Category: Baseball

2019 MLB Preview: Astros rule the AL West, but the NL isn’t so clear

Justin Verlander and his Houston Astros are October-bound.

If you missed my other breakdowns, click here for the AL and NL East and here for the AL and NL Central.

The Houston Astros are pretty awesome, guys. Barring huge upheaval, they will win the AL West. That take will hardly get me on ESPN’s morning shows, but alas. Truth is truth. The boys in Texas have an excellent core of young talent, including the newly-extended third baseman Alex Bregman, former MVP second baseman Jose Altuve and former first overall pick, shortstop Carlos Correa. Oh, and a couple righthanded starters who pack some heat: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (who was the subject of an Ode to a Pitcher breakdown a few weeks back).

The NL West isn’t nearly as simple to peg. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been on top for awhile now, but with their ace battling arm trouble and some young talent dotting the rest of the division, suddenly things aren’t quite as secure.

AL West

1. Houston Astros

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Alex Bregman

I expect the Astros will miss Charlie Morton, who left to sign with the Tampa Bay Rays. Beyond Verlander and Cole, the rotation could prove troublesome for manager AJ Hinch. I expect Collin McHugh to turn into a quality starter without much issue, but will Wade Miley manage another sub-3 ERA with such piddling strikeout numbers? I doubt it.

Will it matter? Nah.

The Astros are both very talented across the roster and boast one of the savvier front offices in the sport. Don’t be shocked if they turn one of their fifth starter options into a valuable piece. (I’m a little surprised it wasn’t Joshua James.)

Much like with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians the goal is nothing short of a championship. Those aces and that lineup make them the favorite.

2. Oakland Athletics

Goal: Win AL West
Most Important Player: Matt Davidson

Jurickson Profar was the man like few other prospects I can recall. Breaking into the Major Leagues at 19, he looked tapped for stardom. It just never happened; injuries, ineffectiveness and an unclear spot in the Rangers infield all seemed to play a role. But finally, years after he debuted, Profar turned in a pretty solid year: 108 wRC+, solid enough defense at both shortstop and second base.

He signed with the Athletics in the offseason, a sneaky good move for Billy Beane’s club after letting Jed Lowrie walk. While it’s probably unlikely Profar develops into the superstar he once flashed the potential to become, he could certainly still be an above-average player. Dude is only 26. He’s one to watch in 2019 and beyond.

Oh, and Blake Treinen is good. You should watch him too.

3. Los Angeles Angels

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Willie Mays 2.0

OK, Arte Moreno. I hope you are sitting down for this.

You locked up the world’s greatest baseball player until he’s nearly 40. Great work. In terms of on-field performance, he’s worth the money. He might be the best player who ever lived. He’s an incredible talent and by all reports, a great role model in the Anaheim community. You probably can’t design a better superstar.

Don’t screw this up. You hear me? Don’t screw this up. I don’t care what it takes, I don’t care what it costs you, you had damn well better get Mike freaking Trout to the World Series. Don’t you dare cry poor to me, Arte; we know the truth. Major League Baseball teams print money. I’m saying this to you as a fan of the New York Yankees. The idea of facing Mike Trout in October is petrifying.

Give me a reason to be afraid, Arte. The sport needs Mike Trout doing Mike Trout things in the postseason.

4. Seattle Mariners

Goal: Tank?
Most Important Player: Yusei Kikuchi

One could argue the Mariners’ most important player is actually Justus Sheffield, but I’m much more interested in Kikuchi. He had some really nasty moments in his debut against the Athletics last week and profiles as an above-average starter. He’s dealt with shoulder trouble in the past, but if he stays healthy he might end up surprising some people.

The Mariners were wise to trade second baseman Robinson Cano when they did. Cano had been pretty darn good for them, PED suspension notwithstanding. Edwin Diaz is a lights-out reliever, but including him to draw more out of the New York Mets was worth it. They might miss James Paxton a lot more, but then again I don’t think Sheffield is a big league starter.

Ultimately, the Mariners were smart to rebuild. Last year’s 89 wins were a little hocus pocus. The American League is a bloodbath as long as the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Astros are all great; that leaves one precious Wild Card spot to battle over. Credit to the Mariners front office for beginning to add to a depleted farm system.

The 2019 Mariners won’t contend, but the team is making the right choices to compete in 2022.

5. Texas Rangers

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Joey Gallo

You know, it can’t be said Joey Gallo isn’t exciting. If you’re in the ballpark and Gallo is up, your beer goes down and your eyes go up. Focus. He might crush a 450-foot bomb. There’s a great chance he’ll strikeout, of course — he was punched out 196 times in 2017 and 207 times last season. But when Gallo makes contact, he makes contact. Dude doesn’t get cheated. The power is incredible.

None of this makes him a great player, unfortunately. The defense isn’t good and the lack of contact keep his OBPs low. If he somehow clawed his batting average up, say, 15 points, the OBPs would get a lot more interesting. Alas, he is what he is; a fun slugger.  For a team that will struggle all season, Gallo is at least a reason to be invested.

The Rangers also have a farm system in need of more talent, but unlike Seattle, they lack veteran pieces that could deliver as much as Cano and Diaz. Might they deal Gallo? Shin-Soo Choo?

AL West Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Justin Verlander 1. Mike Trout
2. Gerrit Cole 2. Alex Bregman
3. Yusei Kikuchi 3. Jose Altuve

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Corey Seager

Tick tock. Tick tock.

The Clayton Kershaw era in Los Angeles has certainly been full of winning — Cy Youngs, an MVP, a handful of division crowns and a couple deep playoff runs. But now, after consecutive defeats in the World Series, only one thing matters. Winning the World Series.

