1.5 (Angels 2 back)
- Wednesday: Mariners, +1 (Angels 2 back)
- Thursday: Mariners, Rays tied, +0.5 (Angels 1 back)
- Friday: Twins, +0.5 (Angels 0.5 back)
- Saturday: Angels, +0.5
- Sunday: Angels, +0.5
Five teams held the second wild card at some point during the week. The Angels now hold a half-game lead over the Twins. The Mariners, in sole possession Wednesday, are now two games behind. Maybe Trout can carry his team into the wild-card game. That would make all this mediocrity worthwhile. (Of course, I'm still rooting for a five-way tie.)
Another day, another Giancarlo Stanton home run. Straight to the highlight, as Stanton hit his 42nd home run and 21st in 33 games. At that pace, he'd hit 103 over 162 games.
Giancarlo Stanton's 250th career homer tied him with Gary Sheffield for most home runs in a season in Marlins history. pic.twitter.com/32VPQg4QUj
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 13, 2017
This is more than just a hot streak. Stanton changed his stance about two months ago, going to more of a closed stance (which was already more closed than it had been in previous years). This has helped him turn better on inside pitches. Check out pitches on the inner third of the zone:
- 2016: .228/.336/.465
- April-June: .214/.313/.464
- July-August: .375/.462/1.000
The feeling from pitchers had always been that you could attack Stanton inside and prevent him from getting his arms extended. That strategy suddenly isn't so simple. If the new stance has indeed created a new level of awesomeness, Stanton is back to being maybe the most feared hitter in the game. Here's Eddie Matz with more on Stanton's recent surge.
Dallas Keuchel finally delivers for the Astros. The Astros have been terrible of late, going 2-9 in August, when they handed the ball to Keuchel, who had made three starts since his return from the disabled list, all with poor results (14 runs and 23 hits in 12 innings). They have to be feeling a little better after Keuchel allowed one run in 6⅔ innings in a 2-1 win over the Rangers.
The Astros also received a bit of a gift in the eighth inning. Chris Devenski walked the first two batters, and A.J. Hinch brought on Ken Giles for a six-out save. For some reason, the Rangers then handed the Astros an out with a sacrifice bunt -- with Joey Gallo on deck, the least likely player in the game to hit a two-run single and just about the likeliest to strike out and not get the runner in from third. Anyway, Gallo did make contact, lining into a 3-6 double play.
Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado injuries. Obviously, Harper's injury Saturday prompted calls for MLB to address the issue of bases and how to prevent injuries from players slipping on them or sliding into them. It's amazing that Harper didn't rip his knee apart, and while he suffered a significant bone bruise, the Washington Nationals expect him back for the team's playoff push. Dusty Baker references 10 days to two weeks, though you know the Nationals will be as cautious as possible.
Meanwhile, Arenado left Sunday's game after being hit on his left hand, but X-rays were negative. He said he hopes to be back after a couple days. Obviously, both players are leading MVP candidates. If Harper -- probably the current favorite -- misses extended time, that could create a wide-open race among Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager and Stanton.
Corey Kluber and Chris Sale are good. Kluber fanned nine batters in seven innings in the Indians' 4-3 win over the Rays, his 14th straight start with eight-plus strikeouts, one short of Randy Johnson's record of 15 in a row. OK, it's kind of a made-up record. Why eight strikeouts and not seven or nine or 10? But you get the point: Kluber is in the midst of a dominant stretch of pitching, with a 1.85 ERA since June 1 and 151 strikeouts in 102⅓ innings.
Meanwhile, Sale fanned 12 and allowed one run in seven innings, earning a no-decision as the Red Sox and Yankees went to extra innings. Sale is 14-4 in 24 starts ... and could be even better. In three of his no-decisions, he allowed zero runs. In his four losses, he allowed one, two, three and four runs. He has just one cheap victory, when he allowed six runs against the White Sox on May 30 but won (plus two wins in which he allowed four runs). Sale leads the Cy Young race because Kluber missed a month, and you can also argue that Sale leads the MVP race. But that's another discussion for another column.
