It’s a real treat to face the Los Angeles Dodgers lately, ain’t it? A real picnic. First, you have to hope your pitching isn’t lit up by Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, Justin Turner and the rest of the boys in blue. In the somewhat unlikely event you don’t give up six homers, your offense has to face what’s becoming a rather frightening collection of starters.
First, you have the current favorite for the National League Cy Young, Hyun-Jin Ryu. (We profiled him a few weeks ago. Spoiler: He’s awesome.) Ryu will carve you up with every trick and technique in the book; he changes speeds, moves around the zone, messes with timing and generally gives batters fits. But hey, maybe you avoid Ryu. Great!
Clayton Kershaw is a future Hall of Famer and is coming off one of the greatest peaks a hurler has ever had. Uh oh! But, by the grace of the scheduling gods maybe you avoid him too. Phew!
Enter Walker Buehler. Your luck has probably just run out. Buehler, on the later side of 24, flashed elite potential in his nearly 130 innings last year, punching out more than a man per nine and pitching to a 3.04 FIP. Pretty darn good. The stuff is special; his fastball sits in the upper 90s and has elite spin. He throws it a lot and hitters are managing a meager .217 batting average against it. That heater elevates two pretty damn good breaking balls to elite status, especially the curve; hitters are missing 45 percent of the time against it.
Buehler took to the Dodger Stadium mound on Friday, June 21 and turned in an epic performance against the Colorado Rockies. Let’s study that ninth inning, where Buehler managed an epic climax to his evening.
There’s nothing cool about bunting a ball off your own face. It doesn’t matter who does it. Robert Downey Jr couldn’t make that suave. Max Scherzer is about as smooth as sandpaper, so you can imagine how it looked.
WATCH – Max Scherzer, who's scheduled to start Wednesday, was hit in the face by a ball during batting practice.
This all occurs the day before Scherzer is due to make his next start. We learned Tuesday night that the Nationals ace broke his nose and developed a nice black eye. Lovely. You’ll be shocked — shocked — to know that Scherzer wasted no time telling his manager he’d be missing no time. A few reporters mentioned that he even pantomimed his pitching delivery in the skipper’s office to drive the point home.
There were some legitimate concerns about whether the swelling would spread or his breathing compromised, but come on. This is Max Scherzer. There’s no stopping him.
In early March, I sent a message to my wife at work. I had something important to say. After scouring the Reds calendar to see who’d be coming to town — an annual tradition for me — I stumbled upon a team that shook me.
The Los Angeles Angels.
But not at first. You see, it happened in a flash. I was originally thinking about contenders — oh, hey, the Houston Astros are coming, hmmm — and nearly skidded right past the Angels. But then, something hit me. Wait. The Angels.
That’s Mike Trout’s team.
I must admit with a degree of shame that as big of a baseball fan as I am, I’ve never seen the world’s greatest ballplayer in person. Just hasn’t happened. Some of that was being a poor college student; some of it was being a poor dude trying to plan a wedding. Don’t hold it against me.
So I grabbed the keyboard and pounded away a message of tremendous importance to my wife. Being the kind and reasonable angel she is, I did not receive a laugh at my insistence, but rather excitement. Sure! Let’s see Mike Trout!
Yes, this August, I will see Mike Trout, live and in person. My wife and I will head to Great American Ballpark, swipe our tickets, buy a brat and a beer and sit down to watch the world’s greatest ballplayer do his thing. (We even got centerfield bleacher seats.)
Trout continues to chart an unfathomable course
I wrote about Trout in the offseason. The premise was the looming asteroid that was his free agency and what he and the Angels might do about it. Ultimately, the Angels ponied up the biggest contract in baseball history; fitting, given that Trout is undeniably the best player alive and a serious candidate for the best player who ever lived. And so it was settled; Trout will play his entire career in an Angels uniform. He will have a statue or two outside the stadium, his uniform retired, etc.
Whether or not he retires as a World Series champion remains to be seen, but I must say, even as a fan of a team in his potential warpath, seeing Trout tear a hole through October is a fantasy of mine. I want this. The sport needs this. I want to see a postseason where Trout hits .360, bashes a handful of home runs and carries the Angels to a title. The sport makes its memories in October.
