Has Anything Actually Changed with Rick Porcello?

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Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello is not having nearly the same level of success he did a season ago.

In 2016, Porcello went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA en route to his first career Cy Young Award. The hardware likely should have gone to the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, the Indians’ Corey Kluber, or (my personal choice) the Orioles’ Zach Britton, but that’s a different subject for a different time. The reason why Porcello won the award was simple: he led the league in wins a season ago and was near the top of the league in most of the major statistical pitching categories. It goes to show you that the win is still very powerful in baseball circles, even when a pitcher getting one is heavily influenced by the run support he gets from his offense (more on that later). But despite the fact that he received an award he probably didn’t deserve, Porcello had an excellent 2016 and would look to build off that for this season.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

This year, the year after he led baseball in wins, Porcello, in an ironic and tragic twist of fate, is leading the league in losses. Even with last night’s victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, he has a 6-14 record with a 4.63 ERA so far in 2017. This is seemingly a far cry from last year’s campaign, and the shift in fortunes has been so dramatic, in fact, that he could become the eighth pitcher in MLB history to lose 20 games in a season after winning 20 the year before. This should go to show you that not all statistics are interesting, useful, or important.

But aside from the obvious depreciation of his production from last year to this one, what has actually changed in Porcello’s performance from 2016 to 2017?

For starters, if you believe in the three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, home run) then Porcello’s numbers provide an interesting look at his recent struggles. For instance, his strikeout rate is the highest it’s been in his entire career (8.25 per nine innings). This is in part because baseball’s hitters are striking out more than they ever have; Porcello’s strikeout rate is also the highest in his career. The troubling thing is that his home run rate per nine innings is also a career high (1.66). He’s allowed at least one home run in a whopping 17 of his 24 starts this season; last year, he allowed at least one home run in 17 of his 33 starts. He’s even already allowed more home runs this season (28) than he did last year (23). And yes, there’s still seven-and-a-half weeks of baseball yet to be played.

As for his walk rate, the change from 2016 to 2017 has been significant, if not necessarily as pronounced. Porcello is walking an average of .49 more batters per nine innings. While that may not seem like a big deal, Porcello is just two walks away from reaching his 2016 total. That’s concerning, as well.

But there’s also another important thing to address in this discussion that has nothing to do with the pitcher: run support.

Last season, Porcello led Major League Baseball in run support per nine innings (7.63). The man who was second in run support last season, the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ, also won 20 games. If you think these two events are coincidental, you’re fooling yourself. In Porcello’s 33 starts last year, the Boston Red Sox scored 189 runs, or 5.72 per start; no wonder he won 22 games. In the other 139 games the team played in 2016, Boston’s offense averaged 5.34 runs per game. While the Sox had the best offense in baseball a season ago, they were even more fearsome with Porcello on the hill. While those two things have nothing to do with each other, it does help to explain how the owner of a career 4.24 ERA now has both a 22-win season and a Cy Young Award to his name.

Sure enough, Porcello’s run support luck has run dry in 2017 and I’m sure you could’ve seen that coming from miles away. Out of 70 qualified starting pitchers, the Red Sox hurler ranks eighth-to-last in the league in run support, as Boston’s offense has scored all of 3.92 runs per nine innings in each of his starts. In 24 starts this year, the Red Sox have scored a total of 66 runs; that works out to 2.75 per outing. To make matters even weirder than they already are, the Red Sox have scored 5.3 runs per night in the games Porcello hasn’t pitched this season. So on average, Porcello is losing three full runs of support from his offense. And while everyone is shocked over his supposed demise, it turns out that his struggles have at least as much to do with his offense as they do with the man himself.

SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) is a statistic that attempts to measure how well someone is actually pitching over a period of time. It is measured the same way regular ERA is. And, just like most other statistics, SIERA says that Porcello’s 2016 campaign wasn’t quite Cy Young-worthy and his 2017 season isn’t as bad as some are making it seem. As a matter of fact, his 2016 SIERA was 3.78, a full .63 points higher than his actual 2016 ERA. This year, his SIERA is 4.09, .54 points lower than his real ERA. SIERA says that the difference from last year to this one is .31 runs per nine innings. However, his real ERA has increased by 1.48 runs per nine innings. The difference is staggering, and the truth is that Porcello’s real talent is somewhere in the middle between last year and this one.

Of course, this is to say nothing of the fact that Porcello simply isn’t having as good a year as he did last year. His ERA, his FIP (fielding-independent ERA), home run rate, and walk rate are all up from last year. Significantly, though, his run support is dramatically lower and his advanced metrics show that he isn’t faring that much worse than he did last year.

Porcello’s story also goes to show you just how powerful wins and losses still are in modern baseball. Even though a “win” or a “loss” is handed out largely based on how a pitcher’s offense supports him, we still view a pitcher’s record, for some reason, as a major indicator of his success or failure as a player. If you don’t believe me, 32 of the 34 Cy Young Award winners in this millennium won at least 15 games the year they won the award. The two exceptions were the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez in 2010 (13-12) and the 2003 NL winner, Dodgers closer Eric Gagne. While we can dispel of the notion that a pitcher’s record means something (#KillTheWin), wins and losses still hold a rather shocking amount of power in the baseball world.

Wins and losses are the reason we expected Rick Porcello to do better this season. Wins and losses put him on a faux pedestal as one of the best pitchers in baseball, and we shouldn’t be so flabbergasted that he hasn’t lived up to that billing this season. The Cy Young Award recognition probably didn’t help him out in this regard, either.

Many are searching for the answers for why Rick Porcello has disappointed in 2017. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find that the high expectations for his performance were even more highly unjustified.

The Most Underrated Player in Baseball

David Kohl/USA Today

Baseball is a uniquely individualistic and yet intrinsically team sport.

Teams must build a complete roster around multiple star-caliber players to win and contend for championships. The pitcher who starts the game is rarely the same one who finishes it. Lineups centered on just one batter often fail because that hitter does not have to be pitched to.

Baseball is, among other things, a team sport. And the performance of one player isn’t necessarily enough to carry a team to success. As a player, though, you can be superhuman even if your team isn’t.

Such is the case with Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.

Votto, who turns 34 next month, is still somehow the best-kept secret in the sport to many casual observers. Part of the problem is that he plays in Cincinnati for a team that, since his first full season in 2008, has averaged just under 80 wins a year. In his career, Votto has played in all of nine postseason games. Even with this lack of organizational success, though, Votto won the 2010 National League MVP with 37 home runs and a hitting line of .324/.424/.600 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Votto has played at or near that level on a consistent basis since then with the exception of his 2014 season, one in which he was limited to 62 games because of a left quadriceps injury.

