Look at the baseball above. Does anything seem different about it?
On the surface, the vast majority of the population would say no. It’s a baseball; how could the production of it be any different and/or affect the way the game is played?
Apparently, as we found out yesterday, it matters a great deal.
In a report published on Thursday, the league admitted to changes in the production of its baseballs, which has, in turn, led to a home run surge that has even outpaced the steroid era. The report stated that there were no changes to the ball itself, but that the new baseballs, which were put into use after the 2015 All-Star Game, have a lessened drag coefficient. Without getting too science-y (I don’t exactly get this stuff, either), this means that the behavior of the ball is no different off the bat; however, it is carrying further in the air than it used to, which would theoretically mean that more deep fly ball outs are turning into home runs. Sure enough, since these new balls have been used, that seems to be exactly what has happened.
In 2014, each team averaged 0.86 home runs per game. In 2017, that number was 1.26 per game. Of course, part of this rise has come from hitters trying to put more balls in the air, which has also led to increased strikeout rates around the league; this is a byproduct of the launch and popularity of Statcast, which was founded by MLB in 2015. However, player strategy hardly has everything to do with this, and when you watch these two “excuse-me”dingers from last year’s playoffs, you can’t help but wonder whether or not there was some tomfoolery with the baseballs. And if you did, you weren’t the first person to ask yourself that question.
Most notably, Justin Verlander, who was traded from the Tigers to the Astros last season, alleged that something strange was going on with the baseballs. He didn’t say or know what that was, exactly, but, as someone who pitches every fifth day, he saw what was happening and common sense tells you that home run rates don’t go up by more than 46% by a change in on-field strategy alone. As wild as this may seem, however, this is not the first time that those within the game and outside of it have accused the sport of giving its baseballs the juice.
Back in the early 2000s, pitcher Kenny Rogers, a man who was once suspended for 20 games after throwing a cameraman to the ground, complained that the ball’s inner core was made of rubber instead of cork, which is what it formerly consisted of. However, other than the balls being made of rubber and not cork, there were no other tangible or proven modifications to its manufacturing that led to more home runs. However, this gained traction because we were in the middle of the steroid era and during that period in baseball, it seemed as though literally everything was juiced. These allegations resurfaced after an 11-10 World Series game between the Angels and Giants in 2002. Last year, there was a 13-12 World Series game between the Astros and Dodgers. If this sounds all too familiar, it is, except this time, there is legitimate proof that something is going on.
Now, you may come to the conclusion that there is no harm being done here because everyone likes more home runs, and that is a fair conclusion to arrive at. However, imagine what would happen if the NBA changed the way its basketballs were produced so that players like Steph Curry and others could consistently make threes from 40 feet away from the basket. The game would, of course, be more fun to watch at that point, but once many players could do it consistently, it would take away from the incredible skill of a select few who can pull up from that distance and have a legitimate chance at making the shot.
That has already happened with the decreased drag coefficient; feats that were once accomplished by a select few are now being pulled off by many. In 2014, 37 players hit 20 or more home runs. Last season, that number ballooned to 89. I love the home run as much as anyone, but it used to mean something to hit that many home runs and hit for power consistently. Nowadays, everyone is doing it, and this wouldn’t be a problem if it only had to do with players making a conscious effort to hit more fly balls, which they have. That being said, the league-commissioned report shows two things:
Baseballs are carrying more than they used to.
The league, which steadfastly denied until this year that there was any difference in the production of the baseballs, has not done anything to curtail this trend.
Part of this equation is that, in the years prior to 2015, offense was on a steady decline throughout baseball, and more common-sense measures, such as lowering the mound, were tossed around. But what sense does it make to artificially inflate offensive numbers when part of the entertainment of baseball is the battle between the hitter and the pitcher? And why would you do this when you have a problem with pace of play? Games with more offense don’t tend to finish quicker than games with less, and what sense does it make to have an entertaining product if you can’t start and finish a game in less than three hours?
Baseball has a lot of problems on its hands, and it would appear as though the sport tried to fix its “entertainment value” issue by making it easier for the game’s power hitters to thrive. It takes a stunning amount of hubris to repeatedly deny that there are any shenanigans taking place with the production of baseballs and then have a report find out that everything you’ve stated publicly is wrong, while you think the entire time that no one will notice when a lazy fly ball turns into a home run. Frankly, commissioner Rob Manfred owes an apology to Justin Verlander and everyone else who noticed something strange going on with our National Pastime.
