Month: March 2019

2019 MLB Preview: With Kershaw ailing, healthy Seager critical for Dodgers

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Corey Seager should be healthy for the 2019 season. ARTURO PARDAVILA III

The Dodgers have been Clayton Kershaw’s team for so long it’s hard to imagine a different player in such a role. (Matt Kemp? Manny Ramirez for a minute?) Kershaw’s claim is hard to argue; three Cy Young awards and a more than Hall of Fame worthy peak will do that for you. He’s probably the defining pitcher of the last 10 years. How many of us pitching nerds on the East Coast stayed up late to watch the lefty spin curveballs?

But his time as the most important Dodger is nearing an end. Time is undefeated, and it appears to be doing its unholy work on Kershaw’s left arm. That sucks not only for the Dodgers and their fans but for baseball overall. For all we know, Kershaw will be back in the regular season, back to his old tricks. But … there are reasons to be worried. Real worried. He’ll be getting an Ode to a Pitcher eventually, I promise.

However, a new face has emerged over the last few seasons, even if last year was unfortunate.

Corey Seager truly broke into the Major Leagues in 2016 and established himself as a star right away at the young age of 22, hitting to the tune of a 134 OPS+ and handling shortstop. There has been some concern whether Seager is too big for the position, and while he might eventually have to move, he’s been fine thus far in his young career.

Seager’s emergence came as no surprise, mind you — for example, he was’s second-best prospect going into the 2015 season. That Dodger team went on to lose the curse-lifting Chicago Cubs.

Seager’s 2017 was roughly as good; 126 OPS+ and better defense if DRS is to be trusted. That Dodger team — led by Seager, Justin Turner and more — pushed all the way to the World Series but lost to the Houston Astros.

Going into 2018, Seager had established himself as one of the game’s premier shortstops, along with Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and a maybe a couple others, and had I written a Bill Simmons-esque “Trade Value” column a year ago, Seager could have cracked the top-10. Young shortstops with his kind of offensive capability are worth a lot. (Ask Manny Machado.)

He still would — even after a 2018 season marred by injuries, most notably Tommy John surgery and arthroscopic surgery on his left hip. Neither should inhibit him going forward, but the Dodgers are wisely being careful with him. He hasn’t appeared in a Spring Training game yet, in part due to an illness that has kept him away from camp.

The Dodgers are optimistic their young middle infielder will be ready for Opening Day. I’m not as concerned about that — if it’s a week later, whatever — but I am concerned about how good Seager can be in 2019. The Dodgers can absorb injuries to just about anyone — their flexibility, powered in part by Kiké Hernandez, is world-class. But a healthy Seager playing back at form reunites a strong left-side of the Dodger infield (with third baseman Turner) and gives them a strong offense, especially if Max Muncy mashes again. Plus, AJ Pollack and Cody Bellinger will provide power.

They’ll need to. If my fears come true and Kershaw misses extended time, the Dodger offense will need to carry the day. I like the Dodger pitching beyond their erstwhile ace — Walker Buehler could blossom into a top starter, Hyun-jin Ryu is underrated if fragile and Kenta Maeda could shine if placed in the rotation and left alone. But no one shrugs the off the loss of a future Hall of Famer near his peak. The Dodger offense will need to be good.

Fortunately, they certainly can be that — the 2018 offense was tied for the best in the sport along with the New York Yankees, boasting a 111 wRC+. They can score runs. They might need to score even more in 2019.

Dan Szymborski’s wonderful ZiPS projections for the Dodgers is optimistic about Seager: 4.6 wins above replacement, 116 OPS+. No, that offensive output wouldn’t be quite as good as what he did before, but there aren’t a lot of 4+-win shortstops in the league either. My concern is whether the hip injury will sap him of some power in the upcoming season. The elbow doesn’t worry me — but the lower-body injury does, and while power hasn’t been critical to Seager’s value, it all counts.

The Dodgers should be back in October, even if Kershaw and Seager both have rough seasons. The NL West is bad, and while the San Diego Padres might be frisky eventually, I doubt that starts this summer. But for the Dodgers, merely winning the NL West isn’t enough. Heck, reaching the World Series isn’t enough. For the Kershaw-era Dodger teams, the sand in the hourglass is running out.


