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With Absence Called For, MLB Is Disappointingly Present

From the moment that MLB decided to try to plow ahead with a season in a country seemingly coming apart at the seams, it’s been an open question as to what value sports should have in our lives. “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” as Sean Doolittle put it in back in early July — a quote that’s routinely resurfaced on Twitter in the weeks since and mushroomed all over timelines on Wednesday, as the men and women whose bodies and work provide the foundation for their sports decided that this is a society that no longer deserved the privilege.

In the wake of yet another police shooting of an unarmed Black man — this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where local cops fired seven rounds into the back of 29-year-old Jacob Blake as he tried to break up a fight — and protests unfolding across the nation, NBA players, frustrated that their pleas for social and racial justice were bouncing off the walls of the league’s Orlando bubble, said enough. Led by the Milwaukee Bucks and followed soon thereafter by the rest of the teams slated to appear on the day’s playoff schedule, the players — and only the players, without seeking approval from or giving advance knowledge to the NBA — effectively canceled their games. “Boycott” was the initial word of choice, followed by “postponement,” but the most accurate descriptor for all this is “strike” — a labor force demanding change through an emphatic and sudden stoppage.

The NBA was soon joined by the WNBA (here it’s worth noting that the latter league has long been at the forefront of the conversation and action around the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, and countless other social endeavors) and MLS in bringing itself to a halt. For a moment, it looked like MLB would follow suit. The Brewers, who have been one of more vocal teams when it comes to supporting the protests and Black Lives Matter on the whole this season, held a meeting during which they voted not to play in their scheduled game against the Reds; Cincinnati’s players, in a show of solidarity, agreed to cancel the contest. Similarly, the Mariners and Padres called off their game in San Diego, as did the Giants and Dodgers in San Francisco. Read the rest of this entry »


First To Worst: How the Red Sox Went From 2018 Champions to 2020 Disaster

Take a look at the bottom of the standings around the league, and you’ll find some expected names. The rebuilding Pirates, Royals, Mariners and Giants all occupy a last-place spot in their respective divisions, while similar teams like the Tigers and Blue Jays are hovering near the basement and below .500. Yet tucked into that group of teams that came into the season with no hope is a franchise just two years removed from 108 wins and its fourth World Series title in the last 16 seasons: the Red Sox. And while 2020 has been a predictably dismal showing for those aforementioned clubs, Boston’s season has been one surprisingly long tumble down an endless flight of stairs. Entering Friday’s play, the Sox are a miserable 8–18 and losers of nine out of their last 11 games. They’re also firmly in last place in the American League East, staring up at the Orioles, whom they trail by 4 1/2 games.

On the one hand, that’s not where anyone predicted the Red Sox to be. They were no juggernaut in 2019 at 84–78, and losing Mookie Betts was only going to hurt. Consequently, our preseason prediction was a modest 31–29 record with a third-place finish in the division and playoff odds of 64.7% with the new expanded format. But while these weren’t the ‘27 Yankees reborn, this also wasn’t a shipwreck visible from miles away. Instead, it’s been a sudden and violent collapse that’s taken them fully out of the playoff picture. The Red Sox’s projected record for the season is now a dismal 25–35, and their resulting postseason odds are just 10.4% — lower chances than every AL team but Seattle and Detroit.

On the other hand, the Red Sox have come by their awful start honestly, thanks in large part to one of the worst pitching staffs the game has ever seen. Boston hurlers have given up the most runs in the majors (160), resulting in a run differential of -43 that’s third worst in baseball, and have a ghastly ERA of 6.01, putting them in a virtual tie with Detroit (6.03) for last place, and in the running for the worst team ERA of the modern era. Only the 1996 Tigers, who put up a 6.38 mark en route to 109 losses, and ‘99 Rockies, who posted a 6.03 figure, have done worse in the last 85 years. The Red Sox are tied for San Francisco for lowest WAR among pitching staffs (-0.6), have given up the second-most homers in the league (43, alongside the Giants), are third in walks allowed (107, tied with — you guessed it — the Giants), and rank 24th in Win Probability Added (-2.69).

