Anyone with a passing knowledge of the 20-80 scouts' grading scale is going to put the latest Tim Tebow news in its proper perspective: He's a 29-year-old novice who, for all his hard work, still looks like a football player trying to play baseball. That .222 batting average and .651 OPS with the low-A Columbia Fireflies in the South Atlantic League provide plenty of evidence that Tebow's major league quest is pure pipe dream.
But as Tebow continues to plug away at his new sport, Sunday's announcement that he is being promoted to Port St. Lucie in the high-A Florida State League puts an intriguing twist on his professional journey.
In September, when the New York Mets signed Tebow to a minor league contract out of a Southern California tryout camp, cynics observed that it was a cash grab by Mets owner Fred Wilpon, and said Tebow would be nothing more than a circus to distract from the goings-on at Citi Field.
Nine months later, the Mets have inadvertently laid claim to the "circus" designation. And they need all the sideshows they can get to divert attention from the product they're selling.
It's been one big slog of disheartening news for the Mets this season, from Matt Harvey's off-field antics and injury problems to Noah Syndergaard's MRI-related hijinks to Asdrubal Cabrera's dissatisfaction over playing second base. So here we are, two weeks from the All-Star break, and speculation is rampant that Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce and Cabrera are among the Mets veterans who will be on the block between now and the July 31 trade deadline.
Tebow's advancement through the system will do nothing to make Mets die-hards feel better about what's transpired in 2017. But for a guy who isn't taken very seriously in baseball circles, he deserves credit for putting his head down, keeping his mouth shut and working diligently each day to improve. From a temperament and character standpoint, Tebow has been everything the Mets hoped for when general manager Sandy Alderson said the onetime QB would provide a positive example to the organization's young players in the instructional league and in spring training.
The latest test of Tebow's patience came during a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, when the rival RiverDogs poked fun at Tebow and his religious faith with some lowbrow in-game entertainment. Alderson called the trolling “very minor league,” but not a word was heard from Tebow.
Once Tebow arrives in Port St. Lucie, it will be great for business. When he showed up at the Mets' instructional league complex in September, more than 400 fans circled the back fences at Tradition Field and jostled for autograph position. Tebow-maniacs spent $120 on replica jerseys and reflected fondly on Tebow's days as a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida. A few parents even allowed their kids to skip school to watch Tebow shag fly balls and take batting practice.
As Tebow continues to post underwhelming stats and struggles to embrace the nuances of the game in the low minors, the daunting nature of his quest becomes more real. But when the alternate topics of discussion in Mets-land are manager Terry Collins' job status, potential candidates to be dealt at the trade deadline, and the team's mounting number of days spent on the disabled list, Tebow provides a welcome break from the despair.
Nine months ago, he was derided as a sideshow. Now, he's the franchise's resident feel-good story.
When Avisail Garcia first came up with the Tigers in 2012, he was immediately compared to Miguel Cabrera. Like Cabrera, Garcia is big and is from Venezuela, and there was enough facial resemblance that some fans called out for Cabrera when they spotted Garcia. Teammates nicknamed him Mini Miggy.
The comparison was unfair. As much as scouts loved Garcia's talent, he didn't produce. The Tigers traded him to the White Sox, and as a regular in 2015 and 2016 he hit .252/.308/.374. He had a low average, a low OBP and didn't hit for much power. He was essentially a replacement-level player.
The White Sox gave him another chance in 2017, mostly because they didn't have anybody else to play in the outfield. Because this is baseball and these things happen, Garcia is not only outhitting Cabrera but also leading the American League with a .342 average heading into the weekend. With 11 home runs, he's just two shy of his career high.
Garcia has attributed his success to more experience and a better pregame routine. The advanced stats don't suggest he has made any changes in his approach. He's still very aggressive, with one of the highest chase rates in the majors (in fact, he's swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than in 2016). He's still an extreme ground ball hitter (top 20 ground ball rate among qualified hitters). His hard-hit rate is up, leading to a few more home runs and doubles, but it seems the primary reason for his .342 average is a little thing called good luck. His average on balls in play is an unsustainable .413, compared to .320 and .309 the past two seasons.
So Garcia is probably ripe for decline. Still, his hot start might land him on the All-Star team. Here are some other starts you might have overlooked so far:
It will be difficult to leave Knebel off the NL All-Star team: He has a 0.96 ERA with 65 strikeouts and a .147 average allowed, a dominant season lost only in the excellence of Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel. Knebel has at least one strikeout in each of his 38 appearances and is 12-for-14 in save opportunities since taking over as closer.
He throws 96-97 mph with a wipeout curveball. He had great stuff last season, but his strikeout rate has improved from 26 percent to 44 percent. The key has been a higher spin rate on his fastball; high-spin fastballs, because they create the illusion of a "rising" fastball, have a higher swing-and-miss rate. If he keeps that going, expected continued dominance from Knebel.
There was a day or two a couple of weeks ago when Cozart led the NL in WAR. Yes, Cozart can someday tell his grandkids that at one point he was the best player in the league. Cozart should be back soon from a short stay on the DL, but for a six-year veteran, his sudden emergence (.320/.404/.562) is certainly one of the season's big surprises. And no, this isn't simply a ballpark thing: He's slugging higher on the road than at the Great American Ball Park.
It seems unlikely that Cozart has actually transformed, after over 2,500 plate appearances, into one of the best players in the league. He has always been an excellent fielder -- he never has won a Gold Glove but has had a positive defensive runs saved total each season in the majors -- but has generally been a below-average hitter. One improvement this year has been a career-high walk rate, as he has dropped his chase rate, so swinging at strikes has certainly helped. His exit velocity, however, remains below league average. Basically, he's hitting much better than you would expect given his contact authority. An impending free agent, Cozart will be an interesting trade target, but any acquiring team should be prepared for a drop in production moving forward.
General manager Jerry Dipoto acquired Gamel last August for a couple of 18-year-old minor league pitchers. He fit the profile of a fourth outfielder: not enough power to start, not enough speed and defense to overcome the lack of power. He actually began the season in Triple-A Tacoma, getting called up only when Mitch Haniger landed on the DL.
All Gamel has done is hit. In fact, with a few more plate appearances, his .353 average would lead the AL over Garcia's mark. Gamel is about seven plate appearances short of qualifying, so he could join the leaderboards sometime late next week (you need 3.1 PAs per team game played to qualify). Heading into the weekend, he has hit .444 over his past 15 games, including 10 multihit games.
Gamel has absolutely destroyed fastballs, hitting .470/.562/.640 against them -- yet pitchers keep throwing them to him. Among 204 players with at least 200 plate appearances, Gamel ranks 26th in percentage of fastballs. Let's see if pitchers start making adjustments and throw him more off-speed stuff.
This is a little bigger name than the others on the list, as Ozuna was an All-Star last season. He then had a terrible second half, hitting .206 with six home runs. A wrist injury might have played into that. He's here because it's worth pointing out he has had an MVP-caliber first half, hitting .325/.390/.588 with 20 home runs and 53 RBIs. He entered the weekend tied for third with Joey Votto among NL position players in FanGraphs WAR, just ahead of Bryce Harper. Ozuna should receive a second straight All-Star trip ... and then has to show he can do this for six months instead of three.
The Brewers lead the NL Central, and these two have been a big reason why. Anderson ranks fifth in the NL with a 2.92 ERA and Nelson 12th with a 3.50 ERA. Nelson has always been a breakout candidate but has been held back by control issues. He led the NL last year in walks and wild pitches, averaging 4.3 walks per nine innings. This year, he has cut his walk rate significantly, from 10.7 percent to 6.3 percent.
Anderson, meanwhile, is riding a streak of six straight quality starts in which he has posted a 1.33 ERA and held batters to a .153 average. His velocity is up from last season, and he has cut down on his walks. Both have done an excellent job of suppressing home runs, no easy feat in Milwaukee, where the ball flies. I don't know if they can keep this up, but there's nothing in the numbers that suggests something fluky is going on here. They've been good and could continue to be good, which means the Brewers have a chance to keep this going in the NL Central.
If only the Nationals had a hard-throwing lefty reliever to help solve some of their bullpen issues ... Rivero, acquired from the Nationals for Mark Melancon last year, has given up three earned runs in 40 innings with 43 strikeouts, nine walks and a .137 average allowed. Oh, and he averages 98 mph with his heater. What makes this even more painful for the Nationals is that when the Dodgers scored four runs in the seventh inning to win Game 5 of last year's NLDS, Nats manager Dusty Baker used five relievers -- BUT NOT MARK MELANCON. So the Nationals ended up giving up a stud reliever for a closer they didn't even use with their season on the line.
Logan Morrison, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays
Let's see. He hit 14 home runs last year in 353 at-bats. In 2015, he hit 17 in 457 at-bats. The year before that, 11 in 336 at-bats. You want me to continue? In 2017, he has 22 in 244 at-bats, hitting .250 with a .582 slugging percentage. It seems he is a prime beneficiary of the lively ball, but Morrison has had a slight change in his approach. He's swinging less often -- his chase rate has gone down -- but he's missing more often. Two years ago, his swing-and-miss rate was 18.5 percent; this season, it's up 26.0 percent. His fly ball rate has gone up from 32 percent to 45.8 percent. In other words, swing hard, hope you hit the ball in the air, and watch it go over the fence. He is one of the early home run leaders and might continue his pace.
After Friday’s start, Wood is 8-0 with a 1.86 ERA on the season. He doesn't have enough innings yet to qualify for the ERA title after missing a couple of weeks because of inflammation in his SC joint. Friday's turn came on six days of rest, and maybe that's one key to his dominant numbers: Of his 10 starts, only three came on four days of rest, one of those following a two-inning relief appearance. Before Friday, with an extra day or two of rest between starts, he has held batters to a .178 average and only two home runs. The rich just got richer.
So it continues: The Baltimore Orioles lost 6-3 to the Cleveland Indians and now have allowed five or more runs in 19 consecutive games. They're one game away from tying the major league record set by the 1924 Phillies!
I'm not really excited about this streak. OK, yes I am. I kind of feel bad about that, Orioles fans, but it is pretty amazing. Forgive me.
