Category: Baseball

Don’t grow bored: Mike Trout continues on his all-time path

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Mike Trout deciding whether to smack another home run or simply take the walk.

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.

Because Mike Trout will be there.

Ode to a Pitcher: Justin Verlander cuts a path through the Brewers

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Even after all those miles and strikeouts, Justin Verlander remains incredible.

This irks me.

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.

We’ll be looking at the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s clash in Houston.

Verlander stares down Cain, Yelich and Braun

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.

Cain Pitch 1 SL

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.

Cain Pitch 2 FB

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.

Cain Pitch 3 SL

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.

Cain Pitch 4 SL

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.

Yelich Pitch 1 FB

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.

Yelich Pitch 2 CRV

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.

Yelich Pitch 3 CRV

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.

Yelich Pitch 4 CRV

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.

But it isn’t. It’s Verlander’s incredible slider — the best in the sport according to Fangraphs’ pVal — and Yelich swings right through it. Youngsters, study this.

Yelich Pitch 5 SL

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.

Braun Pitch 1 SL

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.

Braun Pitch 2 SL

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.

Braun Pitch 3 SL

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.

Ode to a Pitcher: Max Scherzer leaves the game when he’s darn well ready

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Max Scherzer is the freaking man.

The opening third of the season could have gone better for the Washington Nationals.

The roster has plenty of talent. Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Trea Turner and of course, Max Scherzer, form quite a core. And yet, the Nats have scuffled all year, plagued in part by a car-crash of a bullpen, spinning a ghastly mid-6 ERA. They sit 5 games below .500 as of Thursday afternoon and have been outscored by 14 runs.

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.

Let’s focus on his eighth-inning performance against the Reds.

If you make Max Scherzer mad, he only gets better

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.

Barnhart Pitch 1 FB

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.

Peraza Pitch 1 FB

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.

Peraza Pitch 2 FB

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.

Peraza Pitch 3 FB

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.

Senzel Pitch 1 FB

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 Pitch 2 SL

Senzel holds off on another slider, this one a tad further outside, to run the count 2-1. Well done.

Senzel Pitch 3 SL

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.

Senzel Pitch 4 FB

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.

Senzel Pitch 5 CH

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.

Senzel Pitch 6 FB

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.

Senzel Pitch 7 CH

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.

Senzel Pitch 8 FB

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.

Senzel Pitch 9 CH

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.

Votto Pitch 1 CRV

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.

Votto Pitch 2 FB

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.

Votto Pitch 3 FB

Playing for Keeps: Twins reap reward of strong winter as Indians fade

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Eddie Rosario has absolutely mashed for the Twins this season.

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.

Ode to a Pitcher: Hyun-Jin Ryu is the epitome of the crafty lefty

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Hyun-Jin Ryu‘s skillful approach has served him well in 2019.

The Los Angeles Dodgers again appear to be the class of the National League. Led offensively by right fielder Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers lead the NL in runs scored and are already eight games up in the NL West, as of Thursday morning. Things are going well.

The pitching has been excellent too, led in great part by Hyun-Jin Ryu’s tremendous start. Ryu, healthy now after seasons dimmed by injuries, has come out of the gate better than ever: 65 innings, 1.65 ERA (2.59 FIP), 25.6 strikeout rate, 1.7 walk rate, 0.83 HR/9. Let’s take stock of this. Ryu has been fortunate — he’s stranding tons of runners and his BABIP isn’t quite normal — but he’s also been legitimately great, mostly because he commits so few unforced errors.

I love a pitcher who doesn’t walk anybody, and Ryu has been diving in the dumpster for aluminum cans stingy. No one managed a walk rate below 3.6% last season — credit to Miles Mikolas — and Ryu isn’t likely to keep his so low either, but even at 5% he’s helping his cause tremendously. Smart pitchers don’t give anything away for free.