I appreciate Mike Trout, and so should you. His incredible run cannot be written about enough. Just for example, consider this. Do you know who leads MLB in walk rate? Mike Trout. 20.8 percent. Look at that number — 20.8! A fifth of his plate appearances end in a walk. That’s Barry Bonds territory, and yes some of that is the fear of pitching to Trout, but part of it is his incredible command of the plate.
(For all the potential Shohei Ohtani has shown, he’s not quite terrifying enough yet to warrant pitching to The Man. But he might! Ohtani is fascinating.)
Cody Bellinger is having the best half-season of his life. He’s carried the Dodgers to a healthy lead in the NL West and set himself up for a hell of an NL MVP battle with Christian Yelich later in the summer. (I actually saw Bellinger wallop a home run against the Reds in May; it was an early Father’s Day gift for my Dad.)
Cody Bellinger is riding a surge of batting average that is almost certainly unsustainable. His batting average on balls in play is .355; his career average is .317. (Trout’s 2019 number is actually fifty points below his career average. Could … he actually get hot in the second half? Yikes. There’s a scary thought.)
Bellinger has been hot as fire and has emerged as a superstar. And yet, despite battering the baseball world, Bellinger still doesn’t have an on-base percentage above Trout (CB: .451; MT: .461) and is only barely ahead of him by wRC+ (CB: 193; MT: 187).
Think about the absurdity in this. Bellinger could very well be riding one of the best streaks of his career and is well on his way to perhaps claiming an NL MVP, and he’s basically only eye-to-eye with Mike Trout. That, my friends, is dominance. Last year it was Mookie Betts; before that, Josh Donaldson and Miguel Cabrera. Some people can swim in the deep water with Trout — no pun intended — for a bit, but no one sustains excellence like the Angels center fielder.
On the all-time Wins Above Replacement leaderboard, Trout just passed Hall of Famers Ivan Rodriguez and Eddie Murray, and has drawn equal to Robinson Cano. Current or future Cooperstown enshrinees Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines and Miguel Cabrera are on the dinner menu next. Derek Jeter might become the second unanimous inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame next winter; Trout could pass him this year or early next. That’s a lot of greatness that Trout is gobbling up like Pac-Man.
Through age 27, Trout is tied for the most Wins Above Replacement ever with Ty Cobb. Ty. Freaking. Cobb. We’re talking about the highest point of the ceiling here, kiddos. Air doesn’t get more rarefied than this. This brings to mind how other sports tend to do a better job in the moment of recognizing their greats. Basketball realized quickly that LeBron James was special; it’s all ESPN has talked about since 2004. Football is still under the boot of Tom Brady. Hockey played up the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Baseball, though, doesn’t always do that. Oh, we obsess, but usually only over Yankees or Red Sox, Cubs or Dodgers; or, mmm, a nice tasty scandal. We don’t necessarily focus on greatness the same way. Some of that is the very nature of the sport; baseball tends to generate less national conversation. So while I understand that Trout plays for non-contender on the wrong coast and barely ever creates any stir on social media or in interviews, it’s well past time that we start to obsess over what he’s doing.
This is ‘tell your grandkids about it’ stuff, right here and now. Greatness, smack dab in front of us, of a kind rarely seen. That’s why a couple Yankee fans will go to Great American Ballpark to see the Angels.
Baseball can do a lot of things to better promote itself. This column isn’t interested in debating each idea, but here’s one: if you have no-doubt ace facing a team with a superstar hitter, maybe we promote this? How about we discuss it? Could it be on First Take? Hmm? Other sports are great at this — how many times did we hear about Brady vs Manning?
Just this week, Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers in modern history and still an elite hurler by any measure, welcomed the Milwaukee Brewers, led by the reigning MVP, Christian Yelich.
This should be headline news! Verlander vs Yelich! The aging gunslinger who can still slap the youngsters around against arguably the game’s best hitter (non-Mike Trout division). They faced off, one on one, and we’re going to focus on one of those at-bats today.