That’s what baseball is; it’s our National Pastime and it’s also the only sport where something this ridiculous could happen without anyone batting an eyelash. But we shouldn’t be surprised, considering that this is the same game in which two leagues play by separate sets of rules and fans can change the outcome of an entire season.
The baseball season is over, but the intrigue is not.
Every year, the Baseball Writers Association of America votes on Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and Manager of the Year awards. Every voter has a different methods for choosing his or her winners; some voters are more sabermetrically inclined, others are very old-school, and others vote in a more random fashion; if you don’t believe me, the same people vote on Hall of Fame enshrinement and three of them don’t think Ken Griffey, Jr. deserves to be in Cooperstown. Yeah, I don’t know, either.
Anyway, about those methods: I’m trying a new one this year. I’ve gone back and forth over the past few years on the value of sabermetrics, but I’ve recently decided that they are essential to understanding why certain players and teams are successful and why others aren’t. That relates to this discussion because I’ll mainly be using a sabermetric, analytically-inclined system to determine who I would give baseball’s major awards to this year (except for Manager of the Year) instead of picking the winners randomly, which is what I had always done in the past.
I actually rolled out some of the winners near the end of September to great Twitter fanfare; things went so well that the proceedings ended with me commencing quite possibly the largest Easter Egg hunt in my young Twitter existence. Anyway, I’ve even tinkered with my system since then, and I have finally come to what I feel like is a fair and understandable structure for handicapping the awards. And these adjustments have changed some of the victors since that time, even though many players’ statistics did not.
Here’s how this will work: there will be nine metrics used to measure player performance. If the player ranks first in his league in batting average, for example, he gets one point. The player’s rank in each of the categories is added up and divided by the number of statistics used (nine). The player who comes out with the lowest number after that process wins the award. These are the statistics I used for position players and pitchers:
For pitchers in the MVP discussion, I only used WAR and WPA for their final results and divided that number by two. And if a position player did not play enough innings at one position (e.g. the Indians’ Jose Ramirez), then DRS was removed from his final total and that individual’s DRS would not be considered. The same was true for the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz, the only full-time designated hitter considered for the American League MVP. Finally, if a closer was included in Cy Young consideration, his rank in all categories except for RA9-WAR and WPA would be among closers. In the two aforementioned figures, he would be ranked along with all other qualified pitchers in his league. The point in doing this was to tilt the playing field ever so slightly toward starting pitchers, as they throw at least 100 innings more than their ninth-inning counterparts, while still leaving the opportunity for a dominant closer to take home the hardware. Basically, this provision would leave the door open for a Zach Britton-esque season to still receive the recognition it deserves.
If this explanation is insufficient, the charts I used to calculate the MVP and Cy Young for both leagues can be found here and here (WARNING: Both links contain spoilers). While I’ve tried to explain this as best I can, I am, like many of you, a visual learner, and seeing the calculations that went into this process may help you better understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
One last thing: I’m going to list several honorable mentions with the award winners. They are listed in the order they finished in my calculations.
So, hopefully, that explanation suffices. Here now are my 2017 MLB Award Winners. If you’re on the internet, please don’t judge me.
National League MVP
Winner: Joey Votto, 1B/Cincinnati Reds
Put simply, Joey Votto is the best hitter in baseball.
He has been for some time, actually, but this year he solidified that label even further. In 2017, Votto’s statistics were at or near career highs in home runs, runs scored, on-base percentage (.454 is the highest mark in the league in two years), batting average, wins above replacement, slugging percentage, and OPS. There is no other hitter in the game that compares to Votto. The Reds star first baseman finished first in the league in on-base percentage, OPS, RE24, wRC+, and Defensive Runs Saved. And in every other category, Votto finished no lower than sixth, which is where he finished in slugging percentage, behind Giancarlo Stanton, Charlie Blackmon, Cody Bellinger, Freddie Freeman, and Nolan Arenado.
But there is no hitter as consistently good and diversely talented as Votto. And before you come in with the argument that the MVP has to come from a winning team, remember that the Cincinnati Reds won 68 games with Votto in the lineup every day. No, seriously. Every. Day. Don’t blame the best player on the team for his organization’s incompetence.