Since that year, however, he’s truly been one of the best hitters in baseball. Let’s take a look at the top five hitters in OPS (on-base plus slugging) since the 2015 season started. You’ll probably recognize all of these names:

  1. Mike Trout (1.020)
  2. Joey Votto (.997)
  3. Bryce Harper (.984)
  4. Paul Goldschmidt (.971)
  5. David Ortiz (.967)

Quick side note: 2015 and 2016 were Ortiz’s age-39 and age-40 seasons. He was a raging machine long after he was supposed to be in decline. I digress.

One of the things Votto has been known for in his career is his ability to get on base. Impressively, he’s first in the league over the past two-and-a-half seasons in on-base percentage, but what’s even more impressive is his ability to draw walks without striking out. Since 2015, there are only three hitters in baseball with more walks than strikeouts (Votto, Ben Zobrist, Buster Posey). But in the category of wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), this is how these three hitters stack up:

  1. Joey Votto (163)
  2. Buster Posey (129)
  3. Ben Zobrist (115)

So Votto walks a lot and is also insanely productive to boot. Votto walks so much, in fact, that he leads baseball in total walks since and including the year 2006. That is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that his big-league career didn’t begin in earnest until 2008.

Let’s look at win probability added, a numerical figure given to a player’s ability to impact the game both positively and negatively. Over the same time span, these are the top five players in baseball:

  1. Mike Trout (15.94)
  2. Anthony Rizzo (14.99)
  3. Bryce Harper (13.73)
  4. Clayton Kershaw (13.24)
  5. Joey Votto (13.18)

Wow. You hear about the first four players on that list rather often, and rightfully so. But Votto is right up there with them as one of the very best players in the entire league.

And what makes this story all the more amazing is how bad the Cincinnati Reds have been during this run of Votto’s excellence. Because while Votto has been over 13 wins better than average over the Reds’ past 432 games, the Reds have won under 41% of those contests. If the team holds its current pace for the rest of this season, they’ll win just 66 games. If the team performs as such, the Reds will have averaged 66 wins per season over the past three years. As bad as they’ve been with Votto on their team, it’s horrifying to imagine just how dreadful they would have been had Votto not been on the roster.

Interestingly enough, the Reds have Votto under team control until 2024. The good news about this deal is that to this point, he has been worth every penny and more of his $22.5 million average yearly salary. The bad news is that if he continues playing until the last year of the deal, Votto will end his contract at the age of 41. It’s the type of contract that just about never ends well. While Votto has been insanely productive over the first four years of his contract, what he does over the last six or seven years of his deal will determine its ultimate value. Meanwhile, the Reds front office has married itself to the dreadful contracts of disappointing players such as Homer Bailey (6 years/$105 million) and Devin Mesoraco (4 years/$28 million). For a team that already has the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball, spending foolishly on contracts that don’t match player production could be a backbreaking proposition for a franchise that hasn’t been to the World Series since 1990.

Another part of the problem is that Votto is not getting any younger. While his absurd production has been sustained over the course of his ten-year career, he is about to be a 34-year-old baseball player. Usually, player production, particularly for hitters, falls off a proverbial cliff by the time a player reaches the age of 35. While that hasn’t happened to Votto just yet, the prospect of his decline looms large for the Reds.

Right now, though, he is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s played in every single game for the Reds this season and is on pace to have 120 walks and just 81 strikeouts; those figures would give him a 1.48 walk to strikeout ratio. That would be best BB/K ratio in the majors since Victor Martinez’s 1.67 BB/K rate in 2014 and it would also be the second-best walk-to-strikeout ratio in a single season since 2010.

The sad part about all of this, though, is that Votto plays on a struggling team in the United States’ 34th-largest media market. Cincinnati is the 24th-ranked media market for baseball teams in the U.S. and would be 25th if Toronto was included in the rankings. Therefore, the only ways Votto would get major national attention would be if he reached the playoffs or were traded to a larger market such as Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York.

But neither of those possibilities look like they are going to materialize anytime soon. And until people start to take notice of his excellence, Joey Votto will continue to fly under the radar as one of baseball’s very best players on one of the sport’s very worst teams.

The 100-Game MLB Awards

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The Major League Baseball season is 162 games long and lasts for six months; what happens in the last three months is far more important than what happens in the first three. However, the first 100 games of the season can give us a snapshot of what’s to come and which players are the best in both leagues. In this article, we’ll take a look at the award winners for both leagues over the course of the season’s first 100 games of the season. It’s been a fun year, one that has already broken records and captivated fans.

In this post, we’ll look at numbers both traditional and advanced to pick out the very best in both leagues. I’ll explain some of the more advanced statistics when we get to them; basically, I’m trying to weed out fairly useless stats such as RBI and pitcher wins in order to get to the bottom of who the best players in baseball really are.

So here we go. These are, through about 100 games of the season, the award winners in both the American and the National League. We’ll start in the AL.

American League

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees

Stats (AL Rank)

AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RE24 wRC+ WAR
.310 (10) .434 (1) .649 (1) .1083 (1) 32 (1) 41.54 (1) 182 (1) 5.4 (1)

All rise!

The production of Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge speaks for itself. He is first in baseball in wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) to this point of the season, first in OPS, first in slugging percentage, first in home runs, first in RE24 (run expectancy for the 24 base-out states), and first in walk percentage. Judge has been the most productive player in the American League this season, which means that you’d probably be surprised to hear that I kind of struggled with this one.

Consider this: in the category of Win Probability Added, a statistic that is exactly what it sounds like, Judge is sixth in the American League. He also strikes out in 30.1% of his plate appearances, the sixth-highest rate among qualified hitters in the AL. Ultimately, I looked past those numbers because Judge has been so dominant in just about every other mainstream and sabermetric offensive category. However, this isn’t the runaway that everyone thinks it is, with players like Jose Altuve, Chris Sale (more on him shortly), and George Springer nipping at his heels.

Honorable Mentions: George Springer (Astros), Jose Altuve (Astros), Chris Sale (Red Sox), Khris Davis (Athletics)

Cy Young Award: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

Stats (AL Rank)

IP ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 RA9-WAR
141.1 (1) 2.48 (1) 0.89 (1) 12.74 (1) 1.97 (1) 2.52 (1) 30.30 (1) 5.6 (1)

I’m going to get in trouble for using some of these stats if I don’t explain them, so here goes.

SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) is an attempt to answer just what makes a certain pitcher successful. It rates ground balls as more valuable than fly balls and getting strikeouts as the most valuable skill of all. FIP (fielding-independent pitching) takes the defense behind the pitcher out of the equation and rates his performance independent of that. RA9-WAR is the pitching equivalent of Wins Above Replacement except that it uses runs allowed per nine innings as its barometer of success. RE24 is the same for pitchers as it is for hitters, and a higher number means that a certain pitcher is negatively affecting the other team’s run expectancy over the course of a game.

Got all those stats down? Good, because Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale is the American League’s best starter in every one of those categories. He’s also first in ERA and strikeout rate; in fact, in his last start, Sale became the fastest pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts in a season in MLB history. Sale is on pace for over 300 strikeouts on the season and has been the American League’s most dominant pitcher so far this season. This is a no-brainer if I’ve ever seen one.

Honorable Mentions: Corey Kluber (Indians), Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays), Luis Severino (Yankees)

Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees

See American League MVP above.

Honorable Mentions: Trey Mancini (Orioles), Jordan Montgomery (Yankees), Ben Gamel (Mariners), Jacob Faria (Rays)

Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch, Houston Astros

The Houston Astros are having the best season in the American League and are on pace for 107 wins. Hinch, the one-time Stanford psych major, has undoubtedly been part of the Astros’ success so far this season. He has managed through injuries to ace Dallas Keuchel and shortstop Carlos Correa and, all the while, has led Houston to a whopping 17-game lead in the AL West. You could go with someone like the Twins’ Paul Molitor in this spot, but I’m going to take the manager of the best team in the American League, and that man happens A.J. Hinch.

Honorable Mentions: Paul Molitor (Twins), Joe Girardi (Yankees), Kevin Cash (Rays)


National League

Most Valuable Player: Bryce Harper, RF/Washington Nationals

Stats (NL Rank)

AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RE24 wRC+ WAR
.336 (3) .441  (2) .634 (1) .1075 (1) 25 (T-4) 46.67 (1) 172 (2) 4.8 (2)

Bryce Harper is second on his own team in Wins Above Replacement to Washington’s third baseman, Anthony Rendon. That said, he’s still the MVP of the National League to this point in the year.

Harper ranks first in the National League in RE24, Win Probability Added, and slugging percentage. He’s also second in wRC+ and on-base percentage. Harper is in the top five of just about every significant offensive category. His all-around greatness shouldn’t be taken lightly, and it’s become clear that he’s the best player in the National League right now. Through 100 games, he’s been the most valuable player in the National League, even if he (technically) isn’t the Most Valuable Player on his own team.

Honorable Mentions: Anthony Rendon (Nationals), Joey Votto (Reds), Justin Turner (Dodgers)

Cy Young Award: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Stats (NL Rank)

IP ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 RA9-WAR
141.1 (1) 2.04 (1) 0.88 (2) 10.70 (3) 2.94 (2) 2.91 (2) 31.10 (1) 5.9 (1)

To be honest, my initial inclination was to give this award to Max Scherzer. However, in the interest of statistical research and analytical thinking, I decided to go with Kershaw by a very slim margin. Here’s why.

Kershaw pulls in ahead of Scherzer in RA9-WAR, RE24, and ERA. RA9-WAR is the important one here, as it is an exact quantification of a pitcher’s value to his team to this point in the season. ERA is also extremely important, as Kershaw is allowing fewer runs than Scherzer per nine innings. It is easy to give this one to Scherzer and you could justify doing that here. Instead, I’m going to take Kershaw, even though he’s about to go to the disabled list with a recurrence of back stiffness.

Honorable Mentions: Max Scherzer (Nationals), Gio Gonzalez (Nationals), Kenley Jansen (Dodgers)

Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, OF/1B/Los Angeles Dodgers

Stats (NL Rank Among Rookies)

AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RE24 wRC+ WAR
.269 (13) .352 (6) .617 (1) .969 (1) 27 (1) 26.34 (1) 146 (2) 2.6 (1)

If this seems like it’s too easy for you, guess what: it is.

Bellinger is first among NL rookies in OPS, home runs, RE24, WAR, and slugging percentage. He actually gets something of a surprise run in some of these categories from his own teammate, catcher Austin Barnes. Don’t kid yourself, though: to this point, Bellinger has been the National League’s best rookie and his heroics have helped the Dodgers to one of the best 99-game starts in MLB history. Even in the most stacked lineup in Major League Baseball, the rookie first baseman has stood out.

Honorable Mentions: Austin Barnes (Dodgers), Kyle Freeland (Rockies), Josh Bell (Pirates)

Manager of the Year: Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers

Is this a boring choice? Probably. Is it the right choice? Yes.

Roberts has anchored the Dodgers as they’ve won nearly 69% of their games to this point in the season. The team is currently on pace for a staggering 111 wins, and Roberts has played no small part in their early-season success. Roberts won the award last year, and while voters may be fatigued of voting for the same person they did a season ago, Roberts is clearly the best choice for Manager of the Year.

Honorable Mentions: Bud Black (Rockies), Torey Lovullo (Diamondbacks), Craig Counsell (Brewers)

The Diamondbacks Just Robbed the Tigers in Plain Sight

Rick Osentoski/USA Today

Last night, the Yankees and White Sox pulled off the biggest blockbuster trade of this calendar year. Chicago will be sending third baseman Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to the Bronx in exchange for prospects Blake Rutherford, Tito Polo, and Ian Clarkin, as well as embattled relief pitcher Tyler Clippard. The trade is easily the headline-making deal of the day, and one that promises to affect both organizations going forward.

I’d like to talk today, though, about another trade that went down yesterday that will actually have a far bigger impact on the rest of baseball.

Yesterday, the Detroit Tigers pulled the plug on their hopelessly mediocre season by trading outfielder J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for minor-league infielders Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. Martinez is a free agent after the season and has indicated that he may possibly go back to Detroit in the offseason. If he does, it’s obvious that the Tigers will have taken advantage of the last 69 regular season games of Martinez’s current contract by getting at least something for him. For now, however, let’s look at what Martinez will give the Diamondbacks for the rest of this season.