Lorenzo Cain might be the most underrated player in the sport. I so rarely hear him come up in the best outfielder discussion, which irks me. That could be the cost of playing next to Christian Yelich, who overshadows just about everyone, or it could be something else. Either way, Cain is awesome, and could very well be the sport’s second-best center fielder, behind only Trout.
Tough living next door to a dude reminding everyone of Mickey Mantle.
Verlander greets the superstar with a slider for ball one.
Verlander comes right back with a hard fastball over the plate for strike two. The location is a bit worrisome, even with the change in quadrant from the slider. I suspect he didn’t think Cain would be hunting fastball here. Why? I don’t know. It’s kind of jarring when you stop to study it.
This slider to Cain is ridiculous, a crystal-clear look at the power of tunneling and sequencing. Verlander started the centerfielder low and away, then came back with a belt-high heater, and now feeds Cain a slider in just about the same place as the fastball. Look at the result. Cain is completely fooled.
This is a testament to Verlander’s stuff, his knowledge and the repeatability of his mechanics. Because he throws so hard, it’s easy to forget that Verlander is brilliant. This is a testament to that; the at-bat is completely in his control now.
Take a seat, Lorenzo. Young pitchers, study this exchange. Yes, even that somewhat iffy second-pitch fastball. Verlander just worked over an elite hitter in four pitches — Cain flails at the end. My goodness. Pitchers are just unfair.
One down. For as great as Cain is, this is the main event. Christian Yelich, arguably the game’s deadliest hitter (again: non-Trout division), is up. Yelich is an unreal slugger and has been flat-out pounding the ball, amassing an absurd 195 wRC+ (um, 100 is average) thus far in 2019. He’s just unstoppable.
This is a heavyweight title fight. It could headline an arena. Verlander, still without question one of the best in the world, staring down a devastating young slugger who could be embarking upon a Hall of Fame career.
Let’s do this.
Verlander starts Yelich with a fastball right on the hands for a called strike one. Well located and hard — 97 MPH. It fits the narrative for Verlander to test the young slugger with heat near the hands; power pitchers tend to want the inside of the plate.
This is incredible. You won’t see too many weak hacks from Yelich, but Verlander draws one here with the curve below the zone. Typically it’s hard to make a curve look like a fastball, but this swing clearly looks like a batter fooled … and Verlander isn’t typical. Yelich has to be ready for anything after that first-pitch heater, too. Great pitchers force you to defend every inch of the zone.
With the count 0-2, Verlander knows he can expand the zone and see if Yelich will chase. Even if it isn’t likely that he will — Yelich is a patient, skilled hitter — it makes sense to do so from a sequencing perspective. So Verlander does, burying a slider below the zone inside. Yelich doesn’t go for it, but now he has to be aware of three quadrants: on the hands, down and away, down and in.
The count resides in Verlander’s favor as he weighs the options. He’s attacked each quadrant of the zone except one. Ah, there’s an idea. Why not drop a curve high and away? Who thinks to drop a curveball there? Justin Verlander does, and judging by his reaction, he really wanted that called strike.
It’s a ball. Few inches lower … probably strike three. But Yelich held, and the umpire went his direction. Still, I love Verlander’s hopeful bounce off the mound.
This is a masterpiece in pitch-making. The entire sequence reveals such skill in both stuff and approach, and I think far too often we forget about the latter. This series tries to celebrate both incredible stuff and intelligent approach because the greats boast both. Yo
Verlander dismantled Christian Yelich here with a slider that looked exactly the same as his fastball out of the hand. How do you tell them apart? Remember, Verlander opened the at-bat by standing the slugger up with a 97 MPH fastball up and in. Having worked each quadrant of the strike zone, Verlander appears looks to be working up and in again, so Yelich swings, expecting fastball.
You get past Cain and Yelich and the reward is … another former MVP, Ryan Braun. Braun isn’t on the level of his teammates now, but he’s a smart, still dangerous hitter. Screw around with him and he’ll rip a double.
Verlander takes to the outside corner with a slider. Braun bounces it foul to start the count 0-1.
Verlander stays low in the zone with a second slider, this one a bit more in the middle of the plate. Braun bounces this one foul, too. The count is now firmly in Verlander’s favor, 0-2, which must be what it feels like to have the Hulk gripping you with both hands. Whatever happens next won’t be pretty.