And we should really appreciate Votto’s greatness while we still can. The superstar turned 34 last month and history has shown us that most hitters rapidly decline around their 35th birthday. If this was Joey Votto’s last season among baseball’s elite, he’ll go down as one of the greatest hitters of all-time. If you don’t believe me, the proof is in the pudding.
This may seem like a far-fetched analogy, but think of Joey Votto like Slash. You already know that he’s great at his craft, but then you hear that song, and that solo, and come to think of it, you realize that he’s one of the all-time greats. Joey Votto transcends any particular award or single season, and he’s undoubtedly the best player in the National League right now.
Honorable Mentions: Charlie Blackmon, Giancarlo Stanton, Max Scherzer, Nolan Arenado, Justin Turner, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant
American League MVP
Winner: Mike Trout, CF/Los Angeles Angels
Let me ask you a question: if you knew someone was clearly the best player in the game for several years running and he just had possibly the best year of his career, why would you deny him his just due?
Mike Trout just posted career highs in OPS, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS, to say nothing of the fact that he set a career low for strikeout percentage over a full season. And did I mention that he played just 114 games this year after suffering a UCL tear in his thumb at the end of May and cleared the threshold for stat qualification by just four plate appearances?
This was no bother for the best player in the league. While many were distracted by the exploits of Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve this year (don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic), Trout led the American League in RE24 and he led the entire league in Win Probability Added. The best part about this is both of those measures are cumulative statistics that are very dependent on how many plate appearances a hitter gets in a season. Trout, with over 150 fewer plate appearances less than Judge and Altuve, matched or, in many ways, exceeded their value.
A counterargument for Trout’s MVP case would be that the Angels went 19-20 during his midseason absence and, despite his post-All-Star break return, finished the season at 80-82. That may seem fair, but other players actually stepped up when Trout was sidelined, and those pieces did not perform quite as well after the All-Star break. Also, Trout’s only support in the Angels’ lineup, aside from August acquisition Justin Upton, was Andrelton Simmons and the living, breathing, worst player in baseball. Denying Trout the award this year would be like refusing to give the country’s best nurse Doctor of the Year because she didn’t get the chance to save someone’s life.
You have no idea where the Halos would be without him. Just thinking about it frightens me.
Honorable Mentions: Corey Kluber, Jose Altuve, Chris Sale, Aaron Judge, Nelson Cruz, Justin Upton, Jose Ramirez, George Springer
National League Cy Young
Winner: Max Scherzer, SP/Washington Nationals
Unlike the American League (more on them shortly), the National League’s Cy Young race was fairly clear-cut for most of the season.
The award came down to the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, with Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen trying to kick down the door to no avail in the latter stages of the year. Scherzer has the modest advantage here, though, after finishing no lower than third in any of the nine statistics used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness in this exercise. That consistency catapulted him over Kershaw for the award, as the Dodgers’ lefty was a full point behind Scherzer on average.
In my Utopian baseball universe, this would be Scherzer’s third career Cy Young Award, which would make him just the tenth pitcher to achieve that milestone. The other nine pitchers to accomplish this feat either are, should be, or will be in the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to deny Scherzer the hardware this time around considering that he just had the best year of a remarkable and legendary career.
We are blessed with great pitching in baseball nowadays. We should make sure Max Scherzer doesn’t slip through the cracks, and that starts with giving him the 2017 National League Cy Young Award.
Honorable Mentions: Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Grienke
American League Cy Young
Winner: Corey Kluber, SP/Cleveland Indians
Corey Kluber trailed Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale in this race for most of the season. He began to pull ahead of the Sox ace, however, with a second half in which he gave up three or more earned runs in just three of his fifteen starts.
Kluber and Sale ranked first or second in the American League in every statistical measure used here except WPA, where Sale finished fourth. Kluber gained the slight edge, though, by finishing first in ERA, WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, as well as RA9-WAR, where he held a 1.2-win advantage over Sale. It is crazy to consider that the first pitcher to finish a season with 300 strikeouts since 2002 would finish a clear second in the Cy Young race, but here we are.