We know Ryu doesn’t hurt himself. This sets him up for success, but how does he attack hitters? Well, he doesn’t work like some of the hurlers we’ve studied recently in this series. Ryu doesn’t throw hard (Justin Verlander), can’t unfurl a science-fiction changeup (Luis Castillo) and doesn’t spin a high-spin hammer (Domingo German). His stuff isn’t otherworldly, but it’s good. OK. What sets the Dodgers lefty apart is how well he’s mastered sequencing and tunneling. He’s an absolute master at keeping hitters off-balance, which is the name of the game no matter how hard you throw or what the ball does after you have.

If the hitter is comfortable, you’re in trouble. If he’s not, you’ve got him. That’s the story whether you’re Max Scherzer or Luis Cessa.

Whether Ryu keeps up his Cy Young pace is a question for a different column; so far, he’s been superb and gifted us a great lesson in how to really pitch. Let’s take a look at his recent effort against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ryu attacks every inch of the strike zone

Wanna be a great pitcher but lack Scherzer-level stuff? There’s a way, but it requires a lot of precision. You’ve got to limit the unforced errors — walks and bombs, kids, walks and bombs — and you’ve got to work the plate every which way. No patterns, no predictability. Lots of first-pitch strikes and keep the chess board tilted in your favor. You have to outthink the hitter and use everything in your disposal to keep him off-balance.

Ryu is quite good at this. He has a sort of hitch-y delivery and hides the ball behind his torso, which elevates the effectiveness of everything he throws. And because of that slight hitch — you’ll see it — Ryu can play timing games with the hitter. A slight strategic pause can be the difference between a double to the wall and a meek ground out during a long, grueling at-bat.

It’s not just the fastball or the curve, the slider or the change. It’s how you throw them, where you throw them and every single action in between.

Adam Frazier steps up to open the game for the Pirates and grounds out weakly after one pitch. This is exactly what I was talking about. Ryu drops a mid-80s change right over the absolute heart of the plate and the batter dribbles it to third base.

Frazier Pitch 1 FB

Bryan Reynolds steps up and gets a changeup for a called strike one. This changeup,  dropped neatly on the outside corner, obviously was better located than the former. Keep an eye on where Ryu puts it; the location is critical for what comes next.

Reynolds Pitch 1 CH

Sometimes it can be a little hard to properly visualize sequencing. It’s not like the cut on a fastball or the drop on a curve; it’s more of an idea than a tangible thing. (Tunneling, of course, can be viewed wonderfully via gifs like the Pitching Ninja produces.)

Alas, Ryu gives us the quintessential look with this hammer of a curve. Reynolds did not see this coming at all; that swing screams “I thought you were going outside again.” Out of the hand, I’m sure this looked like another pitch in the same spot as before. Not a bad notion! Pitchers love to double up.

Ah, but this is where the deception comes into play. Ryu, and pitchers like him, have to be a few steps ahead. Sure, could someone like Jacob deGrom just throw the same damn pitch again and punt the deception in favor of raw stuff? Yes. But Ryu isn’t that guy. He can’t just cowboy up and shove the ball past the hitter.

So he doesn’t. He sets Reynolds’ eyes high and spins a curve that starts up and finishes down. Easy swing and miss.

Reynolds Pitch 2 CRV

Think about this. Ryu started at the belt with a change, then spun a curve below the knees and now finishes the poor dude with a fastball way above the zone. This is utter and complete domination. While a hurler like Verlander might just pummel you with fastballs until you break, Ryu twists you into knots and renders you so uncomfortable as to be helpless.

Look at Reynolds after he misses. Pity the poor soul.

Reynolds Pitch 3 FB

That earned a slower look:

Reynolds Pitch 3 FB SLOMO

Starling Marte is up and swings right over a low sinker for strike one. Just a note for hitters; giving Ryu whiffs out of the zone is a great way to end up out. He’s not likely to lose the advantage in the count once you’ve given it to him, either. If Marte is to reach base, he’ll probably have to do it from a pitcher’s count.

Marte Pitch 1 FB

Another master class in sequencing. Never give the batter a pattern or anything to latch onto. Marte flails at a fastball below the zone to open the exchange, and rather than feed him another, Ryu stands him up with a heater right below the hands for a superb called strike two. Brilliant.