But might the clock be nearing midnight? With Kershaw battling injuries amid dropping velocity, one wonders. It’s not easy getting to the World Series at all, much less three years in a row. Walker Buehler’s emergence sort of mitigates the potential loss of Kershaw, but no rotation maintains its stature amid such a loss.

The lineup should be as good as ever, especially if Corey Seager returns to form after missing all of last season with an injury. I’m not especially confident about Austin Barnes and Russell Martin replacing Yasmani Grandal, but it’s a blow they can afford. This team won’t hurt for runs.

Be careful with Kershaw. Even if he’s not ready until June or later, the Dodgers should be strong enough to hang around in the NL West. For both the future Hall of Famer and the club, October glory means more than anything else.

2. Colorado Rockies

Goal: Make playoffs
Most Important Player: Nolan Arenado

When Dan Syzmborski’s ZiPS projections for the Rockies came out, he had this to say about the top of the Colorado rotation:

Going into last season, ZiPS thought that all five projected starters would be league-average or better and that’s pretty much what happened, though Kyle Freeland crushed his preseason projections to put up a legitimate Cy Young-esque season. ZiPS isn’t sold on Freeland being that good, but it is sold on German Marquez being a legitimate ace pitcher.

Freeland put up more than 8 wins above replacement last season. I doubt he’s that good, but for the sake of the Rockies I hope he’s not what ZiPS thinks either: 4.54 ERA. If Marquez pitches to his potential, as ZiPS believes he can (3.82 ERA), the Rockies could have quite the one-two punch. I’m a big fan of Marquez; give me all the strikeouts.

Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado are a pretty slick left side of the infield. I’m not sure anyone is too enthused about Ian Desmond in center field, but Charlie Blackmon wasn’t the answer either. This might have been a funky place for Billy Hamilton to sign. I might be the only one, but that thought made me smile. A big goofy smile.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

Goal: Tank?
Most Important Player: Zack Greinke

I doubt it was a fun offseason for Snakes fans. The team traded the franchise’s greatest position player, Paul Goldschmidt, to the St. Louis Cardinals. The team watched two above-average players (Patrick Corbin and AJ Pollock) leave in free agency. That’s a bitter pill in any circumstances, but Arizona, having just won 82 games, profiled like a team with reason to build, not dismantle. The bottom 40% of the division is rebuilding and the Dodgers are showing some cracks.

But, alas.

One wonders if the teardown continues, perhaps with the exploration of a Zack Greinke deal (although the former Cy Young winner has a partial no-trade clause). No reason to hang around in the upper 70s in wins. The Snakes chose not to push for 90 wins; might as well tear it down to 72 or so.

The farm system is doing considerably better than in years past, which while hardly a solace for fans who watched so much talent exit the state, might be nice in a few years.

4. San Francisco Giants

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Buster Posey

It almost seems forgotten in modern baseball conversation, but the Giants won three championships in five seasons not too long ago. Heck, even considering it myself was a bit jarring: three titles in the last eight seasons? Wow. You employ Barry Bonds at the peak of his powers, manage one appearance in the Fall Classic and lose. He retires and two years later, bam. Championship.

Baseball is a weird sport. The Giants of today are in the midst of a slow rebuild. Flags fly forever — we must not forget that. One wonders, though, if the Giants are willing to go full Houston Astros and sell off every decent piece available. The Madison Bumgarner rumors abound, and I’m sure the front office would love nothing more than a kickass first half from the lefty who once terrorized the Kansas City Royals. Either way, probably smart for the team to cash him in. Same with Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. Crawford especially could be a valuable piece.

The much more gut-wrenching choice would be former MVP Buster Posey. I’m not sure I could pull the trigger on that one.

5. San Diego Padres

Goal: Get ready for 2021
Most Important Player: Manny Machado

Someone finally signed Machado, quite the shrewd move for both team and player. Machado got his money and the Padres got a middle-of-the-order slugger who should be able to man third base for half a decade or more, alongside prized prospect Fernando Tatis Jr at short. The depth extends past Tatis, too; the Pads finished first in Keith Law’s team rankings. It might not become clear this season, but the future looks bright down in Southern California.

If Tatis Jr becomes a star and Machado holds his value — an if, but not necessarily a big one — the Padres have a foundation to really work with. Given ownership’s willingness to spend in doling out the Machado (10/300) and Hosmer (8/144) deals plus the potential of that aforementioned farm system, optimism is founded. But one must remember the 2018 team nearly lost 100 games. There is plenty of work to be done.

NL West Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Zack Greinke 1. Nolan Arenado
2. Clayton Kershaw (out of respect) 2. Manny Machado
3. Walker Buehler 3. Justin Turner

Ode to a Pitcher: Blake Treinen and his deep diving sinker

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Blake Treinen’s sinker comes from a different dimension.

Studying a reliever in this series feels a little like smashing a handful of jelly beans. It’s a pure sugar high. Breaking down a starter is a different experience because relievers can come in and let loose in a way most starters can’t. Relievers need not worry about setting up hitters for later innings or conserving energy to go deep into a game. No, relievers can come in with both barrels blazing.

So, what the heck. Let’s embrace this sugar high for all its worth and enjoy some Blake Treinen.

Relievers are notoriously fickle. They come and they go. One day you’re dominant, lighting up the radar gun and punching out fools. The next, you get hurt and the switch has flipped. Baseball can be cruel to the short-inning guys. Who knows how long Treinen will be embarrassing guys, but for now he is. Let’s enjoy it.