Anyway, I hate to bring this up, but with the team now 35-37 and playing so poorly, the question has to be asked: Should the Orioles be sellers, and if they're sellers, do they consider trading Manny Machado? Some more or less random thoughts on this:
1. The obvious reason not to sell: They're still in the wild-card race. Of course, everybody in the AL is in the race. Yes, it has been a terrible month, but the starting pitching can only get better. Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman aren't this bad. Plus ... who would the Orioles trade besides Machado? Zach Britton would be the other player in demand, except he's on the DL. Nobody else would really bring a significant return except fill-in closer Brad Brach.
2. The obvious reason not to trade Machado: He's having a bad season, arguably cutting into his trade value. Plus, the team most in need of a third baseman is the Red Sox, and that seems like the most unlikely trade partner you could imagine. Even if this is a lost season, you keep Machado and aim for 2018. J.J. Hardy, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tillman, Seth Smith and Wade Miley all can become free agents, clearing about $51 million from the payroll -- money that can spent on new talent.
3. The obvious reason to sell: Let's be realistic, this isn't going anywhere. Machado is struggling, Mark Trumbo isn't hitting 47 home runs again, and Chris Davis is hurt. Even if you get to the wild-card game, whom are you starting? Even if you get by that game, this team isn't good enough to make a deep run in the playoffs.
4. The obvious reason to trade Machado: He's a free agent after 2018 and the Orioles are unlikely to re-sign him, so cash in now and admit it has been a nice run the past few seasons but time for an influx of talent.
Food for thought: I'd put the odds at less than 5 percent that he gets traded. Most likely, the Orioles plow forward and hope that at some point they don't give up five runs every game.
Do the Brewers have an ace?
Chase Anderson was terrific again in a 4-2 victory over the Pirates, allowing two hits with seven K's over six innings and lowering his ERA to 2.92.
Six straight quality starts for Chase Anderson. 1.33 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 40.2ip in that span.
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) June 22, 2017
That six-start stretch of quality outings ties Anderson with Max Scherzer for the longest active streak. So, what's going on? Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had some good things to say about Anderson after the game, mentioning his mound presence and improved velocity. Indeed, Anderson's fastball velocity is up from 91 mph to 93.1. Even factoring in that the new tracking system rates all fastballs about 0.5 mph higher, that's a big leap. As a result, the OPS allowed on his fastball has dropped from .896 to .764 (Better command could be a factor as well.) Meanwhile, the OPS allowed on his changeup has dropped from .764 to .543, giving him a second excellent offspeed pitch to go with his curveball.
Six starts is six starts, and a lot of pitchers long forgotten have had stretches like this, but it seems like there's real improvement here, and perhaps another reason the Brewers won't go away as easily as everyone thinks.
Home run of the day
Sticking with the Brewers, Travis Shaw hit his 14th home run as part of a 3-for-4 day, raising his season line to .298/.350/.552:
— MLB (@MLB) June 22, 2017
But we wanted to mention Shaw because he has faced challenges off the field, with his newborn daughter remaining in the hospital in Milwaukee after being born earlier this month with a congenital heart defect. He was at the hospital Thursday morning before going to the park and has amazed teammates with his ability to remain focused on baseball. Anderson, also a recent new dad, teared up after the game talking about Shaw.
So here's rooting for Shaw ... and the Brewers to stay in this thing.
Down goes Schwarber
The Cubs made a big bet on Kyle Schwarber. They didn't try to re-sign Dexter Fowler in part to clear space in a crowded outfield for Schwarber, believing enough in his bat to toss aside concerns about his range in left field. Well, after hitting .171/.295/.378 with 75 strikeouts in 64 games, he was sent down to Triple-A. One month ago, Theo Epstein laughed off the idea of sending Schwarber down. Now the Cubs are admitting Schwarber needs an environment with less pressure.
On the surface, it's hard to explain what has happened:
Kyle Schwarber: .193 BA on balls in play in 2017, last among 162 qualified hitters. His peripherals look the same as earlier in his career. pic.twitter.com/tNTER9ADy7
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 22, 2017
The approach has been the same, but the results have been poor. While he had a .293 BABIP in 2015, it has been .193 in 2017, despite a similar rate of hard-hit balls. So maybe there's some bad luck mixed in there. Maybe the knee has bothered him. The other truth, however, is that the Cubs maybe overrated Schwarber. He had the hot stretch soon after his call-up in 2015, but over a 99-game stretch going back to August of that year, he's hitting .171, including .100 against lefties. That's a significant stretch of being bad, interrupted by an occasional monster home run.
He has hit 64 fly balls, but only 16 of those to right field. Seven were home runs, so when he can lift the ball to his pull side, he has great success. Trouble is, when he pulls it, it's usually on the ground. He has hit 58 grounders, 36 of them pulled; he's 5-for-36 (.139) on those grounders, making him an easy player to shift on. He's better than this, and while he does draw walks, he's going to have to reconfigure some things at the plate.
The Diamondbacks pounded one of those Rockies rookies for a second straight day, scoring nine runs off Antonio Senzatela in a 10-3 win, taking two of three in the big NL West showdown. Zack Godley was superb once again, and Paul Goldschmidt did this:
— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) June 22, 2017
Here's the impressive thing about this hot stretch by the D-backs: Since May 25, they've played just six games at home, by far the fewest in the majors. They've still gone 17-8 since then, third-best in the majors, including 12-7 on the road.
Another note on Freddie Freeman playing third base
Here's another reason I doubt it works, at least long term: When the Angels tried to move Trumbo to third base in 2012, I wrote this piece. Since 1950, there had been 24 players to play at least 300 games at both third base and first base. Only one of them was a true first-to-third conversion (Enos Cabell). The others had come up through the minors primarily as third basemen. In other words: I still say this is unlikely.
It feels too early to be watching the scoreboard, but that’s how fun the NL West is right now. You want to see how the top three teams fared each night. The Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks all have a winning percentage above .600, and that’s rarified company. Since divisional play began in 1969, one league has had three .600 teams only three times (2002 AL, 1998 NL and 1977 AL), and the 1977 AL East was the only division to feature three .600 teams, when the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox accomplished it. The 2015 NL Central came close, with the Cardinals and Pirates above .600 and the Cubs finishing at .599.
Because all three teams are playing so well, there is a good change that the division winner will be joined by two NL West wild-card teams in the poststeason field, leaving the NL East and Central as one-team races the remainder of the season. But how will the race for the West play out?
Despite the close race, the projection systems still see the Dodgers as huge favorites. FanGraphs gives them an 86.7 percent chance of winning the division (compared to 8.5 percent for the Rockies and 4.8 percent for the Diamondbacks). Baseball Prospectus sees it as Dodgers at 77.2 percent, Rockies at 13.8 percent and Diamondbacks at 9.0 percent.
In other words, the computers, taking into account past performance and making adjustments for what’s happened so far in 2017, aren’t buying the hot starts of the Rockies and Diamondbacks. FanGraphs, for example, projects the Rockies to be .498 the rest of the way and the Diamondbacks to be .501.
It’s easy to understand why this is the case. The Dodgers have won four straight division titles, winning 91-plus games each season. The Rockies haven’t finished above .500 since 2010 and the Diamondbacks since 2011. It’s not like either of those franchises brought in Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in the offseason.
Still, I think this race will end up a lot closer than the Dodgers romping their way to a 10-game margin. Some thoughts why:
The Rockies and Diamondbacks aren’t benefiting from career seasons.
Take Colorado's offense, for example. Mark Reynolds has the highest OPS of his career, but I’m buying into this level of production. He made some changes to his approach last season and is striking out less often than in his 200-strikeout days with the Diamondbacks, and he has maintained a high BABIP for two seasons. Charlie Blackmon has been playing at this level for more than a year now, but even if he and Reynolds regress a bit, Carlos Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu and Trevor Story have all hit below their 2016 levels.
Same thing with Arizona's offense. Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb have carried the lineup so far, but A.J. Pollock has missed 30-something games with a groin injury, and once he returns he'll provide a much-needed third cog. Maybe Chris Owings is playing a little better than his career norm, but he isn't putting up monster numbers.
The one huge breakout performer on these two clubs has been Diamondbacks starter Robbie Ray, who is earning All-Star consideration with his 2.87 ERA through 14 starts. His ERA is lower than his 3.41 FIP (fielding independent pitching), but he has also showcased overpowering stuff, with 114 strikeouts in 87.2 innings and a .197 batting average allowed. He’s legit. Zack Godley has provided a surprising lift with a 2.34 ERA over eight starts and will regress from that number, but I like his chances to succeed as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter moving forward.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, have three hitters ripe for some significant regression: Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor and Justin Turner. Some of that will be covered by expected improvement from Joc Pederson and Logan Forsythe (I wouldn’t count on Adrian Gonzalez, however, as he is on the DL with back problems). These offenses are second (Colorado), third (L.A.) and fourth (Arizona) in the NL in runs, and if anything I like the Rockies’ chances to improve in this category moving forward, with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks holding steady.
The Rockies and Diamondbacks both have good rotations.
Entering Wednesday, the D-backs led the majors with a 3.53 ERA, the Dodgers were second at 3.54 and the Rockies were an impressive seventh at 4.02. The Diamondbacks don’t have a lot of depth, especially with Shelby Miller out for the season. But with Zack Greinke looking like an ace again and Taijuan Walker pitching well, the D-backs have an excellent 1-2-3 aside from whatever Godley provides.