Despite the fact that Martinez may only stay in Arizona for the rest of this season, a large sample size exists to demonstrate that he is entirely worth the team’s investment. In the statistic of Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which is an attempt to take the outcomes of a player’s at-bats into account while also accounting for the differences in each major league ballpark, Martinez is near the top of the league. Just how good is he? Since 2014, this is the list of the top eight hitters in wRC+ (100 is league average):

  1. Mike Trout (173)
  2. Joey Votto (159)
  3. Bryce Harper (151)
  4. Paul Goldschmidt (151)
  5. Miguel Cabrera (148)
  6. Freddie Freeman (147)
  7. Nelson Cruz (146)
  8. J.D. Martinez (146)

Okay. This is not to say that Martinez has been one of the eight best hitters in baseball over a nearly four-year span. We should definitely look at something more mainstream and commonly-used in the baseball community. Let’s look at something like Offense Plus Slugging (OPS). These are some of the top hitters in baseball in that category, over the same time span:

  1. Mike Trout (.992)
  2. Joey Votto (.974)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt (.960)
  4. Bryce Harper (.946)
  5. David Ortiz (.937)
  6. Miguel Cabrera (.917)
  7. Freddie Freeman (.915)
  8. Giancarlo Stanton (.915)
  9. J.D. Martinez (.912)

To be fair, OPS has its warts: it devalues on-base percentage and hitters who hit a lot of home runs and extra base hits are at a clear advantage. However, it’s clear that Martinez has consistently been one of the best hitters in baseball over a long period of time. This is not a three-month stretch we’re talking about; rather, we’re discussing a three-year stretch. If the MLB season ended today, just two of the teams that made the 2014 postseason (the Dodgers and Nationals) would make this year’s playoffs. Some hitters are great over the stretch of 300 or even 600 plate appearances. Martinez has been consistently great over his last 1886 plate appearances. The sample size should be enough to convince you that even two and a half months of him in the lineup is worth it for the Diamondbacks.

Martinez can play either corner outfield spot, and one would figure that he’ll be playing left field for Arizona for the rest of the season. That position has been something of a trouble spot for Arizona this season and Martinez can immediately fortify that position for a team looking to make a run in October. Where he fits in the lineup is up to the team and manager Torey Lovullo, but a hitter of his caliber should be able to fit just about anywhere with one of baseball’s better offenses.

Of course, there is something to be said to Martinez’s adjustment to playing in Arizona. After all, he was already discussing returning to Detroit just moments after he was traded to the Diamondbacks. That doesn’t mean he won’t produce in Arizona, but his acclimation to his new surroundings is something to keep an eye on.

Something he won’t have to worry about is the new ballpark he’ll be playing in. Martinez used to play in Comerica Park, a fairly neutral park for hitters and pitchers. He’ll be moving to Chase Field, the extremely hitter-friendly domain that is second only to Yankee Stadium in home runs hit per game this season. For context, the Diamondbacks rank fourteenth in baseball in home runs this season. It’s not about them; it’s about the home field they play in.

As for the return the Tigers got for Martinez? Many baseball scouts and reporters were less than impressed. The Diamondbacks did not surrender any of their top prospects from a farm system that has consistently been ranked near the bottom of baseball; it has never been last in the league, of course, because the Los Angeles Angels exist. Still, the return for one of the best hitters in the league seems very light. It’s possible that all of the players in the deal could be successful, but for right now, it looks like the Diamondbacks got an extraordinary talent without having to part with extraordinary value in return. Not bad for an organization that just a year and a half ago traded top prospect Dansby Swanson and now-star outfielder Ender Inciarte to the Atlanta Braves for 24 (mostly terrible) starts from Shelby Miller. I digress.

Let me say this, just so we’re absolutely clear: the acquisition of J.D. Martinez is absolutely not enough for the Diamondbacks to close their 10.5-game deficit on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West crown. The Dodgers are literally the best team I’ve ever seen and Arizona better bring much more than J.D. Martinez to the table if they want to win the division.

Today, most baseball observers are buzzing about the Yankees’ acquisition of Todd Frazier and David Robertson. It’s obvious, though, that the Diamondbacks have pulled off the heist of the MLB trading season.

The Dodgers And Astros Are Having Historic Seasons

Kevin Sousa/USA Today

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros are currently the two best teams in their respective leagues.

Both teams are on fire right now. The Dodgers have won nine in a row and 29 of their last 33 games. The Astros have won 16 of their last 22 games, demonstrating that their blazing 42-16 start was no fluke. At their current pace, Houston would win 109 games while the Dodgers would win a staggering 111. If both teams were to finish the season like they’ve started it, they would rank among the winningest regular season teams in baseball history. Of course, only one team can win the World Series, and this isn’t to say that Houston or Los Angeles necessarily will.

To this point, though, both teams have been far and away ahead of the rest of baseball’s pack.

Think about this, for example: do you know who the third-best team in baseball is? By record, it’s the NL East-leading Washington Nationals, who are on pace for a not-so-insignificant 98 wins. Because of the Dodgers’ dominance over the rest of the National League, though, much of the narrative around Washington’s season has revolved around their league-worst bullpen, a  hodgepodge of arms that possesses the worst bullpen ERA in the game. But the Nationals beat the Dodgers in two out of three games in June and play Houston near the end of August. In most years, the Nationals would be the best team in baseball. Instead, most are busy identifying all of the different ways Washington will succumb to the rest of baseball in October.

Let’s look in the American League, shall we? The Boston Red Sox are the AL’s second-best team at 52-41. They are currently on pace for 91 wins, which is a full 18 victories behind Houston’s current pace. Boston does have the one thing the Astros don’t, which just so happens to be the best pitcher in baseball, Chris Sale. Of course, Sale can only pitch a maximum of three games in a seven-game series and has never previously pitched in the postseason. Other teams that could challenge Houston include the reigning AL champion Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Rays. Cleveland is the most likely playoff threat because of their playoff experience, but they are currently just 1.5 games ahead of the Minnesota Twins in the mediocre AL Central.

Many would think that the performance of both teams in the first half of the season is nothing more than an unsustainable and anomalous blip. Let’s examine that assumption a little more closely.

Pythagorean W-L is a statistic that attempts to quantify what a team’s record should be based on its run differential. Basically, it is an attempt to remove luck from a team’s performance. Currently, the Astros’ Pythagorean record is 61-31, just one win off their actual record. At this rate, the team will score a wholly absurd 958 runs this season and concede just 664. (Note: no team scored more than 878 runs last season.) If those figures hold true, Houston will win 109 games, exactly what their current pace is in real life. Amazing. Now, let’s go back to the Dodgers.

