Well, whaddya know. We’re halfway there. Somehow or other, it’s July already. Which means …
Your phone has spent more time rattling, just with no-hitter alerts, than the San Andreas Fault. … You no longer think Spider Tack is that insect that just scooted across your kitchen floor. … And you’re no doubt thinking of changing your name to “Jr.,” so you too can lead your softball league in home runs.
But now let me tell you what I’m thinking. That there’s a lot I know now that I didn’t know a month ago. So allow me to pass along some of that knowledge, with a column we like to call: “10 Things We Learned in June.”
Some people turn the calendar to July and ask: “Where’s my beach umbrella?” But none of those people would be what we’d describe as “presidents of baseball ops.” And you know what those presidents of baseball ops are asking? Stuff like: “Where can I trade for a cleanup hitter?”
So that’s where the Minnesota Twins could be very helpful. When your team is 12 games under .500 on July 1, you are not playing baseball in October. Or at least no team ever has. So when I asked the six executives I surveyed for this column to name the most pivotal seller this month, it was amazing how many of them said, almost instantly: the Twins.
“They’ve got an impact starter, in (José) Berríos, with control,” one of those execs said. “They’ve got an impact reliever, in Taylor Rogers, with control. And if you’re an American League club, they’ve got an impact bat, with clubhouse impact, in Nelson Cruz. It looks more and more, to me, like all those guys will move.”
Other teams receiving votes: Rangers, Diamondbacks, Orioles … and lots of eyes on which direction the Reds and Cubs travel in the next few weeks.
For some reason, the Orioles didn’t come up much when I asked this question. But a bunch of other teams did. So let’s take a quick look at the three I heard most:
Padres: One exec sized them up and asked: Could they possibly be more all-in? Given how turbo-driven GM A.J. Preller has been over the past 12 months, why would anyone think that would change now?
“Look at what they did at last year’s deadline,” the exec said, “even though it didn’t all work out. Look at what they did this winter. I know they’re up against the tax (threshold). But they’ve put so much into this club already and they’re in so deep, they have to continue to push.”
Most-rumored target: Joey Gallo.
Mets: They’re closing in on the tax threshold. But you think other clubs weren’t paying attention two weeks ago when the owner, Steve Cohen, said the Mets have the money for “the right opportunity?”? “When you start talking about how you’ve got deep pockets in that market,” one NL exec said, “they don’t forget what you said.”
But if the Mets go into tax territory to win this year, other clubs say it’s likely to be for starting pitching they can put in place for this season and beyond. And they’re already shopping in that aisle of the Deadline Super Store. “As much as they say this is about the long term,” an AL exec said, “I think that of all the teams out there, this team will buy — and tap into the top of their system for a good starting pitcher or two.”
Most-rumored target: Kyle Gibson.
Athletics: “I look at them this way,” one rival exec said. “Both of the Matts — Olson and Chapman — move into four-plus (service) territory next year. And (Mark) Canha will be a free agent. And that means their window to win with those guys is about to close. One thing we’ve always seen with Billy (Beane) is that when they get a chance to win, they go make moves to try to win. I think they will again. I just don’t know how much money they have to spend.”
Most-rumored target: Trevor Story.
Here’s one more deadline development to monitor. All it took was a little old crackdown on Spider Tack, and suddenly, an odd trend swept through front offices everywhere:
On the one hand, would pretty much every contender still love to trade for more pitching? Of course. But on the other, does any team feel good about trading for pitching right this minute, a week-and-a-half into the plunging-spin-rate era? Obviously, not!
“This is a real thing,” an executive of one team in the pitching market said. “We need time. … It’s scary to do it now.”
According to The Athletic’s foremost authority on Spider Tack and other glop, Eno Sarris, 63 pitchers in the sport have seen an extreme decline in spin rate of at least two standard deviations in the past week and a half. And more than 50 percent have seen what Eno described as a “statistically significant” drop in spin rate.
So when you see that, would you want to deal for a pitcher whose spin data has taken that dramatic a cliff dive in the past week or so? You know that answer.
“In general, it’s guys with riding (four-seam) fastballs and hard breaking balls that are the most affected,” an AL exec said. “But I think we have to look at it like everyone in the league was using something. You can’t assume one guy is more affected than another just because he throws 10 miles per hour harder. So we’re all tracking it — but not really spin rates. Just pure action. It’s something we need time to absorb. And that’s why so few teams are willing to move early.”
You never want to read too much into one day of baseball — even if it’s a day on which an incredible 204 runs are scored. But more than 200 of them were scored Wednesday. And if that felt like baseball’s not-so-subtle way of telling us the pitchers aren’t in control anymore, well, message received.