The computers aren’t buying the solid ERAs of the Rockies starters, especially their rookies who have performed so well. Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland have significantly lower ERAs than FIPs, as does veteran Tyler Chatwood, while German Marquez has posted a 3.92 ERA, pitching well despite working primarily with just a fastball/slider combo. Jeff Hoffman, the fourth rookie, had a 2.25 ERA before blowing up in Wednesday’s loss to the Diamondbacks, but those games are going to happen at Coors Field and he owns a 38-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Here’s why I like the Rockies' rotation to succeed moving forward: They’ll get staff ace Jon Gray back from his broken foot at some point, and Chad Bettis, recovered from his treatment for testicular cancer, is aiming to return before the All-Star break. They were the Rockies’ top two starters heading into the season, and since their missed time wasn’t a result of arm issues, the lack of innings in the first half could actually help keep them strong down the stretch. Once those two return (as well as Tyler Anderson, about ready to rejoin the big leagues after a rehab start on Sunday), manager Bud Black has a rare luxury for a Rockies manager: too many rotation options. A rotation of Gray, Bettis, Chatwood, Hoffman and the others would be the best in Rockies history.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, suddenly have some concerns, even with all their depth. At the start of the season, they were hoping their top three at this point would be Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Julio Urias or Kenta Maeda. Kershaw is still awesome but has appeared human of late, as he has already issued a career-high 17 home runs. Hill has had blister issues, like last season, and has been awful when he has pitched, as he has lost the feel and command of his curveball. Urias struggled in the majors and is now on the DL in Triple-A with shoulder inflammation, while Maeda has been moved to the bullpen with a 4.70 ERA. The saviors have been Alex Wood, who owns a 1.90 ERA, and Brandon McCarthy, with a 2.87 ERA. In this Year of the Home Run, those two have allowed just six over 130.1 combined innings; that won’t continue.
The schedule doesn’t really favor anyone.
If anything, it may slightly favor the Rockies. The Diamondbacks and Rockies both have 18 games remaining against the Giants and Padres, while the Dodgers have 22. But you can argue the Rockies caught the Giants -- they’re 10-1 against them -- at the right time, while the Dodgers may get them as they start playing better.
Also, remember that the AL has owned a big edge in interleague play, with an 80-57 advantage entering Wednesday. The Diamondbacks are 9-1 in interleague play with 10 games left against the Astros, Twins and Royals. The Rockies have 11 interleague games left. The Dodgers, however, have played just three interleague games, so they have 15 remaining. Yes, 11 of those are against the mediocre AL Central (with the other four against the Angels), but those are still tougher opponents than the Reds or Phillies (the Dodgers are 9-0 against those two teams).
Sure, the safe bet is that the Dodgers will win this thing. But in a National League in which some of the preseason playoff favorites -- like the Giants, Cardinals and Mets -- have looked bad, the Rockies and Diamondbacks should play much better than .500 moving forward. I see a three-team fight for the division title and hopefully one of the great races in history.
What, you've never seen a copy of the Unwritten Rules of Baseball, authored circa 1927 by Connie Mack, John McGraw, Calvin Coolidge and the Illuminati?
Oh, trust me, it exists. It must be real. After all, just check out what happened Wednesday night in the grand old game.
Yasiel Puig homered on ESPN.
Some Mets didn't appreciate his actions afterward: https://t.co/56u2TIg0Wy
— ESPN (@espn) June 22, 2017
Let's just say he stood there at home plate. And watched. And admired. And enjoyed the majestic flight of a well-struck hide of leather. I can't be sure, but I think he took time to order a Dodger Dog with extra mustard. By the time he finally rounded the bases, it was 32.1 seconds later, the second-longest home run trot of 2017. (Long live David Ortiz.)
And fans didn't like it (except Dodgers fans). Oh, no, they did not. Mets first baseman Wilmer Flores didn't like it, saying something to Puig, who responded with two words that indicated, as ESPN announcer Eduardo Perez said, "his English is getting better." Catcher Travis d'Arnaud didn't like it. After the inning, Mets players Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Reyes stopped Puig on his way out to right field and had a calm discussion with him, probably about the unwritten code he had just violated. Remember: Don't look like you're too happy about doing something good.
Now that Puig's gone easy with the batflips they complain about watching the baseball.
— Howard Cole (@Howard_Cole) June 22, 2017
I'd suggest that merely watching a baseball fly over a fence is a big improvement from the violent style of play when McGraw starred with the 1890s Baltimore Orioles. That team was known for its dirty style of play -- spiking and tripping runners, slapping the ball from fielders and a never-ending onslaught of verbal abuse. We've come a long way. Just don't show up the pitcher who served you a meatball.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander was working on a perfect game with one out in the sixth inning and a 4-0 lead. Jarrod Dyson broke it up with a perfect bunt past Verlander and too far for Miguel Cabrera to make a play.
It's against the unwritten rules to win a baseball game if the other pitcher pitched 5/9 of a good game.
— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) June 22, 2017
Our friends on Twitter didn't like that one either. Especially Tigers fans. Of course, Dyson's entire game is speed, which means bunting is part of his regular arsenal. I'm not sure why Cabrera was playing so deep against him. Maybe he thought Dyson wouldn't dare bunt with a perfect game going. Of course, Dyson's job is to try to help the Seattle Mariners win.
"For sure want to go for the win but just basing it off ... unwritten rules in baseball to respect when someone is throwing that well," one fan tweeted.
Guess what happened next: The Mariners rallied for three runs in the inning. That's why you bunt for the hit. Verlander -- who was unlikely to go the distance anyway since his pitch count was already at 82 when Dyson singled -- immediately fell apart, throwing 28 pitches to the next five batters, unable to even finish the inning. The Mariners would then score four runs off the Tigers' bullpen in the seventh and win the game.
Respect the game? Sure. And the ultimate respect is trying to win. That's what Dyson did.
(As an aside: Pitch clock! As Verlander started to labor, he was taking impossibly long between pitches. Robinson Cano had to step out four times against him because he was taking so long.)
Play of the day
Awesome range and acrobatic throw by Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia for the final out of a 4-3 victory over the Pirates with the tying run on second. Has to be on the short list for defensive play of the year given the game situation.
Would you rather end a game with a walk-off homer or this bit of magic? pic.twitter.com/4w0vTuD9m9
— MLB (@MLB) June 22, 2017
Grand slam of the year
— #VoteHos (@Royals) June 21, 2017
It was an epic confrontation between Perez and Robby Scott. Matt Barnes walked two batters leading off the inning and then Scott walked Eric Hosmer to load the bases. He threw Perez nine straight fastballs, Perez fouled off three on 3-2 before finally connecting. That wasn't even the best part of the home run, however: You see, Perez used Miguel Cabrera's bat.
What's the deal? Kansas City Star writer Rustin Dodd has the whole story here, but the short version is backup catcher Drew Butera had picked up a bat Cabrera left at home plate on May 31, loved the feel of it, and asked Cabrera if he had an extra one to use for batting practice. Cabrera sent over a couple and one of those found its way to Perez's locker on Wednesday. Dodd writes: "As soon as he came in the clubhouse, he just put it in my locker," Perez said of Butera. "Just like: 'Use it today.'"
In truth, Butera said, Perez had loved the feel, too. It was his size, and he could use it in games. Inscribed on the barrel was the name of Cabrera, his countryman and former teammate on Team Venezuela.
"I've always said," Butera said, "some guys just have magic sticks."
Perez was the first Royals player with a come-from-behind grand slam that late in a game since Frank White in 1986. It was also the first game the Red Sox lost this season when leading entering the eighth. The Royals are a game from .500, where they haven't been since they were 7-7.
Inside-the-park home run of the day
They say the triple is the most exciting play in baseball. Sometimes "they" are wrong, because here's Joey Gallo looking much faster than a guy who mashes 480-foot home runs should look:
— MLB (@MLB) June 22, 2017
Yes, it's our third Miguel Cabrera reference tonight:
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) June 22, 2017
Obscure factoid that is true that you can't believe hadn't happened before
Tommy Pham had two home runs and two outfield assists, the first Cardinals outfielder to do that in the modern era (since 1900), according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Nope, not even Bake McBride did it. The last player on any team to do it was Jose Guillen of the Royals in 2008. Big win for the Cardinals as well, rallying from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Phillies in extra innings.
Giants lose -- again
So, we had this Jeff Samardzija note from Andrew Baggarly: "Jeff Samardzija has 77 Ks and 3 BBs over his last 10 starts, and it took Pence's homer to keep him from becoming MLB's first 10-game loser."
I still think Samardzija's season is one of the strangest in recent years. Great, but not great. Hunter Pence's homer in the ninth tied the score, but the Braves won 5-3 on Matt Kemp's walk-off homer in the 11th.
— MLB (@MLB) June 22, 2017
By the way, that's three walk-off losses for the Giants in a week. That's one reason they have the second-worst record in the majors.
Freddie Freeman update
Mentioned in this space yesterday that the Braves were thinking of playing Freeman at third base when he comes off the DL (sometime after the All-Star break). I suggested it was a smokescreen to create trade value for Matt Adams. Mark Bowman's follow-up story reports that Freeman actually initiated the idea, which at least makes it more plausible since he would be buying into it. I still have doubts that it's a good idea, but as we know about baseball: You never know.
No, Max Scherzer didn’t become the sixth pitcher with three career no-hitters. He didn’t even win the game, thanks to a rotten-luck eighth inning. But I’ll say this: With apologies to Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, Scherzer is the ultimate must-watch starting pitcher right now.
I was in the office Wednesday afternoon, and we were all riveted to our television screens as Scherzer dominated the Miami Marlins for the first seven innings. The no-hitter seemed like a sure thing. It was the 11th time the right-hander had taken a no-hit bid into the sixth inning in his three seasons with the Washington Nationals, five more than any other pitcher has in that span (Corey Kluber has six). More than that, it was the electric quality of the stuff that was so impressive.
His slider was devastating -- Nationals announcer F.P. Santangelo called it the best he’s seen from Scherzer -- and by the middle innings, Scherzer went almost exclusively to fastballs and sliders. What made the slider so impossible for the Marlins to hit was that Scherzer would start it at a right-handed hitter and have it break over the plate for a strike, or start it over the plate and see Marlins hitters flail as it broke 6 inches off the plate.
In the sixth inning, he fell behind Giancarlo Stanton 2-0, then threw three consecutive sliders, Stanton swinging helplessly at each one. In the seventh inning, he blew a high, 96-mph fastball past Christian Yelich and stomped around behind the mound as though he was trying to flatten a bunch of cockroaches. He ended up with 29 swings-and-misses, most in a game this season (Jacob deGrom had 27 on April 22), and just four short of his career high, 33 in his 20-strikeout game last season against the Tigers.