Treinen had been a good reliever before 2018; 129 ERA+ spread across 261 innings since 2014. He struck out a healthy amount and limited the home runs, but walked more than would be comfortable. Then 2018 happened.

In 80.1 innings, he produced an absurd 531 ERA+ with 100 strikeouts to 21 walks and 2 (2!) homers. He went from good to Kryptonian and was in gifs all over Baseball Twitter, unleashing that crazy sinker. Filthy? Not a strong enough word. This might be the nastiest pitch we’d studied so far; I realize I am liable to say that every week. But, in my defense, have you see these guys?

Treinen’s sinker averaged 97.3 MPH last season. It ate hitters alive; .221 batting average against, .267 slugging percentage against, slightly north of 30 percent whiff rate. This is a sinker. If you want to study just how much this sucker moves, go here. Needless to say, the combination of movement and velocity make it nearly untouchable. Against a lot of these elite relievers — the Haders and Diazes of the world — sometimes the best you can do is hope they make a mistake. If someone like Dellin Betances is on his game, good luck.

Today’s victims are the Texas Rangers, and I’ll be honest with you … it’s not a fair fight. Treinen rips through these guys like Thor when he landed in Wakanda. Remember that these are Major League hitters, the best in the world. It’s a small group.

But at least in this specific inning, they were just overmatched.

***

Treinen threw the sinker 50.2% of the time last year, pounding the zone with it over and over. Even if he leaves one over the plate, driving a pitch with this heat and movement is no picnic. It’s an obvious choice.

Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos (97 OPS+) is up first and watches a sinker miss high and away. However — look how it moves!

Chirinos Pitch 1 SNK

Down 1-0 in the count, Treinen brings the next sinker back into the strike zone and Chirinos fouls it away.

Look, I’m going to say this about a thousand times in today’s breakdown, but … my God look how this thing moves! That baseball is flying so fast and dropping so hard that Chirinos making contact at all legitimately feels miraculous. It’s just absurd.

Chirinos Pitch 2 SNK

With the count even, Treinen moves up in the strike zone. If there is a pitch in this exchange to do something with, I guess it would be this one. Treinen would probably prefer this sinker run a few inches lower; that difference could mean something.

But not on this day.

Chirinos Pitch 3 SNK

What is it we always say? You don’t want to be 0-2 or 1-2 against these guys. Treinen has an excellent slider; it tunnels neatly within the sinker and is about 7-8 MPH slower with a deeper break. So yeah, it’s a real treat for the batter.

In football terms, the playbook is wide open and the baseball equivalent of throwing a deep route is burying a breaking ball off the plate. Treinen just went deep. Chirinos is helpless.

Chirinos Pitch 4 SLD

One down and up steps pinch hitter Ryan Rua (48 OPS+). It seems cruel to make someone struggling at the plate this way face Blake Treinen, but hey, I don’t make the rules. I just survey the damage.

Rua is greeted with a sinker. Note the horizontal movement back toward the zone.

Rua Pitch 1 SNK

Treinen goes offspeed with the count 0-1, missing just below the zone with a slider. Even with this kind of powerful stuff, the tactics of manipulating the batter’s eye level and changing speeds remain useful.

Credit to Rua for holding up here.

Rua Pitch 2 SLD

Treinen comes with another slider, this time letting it catch much more of the plate. Rua unleashes a hearty hack but fouls it away. This isn’t a great pitch, even despite the movement. Leaving a breaking ball in that part of the zone is rarely ideal. But, and this is true especially for most of the game’s great relievers, the threat of the fastball is omnipresent. It helps.

Rua Pitch 3 SLD

Rua is down 1-2. Treinen showed him a sinker then two sliders. It’s time to go back to the moneymaker.

This pitch is unreal. Just absolutely unreal.

Rua Pitch 4 SNK

Rua Pitch 4 SLOMO 1

Carlos Tocci (46 OPS+) is the last gasp for the Rangers. If you were the last hope against Treinen, you’d really want to open the count with a ball, right? Tilt the count your direction.

Yes. Treinen misses badly away.

Tocci Pitch 1 SNK

Alright, you’ve got that going for you. Maybe Treinen misses again? If he does, you’re probably getting a pitch in the zone! Hey, you can hit that! (Maybe.) Sure, it’ll drop a foot in a matter of milliseconds but still. (Yeah …)

Tocci Pitch 2 SNK

Good idea not swinging at this. What are you going to do other than foul it away or gently ground out? Take it and maybe you get a favorable call. Who knows. There’s just not much good that can come from flailing at this sinker. It’s absolutely filthy.

Alright, Carlos. You can do this. Just don’t chase anything out of the zone and you’ll be fine —

Tocci Pitch 3 SNK

Ugh. How can I fault you, though? I’m sure it looked tempting out of the hand, but alas, there’s a reason Treinen allowed less than ten earned runs all year.

Now Carlos is in real trouble. The count is 1-2.

Tocci Pitch 4 SNK

If it worked once, why not throw it twice?

Ballgame.

***

Treinen made his 2019 debut this week when the Athletics faced off with the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo, Japan. The stuff clearly hasn’t vanished:

Treinen and the other elite relievers in today’s game boggle the mind. I’d love to ask a big league hitter what the tactics are against, say, Josh Hader or Treinen. What do you do? I’m sure there’s something, but to my untrained eye, it seems simple.

Just hope for a mistake.

***

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.

Did you miss one? Click here to find every Ode to a Pitcher breakdown.