And after one of the best seasons by two different pitchers in the same league, Corey Kluber comes out on top, playoff performance notwithstanding. His staggering second half is enough to get him my vote for AL Cy Young.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, Carlos Carrasco, Luis Severino, Justin Verlander
National League Rookie of the Year
Winner: Cody Bellinger, OF/Los Angeles Dodgers
I’m not here to reinvent the wheel.
Bellinger broke the National League rookie record for home runs in a season (39) and was clearly the best rookie on the National League side. There was no one else even approaching Bellinger’s value this season, and he clearly had the National League’s best freshman effort, even if some of his broken records are less auspicious than others.
Honorable Mentions: Paul DeJong, Austin Barnes, Rhys Hoskins
American League Rookie of the Year
Winner: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees
Again, I’m not here to insult your intelligence.
Aaron Judge is a contender for the American League MVP, let alone Rookie of the Year. He broke the league’s rookie home run and walk records, and despite his league-leading 208 strikeouts, there isn’t another rookie in the American League who approaches Judge’s value. This is proven, too: Judge led the league in Wins Above Replacement (8.2) this season.
Honorable Mentions: Matt Chapman, Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Haniger
National League Manager of the Year
Winner: Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks
In his first season as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Torey Lovullo quite literally engineered a 180° turnaround in the desert.
Last season, the D-Backs were 69-93 and finished just one game ahead of the San Diego Padres, the worst team in the National League. Arizona’s fan base had one of the best players in the game and absolutely nothing else to cheer for. Worst of all, the team traded future All-Star Ender Inciarte and top prospect Dansby Swanson the season before for Shelby Miller; you don’t need me to tell you how that went.
Fast forward a year later, though, and the Diamondbacks were one of the best teams in the league. Despite an abrupt playoff exit at the hands of the Dodgers, Arizona won 93 games and Lovullo’s arrival is no small reason why. While most of the Diamondbacks’ resurgence centered around improved performances from pitchers Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, in addition to the presence of A.J. Pollock in center field and the midseason acquisition of Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez, Lovullo deserves credit for his leadership in guiding the Diamondbacks to their first playoff appearance since 2011.
Honorable Mentions: Craig Counsell, Dave Roberts, Bud Black
American League Manager of the Year
Winner: Paul Molitor, Minnesota Twins
Last year, the Minnesota Twins were baseball’s worst team at 59-103 and did not appear to have any hope of being a contender this season. Enter Paul Molitor.
Molitor has managed the Twins since 2015 and has had the team in contention in two of his three seasons at the helm; this year, though, marked his first playoff appearance. How the Twins got there, however, is what makes the job Molitor did all the more impressive.
At the trade deadline, the Twins found themselves at 50-53 and five games back of the second wild card spot. Thinking that the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs were fading with two months to play, GM Thad Levine shipped closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals and sent Jaime Garcia, after one start and three days with the Twins organization, to the Yankees. Many, including myself, counted Minnesota out of the race.
Instead, the team finished the year 35-24 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2010. To add to that, they gave the Yankees, a team that was later one win away from the World Series, an honest-to-goodness fight in the AL Wild Card game. The emergence of young stars such as Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Byron Buxton is a great sign for Minnesota, and hopefully they can keep Molitor on the top step of the dugout for the foreseeable future. It’s worked out well so far.
Honorable Mentions: Joe Girardi, A.J. Hinch, Kevin Cash
How did I do? Let me know in the comments section or debate me on Twitter, but please be ready to back up your arguments.
NOTE: I started college last week and have not gotten the chance to post anything since then. I will try to post when possible in the future, and this post was made possible by a day off from school and work.
There is one month left to play in the Major League Baseball season and both the American League and National League Most Valuable Player races are heating up.
I had a post dedicated to the MLB award winners back in July, and needless to say, a lot has changed since then. I’ll have another such post after the regular season concludes. I’ll be using several advanced metrics (which I’ll explain shortly), and the player’s rank in each individual category will determine my hypothetical vote for each league’s MVP. I’ll be using these eight stats as my barometer for hitters and I’ll throw in another one (Win Probability Added) to gauge pitchers in the MVP race. These are the statistics I’ll be using, with some links that further expound on their meaning:
For pitchers, I’ll only consider WPA and WAR for their MVP chances. For hitters, I’ll consider every category but WPA; I’m using eight statistical categories for hitters and I wanted to fit WPA in but I decided against it because it has its flaws. For example, it fluctuates wildly for even the most consistent players from year-to-year and it penalizes players who don’t get the opportunity to come to the plate in big moments. It is useful for pitchers, though, because the pitching leaders in WPA are often aligned with the best pitchers in the league for that particular season.