Ode to a Pitcher: Gerrit Cole brings the heat against Boston

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Gerrit Cole’s first season in Houston was a huge success.

Quick: Gimme the 1-2-3 in strikeouts last season. Can you name them? The first two aren’t much of a shock based on recent history, but the third … well, he’d never been this good before …

Take a minute.

Ok. First and second are Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Future Hall of Famers, Cy Young winners, flame-throwing strikeout-gobbling aces. No surprise. Third?

Gerrit Cole. Yes, Cole had two other seasons with great strikeout numbers, but he never approached third in all of baseball. He was a different guy in 2018, one of the best starters in the sport. How’d he get here, only a few months after being traded away from the team who drafted him with the first pick in the draft?

First, understand: overall, Cole was mostly good with the Pirates but underwhelming considering his early promise. Baseball loves a young, kickass pitcher and Cole fit the bill in 2015: 208 innings pitched, 149 ERA+, 4.6 bWAR at age 24. This set the bar for Cole in Pittsburgh. The sport had found its next Cy Young contender.

Except, well, it hadn’t. Cole got hurt in 2016 and worked his way through two average-ish seasons, throwing 319 combined innings to the tune of a 102 ERA+ in 2016-17. As the Pirates floundered and as Scott Boras, Cole’s agent, saw visions of cash dancing in his eyes, the Bucs shopped their young pitcher. Can’t say I blame them exactly … if the team wasn’t able to straighten him out, they certainly weren’t interested in giving him a big extension.

Finally, Cole ended up in Houston. There’s been some commotion about how exactly this happened — paging Trevor Bauer — but Cole’s spin rate metrics increased basically across the board in 2018, and along with it his effectiveness (under the years, I am giving you spin rate – whiff%):

Pitch 2017 2018
Fastball 2164 – 19.8% 2379 – 29.7%
Slider 2417 – 34.3% 2571 – 36.2%
Curve 2667 – 25.5% 2842 – 33.9%

The fastball — with its combination of high velocity, improved spin rate and vertical movement — became a deadly weapon for Cole in 2018 (as we’re going to see). Because a great fastball is a rising tide that lifts all boats, the improvement of that pitch (despite throwing it slightly less) carried Cole to his best season. The curve got better too, plus Cole deserved credit for cutting his sinker usage about in half, relying instead on his breaking pitches more.

This week’s Ode to a Pitcher will break tradition with the others. Instead of watching an ace bear his teeth and tear through an opposing lineup, we’ll see Cole get into some trouble here in this September start. Facing the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox, the Astros righthander will work himself into a bit of a jam with some heavy hitters up at the plate.

But don’t worry — we’ll get a glimpse of that excellent fastball — and a dash of spice at the end.


We jump to the bottom of the third. The festivities begin with a fastball to Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon. I’m not picking on him here, but did you know Leon finished the 2018 season with a 38 OPS+? 38. I’m sort of at a loss here.

Leon Pitch 1 FB 0-1

Cole follows it up with a nasty curve for a called strike two. Notice the placement.

Leon Pitch 2 KC 0-2

It might not be as perilous as facing Chris Sale when down 0-2, but Cole’s no picnic. Leon spoils a hard fastball to keep the count alive, though.

Leon Pitch 3 FB 0-2 foul

Talk about an emergency hack — but that’s what professional hitters do. Keep the at-bat alive.

Cole comes right back and straightens up the Red Sox backstop.

Leon Pitch 4 1-2 FB inside

Cole comes back with another curve that catches more of the plate than he’d surely like. Leon bounces it foul and the count stays 1-2.

Leon Pitch 5 1-2 KC foul

I love this. Having left Leon just a bit too much ball to work with, Cole moves the curve down and away and punches him out.

Leon Pitch 6 1-3 KC outside K

Beautiful. The break on this is incredible. Note too that Leon has to be ready for the fastball; Cole has worked both sides of the plate with it already. Can’t be sitting on either.

Leon Pitch 6 K slomo

Up next is Jackie Bradley Jr., the light-hitting (92 OPS+) but sweet-gloving centerfielder. Cole greets him with a breaking pitch that misses wide.

