Ervin Santana has had a Six Flags-type of career: Jump on the roller coaster, and hope you enjoy the ride. He has had more good seasons than bad, he was suspended for PEDs and now, at age 34, he's in the midst of the best run of his career.
On Tuesday night he fired a 2-0 shutout for the Minnesota Twins, becoming the first pitcher since Carl Pavano in 2010 to blank the Orioles at Camden Yards and lowering his MLB-best ERA to 1.80. His 66 percent strike rate was his second-highest this season, and the Orioles went 0-for-12 on outside pitches, including 0-for-7 against his slider. He's the first pitcher with two shutouts this season and has allowed two or fewer hits in five of his 10 starts. Batters are hitting just .134 against him, the lowest for a pitcher through his first 10 starts since Bob Turley's .133 mark in 1955.
— Ervin Santana (@ErvinSantana_54) May 24, 2017
Now, there's a lot of luck there, considering his .138 BABIP is 50 points lower than Dan Straily among qualified starters, and nobody else is below .200. His strikeout rate is actually a tick below last season and ranks just 60th among starters, and he's walking more batters. When he does give up hits, he's leaving those runners stranded; he's first in left-on-base percentage. So, yes, his good fortune will eventually turn, but what can we expect the rest of the season?
I thought it would be helpful to check some other surprising pitchers who have posted a sub-2.00 ERA on May 23 in recent years and see where they finished the season:
- 2016 -- Drew Pomeranz, Padres: 1.70. He had pitched mostly in relief and carried his hot start to an All-Star appearance. Finished at 3.32.
- 2015 -- A.J. Burnett, Pirates: 1.39. In the final season of his career, the veteran made his first All-Star team. Finished at 3.18.
- 2014 -- Jeff Samardzija, Cubs: 1.46. This was amazing, because he was 0-4 in 10 starts. Finished at 2.99.
- 2013 -- Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks: 1.44. Made the All-Star team. Finished at 3.41.
- 2012 -- Brandon Beachy, Braves: 1.77. Blew out his elbow four starts later. Finished at 2.00.
- 2011 -- Alexi Ogando, Rangers: 1.81. He'd been a reliever, moved to the rotation and made the All-Star team, and then would move back to the pen the next season. Finished at 3.51.
The interesting thing from this group: Pomeranz and Samardzija were traded a few weeks later -- Pomeranz to the Red Sox, Samardzija to the A's -- and Santana, who is signed through 2018 with a $14 million team option for 2019, has been prominently mentioned in trade rumors since last offseason. Except the Twins are in first place in an American League Central that looks pretty mediocre unless the Indians get on a roll like they did last season.
Of course, how the Twins play over the next two months will determine Santana's fate, and maybe they'll trade for a starting pitcher rather than trade one away. The offense, with Miguel Sano's monster start and on-base machine Robbie Grossman, is better, although it looks more like a middle-of-the-pack offense at best. The defense is much improved -- Byron Buxton, everyone! -- and they lead the majors in Defensive Runs Saved after ranking 28th last season (getting Grossman out of the outfield has helped immensely). Anyway, in the tightly packed AL, the Twins can probably hang close enough at least in the wild-card race to where trading Santana in July becomes unlikely. If you have a chance to go for it, go for it.
Charlie Blackmon is on a tear The Rockies beat the Phillies 8-2 behind Blackmon's two home runs and improved to 30-17, easily the best start in franchise history:
2 in 1 night. =¥ pic.twitter.com/GDkdWQkd1O
— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) May 24, 2017
It has been a great road trip for the Rockies. Even though they faced Minnesota, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, this could have been one of those trips where the Rockies went 3-7 and hit .202 while scoring two runs per game. Instead, the offense seems to be picking up, and they've gone 6-2 with two more games in Philly.
As for Blackmon, he now leads the majors with 40 RBIs. He's a leadoff hitter. He's hitting .463 with runners in scoring position, and eight of his 11 home runs have come with somebody on base. He entered the day ranked 29th among National League position players in WAR, which ... well, that seems wrong. Blackmon does have a large home/road split -- 1.259 OPS at home, .742 on the road -- but I'm also buying into this power surge. He hit 29 home runs last season, and over a calendar year he has hit 38 home runs, just one fewer than teammate Nolan Arenado. He's not your prototypical leadoff hitter, because he doesn't walk much and he's not stealing bases like he did in 2015 when he swiped 43 bags, but the total package is impressive. Maybe Arenado is still the team MVP, but Blackmon is right there this season.
Lance McCullers' curveball makes grown men weep If Santana is an early Cy Young candidate, so is McCullers, who fired five scoreless innings for the Astros in a 6-2 win over the Tigers to improve to 5-1 with a 2.43 ERA. His curveball grip is featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week with good reason: It's one of the biggest weapons in the game. He throws it at 86 mph and throws it a lot -- 46 percent of the time, more often than he throws his fastball. Batters are hitting .218 against it with a 36 percent strikeout rate. The knock against McCullers is pitch efficiency.
Play of the day. Kyle Schwarber hit a baseball a very long ways:
— #Statcast (@statcast) May 24, 2017
Have to love Joe Maddon's postgame quote:
Joe Maddon compared Schwarber's HR to the beginning of Star Trek when the Enterprise flys by and "gets small" really fast.
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) May 24, 2017
Big win for the Cubs. They hit three home runs off Johnny Cueto, and Jon Lester fired a 99-pitch, 10-strikeout complete-game win, not going to a three-ball count all night. Unfortunately, not all good news for the Cubs: David Ross finished second in "Dancing with the Stars."
Quick thoughts ... Great duel between Clayton Kershaw and Lance Lynn as Yasmani Grandal's first-inning homer held until the Cardinals tied it in the ninth off Kershaw when Randal Grichuk singled and then scored from second on a wild pitch. Should have brought in Kenley Jansen! (Kidding. Kershaw was awesome. No reason to take him out.) ... Yes, that was Jose Bautista starting at third base for the Blue Jays, and he even started a double play. ... The Angels are 25-23 after beating the Rays, and it seems like Mike Trout is getting zero help (paging Kole Calhoun). ... Good lord, Michael Conforto. He also homered twice and is now slugging .713. Is he headed for the best offensive season in Mets history? The only Met to slug .600 is Mike Piazza, who did it twice. ... My new favorite minor leaguer: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He's just 18 and hitting .346 in the Midwest League with more walks than strikeouts.
This is how the rich get richer: Select a skinny high school first baseman with a sweet swing that only led to one home run his senior season in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. Then, less than four years later, watch that player explode onto the major league scene with nine home runs in his first 25 games.
That is exactly what has happened with Cody Bellinger in Los Angeles.
The Dodgers have a rich history of rookies, going back to their Brooklyn days. Jackie Robinson was named the first Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Dodgers players have won 17 of the awards, most of any team. Bellinger, hitting .295/.362/.653 in his red-hot first month in the majors, could be the second straight, following Corey Seager last season. That's nothing for this franchise: They won five in a row from 1992 to 1996 (Eric Karros, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, Hideo Nomo, Todd Hollandsworth).
Bellinger -- check him out against the Cardinals on Tuesday (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET) -- broke out in his fifth game, against the Phillies on April 29. He homered off Zach Eflin in the seventh inning, belting an 0-2 slider out to right field. In the bottom of the ninth, he homered off a Hector Neris splitter. That was the second of three straight homers in the inning, as the Dodgers rallied with four runs to win 6-5.
Bellinger homered twice again on May 5, hit a grand slam off the Padres' Miguel Diaz on May 6, hit one off tough Rockies lefty Jake McGee on May 12. His most impressive home run may have been this one a few days ago off Marlins closer AJ Ramos, an opposite-field blast off a pitch on the outside corner:
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) May 20, 2017
The kid who hit one home run as a high school senior is now 21 and blasting 414-foot home runs to left-center.
The son of former Yankees infielder Clay Bellinger, Cody starred at Hamilton High School in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. He was a gifted defensive first basemen with projection, but scouts wondered about his power potential. Andy MacCullough of the Los Angeles Times recently profiled what the Dodgers saw at the time -- when Ned Colletti was the general manager:
Bellinger was a difficult prospect to project. As a first baseman, his future depended on his slugging. During batting practice, Bellinger felt he could put on a show. But during games, opposing pitchers kept him contained inside the ballpark -- even if they could not keep him off the bases.
Scouts felt bearish on his future. "Some of the guys have admitted it to me, 'We didn’t project him to be a power guy. We didn't know how that body was going to fill out,'" [high school coach Mike] Woods said.
Bellinger slipped to the fourth round. Colletti does not cast his scouting department as a collection of soothsayers. He admitted he did not project Bellinger to transform into a power hitter. But the organization felt entranced by his smoothness at first base and his athleticism. The team offered him a $700,000 signing bonus, nearly $300,000 above the recommended amount for the 124th pick.
Colletti, much maligned during his tenure as GM, was the man in charge when the team drafted Seager and Bellinger. He and scouting director Logan White also drafted Joc Pederson -- another son of a major leaguer -- in the 11th round in 2010. Their first pick together in 2006 was a high school lefty from Dallas by the name of Clayton Kershaw. Julio Urias and Yasiel Puig were signed under their watch in 2012. Seems like Colletti and White should get rings if the Dodgers do win a title.
That Bellinger is here already and making such an impact is a bit of a surprise. He began the season at Triple-A with good reason. He'd spent all but three games of 2016 at Double-A Tulsa, hitting .263 with 23 home runs (he hit three more home runs in three games at Triple-A). While he'd cut way down on his strikeout rate from 2015, Adrian Gonzalez was entrenched at first base, and the Dodgers outfield -- where Bellinger had started playing some in 2015 to take advantage of his athleticism -- was crowded. A season, or at least a few months, at Oklahoma City made sense, with a September call-up, similar to Seager in 2015.
The Dodgers basically tried everything to avoid calling Bellinger up. Andrew Toles and Franklin Gutierrez started as the left-field platoon, with Andre Ethier on the DL. Gutierrez soon landed on the DL as well. The team called up Trayce Thompson and played him and Kike Hernandez in the outfield. Thompson went 0-for-8 and Rob Segedin was called up to replace him, with Scott Van Slyke drawing a start in left field that night. Segedin got hurt and Brett Eibner, who may soon be trying his hand at pitching, was recalled and made two starts in the outfield. On April 24, Pederson landed on the DL with a groin strain.