Merrifield has become one of the more underrated producers in big league baseball because he seemingly emerged from nowhere. Drafted in the ninth round in 2010, three spots ahead of where the New York Mets nabbed pitcher Jacob deGrom, Merrifield began a methodical climb through the Royals’ system -- one that was, at the time he was drafted, the darling of prospect wonks everywhere.
After 716 minor league games, Merrifield finally made his major league debut on May 18, 2016, four months past his 27th birthday. Now, 15 months later, he’s a fixture atop the Royals’ lineup and one of the best players at his position.
Don’t believe me or Yost? Take a trip to the FanGraphs leaderboards. Merrifield ranks fifth among second basemen in WAR and one of the guys ahead of him, Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, is actually a third baseman who has played a lot of keystone this year because of Jason Kipnis’ injury woes.
Merrifield sports a well-rounded game. On that same leaderboard of second basemen, he ranks ninth in average, 13th in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging. He’s second in defensive runs saved. And, by FanGraphs’ base-running metric, he ranks ninth among all players when it comes to adding runs with his legs.
“He’s just a very solid all-around player,” Yost said. “Runs the bases well. Will give you a great at-bat. Has a little power and does a solid job defensively.”
Not bad for a guy that The Ringer’s Michael Baumann recently called “the next David Eckstein.” In fact, when I ran into team broadcaster Rex Hudler in the dugout before Saturday’s game, I asked him about the comparison. Hudler called Eckstein’s games when he broke into the big leagues with the Los Angeles Angels. Suffice it to say, I got an earful of enthusiasm and a fist-pump from the ebullient Hudler.
Merrifield had the best offensive game of his big league career in Kansas City’s pounding of the White Sox, going 3-for-6 with a homer, a triple and five RBIs. Needing a double to complete the first Royals’ cycle since George Brett did it on July 25, 1990, Merrifield fouled out to right with the bases loaded in the eighth. He admitted the feat, which he also nearly accomplished against the Detroit Tigers on May 29, was on his mind. It’s was on Yost’s, too.
“I was kind of hoping he’d do it today,” Yost said. “It’s kind of tough, you get in those situations with the bases loaded, it’s a little bit tougher. You’re lacking a double. If it were me, I’d be
busting my tail to second base no matter where the ball was hit. But with the bases loaded, the guy ahead of him is probably going to stop.”
Now that’s a players’ manager, one who appreciates the finer points of individual accomplishment.
“I’m going to get it one of these days,” Merrifield said. “With the game like it was, it was in my mind. I needed to hit a ball in the gap. I made a pretty poor swing on a hanging slider.”
Merrifield is actually in the same age range as players who comprised the Royals’ championship core, but he is really more representative of subtle second wave of talent that is helping keep the Royals competitive, especially this weekend when a recent losing streak had stretched to five games. But after a comeback win on Saturday and Sunday’s easy win, Kansas City’s ship seems to be righted.
“That was really big for us,” Merrifield said. “To come back and rally, hopefully that can kind of propel us forward and we can kind of go on a little run.”
Let’s jump back for a moment. The storyline of the 2017 Royals revolves around what many assume will be the last chapter for the core group that returned championship baseball to Kansas City. That wave of talent grew from the system Merrifield joined seven years ago. Faced with a decades-long postseason drought, general manager Dayton Moore oversaw the gradual build up of a farm system that eventually stirred some to call it one of the finest collections of minor league talent we’ve seen.
Prospect rankings don’t always correlate to championships won, but in the Royals’ case, “the process” -- as it came to be known -- paid off in the best possible way, culminating in two pennants and the 2015 World Series crown. Yet, many analysts see a prolonged rebuilding period coming up for the Royals. Mostly that’s because of skepticism that their free agents will stay, a group that includes Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. But it’s also because those former lofty prospect rankings slipped after that touted group graduated to the majors and recent high draft picks so far haven’t panned out.