Young pitchers, take note of stuff like this. Marte is a good and dangerous hitter, but Ryu already has him uneasy.

Marte Pitch 2 FB

Um. What is there to say? Ryu puts a changeup way, way out of the zone and Marte absolutely flails at it. The ball was in the other batter’s box, for heaven’s sake, but because Ryu had the outfielder so messed up he couldn’t hold up.

Ryu, as the saying goes, was living rent-free in Marte’s head.

Marte Pitch 3 SL

Ryu’s work shouldn’t go unnoticed

Certainly, this series is fond of pitchers with barn-burning stuff. Who doesn’t love a Luis Castillo changeup or a Blake Treinen sinker? As much fun as that is, studying someone like Ryu is more rewarding. Why? Because we can learn in clear detail how to keep hitters off balance and out of sync. We can learn how to steal easy outs — like the first at-bat above — and how to work all throughout the zone.

Most young pitchers won’t grow up to throw 98 MPH, but they can learn to work like this. They can learn to change speeds and eye levels, to work inside and out, to mess with timing and attack the hitter on every front. Pitchers don’t get hitters out on stuff alone.

Ode to a Pitcher: Justin Verlander fears no man or age

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Fastball, incoming.

In my mind’s eye, in the great baseball Hall of Fame in the sky, I imagine Justin Verlander saddling up to Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan at the bar, knocking back a couple cold ones. I can so clearly picture them scoffing at the boldness of whatever silly batter decided to crowd the plate against him and grumbling at some umpire who stole away a potential strikeout.

Verlander, the erstwhile ace of the Houston Astros and a future resident in Cooperstown, reminds me of those classic power pitchers. He throws hard and without an ounce of trepidation; he knows what he can do, and he does it. He’s a prototypical pitcher.

Much has been made of the lanky righthander’s reinvention upon arriving in Houston during the 2017 season. It’s a testament to the eternal struggle of maintaining mechanics that even an all-timer can get tangled up. (Also, that we as fans and analysts sometimes have to be patient as guys try to figure this stuff out. It’s not easy.)

Verlander’s return to dominance had already begun in Detroit but was cemented during the Astros run to their first championship. He was the man again, standing tall on the mound, pummeling unfortunate hitters with fastballs and twisting them into knots with his knee-buckling curveball.

Other than perhaps Mariano Rivera or Pedro Martinez, no pitcher has ever amazed me quite like Verlander. It all seems so simple, right? He just pummels the zone with fastballs and then drops in a curve to finish the deal. Easy. Well, no. Verlander does have the heat and the hammer, but age has taught him a few lessons and thus far, hasn’t eroded the tools yet.

Let’s take a look at a recent performance of his against the Chicago White Sox.

Verlander hasn’t lost much

Ready for a cliche? Father Time catches up to us all.

So far, that old bearded grump has slightly dimmed Verlander’s once blazing fastball. It’s no longer straight from the heart of the sun, averaging just under 95 MPH. But, um, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s soft. Jered Weaver he ain’t.

Up first to try his luck for the Pale Hose is Charlie Tilson. Verlander pumps a fastball belt high and away for called strike one. Take notice of his mechanics: clean, simple and efficient. Very little wasted movement. One can’t definitively say that mechanics like this are essential to a pitcher aging gracefully — paging Max Scherzer — but my goodness it has to help.

Tilson Pitch 1 FB

Tilson takes a slider neck high for ball one.

Tilson Pitch 2 SL

Verlander brings the slider down from the clouds and slips it right under Tilson’s hands for a slick second strike. This might be a good time to note that Verlander’s slider generates a healthy 40 percent whiff rate. Just tuck that thought away.

Tilson Pitch 3 SL

Many, many poor souls have been down 1-2 in the count against Verlander. I don’t recommend it. In Tilson’s case, he’s seen a fastball away and two sliders in. The velocity on the four-seamer wasn’t nuclear, but the Astros ace can always dial it up if he needs.