It gets uglier. Owing to injuries, trades and an offseason they more or less skipped, the Red Sox have already used 11 different starters in just 26 games, and those guys have been lit up for a 6.50 ERA in 101 innings (their staff FIP is an only modestly better 6.16). Most of those pressed into service are overmatched rookies and fringe major leaguers, with the Sox cycling through cast-offs like Ryan Weber, Zack Godley, and Chris Mazza. When that hasn’t worked (which is often), Boston has been forced to go with an opener-style strategy of using its worst relievers from the get-go; consequently, the team not only is averaging a mere 3.88 innings out of its starters, but has also allowed a ridiculous 59 runs across the first, second and third innings of its games. The only constants rotation-wise are Nathan Eovaldi and Martín Pérez, and both have been mediocre at best: The former has a 4.98 ERA and seven homers allowed in 34 1/3 innings; the latter is at 4.07, which leads the team, but coupled with a strikeout rate of just 16.5% and a bloated walk rate of 13.6%. Read the rest of this entry »


Epidemiologist Zachary Binney on What’s Gone Wrong with MLB’s COVID Response—and Whether it Can Be Fixed

With every passing day and new positive COVID-19 test, the 2020 MLB season looks shakier and shakier. Already, the league has seen team-wide outbreaks among the Marlins and the Cardinals, forcing both squads to quarantine for days and creating huge holes in the already compressed schedule. Those absences have had a domino effect on the rest of baseball, resulting in other teams that are otherwise COVID-free being forced to put their seasons on hold or rejigger their schedules on the fly. Running through it all is a seeming reluctance on the part of MLB to shut things down or exercise control even as the problem escalates, as well as reports that players aren’t sticking closely enough to the health and safety protocols governing the sport’s return.

The situations in Miami and St. Louis have wreaked havoc on major league baseball, and it’s an open question as to whether the season can survive another team going down — or, at this point, whether it’s safe to play baseball in the middle of a pandemic. So what could Rob Manfred and the league have done differently, and what can they be doing now to try to solve the problem? On Monday, I reached out to Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, to get his thoughts on what’s gone wrong in MLB, and if it’s possible — or even wise — for baseball to continue in 2020.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Jon Tayler: So what’s the situation as it currently exists?

Zachary Binney: We’ve seen two massive outbreaks on two different teams, the Marlins and the Cardinals, that are not related. The question that MLB is facing right now is whether this is going to keep happening, or is there something you can do to change it?

I got asked this morning, what would you be advising Rob Manfred right now? My answer is that I’d tell him to take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and ask and answer honestly, are things going to change? Is there something we can do to avoid the Marlins and the Cardinals happening over and over and over again? And I think that really depends on the exact circumstances around these outbreaks. One is a fluke, two is a pattern, right? You can’t just say this is only the Marlins, everybody else is being good. That excuse is out the window.

So how did this outbreak happen? Did it happen from what epidemiologists call a point-source exposure, meaning there was some risky behavior from a large number of players or staff, like they went out to a bar or a nightclub and everybody got exposed there, and then there was spread in the clubhouse? Or was there one case introduced that then spread around the clubhouse? If that’s the case, was that because MLB’s protocols were insufficient, or because they weren’t being followed? Were guys not wearing masks? Were they spending too much time indoors in large groups and not distancing? Read the rest of this entry »


Clayton Kershaw’s Back Keeps Him From Coming Back

The universe in 2020, it seems, can’t abide happiness—at least not for the Dodgers. Just one day after the team announced a gigantic extension with Mookie Betts, locking up one of the best players in baseball for the next decade-plus, Los Angeles learned that it will be without Clayton Kershaw for a while. Hours ahead of what would’ve been his ninth career Opening Day start, Kershaw instead hit the Injured List with a back strain suffered while working out on Tuesday; per Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, there’s no timetable for his return.

