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COVID 19 Roundup: When Does Rob Manfred See Baseball Returning?

This is the latest installment of a daily series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

On what was supposed to the Opening Day of the Major League Baseball regular season, fields will remain empty across the United States in an effort to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Death totals continued to climb worldwide Wednesday, with CNN reporting over 21,000 global fatalities from the virus as that number passed 1,000 for the first time in the United States. Exact numbers remain elusive as testing continues to expand. Last night, the U.S. Senate approved a $2.2 trillion stimulus package in response to the economic fallout.

The deepest cultural impact of the virus in the baseball world will be felt by players and fans today, when the 2020 season was supposed to have gotten underway. Questions remain on how a potential season could look and few exact answers are available.

ESPN Asked Rob Manfred: When Does He See Baseball Returning?

While no one will guarantee an official end date for the countermeasures to the coronavirus (quite reasonably!), the commissioner took his best shot while talking with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt late Wednesday night, saying his most “optimistic outlook” was that the sport could be back by May, though a 162-game season is likely out of the question. Manfred stated that “nothing’s off the table” as far as a solution, indicating that he will get to do his favorite thing in the days to come: tinker with the sport in order to determine a solution. Read the rest of this entry »


Even in Baseball, Sometimes Distance Is the Best Thing for Everybody

At first you might think baseball is the safest place to be right now. The game is defined by distance: The 90 feet of chalk to first base, the fluctuating placement of an Atlantic League pitchers mound, the 500 feet between Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and a poorly located fastball.

On the field, everybody’s standing far more than six feet apart. But inevitably, distance closes as players congregate at home after a dinger or outfielders perform a choreographed jumping move following a win. Or, most obviously problematic, fans cluster together in the heat of summer, soaking in fluids, inhaling each other’s breath, and scraping against each other’s knees as they make their way to their seats, stepping in puddles of spilled beer and peeled-off band-aids. Really, it’s kind of surprising baseball wasn’t the epicenter of a global pandemic rather than a victim of its cultural impact.

Humans are drawn to each other. Not always, and not everybody, but before, during, and at the end of the game, we come together to celebrate or commiserate or get on the subway. In times like these, in which the future of baseball is left ambiguous given the alarming and very real nature of a planet-wide crisis, it becomes clear that on occasion, distance can be the best thing for us.

As common a tactic as the mound visit is, not having one can be just as valuable. Baseball is full of pitchers who understood the value of distance, and their instinct to maintain it has allowed them to find great success. Read the rest of this entry »


Spring Training Stats Only Almost Mean Nothing

All winter long we wait for spring to arrive so that baseball may begin again. And then once it starts and our precious stat columns begin being filled in Florida and Arizona, we spend most of the preseason assuring each other that none of it matters: The success is a mirage, achieved against a lower caliber of pitching, and the struggles are the result of experimentation and readjustments.

No need to panic. No need to celebrate. Let’s all just sit here in the sun and be happy that baseball has returned, while making sure to maintain an appropriate emotional response to afternoons full of practice games. Stat farming, percentage calculating, theory formulating, tantrum throwing, sadness having; that’s all for the regular season, as the nightly pace of baseball wears us down to the nub.

Here in spring training, we’re safe from such things. Unless! We cross that arbitrary threshold that we’ll say is right about now. Context is important in the preseason, if nothing else is, and in the case of two veterans, their spring performance has made the regular season in front of them a little more interesting.

Let’s just say it: Chris Davis looks amazing. And to echo what’s probably being said in his own head, who even cares why? Davis has to muscle his way out of a deep, deep hole into which the Orioles threw a base salary of $23 million last season as part of his seven-year, $161 million deal that will see him make over $1 million a year through 2037. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Mike Trout’s Excellence Boring?

This week, we saw footage of Mike Trout being unkind to a golf ball. He sent it into near-earth orbit with ease as a crowd of cackling onlookers has the only reasonable reaction. If he were a superstar with superstar exposure, this would have been quite the branding opportunity for Topgolf. Instead, it became an opportunity for the baseball world to debate the greatness of his feat.

What did he really do, some asked. Anything more than what a skilled golfer could have done? And shouldn’t Mike Trout be able to do that? Why would we be surprised that he could? Enjoying something, even an 18-second clip of a dude whacking a ball, is passé, and on a more vibrant, upbeat planet, we would have absorbed the footage, whistled quietly, and moved onto the various other 18-second segments that would make up our day. Maybe it’s the well-earned cynicism of today’s baseball fan or the sea of writers looking for topics [waves aggressively at you], but that’s not how we do things anymore. Read the rest of this entry »


The Home Run as a Means of Shutting People Up

In lieu of real accountability, this season, Houston Astros players will face opposing fans making an ‘oooooo’ sound at them whenever they step on the field. Grating on the nerves, perhaps, or simply just annoying on the ears; but in either case, they’ll likely learn to tune out the noise and focus on playing baseball, a sport that requires a little more focus when you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next.