Finally, Bellinger got the call. He was hitting .343 with five home runs at Oklahoma City. Think of that chain of events before they put Bellinger in the lineup: Injuries to Ethier, Gutierrez, Segedin and Pederson, plus Thompson struggling and then Van Slyke struggling and Eibner, too. Even then, when Pederson was activated on May 5, Gonzalez was placed on the DL with elbow soreness, allowing Bellinger to play first base instead of perhaps being sent down. That was the night he had his second two-homer game, and it became clear he wasn't going back down.
When Gonzalez returned to the active roster, Toles tore up his knee, opening up left field again, and helping the Dodgers avoid the decision of whether to play Bellinger over the homerless Gonzalez (for now, at least).
No matter where he plays, he can hit. He has added muscle to his frame and changed his swing a couple of years ago to add more torque and backspin. He studies heat maps to see his weaknesses. Of course, we should calm down a bit here: Gary Sanchez had that monster first month for the Yankees in August before the league caught up to him in September. Still, it has been quite the 25-game start for Bellinger, the new young star in L.A.
When the Colorado Rockies traded franchise icon Troy Tulowitzki back in July 2015, the prospect they got in return from the Toronto Blue Jays was Jeff Hoffman. While the impetus for the trade included dumping $98 million in future salary owed to Tulowitzki, the Rockies took a risk in acquiring Hoffman.
He had been in line as a potential first overall pick in the 2014 draft out of East Carolina before blowing out his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery. The Blue Jays took him with the ninth pick, and at the time of the trade, Hoffman had returned to make 13 starts in the minors. While he had shown that mid-90s fastball again, he had struck out just 46 batters in 67 2/3 innings and allowed more hits than innings, hardly desirable numbers for an elite prospect.
What were the Rockies getting? Maybe the pitcher everyone saw before the injury. Hoffman had a solid season at Triple-A Albuquerque in 2016, striking out more than a batter per inning, although he struggled in 31 innings with the Rockies. He returned to Triple-A to start 2017 but has now made a couple of spot starts in the majors, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 11 and the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday after allowing one run and three hits over seven innings in an 8-1 victory. The stat to note: He has fanned 15 batters in 12 1/3 innings in those two starts. Strikeouts are good.
Against the Phillies, Hoffman consistently hit 97 mph in the early innings. He lost a little juice in his last couple of frames, then adjusted by throwing more breaking balls. In his final inning, he struck out Tommy Joseph on a curveball, then toyed with Maikel Franco, throwing him three curveballs and then a slider off the plate that Franco helplessly waved at. Fifty-nine of Hoffman's 99 pitches were fastballs, and he mixed in 17 curves, 16 sliders and seven changeups. He changes eye level by throwing the fastball up in the zone, then dropping in the curveball. That four-pitch mix and growing confidence to use any of them in any count has him looking like a pitcher the Rockies can count on.
This Rockies team might have more rotation depth than any in franchise history. Keeping pitchers healthy always has been an issue for them. Check out the total starts over the past decade by the five pitchers with the most starts (along with the total WAR for the entire rotation):
2016: 131 (12.1 WAR)
2015: 111 (4.7 WAR)
2014: 109 (5.8 WAR)
2013: 124 (10.9 WAR)
2012: 97 (2.6 WAR)
2011: 109 (8.4 WAR)
2010: 127 (16.3 WAR)
2009: 155 (16.8 WAR)
2008: 126 (12.0 WAR)
2007: 122 (11.8 WAR)
The Rockies can't rely on five starters. Getting through a season at Coors Field with five or six starters isn't realistic. A lack of depth in the rotation has always burned the Rockies, and they've cycled through some bad pitching. Last year's rotation actually was pretty healthy. This year, however, already has seen the loss of Chad Bettis, who is battling testicular cancer, and Opening Day starter Jon Gray with a broken foot in his third start.
The Rockies have thrived even with three rookies in the rotation in Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Freeland and German Marquez, and now Hoffman as a fourth rookie. Gray will come back at some point, giving manager Bud Black seven viable options for the rotation. The thing Hoffman brings is the potential for strikeout stuff. Gray fanned 185 in 168 innings last year. Marquez also comes with a big fastball. The Rockies might still look for a veteran starter in July, but the kiddie corps is looking solid.
Instant replay helps Yankees The Yankees beat the Royals 4-2 behind three home runs, but the key play came with two outs in the top of the seventh with the Yankees up 3-2. Alcides Escobar grounded up the middle, Starlin Castro making a nice play way to his right, but Escobar initially was ruled safe as Jorge Soler hustled all the way from second base and beat Chris Carter's throw home to tie the game. Upon further review, Escobar was called out, the run nullified. Carter's home run in the bottom of the inning provided an insurance run.
By the way, Brett Gardner had one of the Yankees' three home runs, his ninth. He's hitting .346/.429/.726 in May with seven home runs and 20 runs in 19 games. Gardner was an All-Star back in 2015, when he had big first half before fading to a .206 average in the second half. His power numbers certainly are Yankee Stadium-inflated, as he's hit six of his nine home runs at home, but the American League outfield candidates are a pretty slim group. In fact, entering Monday, three of the top seven outfielders in WAR were on the Yankees -- Aaron Judge second, Aaron Hicks sixth and Gardner seventh. Corey Dickerson is third, and he's mostly been a DH. Mitch Haniger is still eighth in WAR among AL outfielders, and he hasn't played since April 25. If All-Star selections were today, Gardner probably would be there.
Lady and the Gramp The Cubs lost, but David Ross looked like a winner in the "Dancing with the Stars" finale. He and partner Lindsay Arnold received a perfect score from the judges. (Anthony Rizzo had said before the Cubs game he'd be asking for an in-game update.) The winner will be announced on Tuesday's show on ABC.
— Official DWTS (@DancingABC) May 23, 2017
Play of the day Albert Almora in a losing effort for the Cubs:
All-out Almora! pic.twitter.com/YPCH6nPpaa
— MLB (@MLB) May 23, 2017
The Giants won the game 6-4 as Ty Blach took a shutout into the eighth, a remarkable effort given the 15 mph wind blowing out at Wrigley. The Giants hit three home runs, all solo shots -- which is par for the course. Grant Bisbee points out that the Giants have just 46 RBIs on their 38 home runs this year, while ESPN Stats & Information reports that the Giants' past 18 home runs have all been solo shots. The most consecutive solo home runs since 1969 belongs to ... the 2011 Giants, with 21.
Quick thoughts ... Two more Rockies notes: They're now 16-7 on the road, which always has been their bugaboo. Yes, I just wrote "bugaboo." They were 33-48 on the road last year. Friend of the blog Richard Bergstrom also reports that the Rockies historically play better at home as the weather heats up. From 2007 to 2016, the Rockies were .526 at home in April and .467 in May. But in June, July, August and September, the winning percentages jumped to .532, .585, .558 and .571. ... Scott Schebler has 13 home runs for the Reds. He was part of the three-team trade with the White Sox and Dodgers back in December 2015. ... Congrats to Brandon Phillips for his 200th career home run. He's one of just six players who primarily played second base with 200 homers and 200 steals -- joining Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Ian Kinsler, Joe Morgan and Ryne Sandberg. ... Ender Inciarte, one of my favorite underrated players, had a 5-for-5 day for the Braves. ... Chris Devenski had one of those relief gems for the Astros: He tossed 2 2/3 hitless innings as Brad Peacock and three relievers combined to one-hit the Tigers. That's seven outings of at least two innings for him. Managers: Find your Chris Devenski!
CHICAGO -- It’s one thing to earn the moniker “The Korean Babe Ruth.” It’s quite another to leave the Pacific Rim, sign in the major leagues and spend a month putting up Bambino-like numbers. It’s yet another thing to cope with the aftermath of sudden fame at baseball’s highest level.
When we last checked in with Thames, he was on a historic run on his way to an 11-homer April in which he posted a 1.276 OPS. The Korean Babe Ruth allusions became widespread because Thames became a fixture on television, radio and podcasts, and he was the subject of numerous articles. Plus, the Brewers were off to a good start, so it made for a nice, little April story.
“It was definitely an honor to be wanted by all the shows and personalities,” Thames said. “But it got tiring. It got to a point where, you know, I’m really big into my routine and doing the same things. It was kind of like the first time in my life I got tired of talking.”
Thames cooled off, in no small part because he started getting fewer pitches to hit. Then, not long after Thames’ opportunities to drive the ball began to dry up, his star teammate, Ryan Braun, went on the shelf with a calf strain. Panic in the streets of Milwaukee! The regression monster is loose!
What do you think happened? The Brewers got even better. By the time Braun returned from the disabled list for Sunday’s game against the Cubs after a nine-game absence, the Brewers had won seven of the games he missed and moved into first place in the NL Central. The short-handed lineup ranked third in the majors during that span by averaging six runs per game.
That average was maintained Sunday, when the Brewers scored five late runs in a 13-6 loss to Chicago. Thames had to leave the game early when his calf tightened up as he legged out a groundout. It has become an ongoing problem for him, and every time it crops up, the Brewers proceed with caution. It’s a hard pill for the psyche of a player as routine-driven as Thames to swallow. Indeed, after the game, he stewed in front of his locker. The smattering of media waiting on him eventually dispersed, not wanting to poke the grumbling bear. Hey, the guy cares.
“I’ve been very impressed with how a number of our players have adjusted in-season, and certainly Eric is among them,” Brewers GM David Stearns said. “Pitchers throughout the industry have clearly taken notice of what he did early in the season, and they’ve unquestionably adjusted their approach. Eric has stayed very patient. I think that speaks to his dedication to the team as a whole.”
The amazing thing about the Brewers’ start is that they have rarely had all of their key pieces rolling at the same time. But the depth on this team is formidable. To wit: While Braun was out, Thames’ power game slumped. He managed just a pair of singles during Braun’s absence, and he missed time with strep throat. Teams were staying away from him, testing the patience he worked so hard to hone during his time in Korea. In May, only 42.1 percent of the pitches Thames has seen have been strikes. Only eight qualifying big leaguers have seen fewer. But the Brewers have continued scoring and winning.
“We always want to focus on the guys with the biggest numbers,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “On this team right now, there are a lot of guys who we want to just be the best version of themselves. That’s what has led to a lot of our offensive production. A lot of guys are contributing. It doesn’t have to be Eric every day or Ryan every day. Guys have taken their turns being that guy -- driving the bus, as we like to say. It’s been a lot of different guys, and to me, that’s how you consistently score runs in this league.”