This kind of malady has been frustratingly common for Kershaw, who’s battled his fair share of back pain over the last few seasons. A herniated disc sidelined him for two months in 2016, and back tightness cost him five weeks in 2017 and a month of action in 2018. The 32-year-old lefty managed to avoid further lumbar issues last season en route to a 3.03 ERA and 3.4 WAR in 178 1/3 innings (though shoulder inflammation resulted in an early-season IL stint). But as anyone with a perpetually sore spine will tell you, those problems are often chronic. As such, it has to be worrying for both Kershaw and the Dodgers that his back is once again the source of his woes, and while this strain could be minor, it also could result in a multi-week absence. Read the rest of this entry »


So Just How Much Less Baseball Will the New Extra Innings Rule Give Us?

Amid the bevy of rule changes and health and safety precautions accompanying the return of major league baseball in 2020, there’s one in particular that feels like it comes straight out of Little League: the addition of a runner on second base at the start of extra innings. Initially one of Rob Manfred’s many trial balloons floated with the idea of shortening games, the rule has worked its way slowly up the organized-ball ladder, debuting in the World Baseball Classic in 2017, getting added to the Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues that summer, and eventually becoming the law of the land throughout all levels of the minors in 2018. Not that it was bound for the bigs any time soon: Back in 2017, Manfred said he “[didn’t] really expect that we’re ever going to apply [the rule] at the major league level.”

Well, times have changed — or more accurately, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shortening of the season have led Manfred and company to bring the rule into play, likely for this year only. And on the surface, that makes sense: With only 60 games on the calendar and a potentially limited window in which to play them, it’s in everyone’s best interests to wrap things up quickly. As with the season on the whole, the less baseball, the better.

But how much less baseball is that rule going to create? We have two years’ worth of data from the minors to work with, and per MiLB, the results are notable. Over the last two seasons, just 43 total games went more than three extra innings, compared to 345 in 2016 and ‘17 combined. And as Baseball America’s JJ Cooper notes, nearly three-quarters of all extra-innings minor league games last year and the year before ended in the 10th, as opposed to just under half in the two seasons prior. And nearly all of them — 93% — finished in the 10th or 11th, representing a 20% increase.

That stands to reason. The rule — which puts a runner on second base to lead off the inning — creates a situation in which runs are the norm. A quick check of run expectancy tables shows that a runner on second with no outs led to an average of 1.1 runs scored and created a 61% chance of at least one run scoring from 2010 through ‘15. Both teams get the runner in their half of the inning, so it’s not an unfair advantage for either side, but it does allow the visiting team a chance to take a quick lead or give the home team an immediate opportunity to walk things off. Minor league fans have also noted how the rule immediately ups the drama of extras while also putting a new focus on fundamentals and putting the ball in play. Read the rest of this entry »


Half a World Away and Right at Home: Sciambi and Perez on Broadcasting the KBO

It’s 1 AM on a Saturday night in mid-May, and in his otherwise quiet New York City apartment, Jon Sciambi is getting ready for work. As his neighbors snooze, Sciambi, a veteran TV and radio announcer for ESPN, goes over box scores and lineups in his home broadcast studio ahead of the upcoming LG Twins-Kiwoom Heroes game in the KBO, Korea’s professional baseball league. With MLB – Sciambi’s regular assignment – on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, his job now is to do play by play for games featuring teams and players that, a few weeks prior, he barely knew (if he knew them at all), doing so from thousands of miles away while stuck at home like so many other Americans. For both him and viewers around the country, the KBO is the only game in town, and one that Sciambi and the rest of his ESPN counterparts are learning more or less on the fly.

“This is our baseball window, is the way I’m looking at it, and we’re trying to sort it out,” Sciambi says. “We’re trying to get as much information as we possibly can and put it out there and get good stories and talk baseball and have some fun, man. Smile and have some fun.”