JBJ Pitch 1 KB 1-0

Cole comes back with a fastball — notice how catcher Martin Maldonado just wants it up. Bradley looks like he was sitting on it but misses anyway. Velocity + spin rate, kids.

JBJ Pitch 2 FB 0-1

Bradley takes a nasty fastball for a ball. The Astros announcers are incredulous about this call. It’s probably a strike, but alas — the count runs 2-1.

JBJ Pitch 3 FB 2-1

Cole misses down and in with a breaking pitch to run the count 3-1.

JBJ Pitch 4 FB 3-1

Many a rough inning begin with a walk to a batter low in the batting order. Bradley takes the fastball low-and-in and trots down to first, bringing up the eventual AL MVP with a man on.

JBJ Pitch 5 FB 4-1

Shall we take a moment to appreciate Mookie Betts? We shall. The Red Sox rightfielder had such a great season that he poked his head into the rarefied air above the clouds currently reserved for only Mike Trout: 10.9 bWAR, 186 OPS+. Yowza.

Bradley is a threat to steal, mind you, as Betts looks at a curve to start the at-bat.

Betts Pitch 1 KC 0-1

Cole comes up and in with a straighten-you-up fastball that Betts takes for a ball.

Betts Pitch 2 FB 1-1

Cole offers up another fastball, but leaves it enough over the plate for Betts to knock foul.

Betts Pitch 3 FB 1-2 foul

Cole goes back to the curve and Betts rips it down to third baseman Alex Bregman, who handles it OK but was playing too deep to throw the eventual MVP out. If that breaking ball is a hair or two lower, maybe Bregman can throw him out, but who knows. Betts is really fast.

Two on, one out and the Red Sox have some serious hitters coming up.

Betts Pitch 4 KC 1-2 single

Up steps young leftfielder Andrew Benintendi. This isn’t really a double-play situation for Cole; Betts is way too fast unless you manage to do it on the corners. That’s not really a strategy.

Cole starts the lefty with a curve that misses high and away.

Beni Pitch 1 KC 1-0

Cole leaves a curve (maybe a changeup?) over the plate and Benintendi lofts it out to left field for the second out. Cole left the pitch over the plate and Benintendi just didn’t quite get ahold of it. Is that Cole getting lucky? I’m not sure. Probably a little, but hitters have to respect that fastball. If the young outfielder expected one here, that might explain the flyout.

Beni Pitch 2 Flyout

Even despite the second out, trouble is knocking at the door in the form of Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez and his 173 OPS+.

Two on. Two great teams. A great slugger against a great flamethrower. There aren’t many cooler scenes in the game than this.

Cole doesn’t disappoint: fastball, strike one. Martinez just misses.

JDM Pitch 1 0-1 K

Cole comes right back to the heater, this time throwing it higher and powering it past Martinez for a swinging strike. What a pitch.

You know the guts it takes to throw this pitch to J.D. freaking Martinez? You miss with it and he deposits it onto someone’s windshield.

JDM Pitch 2 0-2 K FB

Sitting 0-2, Cole has a full set of options. He returns to the fastball but moves it up against Martinez’s hands, who fouls it off. I love that Cole isn’t nibbling here against a hitter who absolutely can hammer even your best stuff, much less your mistake. But alas, Cole brings the best he has. Mano e mano. Fastballs up in the zone.

JDM Pitch 3 0-2 foul FB

Cole wisely changes the eye-level here, surrendering a ball to give the Red Sox DH something to think about. This isn’t nibbling; it’s sequencing. You keep pounding fastballs in the same spot and eventually, you’ll miss and Martinez won’t. This is smart pitching.

JDM Pitch 4 1-2

Also: I didn’t show you this, but Cole stepped off the mound twice before this pitch. Was it just to mess with timing or to keep Betts and Bradley in line? Both. Pitchers attack hitters with more than just the ball.

Cole comes right back with another slider in about the same spot that misses low.

JDM Pitch 5 2-2

Now we’re talking. Before the next pitch is delivered, Martinez asks for time — a little tit-for-tat with what Cole was doing before. It’s all part of the battle.

But now here we are, a 2-2 count. Cole, boasting an excellent fastball, finds himself in a tough at-bat against one of the most dangerous hitters alive with two runners on. A single probably scores both.