Given that Thames’ mantra is “don’t chase,” and he isn't getting strikes, that leaves but one alternative, and he has accepted it. In other words, he has taken his walks and trusted his teammates to do their work. Those two lone singles Thames posted during Braun’s absence? During that time frame, he put up a .429 on-base percentage.
For the season, his .432 on-base mark ranks eighth in baseball. Yet it has been a challenge, as it is when you know you can hit a major league fastball 450 feet. While Thames’ chase rate during May is better than league average (22 percent), it is up 5.7 percent from April. He knows that in this Milwaukee lineup, he doesn’t need to do that. But it would be nice to get some pitches to drive.
“Oh my gosh,” Thames said, when asked if he is indeed getting fewer fat pitches. “It’s tough, you know. This is the big leagues. You’re not going to get cookies every time. What made me a good hitter in April was that when I got the good pitch, I didn’t miss it. Now the guys are just pouring stuff on the black, you know, close enough to the strike zone that it could be a strike. That’s just the way it is. There will be other times when it will go the other way, when I will get more pitches to hit.”
The Brewers’ record is supported by their run differential and could be even better, if not for some shaky ninth-inning results that happened before Milwaukee shifted its closer role from Neftali Feliz to Corey Knebel. Now it gets really interesting for Stearns, who faces the same round of questions that confront every decision-maker for teams on the verge of shifting into win-now mode.
“I don’t know that our organization can ever look at exclusively a short-term strategy,” Stearns said. “And that applies to this year, next year, five years from now. We’re an organization that has set a path and a goal to compete consistently. In order to do that, we have to continue to balance the near-term needs of the major league team with the long-term strengths of the organization. That is our focus now and will be our focus going forward.”
The Brewers feature the third-youngest group of position players in the majors. That’s despite the fact that Stearns’ thrifty shopping on the free-agent market landed him two post-30 contributors whom, entering the season, no one paid any attention to. One is Thames, and the other is 31-year-old journeyman Eric Sogard. If Thames was the April sensation, May has belonged to Sogard.
Sogard, who looks more like a middle school math teacher than a ballplayer, had not played in the majors since 2015. However, Stearns called him up when Braun went on the shelf. Sogard proceeded to homer off New York’s Matt Harvey in his first Milwaukee appearance and has been doing his best Roy Hobbs impression ever since, hitting .500/.621./.909 in his first eight games. Just like Stearns drew it up, right? Well, kind of, because almost any time a developing team seems to make an unexpected leap forward, there are surprise contributions from role players.
“Everyone that we’ve asked to play a role on this team has done a really nice job,” Stearns said. “[Sogard] is a great example of a player who worked himself back from injury, put in a lot of work, got an opportunity and has been a really important part of this team since he got here.”
How real are these Brewers? Consider this: The Brewers own a plus-27 run differential after Sunday’s game, bettered in the National League by only Washington, Arizona and Los Angeles. Milwaukee’s odds of making the postseason, according to the simulations at fivethirtyeight.com, have improved from 13 percent to 36 percent. It still feels tenuous, but it also feels kind of real.
Still, don’t expect a repeat of 2008, when the Brewers traded four players, one of which turned out to be top-notch outfielder Michael Brantley, to the Indians for a half-season of CC Sabathia. Sabathia was dynamite for Milwaukee, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in helping the Brewers into the postseason. Then he signed with the Yankees. This time around, the Brewers are looking to straddle the line between maximizing the opportunities of this season and prioritizing the long-term objective of annual contention.
“I don’t know that what we’ve done to this point has impacted our overall strategy,” Stearns said. “That’s true whether it occurs this year or any year. What it does is it continues to inform us about our players at the major league level and the steps they’re taking.”
Another thought with a team potentially shifting into win-now mode is this: Why should they be so eager to shake up a mix of players that is already working really well?
“I think that is a big part of the calculus,” Stearns said. “We have confidence in the players we have. We have confidence that these guys are going to continue to get better. I think you can look at some of our players and see meaningful strides that the players have taken in just the first month of the season. If that continues, our team is going to continue to improve.”
Meanwhile, Thames is sticking to his routine, whether or not the national shows come calling. He’s still in the early stages of getting acquainted with Milwaukee, a perfect locale for a player with a frequently expressed appreciation for good beer. In fact, on Monday, Thames, along with Knebel and teammate Oliver Drake, are teaming up with a national brewery based in Milwaukee to mix up a new beer that will be served for a limited time at Miller Park. You could say that, in more ways than one, something special is brewing in Brewtown.
“Our team is feeling so much emotion right now,” Thames said. “We can feel it. It’s not like, ‘Wow, we’re in first place now.’ We know that we’re a good team now. It’s a good thing to be a part of that. Even my family said watching the games that we look like a team that is jelling. Everybody is having fun. We’re picking each other up. We know we’re good, and we go out there and let our play speak for itself.”
Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. This isn't about that. This is about the best player in baseball getting better. It's happening, and it's wonderful.
Maybe the most amazing thing about the Los Angeles Angels center fielder's first five seasons was the consistency. Other than the little stumble at the beginning of his career during his 40-game call-up in 2011, he arrived in the majors as a finished product, which is why he finished first or second in the MVP voting all five of his full seasons. Oh, maybe he'll hit more home runs one year, like when he hit 41 in 2015, and he had that little strikeout issue in 2014 that sent his average tumbling all the way to .287. His walk rate has been high since his second season, and he even stole 30 bases again in 2016. His consistency was anything but boring.
But now we have this:
This could be turning into one of those seasons -- Mickey Mantle 1956, Carl Yastrzemski 1967, George Brett 1980, Barry Bonds 2001 -- when the player and the year are forever linked in legend. Before the season, I was skeptical Trout could raise his game to a new level. He was already so good, and even though he was 25 -- the age when many players first hit their peak -- most players don't suddenly improve after 3,500 plate appearances in the majors, no matter their age.
There have been signs, however, that Trout could find some ways to get better. His strikeout rate had improved each of the past two seasons. It has dropped again in 2017. When he hit those career-high 41 home runs in 2015, Trout played through a wrist injury in August and hit just one home run that month. Otherwise, he had a slim chance of reaching 50. He has a chance to get there this season: He's on pace for 49 -- but that's based on a projection of 141 games played, because he missed five games earlier this month with a tight left hamstring. He returned from that injury to homer five times in 10 games, including his 14th of the season in Sunday's 12-5 win over the New York Mets. That's already the most home runs he's had by the end of May and the Angels still have 10 games remaining in the month.
His past eight home runs have all gone 400-plus feet. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is at a career high, and, according to ESPN Stats & Info, his well-hit average of .231 is the second highest of his career, behind 2012's .246 mark. Those are the results, as we can see, in that .350 average and .757 slugging percentage. What has he changed to get there?
I thought the answer would be simple: He has continued to improve against the high pitch. Trout entered the league as a dead low-ball hitter, and pitchers eventually learned to exploit the one weakness in his game: fastballs up in the zone. In 2014, he hit .076 against pitches in the upper third of the strike zone (or above). Now, he has such a great eye that he's good at laying off those pitches, so if pitchers threw up there, they had to make sure it wasn't out of the zone. Last year, Trout hit .234/.602/.438 against pitches in the upper third. The numbers in 2017: .071/.364/.286.
This is old-school Trout: He's crushing low pitches, and he's crushing mistakes in the middle of the zone. For the most part, he's laying off high pitches. One thing he's doing, however, is swinging more often. His overall swing rate is 41.4 percent, compared to a career mark of 38.3 percent. He's swinging at the first pitch more than 25 percent of the time -- compare that to the 10 percent rate of 2014 and 2015. This is obviously a deliberate part of his game, as it increased to 17 percent last year. That approach has paid off with a few extra hits; when putting the ball in play, he hit .615 last year and .467 this year (it's only 15 at-bats so far). He's swinging more often on 2-0 counts, up from a 30 percent career rate to 42 percent.
Think of the problems that more aggressive approach creates for pitchers. It's not as easy to get ahead in the count now, but if you don't challenge him, you're more likely to fall behind in the count -- and he's being a little aggressive in those counts, as well. So this is how the best player in the game gets better, by simply refining his game just a little bit. Good luck, pitchers.
Mike Trout has a higher career WAR than Bryce Harper and Manny Machado combined.
— Ted Berg (@OGTedBerg) May 21, 2017
The Astros are the best team in the AL? Not so fast, my friends. Big series for Cleveland, which went into Houston and cleaned up with 5-3, 3-0 and 8-6 victories. Two keys for the Indians have been Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes. Kipnis started the year on the DL with a sore shoulder and struggled in his return, hitting .155 through his first 19 games, but has hit .387 with three home runs in his current seven-game tear. The big surprise has been Gomes, who had gone south at the plate the past two seasons after hitting .278 with 21 home runs in 2014. He homered and drove in five runs on Sunday, and is hitting .267/.359/.456. Small sample-size warning for Gomes, but considering the Indians received no offense from their catchers last year, this would be a huge bonus.
— #Statcast (@statcast) May 21, 2017
Greg Holland's opus
The Colorado Rockies took two of three from the Cincinnati Reds to climb to 28-17, and Holland picked up his 19th save in Sunday's 6-4 victory (they hit four home runs off Bronson Arroyo, including one from pitcher Kyle Freeland). Holland is on pace for 68 saves -- yes, we're still early enough that on-pace stats are dubious -- which would break Francisco Rodriguez's single-season record of 62 set with the Angels in 2008. Holland has saved 67.9 percent of the Rockies' victories; Rodriguez saved 62 percent of the Angels' 100 wins in his record season.
As Rodriguez proved in 2008, you can save that many games without a big workload. He appeared in 76 games but pitched just 68 1/3 innings. Holland, likewise, hasn't been used heavily despite the all the saves. He's on pace for 72 games and 65 innings and has appeared in back-to-back games just three times. Coming off Tommy John surgery, you know the Rockies wanted to be careful about using him on consecutive days, let alone three in a row, so his save opportunities have been fortuitous in that they've been spread out. Here's the other thing: Holland has been more dominant than Rodriguez was in 2008.
(Here's a great piece from Sam Miller examining how conventionally -- or unconventionally -- all 30 teams have managed their bullpens so far.)
Play of the day
— MLB (@MLB) May 22, 2017
As the New York Post headline reads: How the hell did Aaron Judge catch this ball?