I will also use a point system for this award based on each player’s average rank in his league in each statistical category. The player with the lowest figure is my current MVP winner. I’ll have more on this in the post I’ll publish after the season. Does all of that make sense? Okay. Let’s dive right in.
Joey Votto, 1B/Cincinnati Reds: 3.0 (WINNER)
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B/Arizona Diamondbacks: 3.1
Bryce Harper, RF/Washington Nationals: 4.4
Charlie Blackmon, CF/Colorado Rockies: 4.8
Giancarlo Stanton, RF/Miami Marlins: 6.0
Anthony Rendon, 3B/Washington Nationals: 7.0
Justin Turner, 3B/Los Angeles Dodgers: 8.0
Max Scherzer, P/Washington Nationals: 9.0
Corey Seager, SS/Los Angeles Dodgers: 12.4
Votto comes in first or second in the National League in five of the eight categories used for this award. His earth-shattering brilliance, even while playing for one of the worst teams in baseball, is something to behold. If the season ended today, I would be perfectly fine with either Votto or Goldschmidt winning the award, as both would be ultimately deserving of the hardware. Harper will be dropped from consideration for this award if he does not return from a knee injury in the very near future, an outcome that currently looks like a strong possibility.
Of course, the leader in the clubhouse here is likely Stanton, with his league-leading 52 home runs and 111 RBI, which tie him with the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado for tops in baseball. If you look more closely, though, you can pretty clearly see that Votto and Goldschmidt are the National League’s two best hitters.
Justin Upton, LF/Detroit Tigers/Los Angeles Angels: 9.1
Nelson Cruz, DH/Seattle Mariners: 12.6
Jose Ramirez, 3B/Cleveland Indians: 13.4
Just like the National League, this is a two-player race. Unlike the National League, however, there is a starting pitcher involved at the top.
Chris Sale is, according to WAR, baseball’s Most Valuable Player. He is second overall in Win Probability Added, trailing only Cruz. And I don’t even need to mention to you that he is currently on pace for well over 300 strikeouts, which would make him just the 35th player to reach that milestone since 1900. If you think that’s a routine Cy Young Award-caliber season, it’s not. And if you think pitchers shouldn’t win this award because they have their own award and only see the field every fifth day, then good for you. But in more ways than one, Sale has been the most valuable player in baseball this season, and he deserves the award of the same name to show for it.
As I said earlier, I will come back to this discussion, as well as give out the game’s other awards, after the season concludes.
Let me know what I got wrong and right in the comments section.
28 days ago, I proudly advocated for Yankees rookie Aaron Judge as the American League’s Most Valuable Player. At the time, he looked like the best hitter in baseball by a wide margin, as he tore his way to 30 home runs and, at one point, held the league lead in every Triple Crown category. Since then, though, things have changed a little.
At that point of the season, Judge was a strikeout victim in thirteen straight games. The streak, at the time, was interesting but not necessarily newsworthy; Judge had struck out in just over 30% of his plate appearances and that number was the only serious hurdle to look past when examining his season. He had been utterly dominant in just about every other important offensive category and his high strikeout numbers came with the territory.
But again, things have changed significantly.
Since the All-Star break, one in which Judge won the Home Run Derby, hit the Marlins Park roof, and broke NASA, he is hitting just .169 with seven home runs in 155 plate appearances. And about those strikeouts? He’s now broken the MLB record for consecutive games with a strikeout with a grand total of 37. The previous record was held by the Expos’ Bill Stoneman for his own dubious strikeout streak in 1971. The problem here is that Stoneman was a pitcher.
Remember when I stumped for Judge to win the MVP? Well, even on July 24, his strikeout rate was a serious problem. It’s always been a major characteristic of his that you would have to reconcile before voting for him to win a major award. And, as precedence has demonstrated, his high strikeout total may preclude him from reaching new heights.