What do you do? Martinez hasn’t seen the curve. He’s definitely seen the fastball, and its impact might be boosted by the two sliders that missed down and away.

Cole chooses his best pitch. He brings the heat.

JDM Pitch 6 3-2 K

Inning over.


Verlander and Cole form one of the most entertaining pairs in any rotation in the sport for pitching nerds like myself. Both are flame-throwing but also cerebral, using timing, sequencing and of course, tunneling, to present as stiff a challenge as possible.

It’ll be fascinating to see how good Cole can be in 2019. If he maintains or even improves on some of the pitch development he showed last season, he’s a Cy Young candidate and in line for a big payday next winter. If he tails off a little, he’s still an elite pitcher and a great companion for Verlander in the Houston rotation.


2019 MLB Preview: Byron Buxton and the hope for a healthy season

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Byron Buxton’s big league tenure hasn’t gone according to plan.

Drafted second overall in 2012 (behind Carlos Correa) by the Minnesota Twins, Byron Buxton’s athleticism was undeniable; primarily his just-shy-of-Billy-Hamilton speed and his just-shy-of-Aaron-Judge arm. He profiled instantly as elite in centerfield with a lot of value on the basepaths and a bat that wasn’t much at the time of the draft but flashed potential.

That was the risk the Twins took. Could a seriously athletic glove-first outfielder develop enough of a bat to be a star?

Buxton got his first taste of the Major Leagues in 2015 and struggled at the plate, producing pitiful results in about 140 plate appearances (yes, I know, small sample size). And while he’s been better than the 57 OPS+ (remember: 100 is league average) he showed in 2015, he’s never approached league average. In just under 1,110 plate appearances in the major leagues, Buxton produced a better-but-still-bad 80 OPS+ while striking out 340 times and walking only 70. That’s a brutal ratio. His cumulative on-base percentage is .285. You have to be exceptionally good at defense and baserunning to make that playable.

And then there’s the health issue; Buxton has missed a lot of time in his career, which stunted his development at times and also, obviously, hampered his production. The Twins have also kept him in the minors when he probably needed at-bats against Major League pitching. Buxton doesn’t have anything left to learn in the minors.

In his only MLB season with a lot of playing time (2017, where he played more than 1,000 innings in centerfield) Buxton was incredible in the field. He led the league in Defensive Runs Saved among centerfielders with 24 and excelled on the basepaths, stealing 29 bags in 30 attempts.  Despite posting a below-average OPS+, Buxton was a really good player in 2017 (5.2 bWAR), carried entirely by his glove and his work on the basepaths. It’s really hard to be that good and contribute so little with the bat, but Buxton did it.

It wasn’t hard to tempt yourself into imagining a world where Buxton did this consistently. He was a prized prospect. Maybe he had just arrived a year or two later than the Twins hoped. And hey, what if he drags that OPS+ up to league average?

And then 2018 happened.

Buxton played just 28 games in the bigs and finished below replacement level, plagued by a variety of injuries and a car crash of a battling line. It began with a recurrence of migraines on April 18 that led to Buxton going on the 10-day injured list. In his first minor league rehab game, he fouled a ball off his foot and fractured his toe. That sucks for anyone, but for a player so entirely dependent upon speed, this was a terrible development. There are probably worse injuries for a player like Buxton to have, but not many.

The Twins then rushed Buxton back to the big leagues on May 10 because he’s their best player and because they went 7-12 without him. Problem is, he wasn’t the same guy. Defensively he was still good — there’s a long way to fall from awesome, but when being awesome in the field is your main value-driver — but offensively he was worse than ever, hitting a horrific .122 after May 10.

I’m not beating on Buxton here. He fundamentally was not healthy and shouldn’t have been in the bigs. End of story … and then this happened:

The violence of that is really frightening. Wow. That’s a lot of human coming to a stop really, really fast.

The culmination of all those injuries — primarily the toe, which robbed Buxton of his precious speed and also wrecked his swing, hence the abysmal batting average — sent the young outfielder back to the DL on May 30.

He never saw Minnesota again. Assuming he was healthy and close to being Byron Buxton again defensively, he hit well enough at Triple-A Rochester to warrant a return to the bigs (.272/.331/.456). There wasn’t much indication otherwise, mind you. He played a lot at Double-A too.