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2019 MLB Preview: Let’s try and predict the crazy NL Central

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Christian Yelich mashed his way to the 2018 NL MVP. IAN D’ANDREA

If you missed my breakdown of the AL East and NL East, click here.

What to do with the pesky NL Central? Oh, what to do … what to do. We’ve got last year’s division winners, the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew are led by superstar outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and added an excellent catcher in Yasmani Grandal, but the pitching is a question.  The Chicago Cubs are no stranger to stars either; Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and the like are still around. But perhaps injuries and the fatigue of constant contention has worn them down. And meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds added firepower and the Pittsburgh Pirates might have the best pitcher in the division. There isn’t an actual bad team to be found here.

The AL Central likely will have a familiar champion. But a slow recovery by superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor could open the door to a push from the Minnesota Twins, who could blossom into an exciting team if a few things go their way.

The bottom of the division is … well …

Let’s dig in.

NL Central

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Christian Yelich

The Brewers as currently constituted are a really good team. Yelich and Cain are about as good a pair of superstars as you’ll find. Grandal was a great addition. Travis Shaw is a heck of a player to have around. Josh Hader’s stuff threatens to violate the Geneva Convention and somehow Jeremy Jeffress was even better last year by bWAR.

And yet … I’m uneasy. I’m uneasy because you kinda need to squint to find a pretty good starting pitcher here. Yes, Jimmy Nelson — another gift to us pitcher-giffers — is healthy. Partnering with him Jhoulys Chacin makes a solid pair of starters, but the rest of this picture doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Brewers starting pitchers finished with a combined -2.2 bWAR last season, 22nd best in the world, amid such luminaries as the Los Angeles Angels. It worked because the bullpen usage was creative, plus the offense and defense were so good — the Brewers non-pitcher WAR ranked third-best in the sport. It might have to be that good again.

It can be.

2. Chicago Cubs

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Kris Bryant

Amazing how good the North Siders are despite the owners being broke. Silly ownership comments aside, isn’t it odd how gloomy the feeling is around the Cubbies? Sure, Kris Bryant didn’t continue his run of MVP-caliber seasons last year; okay, year one of the Yu Darvish experience was a disaster. These are indeed first world problems. They nearly won 100 games and the manufactured rules of the sport kept them from the NLDS.

The Cubs are really good. I’m not high on the rotation at Joe Maddon’s disposal either — as Joe Sheehan pointed out in his excellent newsletter, not a lot of strikeouts here — but much like the Brewers, the elite talent on the position player side is hard to ignore. That infield is incredible, and if Javier Baez finally figures out what walks are, watch out.

But, it’s really hard to keep pushing like this for years on end.

3. St. Louis Cardinals

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Paul Goldschmidt

Yet another NL Central team with excellent position player talent that you wish had just one more good arm, the St. Louis Cardinals added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to an offense that finished tied for second in the NL by OPS+. This team won’t struggle for runs.

Oh, how the Cards could benefit from having someone like JA Happ on this roster (or even Gio Gonzalez, also gobbled up by the Yankees on a — wait, what? — minor league deal). The Cardinals could really use 170 more quality innings somewhere to pair with Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty. In fairness, that’s true of basically everyone but the Indians; alas, the Birds must hope for health. Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright could all have 2+ WAR years; but if only two of them threw more than 130 innings, would you be shocked?

4. Cincinnati Reds

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Joey Votto

The Reds had an aggressive offseason. They acquired a bunch of outfielders — Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp — plus starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Alex Wood. At the time, I was supportive of the moves, even despite giving away a couple good prospects to get Puig. The Reds have been some frustrating combination of incompetent (the Zack Cozart debacle comes to mind) or immobile since they last made the playoffs. At least the team was trying, right?

It won’t be enough, but the future is bright. Here’s the first key; don’t screw up Nick Senzel. Play him in center field and leave him the hell alone. I’m sure they’ll dick around and leave him the minors for a while, whatever. Once he’s in Cincy, he plays center. Period. Whether he ever plays a full season might be a different — perhaps unanswerable — question.

The second key: can Luis Castillo be a top-end starter? He throws hard and that changeup produces plenty of whiffs, but the fastball is straight as a board and he serves up batting practice way too often. Of the options close to or in the majors, no one else has Castillo’s potential to lead a rotation. Ultimately, the fastball might be what it is, but could mechanical tweaks help him locate it more often? Could a revised approach — a la Masahiro Tanaka — exemplify his strengths?

Also: I guess you can prove yourself now, Sonny Gray.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Jameson Taillon

The Pittsburgh Pirates might boast the division’s two best starting pitchers. Chris Archer didn’t come cheap, but he’s a reliable strikeout machine. Jameson Taillon is rounding into form and is rightfully being pegged around the baseball internet as a Cy Young pick; the stuff is ridiculous and at 27, he could easily break into that conversation. Don’t be surprised if Taillon produces a +6 WAR kind of season.

Starling Marte is a pretty good player and the leader of a sneaky-good outfield. Gregory Polanco took some really promising steps last season and Corey Dickerson has some pop (can someone tell Corey that walks are not only acceptable but in fact encouraged?). Beyond them, this team has enough players to not suck but not enough players to win. Oh, how different this story could be if the Bucs had ponied up for Manny Machado. Alas.

Even if it delays the chances of serious contention, I understand a team and fan base just not wanting to repeat the dreaded years between Bonds and McCutchen again.

I’ll be honest; you can flip the bottom three in any way you want and I could believe it.