Scherzer would like a do-over on that eighth inning, however. With one out, A.J. Ellis hit a one-hopper that glanced off Scherzer’s glove and trickled behind him for an infield single, shortstop Trea Turner unable to make a bare-handed pickup and throw to first. When the ball was returned to him, Scherzer snatched at it in disgust. With two out, he hit Dee Gordon, and Turner and Adam Lind combined for an error when Turner made a lazy throw to first on a grounder, with Lind unable to scoop. A wild pitch tied the game, and then Stanton singled in the go-ahead run and the Marlins, improbably, had pulled out a 2-1 victory.
In the end, it turned into maybe the most crushing loss of the season for the Nationals -- and this time it wasn’t even the bullpen’s fault.
Still, this is was Scherzer at his best as he lowered his season ERA to 2.09, best in the National League. Given that he has that record-tying 20-strikeout game on his ledger from last season plus a 16-strikeout one-hitter in 2015, it seems clear that when Scherzer is on and brings his premium stuff to the mound, nobody is better. Batters are hitting just .167 against him, lowest in the majors. He’s allowed a .232 OBP, lowest in the majors. His strikeout rate of 35.3 percent is a tick above Sale’s 35.1 percent for best in the game.
Given Kershaw’s recent issues with home runs, the argument for best pitcher in baseball is on the table. Still Kershaw? Sale, who has to pitch in the American League? Or Scherzer?
What do you think?
This may be a game in early May against the San Diego Padres, but it’s one that Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wants. So in the eighth inning, after Clayton Kershaw gives up a home run and the Padres load the bases with two outs, Roberts calls on his closer, Kenley Jansen, to pitch to slugging rookie Hunter Renfroe.
Jansen gets ahead 1-2 and tries to come inside. Too far. He tries the same thing with his next pitch. Again, it’s too far inside.
On 3-2, Jansen has a different approach. He raises his left leg, holds his glove out, hooks his arm and fires straight at his target. It’s a 91 mph cutter, one that catcher Yasmani Grandal makes appear a hair higher than where it appears on charts: at the bottom of the strike zone on the black. Umpire Toby Basner rings up strike three. Renfroe bends over in disbelief. Grandal pumps his fist. Jansen, meanwhile, is as cool as can be as he comes off the mound, undaunted by the moment.
This is the Kenley Jansen experience. It’s not high-volume or flashy. It requires cooperation and perfection from multiple parties. And it’s amazing to watch when it’s going as well as it is.
Jansen, a 29-year-old native of Curacao, is baseball’s king of command. So far this season, he has 50 strikeouts with no walks. The Elias Sports Bureau reports that’s by far the most strikeouts for a pitcher before he issued his first walk. The previous record was only 35 by Adam Wainwright in 2013.
"It’s an awesome thing," Jansen said. "When I’m out there, I don’t think about it. I think about attacking hitters and my game plan. My game plan will never change."
How does he do it?
Jansen’s plan is about one pitch. He throws his cutter 89 percent of the time. It’s not a Mariano Rivera cutter; the break is slight, not sharp. The pitch isn't intended to jam a lefty or hook away from a righty like Rivera’s. And this one comes to the plate anywhere from 91 to 95 mph.
Jansen’s delivery is a lunge and then a quick uncoil. The pitch appears to be coming right over the middle of the plate. And then it’s not. It can drop down, appear to rise, and then jerk left or right ever so slightly. In short, it does what Jansen wants.
“I know how to manipulate it,” Jansen said. “Sometimes it cuts. Sometimes it stays straight. Sometimes it backs up. When I want a shorter [cut], I know what to do. That’s just experience and pitching more. You’ve got to figure out yourself. That what I’m doing.”
You know he's throwing you a cutter. You know it's gonna be middle-middle or middle-away. It just explodes out of his hands. It's hard to size up.
- Former Cubs catcher David Ross on Kenley Jansen
Jansen has it figured out and then some. He has a 0.91 ERA in 29 2/3 innings this season. He has basically broken the fielding independent pitching stat that estimates what an ERA should be based on strikeouts, walks and home runs. That number was in the negative for Jansen for much of the season. It’s currently 0.30. He has allowed no runs and four hits in 12 2/3 innings in his past dozen games, with 18 strikeouts.
“He is truly an exception because of his cutter and the ability to place it so precisely,” a longtime major league scout said. “Watch video and see how often he hits the mitt. If it’s way off, it’s probably by design due to the opposition stealing location.”
Jansen notes that though the pitch works for him, that won’t necessarily be true for those who aspire to be him.
“It’s a natural pitch,” Jansen said. “You might not have it.”
Catch him if you can
It must seem like eons ago that Jansen was catching in the minor leagues. He caught an 18-year-old Kershaw recording a save in the Gulf Coast League in 2006. He was noted then for his arm (37 percent caught stealing rate), and then his bat (.229 batting average in 840 at-bats). Now, eight years removed from converting to pitching, he is to relievers what Kershaw has been for many years to starters.
“This kid was such a quality throwing catcher, with the traditional catcher’s arm action, compact and quick with no wasted motion and exceptional athleticism to allow well above-average accuracy from 127 feet,” the scout said. “That makes locating quality pitches from 60 feet, 6 inches a piece of cake.
“I love that his natural plane and direction is to work from the belt line to the letters on both sides of the plate. It is just nasty to try to catch up and square him up, as he is uniquely deceptive with his delivery on top of a simple approach. I love the guy’s confidence, mound presence, poise and concentration.”
Grandal, a pitch-framing master, is as good at his work as Jansen is at his. That strikeout of Renfroe is as much Grandal’s as it is Jansen’s. Jansen has a 5-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio with all of the other catchers he has worked with in his career. With Grandal, that ratio is just over 11-1.
“I appreciate how he keeps his head in the game when he has a down night, how he steps up and makes adjustments,” Jansen said. “That shows everybody how great he is. He adjusts to me. We’re always on the same page. He knows what I’m capable of doing. He makes it so much easier for me.”
Former Chicago Cubs catcher and current ESPN baseball analyst David Ross has an appreciation of Jansen as both a catcher and a hitter. He has faced Jansen only once, but he remembers the experience well. He saw four pitches. Or rather, Jansen threw four pitches, all strikes. Ross didn’t see much of anything. He struck out.
“The ball disappears because he’s jumping at you,” Ross said. “You know he’s throwing you a cutter. You know it’s gonna be middle-middle or middle-away. It just explodes out of his hands. It’s hard to size up the cut. You know it’s coming, and it’s hard to hit. He hides it. He’s jumping at you. When they master the cutter, it’s such a hard pitch. [Jansen] can throw it to both sides of the plate, up and down.”
Ross summed up the experience of facing Jansen in one word: “Defeating.”
While Jansen has mastered the physical aspect of pitching, he seems to have a great feel for the mental aspect, too. Watch him on the mound -- he doesn’t get flustered. Opponents are 5-for-53 with 25 strikeouts against him this season in high-leverage situations (those most important to winning and losing). When he walks off the mound, you’d never know he got through something so difficult so easily.
And he won't change what he’s doing.
“The league knows who I am,” Jansen said. “I attack all the time. I’m not afraid to walk anyone.”
It's too early to call the Arizona Diamondbacks-Colorado Rockies showdown a big series. But it's a big series! First place on the line, more than 35,000 at Coors Field on a Tuesday night and, best of all, two heavyweights trading punches in the eighth inning.
First, Paul Goldschmidt gave the Diamondbacks a 3-2 lead as he greeted Adam Ottavino with a first-pitch, opposite-field home run. But in the bottom of the frame, Nolan Arenado responded with this two-run triple off the right-field scoreboard:
Nolan knows clutch. pic.twitter.com/mxrzxczq32
— MLB (@MLB) June 21, 2017
Note the intensity of Arenado's reaction. Note the fans chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!" Note that Arenado was visibly ticked off after striking out in his previous at-bat against Zack Greinke on a 3-2 curveball. Yeah, this has the feel of a big series.
Greinke probably deserved better. The rally in the eighth started when Charlie Blackmon hit a soft two-bouncer into left field for a one-out single. Arizona manager Torey Lovullo may be second-guessing himself for leaving Greinke in to face Arenado for a fourth time with two runners on and not bringing in Archie Bradley, but Greinke was at just 98 pitches and it was one of those games when it felt like his game to win or lose. The sabermetricians might say that's why you go with the numbers and bring in Bradley instead of going with your emotions.
I loved the two MVP candidates both coming up clutch in those big moments. Goldschmidt leads the National League in both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs WAR, with Arenado third in Baseball-Reference and tied for sixth in FanGraphs. Arenado, however, maybe has the signature moment of the 2017 season so far with his walk-off home run to complete the cycle on Sunday and now adds another late-inning, come-from-behind hit to his ledger. My editor, Dan, a huge Rockies fan, also assures me that Arenado has yet to launch into one of his patented hot streaks. Looks like he's starting one now, with 12 hits -- eight for extra bases -- in his past five games.
It's way too early to get into a heated MVP debate, but as those two clubs battle the Los Angeles Dodgers for NL West supremacy, Goldschmidt and Arenado are going to be in that debate all season, along with Bryce Harper and maybe even Blackmon, who has actually outhit Arenado so far.
I don't think it's possible for Tony Wolters to have made this throw more perfectly: pic.twitter.com/6P4STuQyMO
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) June 21, 2017
That was a big play in the sixth as the Diamondbacks had runners at first and third with no outs, down 2-0 at the time. They ended up with one run, but ran themselves out of a potential crooked number. Good stuff. I'll be tuning in again on Wednesday. How about you?
The day in awesome home runs from young stars
So, Aaron Judge homered again, No. 24 for him. Cody Bellinger homered again, his 22nd, to become the first rookie ever with 10 home runs in a 10-game span and the first player to do that since Troy Tulowitzki in 2010. But we turn to Corey Seager, Bellinger's teammate, who had a monster game against the Mets, going 4-for-5 with three home runs, a double and six RBIs. He also just missed a grand slam in the sixth inning, flying out one step shy of the warning track in left field.