Yet, if you look at Sunday’s lineup, with Merrifield batting leadoff, rookie Jorge Bonifacio in right field and Cheslor Cuthbert at third base, that’s three positions held down by post-process products of the system. Bonafacio ranks 17th among rookies in WAR this season. And Cuthbert, who has battled injuries this season, capably filled in for Moustakas last year and looks like a big league regular.
Meanwhile, the club still has Raul Mondesi finishing off his development in Triple-A, where he has a .873 OPS at age 21. While he has struggled so far in 198 big league plate appearances, the more important fact is that Mondesi has already reached the game’s highest levels at such a young age.
Also, don’t forget that Alex Gordon remains under contract and if he ends up needing to replace Cain in center field, his game-ending robbery of a potential Nicky Delmonico home run shows he can handle the defensive part of that job down just fine. Yost joked that Gordon always want to play center field anyway.
“[Cain] obviously does a great job, so I just try to do the best I can when I’m out there,” Gordon said. “Seems like it just happens kind of quick. You don’t have to time think about it. I took a good route. It felt pretty easy.”
The point is that even if the Royals lose their free agents, there is a solid base of talent still on hand and the notion that they needed to tear down completely earlier this season, when they started 10-20, might have been wrong-headed. (I have to admit to being one who called for such a thing.) Any core talent lost will need to be a core talent replaced, and if Kansas City does indeed lose all their free agents, it will be tough for them to be replaced via free agency.
But the reason it might be wrongheaded to assume the Royals are headed for a dark age isn’t because they might actually end up winning the bidding wars for one or more of their free agents -- and they might -- but also because of what the emergence of players like Merrifield, Bonafacio and Cuthbert conveys. That is, Moore’s system does a pretty solid job of churning out useful position players who play fundamentally sound baseball.
The Royals will still have to identify core talents through the draft, but development is important, too, and it sure seems like the systems the Royals have in place are working pretty well. That will all sort itself out in the months to come. For now, the Royals will focus on the time they know they still have together and for what they hope will be another postseason run.
But the last run? Maybe not.
CHICAGO -- Sometimes how you won is almost as important as whether you won. Or at least that's what the Kansas City Royals are hoping.
Don't misunderstand. The Royals needed a win in the worst way, and no matter how a victory might have unfolded, K.C. would have still basked in the booming postgame music that fills clubhouses after a W.
"It's great hearing music," said Royals starter Ian Kennedy, who put up a quality start in Saturday's 5-4 win over the Chicago White Sox. "We haven't heard it in awhile. We're pretty streaky lately, so hopefully we get a streak going the other way."
Here's some context: After beating the Boston Red Sox on July 28, the Royals had run off nine straight wins and reached a high-water mark of seven games over .500. They were just two games back of Cleveland in the AL Central and 2.5 games ahead of the scrum for the American League's second wild-card spot. After a loss the next day, the Royals won in Boston again to raise their run differential to break-even for the first time all season.
After that point and before Saturday, the Royals' feel-good, turnaround season had transmogrified into an Edgar Allan Poe-kind of slow, unfolding nightmare. The top of the stat sheet told the story -- 10 losses in 12 games -- but when you dig in, it was even worse than that. At the very point when Kansas City might have put a stranglehold on its third postseason appearances in four years, this happened:
- A three-game sweep at Baltimore, in which the Royals scored a total of three runs against a team that entered the series with the second-worst team ERA in baseball.
- After a home split of a four-game series against Seattle, the Royals were pounded in a four-game, home-and-home set with their archrival, the St. Louis Cardinals. Their bullpen in that series had a 9.56 ERA.
- Another defeat in Chicago on Friday, with the bullpen again letting a game get out of hand when Tim Anderson hit a two-run homer off Peter Moylan to break open the game. The losing streak had stretched to five games, K.C.'s record had slipped below .500 for the first time since July 19, and half of the AL had mobbed around the Royals in the wild-card chase.
Since the Royals' wave crested in Boston, the bullpen had put up a collective 6.92 ERA and blown three of five save chances. Every middle reliever between set-up man Joakim Soria and closer Kelvin Herrera had an ERA over 5.00. In other words, no matter what number manager Ned Yost dialed up, it was the wrong answer.
