Marco’s Baseball Blog-O-Roonie 2020: UNDER THE BIG TOP
Yes, I was a pessimist when it came to believing that MLB could pull off a shortened season and somehow get through it without super-spreading COVID-19 from Fenway to Chavez Ravine. I expected the worst and in some ways I was right...can’t be done. I fully expected the whole thing to fold like a flattened inflatable circus tent and everybody go home.
Things started bad with bunches of players, coaches and clubhouse staff getting sick and being forced to the sideline. Lots of stars sat out because of family considerations. Vulnerable people at home like Buster Posey with his premature twin boy-babies. I didn’t think we’d get baseball for more than three weeks at one point...just too many cases.
But my churlish negativity has been overwhelmed by the bright spirit of the players, coaches and yes, even the front offices of the game. Gosh Darn it, everybody decided to just keep playing ball, no matter what happened. (Sure, Yoenis Cespedes quit and left the Mets without even telling anybody, but he was due for pulled hamstring number 22 anyway so small loss.)
The quality of play has been spotty. Some guys got enough spring training and played well, some guys obviously didn’t and started slow. The pitchers seemed generally ahead of the hitters but both species have been pulling up lame and tweaking various exotic ligaments right and left. And when the injury list on any given team is already filled up with stars (like the Yankees who lost Stanton, Judge, LeMahieu, Torres and Paxton in short order) nursing traditional injuries, here comes the ravenous virus to knock out five or ten guys with one sneeze.
But baseball is so much fun after the long hiatus that teams have just been quarantining the casualties and bringing up another passel of minor league prospects. Then they shove a bat or a resin bag in their hands and it’s “Go Get ‘em Kid!” It’s chaotic. It’s haphazard and inevitably contagious. Half the guys on the bench wear masks, half don’t. Two or three players in the field wear masks, the rest hug each other and spit on their gloves. The Marlins got shut down for a week or so for ignoring anti-virus protocols. The Cardinals had only played 5 games while most teams had played 20. Half of Cleveland’s starting pitchers snuck out of the hotel to go party and were suspended. Games have been cancelled willie nilly. But somehow, baseball abides and we’re actually playing a season.
Every team you watch has player after player making their major league debut and most of them seem to hit homers or strike out 10 in 4 innings or something. It’s kind of wonderful. Bunches of suburban strong boys and Cuban Apollos flooding the ball fields saying “Put me in, Coach!” Then they get sick and sit out two weeks and we get to watch dozens more talented young men who can hit a ball 450 feet or throw it 99 mph take their place.
Those of you have followed my meanderings on this blog know that I am a “Three True Outcomes” catastrophist. The Three True Outcomes is what some Stat-Nerd came up with (while picking lint out of his belly button) to describe the purity of the contest between pitcher and batter when the whole game is reduced to one of three outcomes. A strike out, a walk or a homer. No defense, no singles, no bunts, no hit and runs (God forbid!) no steals. Only the pitcher and the catcher need touch the ball. Although I agree that this is an accurate observation and description of what is happening, I hardly approve. In fact I find this loathsome trend a banal reduction in the beautiful variety of the game.
But while I rue the trend I must still admire the powerful athleticism of 21st Century Baseball. We are now witnessing a sport where every hitter goes downtown and flips the bat with a haughty, snarling gesture of superiority. Every pitcher can throw the damn ball 98 miles per hour. When the batter fails to “barrel it up” and actually puts the ball in the field of play you see extraordinary speed and powerful arms in the field and players sacrificing their bodies with diving catches and wall climbings.
Starting Pitching has seemed to settle into a basic pattern: throw the baseball real, real hard. Add a cutter or a slider and maybe a change up or splitter to disrupt timing. Pitch all out for four innings and then go take a shower. The batters are going to an all-or-nothing swing just about every time they take the bat off their shoulder. But the pitchers are overthrowing so hard that they run up pitch counts and walk too many. And when they get the ball just a little up in the zone they give up ...
“high exit velocity/optimum launch angle” big flies.
...(all together now….OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!)
Now add a dash of juiced baseballs and Result!...Games where the best pitchers totally dominate but still lose 5-3 contests because their mistakes get hit out so frequently. And the rest of the hurlers are Stat-meat for the bludgeon-eers. Those games are your 13-10 four hour specials. Every year we see a new record for total home runs hit. And strike outs. I guess we’re supposed to like it like that.