Corey Seager is the first Dodgers shortstop with 6 RBI in a game since the team moved to LA in 1958. https://t.co/Y70BBXguXd
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 21, 2017
I also found this tweet amusing:
If 90% of you were GMs, Corey Seager would be on the Phillies and Cody Bellinger would be on the Twins.
— Trevor Vernola (@tvern16) June 21, 2017
That's a reference to the trade rumors a couple of years ago, when many -- not the Dodgers' front office -- wanted to trade Seager for Cole Hamels. I guess the other reference would be Bellinger-for-Ervin Santana rumors, although I don't remember that one. Anyway, it's good to be young and a Dodger.
Everyone the Orioles face in June has looked like Willie Mays
Good game in Baltimore as the Orioles beat the Indians 6-5 as Manny Machado went 4-for-4 with two home runs (both off Josh Tomlin), a game that will hopefully get him going on an extended hot streak. Miguel Castro earned his first major league win after coming on with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh and striking out Yan Gomes and getting Bradley Zimmer to ground out. Brad Brach then worked around a walk and a hit to get the save.
This, however, is one of my favorite factoids of the season: The Orioles have now allowed five or more runs in 17 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in the past 100 years, behind only the 20 in a row by the 1924 Phillies. This is why we love baseball: I just mentioned the 1924 Phillies. Chris Tillman continues to be basically unusable and you wonder how long the Orioles will go with him. He allowed five runs in four innings with nine hits, three walks and no strikeouts as his season ERA climbed to 8.39. Opposing batters are now hitting .360 against him.
I saw the Willie Mays note earlier in the day on Twitter from Dan Hirsch. Batters are now hitting .308/.382/.556 off Orioles pitchers in June. Mays' career line: .302/.384/.557. A-Mays-ing. (Sorry.)
This is the look when Kennys Vargas of the Twins blasts a 483-foot home run, the third longest of the season via Statcast:
— #Statcast (@statcast) June 21, 2017
And this is the look when Miguel Sano crushed an inside fastball onto the grass in center field:
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) June 21, 2017
Twins win 9-7.
Freeman is probably out at least another month with his fractured wrist, but when he returns the Braves are dropping hints that with Matt Adams tearing it up at first base, they could try Freeman at third base, a position he played in high school, but only five times as a pro, way back in the Gulf Coast League in 2007.
"We're discussing that internally, because the fact is, Freddie will be back," manager Brian Snitker told MLB.com's Mark Bowman. "There are some options there, because it would be nice to have both of those guys in the lineup somehow."
My take: This sounds like a classic smokescreen by the Braves to try to drive up Adams' trade value. Oh, no, we don't really want to trade him. We're going to play both him and Freeman. The last time a team tried to move a first baseman to third base was when the Angels did it with Mark Trumbo and that experiment lasted about five games. Freeman is a good defensive first baseman, plus-15 defensive runs saved in his career, but he's not Paul Goldschmidt over there. I doubt he would have the range or athleticism to handle third.
Plus, Adams isn't really all that good, a career .273/.318/.468 hitter, nothing special for a first baseman. He's a nice bench player, but in these days of pitching-heavy rosters, it's hard to keep a first base-only bench player. So, more than likely, the Braves cash in on Adams' hot streak and trade him to an American League team. The Astros could use an upgrade over Carlos Beltran at DH, the Royals don't really have a DH, and the Yankees may look for a first baseman. Freeman is a foundation player ... as a first baseman. You don't want to mess with that.
Quick thoughts ...
So much to mention tonight. Anthony Rizzo was not suspended for his takeout slide of Austin Hedges, even though he pretty clearly violated the rule (although the slide certainly wasn't malicious). Instead, he led off the game with a home run and in his seven games in the leadoff spot has gone HR, 1B, 2B, 1B, BB, HR, HR. ... Andrew McCutchen's past 23 games: .400, 8 HRs, 23 RBIs. That means he suddenly has trade value again, if the Pirates want to trade him (although they're only four games out). ... After losing 6-1 to the Rangers, the Blue Jays are now 0-8 and have been outscored 62-20 in games that they can get to .500. ... The Yankees are 0-7 since my reverse jinx as the Red Sox take over first place in the AL East. ... Has Chris Sale surpassed Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in the game? ... Finally, best of luck to Katie Strang, my editor on these night blogs, in her new gig. It's a team effort here with people like Katie and all the help from the Stats & Information group.
Your turn, Aaron Judge.
In the battle of rookie sensations, Los Angeles Dodgers phenom Cody Bellinger hit his 20th home run in the first inning in Monday's win over the New York Mets and then cracked his 21st in the second inning, both off Zack Wheeler. That's nine home runs in nine games -- including three two-homer games -- and he's now tied with Logan Morrison for second in the majors behind Judge's 23.
Of course, Bellinger has astonishingly done this in just 51 games, since he didn't make his debut until April 25. He's already just the fourth player 21 or younger to have 20 home runs by the All-Star break, joining Eddie Mathews (27 in 1953), Albert Pujols (21 in 2001) and Miguel Cabrera (20 in 2004).
That leads us to this: How do we get Bellinger on the National League All-Star team? Because we all want Bellinger there. Even Giants. He's young, he's exciting, and he's mashing baseballs over fences.
Let's go through the roster. There are 32 players on the team (not including injuries), including 12 pitchers. The fans vote for the eight starting position players while the players vote in a backup at each position. Bellinger wasn't on the ballot and it's unlikely the players vote him in as a reserve for two reasons: (1) Their voting seems to be done between mid-May to early June (players with hot starts always do better in their results). (2) He has split his time between outfield and the first base, making it unclear where players would list him.
Beyond that, if he was considered at first base, that position is loaded: Ryan Zimmerman leads the voting, and then you have Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, Eric Thames and Justin Bour all having All-Star seasons (plus Freddie Freeman before his injury), with Thames doubling as the best option to represent the Brewers.
That leaves four reserves, but one of those is saved for the final player vote. Here's what the first 16 position player spots may look like, with the current vote leader listed first followed by the likely backup:
C -- Buster Posey, J.T. Realmuto
1B -- Ryan Zimmerman, Paul Goldschmidt
2B -- Daniel Murphy, Josh Harrison
3B -- Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado
SS -- Zack Cozart, Corey Seager
OF -- Bryce Harper, Marcell Ozuna
OF -- Charlie Blackmon, Giancarlo Stanton
OF -- Jason Heyward, Jay Bruce
Yeah, that Heyward vote is weird. If he maintains his lead, he's going to cost a more deserving player a spot. The backup catcher could be somebody else -- Yadier Molina, Yasmani Grandal or Matt Wieters. Realmuto has the best offensive numbers. There's no clear No. 2 guy at second base, but let's go with Harrison. Players seem to like him and he's having the best season behind Murphy. In the outfield, the players always like the power and RBI guys. Michael Conforto could be in that mix as well.
For teams needing a rep, the Padres will certainly see one of their relievers selected, probably Brad Hand. The Phillies have just two legit options, outfielder Aaron Altherr and reliever Pat Neshek. For the Braves, Brandon Phillips could be voted in as the backup at second base, or maybe the players recognize Ender Inciarte and his defense in the outfield. Matt Kemp is another possibility. I'm thinking Carlos Martinez reps the Cardinals.
Our three probable backups -- chosen now by the MLB office, not the manager -- at this point would be Thames (Brewers rep), Grandal (they usually select three catchers) and either Inciarte or Kemp for the Braves. That leaves Neshek for the Phillies and squeezes out Bellinger -- not to mention Votto, Rizzo, Conforto, Jake Lamb, Justin Turner and Anthony Rendon. We'd have more flexibility for Bellinger if Ozuna (currently fifth in the voting) caught Heyward and Phillips is voted in over Harrison (with Ivan Nova repping the Pirates). You could replace Thames with Chase Anderson or Jimmy Nelson, but as great as Bellinger has been, he hasn't been as valuable overall as Thames or Votto or Rizzo or any of those other players I couldn't find room for on the roster.
So it's going to be difficult to get him on the team, unless he's included on the final player vote, which I suspect he'd have a pretty good chance at winning.
The Cleveland Indians are finally looking like last year's club and clobbered the Baltimore Orioles 12-0 for their sixth win in a row. Kluber became just the fifth Indians pitcher ever to toss a road shutout with at least 10 strikeouts, joining Josh Tomlin (2014), Bert Blyleven (1985), Early Wynn (1955) and, of course, Heinie Berger in 1909.
Via ESPN researcher Sarah Langs, how Kluber beat the Orioles:
- Seven K's on his curveball, most this season, and all were swinging.
- 67 percent chase on curveballs outside the strike zone.
- Fourth start this season with at least 70 percent first-pitch strike rate; had five such starts all last season.
Here's one of those curveballs:
— MLB (@MLB) June 20, 2017
Kluber's outing was impressive, but I'm more impressed by this amazing tally, courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau research: Ramirez went 3-for-6 with two doubles and a triple and is apparently the first player since 1900 with 14 extra-base hits in a seven-game span. I would have thought it might be higher, somebody who reeled off a bunch of doubles, or some slugger who mashed 10 home runs or something. (In fact, Shawn Green had 10 homers in a seven-game span around his 6-for-6, four-homer game in 2002, but just 13 total extra-base hits.) Anyway, Ramirez's remarkable stretch:
6/19: 3-for-6, 2 2Bs, 3B
6/18: 3-for-4, 2 2Bs
6/17: 2-for-5, 2B
6/17: 3-for-5, 2B, 2 HRs
6/16: 3-for-4, 2 2Bs
6/15: 3-for-5, 2B
6/14: 2-for-4, 2B, HR
In seven games, Ramirez raised his average from .279 to .318 and his slugging percentage from .464 to .561. Put that man on the American League All-Star team.
The 2017 San Francisco Giants summed up in one tweet.
Yes, it has been a rough season:
— Andrew Baggarly (@extrabaggs) June 20, 2017
Cueto gave up two runs in seven innings, before the Atlanta Braves tacked on seven runs against the Giants' bullpen. Ouch.
Pick me out a winner, Bobby.