Quick thoughts ... The Texas Rangers had their 10-game winning streak snapped on Saturday but bounced back with a win Sunday night against the Detroit Tigers behind home runs from Mike Napoli and -- of course -- Pete Kozma. Anyway, the amazing thing from this game: Sam Dyson recorded three strikeouts, his first since April 11. He had gone at least 43 batters without a strikeout. ... Koda Glover got the four-out save for the Washington Nationals in a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves, so maybe he's the new closer. He has the stuff to hold on to it; just a matter of Dusty Baker trusting the rookie. ... Trea Turner's OBP is down to .265; does Baker start thinking of changing his order around? Would be nice to give Bryce Harper more runners on to drive in. ... Joc Pederson hit his first home run since Opening Day. I expected him to have a 30-homer season, so his start is disappointing. The weird thing is he has one of the higher average exit velocities (fourth in the majors, right behind Judge). While his fly ball rate is a little lower than last year and his launch angle slightly lower than the MLB average, it looks like a guy hitting into some bad luck. ... Weird stat line of the year: Buster Posey is hitting .362 with seven home runs but has just 11 RBIs in 127 at-bats. How does that happen? For starters, all seven of his home runs have been solo shots. He's hitting .264 with men on base, but those 14 hits have produced just four RBIs. With runners in scoring position, he's 6-for-24.
The first time I saw Joey Gallo was a few years ago in spring training. He was coming off a 40-homer season in his first full year in the minors that had vaulted him up the prospect charts. He struck out three times that day -- or maybe it was four. I can't remember exactly. I do remember him swinging through a bunch of fastballs and my wondering what the future might hold.
The future has finally arrived, and it's fascinating.
Adrian Beltre's calf injury opened a spot for Gallo in the Texas Rangers' lineup, and he has played every game for the suddenly red-hot Rangers, who have won ten of their last 11 games as they head into their game against the Tigers on Sunday night on ESPN. Gallo is testing the upper limits of what is achievable in modern baseball: He strikes out, he hits home runs, he strikes out some more, he draws a few walks, he hits some more home runs, and he strikes out a whole lot more times. He's taking the concept of "three true outcomes" to a level never seen before.
Entering Sunday's game, Gallo is hitting .184/.303/.504 with 13 home runs, and he ranks second behind Nomar Mazara on the Rangers with 29 RBIs. He leads the team with 29 runs, tied for 14th in the majors. Despite that .184 batting average, his park-adjusted wRC+ of 113 means he has been better than an average hitter (100 is average).
The raw power, of course, is prodigious, an 80 on the 80-point scouting scale. He does things such as this home run off Daniel Norris on Friday:
— #Statcast (@statcast) May 20, 2017
Or this walk-off home against the A's on May 12:
Or this 462-foot home run over the popcorn wagon in the right-field concourse:
Of course, while he's on pace for 47 home runs and 106 RBIs, he's also on pace for 231 strikeouts, which would break Mark Reynolds' single-season mark of 223 set in 2009. Reynolds hit 44 home runs for the Diamondbacks that season, but he also managed to hit .260. The strikeouts caught up to him the next season, however, when he fanned 211 times and hit just .198 with 32 home runs.
That's the most home runs ever by a sub-.200 hitter. I guess that's one "record" Gallo is aiming to break. Only 12 players have hit 20 home runs while batting under .200, including Reynolds twice. Here are the top seven, plus Gallo:
You can see what makes Gallo unique, even within this extraordinary group: He has the highest strikeout rate and the highest wRC+. That strikeout rate, in fact, would be the highest ever by a player with at least 400 plate appearances. Only eight times has a player with that many PAs fanned in at least 35 percent of them; Melvin Nieves has the highest at 38.8 percent. If you're striking out that much, you eventually find yourself on the bench.
Can Gallo keep this up? He has 26 hits -- half of them for home runs. That's insane. When Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, 46.7 percent of his hits went for home runs. Mark McGwire was at 46 percent when he hit 70 in 1998. His 2001 season, listed above? He had 56 hits, 29 for home runs -- that's 51.8 percent. As such, Gallo isn't quite in unprecedented territory. His BABIP is extremely low at .200, which you would expect because when he does make contact, it often flies over the fence.
Here's the concern, however. Through April 24, he was hitting .232 with a .985 OPS, with a 32.4 percent strikeout rate. Since then, his strikeout rate has skyrocketed to 38.2 percent, and he's hitting .145/.244/.406. Although his overall season line suggests that he can succeed while striking out nearly 40 percent of the time, that appears to be the upper limit. You can play a guy hitting .184 who hits home runs and draws walks, but a .145 hitter with a .244 OBP, even with Gallo's power, might force manager Jeff Banister to rethink things.
That's the thing: The future has arrived, but we don't know how the new future will unfold, let alone where Gallo will move on defense once Beltre returns to third base. If Gallo can cut that strikeout rate to 32 percent, like he did in April, he's going to be a star. But what we've seen in May suggests that he isn't a lock to remain in the lineup all season.
You're up, Joey. What comes next?
It's never too early to start thinking about deals, even if major trades rarely happen before July. Let's start with an obvious hole.
The need: A closer for the Nationals
The Washington Nationals need a closer. Heck, some would argue they need a whole new bullpen. Entering Thursday, they ranked 27th in the majors in bullpen ERA, 20th in win probability added and 16th in strikeout percentage minus walk percentage, while five different relievers have picked up saves. It's enough to make a modern manager's head explode.
With a commanding lead in the terrible NL East, the Nationals have time to sort through the guys on the roster. Veterans Shawn Kelley and Joe Blanton have each surrendered six home runs in 23⅔ combined innings, and if those two don't figure things out, the Nationals will be looking for more than just a closer. One possible addition: Erick Fedde, the 2014 first-round pick, who has been moved to a relief role at Double-A Harrisburg.
Still, the surest move that will happen this season is the Nationals acquiring some relief help.
Let's look at some of the options:
His command has deserted him a bit the past couple of seasons, but Robertson still owns an elite strikeout rate, and he's a proven closer with playoff experience. He is signed through 2018, making $12 million this year and $13 million next year, so if the White Sox want a better prospect in return, they'd probably have to include some cash to offset the salary.
Herrera is off to an odd start: His strikeout rate is down 10 percent from last season, and he has already allowed four home runs. He's averaging 97.6 mph on the fastball, so although he's no longer hitting 100 mph as he was a few seasons ago, his velocity appears to be fine. He is arbitration-eligible next season and becomes a free agent after 2018.
The lefty was one of baseball's best setup men from 2013 to 2015 and took over as the Pittsburgh closer last year after Mark Melancon was traded to the Nationals. But Watson hasn’t been as dominant in 2016 and 2017: He served up 10 home runs last year, and has a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio in '17. He’s a free agent at season's end.
Hand isn't San Diego's closer, but he has developed into one of the most dominant relievers in the game the past couple of seasons after struggling as a starter with the Marlins. The emergence of Jose Torres in the Padres' bullpen means they have three outstanding lefties, so they could cash in on Hand while his stock his sky-high. He is making just $1.3 million this year and is under team control through 2019.
Best trade match: Kansas City
I'd say Watson is out because of his so-so numbers, although the Nats could look at him as a setup guy. Robertson's salary complicates a possible deal, and Hand -- he's the guy I'd go after -- doesn’t have that proven-closer label the Nationals likely prefer. Herrera makes sense, and there's even the possibility of working Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain into a bigger deal.
Herrera isn't in the Aroldis Chapman-Andrew Miller class, and no, the Nationals won't trade outfield prospect Victor Robles, one of the top prospects in the minors. Would the Nats consider dealing Juan Soto, an 18-year-old outfielder who is hitting .360 with more walks than strikeouts in low Class A ball? The upside on him suddenly looks very high, but flags fly forever, and the window with Bryce Harper might just be 2017 and 2018.
The trade: Soto and a second-tier pitching prospect for Herrera and Cain. As good as Soto is, he's also just 18 and a few years from the majors. He's probably a left fielder in the long run since he lacks a prototypical right fielder's arm. The Nationals make a huge upgrade in center field with Cain (who is a free agent) to replace the injured Adam Eaton and acquire Herrera for this season and next. The Royals get a premium hitting prospect in a system that lacks one, which they'll need as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas hit free agency.
The Milwaukee Brewers are 24-18 and in first place after a 4-2 win over the San Diego Padres on Thursday, their ninth in 11 games. Sure, it's unlikely to last. The odds are long, especially in a tough NL Central where you know the Chicago Cubs haven't yet played their best baseball. The computers give them about 2 percent odds of winning the division, about 10 percent of making the playoffs. You know what, though? It's fun to be in first place!
So let's dream up the scenario in which the Brewers remain competitive all season.
1. Eric Thames keeps putting up MVP-type numbers
Thames is hitting .313/.432/.688 and he has slowed down a bit since the Brewers stopped playing the Cincinnati Reds. Still, if he can keep an OPS around 1.000, it gives the Brewers a premier run producer. I also love that Craig Counsell has kept him in the second spot in the lineup, maximizing his high on-base percentage.
2. The rest of the lineup is legit
The Brewers are second in the NL in runs per game, first in the majors in home runs and tied for third in wOBA, so there is some depth behind Thames and they're scoring runs even without Ryan Braun. Travis Shaw is slugging .545, they have good bench options in Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar and their catchers have been hitting. And Eric Sogard went 4-for-4 on Thursday, his second four-hit game in three days. The key guys for me are Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton. They got off to slow starts, but have much better of late, and Santana is up to .271/.362/.442 and Broxton is at .266/.324/.453. Those two strike out a ton -- the Brewers have the second-highest K rate in the majors behind the Tampa Bay Rays -- so they will be prone to hot and cold streaks, but they're not overachieving right now.
3. They have a closer
Corey Knebel has replaced Neftali Feliz and he's the real deal, picking up his third save on Thursday as he struck out the side (around two walks). He has 38 strikeouts in 22 innings and owns the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings. He averages 96 mph with his fastball and mixes in a curveball that batters are hitting .188 against.
4. The starting rotation maybe isn't terrible
OK, there's no ace here. There's not really a No. 2. Zach Davies, who got the win on Thursday, is 5-2, but has a 5.44 and he was supposed to be their best starter. Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson have been decent, but one key is there could be help coming from the minors in Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader, two top prospects in one of the best farm systems in the majors. Woodruff has been one of the best starters in Triple-A and while Hader has battled some control issues, he has terrific stuff. Colorado Springs also has a 30-year-old minor league vet named Paolo Espino, who has a 2.54 ERA with 40 strikeouts and five walks in 39 innings. Maybe he turns into this year's Junior Guerra.