The cool thing about experienced pitchers is how they can read swings. Catcher Robinson Chirinos helps with this too, but I doubt the Verlanders and Scherzers need a ton of assistance. He knows. Tilson fended off the slider fairly well, but …

Not this one. The old adage is you throw the fastball high and the breaking ball low. That doesn’t necessarily apply if you have Justin Verlander’s stuff. One down.

Tilson Pitch 4 SL

Yolmer Sanchez gets a fastball for strike one. This is a really nice pitch. Sanchez was definitely sitting heater, and even without cranking it up, Verlander got a swing and miss. How? Watch Chirinos’ glove. It barely moves.

The other thing about experienced, butt-kicking pitchers is they learn how to make something good happen without exerting maximum effort. This is an easy, breezy fastball for a guy like Verlander, but because he puts it in the keyhole, so to speak, he gets a whiff. These moments happen all game long with the greats; yet, we should stop and appreciate it. Brilliant stuff.

Sanchez Pitch 1 FB

Man. This ain’t fun for the batter.

Sure is for us, though! Young pitchers, pay attention. Professor Verlander is about to deliver a lesson in sequencing.

The tall righty set Sanchez’s eyes down and away after the opening whiff. So, what to do now? Here’s an idea. Why not deliver the next fastball a hair above the zone and see if the young infielder can handle it? That’s what Gibson or Ryan would do.

Sanchez takes a healthy cut but never had a chance. Here’s where we must mention Verlander’s lethal spin rate, among the best in the world. Remember, for a four-seam fastball, high spin leads to more swinging strikes because the ball appears to be rising. It isn’t, of course; it’s merely dropping slower than other pitches.

That’s no relief to the dude facing down the seams, though.

Sanchez Pitch 2 FB

Another one down 0-2. Heavens. Who has cursed you White Sox hitters? I mean, other than mismanagement and bad injury luck?

Sanchez is in trouble. He’s been blown away by fastballs high and away. We know that Verlander can spin a slider or a curveball in. From a sequencing perspective, the board is open here. The pitcher can waste one in the dirt; he can go above the zone again. He can change speeds or keep up the velocity. It’s a hell of a place to be.

Ultimately, Verlander dials up another fastball that misses just wide of the plate away. It’s a good pitch even if a ball; maybe Sanchez reaches out and whiffs again?

Sanchez Pitch 3 FB

This next one is an Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame possibility.

I cannot tell you how giddy seeing this made me. Verlander has Sanchez set up perfectly for basically anything the ace wants to throw. The count is 1-2; Sanchez has whiffed twice at the fastball. If you asked me what to go with next I’d have said a breaking ball.

But, hey, I’m an idiot at a keyboard. What do I know? Justin Verlander is a gunslinger with a baseball, and he, um, politely declines my advice and instead unleashes a blistering fastball well north of the zone that Sanchez harmlessly waves at. Never had a chance.

Sanchez Pitch 4 FB

We must savor this strikeout with a slower look (boy, that is not a clean hack):

Sanchez Pitch 4 FB SLOMO 2

Leury Garcia comes to the plate hoping to break the streak of punchouts for the White Sox. Verlander delivers a high-and-away heater that Garcia flicks foul for strike one.

Garcia Pitch 1 FB

Garcia gets a slider right under his hands and he bounces it foul. Verlander probably misses his spot here, if the catcher’s glove is any indication, but the difference in speed and location mitigate the risk.

This isn’t as sterling an example of sequencing as before, but it works well regardless. Verlander has shown Garcia a mid-90s fastball away and a high-80s slider in. He’s in full control.

Garcia Pitch 2 SL

This is a masterpiece of a pitch, another candidate for the Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame. Now we get to see Verlander bury the slider down and in on a lefty and wow, is it ever a success. Garcia swings right over it.

It’s tempting to look at this slider and think the break and the speed is what leads to the strikeout. Obviously, that’s critical, but the previous two pitches have Garcia totally off balance, and that makes him easy prey. Great hitters with control over the strike zone — think prime Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera or especially Barry Bonds — are less likely to swing and miss, yes, but also can strategically foul off pitches to keep themselves going. They control the plate.