NL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Jameson Taillon 1. Christian Yelich
2. Chris Archer 2. Lorenzo Cain
3. Miles Mikolas 3. Paul Goldschmidt

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Francisco Lindor

The Indians are winning the division again, but there are pathways to trouble for Terry Francona’s boys. The team is so top-heavy; Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and the starting rotation are by and large all elite. But the outfield? Yuck. The bullpen? Shiver. That’s why the Lindor situation should send a chill up an Indians fan’s back. As long as the stars are all around, this team competes. Losing one exposes the flaws.

Chances are he’ll be fine and the Indians will cruise to the postseason. But the team didn’t address the bullpen situation and with the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros (spoiler) all competing for the same pennant, one wonders if the window is beginning to slam shut.

2. Minnesota Twins

Goal: Make playoffs
Most Important Player: Jose Berrios

A lot of things have to go right for the Twins to eclipse the Indians. Byron Buxton stays healthy and finds just enough production at the plate; Miguel Sano also stays healthy and mashes. Heck, even if both of those things occur I suspect the Twins would need trouble from the Indians to really compete.

So, instead, let’s talk about Jose Berrios. I love Jose Berrios. You should too. He’s 24, packs a ridiculous curveball and increased his strikeout rate a healthy amount from 2017-18. The challenge for Berrios is controlling that hammer. Somedays he can; that allows his fastball to live up in the zone. Somedays he can’t; hitters lay off the deuce and sit on the fastball.

As a fan of young, highly-giffable pitchers, I hope Berrios figures that out. The AL Central would be loaded with aces.

3. Chicago White Sox

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Eloy Jimenez

Look. If there was ever a team who should have just ponied up and added both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, it was the pale hose. The outfield situation in Chicago is a car crash. Alas, that didn’t happen.

Eloy Jimenez will surely rake once the team decides he’s saved enough service time. Yoan Moncada probably won’t be a star, but he’s a big league regular anyway. Michael Kopech’s injury really sucks. Losing a year of development at 22 isn’t a picnic for the pitcher, the team or the fans. Things could be so different for this club had a few things broken a different way.

4. Detroit Tigers

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Jeimer Candelario

Look. For the big league team, the goal is pretty much to lose all the time. Sure, helping Michael Fulmer reclaim his former glory (Editor’s note: Not happening this season) and working with Jeimer Candelario to develop a bit at the plate are solid goals, but the main focus is to lose and continue to build the farm system. The future could be bright — Casey Mize is doing well in his first pro camp, for example. Sometimes rebuilds aren’t pretty. The Tigers should keep stockpiling high draft picks and pour money and manpower into turning those guys into stars.

Instead of dwelling on that, let’s appreciate Miggy. No one thought he’d age gracefully through the massive contract he signed in 2016, but the last two seasons haven’t been pretty. Sometimes aging sluggers collapse.

However, few batters have his plate discipline, even after age and injuries. The power might be gone for good; who knows. But if he can cobble together enough batting average, I bet Miggy can still be a valuable hitter on the walks alone. I’m hoping he hasn’t gone full Pujols on us.

5. Kansas City Royals

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Adalberto Mondesi

Flags fly forever. The Royals probably should have sold the farm awhile ago, cashing in the now-injured Salvador Perez and Merrifield for prospects. They didn’t. Okay. This team has no prayer of winning and holding onto any valuable, nearing-30 big leaguers only pushes the next contention window out further.

But hey — flags fly forever. The Royals won. It just so happens they might not do that again for a while.

AL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Trevor Bauer 1. Jose Ramirez
2. Corey Kluber 2. Francisco Lindor
3. Carlos Carrasco 3. Adalberto Mondesi

2019 MLB Preview: Breaking down the excellent Eastern divisions

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Bryce Harper’s wearing new digs for the next, oh, 13 seasons. KEITH ALLISON

The AL East has been a bloodbath for decades. Randomly pick a year and there’s a good chance the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have been contenders — in the last 20 years, the two have combined for seven World Series championships. The Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays have appeared in the ALCS in that timeframe; the Tampa Bay Rays played in the Fall Classic.

The NL East has its moments too, even if the titles are a bit harder to find. The Philadelphia Phillies beat those pesky Rays to claim the 2008 title. Josh Beckett shutout the Yankees in 2003 to claim the then Florida Marlins’ second title in a handful of years. The New York Mets played for the title twice; the Nationals have had some famous players but haven’t won a playoff series.

Going into 2019, the star power in these two divisions is kind of incredible. Recent award winners like Mookie Betts, Jacob deGrom and Blake Snell; dominant pitching dragons like Max Scherzer and Chris Sale; ultra-powerful sluggers like Aaron Judge, JD Martinez, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton. I didn’t even mention all the future superstars breaking in like Ronald Acuña, Gleyber Torres, Juan Soto and on.

The Easts are no joke. Let’s break it down.

AL East

1. New York Yankees

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Aaron Judge

The 2019 Yankees offense could be unbelievable. There’s so much power here, so much force that it calls to mind Daenerys Targaryen on the back of Drogon swooping down on Jamie Lannister. There’s an awful lot of fire and screaming.

Okay, that’s dramatic, but don’t discount the incredible power of this offense. The 2018 Yankees set a record having nine different batters hit at least 20 home runs on the path to a record-setting 267. Incredible, and yet all Aaron Judge and the boys can talk about this spring is shattering the home run record the team collectively set last season.

Maybe they can do it. The bigger concern is whether ace Luis Severino misses extended time, but the acquisition of James Paxton helps ease that potential loss. The Yankees have the resources to patch over such a blow, but replacing an ace mid-season isn’t for the faint of heart.

