Welcome, friends, to another This Particular Week in Baseball, a column that assumes you 1) aren't paying attention to baseball and 2) are very interested in baseball. Without dwelling at all on how much sense that makes, let's look back at the week that was and peek ahead at the week to come.
We'll start in Philadelphia, where the cheese is spelled with a Z, the "with" without an h, and everyone is angry all the time. The Phillies made the first month and a half of their season far more interesting than fans had any right to expect. They won more games than they lost despite a whisper of an offense, and despite giving up more runs than they scored by a fair margin. Those, as you might have guessed, are not the cornerstones of a winning team, and so only over the past few weeks have the baseball gods, catching up on paperwork, finally noticed what was going on and corrected course. Since May 23, the start of a six-game road trip to Detroit and Chicago, the Phillies are 3-10 and have lost four games in the standings.
Perhaps Saturday's loss, the tenth of those ten, was the final straw for one fan, or perhaps that one fan is simply a huge a jackass. Either way, said jackass hurled a bottle at erstwhile Phillies superstar and current wingless albatross Ryan Howard after he grounded out to end the game. Howard went off to the media about it, as is his right, but the question "What the hell?" comes to mind.
It's a bizarre relationship we have with professional athletes. It's a bipolar form of celebrity, and the distance between full-hearted love and something like hate is very small—so much so that, in our animal brains, a weakly hit grounder somehow gives us the right to attack them. This is an extreme example, given that most fans know better than to throw bottles at players, but even so, yelling obscenities at players during the game is more than tolerated, in Philly and elsewhere. Howard has been terrible at baseball the past few years, but nothing about that means he deserves to be personally insulted, to say nothing of physically assaulted. The Phillies should find bottle guy and prosecute him to the fullest extent they can, but it might also be time to recalibrate how we think about our sports heroes. At the very least, it's time to stop treating them as if they aren't like us.
With the news that Hunter Pence will have hamstring surgery and likely be lost for most if not all of the season, the San Francisco Giants find themselves in a tough spot. Pence isn't the Giants' best hitter, but he might be their second best, and that's a huge loss for any team, let alone one fighting the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place. While Pence's eyes, his weird stance, his bizarre gamboling gait, and his general demeanor are all irreplaceable, his on-field production is not. As such, there are trade options.
Jay Bruce, of the Cincinnati Reds, is undoubtedly available, as the Reds are a hideous mess. While Bruce's defense is terrible, he's hitting again and his contract isn't overly onerous, with the remaining balance of his $12.5 million due this season and a team option for $13 million next year. Ryan Braun can also be had from the not-quite-as-horrible-but-equally-rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers, but he is due $20 million annually through 2018, $19 million in 2019, and $17 million in 2020, when he'll be 36. That could work out, because Braun is still pretty good at baseball, but it's a lot of money to take on mid-season, especially for a team that spent generously last off-season. Braun is a better hitter, but his contract compared to Bruce's is the difference between taking out a subprime mortgage loan and renting a house at the beach for a week.
For now, San Francisco is likely to keep running Jarrett Parker and Gregor Blanco out there, but with neither posting an OPS over .700 at the moment—and neither likely much better than that in terms of true talent—they may have to do something sooner than later.
Baseball Is Weird
Good hitting teams hit, bad pitching teams pitch badly, good hitters hit well, good pitchers pitch well, and so on—these are things we know and can fairly expect when the season rolls around. Then the season gets here and all our reasonable expectations get punched in the neck, tossed in a trashcan, and rolled down a hill into the lake. Poor expectations! Here are some bad things that happened to our expectations recently:
- Toronto Blue Jayspitcher Marco Estrada almost threw a no-hitter against the best hitting team inbaseball yesterday. While Estrada does throw an 87 mph fastball, he makes upfor that by repeatedly throwing it over the middle of the plate. On Sunday,however, nobody on the Boston Red Sox could hit it. It was unhittably bad.
- The Dodgers' ClaytonKershaw may be having one of the best seasons for a starting pitcher sincevintage Pedro Martinez. So his facing the Atlanta Braves, the worst team inbaseball, seemed a recipe for, well, what's better than a perfect game?Instead, Kershaw threw six innings with four strikeouts and one walk (and noruns allowed, of course, because it is still Kershaw). It was still a very goodstart, but with Kershaw we expect perfection against normal competition, letalone the Braves. So the fact that Atlanta even managed a walk—only Kershaw'sfifth of the season (against 109 strikeouts)—counts as strange.
