A year ago, the Red Sox were coming off an embarrassing face-plant of a season. They finished 24-36, missed the playoffs for the second straight year, and could only watch as Mookie Betts, the transcendent, homegrown superstar they had traded in February 2020, led the Dodgers to their first championship today in 29 years. Today, the retooled Red Sox are two wins away from another trip to the World Series thanks in part to Alex Verdugo, the most major league-ready of the three players they acquired for Betts in a deal that required restructuring — a trade at least somewhat vindicated by the team’s success thus far, whether or not they close out the ALCS, but one that still raises nettlesome issues about the way a marquee franchise has chosen to operate. Meanwhile, Betts has helped to position the Dodgers for a shot at returning to the World Series, and on Tuesday capped a four-run eighth-inning rally with an RBI double that put the Dodgers ahead to stay and enabled them to avoid a nearly-insurmountable three-games-to-none hole in the NLCS against the Braves.
Twenty months removed from one of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory, the trade continues to cast a long shadow over the postseason with the play of both Betts and Verdugo, the latter of whom has hit .324/.390/.486 in 37 PA for the Red Sox. Verdugo’s 138 wRC+ this October is fifth on the team behind the impossibly hot Enrique Hernández (269), J.D. Martinez (216), Rafael Devers (174), and Xander Bogaerts (166). Most notably, the Red Sox left fielder drove in the final three of Boston’s six runs in the AL Wild Card game against the Yankees via an RBI double and a two-run single, and plated two of Boston’s first four runs in their 14-6 Division Series Game 2 win over the Rays with a first-inning RBI single and a third-inning solo homer. He later made an over-the-wall snag of a Nelson Cruz foul ball and singled and scored the team’s ninth run.
Thus far in the ALCS against the Astros, Verdugo has gone 4-for-14 with three walks and two runs scored. On Monday, his one-out second-inning walk against José Urquidy turned into the first of the Red Sox’s six runs in the inning. In Tuesday’s loss, he finally went hitless, breaking an eight-game streak. Read the rest of this entry »
To calm everyone down from that saucy title, we’re going to start with a few simple facts. Starting in the postseason, Cody Bellinger has made a few adjustments. He’s shifted his position in the box, he’s striding more toward the pitcher (as opposed to the first base dugout), and he’s shown an ability to flatten his bat path on high fastballs. Anecdotally, he looks a little less stiff to me and his swing decisions seem better, but let’s ignore those last two for today and focus on the mechanical aspect.
Alongside these adjustments, Bellinger has been a better hitter in the playoffs. In 28 plate appearances, he’s batting .291/.392/.458, all against very good pitching. It’s not vintage Bellinger or anything, and it’s worth noting that he’s struck out plenty, nine times in nine games thus far. Still, it’s a heck of a lot better than the 48 wRC+ he spewed up in the regular season.
Let’s take a closer look at what he’s been doing lately, how it differs from his setup in the regular season, and why it may actually be significant. Read the rest of this entry »
BOSTON — A pitchers’ duel through eight innings, Tuesday’s ALCS Game 4 culminated in an Astros offensive explosion. Turning the tables on a Boston team that had bashed its way to wins in Games 2 and 3, Houston scored seven times in the ninth inning to turn a 2-2 tie into a series-evening 9-2 rout.
What happened late was everything that didn’t happen early.
The Astros got the early edge they so desperately wanted. Two innocent outs into the top of the first, Alex Bregman turned on a Nick Pivetta fastball and lofted a 354-foot Fenway fly that settled in the Monster seats. The Astros had now homered in all seven of their postseason games, and Zack Greinke had a 1-0 lead as he took the mound for what could conceivably be his final big-league appearance.
The bottom of the first also began with a pair of outs, but then it was Boston’s turn to get homer-happy. Rafael Devers drew a walk, and with “Greinke” chants emanating from the stands, Xander Bogaerts drove a slider deep into the night. Statcast measured the two-run blast at 413 feet. Read the rest of this entry »
In a postseason defined by pitcher usage, Game 3 of the NLCS between the Braves and the Dodgers was supposed to be the exception. We weren’t going to see each team use seven relievers (and maybe even some starters) out of the bullpen, and certainly not with Charlie Morton and Walker Buehler starting. Both had gone at least six innings in their first playoff starts, and while each delivered fewer than five in their followups, those came on three days rest; this game provided double that. On a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, both teams likely expected a minimum of 15 outs from each, with a hope for 18 or maybe more. It all felt very old school.
By the end of the first inning, all of those expectations were dashed. And by the end of the ninth, the Dodgers had pulled off a dramatic 6–5 comeback victory that quite possibly saved their season.
The game diverged from the narrative within the first few minutes, with back-to-back singles against the shift by Eddie Rosario and Freddie Freeman. Things temporarily went back to normal when Ozzie Albies hit a line drive to center fielder Gavin Lux that carried more than Rosario thought it would, with Lux catching it and quickly firing to second base for a crushing double play. A strikeout of Austin Riley got Buehler out of the jam, and he escaped it with just 13 total pitches; the pitcher’s duel was still on.
Morton failed to keep his part of the bargain in the bottom half of the frame, walking Mookie Betts and giving up a mammoth home run to Corey Seager on a curveball. In a rare occurrence, the veteran righty got around on the pitch, losing downward bite and instead delivering a horizontal spinner that broke into Seager’s bat at the top of zone. One swing, 109 mph and 444 feet later, the Dodgers had an early 2–0 lead thanks to the first Morton breaking ball hit for a homer in his lengthy postseason career.