When they aren’t tuning it out, though, the Astros would probably like to respond. They will have to pick their spots, as there is little winning to be done from a public relations standpoint. But these are young, competitive, professional athletes whose reputations have been irreversibly tarnished. They might know that they’re the bad guys in this story, but they don’t want to be booed. They want to be celebrated. They want to be championed. They want to shut their critics up by hitting something really hard, and since that something can’t be one of their critics, they’ll have to settle for a baseball.

George Springer walked out of the Astros dugout yesterday to the predictable sea of boos. In addition to the jeers, seven Astros hitters have been hit by pitches this spring, something that has been noted with delight by those waiting for drama to spill out onto the field. Springer hasn’t been one of them yet, but there was a moment during his at-bat against the Mets on Wednesday in which we seem to witness him attempt to send a message to the crowd.

Springer, while being booed, is not able to turn around and yell at the audience to shut the hell up. He has to act like he can’t hear them, even though he might really, really want to acknowledge them somehow. He might want to scream some kind of counterargument about how the Astros aren’t the only team that has cheated, or about how it wasn’t his fault, or how the cheating that happened was actually good for baseball, you see, presenting a detailed powerpoint entitled “Cheating = Good?” all while still screaming, of course.

But Springer can’t do that. Anything an Astros player says in regards to cheating or other people’s reactions to cheating will be an ill-conceived defense and received poorly. We’ve learned throughout this whole thing that while some Astros are better at apologizing than others, it’s difficult to believe any of them are sorry at all. Read the rest of this entry »


Stick It in Your Ear: How Rebellion Makes Baseball Occasionally Cool

Cheating, if you haven’t heard, is extremely cool. To look at the rules as listed, tilt your sunglasses down and, while loudly chewing gum, announce that nah, the rules are not for you, is the absolute peak of baditude. Why do you think teams have been doing it for generations? To weaken the integrity of the game and remind people that it’s nothing but a useless novelty and none of it really matters? Of course not. They’ve done it because rules are just the box society wants to keep us in. Our job as cool people is to continuously break out of it.

So it makes sense that Astros fans are leaning into their new persona as people desperate to be victims of an unclear injustice, “turning heel” to the rest of the league, as if they had at any point throughout this cheating scandal been considered heroes.

Is it “cool” to break the sport and get fans across baseball to wonder why they even bother watching? I mean, sort of. It’s at least been a more talkative offseason for baseball, with more going on than simply waiting for top free agents to sign somewhere. The violent spasms going on as baseball fights with a modern version of itself are unbecoming, but they are certainly more interesting than waiting out the late winter hellscape with a list of top ten spring training hairdos.

It’s an interesting exercise to look back through baseball and determine what has been “cool” through the years. You’re reading FanGraphs, so obviously you live at the intersection of “baseball” and “coolness.” But there was a time when coolness in this sport wasn’t defined by colorful charts or $30 t-shirts that warn people the wearer is despised among their peers. In fact, it was this day 20 years ago when we were reminded that baseball’s coolest players were identified by the bejeweling of their ear lobes. Read the rest of this entry »


The Spitball Has Been Contraband for a Century

We credit baseball in its classic days as being unadulterated novelty: Sportsmen in high socks bouncing around the diamond, inspiring poetry among spectators with wide-brimmed hats and rolled-up newspapers. But in truth it was a filthier, greasier game, in which you were perhaps as likely to muscle a ball over the fence with a stomach full of spam and lungs full of coal dust as you were to receive a very clear death threat from your pitcher for muffing a groundball.

In such a competitive sport, perhaps peppered with undiagnosed personality disorders, everybody was looking for an advantage. With that in mind, it makes sense that pitchers turned to their own bodily fluids in search of one. And boy, did they find an advantage! The formulation of the spitball led to some of the game’s highest pedigrees in the early 1900s.

There was a young hurler named Elmer Stricklett who’d began as a minor league phenom noted for his velocity and movement before melting into a deeply hittable pitcher whose outfielders were always on the move. Talking shop with his Sacramento Senators teammates in 1902, Stricklett got a hot tip that the key to rediscovering his effectiveness on the mound wasn’t in his arm angle or his release point. It was inside his own mouth.

The inventor of the spitball, pitcher Frank Corridon, or perhaps Stricklett’s teammate George Hildrebrand, who had played with Corridon earlier in the season, conveyed baseball’s hottest, wettest secret to Stricklett in June that year. It not only allowed Stricklett greater trickery with his pitches, it reacquired him a reputation of menace. It wasn’t long before he was hurling three-hit shutouts with a pitch that danced gleefully away from bats, and all he had to do was lick his fingers (or touch a wet sponge hidden in his glove). Read the rest of this entry »


Giving Baseball Space to Breathe

The human orbital bone is shaped like a pear and contains about half the juice. Your optic nerve lives at the small end and throws images to your retina in the back, which relays what you’re looking at to your brain. It’s the window through which baseball reaches us; in the blink of an eye, we go from seeing to reacting.