As we sit right now, the Dodgers’ Pythagorean W-L is 64-29, the same as their actual record. At their current pace, L.A. is going to score 834 runs and allow all of 535. (No team allowed fewer than 556 runs in 2016.) If those numbers are sustained, the Dodgers would have, and you may want to be sitting down for this, a 115-47 record for the season. That would put them one win ahead of the 1998 New York Yankees and one game behind the 2001 Seattle Mariners for the best 162-game record ever.

Baseball fans shouldn’t overthink what’s going on here: we’re watching two of the best teams in the history of the game. Nate Silver’s website FiveThirtyEight uses what it calls “ELO Rating”, a numerical figure given to a team throughout the season, to calculate the best teams of all time. In this all-encompassing measure of greatness, both the Dodgers and the Astros ranked in the top 20 teams ever at the All-Star break, with both teams coming within four points of the 1927 Yankees and light years ahead of last year’s World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs. There are reasonable questions as to whether or not this can be sustained, but over 90 games is a very healthy sample size for the prospects of both teams’ continued success.

About that: it’s entirely possible that both teams start to fall off their scorching pace in the second half of the season. The Astros, however, will soon be getting reinforcements: ace Dallas Keuchel is making the first start of his rehab assignment in Corpus Christi, Texas tonight. The 2015 Cy Young winner hasn’t pitched since June 2 because of a pinched nerve in his neck. For as ridiculously good as the Astros have been this year, they might get even better. Let that thought sit with you for just a moment.

As for the Dodgers, there are likely no more reinforcements coming. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez may return before the end of the season after herniating multiple disks in his back. He was replaced by none other than Cody Bellinger, who is expected to run away with the National League Rookie of the Year Award barring unforeseen circumstances. If Gonzalez were to return, he could provide a spark off the bench; he won’t get his first base job back, as Bellinger is playing too well to go back to the bench. Also, Clayton Kershaw is, by his standards, having a down year. That’s another thing you should probably take into consideration.

In Major League Baseball this season, we are seeing something that rarely occurs: two teams that are re-writing the record books in the exact same season. While it remains to be seen whether or not the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros can cash in their regular season success with a championship, one thing is clear:

They have rampaged through baseball in 2017, leaving 28 Major League franchises in their wake. They’re also leaving much of baseball’s history in the rear view mirror, re-writing records on their way to historic campaigns.

We Need To Talk About the Milwaukee Brewers

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Coming into this season, the Chicago Cubs were heavily favored to win the NL Central while the Milwaukee Brewers were expected to finish third in the division (at best). I’ll give you three guesses who’s in first place at the All-Star Break.

The Milwaukee Brewers are currently 50-41 and 5.5 games ahead of both the Cubs and Cardinals for first place in the National League Central. The division is absolutely one of the weaker ones in baseball (the Cincinnati Reds, at 39-49, are within shouting distance of first at 9.5 games back) but the Brewers’ success has put just about all of baseball on notice. While many expected the team to continue its ongoing rebuilding efforts, the organization, led by General Manager and Harvard political science major David Stearns, is competing for a playoff berth. While Milwaukee’s first-half triumphs may not have been in the organization’s plans, the Brewers are in full command of first place with just 71 games left in the season. Their dominion over their division is getting more and more serious with each passing day. Even though many have tried to punt on having this conversation, we must force ourselves to face this inexorable fact:

The Milwaukee Brewers are for real.

How they have gotten to this point is most certainly a matter of intrigue. In terms of Wins Above Replacement, the team’s leading hitter is third baseman Travis Shaw. Shaw and two other prospects were sent to Milwaukee from the Red Sox in exchange for reliever Tyler Thornburg after last season. This year, Shaw is batting .299 with a .570 slugging percentage; the latter figure ranks fourteenth in all of baseball, ahead of noted big boppers such as Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, and Miguel Sanó. Thornburg, on the other hand, will not pitch for the Red Sox after undergoing season-ending surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last month. Whoops.

The next most fascinating Brewer story is that of first baseman Eric Thames. In stints with the Mariners and Blue Jays in 2011 and 2012, Thames hit a competent but unspectacular .250 with 21 home runs. After being demoted late in the 2012 season and bouncing around the minors with three different clubs in 2013, Thames was signed by the NC Dinos of South Korea’s KBO League. Thames suddenly turned into South Korea’s answer to Miguel Cabrera, hitting 124 home runs in just three seasons. Additionally, he hit .349 and was the KBO’s Most Valuable Player in 2015.

And, as you probably figured, he’s now producing serious results for the Milwaukee Brewers. Thames leads the team in home runs (23) and runs scored (58). While his batting average has fallen to .248 after a scorching start to the season, he still has a .374 on-base percentage and has walked in 15.5% of his plate appearances.

There have been other contributors to the Brewers’ success, too. Players such as Domingo Santana, Manny Piña, Orlando Arcia, Jesus Aguilar, and even Eric Sogard have all contributed at least one win this season. If the last name I mentioned sounds familiar, it is; Sogard, while playing for the Oakland A’s in 2014, very nearly became the “Face of MLB” after an inside joke that went way, way too far. Sogard eventually lost the contest to Mets third baseman David Wright; just three years later, Wright’s career is likely over after a prolonged and continuing bout with spinal stenosis in his back. The contest was proof positive that you should never, ever decide things on Twitter. After all, the site’s most popular tweet comes from a man named Carter Wilkinson. The subject matter? Wilkinson was asking Wendy’s for a year’s supply of chicken nuggets. So there you go.

Anyway, where the Brewers’ story becomes truly impressive is with their pitching staff. Both Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson have turned in outstanding first halves, with Anderson pitching to a sub-3.00 ERA. While he has not pitched since leaving his June 28 start against the Reds with an oblique injury, Anderson is expected to return after the All-Star break. Nelson, though, has been the true ace of the starting rotation, having tossed 109 innings in 18 starts and pitching to a 3.30 ERA. Nelson is becoming the Brewers’ ace, as he’s been the team’s best (and most consistent) starter to this point in the season. In fact, Nelson’s WAR ranks in the top ten among all starting pitchers in baseball. Nelson is easily having the best year of his career, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be able to keep it up. But his sudden dominance is part of the Brewers’ early-season success.

The other prominent hurler for the Brew Crew is closer Corey Knebel. Knebel is also having the best season of his career and has become one of the best closers in baseball in 2017. Knebel has been so good, in fact, that his K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) rate is third among all relief pitchers, behind only the Red Sox’ Craig Kimbrel and the Yankees’ Dellin Betances. It’s entirely possible that Knebel falls off in the second half of the season, but he too has been vital to Milwaukee’s ascendancy to the top of the NL Central.