- When Carl Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox, it seemed an odd fit. Crawford was a speed and defense guy with some power and on-base ability on a team of sluggers playing in a small park, but he was also a great player, so fit-schmidt. Basically, he could do everything well, so who wouldn't want that? Then he got to Boston and could do nothing well. Every single skill he had seemingly diminished during that off-season. Two awful years later, Boston dumped him on the Dodgers; three and a half similarly lousy seasons after that the Dodgers finally cut him loose over the weekend. They did so knowing they still owe him more than $30 million. How did a guy who was good at everything lose it all so quickly? No idea. Baseball is weird.
Top Three Teams of the Moment
The bottom part of the Top Three Teams of the Moment has been in some flux recently. Of course, the Chicago Cubs remain at the top. In fact, if you could rank the teams by quality, you'd put the Cubs first, then second, then third, then maybe fourth, and then probably the Washington Nationals or the Giants or the Texas Rangers or whatever. We're two months in and the Cubs are hoping to stay healthy and looking forward to the playoffs. It's thrilling stuff. But after the Cubs, things get interesting!
3. Texas Rangers
In the course of the season, all teams are presented with adversity. The best teams are the ones that overcome it and win. The Rangers have the best record in the American League, and so far their adversity is Prince Fielder, the round-bodied DH and avant-garde base runner, hitting .187/.257/.288. That makes him the second worst player in baseball by FanGraphs WAR, behind Erick Aybar. The Rangers have finally seen the error of his ways and benched the ironically named ex-slugger, which means that, after two years lost to injury, former super-prospect Jurickson Profar has an opportunity to make his mark. It's not how the Rangers had it drawn up, but if the alternative is embalmed circa-now Fielder, they'll take it.
2. Washington Nationals
Perhaps Bryce Harper isn't breaking baseball after all. The future $400 million outfielder (yup) is hitting very well, but he's somehow taken a backseat to Daniel Murphy, who is doing a fantastic Bryce Harper impression. Not physically, as Murphy is still a curly-haired goofball, but he's hitting as insanely well as he did during the first two rounds of the playoffs last season, and what looked like a bizarre sample-size blip now looks, well, enough like Bryce Harper that I keep bringing it up.
1. Chicago Cubs
They're super good. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 99.4 percent chance at making the playoffs. That's purer than Ivory soap, and more likely to be recommended by dentists than sugarless gum. Those are better odds than Hillary Clinton being the Democratic nominee, and more likely to be misused than most statistics. They're that good.
Bottom Three of the Moment
It's the Bottom Three, so of course there are only two teams. Why? Because you set the bar and then see who slithers under it. It's called challenging yourself.
2. Minnesota Twins
The Twins combine bad pitching, bad defense, and a mediocre offense to turn, Transformers-like, into [turns on echo] A Bad Baseball Team! The Twins are 16-40, which is as bad as it looks. They are 9-18 at home and 7-22 on the road. They are 1-3 in extra innings and 14-36 in regulation games. They are 6-10 in one-run games, and 2-10 in blowouts. They went 7-17 in April and 8-19 in May. They are 1-5 in June. They are 5-19 against their division and 2-5 in interleague play. They are bad.
However, they are not quite as bad as the...
1. Atlanta Braves
Remember back when I said that the Phillies offense was bad? I called them a whisper of an offense, a beautiful turn of phrase on my part. And it's true, in that the Phillies are the second worst run-scoring team in baseball. Know who is worse?
Yes, the Braves have scored the fewest runs; more interesting if not more surprising than that, they also have the fewest extra base hits in baseball. The Red Sox lead baseball with 237 extra base hits. The Phillies are second to last with 139. The Braves have 111. They've grounded into 48 double plays, though, which is kind of like a double.
The Match-Up of the Year of the Week: Red Sox at Giants
It's only a two-game series but, let's be real, this has gone on long enough. The Red Sox face a crisis of pitching, as their rotation currently consists of David Price, knuckleballer Steven Wright, and then a whole lot of face scrunching and under-your-breath swearing. The World's Most Amazing Offense can only carry the load so far, and over their ten games against the Baltimore Orioles and the Blue Jays, the Sox staff has given up 19 home runs. That's too many.
The Giants are a well-rounded team in the opposite way that the Twins are well rounded, which means that they should be able to deposit any and all Red Sox meatballs over the outfield fence for a thorough rinse in the bay. Can the Giants hit 70 homers in two games? Can the Red Sox hold them to under 40? Tune in to find out! Also please let me know what happens. I'll be hiding under my couch again.
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