Hitting is hard. It’s even harder when you face someone like Verlander, an expert at the craft still armed with dynamite stuff.

Garcia Pitch 3 SL

Enjoy your aces, kids

Pitchers get hurt.

This is true of the greats and of the scrubs, of the old and the young. No pitch is guaranteed. As fans and analysts, we shouldn’t take Verlander for granted. He’s been sitting down hapless fools for so long that his continued success feels preordained, but it isn’t. You never know.

So the next time you get the chance, sit down and enjoy the man’s work. For pitching dorks like us, it’s an incomparable treat.

 

Ode to a Pitcher: Domingo German steps into his opportunity

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Domingo German has stepped into the Yankees injury-plagued rotation and shined.

The New York Yankees are without many, many stars right now. Their injured list is, tragically, the hottest ticket in town. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Dellin Betances, James Paxton, and Luis Severino are all injured. The team had the depth to temporarily stomach the position player losses, thanks to the randomly-awesome-now Gio Urshela, among others: but the pitching is different.

It’s hard to fake your way into 150+ quality innings. It happens — who else remembers the Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small year? — but there’s a reason why great pitching is considered so rare and volatile. What is true is obviously true. Pitchers get hurt.

A great young pitcher is a rare jewel, surpassed only by the diamond that is a great young quarterback in football. You stumble upon one and you best covet it. It really is quite a thrill — ask San Diego Padres fans about watching Chris Paddack or Cincinnati Reds fans about Luis Castillo. You get excited every day they take the mound, overwhelmed by the possibilities but perhaps always a little worried when it could end.

That isn’t meant to be dark. Just honest. Pitchers get hurt. Severino’s injury — first to his shoulder, then revealed to involve his lat as well, keeping him out until July-ish — meant the Yankees now had to endure again what every other organization has had to endure before. The jewel found a crack.

Enter Domingo German. The young righty is no stranger to Yankee fans. He made a few tantalizing appearances in the Bronx last season, but ultimately turned into a home run pincushion and got hurt: 85.2 IP, 1.5 HR/9, 78 ERA+.

German earned a spot in the Yankee rotation after a solid spring in which both CC Sabathia and Severino were known to start the season on the IL. To say he’s taken advantage of it would be an understatement. He’s thrown 50 innings, struck out 52, walked 15, allowed only four home runs (he’s cut last year’s ghastly home run rate roughly in half) and has an ERA of 2.50 (ERA+: 178).

Much better.

So how has this happened? For me, whenever someone unexpectedly shines this way, I look at two things: has he magically stopped allowing hits and homers? German’s cut down on the bombs, yes, but not to a ridiculous degree; the hits are definitely going to start falling in, as evidenced by his low .225 batting average on balls in play. Typically, we would expect that number to creep up — for example, the 2019 league average is .289. The homer rate is lower than last year, but not shockingly so, and if he’s improved as a pitcher — and it seems he has — that rate might be sustainable.

All that said, there are absolutely reasons to be excited. For one, German has awesome stuff — we’ll see that in detail later on — and the gifs match the results. His fastball isn’t a burner like Severino’s, but he has excellent spin and hitters struggle to do much with it: .226 batting average, .396 slugging percentage. No, that slugging percentage isn’t sterling, but for a right-handed fastball averaging just under 94? Not bad.

The curveball is the story, though. Hitters whiff 44 percent of the time against it; they’re hitting a paltry .139 and slugging .208 against German’s hammer. Is that good? That seems good.

Let’s take a look at German’s recent start against the Orioles. We’ll get to see that high-spin heater and, of course, that beautiful curve.

German works fast, wastes little time

Up first for the Orioles is Chris Davis, famous for his long slump to open the year. His yearly rate stats are still bleak, but he’s hit a little better since the slump ended and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you give Davis a fastball to hit, he can still deposit it over the wall.

German starts the Orioles slugger off with a 91 MPH fastball right over the heart of the plate. Davis knocks it foul. It didn’t strike me as a particularly bad pitch in the moment, but … probably don’t want to repeat that one, Domingo.