All eyes were on the Red Sox and Tigers at Fenway Park on August 17, 1967. During batting practice, Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe sent a line drive into the stands toward nine-year-old Mike Hughes, who threw his hands up to catch it just a hair too late.

“Right between my hands,” Hughes tells me. “I was in the hospital for five days with an orbital fracture and all that stuff.”

It would be a blood-splattered weekend for the sport in Boston. The next day at Fenway Park, Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was hit by a pitch in about the same place as Hughes. It dislocated his jaw, fractured his cheekbone, and permanently damaged his left retina. He was carried off the field on a stretcher.

A year and a half after his injury, Conigliaro was back in the majors, hitting 20 home runs. The next year, he would hit a career high 36. Today, MLB’s Comeback Player of the Year award is named after him.

But for a nine-year-old boy in a hospital bed, the injury was far more than physical. When he was well enough to get back on the field, his instincts tried to pull him off of it.

“I started stepping in a bucket,” Hughes recalls. “My average went from about .480 to about .180. I lost my, you know… I loved the game still, but I wanted to be good.”

So he left. And for 25 years, Mike Hughes didn’t play baseball. Read the rest of this entry »


Curtis Granderson Was a Master of Staying Power

At the very start of Curtis Granderson’s career, he was expected to make a plane with fellow Tigers prospects Ryan Raburn and Roberto Novoa. According to the Detroit Free Press, only Raburn made the flight in time; Granderson and Novoa got hosed by security and had to truck it four hours to Detroit all the way from Erie, driving around the big lake they have there, and finally arriving at Comerica Park. Granderson would have driven across Lake Erie if he could have, but as it were, he started his big league career a day late, and yet still found a way to get there in time. The perfect start to a major league run of making adjustments.

Through a 16-year career, which Granderson announced was over last Friday, expectations are going to shift. Granderson was expected to never commit an error, because he didn’t for the first 151 games he played. In the late 2000s, he was expected to be among the league leader in triples. By the mid-2010s, with age chewing up his knees, those expectations faded.

With his uniform, his output, and the sport itself changing over a decade and a half, Granderson always found a way to make an impact, even when he was 33 and in the first year of his four-year deal with the Mets: He was only good for a 98 wRC+ in 245 PA, but did see more pitches per plate appearance than anyone else on the roster. Did it help? Maybe not directly, but he probably tired a pitcher or two out and forced him to make a mistake with the next guy. Why not?

Autumn in Milwaukee is a lot like autumn anywhere else in the universe. The leaves change color. The air grows cooler. The sky flashes a rainbow of ripened hues as the sun rises and sets. Occasionally, there is playoff baseball to speak of. And Granderson was able to get there without missing a flight.

By early fall of 2018, Granderson was part of a purge of veteran talent from the Blue Jays locker room as the team exploded its roster in an attempt to bring in new, young talent. He had three All-Star appearances, a couple of MVP nods, a Silver Slugger, and a career of offensive accolades behind him, but he arrived in Milwaukee for the last month of the regular season with a job to do. At this point in his career, that job was to take pitches, be available, and show these other guys how a playoff run is done. He may not have led the league in triples anymore (he hit a combined 36 from 2007-08 and a combined five from 2017-18), and he had committed 31 errors up to this point (though he wouldn’t commit anymore for the rest of his major league career), but Granderson still knew how to take a pitch. Read the rest of this entry »


Yasiel Puig Is a Dream Free Agent for Three Last Place Teams

Yasiel Puig’s first appearance in the majors had been fabled for some time. Matt Kemp, the young Dodgers star the team had just signed to an eight-year deal, was hurt for the third time in 14 months, and doubts of his superstardom were already creeping in. “Derek Jeter appeared on the disabled list twice during his 10-year contract with the Yankees,” Bill Shaikin noted in the L.A. Times, for some reason.

Where, it was being asked, would the Dodgers be expected to find their power with Kemp trying to swing through a shoulder injury and maintaining the lowest slugging percentage (.335) in the league among starting outfielders? What silhouette would appear on the horizon, a bat slung over his shoulder, and take the Dodgers to the Promised Land?

“He is not in the major leagues,” Shaikin wrote. “His name is Yasiel Puig.”

Seven years later, his name is still Yasiel Puig, and he is still a ball player, only now, he is available to play for your team. His biblical foretelling led to an explosive debut and a thrilling first two years of his major league career. Puig has gone through a lot since then; his uniform has changed multiple times and his numbers have fallen away so that only his reputation, the parts earned and unearned, has remained. Now, at age 29 and dragging 20.0 career WAR behind him over seven seasons, he is filling an odd little niche on the 2020 free agent market: He is the dream acquisition of last place teams. To invent a word on the spot, we might say that he can increase the “fan-ability” of three teams that could really use it in 2020. Read the rest of this entry »