"Just seems like the last four or five days, they've all struggled a little bit," Yost said at the start of the series. "Those things get turned around quick, so I don't worry about it too much."
That trend continued Saturday despite the win. Kennedy departed with Kansas City up 3-2 after he walked Anderson with one out in the seventh. Omar Narvaez, the first batter lefty Scott Alexander faced, doubled to drive Anderson to third. With the infield drawn in, Alexander got Adam Engel on a grounder to keep the runners in place. But Leury Garcia plated them both with a two-out single.
Voila. The bullpen strikes again.
"The pitch to Garcia was a pretty good pitch," Yost said. "He just poked it into center. Ian had been grinding all day. Threw the ball extremely well."
Flashback to late July, with the Royals so clearly a big part of the AL playoff chase, general manager Dayton Moore went about adding complementary pieces to his roster. Three pitchers were added from the San Diego Padres, all of whom had performed well in San Diego but, so far, not so much in Kansas City. And he added old pal Melky Cabrera from Saturday's opponent, the White Sox.
Cabrera was the Royals' center fielder in 2011, a formative campaign for the core of what eventually became a championship club. Cabrera had a good season for Kansas City, hitting .305/.339/.470 and, more importantly, having a positive impact on then-green teammates like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez. That was the vagabond phase of Cabrera's career, as he toiled for five different teams from 2009 to 2013.
Cabrera had joined the White Sox by 2015 and quickly became a fan favorite. He seemed poised to help mentor Chicago's gradual influx of young talent and seemed happy to do it. In fact, when phenom Yoan Moncada was called up in late July, he was given the locker between Cabrera and Jose Abreu, who hit two homers in Saturday's game. Instead, Cabrera was shipped out to the contending Royals, not an unhappy development for either party.
"I had Melky here back when these kids were coming up," Yost said on Friday. "He was a great presence in the clubhouse when Hos and Moose and Salvy all came to the big leagues. They loved him for it. They were tremendously excited when they heard that he was coming back. He's the same guy, just a pleasure to be around."
Then the Royals arrived in Chicago on Friday. And the first time Cabrera strode to the plate, the modest gathering at Guaranteed Rate Field gave him a surprisingly robust standing ovation. Cabrera returned the love by tipping his batting helmet to his old fans. But then it was time to get back to the task at hand: helping his new team, which is his old team, get back to the playoffs one more time while the old gang is still together. Cabrera knows that with this bunch now, his mentoring days are behind him. Now, it's about providing a boost for one of the AL's most maddeningly inconsistent offenses.
"I know most of the guys here," Cabrera said before Friday's game, through an interpreter. "They are very talented players and you can notice a difference [from his first stint]. This is a good team that is competing for the playoffs."
That boost came in the eighth inning Saturday, in the very next half-frame after the Royals coughed up yet another lead. With Cain on first, Cabrera lofted a high-trajectory fly ball to the fence in left-center field. His old outfield mate, Engel, made an acrobatic attempt at climbing the wall, but the blast settled into the bleachers to give the Royals a 5-4 lead. You could almost see a puff cloud of relief emanating from the Kansas City dugout.
"Anything he does for us is always big," Moustakas said. "Melky is a huge [part] of what we've got going on. He's a huge leader and definitely makes our team a lot better. We were very familiar with him. He's been here for awhile. It's great to have him back."
There were still six outs to get, but at least the outcome was then placed in the steady hands of the close-out crew. Soria zipped through a perfect eighth. Herrera walked Narvaez with two outs in the ninth and then pinch runner Tyler Saladino stole second. But Moustakas made a nice stab of an Engel grounder and fired across the diamond to Hosmer, who pumped his fist with perhaps a little more than the usual vigor.
"Great play," Yost said about the game-ender. "A game-saver, really."
It's just one win, but the Royals hope it spurs more for a team that has been as streaky as any in baseball this season. The record is back to .500, and because the 2017 AL playoff race rewards that kind of mediocrity with contention, it feels something like a clean slate as the season turns toward the home stretch.