Did Justin Verlander just strike out Ryan Braun on the same pitch three times? Yes. Yes, he did. I love to break down brilliant sequencing or tunneling, but … well … hard to credit that here. Still, I’d be surprised if Verlander worked Braun this way on a whim. He’s too great and has been for too long, to work without a plan.
Plus, you know, that slider is wicked. Sometimes great stuff does the job on its own.
Verlander remains unbelievable
The big righty struck out fifteen but allowed three solo bombs in what ended up being a 14-inning game. That pitching line sorta sums up 2019 baseball. Lots of Ks, and sometimes the only way to scratch out a run against these pitching monsters is via solo blasts.
I want to take a second here to go after the Astros announcers. If you have MLB.TV, flip to this game and watch the sixth inning. They spend almost no time discussing the thrill of seeing Verlander face off with these batters again. Sure, it’s the sixth inning, he’s faced them already, but it’s Justin freaking Verlander against Christian by-God Yelich.
This should be a big deal! A really big deal! And it wasn’t. Baseball announcing frustrates me in general, but this was an especially bad look.
Rewind to last Sunday. After splitting the first two games of the road series with the Cincinnati Reds, the Nats sent their ace to the mound. The three-time Cy Young winner is a treat to watch and analyze not just because of his effectiveness, but also his demeanor. We’ve covered Scherzer in this series — spoiler: he was nasty — and as you might imagine, the images are just insane.
He pitches violently, almost as if the batter stole something from him, and now, finally, revenge is in sight. He pitches to conquer and refuses to tap. He’s a treat, a healthy dose of intensity to a sport that can at times feel mundane.
It’s the bottom of the eighth and the Nationals hold a 4-1 run lead. They decide to keep their ace on the mound. He’s already past 100 pitches; normally this would mean a call to the bullpen. But the Nationals bullpen is a disaster and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer. The choice is obvious.
Up first is Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. Mad Max leaves a fastball over the plate and Barnhart rips it to right field for a first-pitch double. Smart hitting here, and I don’t mean that sarcastically or to sound obvious. Scherzer is deep in the game and has a reputation for attacking; wise to sit fastball and be ready to pounce. Barnhart was ready.
Jose Peraza pinch hits for Michael Lorenzen with a chance to shorten the lead. There’s no indication that Nationals manager Dave Martinez wants to yank Scherzer yet. The ace gives Peraza a fastball away for ball one.
It seems foolhardy to wonder what Scherzer wants here; he always wants the strikeout, and he’s already racked up 13. Against Peraza with Barnhart on second, the goal is obviously a punchout or any other out that doesn’t advance Barnhart. That has to inform everything Scherzer does.
The righty delivers a down-away fastball, this one catching enough of the plate for the Reds infielder to knock it foul.
Love this pitch. Scherzer has set Peraza’s eyes away; he might naturally assume something offspeed is coming in the same spot. Ah, but Scherzer changes course and drives a fastball right under his hands. Peraza can only fly out weakly to the lip of the infield. One down.
Young center fielder Nick Senzel is up next, and what a nice test it would prove to be for the rookie. Senzel flashes a good bat. Here he’ll be battling an angry flamethrower with the game on the line. You don’t get these kinds of reps anywhere but the bigs.
Scherzer greets the future star with a fastball belt high and away for a called strike. Note the late run on that heater. Yikes.
Same principles as above are in play here. You want an out that keeps Barnhart put. Scherzer is pitching for the throat, I assure you, but another easy fly out would do the job too. (Barnhart isn’t a big threat to try and advance.)
Working with an 0-1 count, Scherzer drops a slider below the zone; Senzel shows some restraint in not chasing.
Senzel holds off on another slider, this one a tad further outside, to run the count 2-1. Well done.
Scherzer tries to sneak a fastball past Senzel in the same path as the slider; you’ll be shocked to learn that the future Hall of Famer is able to tunnel his pitches. Senzel has a nice swing, but you can tell he scrambled to knock this foul. In its own way, that’s impressive. The count is back in the hands of the pitcher, though.