5. The NL has a lot of bad teams
Four of the teams in the NL East are horrible. The Padres are bad. The Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants have struggled and the Reds don't have the pitching. That opens the door for a surprise contender like the Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks or Brewers.
6. They have the best bobblehead of the season:
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) May 17, 2017
An eye for eye and a loss
As expected, the Atlanta Braves plunked Jose Bautista in the top of the first inning, retribution for Freddie Freeman's broken wrist and Bautista's bat flip from Wednesday. Buster Olney summed up the ridiculousness of the baseball code:
The unwritten rules work against ATL. The struggling Teheran drills Bautista, who reaches base to start a 3-run rally. What's the point?
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 19, 2017
Maybe it didn't matter in the long run of a blowout victory for the Blue Jays, but why give a free baserunner when you have a struggling pitcher in Julio Teheran? He's becoming a concern for the Braves. It's too early to read anything into his home/road splits -- he has a 10.50 ERA at home -- but not too early to worry about the walks and decrease in swings-and-misses.
— MLB (@MLB) May 19, 2017
Jose Berrios has a breakout performance
The Minnesota Twins and Rockies split a doubleheader, but it was Berrios' performance in the nightcap that had everyone buzzing, with 11 strikeouts and two hits in 7⅔ innings. Double-digit strikeout games are commonplace these days ... except for the Twins. Since 2011, Twins starters had just eight such games prior to Berrios' outing. The Washington Nationals had 24 in 2016 alone.
Berrios was a top prospect before the 2016 season, but he had one of the one rougher seasons in recent history, posting an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts, just the 12th pitcher to make at least that many starts and finish with an ERA over 8.00. With that in mind, the Twins gave him six starts at Rochester to open this season. He was great down there (1.13 ERA) and now has two excellent starts with the Twins, hopefully giving him the confidence to succeed in the bigs.
— Patrick Saunders (@psaundersdp) May 19, 2017
Nine in a row for the Texas Rangers
It has been mostly about the pitching. Martin Perez allowed two runs in seven innings as the Rangers beat the Philadelphia Phillies 8-4. They've had eight quality starts in the nine games, won all eight games on the homestand and now embark on a nine-game road trip to Detroit, Boston and Toronto that will be a good test.
Well played, kid. Well played. pic.twitter.com/En7Tin7SUt
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) May 18, 2017
Quick thoughts ... Good take from Jerry Crasnick on the how the Mets' injury issues go beyond just the injury list. ... Andrew Marchand has a closer look at Starlin Castro's big start for the Yankees. ... From the things-I-dislike file: Dusty Baker hits backup outfielder Brian Goodwin in the 2-hole. Now, a couple regulars were getting the day off, but Baker didn't want Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy hitting back to back, so he had Anthony Rendon in the cleanup spot and Matt Wieters and Adam Lind hitting sixth and seventh. But this is common sense: Why bat your worst hitter second just to separate the lefties? Is getting a potential extra at-bat from Murphy (or even Lind) more important than worrying about a lefty coming out of the Pittsburgh bullpen. Just bad managing. ... Speaking of the Nats, one guy struggling is Trea Turner, who is down to .236/.269/.417. As great as he was last year, his aggressive approach was the concern and pitchers have figured out how to exploit that as he has 34 strikeouts and just five walks.
There's no other to way put it: Freddie Freeman's injury sucks. He's going to miss eight to 12 weeks, according to Buster Olney, and while Freeman won't require surgery on his fractured left wrist, that's still two to three months without one of the best hitters in the game.
When the Atlanta Braves' first baseman was injured with an inside fastball from Blue Jays reliever Aaron Loup on Wednesday, Freeman was leading the majors in slugging percentage. The title of best hitter in the game was really between him, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
Aaron Judge and Ryan Zimmerman are the others who also have a slugging percentage over .700 in 2017 (Eric Thames is just under), but they don't have the track record going back to last year. As I wrote just the other night, Freeman's been on a tear since the middle of last June, when he claims everything turned around for him after he changed his approach in batting practice to hitting more line drives to shortstop. Whatever the reason, he's been mashing ever since. The best hitters since June 13 of last year:
The immediate impact for the Braves is that a mediocre offense -- eighth in the National League in runs per game -- takes a huge hit. Freeman and Matt Kemp had been one of the best one-two punches in the league. Outside of Nick Markakis (who has a .395 OBP but just one home run) and a fluke .473 OBP from Tyler Flowers, however, there isn't much else here, especially with Dansby Swanson off to a rough start.
To replace Freeman, the Braves have reportedly signed journeyman James Loney, which won't do the lineup a ton of good. Not that the Braves were playoff contenders. Even with Freeman and Kemp hitting like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Atlanta is just 16-21. The Braves fancied themselves as sleeper contenders in the first year of their new stadium, but that was never going to happen with an offense that had too many OBP problems and a rotation counting on 40-somethings Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey. Colon has been awful (6.80 ERA) and Dickey not much better, so even the plan of using them as trade bait in July is unlikely to come to fruition.
For Braves fans, much of the future remains in the minors, especially in the starting rotation at Double-A Mississippi, which features 19-year-old Kolby Allard, 19-year-old Mike Soroka, 20-year-old Luiz Gohara and 22-year-old Patrick Weigel, all premium prospects and throwing well. So while it may end up being another under-.500 season, there is plenty of talent coming to mix in alongside Freeman.
For baseball fans, it's a missed opportunity to see Freeman pursue a monster season, maybe even an MVP award. It's obviously early and some of the numbers will regress, but we have five players slugging .700 -- the last non-Barry Bonds player to do that was Sammy Sosa in 2001. The last non-Bonds/Sosa/Coors Field/Mark McGwire player to do it was during the strike-shortened 1994 season, when Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas and Albert Belle all got there. It's also a missed opportunity to see Freeman at the All-Star Game, one of those likable guys baseball would have loved to showcase in the Home Run Derby.
Then there's the game Thursday night between the Blue Jays and Braves. The Braves lost their superstar hitter, there was the Jose Bautista bat flip and the Jays have plunked seven Braves hitters in three games. If I'm Bautista, I'd be wearing some extra body armor.
In the seventh inning of the Atlanta Braves' 8-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, Braves reliever Jason Motte struck out Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar on an 0-2 slider, using a quick-pitch that upset Pillar so much that he yelled what appeared to be an anti-gay slur at Motte, leading to a benches-clearing incident.
In reviewing the video, it certainly appears that Pillar said what everyone believes he said. I don’t know if Pillar grasped after the game that video would show this, but he sort of issued an apology to Motte after the game -- "It was immature, it was stupid, it was uncalled for. It’s part of the game." On Thursday, after Major League Baseball launched an investigation, Pillar issued a more complete apology on his Twitter account:
— Kevin Pillar (@KPILLAR4) May 18, 2017
Yes, this happened in the heat of the moment, but that doesn’t excuse using that word. The league should suspend Pillar for at least one game, maybe two. Would people accept an athlete using the N-word in the heat of the moment? No, and the slur Pillar used isn’t acceptable either.
The Blue Jays announced a two-game suspension for Pillar on Thursday afternoon, and there is precedent for such a ban. Yunel Escobar, then with the Blue Jays, was suspended for three games in 2012 after writing an anti-gay slur on his eye-black patches. In the NBA, Rajon Rondo, then with the Sacramento Kings, was suspended for one game in December 2015 for using the slur toward a referee.
It’s worth noting that Escobar was essentially run out of town after his incident, which happened in September. After the season, he was traded to the Marlins, who traded him a few days later to the Rays.
Of course, Escobar had a bad season, while Pillar has been the Blue Jays’ best player so far, hitting .305/.357/.497 with his usual excellent defense in center field. So he’s not going to be run out of town. Still, his image has been tarnished. For fans who want to make excuses for him, ask yourself: What would be the first words out of your mouth in the heat of the moment? Maybe a curse word, but most of us wouldn’t dig up such a hateful slur. At least, I hope not.
It’s about treating everyone with respect and dignity. Athletes, like it or not, are public figures and should be held to a code of conduct of acceptable behavior in this regard, so a short suspension for Pillar is fair and in order.
You might want to turn on Thursday night's game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves because there's a good chance of extracurricular activity after a string of emotional events on Wednesday that once again showed why Jose Bautista is the most disliked player in the game and the Blue Jays the most hated team.
Trailing 8-3 in the eighth inning, Bautista homered off Braves pitcher Eric O'Flaherty, flipped his bat, stared down the reliever and then had words with catcher Kurt Suzuki as he crossed home plate. That caused the benches to clear, although no punches were thrown.
Suzuki wouldn't say what was said, other than it was just something that happened in the heat of the moment. O'Flaherty was smiling as he joked about Bautista getting punched in the face last year by Rougned Odor:
#Braves' O'Flaherty on Bautista: "I'm surprised he's ready to fight again after last year. But he was throwing some looks around."
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienAJC) May 18, 2017
Bautista, maybe realizing that pimping a home run that landed just a few rows into the left-field stands while down five runs is ridiculous even for him, tried to diffuse the situation after the game, saying "I understand why they would be upset," and that he didn't really mean anything with his antics:
Bautista: "Basically just let them know that I wasn't trying to show up anybody and hopefully it's in the past." #BlueJays
— Gregor Chisholm (@gregorMLB) May 18, 2017
The staredown was just an accident! Right. Still, that might be the end of things except there was an earlier benches-clearing situation when Kevin Pillar got ticked off after striking out against Jason Motte, apparently upset that Motte quick-pitched him.
More significantly, Braves star Freddie Freeman left the game after getting hit in the hand by a pitch from Aaron Loup. Initial X-rays were inconclusive and he'll undergo more tests on Thursday. It was clearly an accident -- the pitch wasn't that far off the plate as Freeman simply failed to react from the inside fastball from the sidearmer -- so that could have also been the end of things, except that was the seventh time the Blue Jays have hit a Braves batter in three games of this home-and-home series.
The Blue Jays hit five batters on Monday, including Loup hitting Nick Markakis. They hit one on Tuesday. And then Freeman. Even if none were intentional, you can take only so much without feeling the desire for some revenge, especially if your superstar MVP candidate has suffered a long-term injury.
This isn't an anti-bat flips creed. I'm not against Bautista having fun playing baseball. But this wasn't him enjoying the moment; this was him being a jerk simply for the sake of being a jerk. It's an NBA player dunking and hanging on the rim when down by 35 points. It's celebrating a touchdown when you're losing by 28. It's ego over team. Enjoy the moment when warranted, not when on your way to getting creamed for the third game in a row.