2. Boston Red Sox

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Mookie Betts

Rafael Devers broke into the big leagues as a top-10 prospect. So far, his MLB tenure hasn’t been great — he was replacement level last season according to bWAR. But the potential is there, especially if reports of Devers accepting advice about his approach are borne out on the field. He could use it, what with a walk rate less than 8% and an OBP last season less than .300.

The 2019 Sox are hardly dependent upon Devers, but if he finds the offensive potential he flashed in the minors, suddenly the champs are all the more dangerous. Mookie Betts, JD Martinez, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts are about as strong a position-player core as you’ll find, after all. Of a more pressing concern for the Sox is a bullpen without any true lights-out options, but with such incredible high-end talent on the roster — Chris Sale, David Price, Betts, Martinez, etc — it won’t matter in the regular season.

October could be a different story. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

3. Tampa Bay Rays

Goal: Make the playoffs again (last: 2013)
Most Important Player: Blake Snell

Hard not to love the Rays, who continually find ways to compete with such limited resources. Still, they haven’t made the playoffs in several years and the path isn’t any easier in 2019. As usual, the Rays are thin on elite talent aside from the magnificent Snell, who rightfully won the 2018 AL Cy Young. He should be awesome again and pairing him with free agent acquisition Charlie Morton at the top of the Tampa rotation eases the burden on Manager Kevin Cash. If Tyler Glasnow can edge that walk rate down again, suddenly the Rays might have something. The team has proven they can win a lot of games relying on relievers to handle the whole game. It worked last season and it should work this season.

The 2018 Rays were a sneaky-good offense (6th in wRC+), led in part by Joey Wendle. Wendle had never played more than 30 games in the big leagues before last season, his age-28 season. Credit to him for striking while the iron was hot, but finding dudes like Wendle and getting production out of him is quintessential Rays. Chances are they do it again.

4. Toronto Blue Jays

Goal: Not screw up Baby Vlad
Most Important Player: Baby Vlad

The excuses were so stupid, and then fate went and bailed the Toronto front office out. On March 10, this news broke:

Let’s be real: the Blue Jays were thrilled about this. No, they don’t want their prized prospect to be seriously hurt. Baby Vlad isn’t seriously hurt. He’ll be fine, but most importantly for the Jays he’ll miss several weeks and need time once he’s healthy to get back up to speed. This cuts down that pesky service time — which, you know, leads to Guerrero getting paid what he’ll surely be worth.

For shame.

The Major League team needs him desperately, but I suppose that isn’t the concern for the front office. Randal Grichuk and Justin Smoak are OK hitters; Kevin Pillar remains a good defender. Danny Jansen has some power for a catcher.

Marcus Stroman is one of my personal favorite pitchers; dude has swag and is a master at messing with timing and keeping hitters off balance. I’d be thrilled if he had a big season, but I wouldn’t call that a great bet, though. He was hurt and bad for most of 2018.

5. Baltimore Orioles

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Uhhh …

Look. I … I can’t really polish this one. If you’re an Orioles fan, chances are you’re also a Ravens fan. Maybe just spend all summer studying up on Lamar Jackson? I’m only sort of kidding.

The Orioles waited way too long to trade Manny Machado and got little in return. Now comes the dark, hard road of a full rebuild, probably in the mold of what the Houston Astros did years back.

AL East Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Chris Sale 1. Mookie Betts
2. Blake Snell 2. Aaron Judge
3. Luis Severino 3. JD Martinez

NL East

1. Philadelphia Phillies

Goal: Win the World Series
Most Important Player: Bryce Harper

You might have heard — they had a rather busy offseason. Here are the big names the Phils brought onboard:

    • Jean Segura
    • Andrew McCutchen
    • JT Realmuto
    • Bryce Harper

Pretty good, particularly Realmuto and Harper who are sizable upgrades over the players who held their positions last season (Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro at catcher, who amassed a reasonable 2 bWAR and the trio of replacement level the Phils had in right field). The 2018 Phillies won 80 games; the 2019 version should be better, even if Aaron Nola isn’t quite as ridiculous this coming season. Plus, it helps when you sign away your division rival’s nominal best player.

Weird to say this about a dude who just got the biggest contract in the history of American professional sports, but is Bryce Harper sorta kinda underrated? Probably not, but don’t be surprised if he makes a run at his second MVP.

Despite the spending spree, the Phils are probably the most logical place for the still unsigned Dallas Keuchel. If you’re going for it — something something stupid money — you might as well go for it. He’d add depth, a lefty-touch and a probable 200 innings to an already good rotation with Nola, Jake Arrieta and pitching gif icon Nick Pivetta.

2. Washington Nationals

Goal: Win the World Series
Most Important Player: Max Scherzer

Well, one of the two phenoms is still around.

Stephen Strasburg was supposed to be Roger Clemens 2.0. The hype going into the 2009 draft was unbelievable. Strasburg annihilated college and flashed stuff that gave prospect watchers all sorts of tingly feelings. He got to the bigs and showed that same prowess; I called his starts “Strasmas” with my friends.

It’s unfortunate that the biggest event of Strasburg’s career might just be the Nationals shutting him down before the 2012 playoffs in an effort to lengthen his career after Tommy John surgery. The Nats lost in 5 in the NLDS and have never gotten further than that; Strasburg has been pretty good but not quite what was hoped for. Then again, expecting an inner-circle Hall of Famer is absurd.

But there’s another young phenom around in Washington, a welcome distraction from Harper’s disappearance. Juan Soto, a 19-year-old outfielder, produced a whopping 142 wRC+ in 116 games. Nothing to sneeze at. For what it’s worth, ZiPS likes him a lot in 2019; 154 wRC+.