It’s obvious Scherzer is intent on working Senzel away. After a couple sliders and a fastball, Mad Max drops a damn good looking changeup on the young center fielder. It’s called a ball … and I guess it’s low, but man. I think #31 wanted that one.
Full count. Good hitters work the at-bats in their favor, taking balls and spoiling strikes they don’t want until the pitcher submits, giving them something to drive. Senzel, for all I know, could have been hanging on for dear life the whole time here. It’s Max Scherzer, and he’s pissed. Surviving this long is no small feat.
Either way, through skill or desperation, Senzel is a pitch away from a free base in a three-run game. Great job.
Scherzer drives a fastball right over the plate — this is a real mano e mano deal — and Senzel knocks it foul. The fastball is a little much for him so far, but he stays alive. Scherzer has thrown a lot of pitches on a sunny afternoon in late May; making him work like this can reap rewards.
Scherzer wisely turns back to his epic changeup after the fastball, but it catches too much plate and the rookie bounces it foul. He appears to hit the catcher’s glove, but regardless. Senzel lives for another pitch.
The eighth pitch is the best fastball of the at-bat. Scherzer runs it under Senzel’s hands, but the kid shows some serious moxie by spoiling it foul. It might seem like nothing to keep fouling these off, but remember that Senzel is a rookie and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer in his pissed off final form. It’s a big moment and Senzel is hanging in there.
The ninth pitch of the at-bat almost seems like a mistake; did he really want to leave a changeup belt high like this? Maybe he did. Scherzer is an amazing pitcher and absolutely can read swings and intent from the batter.
Senzel swings right through the changeup — no doubt it looked just like a fastball off the mound — to bring Scherzer one out from stranding Barnhart.
What happens next is pure magic, as tremendous a scene as you’ll ever see. Scherzer knows he’s at a high pitch count — 117, to be exact. The Senzel at-bat was a lot of work, and he correctly assumes his manager will want to pull him to get the final out of the eighth with the bullpen.
But one does not simply pull Max Scherzer from a game he does not wish to leave.
Nationals TV color commentator F.P. Santangelo noted that Martinez had absolutely no chance to remove Scherzer here, and perhaps all he really wanted to do was give his ace a breather before he faced the final batter of the inning, Joey Votto. I suspect that’s the case, but make no mistake, the ace gets a big say in the matter.
After Martinez strolls back to the dugout, the broadcast shows Scherzer huffing and puffing on the mound. His intensity cannot be overstated as he a spins a curveball over the inside corner for a called strike one. Votto’s reaction suggests he didn’t read this well.
Wasting little time, Scherzer goes upstairs with a fastball well out of the zone … but he gets the call. This obviously upsets Votto, rightfully so. It’s a huge gift for the pitcher and tilts the at-bat heavily in Scherzer’s favor.
Max Scherzer’s 120th pitch of the day is a brilliantly located fastball that dots the outside corner. Paint it, black. Indeed. This is a badass pitch, a 97 MPH heater that locks up one of the more patient and disciplined hitters in modern baseball history. He never had a chance.
Note Scherzer’s brief glare as he exits the mound. I love that dude.
The Minnesota Twins have the second largest run differential in baseball, a sparkling +106. Didn’t see that coming? Same.
They currently have a stranglehold on the pitiful AL Central, up 11.5 games on both the Chicago White Sox and 10.5 on the Cleveland Indians. Chicago had no realistic hope of contention, made all the more certain after yet another young pitcher got hurt. Bye, Carlos Rodon. We’ll get to the Indians in a bit.
The Twins actually tried to win this offseason and are being rewarded for it. They added Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Martin Perez, among others. Perez, in particular, has been a neat surprise; Schoop is outplaying expectations, Cruz has been hurt and Marwin has started a bit slow.
Overall, Minnesota is just flat-out mashing the ball. They’re tied for tops in the sport in team wRC+ with the incredible Houston Astros. Much of the attention has gone to Eddie Rosario, who has blasted 18 homers, some of them truly prodigious shots. But to focus on Rosario would be a mistake; he’s the kind of semi-random dude who has a great year when teams find themselves riding a wave.