Well I don’t really, but even I am impressed when Fernando Tatis Jr. hits 12 dingers in only 21 games. And leads baseball in rbis and runs scored and steals. And there’re about thirty other young stars in the game that are almost as good. The Wow Factor is off the charts in baseball right now.
To add to the excitement, MLB has encouraged the addition of recorded crowd noise and cardboard cutouts of fans to fill the stadiums with a semblance of real human response. If they didn’t have the crowd noise, it turns out, all you’d hear would be the participants cussing each other out with repetitious but emphatic explitives. (*you should take a short break and watch this brief illustrative cussing demo* )
And the cut-out cardboard photos propped up in the seats are based on real fans and celebrities and fashion models so the players can pretend that they are strutting their stuff for the beautiful people.
The teams still travel from park to park, but in retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Traveling in airplanes and sharing hotels, even when you are careful, inevitably spreads the microbials. Turns out the NBA was right to bubble-up their players in one place for the whole abbreviated season. Only one case in a month! But if baseball had bubbled up , it would have been in the two Virus/Heat-Hells of Phoenix and Florida. And there aren’t enough enclosed and air conditioned venues in those states for anybody to survive even a sixty game season.
After seeing the quaint old minor league stadium, I kind of wish the whole circus could have been played in Buffalo, home of the Toronto Canadians for the duration. (No diseased American baseball teams need apply for a visa to enter the sacred pristinity of Canada. Eat Hockey Pucks and Die American Baseball Dogs!)
More circus acts have been provided by the thoughtful Daimyos of the Grande Olde Game. This year they are trying out every crazy ass idea that anybody ever had to speed up the game, slow down the game, increase offense while expanding the strike zone (huh?), banish the zone defense, insist that the third baseman plays second base and the second baseman plays right center field unless Joey Gallo is up and then he’s forbidden to hit to the opposite field, add the DH to the National League, make relievers run around the bullpen three times and kiss their mommies before being allowed into the game and make all double-headers 7 innings except when there’s a tie game in extra innings in which case you put Mookie Betts on second base and see if he can steal third and home before anybody can bunt.
“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up! Watch the Dog-Boy play Take Me Out to the Ballgame on the Kazoo! Hurry, Hurry! Only a nickel! ...(Go away Kid, you bother me!)”
The funny thing is, some of these wacky ideas are working! Double headers should be seven innings! They should make rain delayed games automatically turn into seven inning contests too, retroactively, whenever there’s a delay of over forty-five minutes. No more games that have to be completed at a later date or rain delayed games being finished up at 3:30AM with only the batboys watching. Plus...The National League should use the DH. I’ll miss watching Madison Bumgarner and Bartolo Colon hit, but that about covers it.
The real surprise for me was this new rule where relievers have to face a minimum of 3 hitters when they come in unless they get the third out of the inning sooner. I thought this was going to be an absurd and arbitrary impediment to the manager’s perogative to manipulate his lineup in order to try to win the game. Turns out that this rule does something that really makes the game better. To wit:
You are the manager of a major league club. Your team is playing the Los Angeles Angels. Your starter is tiring. Mike Trout is the batter, followed in the lineup by Ohtani and then Rendon. In the old days where a relief pitcher only had to legally pitch to one batter before you took him out, you have no problem. You bring in a right-handed reliever to pitch to Trout, then a leftie to deal with Ohtani, then another right hander to pitch to Rendon. With this new rule, if you bring in the rightie to face Trout, you have to leave him in to negotiate the dangerous left-hand bat of Ohtani before he matches up again with rightie Rendon. So what to do?
Maybe you bring in the leftie, pitch around Trout and go after Ohtani and then see if you can get Rendon with the leftie as well. Or maybe you leave your starter in to face Trout before you bring in the leftie. Or maybe you say the hell with it and just let your starter get through the minefield. One way or another, there’s more of a chance to see a couple of those three great hitters get an advantageous matchup where they get a chance to hit than in the old specialized reliever era. And that’s what we want! Plus, we knock off ten minutes game time of managers walking out to the mound to remove the pitchers and another five minutes watching the relievers warm up. In the immortal words of Dizzy Dean, “Who’d a thunk it?”
So what about this vaunted “60 game sprint to the playoffs” we bought into? Hey! I’m interested...how about you? We can’t really take this too seriously as a real baseball season, but it’s fun and engaging. And maybe some new teams will get to participate in the playoffs. I predicted we’d see Oakland win the West, the Reds win the NL Central and the Chicago White Sox nab a Wild Card. So far only the Athletics look like a sure thing with their lineup of beefaloes and some pretty good pitchers (especially in the bullpen).