Ordinarily during this time of year, Sciambi and ESPN would be working their way through the early part of the MLB season, traveling from coast to coast and bringing viewers big games from the biggest teams. But COVID-19 has upended both lives and leagues, leaving sports networks scrambling to fill slots that ordinarily would’ve gone not just to MLB, but also to the other major North American professional leagues, which also find themselves on hiatus. ESPN, which normally airs a handful of MLB games a week and spends countless hours parsing transactions and takes, was no exception, suddenly finding itself without any baseball at all as every league on the planet came to an indefinite halt.

The solution came in the form of the KBO. Thanks to a rigorous program of testing and contact tracing, South Korea was able to contain COVID-19 more quickly and effectively than other countries, allowing its citizenry to resume a semblance of normal life. That included its professional league, which had been forced to stop spring training in mid-March and delay its Opening Day. A month later, though, the KBO announced that it would return at the beginning of May, albeit in stadiums without fans and with social distancing measures, such as no handshakes, high fives, or spitting. Aside from Taiwan’s CPBL, it would be the only professional league in action — and as the highest-caliber baseball available, it became an immediate draw for ESPN. Read the rest of this entry »


Revisiting Stephen Strasburg’s MLB Debut

The cruelty of high expectations is having to meet them. When Stephen Strasburg made his debut on June 8, 2010, it was with the weight of a franchise and the eyes of the baseball world on him, and the belief that he’d be an ace from the first pitch. How could he not be? College superstar, Olympian, No. 1 pick, top prospect; The next inevitable step was transforming into the second coming of Roger Clemens, except without all the bad stuff.

The clamor for Strasburg was loud and endless: His Double-A debut in 2010 was nationally broadcast and featured as many media members as your average World Series game. It was only a matter of time before he came up, even despite the fact that he was just 21 at season’s start, and in early June, the Nationals finally gave in. His first assignment: a wretched Pirates team. But the opponent mattered far less than the fact that he was coming at all.

A decade, a Tommy John surgery, and a World Series ring later, Strasburg — like every other major leaguer — sits at home right now, waiting for the season to start. But in an attempt to tide over the baseball fans crawling through withdrawal right now, MLB Network aired his debut (along with those of some other current stars) on Thursday night. I vividly remember watching it live when it happened, kicking back with a six-pack of Miller High Life and giggling constantly as he carved apart a Pittsburgh lineup unfortunate enough to be there. So given the chance to experience it again, how could I resist? Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s Construct the MLB Season We Actually Want to See

The only thing we know for sure about the 2020 MLB schedule (brought to you by COVID-19) is that it won’t be 162 games. Whatever truncated mutant of a year baseball ends up with will likely be the shortest on record since at least 1994, when most teams got about 70% of the way through the calendar before the strike happened and canceled the rest. Given the current state of things in the United States — with coronavirus still rampant and several states and cities already issuing stay-at-home orders that will run through most of May — it’s unlikely we’ll get even that much of the season played. But no one knows for sure: MLB, like the rest of us, is at the mercy of a virus and its containment measures. Rumors of a 100-game season chock full of doubleheaders played in empty stadiums and a southern California World Series are nothing more than thin gristle to chew on while we wait for more substantive news.

Without a doubt, there are meetings happening in MLB’s now-virtual offices to try to plan for the future. Aside from Rob Manfred timing these Zoom get-togethers and demanding precious minutes be shaved off them, we can’t know for sure what’s being discussed, but how to cram as much of a baseball season as possible into an ever-shrinking window is likely top of the action list. Every day lost further complicates that endeavor, though, as does the fact that MLB’s normal schedule is already a wobbly Jenga tower of unequal matchups and cross-country travel. Like Tetris, every block has to fit into just the right place, or else it all piles up into disaster. Being an outdoor sport in a Northern Hemisphere continent already imposes hard limitations on how far into the year baseball can extend; losing warm-weather months makes it all the tougher.

But amid the carnage and chaos of how to fit too much baseball into too little time, there’s an opportunity for MLB to do something different, if not revolutionary. The sport has long been locked into the construct that is 162 games; now it’s being forced out of that comfort zone. Let’s use this space, then, to get weird, or maybe even find a better way to be. And how would that be, you may be saying to yourself. I’m glad you asked. Read the rest of this entry »