The Twins are truly led by shortstop Jorge Polanco — I covered him earlier this year, and he’s probably surpassed the pace he was already on — and center fielder Byron Buxton. Buxton is a pet favorite of mine, as frequent readers know. He’s the kind of player baseball needs, a slick athlete who brings more to the table than just the Three True Outcomes. So far, he’s managed enough with the bat to make his slick glove and baserunning viable: .320 OBP, .508 SLG. That’s more than enough, and as of right now Buxton ranks 5th among big league center fielders in Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement. The pitching has been good too, led by Jake Odorizzi and Jose Berrios. Berrios is a pet favorite of mine; that curveball should be bottled and sold.
It’s hard to say if Minnesota will be able to compete all season with the American League juggernauts, but they appear to be the clear class of the Central. The Indians, meanwhile, are getting their just rewards for such a weak offseason. The problem with having only seven or eight good players is that you have only seven or eight good players. If they leave in free agency (Michael Brantley, gone to a team that effortlessly swept the Indians out of the ALDS last year) or get hurt (Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber) or just aren’t quite right (Jose Ramirez, Trevor Bauer), suddenly you’ve got problems. Big problems.
Great organizations don’t just acquire stars, they acquire depth. They work to have players ready in case of an emergency because you can’t predict baseball. Stuff happens. The Indians have learned this the hard way.
The offense ranks 26th in wRC+, a year removed from finishing 7th. The pitching, viewed by many (including me) as a strength, has been the saving grace: 7th best by xFIP. But it’s not enough, not when the Twins are mashing and the Indians aren’t. Letting Brantley go was a terrible, pitiful decision for a team with roughly two really good position players and none of them outfielders.
Quick: who has been the best hitting Indians outfielder in 2019? Go get a coffee, add a little cream and just think about it for a minute. I’ll be here.
OK, feeling caffeinated? Good. Did you guess … *double checks notes* … Jordan Luplow? No? You’ve never even heard of Jordan Luplow? The Indians have, let me tell you, and they’re immensely thankful for his sub .300 on-base percentage and his .516 slugging percentage. I’m sure that’s sustainable.
I don’t mean to pick on Luplow or any of the Indians outfielders. Heck, even the roster itself. Many of the Indians regulars are being asked to carry more water than they can bear; a nominal contender is asking a lot of “Quad-A” guys to be major contributors. (Would it be rude to bring up Indians castoff Gio Urshela right now? Urshela is hitting .329/.377/.466 … so yes, it would be rude. Very rude.)
The Indians aren’t a big budget club. The TV market isn’t good and the surrounding metropolitan area certainly isn’t what you might call lucrative. Ownership did run higher than normal payrolls during the team’s window of contention, but in retrospect letting Brantley waltz off to a competitor feels a bit like a white flag. (Don’t get me started on Indians owner Paul Dolan crying poor in regard to shortstop Francisco Lindor‘s future. These guys are a lot of things, but living in a poor house ain’t it.)
So what now for the Indians? Can’t imagine they’ll be trying to add much of anything at the trade deadline; can’t really foresee them pursuing Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel, either. The Twins might slow down, that’s reasonable, but a collapse isn’t likely. They have real talent, and quite a bit more depth. The Wild Card is absolutely not an option.
If you’re an Indians fan, you know where this is going. If the ownership has decided to no longer invest in the roster, then naturally the time has come to rebuild. Trevor Bauer would have trade value; Carlos Carrasco, on his frugal new deal, would too. Corey Kluber did before taking a line drive to the arm. It’s probably a little soon to trade Lindor, but the haul might be pretty incredible if the Indians played their cards right.
Hard to blame an Indians fan for thinking back to two disappointing recent playoff games: 2016 World Series Game 7 and 2017 ALDS Game 5. As strong as those Indians clubs were, the object is to win, and both short. The World Series loss was pure agony; that team fought and fought and fought against a squad carried by destiny. The following ALDS loss was brutal too, blowing a 2-0 series lead to a frisky Yankees team.
Baseball isn’t easy. It’s not always fun. Players, coaches, executives, and fans pour their hearts into a team. It was easy to love those Indians club, easy to believe they would bring Cleveland its second World Championship in a matter of months after decades of heartache. But it wasn’t to be, and the game marches on.