Let’s examine the contenders:
Everybody said it was all about the Yankees and the Dodgers this year, and it certainly started like that. Aaron Judge hit a ridiculous number of homers right out of the gate and pretty much dismantled the Boston Red Sox and their slim playoff hopes in a week of mayhem. The Red Sox have the best Double A staff in the major leagues. Even the Orioles beat up on the Red Sox. Watch Boston sell the rest of their stars and welcome their fans into a new cycle of futility.
I thought the Blue Jays would be interesting and dangerous. Well, one out of two. While they haven’t won enough, their young stars are impressive. They’re a couple of pitchers shy. A recent hot streak has them at least relevant and anything can happen in a short season.
As usual, the Rays sneak up on you. They are in first place while the Yankees get used to their new roster after the decimation of twenty games eliminated half their stars like last year. If the Rays could only get more thump in their lineup to match their always potent pitching staff they might dominate, but like the other small market teams, there just isn’t any budget for anything but limited offensive players and negative depth. And now injuries to Uncle Charlie Morton (he of the great “Yacker”) and other pitchers leave them short in that area as well.
The Indians have an impressive starting staff of Ace pitchers. Shane Beiber is the new Top Gun of the AL, along with Gerrit Cole. Unfortunately, a couple of their starters keep their brains in their dicks and can’t resist cheating on the Covid regulations. So just when they were crushing, the Indians come back to the pack and are now second to the Twins.
The Twins are in first without having really gotten the engine running smoothly. They have the powerful lineup and some great defense in key positions...if the pitching holds up they could steadily move away from the rest of the pack. An easy playoff pick.
I thought the White Sox were going to threaten this year. Finally! But it’s the same old thing with the White Sox...inconsistency! And lousy pitching! Still, you keep waiting. They have some incredible everyday players...half of their starting lineup are Cuban (Jose Abreu , Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal) and half are from The Dominican Republic (Edwin Encarnacion, Eloy Jimenez, Nomar Mazara, Leury Garcia.) And a tip of the hat to shortstop Tim Anderson...from Tuscaloosa, Alabama! (Hitting .345) And catcher Brian McCann from Santa Barbara, California! (Hitting .347) This team leads MLB in hitting at a very strong .270. Seems like the Sox could do better than third place in their division. They’ll make the playoffs though.
Kansas City? Seems like a lifetime since they played in back to back World Series. They may be reviving. But watch and see if they start trading what’s left of their stars. They tend to live up to their small market credentials.
The Detroit Tigers brought up their top rookies so the fans in Detroit would have something to amuse them while they watch Miguel Cabrera disintegrate (he will be remembered as a great one who stayed too long...just like Albert Pujols. They are each making over $30 million a year! How can you walk away from that?? And their contracts are still paying and paying…while Miguel is hitting .181)
A top ten rookie phenom, RHP Casey Mize, is supposed to be the new Tom Seaver. They say he has the best splitfinger in baseball and he threw a no-hitter in Double A. In his only big league outings thus far, he struck out 7 in 4 innings but also gave up 7 hits and then against the Cubs he allowed 4 runs in 3 innings. I watched him pitch and I don’t like his arm angle. It looks like he isn’t getting his body behind his pitches and is relying on an intense shoulder/elbow whip to give him speed and movement. He looks like he’ll need a new elbow in a year or so. I hope he proves me wrong.
Oakland has gotten hot early. And they’re pummeling the Astros!
In fact, everybody wants a piece of the Astros. On field fight scrums have been outlawed for the protection of the players, but all that is forgotten when the Astros are playing. They hit Ramon Laureano of the A’s 3 times in one series and then wondered why Ramon got a little upset. The Astros seem to be happy to be the Dicks of Baseball. And that’s coming from a fan. When Ramon wasn’t charging the dugout quick enough to get thrown out of the game, the ‘Stros sent their 41 year old hitting coach Alex Cintron out of the dugout to say nice things about Ramon’s mother. Ramon, who had been pounding the ball all over the place, got axed for 6 games for fighting. Mission accomplished Coach! But wait...MLB gave Cintron 20 games and a fine! That shows that they knew what was going on with the goading. Nice move MLB!
I had to laugh at Astros starter Zach Grienke telling the other team’s hitters what pitch was coming. A brilliant bit of gamesmanship, that. And he made his point...”You can hate on us for cheating, but we still had to hit the ball...you can’t!”