I’m picking June 5 as the date that it began to dawn on pitchers that the Spider Tack crackdown was imminent. So let’s examine what’s happened since. No matter how you look at life before and after June 5, it’s clear this has been a different game these past few weeks.
Offensive stats before and after June 5 Pre-June 4Since June 5*Batting Average0.2360.246Slugging percentage0.3950.416Runs per game4.364.63Home runs per game1.151.27Strikeout percentage24.123.3*Through Wednesday
Now it’s not fair to overlook the fact that not all of that is the Case of the Missing Spider Tack. Some of it is as simple as the arrival of what the great Charlie Manuel used to call “Hittin’ Season” — by which he means: heatwave! But every exec I surveyed, without exception, predicted we’ll be seeing a lot more of the offense we’ve seen these last few weeks.
“The bottom line is, less nasty stuff,” one exec said. “I mean, it’s still way nastier than 10-20 years ago, but it’s also not what it was. So basically, we’re not playing Wiffle Ball anymore. More stickball, less Wiffle Ball.”
The Yankees flipped the calendar to July with a 41-39 record, a minus-3 run differential and an 8 ?-game hole to climb out of in the AL East. So why does that matter?
Well, for one thing, it’s only the fourth time in the past quarter-century that the Yankees had a record this mediocre (or worse) and a run differential this bad through June. They missed the playoffs in every one of those other three seasons.
But history isn’t the only reason they’re in trouble. If you ask other teams what they see when they play or watch the Yankees, well, they definitely don’t see Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio out there. Let’s put it that way.
I heard those execs talk about the Yankees’ lack of “real baseball players.” … and their “major rotation problems.” … and how “un-athletic” and “injury-prone” their roster was … not to mention how their games against the Red Sox exposed how much better the Red Sox are at running the bases and doing the little things.
“They make the Yankees look like they’re standing still,” said one scout who covers both teams.
One after another, the Yankees’ rivals described them as a team that needs a big roster overhaul but with no easy way to do that.
“They’d really have a hard time selling,” an exec of one team said. “Of the guys they could possibly move, I honestly don’t see a lot who could bring much in return. If they sell, Aaron Judge is the guy to sell. But I don’t see that happening.”
For two months, I’ve been saying to myself: What a great story the Giants are — but this can’t possibly continue, can it? OK, I give up. I’m no longer a doubter. At least I’m not alone. So let’s answer the questions I couldn’t make compute for way too long.
Their rotation can’t keep pitching like this, right? We’re three months into this season. And the Giants’ whole frigging rotation has outpitched Shane Bieber. Don’t believe me? Take a look at their numbers through June:
Shane Bieber vs the San Francisco Giants ERAWHIPBieber3.281.25Giants3.171.09
“It’s easy to think they’re not for real, but I’ve got to think they are,” an AL exec said. “We’re three months into it, and they’re actually getting better. And remember, they’re doing it in that division.”
All their best hitters are in their 30s! Yeah, well, that’s still true. You know the names: Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Mike Yastrzemski and the now-injured Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt. But here’s what we’ve missed if we obsessed over that: Farhan Zaidi has done a remarkable job fitting pieces into the outer edges of the roster. And that depth, that versatility, those platoon pieces are keeping this team rolling.
“There’s nothing about that roster that says it’s a mirage,” one rival executive said. “It may not last. But that doesn’t mean it’s a mirage.”
Where does Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA rank on your list of the romantic numbers in baseball? He’d be No. 2 for me, right behind 56, for Joe DiMaggio’s legendary hitting streak and just ahead of Ted Williams’ .406. This sounds like a Twitter poll waiting to happen. But instead, let’s ask this:
Is this the year that Gibson’s 1.12 falls off the pedestal where it has resided since 1968?
That’s a question I’ve never seriously asked, halfway through any season, in the time I’ve covered baseball. But I’m asking it now because Jacob deGrom is so Gibson-esque, he almost makes you ask: Why?wouldn’t?he do it?
Just look at how much better positioned deGrom is to pull this off than Gibson was at the same stage in ’68. These are their numbers through June in those years:
Gibson was on his way to 304 2/3 innings over 34 starts, so he had far less margin for error. DeGrom is headed for not much more than half that many innings. But meanwhile, he’s the first qualified starter to enter July with an ERA under 1.00 since Walter Johnson — 103 years ago!
So let’s say deGrom finishes with exactly 162 innings pitched, which is right about his current pace. He could give up twice as many earned runs in July, August and September as he allowed in April, May and June (six) – and still finish with an ERA under 1.12. Does that seem out of the question?