The home run pitch to Seager was a harbinger of things to come. Just when it looked like Morton had rebounded with two quick outs, his ability to harness his big-moving stuff abandoned him, as he began to yank both his fastball and off-speed pitches to both sides of the plate, leading to three straight walks to load the bases. A Chris Taylor flair to Dansby Swanson ended an inning that could have been much worse, but the damage was done, both on the scoreboard and to Morton’s pitch count, now at a massive 34. Even if he could find his command and pitch efficiency once again, getting a long start out of him on the day before a planned bullpen game quickly looked like a pipe dream.
Read the rest of this entry »
Last week, I reviewed the managerial decisions from the two teams that lost in the ALDS. With the NLDS now over, it’s time to do the same thing for the Brewers and Giants. As a reminder, I’m judging teams based on expectations, not results. Pinch hit for your MVP candidate with a pitcher? Not that it would ever happen, but you’d get an F for that. Bring in your best pitcher in a big spot, only to have him give up a three-run homer? That’s still an A, results notwithstanding.
These grades don’t cover everything that a manager does. Deploying your best players in the biggest spots and hiding their weaknesses where possible is a big part of a manager’s role, but it’s definitely not the only part. As an example, Kevin Cash and the entire Rays staff deserve a permanent A for their work in getting their pitchers and hitters ready for flexible roles all season long. Likewise, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers coaching staff benched a former MVP and seem to have kept the clubhouse roughly in order, always a tough task. None of that will be reflected in these rankings, but it’s absolutely important managerial work — it’s simply work I don’t have much insight into. Read the rest of this entry »
Last Thursday, the entirety of the baseball world was focused on one thing and one thing only: Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and the Giants, the most anticipated contest of the year. But that afternoon, the Cardinals created an unexpected distraction by announcing the firing of manager Mike Shildt, the man who led them on a historic winning streak as part of a second-half surge that took St. Louis from a game under .500 on August 8 (the day their FanGraphs Playoff Odds bottomed out) to the National League Wild Card game. The Cardinals ultimately lost that game to the Dodgers, marking the end of their season and the last game in Shildt’s tenure with the team.
St. Louis’ President of Baseball Operations, John Mozeliak, spoke briefly with the press following the announcement, citing vague “philosophical differences” and admitting that Shildt was as shocked as those on the outside by the decision. Shildt offered little more during an even briefer set of remarks on Monday during which he took no questions, admitting that there were differences but choosing not to go into detail; his decision not to air his (or the team’s) dirty laundry is understandable, as he instantly became a legitimate candidate for any and all of the league’s current managerial openings.
So what’s behind the separation between the two parties? The Athletic’s Katie Woo noted some midseason stress over the team’s poor performance and uninspiring trade deadline, as well as some in-season clashes concerning analytics. Shildt admitted to some of that being true but also talked about it not being the “entire picture.” In other words: All we have are guesses and theories. Read the rest of this entry »
Through two games of the NLCS, Freddie Freeman has been a complete non-factor for the Braves, making it that much more surprising that they’re just two wins away from the World Series. In eight trips to the plate, he has no hits and seven strikeouts; his 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in Game 1 made him Atlanta’s least-valuable hitter by win probability added, at -.148. At least in Game 2, with another 0-for-4 (this time with three punchouts), he was only Atlanta’s second-least valuable hitter by WPA at -.151.
The postseason forces us to look at tiny samples, but Freeman striking out in seven consecutive plate appearances tied his career high. Adding to the improbability of it all, he has struck out three or more times in one game in just 19 of the 639 he’s played with three or more plate appearances since the start of 2017. For context, Joey Gallo (21), Javier Báez (21), Randy Arozarena (21), and Matt Chapman (20) had more three-plus-strikeout games this season.
For what it’s worth, Freeman isn’t at the top of the league in avoiding the three-strikeout game, even if it is indeed rare for him. Among the 285 players with at least 250 three-plate appearance games since the beginning of 2017, his three-strikeout game rate of 3.0% ranks 101st. Two players, Jonathan Lucroy and Eduardo Núñez, did not have any three-strikeout games in this stretch, and another six had just one. While he’s above the median in this stat, Freeman isn’t a player who will avoid the strikeout entirely; after all, he has struck out in 17.4% of his plate appearances in the last five years, a figure that’s better than the league average but not among the lowest rates in the game.
But seven strikeouts in two games? This isn’t Gallo here; it’s still absurd for Freeman to strike out this much in such a short span. Only twice in his career has he struck out at least three times in back-to-back games, and he’s struck out in seven consecutive plate appearances just two times before as well. Let’s break down how Dodgers pitching has done it so far. Read the rest of this entry »
BOSTON — The Red Sox came into Monday’s ALCS Game 3 having recorded double-digit hits in each of their last five games, a postseason streak matched only by the 1989 Cubs, the 2002 Angels, and the ’04 Astros. More importantly, they’d scored 39 runs and won four times, with the lone loss inconsequential in the club’s quest for a World Series championship. Returning to Fenway Park looking to gain an edge in a series knotted at a game apiece, Boston boasted the hottest bats of the four teams still standing.
The onslaught continued on a chilly night that started with a game-time temperature of 54 degrees. Buoyed by four home runs, Boston bashed Houston by a score of 12-3, swatting 11 hits along the way.
Game 3 was similar to Saturday’s Game 2 — a 9-5 Red Sox win — in several respects. Early offense set the tone, and it came after Eduardo Rodriguez began by firing bullets. The Red Sox southpaw retired the first six Astros batters, four by way of the strikeout, and the 95.8 mph heater that Michael Brantley swung through wasn’t just a whiff, it the hardest pitch he’s thrown in 2021.
By evening’s end, Rodriguez had received the most run support he had all year, too. Read the rest of this entry »