The Texas Rangers team batting average is .210. Their team OPS is .635. That’s pretty much all you need to know. They are wasting an outstanding season by starter Lance Lynn who has an ERA of 1.37 and a WHIP of 0.814.
Well, we got dazzled by all the shiny objects on the Los Angeles Angels roster. Trout! Rendon! Ohtani! Rookie Jo Adell! Trout and Rendon have been as advertised but Ohtani is batting .181, Odell is at .197, Albert Pujols is cruising along at .208 and second baseman Luis Rengifo is tearing it up at a .146 pace. And those averages are ALL higher than Justin Upton, who has gone 6 for 64 this year...that’s .094! Welcome to Mendoza-ville. And even with all those holes in the lineup, hitting isn’t their main problem! Only Dylan Bundy has been at all effective on the mound. Shattered dreams, Angels.
A few words about the tragic Seattle Mariners, a last place team that looks farther away than ever from making their first World Series. Rookie of the Year favorite Kyle Lewis is hitting .368...the rest of the team is hitting .206.
Let’s say the Yankees, the Rays, the Blue Jays, the Twinks, the Cleveland Politically Correctables, The Caribbean White Stockings, the Athletics and the Astros all make it. That’s all eight of the AL playoff teams. Write it down in pencil though, for the Blue Jays and the White Sox.
As I predicted at the beginning of the season, the Mets’ starting rotation would be taking turns on the injured list by this time. DeGrom is still standing but Porcello and Matz have been getting bombed. Wacha and Peterson and of course Thor are on the list. That fiasco with Cespedes should be a warning to teams shelling out multi year contracts.
Philadelphia has been getting a big year from Harper and Realmutto and good pitching from Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler. But the bullpen reeks and they just traded for Boston’s Workman and Hembree to help. They can still get a wild card but with this stuffed playoff format...who can’t?
Washington...Come the Sober Dawn. Howie Kendricks and Trea Turner are still on the roster and Juan Soto is hitting .400. But Anthony Rendon is gone and Strasburg gone for the season. Max Scherzer is starting to show some age, although he still competes like almost nobody else. 2019 was a beautiful dream, though, wasn’t it Nationals?
The Marlins jumped up and surprised some teams early, then went into a massive Covid induced quarantine and now they’re at .500. They have some good young pitchers to build around. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs this year.
The Atlanta Braves look like the hammer in the East. This despite the loss of Ozzie Albeis and Nick Markakis recently to the ten day injury list. Acuna has a bad wrist and Freddie Freeman had to come back from the virus this year. Their Ace, Mike Soroka tore his Achilles tendon...a scary injury. Yet somehow they took the hit and are solidly in first place. I don’t think they have the pitching to go far in the playoffs, but rookie phenom Ian Anderson looked sharp in his first start. The teams that have contended in recent years all look alike: strong lineups with power and at least two Ace starting pitchers. That isn’t the Braves with those injuries.
The Adorables are back! And the difference maker has been Yu Darvish, who got it together the second half of last season and is now DOMINATING. He’s won 5 games and lost 1 with an ERA of 1.70 and an unreal 44 K’s against only 6 BB’s. He’s the MVP of the Cubbies and along with Lester and Hendrix he makes the Chicago squad a formidable opponent in the playoffs.
The Cardinals of old St. Looie have played ten less games than everybody else and were shut down for three weeks because of Covid exposure. It’s kind of remarkable that they’ve done so well despite that shutdown. They need one more stopper to go with Jack Flaherty so they can win some playoff series.
Wisconsin is a very stressed state right now. And if you are following the baseball Brewers as a way to get a pleasant break from all the pain, you picked the wrong ballclub. The team is batting .213. Christian Yelich is hitting .200. Leftie Josh Hader hasn’t given up a run yet and the Brewers should trade him to the Yankees for players like Andujar and Frazier and some of those top prospects in the rich Yankee system. Not that the Yankees really need that big a move to help an already loaded bullpen, but they don’t seem to have ways to get Frazier and Andujar enough at bats, and those guys are major league hitters (fielding is another category!). And flame throwing skinny pitchers like Hader have a limited use-by date. Same problem I pointed out with Chris Sale...too much arm and too violent a delivery for that body type. My prediction for Sale was unfortunately correct. I hope I’m wrong about Hader because he is good for baseball.
I picked the Cincinnatti Reds to win the Central. They loaded up with offensive players and then went out and hit... .203? A complete meltdown of the bats. Their pitching has been superlative at the top with Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray. The Bullpen is thin though and they just can’t hit. Unexpected and very, very disappointing. They are on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. How Long Oh Lord, How Long?