“I believe he’ll do this,” said one NL scout who covers the Mets. “The way he’s able to expose hitters’ swings, I don’t think there has ever been a better time to break that record.”
OK, so technically, Gibson doesn’t hold “that record.” Dutch Leonard (1.00, in 1914) actually had the lowest ERA by any pitcher since earned runs became an official stat. But Gibson’s 1.12 is the lowest in the live-ball era. So much like that .406 of Williams, it feels like a record even if the history books don’t agree.
Kyle Schwarber always had kind of a Babe Ruth look to him if you just saw him walking around the field in a uniform. But this week, he finished up a June so spectacular, it would have caused the Babe to wolf down seven or eight cheeseburgers. His numbers, just as a leadoff man, last month almost seem made up. But here goes:
The good news:?16 HR in 19 games, .986 SLG, 1.384 OPS
The weird news: 0 doubles, 0 triples, 8 singles, 5 runs when he didn’t homer himself in?
Rickey Henderson never hit more than eight homers in any month. Schwarber just hit eight homers?in five games. He has saved the Nationals’ season because nothing beats having your leadoff man hit a home run every day. As one NL exec quipped, “I’m sure they like always giving the ball to (Max) Scherzer, up 1-0.”
But are we?sure?Kyle Schwarber is the prototype leadoff man for these new-age times? Somehow or other, he had as many homers out of the leadoff hole last month (16) as singles, doubles, triples and walks combined. And his average, in all at-bats from that spot in which he didn’t homer, was .148.
So guys like this sure help you win. But wouldn’t they help you more if they hit all those home runs in the middle of the order, with a bunch of runners on base?
“The truth is, the prototype leadoff guy really hasn’t changed at all,” one AL exec said. “Everybody would love to have a Rickey Henderson — still. But those guys don’t come along very often. So the reality is, all you do is what teams have always done: You take the pieces in your lineup and try to make them fit.”
I just want to be the first to alert you to this, because you can see it coming three months away. Let’s say the Blue Jays of Vlad Guerrero Jr. make the playoffs and the Angels, despite the breathtaking brilliance of Shohei Ohtani, finish 20 games out. Who is your AL MVP?
Don’t answer too fast. Consider where Vladdy found himself, as he exited June, in the three traditional triple-crown categories:
AVERAGE: .339 (2nd)
HOMERS: 26 (2nd)
RBIs: 66 (1st)
Now let’s say Ohtani wears down even a little from the duress of playing the role of Ruth five days a week and Scherzer 2.0 the other two days. So his numbers then come back to earth, even slightly. And meanwhile, Guerrero passes him in homers, wins the Triple Crown and also leads the AL in On-Base and Slugging. Who is your AL MVP now?
“What Ohtani is doing is a special achievement,” one long-time exec said. “It’s something to ooh and aah over. But if Vlad wins the triple crown, I’d still have a hard time not giving him the MVP.”
Hold on one second, though. That was the narrative when Miguel Cabrera beat out Mike Trout in 2012. But does the Triple Crown mean now what it meant then? I spoke with a half-dozen executives for this story.?None?of the other five said it would be enough for them to give Vlad that MVP trophy over Ohtani — a man doing the impossible — if everything was equal.
But will we revisit this debate — 500 times — in September if Vlad is really positioned to win that triple crown? Ho-ho. Those talk-show lines will definitely be open.
Is he having the best “bad year” in baseball history or the worst “great year” in baseball history? In the case of White Sox walk/homer machine Yasmani Grandal, it all depends on which line on the stat sheet you get stuck on at any given moment.
On one hand, Grandal emerged from June tied for the team lead in home runs, with 12. On the other hand, he also emerged from June with a batting average of .180. And how many players in history have ever led?any?team in homers with an average that low? Right. Zero!
But here’s the Strange But True Grandal feat that really blows my mind. Let’s take a look at all AL hitters who got at least 200 plate appearances through the end of June.
Most hits – Cedric Mullins, 99
Fewest hits – Yasmani Grandal, 32
On-base pct. of the guy with the?most?hits – .391
On-base pct. of the guy with the?fewest?hits – .391
“When you asked me this question,” said one AL exec I talked to for this column, “here’s what I wrote down:?JUST THROW STRIKES!
“I don’t know why we don’t throw strikes to a guy hitting .180,” he said, in the pained tone of a man who had watched his team not throw those strikes. “I don’t know why we don’t make him earn his way on. But he’s been doing it all year.”
Yeah, he has. And you know what we learned in June? He plans to keep on doing it!
(Photo of Kyle Schwarber: Will Newton / Getty Images)
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