Cubs prospect Eloy Jimenez did this at the Carolina League Home Run Derby (pay close attention to the lights):
Eloy Jimenez just went Roy Hobbs on the stadium lights. pic.twitter.com/wD2521SedW
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 20, 2017
Jimenez is one of the top prospects in the minors and is playing his way into midseason top-10 lists. His season didn't start until mid-May after suffering a bone bruise in his shoulder during spring training, but at age 20 he's hitting .278/.381/.546 with seven home runs in 97 at-bats. He combines power potential with solid contact skills (18 K's in 113 PAs), and, with 15 walks, he has improved his plate discipline from last year. Look for a promotion to Double-A later in the summer.
In bad news from the prospect world, Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres will miss the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Torres was hitting well enough after his promotion to Triple-A that he looked like a potential call-up before Sept. 1.
If you didn't think the ball was juiced ...
Clayton Kershaw allowed four home runs in that Mets-Dodgers game, first time he has done that in his career. Jose Reyes tagged him twice, first player to do that since Jay Bruce in 2012. Two of the home runs came off his curveball, the first time that has happened in one game. He has now allowed 17 home runs -- already a career high.
BALTIMORE -- The Cleveland Indians are starting to party like it's 2016.
On Monday night at Camden Yards, the defending American League champs pummeled the Baltimore Orioles 12-0 for their sixth straight win. When the streak started, the Indians were a .500 club that was two games back in what has looked like a decidedly mediocre AL Central division. Less than a week later, they're two-and-a-half games up and looking a whole lot like a team that's ready to run away and hide.
Interestingly, Cleveland's current streak comes at almost exactly the same time that the squad started rolling last season, when they kicked off a franchise-record 14-game winning streak in mid-June, finished the month with a 22-6 record, then never looked back. The difference is, while last year's wake-up call was fueled by a starting rotation that caught fire, this year's coming-out party has been built on blistering bats.
Cleveland came into the series opener in Baltimore with a five-game winning streak during which the team averaged eight runs per contest. On Monday they pounded out 17 hits, including 10 extra-base knocks, en route to scoring 12 runs. While the O's staff has been ailing, the fact that the outburst came against Dylan Bundy made it all the more impressive.
The de facto ace of the Orioles, Bundy has been the lone bright spot in an Orioles rotation that ranks dead last in the American League in pretty much every major category. The former first-round pick, who came in with a 3.29 ERA that ranked ninth among AL starters, cruised early, allowing just one hit through three scoreless frames. But the Indians broke through in the middle innings, batting around in both the fourth and fifth.
In the fourth inning alone, they tallied four doubles off Bundy, who had never allowed more than three doubles in an entire game. In the fifth, they collected four more extra-base hits, including a mammoth leadoff homer by Jason Kipnis that sailed beyond the flag court in right and landed on Eutaw Street. It was just the 90th homer to land on Eutaw since Camden Yards opened 25 years ago.
Jose Ramirez followed with a loud lineout to right, then Edwin Encarnacion walked, putting an early end to Bundy's night after just 4 1/3 innings. It was the first time all season that Bundy failed to last five innings, yet one more sign that Cleveland's bats are burning right now.
Just how hot is Terry Francona's lineup? So hot that not even a pregame downpour -- and the resulting 29-minute rain delay -- could cool off the Indians' attack.
"It's contagious," said outfielder Austin Jackson, who drove in three runs with a pair of doubles. "From top to bottom, everybody's having good at-bats. We've been doing a good job driving the ball."
And right now, nobody’s doing a better job than Ramirez.
Earlier in the day, Cleveland's third baseman was named the AL Player of the Week after a ridiculous seven-game stretch in which he hit .516 with 8 doubles, 3 homers and 7 RBIs. On Monday night, the 24-year old Dominican native picked up right where he left off, going 3-for-6 with a triple and two doubles.
Ramirez has now hit at least one double in seven straight games, a franchise record, and has raised his average nearly 40 points in less than a week. According to Elias, he's the first player in the modern era (post-1900) with at least 14 extra-base hits in a seven-game stretch.
"That's incredible," said Francona, almost at a loss for words to describe the zone his three-hole hitter is in right now. "He obviously makes solid contact a lot, but he uses the whole field and doesn't strike out much. That’s hard to defend. He's just putting the barrel on the ball so often."
As a result, the Indians are scoring runs by the bushel. Or as was the case on Monday, by the dozen -- which was 11 more than Corey Kluber needed.
"He's a bulldog on the mound," said Jackson of Kluber, the 2014 Cy Young winner who spent three weeks on the shelf earlier this season with a back strain.
Since coming back in late May, the 31-year old righty has been up to his old tricks, pitching to a 1.61 ERA and posting a 39-to-4 whiff-walk ratio. On Monday against Baltimore, he tossed a complete game, three-hit shutout, fanning 11 without walking a batter. In the process, he became just the fifth hurler in Tribe history to spin a road shutout with 10-plus punchouts and zero walks. Perhaps more importantly, he has been keeping the guys behind him in the game.
"When he's on the mound, guys get up for it," said Jackson of Kluber. "When we put a few runs on the board, that seems to be enough for a pitcher like him."
On Monday, as they've been doing a lot lately, the Indians put up more than a few runs.
"You've seen a different team, a different energy with us the last week," Kipnis said. "It shows us what we can do when we bring that energy. It's been a fun week for us."
Everyone wants to trade all the Kansas City Royals: Mike Moustakas to the Boston Red Sox, Kelvin Herrera to the Washington Nationals, Eric Hosmer to the New York Yankees, Lorenzo Cain maybe to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jason Vargas to anywhere.
Those guys are all free agents at season's end (except Herrera, who is a free agent after 2018), so when the Royals stumbled to a 10-20 start and were still sitting at 22-30 at the end of May, it made sense to view them as an obvious seller, a chance for general manager Dayton Moore to wheel and deal and replenish a farm system that ranks near the bottom of the league. After two months, the Royals simply looked like a bad team. They had the AL's worst record, its worst offense and Danny Duffy had just been placed on the DL with an oblique strain.
Well, welcome to the American League, circa 2017, where one nice little stretch of baseball makes you an instant contender. After beating the Angels 7-3 on Sunday, as Vargas became the first pitcher in the majors to reach 10 wins, the Royals have won seven of eight and they're only two games out of the second wild card, only 3.5 behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians.
Of course, everybody in the AL is in the playoff race; the Oakland Athletics, last in the American League at 31-38, are just 4.5 games behind the Tampa Bay Rays, the second wild card right now with a 37-35 record. There's time for all this to sort itself out by the end of July, but it also seems likely that none of these second-tier AL teams are good enough to pull away in the wild-card race, so we'll probably still have a mass of teams hanging around .500. I would also suggest that the Indians are much better than the Royals and more likely to pull away to a significant lead than for the Royals to catch them.
This all means Moore will face some tough choices at the deadline. Do you trade all those guys or keep them and make a run at the wild-card game, where you have a 50 percent chance of being out of the playoffs in three hours? And even if the Royals do somehow make that game, are they really good enough to beat the Astros, Yankees, Indians or Red Sox?
Further complicating matters is the new free-agent compensation system, which is tied to the contract the player signs with a new team and a tiered system that splits teams into three groups (those over the luxury tax, the 15 teams that receive the most revenue sharing and everybody else). For the Royals, presumably one of those 15 small-market teams, they would receive a pick at the end of the first round if they give the player a qualifying offer and he signs a contract worth $50 million or more; they would receive a pick at the end of the second round if the player signs for less than $50 million.
Last year's qualifying offer was $17.2 million. The Royals can't afford to pay each of the free agents $17.2 million, even on one-year contracts, so then you have to play the game of who would reject and who would accept. If you don't give them a qualifying offer, you receive nothing in compensation if they sign elsewhere.
Hosmer and Moustakas are young enough and good enough that they should get $50 million deals. Vargas, probably not, given his age and what looks like more like a career year and than real improvement. Cain will be 32 next year but is having a good year and still plays a plus center field. So I'd guess they extend offers to Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain (and maybe hope to even re-sign one or two of them).
Even with this hot streak, I don't see the Royals as one of the five best teams in the league. Vargas has been crazy-good and likely will regress, and the rest of the rotation minus Duffy isn't good. They've scored the third-most runs in the AL in June, but they're still last in the AL in OBP for the season. I don't see that recipe holding up, so I think Moore trades Vargas and Herrera and at least one of the other three. Did we mention the Red Sox have the worst third-base production in the majors?
Home run of the day. Not only did Nolan Arenado hit a home run to complete a cycle, it was a walk-off, three-run homer to beat the San Francisco Giants 7-5, after the Giants had scored three runs in the top of the ninth (Greg Holland didn't pitch):
"I get goosebumps." pic.twitter.com/9y1ha4TT0g
— MLB (@MLB) June 19, 2017
What a win in a GREAT atmosphere in front of a GREAT crowd! Rox are rollin!!!
— Jeff Hoffman (@hoff_23) June 19, 2017
I love the announcers getting so excited, the fans getting so excited and the players getting so excited. It's fun when you win! It's the kind of memorable home run that can help Arenado in a close MVP vote. Arenado also became the fifth player to complete a cycle with a walk-off home run -- Carlos Gonzalez did it for the Rockies in 2010 and the others were Dwight Evans, Cesar Tovar and Ken Boyer. And, yes, the Giants are terrible, but still, an impressive four-game sweep for the Rockies. Catch Rockies fever, it's fantastic!
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) June 18, 2017
Interesting that Dave Roberts didn't bring in Kenley Jansen to face Votto there. Pedro Baez has been very good, although his 1.47 ERA overstates his dominance (he has walked 14 batters in 30 2/3 innings). And it's not like Roberts has been averse to using Jansen for four-out saves, as he has done that six times. Jansen's workload hasn't been heavy, and he's so efficient he has thrown more than 15 pitches just nine times in 29 appearances. Anyway, he came on for the ninth and struck out two batters and now has 50 K's and still zero walks.