(Side note: this pitch does showcase how far Davis has fallen. The Chris Davis of a few years ago might launch this into the third deck. Now? Doesn’t even pull it foul.)

Davis Pitch 1 FB

Note how quickly the young righty works. I keep the gifs as trimmed as possible for page-loading reasons, but rest assured he hardly delays between pitches. He’s right back on the mound each time. Announcers and reporters are surely delighted, as are the infielders. (Especially after covering and playing behind the laborious Masahiro Tanaka.)

Having shown Davis the fastball about belt-high, German nicks the bottom of the strike zone with a nice 80 MPH curveball for a called strike two.

Davis Pitch 2 CRV

Davis is no stranger to 0-2 counts. He’s been in them a lot. He’s struck out in them a lot.

German is really good at getting hitters to chase his curveball out of the zone; unfortunately, Davis is particularly prone at doing just that. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in previous editions of this series, the pitcher has to work a little harder to set up the punchout. Maybe you go up and out of the zone with a fastball here to keep the batter off balance, for example.

Not here. German spins the 0-2 curveball below the zone and Davis whiffs.

Davis Pitch 3 CRV

Stevie Wilkerson is up next. The Orioles second baseman is greeted by a fastball well outside that home plate umpire Chad Whitson mistakenly called a strike. Look, I know it happens, but this sucks for Wilkerson. You’re facing a dude with serious stuff and now he’s gifted a strike he didn’t earn, which puts you a pitch closer to dealing with that hook.

Wilkerson Pitch 1 FB

We didn’t talk much about German’s changeup — mostly, it’s an OK offering but not special, and likely the most mashable pitch German might regularly throw. It’s fine. It’s not fine if German leaves it over the plate, which he promptly does to Wilkerson. This is easily the worst pitch of the breakdown, and the Orioles infielder pulls it too far foul. This is how doubles happen, kiddos. German got away with one here.

Wilkerson Pitch 2 CH

It’s 0-2. Wilkerson’s seen a fastball off the plate and ripped a hanging changeup foul. He has to be defensive here; German loves to put a curveball below the knees, but you can’t forget about a high fastball either. The pitcher holds all the cards here.

He chooses the hammer and it’s an absolute beauty. It breaks well below the shins and Wilkerson can only hope to brush it foul. But it’s too good of a pitch and he joins Davis in strikeout alley.

Wilkerson Pitch 3 CRV

Look at how tight German’s release points are for the fastball, changeup and curveball in the Wilkerson at-bat. Yes, some pitchers are even tighter, but it illustrates the point. It’s not just the break that makes the curve to Wilkerson so tough to handle; it’s the sequencing and tunneling, too.

German vs Wilkerson

With two of his teammates having just exited the stage after flailing at low curveballs, Rio Ruiz comes to the plate. German drops a hammer on him to open his at-bat.

Note that German works outside with it. Hitters notice those sorts of things, even if we don’t intrinsically think about it during a game. If it becomes clear that, say, German can really only throw his curve glove-side and low, well, that becomes valuable intel. It might seem like something small, but the information is priceless.

Ruiz Pitch 1 CRV

Credit to Ruiz here. Unlike Davis and Wilkerson, who both were unable to get solid contact on the mistakes German made to them, Ruiz cracks a flat fastball out to left field (101 MPH exit velocity ain’t shabby). Left fielder Mike Tauchman scrambles back to the wall for the catch, ending the inning.

Ruiz Pitch 2 FB

German has helped Yanks stay afloat

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman surely believes the stars will return at some point. But, until then, he and Manager Aaron Boone are reliant on a hodgepodge of established players, like infielder Gleyber Torres, center fielder Aaron Hicks, and the star-studded bullpen, and non-marquee stars like Luke Voit.

(I would argue Hicks and Gary Sanchez are stars purely on performance, if not name value.)

Then there is German, who is for the moment the best starter the Yankees have. Paxton and Severino will probably be back — I’m far less confident about Sevy, personally — and the Yanks still have Tanaka to anchor things. But with Little Sunday emerging as a dependable, quality starter, the Yankees might be a bit less vulnerable than you’d assume.