Hey @JoeyBats19 when you're hitting sub Mendoza line, you shouldn't bat flip like you're God's gift to baseball. Grow up, sporty spice.
— Cooks (@MitchCooksey) May 18, 2017
Oh, Manny! Another good game between the Orioles and Tigers, this time with a controversial ending. Manny Machado was up with two outs in the ninth against Justin Wilson, runners on first and third, the Tigers up 5-4. Wilson decided to go after Machado instead of pitching around him to face the lefty-swinging Chris Davis. While the lefty-lefty matchup would have been preferable, you hate to load the bases with no margin for error.
Anyway, Wilson went after him with all fastball. Machado checked his swing on an 0-1 pitch and first-base ump CB Bucknor ruled -- correctly -- that he didn't swing, although the Tigers did plenty of chirping from the dugout. On a 2-2 fastball up and away, Machado again checked his swing. Once again, Detroit catcher James McCann appealed to Bucknor, and this time Bucknor rung up Machado. The consensus: Machado did not swing, and it certainly wasn't one that batters get rung up on too often. So the Tigers' bullpen gets the save, with a little help.
Rangers are rolling: On May 8, the Rangers were 13-20. Now they're 21-20! That's eight wins in a row! Andrew Cashner got his first win in seven starts, even though his ERA is 2.45. That's not sustainable, as he actually has more walks than strikeouts and fanned just two against the Phillies on Wednesday, but the Rangers continue to get great results from the pitching staff. At the minimum, the return to playoff contention means the Yu Darvish trade rumors will die down for now. (Although you wonder what Jon Daniels might do in late July if the Rangers are 10 games behind the Astros and simply fighting for a wild card. What if the Yankees blow you away with a trade offer?)
I love stuff like this as well. Reliever Austin Bibens-Dirkx made his major league debut at 32. Not only as that an all-time name, but what a test of perseverance after spending 11 seasons in the minors, including parts of eight seasons in Triple-A.
Play of the day: We'll pretend those two miscues last week from Kevin Kiermaier never happened. You know, the two ground balls he turned into Little League home runs. He's still a Gold Glover. Well, him or Byron Buxton or Pillar or Lorenzo Cain. He ended the Rays' 7-4 win over the Indians with this catch:
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) May 17, 2017
Awesome fun fact of the day: Good job, Padres!
I really hope that everyone can read and enjoy this Petco Park Fun Fact. pic.twitter.com/xNxa9WxBfc
— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) May 18, 2017
Quick thoughts ... I feel like I haven't mentioned Clayton Kershaw in these nightly wraps, but what is there to say? He's still the best. He threw an easy seven scoreless frames against a terrible Giants lineup that featured Eduardo Nunez hitting leadoff with a .287 OBP; Justin Ruggiano, a rookie hitting .209 batting third; Michael Morse; Mac Williamson; and Gorkys Hernandez. I don't know if that would be a good lineup in the Pacific Coast League. ... Kershaw's career ERA at AT&T is 1.29. ... Jose Altuve had his first four-hit game of 2017 after recording eight such games last season. ... The hitting stars for the Rangers were Jared Hoying and Delino DeShields, the eight and nine hitters, who each got four hits. The last time that happened for the Rangers? Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ramon Vazquez in that infamous 30-3 win over the Orioles in 2007. ... Albert Pujols left the game for the Angels with some type of leg injury. Get this: He has a .663 OPS, but is on pace for 121 RBIs. The most RBIs for a player with an OPS that low is Tony Bautista with 99 in 2003. Don't let the RBI total fool you, Pujols isn't helping the Angels. ... Strong outing for Gerrit Cole to beat the Nationals. The Pirates need more of this because he could be prime trade bait. ... Mike Trout homered again. That's five in six games. Trout is good at baseball.
With the Boston Red Sox facing the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), the pitching matchup of Rick Porcello versus Mike Leake is particularly intriguing because Leake is perhaps this year’s Porcello. Last season, Porcello became a surprise Cy Young winner, entering the season with a career 4.32 ERA, but going 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA to edge out Justin Verlander in the voting. Leake, coming off a 4.69 ERA with the Cardinals in 2016, now leads the NL with a 1.94 ERA.
Is it for real? Probably not, but we would have said last year that Porcello or Kyle Hendricks wouldn’t keep it up. Hendricks also starts Wednesday, and after some rough outings to start 2017, he has allowed just four runs over his past four starts.
Let’s take a closer look at Leake and two other Wednesday starters who may be on their way to Porcello-like seasons.
Mike Leake, St. Louis Cardinals
Stats: 4-2, 1.94 ERA, 46 1/3 IP, 36 H, 10 BB, 32 K's, 3 HRs
Leake is a perfect fit for the Porcello profile: Veteran starter with a good health record, kind of viewed as a midrotation innings eater, in his second season with a new team after a disappointing first season. Porcello made one obvious change in 2016, throwing more two-seam fastballs instead of four-seamers. Leake has always been a sinkerball guy and hasn’t really changed his approach, but his cutter has been much more effective, with batters hitting just .169 against it, a key reason lefties aren’t pounding him like they did a season ago.
That said, there is some BABIP-driven luck going on here (seventh-lowest among starters). There is also a high strand rate (eighth-best among starters). His rate of home runs on fly balls -- 13.5 percent in his career (which was also his 2016 rate) -- is at 8.5 percent. His ground ball rate is the same as it was last year. His strikeout-minus-walk rate is essentially the same. So in many ways, he’s the same pitcher. In Porcello’s case, he has regressed this year in part because all those luck-driven factors have turned against him, so his ERA is up even though his strikeout and walk peripherals are a little better.
Note that sometimes “luck” isn’t a fair analysis. Pitchers -- and pitches -- aren’t always the same from year to year. In fact, Leake’s cutter is moving much differently. His career spin rate on the cutter has been about 850 rpm. This year it’s at 1,441 rpm. That seems to be affecting the movement. His cutter has always broken away from a right-handed hitter; this year, it’s breaking into them (or away from a lefty).
Stats: 5-1, 1.01 ERA, 44 2/3 IP, 33 H, 8 BB, 39 K's, 1 HR
How great is baseball? Vargas is 34 years old, he has made just 12 starts over the past two seasons after Tommy John surgery, his fastball is slower than ever and, suddenly, he’s pitching the best baseball of his life. He has thrown zeroes in four of his seven starts, his strikeout rate is better than ever, and his changeup has basically been unhittable. He’ll get a tough test Wednesday against the Yankees.
As he recovered from surgery last season, Vargas traveled with the team, working on his delivery with pitching coach Dave Eiland. “We really honed in on just cleaning up his delivery and repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating,” Eiland told the Kansas City Star’s Rustin Dodd. “He’s always had good command. But now his delivery is so clean and on time, it’s almost like he’s perfected it.”
Of course, it’s not quite that simple, or every pitcher would simply clean up his delivery. Vargas has dropped his release point a little bit, so pitches are coming out of his hand about two inches closer to first base. That’s added more horizontal movement to the pitch, which seems to be working, as opponents are hitting .119 against it; in 67 at-bats ending with a changeup, they have just two doubles and no home runs. ESPN Stats & Info tracks the number of hard-hit balls against it at two. Batters are also swinging and missing more often: In his most recent full season in 2014, batters had a miss rate of 36.6 percent on the changeup; so far, it’s at 43.3 percent. Here’s a look:
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 14, 2017
Will this continue? It will not! His ERA is 1.01! As with Leake, there does appear to be some real improvement here, however. Look, the home run rate will go up at some point, and maybe batters will start adjusting to the changeup. But it’s a beautiful thing to watch, and as Jamie Moyer has proven, you can be successful throwing slow and slower. The Royals are playing better of late, but they remain long shots for playoff contention, which could make Vargas one of the most interesting names at the trade deadline.
Stats: 6-1, 1.50 ERA, 54 IP, 23 H, 21 BB, 41 K's, 6 HRs
Baseball is insane. That’s one of the strangest stat lines you’ll see. The walk rate isn’t impressive, the strikeouts aren’t impressive, the home runs allowed aren’t particularly low. Nothing makes sense. Batters are hitting .129 off him. He has allowed nine runs, and six of those were from the dudes who hit home runs, so only three of the other 42 baserunners have scored. His strand rate is 98.4 percent. Even crazier, six of those runs came in one game, when the Red Sox hit four home runs off him. Otherwise, he has given up no runs or one run, including four starts of two hits or fewer.
Ervin Santana is the 1st pitcher with 7 starts allowing 1 or fewer runs in his team's first 32 games since 1981 (Fernando Valenzuela).
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 13, 2017
I heard an interview with Santana last week, and he explained his strong start to “maturing and not trying to strike everyone out.” But he has been in the big leagues 13 years. He’s just maturing now? Of course, he’s not going to say, “I’m the same guy, the balls are just being hit right at people.”
Anyway, diving into some of the metrics, I don’t see Santana doing anything different. He’s still fastball/slider/changeup, same velocity, same everything. Just a guy with a low BABIP and Byron Buxton behind him.
George Brett would later recall his 1980 season, when he hit .390 and chased .400 into late September, this way: "I was 27 and in the prime of my life."
Freddie Freeman is 27 years old and he's hitting better than Brett did that magical summer when he produced a slash line of .390/.454/.664. After going 2-for-4 with his 14th home run in Tuesday's win for the Atlanta Braves, Freeman is at .343/.457/.754 and it's a beautiful thing to watch -- this tall, lanky guy with the sweet swing swatting baseballs all over the place. Is there such a thing as being in the zone? We know announcers and players talk all the time about hot streaks, but are those merely random fluctuations of performance, or can athletes really achieve these higher levels when they seem to reach a state of invincibility?
Whatever is going on with Freeman, it's clear he has taken his game to a new level over the past year or so and is now in the discussion alongside Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and maybe Joey Votto as the best hitter in the game. Over the past calendar year, the leaders in wOBA among players with at least 500 plate appearances:
Your leaders in extra-base hits:
Freeman is the only player to appear on both lists. Here he is turning on a Marco Estrada pitch on Tuesday:
— MLB (@MLB) May 16, 2017
The amazing thing about Freeman's stretch is this MVP level of play didn't actually emerge until last June. On June 12, he had dropped to .242 with nine home runs. It took him 302 at-bats to hit 14 home runs last year; this season, he did it in 133. His turnaround, he told MLB.com in spring training, started when he changed his approach in batting practice:
"I have zero idea why I hit more home runs last year," Freeman said. "I changed my batting practice in June by trying to hit line drives to the shortstop, and it turned my whole season around. I wasn't trying to lift anything or do anything any different. I was just trying to stay on the ball and stay inside the ball and maybe backspin it a lot more."