Reason to believe. Anthony Rendon is awesome. Max Scherzer is unconscionable. Harper or not, this team can still win.

3. Atlanta Braves

Goal: Build on a successful, surprising 2018
Most Important Player: Ronald Acuña

The 2018 Braves are why I love baseball. Before the year there was little reason to believe they’d claim the NL East crown — the future was bright, but perhaps not the present. Yet, they did, led by a consistent superstar in Freddie Freeman and a boatload of fun young talent. Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Mike Foltynewicz all broke into the mainstream. Heck, even Nick Markakis had a surprising year.

If Acuña replicates his 2018 performance over a full 162-game slate … wow. It’s a tall order, but the young left fielder has visions of MVPs dancing in his head for good reason.

Speaking of MVPs … the Braves added Josh Donaldson, who recently has been made of glass but was once legitimately a superstar and easily could be one again. If he is — if Josh Donaldson is Josh Donaldson again — with a repeat turn from Folty and maybe a strong Kevin Gausman performance and voila, this team could be as exciting and frisky as last year’s version, even if the division has shuffled some top talent into Citizens Bank Park.

4. New York Mets

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Jacob deGrom

Brodie Van Wagenen certainly wasn’t lazy this offseason, adding 2B/1B Robinson Cano, closer Edwin Diaz and infielder Jed Lowrie in an effort to drag a Metropolitan team somewhere close to contention. Cano is still a good player, even if the Seattle Mariners cut bait at the right time, and Diaz is an incredible reliever. One could ask why the Mets — they won 77 games last season — thought they were only an aging second baseman and about 70 dominant innings away from contention, but alas, the team is better. One wonders what Dallas Keuchel might do for a squad primed to give a lot of innings to Jason Vargas (wait, is a 5.77 ERA bad?) He’d be far from the ace here, which strikes me as a great way to deploy 2019 Dallas Keuchel.

Improved, yes. Good enough for October? Ehhh … more than a few things need to break correctly. But good enough — much like the Cincinnati Reds — to entertain fans deeper into the season.

5. Miami Marlins

Goal: Lose every game?
Most Important Player: Sixto Sanchez?

Look, what is there to say? The Derek Jeter era in Miami hasn’t been pretty. El Capitan showed up and immediately salary-dumped the reigning NL MVP and then about a month later traded the new NL MVP. As Dan Syzmborski pointed out in his ZiPS preview for the team, even including the haul for JT Realmuto, the Marlins might have only scraped up a couple big league regulars.

Fun times in Miami! Don’t give these people your money, fans. Seriously.

NL East Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Jacob deGrom 1. Anthony Rendon
2. Max Scherzer 2. Freddie Freeman
3. Aaron Nola 3. Bryce Harper

Ode to a Pitcher: All hail Max Scherzer, modern king of strikeouts

Image result for max scherzer
Max Scherzer ain’t nothin’ to mess with.  ARTURO PARDAVILA III

I was saving this.

Oh, the fun we’ve had in this series. We’ve studied dynamic young aces and masterful hurlers of the past. We’ve seen sizzling fastballs, mind-blowing sliders and pocket-dimension changeups. (You can see them all here.) The best pitchers in the world are wizards from the line of Dumbledore, and yet … there was one pitcher I kept in my back pocket for a few weeks. I was saving him, hoarding him, waiting for the day. Today is that day.

Because … well, he’s a little less wizard and a little more buzzsaw. This isn’t trickery; it’s brute force.

It’s Max Scherzer day.

Scherzer is the best pitcher alive, having taken that “crown” from Clayton Kershaw as the Dodger lefty has declined amid injuries. A three-time Cy Young award winner (1 in the American League, 2 in the National League), Scherzer is a hard-throwing strikeout machine with an unorthodox delivery and an aggressive approach on the mound. He pitches like Liam Neeson in Taken. He’s basically my baseball fever dream come to life and a true gift to all who trade in baseball gifs.

Scherzer has led the league in strikeouts the last three seasons, including a sizzling 300 in 220 innings in 2018 — this in his age-33 season. He’s sat down at least 240 every year since 2014. You’ll be shocked to learn his fastball is probably the best of its kind in the sport. Take a look:

  • The spin rate on Scherzer’s fastball ranks in the 94th percentile (!!!)
  • Hitters missed 30.4% of the swings they took against it — note that he threw it almost 1750 times
  • Hitters produced a terrible .198 batting average and a putrid .248 wOBA against it

Yeah, so it’s good. We’ll see this in clear detail in today’s Ode to a Pitcher. Scherzer’s heater tips the scales in each at-bat and allows him to work aggressively regardless of the count. For example, a pitcher throwing a fastball in a 3-0 count is considered at a disadvantage — the hitter knows what is coming because no pitcher likes allowing free baserunners — and Major League hitters armed with that intel fare quite well.

But when you take Scherzer’s fastball — with its mid-90s velocity and incredible spin — that advantage is reduced. Then we remember he has a brutal, late-breaking slider and a darting changeup (tucked so neatly within the release of his fastball that its an act of subterfuge). Yeah. You try hitting this dude.

The Chicago Cubs found themselves in Mad Max’s crosshairs on a Sunday night last season.

***

Scherzer starts right fielder Jason Heyward off with a fastball. Note the late movement on the pitch and the perfect placement, nestled right into the up-and-in edge of the strike zone.

Heyward Pitch 1 FB

Scherzer’s delivery is kinda violent — you’ll get a better look at this as the breakdown rolls on. He finishes toward the plate with a thrust, sending his head down as he hammers the ball to the plate. Not sure many pitching coaches would want their high schoolers to work this way, but alas.