To prove that, I’ve created this handy-dandy chart of every MVP winner since 2000 along with their strikeout rates. On this table, there are two pitchers (denoted with asterisks), plenty of players who probably shouldn’t have won the award, and more Human Growth Hormone than I previously thought you could pack into one table. When you read this, keep in mind that Judge’s strikeout rate is 32.1%:
A couple of thoughts:
Say what you want about Barry Bonds, but he won four MVPs after the age of 35. And before you call him a juicer who wouldn’t have been successful without the help of steroids, remember that he averaged 189 walks and 60 strikeouts per year in the four consecutive seasons he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. For his career, he averaged 1.66 walks for every strikeout. My apologies as we get back to the matter at hand.
While there are some aberrations, it’s very hard to win the MVP with a strikeout rate much higher than 20%. And even to get down to Trout’s 2014 strikeout rate, Judge would need to go without striking out in his next 119 plate appearances. So he probably won’t come away with the MVP this year.
To bookend the Most Valuable Player discussion, I would say that my front-runner for the award right now would be Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale, who is currently firstin baseball in Wins Above Replacement; in fact, Sale is a full win better than the second-place player (Jose Altuve).
But even if he can’t come away with hardware this year, can Aaron Judge return anywhere close to the form he showed in the first half of the season?
For starters, if Judge sustains his current strikeout rate, he would come in the top fifteen qualified hitters of all time in strikeout percentage. Out of the players ahead of him on that list, none hit higher than .261 (Tim Jordan, Jake Stahl) or had more than 194 career home runs (Russell Branyan). This is a problem that many of us (including me) likely ignored in the first half of the season because, at that time, his strikeout rate was just below 30%, he hit 30 home runs before the All-Star break and he hadn’t yet broken any ignominious, long-standing baseball records. This is also to say nothing of the fact that he looked like baseball’s best rookie hitter since Ichiro.
Here’s something else we ignored: in his 366 plate appearances during the first half of the season, Judge had a wild, and possibly unsustainable, .426 batting average on balls in play (BABIP, for short). This was unsurprisingly tops in the league for the first half of the season, but it becomes slightly suspicious when you consider that a league-average BABIP is .300. Obviously, the best hitters in the league naturally have higher BABIPs because they make better and harder contact, but because Judge is still a rookie, we didn’t know for sure if his hard contact was sustainable.
And, in possibly the least surprising news ever, Judge’s BABIP has dipped to a meager .233 in the second half. His true BABIP talent is likely somewhere in between his first half and second half performances, but it’s far from shocking that he couldn’t sustain the ability to convert nearly 43% of his contact into base hits. That is something no hitter has done for a full season since 1900 and you had to know that Judge wouldn’t be able to sustain that success.
As for what the future holds, it should have everything to do with Judge’s strikeouts. If he can corral his K habit and get his strikeout rate down to somewhere between 20 and 25%, then he has a real chance to be one of the league’s best players.
But if he doesn’t, you can expect more results that more closely mirror his last 35 games than his first 84.
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.
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:
Mike Trout (1.020)
Joey Votto (.997)
Bryce Harper (.984)
Paul Goldschmidt (.971)
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:
Joey Votto (163)
Buster Posey (129)
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:
Mike Trout (15.94)
Anthony Rizzo (14.99)
Bryce Harper (13.73)
Clayton Kershaw (13.24)
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 justaboutneverendswell. 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 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 brokenrecords 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.
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees
Stats (AL Rank)
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)
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)
Most Valuable Player: Bryce Harper, RF/Washington Nationals
Stats (NL Rank)
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.
Cy Young Award: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Stats (NL Rank)
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.
Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, OF/1B/Los Angeles Dodgers
Stats (NL Rank Among Rookies)
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.
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.
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):
Mike Trout (173)
Joey Votto (159)
Bryce Harper (151)
Paul Goldschmidt (151)
Miguel Cabrera (148)
Freddie Freeman (147)
Nelson Cruz (146)
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:
Mike Trout (.992)
Joey Votto (.974)
Paul Goldschmidt (.960)
Bryce Harper (.946)
David Ortiz (.937)
Miguel Cabrera (.917)
Freddie Freeman (.915)
Giancarlo Stanton (.915)
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 lessthanimpressed. 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 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.
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.