Of course, this story would be incomplete without addressing the Chicago Cubs and, more broadly, the collective mediocrity of the rest of the NL Central. While Chicago likely still has the most talent of any team in the division (FanGraphs still projects them to win the NL Central), the Brewers have separated from the pack as a result of their World Series hangover. And even as the Cubs’ season has slowly morphed into the title defense from hell, no one in the division, aside from Milwaukee, has taken advantage of their struggles.

The Milwaukee Brewers are no joke. They’ve been in first place outright since June 7 and while many have panicked about the state of the Cubs, the Brewers have started to pull away in a somewhat stunning development. They’ve gotten excellent pitching and timely hitting from unlikely sources and their run differential says that they should have performed exactly as well as they did in the first half of the season.

And whether they have gotten their most important pieces from the minor leagues, the Red Sox, or South Korea, the Milwaukee Brewers will try to finish what they started and lock up the National League Central in the second half of the season.

Paul Goldschmidt Is Having the Best Season You’ve Never Heard Of

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We are at about the halfway point of the Major League Baseball season and it’s been a year of fascinating storylines. Some of those include the dominance of rookies Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, the emergence of the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers as the two best teams in baseball, and the underwhelming performance of the defending champion Chicago Cubs. It has been, to this point, an exciting exhibition of both team and individual performances, one that is sure to pave the way for a fascinating second half of the season.

One of the best performaces of this young season, though, has gone completely under the radar.

It’s not exactly a secret that I really like Paul Goldschmidt; in fact, I’ve actually commissioned myself as the president of the Society of Paul Goldschmidt Admirers. He is easily the most underrated superstar in today’s game and the consistency of his performance on a daily basis almost always goes unnoticed. Part of the problem is that he plays on the Arizona Diamondbacks in one of baseball’s more anonymous markets; most of Arizona’s home games don’t begin until 9:30 on the east coast, meaning that many baseball fans aren’t able to stay up late to see just how good Goldschmidt really is. The other issue is that because Goldschmidt is such a well-rounded player there isn’t really one thing to zero in on in terms of his abilities on an everyday basis. It’s hard to think of him as just a power hitter, speedster, or elite defender.

If you want a measure of just how talented Goldschmidt really is, consider this: he ranks first among major league first basemen in both runs scored and stolen bases while also coming in third in home runs. At a position where most players simply don’t run well, Goldschmidt is on pace for around 25 steals this year. For a more all-encompassing look at Goldschmidt’s base running abilities, we turn to BsR, the base running component of wins above replacement. In that category, he is also tops among all first basemen, but that’s not all: among all position players, Goldschmidt is tied for third in all of baseball. The two players he’s tied with, the Royals’ Jarrod Dyson and the Marlins’ Dee Gordon, are two of the fastest players in the game today. However, both players only get on base roughly 33% of the time. Goldschmidt, on the other hand, reaches base in nearly 44% of his plate appearances. So not only is he reaching base at an extremely high rate (second among all position players) but he is also a true asset to his team when he gets there.

Next, we move to the all-important power category. While most players who run well are not able to hit for power, Goldschmidt is the rare exception. He ranks seventh in the league in slugging percentage, a measure of a player’s total bases divided by the number of at-bats he has. A deeper dive into this, though, shows that his performance in this category is even more impressive than advertised. Out of the top 35 players in the league in slugging, Goldschmidt is the only player with double-digit stolen bases. Eight of those 35 players have zero steals on the season, and 22 of the 35 have negative BsR ratings. Goldschmidt really is the exception instead of the rule, and his all-around prowess of the offensive game is truly something to behold.

If his performance this season were a surprise, chances are it would be covered more vigorously on a national level. This year’s showing, however, is a continuation of a trend that started back in 2012. With the exception of his 2014 season, one that ended when he broke his hand on August 1 of that year, Goldschmidt has had at least 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases every single year. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he’s going to do that again this year. His exploits have guided the Diamondbacks and their horrendous uniforms to a 52-31 start; Arizona has the third-best record in baseball and is just 2.5 games behind the Dodgers for first place in the NL West.

Even with all that, Goldschmidt still isn’t earning the recognition he deserves. His jersey is not in the top 20 of all jerseys sold on MLBShop.com since last year’s World Series. He has ceded much of the attention at his own position to players such as Anthony Rizzo and Ryan Zimmerman. Even with the success of the Diamondbacks, Goldschmidt still hasn’t earned the respect or praise he has truly earned. Many around the team and the league speak of Goldschmidt as a quiet individual who doesn’t necessarily seek out the media spotlight. However, he deserves to be shouted out here, even if he isn’t going to be the one doing the talking.

There is also this last note to consider: among all players in Major League Baseball, Goldschmidt ranks fourth in wins above replacement. Only Aaron Judge, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer are ahead of him in that category. While I don’t consider myself a blind slave to WAR, the figure provides a starting point for evaluating players based on their production to this particular point in the season. And through three months of baseball, WAR says that Goldschmidt is the fourth-best player in the league. It also says that he’s the second-best position player in baseball, and the guy he’s behind in that category has his own cheering section in Yankee Stadium. Paul Goldschmidt, for nearly as productive a season, has some hardcore fans and, well, this blog post. The difference between the two may not be that disparate, but it’s pretty close.

It’s very unlikely that many people will come to appreciate the greatness of Paul Goldschmidt anytime soon. The fact of the matter is, though, that he has been one of baseball’s brightest stars over the past couple of seasons. This year, the Diamondbacks find themselves in contention for a playoff spot and (potentially) a run into October. if Arizona can maintain its first-half success, much of America may finally realize just how good the Diamondbacks’ first baseman really is when the playoffs roll around.

But until then, he’ll continue to put together an MVP-caliber season, regardless of whether or not anyone outside Arizona notices or cares.

A Few Forgotten Men: Reassigning Credit for the Dodgers’ Success

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Let’s go back to 1984. Before I tell you this story, let me assure you that I know where I’m going with this.

The music legend and founder of the Motown record label, Berry Gordy, has a 20-year-old son looking to break into the music industry. He has changed his name, with the help of his father’s company, to create his own image outside of his father’s shadow. The younger Gordy has a song that he believes can be a hit, but while he liked the tune, he wanted to bring in a more established singer to perform the song’s hook.