Can it flip just like that? Can a good hitter became great with a change in pregame routine? Baseball isn't supposed to be that easy. A key factor is that Freeman was always an all-fields hitter, but now he has tapped into his power. Similar to Miguel Cabrera, he's a good hitter with power, as opposed to just a power hitter. His opposite-field home run totals are similar to peak Cabrera:
Freddie Freeman's spray chart since last June 13 (he's hit .341/.444/.690 since then): pic.twitter.com/iDa5YxuAT6
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) May 17, 2017
If the Braves weren't the worst team in baseball Freddie Freeman would be famous and stuff.
— Logan Booker (@LoganMBooker) May 16, 2017
K-Rod gonna K-Rod. One of the best games of the season in Detroit, a wild 13-11 win for the Orioles. J.D. Martinez -- scorching hot since his return -- hit a grand slam in the seventh to give the Tigers an 8-7 lead. The Detroit bullpen had tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings of relief, but it needed 6 2/3. Mark Trumbo tied it up with a two-out home run off Justin Wilson.
An interesting moment came in the bottom of the 11th. The Tigers had runners at second and third, one out, Justin Upton at the plate with Martinez on deck. Some managers would have walked Upton here to set up a double play, even with a hot hitter at the plate. Buck Showalter made the right move: Pitch to Upton and hope for the strikeout. Alec Asher did fan Upton, and then Donnie Hart got Tyler Collins on a fly ball to right.
The Orioles would then score three runs in the 12th. Over the past five seasons, teams leading by three-plus runs in extra innings are 129-0. But the Tigers rallied to tie it up! Enter exiled closer Francisco Rodriguez for the 13th. Exit, baseball. Chris Davis slugs a two-run homer and Rodriguez picks up his fifth loss. Wilson has actually been terrific this year -- five hits, 28 K's in 17 innings -- but do you see the Tigers winning with this bullpen? I don't know. And I wonder how many more games K-Rod has left in a Tigers uniform ...
Chris Davis: 2nd player to hit 2 HR in the 12th inning or later of a game.
First- Matt Adams, 2013 Cardinals
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 17, 2017
The Rangers are .500, and that's a minor miracle. No, really, it is. Not because the Rangers weren't supposed to be good, but because of how bad they've played and how many things have gone wrong. Check out Tuesday's lineup. The only player with an OBP over .325 was backup catcher Robinson Chirinos. Sam Dyson blew like 48 saves the first week. Cole Hamels is on the DL. Adrian Beltre is still on the DL. But now they've won seven in a row! Yu Darvish beat the Phillies 5-1 with one of the most efficient games of his career: He threw 70 strikes out of 95 pitches, the second-highest rate of strikes in his career. And here's why the Rangers are .500: They have the best rotation ERA in the majors at 3.38.
Now for the bad news:
Rangers have won 7 games in a row but gained only one-half game on Astros in that time. They were 8.5 out at start of streak, and now 8 out.
— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) May 17, 2017
Speaking of Darvish, note this column by Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He points out that Rangers GM Jon Daniels was recently in Japan, apparently checking out Shohei Otani, who is on the DL over there, but working out with his club's minor league team. Note that Otani and Darvish are friends and offseason training partners. Note that Darvish is a free agent and Otani may be posted this winter. Wilson speculates that the Rangers could have an inside track to signing Otani if they also re-sign Darvish.
Play of the day: Kyle Schwarber helps Joe Maddon win his 1,000th career game with this monster blast that nearly left Wrigley Field:
— #Statcast (@statcast) May 17, 2017
What has been wrong with the Cubs? Check out our roundtable discussion.
There was also this Corey Dickerson home run. Seems like 449 is a little conservative:
— #Statcast (@statcast) May 17, 2017
He's baaaaaaaaaaackkkkkkkk ... Umm, Craig Kimbrel is destroying hitters again after a shaky (for him) 2016 season. Check out the past 18 batters he has faced:
For the season, he has fanned 54.8 percent of the batters he has faced, which would top his previous career best of 50.2 percent in 2012.
Quick thoughts ... Eddie Matz writes that Ryan Zimmerman doesn't want to hear about your launch angles. ... Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight with an interesting look at the "fly ball revolution" and how it's not necessarily the right approach for all hitters. ... The Mariners demoted Edwin Diaz as closer after four walks on Monday, and new closer Steve Cishek promptly served up a two-run homer to Oakland's Matt Joyce to blow a 5-4 lead. ... The Pirates look pretty hopeless these days. They'll be sellers in July, but Andrew McCutchen's trade value is minimal right now. ... The Rockies take the first game of the big Rockies-Twins series. Yes, you heard that right. I watched much of this game, and I'd say Kyle Freeland was effectively wild. The trouble is he gets almost no strikeouts with his sinker, so his slider is his only strikeout pitch. He doesn't throw his changeup much, which is probably the pitch he'll need to develop. Charlie Blackmon has four three-hit games in his past nine games and is third in the majors in extra-base hits. The Rockies are fun, my friends.
Remember a few weeks ago when Carlos Correa was struggling? Through his first 15 games, he was hitting .196 with one extra-base hit -- a home run on Opening Day. Through May 2, he was still scuffling at .226 with six extra-base hits. Maybe it was the WBC hangover. Maybe it was just a little slump. Whatever the problem, he just wasn't driving the ball.
Well, scary thought for the rest of the AL West: The Astros were still winning, and now Correa is heating up. While he went 0-for-3 in Monday's 7-2 win over the Marlins, Correa did draw two walks, and over his past 12 games he's hitting .413 with eight extra-base hits and more walks than strikeouts, raising his season line to a respectable .288/.369/.468. The Astros are 9-3 in those 12 games, improving their MLB-best record to 27-12.
— Ryan M. Spaeder (@theaceofspaeder) May 16, 2017
Jose Altuve, Correa's double-play partner, homered and drove in three runs. His numbers are below what he did last year, when he finished third in the MVP voting, but he's still hitting a solid .292/.364/.458. So here's my thought of the night: Where do Correa and Altuve rank in the pantheon of great double-play combos? In 2016, Baseball-Reference valued Altuve at 7.6 WAR and Correa at 6.0 WAR. Both are certainly capable of 5-WAR seasons once again, and that would put them into rarified company.
We'll get to that list in a moment. Here are some combos that never had two 5-WAR seasons together:
Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel, Indians: Together for three seasons, they did have 5-WAR seasons in 1999.
Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, Tigers: Both have strong cases for the Hall of Fame, but they cleared the 5-WAR barrier together only in 1983, with Whitaker at 6.7 and Trammell at 6.0. This was mostly a matter of timing, as Trammell had six such seasons and Whitaker four.
Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion, Reds: Morgan was a two-time MVP winner, while Concepcion was a plus defender, but he hit .300 just twice and didn't have much power, so he was a league-average hitter or better only a few times. He cleared 5 WAR just once, in 1974.
Nellie Fox and Luis Aparacio: They teamed together with the White Sox from 1956 to 1962 and finished first and second in the MVP voting in 1959, when the White Sox won the AL pennant. Both are Hall of Famers, but they had zero 5-WAR seasons together. In '59, MVP Fox is valued at 6.0 WAR, but Aparacio hit just .257/.316/.332 and is valued at 3.3 WAR.
OK, the roll call of multiple 5-WAR seasons together:
Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, Phillies (2007-2008): Rollins won MVP honors in 2007 and Utley finished eighth but probably deserved to win.
Bobby Grich and Mark Belanger, Orioles (1975-1976): Grich was a good hitter at second base, when most second basemen couldn't hit, and a plus defender. Belanger was an eight-time Gold Glove winner, and the pair swept Gold Glove honors both seasons. Belanger couldn't hit but did have a fluky solid season in '76, and he crossed the 5-WAR barrier in '75 thanks to off-the-charts defensive numbers.
Red Schoendienst and Solly Hemus, Cardinals (1952-53): Who? Schoendienst is a Hall of Famer, but Hemus was a regular for only three seasons. He was really good, though. In 1952, he led the NL with 105 runs, and in 1953 he scored 110. His OBPs those seasons were .392 and .382. He apparently wasn't much of a shortstop, although Baseball-Reference gives him decent metrics. Here's the weird thing: After he scored 110 runs, the Cardinals turned him into a utility player. He played 124 games in 1954 but batted just 276 times. The team won 11 fewer games.
Eddie Stanky and Al Dark, Giants (1950-51): They teamed together for four seasons -- two years with the Boston Braves and two years with the Giants. They were traded together after the 1949 season. The story goes that Stanky didn't get along with manager Billy Southworth. He and Dark were best buddies, so they were traded together. Stanky, known as "The Brat," was one of the game's all-time great walkers. Only five players have drawn 130-plus walks at least three times: Ruth, Bonds, Williams, Eddie Yost and Stanky. He was traded after '51 to become player-manager of the Cardinals (he was the guy who eventually sent Hemus to the bench).
Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese (1949, 1951-52): Our only pair to have three seasons that meet our standard. Robinson won MVP honors in 1949 (9.6 WAR), while Reese finished fifth (7.0).
Joe Gordon and Lou Boudreau, Indians (1947-48): Two more Hall of Famers, they led the Indians to the World Series title in 1948. Boudreau (10.4 WAR) was the MVP after hitting .355, and Gordon (6.6) finished sixth after hitting 32 home runs and driving in 132 runs.
Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky, Red Sox (1942, 1946): They might have had more, but Pesky lost three seasons and Doerr one to World War II.
Charlie Gehringer and Billy Rogell, Tigers (1933, 1935) They were the primary DP combo for the Tigers from 1932 to 1938. Gehringer is a Hall of Famer.
So that's your history lesson. Obviously, it's difficult to match the longevity of Whitaker and Trammell, but consider this possibility: The only combo to have two 6-WAR seasons was Gordon and Boudreau. Given their ages, Altuve and Correa should both be great together through 2019, when Altuve becomes a free agent. If Houston can keep them together, it seems they have a chance to become one of the game's greatest DP combos, not just in peak value, but in longevity, as well.
Yes, we're jealous of Astros fans.
In other happenings on a light night of action ...