But the call up never came. Once September rolled around and the rosters expanded, the Twins decided to shut him down for the season, another act of brazen service time manipulation chicanery that prevented Buxton from playing enough in Minnesota to reach free agency in 2021. The team claimed it was purely about Buxton’s health, but one wonders why they let him play 35 games in Triple-A if his health was a concern. But, don’t ask me.

So what does 2019 hold? It’s a pivotal year for Buxton. Can he stay healthy for another 140+ games? Can he hit enough to allow his glove and his steals to shine? Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections peg Buxton as essentially just a league-average player now, not unreasonable given the totality of his career.

For the Twins, it’s just as pivotal. Is Buxton the kind of player you build around? He certainly hasn’t made that decision easy. You look at the batting numbers and flinch. You look at the injuries and cringe. But if healthy — oh, the mighty if — he could still be the best defensive outfielder alive and maybe the best defensive player alive, period. He’s otherworldly. In that sense, as unfortunate as the system is, it made sense for the Twins to delay his free agency another year. For all we know, Buxton could return to his 2017 form and be really good again. Or … well, you know.

Unfortunately, the cold reality is we should accept that Buxton’s ceiling is probably not much more than an average big leaguer. For whatever it’s worth, his new swing mechanics have paid dividends so far in Spring Training. Maybe the bat will come around and 2019 is a good year for him.

My sincere hope is that he stays healthy. In an era so defined by on-base percentage and slugging (rightfully so), Buxton bounding across a vast outfield for a breathtaking catch is the kind of highlight baseball needs rippling across Twitter on a summer night. He’s capable of the sorts of moments that make young fans look at their moms and dads with wonder in their eyes.

The sport needs that.

Ode to a Pitcher: Chris Sale closes out the Dodgers in Game 5

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Chris Sale had a rough postseason, but the nastiest lefthander in the sport brought the fire in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series.

What do you think the Dodgers were thinking as Chris Sale trotted out to pitch? Do you think they knew their season was about to end? These are professionals; some of the best hitters alive. Surely they had confidence. But was that confidence dimmed, even if just a bit, by Sale’s emergence from the bullpen and not Craig Kimbrel’s? Neither man had been lights out in the postseason, but a hard-throwing strikeout machine of a starter letting loose for one inning conjures memories of Randy Johnson in the World Series.

It’s not pretty.

Sure, Sale hadn’t been his full fire-breathing self up to this point in the 2018 postseason — 14.1 innings, 11 hits, 8 walks, 21 strikeouts, 4.40 ERA. He missed a chunk of the regular season and his velocity wasn’t the same after returning. He was, perhaps, a tad vulnerable.

But make no mistake, Sale is nasty on a level few other pitchers can approach. His strikeout rate in 2018 was 38.4%. Just let that sit in your head for a minute. Oh, and the walks? 5.5%. His HR/FB was only 9.3%. As we know, pitchers truly control strikeouts, walks and home runs; Sale proves his incredible dominance with those numbers. He’s simply unbelievable. On a per-inning basis, he’s probably the best pitcher in the world (with respect to Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer).

So what were they thinking? Were Dave Roberts and his team terrified of the dragon who had flown out of the Boston bullpen? Or was there hope that perhaps Sale would walk the bases loaded or leave a fastball over the plate to Manny Machado with two on?

Sale hadn’t been himself in awhile, but if there was ever a time to turn it on …

The Dodgers will send Justin Turner (151 OPS+), Kiké Hernandez (117 OPS+), and Machado (146 OPS+) up to face Sale. Roberts couldn’t have asked for a better stretch of his lineup to step to the dish.

After all, the World Series is at stake.


Sale starts Turner off with a fastball, pinging the glove for a called strike. We’ll watch the command as the outing continues.

Turner Pitch 1 Fastball

That delivery is really something. Endless prospect prognosticators assumed his arm would fly off his body at some point; not without some justification. They were wrong, even if Sale has shown a propensity to fade as the season stretches toward fall. Perhaps that’s the price one pays for breathing fire.

Sale hides the ball quite well and releases it so far toward first base that detecting what’s coming is a hefty challenge. It’s no picnic to face Sale without a handful of reps.