When that person came along, the song became internationally-renowned and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”, and the man singing the chorus was none other than Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. Keep in mind that Jackson released his “Thriller” album over 13 months before and was truly at the peak of his powers as a musician and performer. The chorus (“I always feel like, somebody’s watchin’ meeeeeeeeeee”) is easily the most memorable part of the song, and Jackson’s role in the hit single is what allowed it to be released in the first place.

At the time, many simply assumed that “Somebody’s Watching Me” was Jackson’s song. And while MJ’s are some of the most famous backing vocals ever, he was not actually credited on the song itself. While his contribution to the song is minimal in time, it is what many remember about it, even if Rockwell performed most of the song. It would be Rockwell’s biggest and, for all intents and purposes, only hit. “Somebody’s Watching Me” has now been the anthem of everyday paranoia for over 33 years, but it likely never reaches the light of day without Jackson’s help.

So what’s the point of me telling you all this? Well, it looks like a similar situation is brewing with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers lead the NL West by 2.5 games and are currently on a 10-game winning streak. Much of the hype surrounding the team’s hot start has revolved around star rookie outfielder Cody Bellinger, who leads the National League with 24 home runs despite having played just 57 of Los Angeles’ 77 games this season. Of course, a lot of the recent attention Bellinger has received concerns his oblivion towards the existence of Jerry Seinfeld, but we’ll let that go for now.

Many will presume that Bellinger has been the Dodgers’ best (and most important) player to this point in the season. After all, he has hit twelve home runs in his team’s last fifteen games, and the Dodgers are 14-1 in that span. A closer look at the numbers, though, shows that he has been far from the only key to the Dodgers’ success.

Consider this: for as good as Bellinger has been to this point in the season, he has only hit .282. In some ways, that makes his home run binge even more impressive, as the longball has accounted for over 40% of his hits this season. It is fair to ask yourself, however, if he can continue at his torrid pace for the rest of the season; while he leads the league in isolated power, a measure of a batter’s raw power, major league pitchers may be able to somewhat figure him out sooner or later. While they may not be able to stop him completely, they could attack him more intelligently as they get a feel for his strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s something else to think about: is Bellinger’s success a result of the hitters in front of him in the lineup?

Since third baseman Justin Turner returned from the disabled list on June 9, the Dodgers and manager Dave Roberts have employed a lineup with shortstop Corey Seager hitting second, Turner hitting third, and Bellinger cleaning up. Roberts had tried this lineup earlier in the season and has gone back to it since Turner’s return. In this version of the Dodgers’ lineup, the three hitters have formed something of a Mortal Kombat combination; in the sixteen games the three players have hit 2-3-4 in the starting lineup, the Dodgers are 13-3 and are averaging nearly seven runs per game.

Bellinger plays a role in that success, but so do Turner and Seager; the two infielders lead the team in WAR (wins above replacement). In fact, Turner has been so successful that he is hitting .393 on June 26. While it’s very unlikely that he hits .400 for the season, he’s been the Dodgers’ best hitter when he’s been in the lineup this season. Seager has also been outstanding this year, as he has an on-base percentage over .400. More importantly, Seager has only missed four games so far this year; while he’s listed as day-to-day with a hamstring injury, he is not expected to miss significant time. As both players lead the league at their positions in WAR, it’s become clear that the Dodgers easily have the best left side of the infield in baseball.

Another thing to address when looking at the Dodgers’ success is their pitching staff and, in particular, their starting rotation. While ace Clayton Kershaw has been outstanding as usual, the team has gotten pleasantly surprising performances this season from starters Alex Wood and Brandon McCarthy. Wood has been so spectacular, in fact, that he is second in the league in ERA among pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched this season. While the offense has gotten all of the headlines, LA’s pitching staff has quietly held down the fort en route to the league’s lowest staff ERA.

The Dodgers are 51-26 and just one game behind the Houston Astros for the best record in baseball. While Bellinger has been amazing and will rightfully get most of the credit for the team’s success, other players, such as Turner and Seager, also deserve praise for the critical roles they’ve played in pushing the Dodgers to the front of the best division in baseball. The team does not appear to be showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon, and it appears as if their success in the first half of the season is no fluke.

The Los Angeles Dodgers may very well continue their first-half success on their way to bigger and better things. Their starting rotation could continue to perform like they have in the team’s first 77 games, and their offense may continue to perform, albeit probably not at their current pace.

And Cody Bellinger will continue to play a leading role, even if he was only asked to sing backing vocals for baseball’s best offense.

Max Scherzer Hasn’t Yet Eclipsed Clayton Kershaw As Baseball’s Best Pitcher

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Recently, one of the main debates in the baseball landscape has been whether or not the Nationals’ Max Scherzer has overtaken the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in the game. The two hurlers are likely the two best pitchers in baseball, but as usual, we must debate which one is better because we can’t appreciate a good thing when we see one. Anyway…

The trigger point for this discussion was an article printed in the Washington Post on Monday in which Neil Greenberg argued that Scherzer has overtaken Kershaw as the game’s best pitcher:

Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer has a long list of accolades. He’s the sixth pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win the Cy Young Award in both the American and National leagues. The 32-year-old father-to-be required the third fewest innings of any pitcher in history to record his 2,000th career strikeout. And he has two no-hitters plus a 20-strikeout game to his credit.

Now he can add one more superlative to his resume as the most likely to unseat Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in the baseball.

Later in the article, Greenberg argues that Scherzer is already the best pitcher in the sport. Greenberg’s opinion is no longer an uncommon one, either, but is Scherzer really the best pitcher in the game right now? Let’s take a closer look, and instead of solely looking at this year’s performance, we’ll compare the two pitchers over the first ten years of their careers.

To answer this question, I went to FanGraphs, quite possibly the best sports information website on the internet today. Instead of getting into advanced stats right away, I decided to compare the two pitchers based on more common statistics. The most accepted statistic to gauge a pitcher’s success is earned run average, and while Scherzer’s ERA is lower than Kershaw’s this season, their bodies of work show that this is a rare occurrence:


Source: FanGraphsClayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer

Much of the hype around Scherzer’s dominance has come in the wake of his last five starts. In those outings, Scherzer has pitched to a 0.89 ERA with at least ten strikeouts and seven innings pitched in every game. In his last five starts, Clayton Kershaw has pitched to a 3.98 ERA and has not gone deeper than seven innings into any of those outings. Before this five-start stretch, Kershaw’s ERA was 2.01 while Scherzer’s was 3.02. It’s entirely possible that this three-week period has been an aberration for both pitchers.