Indians own Chris Archer. The Rays ace has started six times in his career against the Indians and lost all six games. He was his own worst enemy, walking six batters in five innings of the 8-7 loss. For the Indians, Carlos Carrasco left in the fourth inning with "left pectoral tightness," so watch for updates there. Given the lack of depth in their system, the bad starts for Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, and Carrasco's inability to stay off the DL, I wonder if the Indians will be in the market for a starting pitcher in July. Of their opening five starters, four have ERAs over 5.00 (including Corey Kluber, currently on the DL).
Francisco Lindor hit his ninth home run in 37 games (it took him 72 games to get there last year):
You're an awesome human, Francisco Lindor.
— Scott Cottos (@ScottCottos) May 16, 2017
Yeah, I'm going to post a Mike Trout video. He homers for the fourth straight game. Given the horrifying output of the rest of that lineup, I'm surprised he's even seeing strikes to hit right now.
— MLB (@MLB) May 16, 2017
Quick thoughts ... Tough first six weeks for the Braves, but Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp are tearing it up, with Freeman hitting his 13th home run and Kemp going 4-for-4 in a 10-6 win over the Blue Jays. ... Have any spare change? Like a few million dollars? You might be interested in making a bid for the original founding documents for the National League in 1876. ... David Ross advanced to the finals of "Dancing With the Stars." ... Bad day for outfielders: A.J. Pollock (groin strain), Hunter Pence (hamstring) and Carlos Gomez (hamstring) all land on the DL. Maybe trainers need to institute mandatory in-game stretching. Or something. ... Has the Terry Collins watch officially started? Another bullpen meltdown for the Mets as the Diamondbacks score five times in the eighth to break open a 1-1 tie. Ahh, the future that 2015 promised seems so long ago.
Let's play a little game. We'll pick three different doors and see what's behind them.
Door No. 1: The Washington Nationals' bullpen
First game of a doubleheader, a beautiful 74-degree day in our nation's capital, teams adorned in pink for a Mother's Day crowd of more than 31,000 at Nationals Park. It had been a joyful day for the home crowd. Bryce Harper treated fans to a first-inning home run, a low screamer that just cleared the fence in right. Trea Turner added another home run, and Gio Gonzalez pitched into the seventh inning. The Nationals led the Phillies 3-1 entering the ninth inning.
Manager Dusty Baker rolled the dice and Shawn Kelley's name came up. He would throw 24 pitches. Aaron Altherr homered off a 3-2 fastball. With one out, Maikel Franco doubled off the wall in deep center, just missing a home run by a few inches. Cameron Rupp laced a double into the left-center gap to tie the score. After Freddy Galvis walked, that was it for Kelley. Koda Glover came in and Ty Kelly singled in what would be the winning run.
I remember hearing Baker say something near the start of the season, when he was still waiting to name his closer. He was asked if he'd prefer an established closer, and he said something like, "Sure, but what am I going to do? These are the guys I have." Not exactly a vote of confidence. He didn't say, "Sure, but I think these guys will be fine." I mean, every established closer was at one point just another reliever trying to prove himself.
Maybe Dusty knew what he was getting into. Blake Treinen started the season as the closer. Got saves in three of the first four games, although he allowed runs in two of those appearances. He got another save chance, but Kelley had to rescue him to get the final two outs. So, Kelley was the closer and picked up three saves in three opportunities. Glover got the next two saves, as Kelley had pitched three times in four days. The next save chance actually went to Enny Romero, but that was because Kelley and Glover had both landed on the 10-day disabled list. Matt Albers got a save the next day. On May 7, the Nationals blew a 5-2 lead to the Phillies in the eighth (Matt Grace and Albers gave up the runs), and Treinen lost it in the 10th. On May 9, Romero blew a 4-2 lead to the Orioles in the ninth, and Jacob Turner would get the loss in the 12th.
Then came Sunday. The Nationals lost the opener. The bullpen blew another lead in the nightcap, except the offense rescued it with two runs in the eighth on Michael Taylor's home run, and Albers tossed a 1-2-3 ninth.
From afar, it looks like complete chaos. Five relievers have saves. The Nationals have lost three games they led entering the ninth. The bullpen ERA of 5.33 ranks 28th in the majors and was ranked 18th in win probability added entering Sunday (and it will drop at least a few spots after the doubleheader).
Panic level of fans: 10
The Nationals are going to waste the end of Bryce Harper's time in D.C. with this bullpen.
— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) May 15, 2017
Should be: 8
There are legitimate concerns here, although the five guys with saves is somewhat a reflection of unique circumstances. The biggest problem is that Kelley and Joe Blanton have both allowed six home runs already. Kelley is at least supposed to dominate right-handers with his fastball/slider combo, but all three hits he allowed Sunday came on fastballs to right-handers. The good news is these guys were good relievers last year, and Albers, Turner and Glover have pitched pretty well. Plus, playing in the wretched NL East, there's time for the Nationals to work out the kinks. Still, I'm not sure Baker is going to completely trust a rookie closer in Glover, so look for them to wheel and deal in July.
Door No. 2: Julio Urias
The young left-hander has been so hyped and looked so polished and confident when called up at age 19 last year -- and in posting a 2.73 ERA over his final 16 appearances -- that we expected immediate greatness when he was recalled from the minors on April 27. (He started there to preserve some innings, although a slate of injuries got him back up to the majors after just 14 innings in Triple-A.)
His four starts have been all over the place. On Sunday against the Rockies, he had a chance to pitch the Dodgers into first place but got hit around as he allowed seven hits and six runs in four innings with just one strikeout. Maybe you want to give him a mulligan because it was Coors Field, especially since in his previous start against the Pirates he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Still, Coors Field or not, it was a terrible outing:
Hahaha Julio Urias walks a batter, throws a ball up the RF line, hangs a slider belt-high to Pat Valaika, and it's still just COOOOOOORS
— Purple Dinosaur Pod. (@purpledinocast) May 14, 2017
Even against the Pirates, catcher Yasmani Grandal said after the game, the only pitch Urias had working that night was his fastball. In his first two starts, both against a Giants team that had been struggling on offense, he walked eight batters with just five strikeouts. Overall, he has 11 walks and just 11 K's in 21 innings.
Panic level of fans: 2
Scrolling through Twitter, I don't sense much concern from Dodgers fans.
Should be: 4
The concern I have is that low strikeout rate and lack of command on his off-speed pitches. Of course, he doesn't turn 21 until August and the Dodgers have been so careful with him that he didn't throw a lot of innings in his minor league career, so we're still talking about a pitcher a long way from maturity. That said, the idea that he's going to be the Dodgers' No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw by the time the postseason rolls around seems a bit optimistic to me. Luckily for the Dodgers, it's another lefty who might be making a big leap this season: Alex Wood has a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings. The Dodgers haven't pushed him past six innings yet, but he's throwing strikes and showing dominant strikeout stuff. The rich get richer.
Door No. 3: Jake Arrieta
Playing the team the Cubs need to beat, Arrieta had another mediocre outing on Sunday, allowing four runs in six innings, including two home runs, as the Cardinals won 5-0 to drop the Cubs to a game under .500. This sums up Arrieta's performance going back to last year:
Jake Arrieta since June 27 (including postseason):
A little under 6 IP/GS
That ain't a small sample, people.
— Chris Jaffe (@jaffechris) May 15, 2017
The pitcher who dominated in 2015 and early in 2016 is nowhere to be found. This year's version of Arrieta isn't walking batters like he did the second half of last year, but he's giving up more hits and more home runs. Put it this way: Over his past 24 starts, he has allowed 21 home runs; over his previous 24 starts, he'd allowed 21 earned runs.
Panic level of fans: 10++++++++
I don't want to say it but I might be done with Jake Arrieta
— Frederic (@StoolFrederic) May 14, 2017
Matt carpenter, most overrated player of all time, now takes Jake deep. Jake should have taken extension when offered. Worthless now
— Lucas Jones (@LucJones18) May 14, 2017
Should be: 9
It's hard to believe a guy who basically had reached a level few mortals had ever reached -- Koufax, Gibson in '68, Maddux, peak Pedro -- would decline to mediocrity so rapidly without an injury, but that's what has happened. One thing I've seen suggested is that batters have simply stopped swinging at the slider/cutter that was so dominant. That's not what's happening; they did swing less often last year compared to 2015 but are swinging more often this year than in 2016. What they are doing is hitting it:
And if batters don't fear the slider, they can do this to fastballs -- especially ones over the middle of the plate -- even if you've been 0-for-28 against your old college teammate:
When you take one of your groomsmen deep. pic.twitter.com/I3wVfkA6VV
— MLB (@MLB) May 14, 2017
Given the state of the Cubs, mediocre Arrieta isn't going to help them chase down the Cardinals.
Ceremony of the day. You might have heard about this one:
— MLB (@MLB) May 15, 2017
Play of the day. Byron Buxton is so good in center field ...
— MLB (@MLB) May 14, 2017
Quick thoughts ... The Cardinals have won eight of nine and 18 of 24. Their lead over the Cubs is 3.5 games, not enough to project them as division winners. FanGraphs still sees the Cubs as heavy favorites to win the Central. ... The Brewers are playing some fun baseball and scored five runs in the eighth to stun the Mets 11-9. Eric Thames is hardly a one-man show, as they're second in the majors in runs. Catcher Manny Pina had the big blast on Sunday, a three-run homer off Addison Reed. ... This Jorge Soler home run goes an estimated 470 feet, the longest of 2017. ... The weather is warming up and there were 52 home runs hit on Sunday, tied for the second most on any day in the past 10 years (although two doubleheaders helped). ... Huge four-game sweep for the Blue Jays over the Mariners, winning 3-2 Sunday on Kevin Pillar's walk-off homer against Edwin Diaz. They're not out of the woods yet, but they're 17-21 with a five-game winning streak, and I think they can back into the playoff picture with that rotation. ... The Mariners not only have four starting pitchers on the DL, but Ryan Weber, called up to start on Saturday, got hurt as well. May was supposed to be the Mariners' chance to have a big month, with a weaker schedule and a bunch of home games. Now they're starting to see their season fall apart. ... Indians fans have to be happy to see Jason Kipnis finally do something with a four-hit, two-homer game. ... Kevin Gausman followed that great start against the Nationals with another stinker. Time to start worrying about him? ... Mike Trout has homered in three straight games, is slugging .738 and might actually have found a new level. ... Dear Braves: Find Freddie Freeman some better teammates. ... Finally, hope all the mothers out there had a great day. My own mother always indulged my baseball interest -- a new book for my birthday or Christmas, that pack of baseball cards at the drug store, the car rides to Little League practice -- so here's a thanks to her for everything.