Turner Pitch 2 fastball

Turner handles fastballs pretty well — his wOBA against heaters was an above-average .386 — but Sale keeps it just high enough that the Dodgers third baseman only fouls it off. If that pitch is just a bit lower, it might have been gone.

Turner Pitch 3 fastball

Excellent sequencing pitch. Sale isn’t ready to go offspeed yet, so he moves the fastball up and out of the zone. Turner goes with it and fouls it straight back. Note that Sale missed arm side.

Turner Pitch 4 slider

But that miss made this slider oh so hard to resist. The Red Sox are two outs away.

Kiké steps up and Sale starts him off with a breaking ball.

Kike Pitch 1 Slider

Yep, that’s a bit of a flinch. Picking up the ball from Sale is such a challenge and his slider is so clearly tunneled with his fastball that I’m sure this looked like a ball careening right for his dome. But it wasn’t; it was a breaking ball for a called strike.

Frankly, Sale misses pretty badly here. He got away with one.

Kike Pitch 2 FB

Another miss. After starting off well with Turner, Sale has missed catcher Christian Vasquez’s glove a few times now.

Kike Pitch 3 FB

Vasquez sets up inside; Sale misses up and away.

Kike Pitch 4 FB

Sale missed again, this time badly. If you watch the full clip — I keep them short for the sake of mobile readers — it’s obvious Sale is frustrated. The entire tenor of the inning shifts if a baserunner comes into play.

If you’re a Dodger fan, do you allow yourself a smattering of hope? Sale losing Kiké is a great start on the road to extending the World Series.

One pitch from putting the Dodgers utility man on base.

Kike Pitch 5 FB

Sale comes back with another fastball, but despite the missed location it’s an okay pitch — the camera angle robs us of the movement. Fortunately for Sale, the heater was low enough that Kiké can only fight it off. Full count.

Kike Pitch 6 FB

Sale misses way above the zone but Kiké goes with him, knocking it foul. I can’t say for sure whether this is a sequencing pitch — I doubt Sale and Vasquez would risk the baserunner, but I don’t know — but it serves that purpose wonderfully.

Kike Pitch 7 Slider

That’s about as ugly of a swing as you’ll see. I’m sure there won’t be an uglier one in this outing — nope. No chance.

Kike Pitch 7 Slider Slomo.gif

Look at the movement on that thing. Poor Kiké. That gif is a great slow-motion look at the challenge of picking up what Sale is throwing. You can see the batter realize too late what’s coming and uncurl a hacky swing to try and keep the at-bat alive. It didn’t work.

The Red Sox are one out away.

The Dodgers are circling the drain, but their prized midseason acquisition is up at the plate. Machado is greeted with another excellent slider that he misses.

Machado Pitch 1 SL.gif

Patrick Corbin has a great slider too, but given the velocity and the ridiculous angle he throws it from, Sale might have my favorite in the big leagues.

Machado Pitch 2 FB

Vasquez sets up high and Sale delivers a hard fastball up and away. Machado flicks it foul and is now in the most wretched of all places; down 0-2 versus Chris Sale. Excellent sequencing here too, moving diagonally up through the zone.

Machado Pitch 3 FB

Sale delivers another high fastball that Machado takes for a ball. Here’s the predicament the future Padre is in; do you sit fastball and leave yourself open to the slider? Or the opposite?

It’s a terrible place to be in, staring down a fire-breathing dragon with only a baseball bat.

Machado Pitch 4 SL

No chance.

Manny Machado is an awesome hitter and Chris Sale depantsed him here. That punchout couldn’t have been more dominant, a pitcher fully in control of the at-bat and strike zone, finishing off the batter with a flourish.

Red Sox win.


The Red Sox traded quite a bit to acquire Sale, the then-ace of the Chicago White Sox. Such is the reality of acquiring an ace in his prime. Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech were highly-touted prospects, but Sale has been worth the investment — he’s been dominant in Boston (175 ERA+, 13.2 K/9). Those numbers leap off the screen, but in a sports town like Beantown, championships move the needle.

Now Sale has one and the Red Sox have another.


This was Ode to a Pitcher, a weekly feature from Adkins on Sports where we break down a brilliant pitching performance. These posts are meant to be informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

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