Now, let’s take a look at the all-important WHIP (walks and hits per inning) statistic. This stat is an indicator of how many baserunners a pitcher allows in each of his innings of work, and it usually is the best indicator of long-term success. With Kershaw and Scherzer, it tells a very similar story to their ERA comparison:


Source: FanGraphsClayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer

Let’s take this one step further. FIP is a pitching stat that aims to take defense out of the equation of a pitcher’s success (it literally stands for fielding independent pitching). This figure shows that Scherzer is currently having the better season. But, just like the other previously-displayed statistics, it also shows that this year could be an anomaly:


Source: FanGraphsClayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer

Now, it is impossible to believe that Kershaw is having the better season this year. However, you may ask yourself whether or not I would still take him as the best pitcher in baseball. The answer is that I would, and here’s why.

Both pitchers reached the big leagues in the same year (2008), making it very easy to directly compare their careers. Since they both arrived in the majors, there is a large sample size (ten years, to be exact) suggesting that Kershaw has been the better pitcher. If you go back and look at the graphs, the only time Scherzer has outperformed Kershaw before this year is their rookie season, when Scherzer was called up by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kershaw was also called up that season and he made 21 starts. Want to know how many starts Scherzer had that season? Seven.

And even if you want to consider 2008 a full “season” for both pitchers and end the 2017 season today (more power to you if you do), the fact of the matter is this: Max Scherzer, to this point in his career, is two for ten in terms of having a better overall season than Clayton Kershaw. And if you’re like me and you consider 2008 and this season to be incomplete bodies of work, you’ll see that Scherzer has never been more effective than Kershaw for a full year.

And that leads me to think that Kershaw is still a better pitcher. While many are infatuated with a five-start stretch, Kershaw has still been consistently better and the month of June may have been a blip on the radar. Take this into account, too: Kershaw is just 29 years old. Scherzer is 32. While it seems like both have been around for a very long time, Kershaw is still on the south side of 30.

And make no mistake: this is not meant to discredit the job Max Scherzer has done so far this season. He has quite possibly been the game’s best hurler this year, and he should be applauded for that.

And if you’re going to crown him the best pitcher in the game because of a five-start stretch, that’s your prerogative. When you do that, though, just know that I won’t be joining in on your fun.

NOTE: Today, Scherzer threw an eight-inning complete game in a 2-1 loss to the Miami Marlins today. He had 11 strikeouts and did not allow an earned run in defeat. The information in the above graphs does not take Scherzer’s most recent start into consideration.

MLB’s Pace of Play Problem

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It’s nice to see Major League Baseball attempting to fix its serious problems with the length and pace of their games. The operative word in that sentence: attempting.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who ascended to the office in 2014, has made pace of play his top issue as the ruler of the sport. Before his first full season as commissioner, he instituted stricter rules regarding breaks between innings and players wasting time over the course of a game. The measures worked to an extent; games were an average of about six minutes shorter than the season before and while that seems like a small progression, the average length of games went back under three hours, a major accomplishment for a sport that has recently struggled with getting younger fans to pay attention to their product. At the time, it seemed like baseball had taken the first step toward solving its burgeoning pace-of-play issue.

Unfortunately, the sport soon relapsed and has undone much of the progress it made just two years ago.

Last year, the average length of an MLB game jumped back to exactly three hours, a four-minute regression from the year before. Instead of improving or leveling off, the problem has gotten worse in 2017; as of April 17, the average game length has jumped to three hours and five minutes. This comes in spite of the sport’s attempts to continue pace-of-play efforts; the most pronounced change this season has been the no-pitch intentional walk and a 30-second limit on managers trying to decide whether or not to challenge a play. Clearly, these measures are not working, as games are actually longer than they were before they were enacted.

Baseball’s problem with pace of play is not borne from a lack of trying. However, not all of the ideas for improving the pace of baseball games are good. Among Manfred’s more terrible ideas is for teams to start each extra inning with a runner on second base. There are countless problems with this idea, but the main one is that it does nothing to stop MLB’s problem with nine-inning games. It also brings numerous issues including statistics, strategy, bullpen usage, etc., but those aren’t necessarily important for right now.

The frustrating thing for baseball fans is that the rules put in place before the 2015 season actually did work. The games were shorter, commercial breaks were tighter, and there was less dead time in between pitches. And then, on May 1 of that year, the league office made a massive mistake and reduced or even eliminated fines for offenders of the league’s new pace-of-play rules. (Back then, players were fined $500 for stepping out of the batter’s box or otherwise violating pacing regulations.) Granted, fining David Ortiz nearly half a million dollars in the span of six months might not have been the best look for the sport, but don’t you have to do something about a problem before it gets even worse?

Here’s another point that has to be made: it’s unrealistic to expect a baseball game to finish in less time than, say, a basketball game. It’s also unrealistic to expect baseball games to be as quick as they were just thirty years ago; teams are taking more pitches per game and there is no way to control that. In fact, it’s been proven to be an intelligent strategy.

However, there is something baseball can do to solve some of their pace-of-play issues. You may need to be sitting down for this one. Here it is:

Major League Baseball can (likely) shave about ten minutes off their current average game time if they simply enforced the rules they have in place right now. They could go back to fining players for taking a foot out of the batter’s box; after all, it happens all of the time now. They could make sure that their “2:25 commercial break” is actually a 2:25 commercial break and nothing more. That required far less thought than putting a runner on second base in the tenth inning, removing pitches for an intentional walk, or radically changing the strike zone.

There is one thing MLB absolutely needs to do beyond its current rules, and that is to institute a 20-second pitch clock as soon as possible. It works exactly as it would sound, and since its introduction in the minor leagues two years ago, it has subtracted about 12 minutes per game on average.

A reasonable goal for Major League Baseball would be to cut the average length of a game down to two hours and 45 minutes. Between the pitch clocks and accurate, consistent rule enforcement, I believe I just found 22 minutes that could be slashed from every single baseball game. If you subtract those 22 minutes from the current length of games, you would have an average of two hours and 43 minutes per contest. Those are two completely non-gimmick, no-nonsense, common sense solutions to what is actually a very uncomplicated problem.

Major League Baseball needs to cut down the length of their games. It actually isn’t as big of a problem for the sport as, for example, properly marketing their stars, but it needs to be addressed. Rob Manfred and the Players’ Association can solve this problem with common sense solutions that should make both sides happy.

MLB’s pace-of-play conundrum is a very simple problem. The sport’s power brokers, however, must not overthink the current state of affairs when trying to find solutions.