"These kinds of wins are the ones that help you stop the bleeding," Yost said. "We've just been struggling. It was huge to answer back right there."
Jeffrey Loria bought the Florida Marlins in 2002 and the next season the club won a wild card and would rally to beat the Cubs in a memorable National League Championship Series and upset the Yankees to win the second World Series in franchise history.
Since winning that World Series, the Marlins haven’t made the playoffs. Key pieces like Derrek Lee, Josh Beckett and Brad Penny were traded away and Miguel Cabrera was eventually traded after the 2007 season. They’ve finished as high as second place just once since 2003 and are headed for their eighth consecutive losing season. It’s safe to say that nobody is really going to miss Jeffrey Loria as owner of the Marlins.
The Miami Herald reported that Loria has agreed to sell the team to a group led by billionaire money manager Bruce Sherman and former Yankees great Derek Jeter for $1.2 billion. Sherman, a venture capitalist with ties to Florida, would be the managing general partner of the group of investors (which includes Michael Jordan), while Jeter, who is reportedly investing $25 million of his own money, would run the franchise on both the business and baseball operations ends.
Loria’s ultimate legacy will be that of a lousy and disliked owner, but, in one sense, he outfoxed everyone all along. His original investment was $30 million in the Montreal Expos. Some of his former partners there accused him of deliberately destroying baseball in Montreal. He became part of a controversial swap that allowed him to buy the Marlins and then-Marlins owner John Henry to purchase the Red Sox while the league-owned Expos were eventually relocated to Washington, D.C.
After crying poor for years, Miami-Dade County finally caved and helped build Loria a stadium in what will be an economically disastrous deal for the county: a $91 million loan will eventually cost the county more than $1 billion to pay off. That’s not Loria’s fault, but the new stadium has done little to improve the Marlins’ fortunes.
For years, Loria’s game plan seemed simple: Keep the payroll as low as possible while cashing a big revenue-sharing check. The Marlins ran the majors’ lowest payroll in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2015 while ranking second-lowest in two other seasons. The Marlins undoubtedly were profitable many of those years despite poor attendance and poor TV revenue. In fact, in 2010 the club was forced to raise its payroll after reaching an agreement with the union. Ultimately, this was a skinflint owner who may have liked baseball, but had no idea how to build a successful franchise. The team has rarely invested in Latin America and the farm system has turned into one of the weakest in the game in recent years.
The past two seasons, the Marlins did raise their payroll, essentially doubling the total from 2015, and the club had the 20th-highest Opening Day payroll. Unfortunately, the product on the field remained mediocre and the Herald reported that “The Marlins are expected to lose more than $60 million this season, according to a source who has seen their books.” The team reportedly carried a debt of $500 million.
If that’s the case, I guess the billion-dollar question is what Sherman, Jeter & Co. can hope for with this purchase. Loria’s ultimate failure wasn’t just on the field, but in building a fan base. The team ranks last in attendance in the National League -- just as it has each season since 2006, except for the first year in the new ballpark. Maybe that’s not Loria’s fault. It could be that Miami just isn’t a good baseball city (or sports city, for that matter). But it’s also true that the fans were treated to the sell-off after 1997 and then Loria’s slow sell-off of the 2003 team. It also takes a generation or two to form a history and loyalty needed for consistent support. Still, who wants to support a team that is suing one of its own fans?
Winning over the fans may be tougher than building a winning team, and who knows how much the team’s finances will affect the new owners and the ability to spend on payroll (it doesn’t help that Giancarlo Stanton’s salary increases from $14.5 million to $25 million next season and escalates from there if he doesn’t opt out).
The other unknown is Jeter. He was obviously a great player, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be great at running a baseball team. It also doesn’t mean he won’t be great. It’s impossible to know. As good a player as he was, it’s difficult to get a read on Jeter’s potential acumen in running a team. He was always the master of being accessible without ever saying anything that was interesting.
Still, this can be viewed only as positive news in South Florida. The franchise needs new blood and new ideas. Good riddance to a bad owner. For the first time in a long time, there’s hope in Miami.