Having watched the fastball near his chest, Heyward is far out in front of Scherzer’s curveball. (Despite the difference in the gifs, Scherzer always takes the ball behind his head during his windup.)

Heyward Pitch 2 Crv SS

See how Scherzer pulls himself glove-side right as he releases the ball? Lots of analysts assumed he’d get hurt at some point, but he’s been a pretty durable pitcher in his career. And dominant. Pitchers are crazy, man.

Look at that sharp, late break on this curveball. My goodness.

Heyward Pitch 2 Slomo

Defending the whole plate against Scherzer is a hell of a task. He can attack you anywhere; where do you focus? What do you sit on?

Having worked up and in and then down in the zone, he comes back near Heyward’s knees to finish the first at-bat.

Oh — and Heyward is down 0-2.

Fastball. Curve. Slider.

Strikeout.

Heyward Pitch 3 SL

Heyward Pitch 3 Slomo

Center fielder Albert Almora Jr steps up, batting from the right side. Scherzer drops a curveball right over the plate for strike one. It’s kind of a hanger — I doubt he was pleased with it.

Almora Pitch 1 CRV

Scherzer comes back with a hard fastball just off the plate away. Almora takes it for a ball. You can already see the way the Nationals ace likes to attack the plate. He has no fear of any zone.

Almora Pitch 2 FB

With the count sitting 1-1, Scherzer attacks Almora a foot lower in the strike zone and forces the young outfielder to hack the fastball foul. Without reading too much into one swing, Almora probably isn’t reading Scherzer well. Who would? That delivery is just something else.

Almora Pitch 3 FB

What do we lament each week? The poor souls facing these baseball-chucking cyborgs in 1-2 counts. In the modern game, aside from maybe deGrom, it doesn’t get more terrifying in said situations than seeing Scherzer’s gangly delivery barreling down at you.

Oh, Albert Almora. You did the best you could. You made your family proud.

Glibness aside, this is a master class. The slider looks exactly the same out of the hand as the fastball that Almora barely knocked foul one pitch before. What’s he supposed to do with this? The pitch dives from shin to ankle in a matter of milliseconds.

Almora Pitch 4 SL

Up next is left fielder Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs first choice for designated hitter should the rule come to the NL. (It should.) Schwarber watches a fastball up and in for ball one.

Schwarber Pitch 1 FB

A mistake: Scherzer throws another fastball but leaves it just enough over the plate to allow a hit. To his credit, Schwarber didn’t try to pull this ball over the wall; he shortened his swing and flicked the ball into center field. As you often hear on broadcasts, that’s a good piece of hitting. It is. If an ace like Scherzer gives you a mistake over the plate, don’t get cute. Take your base.

Schwarber Pitch 2 single

Catcher Willson Contreras steps up with Schwarber on first. He’s zero threat to steal. Scherzer is free and clear to attack without mercy.

Haha. Yeah, as if he needed permission.

That’s a nasty fastball, even if it was a ball.

Contreras Pitch 1 FB

Ever working the zone, Scherzer throws another fastball — but higher, right above the tip of the strike zone. This is the clearest example I can give you of spin rate and velocity. The batter has to be really on this pitch to drive it. Alas, Contreras unloads on it but knocks it foul behind home plate.

Contreras Pitch 2 FB

Man, did Contreras have a chance to plant one in the seats here. This is a flat-out mistake by Scherzer, a flat breaking ball left right in the kill zone for a righty. Contreras just misses and pulls it foul.

Sometimes hitters just miss, same as pitchers. That could be all this was (the Cubs catcher produced a 92 OPS+ last year, so Mike Trout he is not) but I wonder how much the rest of Scherzer’s repertoire plays a role. Are you expecting a fastball? Caught off guard by the difference in speed, even if the pitch was in the zone? It’s not like the breaking stuff isn’t loaded with spin too …

Contreras Pitch 3 crv

Oh, Willson. Now you sit in a two-strike count, facing down a Dark Lord of the Mound, armed in full glory and hungry for another strikeout. Oh, your fate. You saw what happened to Jason Heyward and Albert Almora in similar predicaments. You heard their wails. And now here you are, caught in the same chains.

Did the baseball gods conspire against you, Willson, to be here and now, facing this burden? Do they laugh at your mortal peril, at your impending doom? Will they offer no relief?

No.

They won’t.

They offer instead the crushing boot, a changeup that twists you into a knot and sends you a broken hitter back into your dugout.

Contreras pitch 4 ch

***

My favorite pitcher ever is Mariano Rivera. I don’t hide this. Max Scherzer is darn close though, and perhaps because part of my imagination wants to believe if I had any energy in my right arm I’d pitch like him. Who knows.

Scherzer, entering his mid-30s, hasn’t lost much if anything in his game. Jacob deGrom rightfully won the NL Cy Young, but Scherzer was easily second and figures to be in the running again. That bizarre, violent delivery might someday collect a toll on his right arm, but so far he continues to pile up strikeouts. Even with Stephen Strasburg and the newly signed Patrick Corbin in the Nationals rotation, Scherzer remains the best player on the team and the most consistent and dominant pitcher alive.

Long live Mad Max.

***

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.

Content like this is available to all because of the support of my Patrons. Wish to join them? For as little as $3 a month, you will get early access to content like Ode to a Pitcher sent to your email in advance. Sign up today and support great baseball writing.

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

Image result for corey seager
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 MLB.com’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

Image result for gerrit cole
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.