Double play of the day. Freddy Galvis of the Phillies with the sweet glove flip:
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) June 18, 2017
A's note of the day. Have to squeeze this in: They swept the Yankees in a four-game series, including three one-run victories. Good job, A's! The Yankees haven't won since I wrote this. Reverse jinx is working!
Logan Morrison note of the day. We need to do an in-depth examination of the Rays first baseman; Morrison hit two of the Rays' five home runs as they beat the Tigers 9-1 (Jacob Faria with a third straight one-run outing since his call-up). Morrison now has 21 home runs. Here's your update on crummy ex-Mariners first basemen:
Morrison: .245/.353/.572, 21 HRs, 47 RBIs
Justin Smoak: .292/.352/.584, 19 HRs, 45 RBIs
Baseball is a funny game.
Let the record show that Cody Bellinger did not homer in his 50th career game in the majors, as he went 1-for-5 with a double and a run scored in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 8-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Hey, you can’t hit a home run every game, even though it feels like that’s what Bellinger did over the nine days in which he hit seven home runs in seven games, including two two-homer games.
Through those first 50 games, the 21-year-old has hit .261 with 19 home runs -- most in the majors since he made his debut in April and tying Gary Sanchez’s record for most home runs through 50 games.
A quick comparison of those two starts:
- Bellinger: .261/.333/.628, 19 HRs, 10.0% BB rate, 30.5% SO rate, 45.6% fly ball rate
- Sanchez: .312/.384/.683, 19 HRs, 10.0% BB rate, 24.2% SO rate, 32.4% fly ball rate
Sanchez had the better overall numbers due to a higher batting average that resulted in part from a lower strikeout rate, but also from a higher average on balls in play that weren’t home runs (.333 versus .283). Bellinger has the higher rate of fly balls, so in one sense you can argue that his power numbers were a little more legitimate since he has the more classic profile as a guy who lofts the ball.
Indeed, Sanchez’s early home-run barrage was driven by an insane ratio of home runs to fly balls. His home runs were expected to regress in 2017 and they have, as he has hit 11 in 150 at-bats compared to 20 in 201 at-bats in 2016. His overall numbers are still excellent at .287/.371/.540, as he has maintained his strikeout and walk rates and he’s strong enough to still pop 30 home runs even with a fly ball rate that is right about league average.
Bellinger, meanwhile, would have the seventh-highest fly ball rate if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. His ratio of home runs to fly balls would rank fifth, behind only Justin Bour, Ryan Zimmerman, Jake Lamb and Aaron Judge. His average home run distance of 401.4 feet is right about the MLB average of 400.5 feet, so he doesn’t have the raw power of a Judge (average home run distance of 414.1 feet), Joey Gallo (415.5 feet) or even teammate Corey Seager (419.4 feet).
What he’s adept at doing, however, is pulling the ball. You don’t have to hit them as far when you do that. Compare his hit chart to Seager’s:
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) June 19, 2017
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) June 19, 2017
Seager basically never pulls the balls in the air – at least this season. He was a little more effective last year, when he pulled 12 of his 26 home runs. Until he starts pulling ball more often, he’s going to be somewhat limited in his power upside. Bellinger is already doing this.
Of course, pitchers will make adjustments, although based on this recent onslaught of home runs, I’d suggest Bellinger is the one already making adjustments. He has cut his strikeout rate slightly so far in June, from 34 percent in May to 28 percent. That’s a huge positive that shows, like Judge, he seems to be on a quick learning path. His walk rate may increase as well if pitchers start throwing to him a little more carefully.
If you triple his numbers over a full season, you’re looking at 57 home runs in 150 games. Is he that good? Hey, these young hitters today are so smart and so polished -- Bellinger is one who has tailored his swing to produce a higher launch angle -- that you never want to say never. He’ll likely cool off at some point as the strikeout rate is still pretty high, which could make him prone to a lengthy slump, but the early returns appear that Bellinger looks like the game’s next great power hitter.
HOUSTON -- Josh Reddick loves professional wrestling. Can't get enough of it. He once dropped $400 on a satin robe autographed by Ric Flair. He often gets ringside seats to big events. The veteran outfielder's choice in at-bat music: the heavy metal anthem of Triple-H, his favorite wrestler.
So, after signing with the Houston Astros as a free agent last winter, Reddick ordered an orange championship belt with the team's 'H' logo in the center and his name and No. 22 on the side. He custom-designed similar wrestling belts when he played for the Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers, but this time, he figured he would share it with his teammates.
"It was going to be more of a clubhouse show-off thing, and then give it to the 'player of the game' after every win," Reddick says. "That was the idea."
But two days after Reddick's belt arrived in the mail, two others wound up in the Astros' clubhouse. They belonged to Carlos Beltran, of all people, a 40-year-old slugger with a Hall of Fame resume who likely wouldn't know Triple-H from Triple-A. Beltran understands leadership, though, and unbeknownst to Reddick, he hatched his own plan to help galvanize his new team.
Beltran, another free-agent addition, went online and custom-made two replica World Boxing Organization title belts, one in blue and the other in orange, one designated as "Player of the Game," the other as "Pitcher of the Game." They would be awarded after each victory, with the most recent winners serving as judges, and the recipients would be required to stand up in the clubhouse and deliver a brief speech.
So far, the belts have been well-worn. Entering the weekend, no team in baseball had more wins than the Astros (45), who raced to an 11-game lead in the American League West. They have not lost more than three games in a row, and they reeled off a season-high 11 consecutive wins from May 25 to June 5, including a 16-8 victory May 29 in Minnesota in which they overcame an 8-2 deficit by scoring 11 runs in the eighth inning. The Astros have scored the second-most runs in the league (374) and have allowed the fewest runs (267) going into Sunday's games.
Oh, and good luck finding a team that's having more fun.
"I felt like we all got along pretty good in spring training and hung out quite a bit off the field, but it seems to have carried over here," Reddick says. "We've had a few team dinners. We had a little team get-together where everybody's come and hung out. We have a very good connection with each other."
For three years, beginning with their out-of-the-blue 86-win season and playoff appearance in 2015, the Astros have been a good team. Their young position-player nucleus -- 22-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, 27-year-old second baseman Jose Altuve, 27-year-old outfielder George Springer and 23-year-old third baseman Alex Bregman -- is regarded with envy around the league, and co-aces Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. have blossomed into a formidable one-two punch atop the rotation.
But general manager Jeff Luhnow knew something was missing last season when Houston encountered problems during a 7-17 April and never fully recovered. For all their talent, the Astros still lacked experience. They needed the steady hand and respected voice of a veteran player who has been through struggles and lived to tell about them.
The Astros needed Beltran. And Reddick. And catcher Brian McCann.
"We were a young team last year with a lot of talent but no leader in the team that can lead us the right way," Correa says. "I feel like they're leading us down the right path, which is winning. They've been there before. They've been with great teams before. They've been in the playoffs before, so they know how to win. They know what it takes. They're bringing this team together in order for us to have the season we're having."
McCann arrived first, acquired for two minor league pitchers in a Nov. 17 trade with the Yankees, who agreed to pay $11 million of the $34 million left on his contract. Six days later, Reddick signed a four-year, $52 million contract. Two weeks after that, Beltran agreed to a one-year, $16 million deal.
And with that, the Astros made gains in both ability and chemistry.
Luhnow admits all three players were targeted for both their on-field abilities and their off-field reputations, with the Astros doing their homework on the latter by talking to everyone possible, from scouts to trainers and clubhouse attendants.
"First and foremost, we looked for guys that were still producing at a high level," Luhnow says. "I understand the hypothesis that you want guys around the clubhouse who have experience and can mentor younger players, but if they're not able to perform on the field and help the team win, I don't really think that's what we want. Now, that being said, we had our choice between the veterans and we were looking at guys that we thought would be influential on our younger players and be a motivator for them.
“I think in all of those cases, it's really exceeded my expectations, watching them set the tone both on the field as well as in the clubhouse."
Beltran leads by example, drawing on his first stint in Houston. In 2004, he was 27 and emerging as a star player when he got traded midway through the season to a veteran Astros team that featured Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman. The lessons he learned were invaluable.
So during spring training, Beltran made a point of meeting with minor league players. He hung out in the batting cage with Correa, Springer and others, offering pointers whenever he noticed their swings were askew. Even Reddick, who has played in more than 800 big-league games over nine seasons, credits Beltran for helping "make a little tweak" than snapped him out of an early-season slump.
"It's something he doesn't even always know he's doing," Springer says. "He's just willing to help anybody. If you ask him something, he'll say something. He's always extremely positive. But the thing that I take from him is he shows you how to handle failure. He shows you how to handle things when things aren't going your way."
Says Correa: "He told me so many things that I didn't know about baseball -- analyzing pitchers, figuring out what they like to throw in those counts. He's taught me all of that."
McCann is the funny one. There's something about those player of the game speeches, after the belt presentations, that has brought out the personalities of several players, according to Keuchel. Some speeches have been "inspiring," Correa says. Most are focused on the team. There's even been "a fair share of bad ones," Keuchel says with a laugh.
By all accounts, though, McCann's have been the most memorable, if not always printable, for their hilarity. Even Luhnow admits to sneaking down to the clubhouse after some games to hear what McCann and others might say.
"Let's just say certain characters in here have a certain way of presenting the way they say thank you," Keuchel says. "It also makes guys get out of their shells."
But if McCann keeps the mood light, he also commands the respect of the pitchers. After all, over the past 13 seasons he has caught the likes of John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Billy Wagner, Craig Kimbrel, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. The Astros pitchers trust McCann implicitly, according to Keuchel, who is off to a 9-0 start with a 1.67 ERA with McCann as his personal catcher.
Keuchel worked with McCann in each of his 11 starts before going on the disabled list earlier this month with a nerve issue in his neck and credits McCann with helping him return to the form that won him the Cy Young in 2015. Likewise, McCullers has a 2.44 ERA in nine starts with McCann behind the plate en route to a 2.58 ERA in 13 starts overall before going on the DL with lower back pain.
"It seems like McCann has something to say for everything, and that just means he's good at recognizing different people, different personalities," Keuchel says. "When you've caught multiple Hall of Famers and Cy Young Award winners, I'd be dumb not to listen to what he had to say, especially when it comes to my career and what he thinks I should do on the mound."