Everybody expected the Pirates to be at the bottom of the standings in the Central.
Everybody was right.
Half of the NL playoff teams will probably come from the West...everybody but Arizona would be in if the playoffs started today.
Everybody picked the Yankees and the Dodgers to meet up in the World Series (if we get that far) and . I picked them to win their divisions.
The Dodgers have not shown that they can finish yet. Year after year they cough up furballs instead of chewing up the mouse. We’ll see. There is no doubt that Mookie Betts has changed the atmosphere a lot. What a great player to watch! 3 homer games, throws from the warning track to nail a runner at third, base running like Jackie used to do it. All done with a smile.
To dramatize how much the game has changed, take this in:
The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers...one of the greatest teams of all time...led the majors in home runs that year with 201 in a 154 game season. So far in 31 games in the year 2020, the Los Angeles Dodgers have hit 61 4-baggers. Project that to 154 games and you get well over 300 homers hit if the Bluebloods could continue that pace. It’s a whole new world, isn’t it?
But the 1955 Dodgers won the World Series. These current Dodgers have something to prove. But right now they are the class of baseball...having scored the most runs and given up the least. They are Load-ED...Super Loaded. But one thing nags me...neither Mookie Betts nor Cody Bellinger have been effective in the playoffs. I think at least one of those two has to get hot in the playoffs for them to win. It’s just too easy to lose a couple of games in a three game series..or three in a five gamer...even if they are home games...and the Dodgeheads should get home field for the duration. If they run into a couple of hot pitchers on one of the other teams...well you saw what happened the last few years.
The Padres are coming! If a few more of their vaunted prospects show up and play as well as Fernando Tatis Jr. has, San Diego might actually become a great West Coast rival for the Dodgers. The offense is humming and they’ve hit 56 homers...close to the Dodgers. And remember, the Padres play in Petco Park...one of the great mauseleums of offensive baseball. They have 4 starters just entering their prime. If not now Padres...when? Barring injuries, it could happen...even this season.
Colorado also made some noise in the early going when Charlie Blackmon was hitting .500. But now Charlie’s hot streak has gone bye-bye and Arenado still hasn’t gotten his timing. Drew Story is doing his job and if everybody was their usual productive self, the Rockies would have plenty of offense to compete. Without a unison push, though, their pitching can’t sustain them.
The Rockies created the feel-good story of this year when they called up Daniel Bard to help their bulllpen. You might remember Bard as an overpowering set-up man for the Red Sox several years ago. The Red Sox tampered with his repetoir trying to turn him into a starter and it screwed him up so bad he couldn’t start OR relieve. He lost control. He lost velocity. The hitters murdered him and he got a mental block like Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel before him and could never get over it. He last pitched in the majors in 2013. Seven years later he’s the Rockies closer and pitching well. In 14 innings he’s struck out 17 and walked only 3. Can you imagine what it feels like? To be 35 and making it back to the Major Leagues and be doing well? Like the I Ching says...”Perseverence Furthers!” Good for you, Daniel Bard!
There’s been a San Francisco Giant sighting. From out of nowhere they come, rebounding from a truly moribund offensive performance last year with bats exploding to life. I guess all it took was for team leader Bustser Posey to opt out of the Covid circus to wake up the bats. Belt, Longoria, especially Austin Slater and Mike Yaz and Donovan Solano...even Wilmer Flores! Have RAKED. With power! The pitching has been solid with Cueto back and Gausman, Anderson and Logan Webb all throwing well. Wouldn’t it be a story if the Giants showed up to spoil the Dodger party. Lest I speak too soon, the gigantics just got shut out in consecutive games of a double dip with the Trolley Dodgers. Even so, I think the Dodgers would rather face almost anybody else in the playoffs. Too much spooky playoff history with the Giants franchise.
Right now those four clubs...Dodgers, Pads, Rocks and Gigantics would make the playoffs. The only NL West franchise on the outside is the Arizona Diamondbacks. Which is weird because the Rattlers were the best competition the Dodgers had last year in their division and Arizona is playing just about as well. It’s a quirk of the winning percnetages. They could get hot and jump up a couple of spots. They could also fold their tents in the Phoenix heat (a record hot summer...again!).
From my lofty perch I see the Dodgers and Padres making it to the playoffs from the West, the Cubs and Cardinals from the Central, and the Braves from the East. The other 3 teams? Depends on the roll of the bones, the whims of the microbes and the State of the Nation. But I‘ll take the Phillies, the Reds and the Giants.