Reddick learned leadership early in his career from Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and retired slugger David Ortiz. After getting traded to Oakland, Reddick was mentored by outfielder Jonny Gomes, known throughout his career as a positive clubhouse presence. Gomes was also a serial winner, reaching the postseason in four out of five seasons with three teams from 2010 to 2014. Reddick made four playoff appearances with the A's and Dodgers from 2012 to 2016.
It isn't a coincidence.
"I think chemistry is really important. I put a lot of stock in it," Luhnow says. "I just don't know exactly how to engineer it. I do think young players are going to look for [veterans'] reaction, see how they're behaving. Quite frankly, the fact that Josh Reddick runs out every ground ball regardless of how it's hit and how much of a chance he has to beat it out, even if we're down 13-1 or up 13-1, that's huge. It's an example for the rest of the team."
None of this guarantees the Astros will win the World Series, of course. They will need to keep the position players healthy and get a strong return from Keuchel and McCullers, and even then, they seem to be at least one starting pitcher short of having a rotation that can blitz through the postseason.
But while Luhnow hunts for help before the trade deadline at the end of next month, the Astros will keep trying to one-up each other on the field in order to pass the championship belts around the clubhouse.
"It's made the game even more fun than we already had," Springer says. "We look forward to getting back in here and doing the speeches at the end of the game. These guys -- Carlos, Josh, Mac -- they've brought all that out, and it's been great. They've been everything to us."
On Friday night, the Colorado Rockies got a win from rookie Anthony Senzatela. Or, should we say, another one, because it was his ninth of the year, good enough to tie for the MLB lead in wins with guys like former Cy Young winners like Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel.
Now sure, starting pitcher wins aren’t exactly a meaningful metric as much they're a symptom of teamwide excellence. But between Senzatela, Kyle Freeland (Saturday’s starter), German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman, the first-place Rockies aren’t just making a run at their first National League West title, they could make some history along the way. The rookie Rockies' 3.70 ERA (through Friday) would rank fifth among MLB rotations, but with 25 wins between those four already in the bank, the Rockies could set a record for most wins by rookie starters in the expansion era. That record was set by the Marlins, with 43 rookie starter wins in 2006. The Oakland A’s set the record for a playoff team in 2012 by getting 40 victories in 101 turns.
That A’s team surprised everyone by taking sole possession of first place for the first time all year on the last day of the season in an amazing come-from-behind American League West title (sorry, Rangers fans). This year’s Rockies are nothing like that -- they’ve been out in front most of the season, and their four rookies are a big part of the reason why.
The rookie quartet has provided the Rockies with an unexpected stability in a rotation that could have been undermined by injuries and illness at the outset. With 2016 14-game-winner Chad Bettis undergoing chemotherapy in March after he had already needed surgery in December, the Rockies also lost No. 1 starter Jon Gray to a broken foot three starts into his season. Throw in lefty Tyler Anderson landing on the DL with a knee injury, and what was one potential job opening at the start of spring training became four jobs. Usually, that might signal a team about to spiral out of contention. It would certainly excuse it. Instead, the Rockies had the depth to deal with their dilemma. Hoffman, Marquez and Freeland ranked fourth through sixth in Keith Law’s top 10 Rockies prospects, with Senzatela ranking 13th while coming back from an arm injury.
Admittedly, all four rookie Rockies benefit from the virtues of being on an already strong team, especially a strong bullpen. The Rockies’ pen ranks third in the majors in stranding inherited baserunners (24 percent), and have allowed just 24 of the 91 men left on base by starters to score. They also have the benefit of a great defense behind them, contributing to some below-average BABIPs (.290 for Freeland, .268 for Senzatela). You can say those numbers will regress -- especially as we move into warmer weather -- but if the Rockies sustain their excellence afield, their young pitchers stand to benefit. The wins are a symptom of that success.
The decision to hire Bud Black to manage also needs to be mentioned. Black was an excellent handler of pitching staffs going back to his days as the Padres’ skipper and even earlier as the pitching coach of the Angels team that won the World Series in 2002. Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner ranked among his bigger success stories in San Diego; both were doubtful rotation prospects when they came under Black’s care. But give a strong staff manager a strong collection of talent and you can expect results at any altitude. What the Rockies’ rookie quartet has going for it, in terms of what they can do as well as the help they’re getting, would work in any ballpark.
All four of the Rockies’ rookies rely heavily on fastballs, as they’re all in MLB’s top 30 among starters in terms of fastball frequency. Overall, the Rockies rank second in baseball in fastballs thrown by their starters, and they’re third in average fastball velocity, trailing just the Pirates and the Mets, two teams that came into the year more famed for their rotation talent. It also makes for a remarkable difference from the "great changeup experiment" that inspired the Rockies' disastrous decisions to sign Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle back at the beginning of the Aughties.
The Rockies' foursome didn’t come from a cookie-cutter, though. Hoffman gets some of the highest spin rates in baseball on his curveball, even while his fastball sits around 95 mph. Marquez also throws 95 mph. Senzatela’s fastball is only slightly slower, averaging 94 mph, complemented with a sharp slider. They have plus stuff on top of the benefits of working with a plus defense and a strong pen.
Freeland in particular is generating a lot of ground ball outs, ranking in the top five in MLB in ground balls and in ground ball/fly ball ratio. That’s his game, working quickly (just 3.6 pitches per plate appearance, just outside the top 10) while getting lots of weak contact and balls in play with a low-90s fastball. So while batters miss on his pitches on just 14.2 percent of their swings, which ranks 159th out of 172 pitchers with five or more starts, he’s keeping his infield busy.
Will it work all year? It might not have to. Gray just started a rehab assignment, so his recovery from his broken foot is already well in hand. Anderson might not be out much longer with his bum knee. And Bettis is coming back faster than expected from his treatment from cancer. But with these wins already in the bank and between the rookies’ in-season performance and those reinforcements, the one thing the Rockies might not need to worry about as a contender at the trade deadline is trading for a starter.
The Houston Astros have the best record in baseball, but the dream season has hit a few bumps. Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton are all on the disabled list, along with Collin McHugh, who has been out all season with an elbow injury.
The need: another starter for the Astros
The Astros are being cautious with left-hander Keuchel (neck discomfort) and right-hander McCullers (sore back), taking advantage of their big lead in the American League West to not push them through what don’t appear to be major injuries at this time. Thanks to those two, the rotation boasts the second-best ERA in the majors behind the Diamondbacks, but you only get so many chances to win a ring. Another starting pitcher would provide some depth and probably line up as the team’s No. 3 starter in the playoffs ahead of Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove.
Here are some of the options that might be available:
The good news is that after battling injuries in 2016 and starting the season on the DL with a lat strain, Gray is healthy and throwing well. Would the A’s trade the right-hander within the division? Never say never, as I’m sure Billy Beane -- if he doesn’t think the A’s can compete with the Astros the next two or three seasons -- wouldn’t mind extracting two prospects and their 12 combined seasons of team control from a West foe. Still, intra-division deals are rare.
Darvish is a free agent after this season, and unless the Rangers go in the tank between now and July 31, I’d predict they keep their ace and hope to make a run at one of the wild cards.
Another would-be rental, Vargas is pitching the best baseball of his career. While his BABIP is normal, he’s still outpitching his FIP thanks to an unsustainable strand rate, and his home run rate -- especially for a fly ball pitcher -- is probably due for a spike. But if you want to bet on the hot hand, this might be the guy.
Cole is under control through 2019, so he’d be expensive even though he hasn’t pitched that well. Given his mediocre strikeout rate and home run problems so far, I’d be wary about bringing him to the American League.
Best trade match: Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
5.30 ERA | 4.17 FIP | .259/.330/.441 | 22.8% SO rate | 9.2% BB rate
So this gets us to the pitcher linked to the Astros since last offseason. From 2013-16, Quintana pitched 200 innings each season and compiled a 3.35 ERA. If he wasn’t quite an ace, his durability and consistency made him one of the best starters in the league. With a team-friendly contract that goes through 2020 for a total of $30.85 million over the final three seasons, everybody thought the White Sox would trade him over the winter. They didn’t and it might have been a mistake.
Quintana has allowed five or more runs in four of his 13 starts, with some minor spikes in walk rate and home run rate compared to his career norms. His ERA looks bad, but the FIP is a respectable 4.17, and while the extra walks aren’t helping, one reason for his high ERA is a low strand rate of 66.7 percent, significantly below his 78 percent rate of the previous two seasons.
The more you dig into the numbers, Quintana is mostly the same pitcher. His velocity is fine, his strikeout rate is actually a career high, his well-hit average is lower than his career rate. I see a pitcher who is better than his ERA and has probably pitched in some bad luck. Vargas has been better so far, but I’d probably take Quintana the rest of season.
Of course, the White Sox would love to see him reel off three or four good starts in a row to convince teams they could get the same package they might have wanted over the winter.
What do they need? Everything! The hauls for Chris Sale and Adam Eaton brought in pitching prospects Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, with Dunning -- the least heralded of the four -- having the best season. In other words, you can never have too many pitching prospects. That’s why the White Sox should ask for Francis Martes, Houston’s top prospect. He’s up now filling in for the depleted rotation even though he was struggling in Triple-A. Still, he’s 21, and throws mid-90s with a swing-and-miss curveball.
The White Sox also will ask for outfielder Kyle Tucker, Houston’s first-round pick in 2015, but the Astros aren’t trading him. Would they part with Derek Fisher, who was tearing up Triple-A and homered in his big league debut Wednesday? I like Fisher a lot and he has the ability to help them this season. If he can handle left field, they could slide Marwin Gonzalez into some first base and designated hitter to help the offense even more.
So let’s try a different direction: The Astros also include pitcher Franklin Perez, a 19-year-old Venezuelan with an advanced, four-pitch repertoire, third baseman J.D. Davis, who is hitting .286 with 16 home runs at Double-A, but has some swing-and-miss in his game, and outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, a potential starting outfielder who reached the big leagues last season but is blocked in Houston.
What do you think? Who says no?