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The Keys to the Cardinals’ Resurgence

On a hot afternoon in St. Louis on August 8, in a game that felt meaningless at the time, the Cardinals rallied for three runs in the eighth inning to tie their game with the Royals at 5–5. In the next half inning, a Paul Goldschmidt throwing error and a go-ahead single by Nicky Lopez dropped St. Louis to 55–56, mired in third place in the National League Central. The team was 10.5 games behind Milwaukee for the division lead, 8.5 games behind the Padres for the second wild card spot, and, per our Playoff Odds, had a 1.4% chance of reaching the postseason.

But following that ugly loss, back-to-back sweeps of road series in Pittsburgh and Kansas City put the Cardinals back over the .500 mark for good, and a 10-game winning streak entering Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee has them with a commanding lead for that second Wild Card spot, and the overwhelming favorites to stay that way. Since that loss to the Royals, St. Louis has gone 26–13, but those hot streaks show just how, well, streaky the team has been; those 16 wins wrap around a 10–13 run.

Still, whether the wins come in bunches or not, the Cardinals have been one of the stories of September, and that story feels largely ignored, mostly due to the five-team dogfight that is the AL Wild Card and the back-and-forth NL West battle between the Dodgers and Giants. On last week’s episode of Chin Music, Joe Sheehan and I wondered why everyone was talking about the Blue Jays and not the Cardinals in the battle of surging birds. Our take: the team is boring. The Blue Jays have swag, infectious energy and cool jackets for when somebody hits home runs. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are relative automatons, getting overshadowed by a Toronto club that is just more fun to watch.

That’s not to take anything away from St. Louis. Entertainment value be damned, this is suddenly looking like a postseason team planning to line up a surprising ace for the coin-flip game. Here are five key factors as to how the Cardinals went from under .500 six weeks ago to being in the driver’s seat for that final playoff slot.

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Kevin Goldstein FanGraphs Chat – 9/20/2021

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Chin Music, Episode 31: Like That Girl in Heathers

Friday is Chin Music day, so here we are. My co-host this week is the always entertaining Joe Sheehan, who takes a break from the tables to join us from Las Vegas, Nevada of all places. We begin with the Wild Card races and a discussion of why the Blue Jays seem to be getting far more buzz than the similarly surging Cardinals, complete with a tangent about a playoff structure that would be better than the current system. Then it’s time to talk about front office movement, indulge a rant about getting worked up over awards voting in September, and admit to some begrudging respect for the Rays and their 300 or so good pitchers.

We’re then joined by special guest Jorge Castillo of The Los Angeles Times to discuss the 2021 Dodgers. We consider the team both on and off the field, as well as its path to remaining a dominant franchise. From there, it’s some wedding talk, plus your emails on rebuilding, an international draft, and medical situations, then catching up with Joe, and a plug for some books and podcasts to help you get through the day.

As always, we hope you enjoy, and thank you for listening.

Music by Circus Trees.

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The Cubs Audition Some Not-So-Young Hitters

From the offseason trade of Yu Darvish to the flurry of deals made at the deadline, the Cubs have focused on youth when it comes to prospect acquisition targets, at times to an extreme. That means fans at Wrigley Field will have to wait multiple years to see if the returns come to fruition, but in the meantime, the team is using what’s left of the season to evaluate not young players, but some older, unproven talents to see if any of them have a role to play in 2022 and beyond. To that end, the results have been mixed, but Chicago rode those players to an 11–7 record in the last 18 games.

Nobody expects the Cubs to make much of a push this winter, with 2022 looking like a clear rebuilding year, but some of these players may deserve a legitimate roster spot as opposed to being roster fodder. Here are four players, none of them originally signed by the Cubs and all well into their professional careers, who are making a case for more at-bats next year.

Michael Hermosillo, OF

Where He Came From: Hermosillo, who grew up a Cubs fan about a two-hour drive from Wrigley Field, was exceptionally raw coming from a rural Illinois school with poor competition, and most teams thought he would continue to refine his game at the college level. Instead, the Angels made him a 28th-round pick in the 2013 draft and gave him a $100,000 bonus to steer him away from a two-sport commitment to the University of Illinois. A late bloomer, he didn’t begin to garner prospect attention until a breakout campaign in 2016. Scouts saw him mostly as a player with a ceiling of a fourth outfielder; a trio of big league stints with the Angels from 2018 to ’20 led to few results and a removal from the 40-man roster, with the Cubs signing him last winter as a Triple-A depth piece.

What He’s Doing: Nothing right now, and both player and team are likely frustrated by the forearm strain that ended his latest big league audition after just 38 plate appearances. But while he didn’t do much during that brief stint, his showing in Triple-A Iowa inspired some confidence, as Chicago’s player development group simplified his swing and improved his bat path. The result was a .306/.446/.592 line in 43 games with unprecedented patience and power.

2022 Outlook: Still only 26 years old, Hermosillo’s speed and solid arm allow him to play anywhere in the outfield, and his combination of wheels and new-found pop should guarantee him a roster spot in 2022. In the end, the fourth outfielder projection that scouts put on him half a decade ago once again feels like the most likely outcome.

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Kevin Goldstein FanGraphs Chat – 9/13/2021

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Chin Music, Episode 30: Surely You Know Gritty

It’s Friday, so end your week the right way with another episode of Chin Music. I’m joined this week by the always affable Eric Longenhagen in the co-host chair. We begin by considering the very fun races for the NL West division crown and the AL’s Wild Card spots before discussing some movement at the major league executive level and the numerous hot starts of various 2021 draftees.

We’re then joined by special guest Liz Roscher of Yahoo Sports to discuss the 2021 Philadelphia Phillies and the years-long frustrations felt by both the team and their fans. From there it’s black metal talk, plus e-mails on scouting grades and the best minor league towns, catching up with Eric, and a plug for a way to watch better movies than what’s available in the mainstream.

As always, we hope you enjoy, and thank you for listening.

Music by Skaldr.

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The Rays’ Unique Ability To Mitigate Risk

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand the Tampa Bay Rays. I don’t understand how they win as many games as they do. They’re definitely good, but it never feels like they should be as good as they are, or recently have been. But at a certain point, if they are consistently better than expected, I’m the one in the wrong and it’s on me to try to understand.

The offense I get. The current American League leader in runs scored is a little over their skis, as they hold that lead despite ranking sixth in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging (they’re fourth in team wRC+ and fifth in OPS). That’s mostly due to the fact that as a team they have greatly improved results with runners on base compared to when they’re empty. That’s more likely luck-related than some kind of mysterious clutch skill they possess, but what the Rays do have is monstrous depth. Nobody in the lineup is going to garner MVP consideration, but their ability to almost never throw out a lineup with dead innings is unmatched in baseball thanks to a roster filled with average or better players. Just look at the Rays compared to the rest of their AL East competition:

Players with 200+ PA and a 100+ wRC+
Team Players
Tampa Bay Rays 11
Boston Red Sox 8
Toronto Blue Jays 7
New York Yankees 6
Baltimore Orioles 6

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Chin Music, Episode 29: A Town That’s Permanently On Fire

It’s been a rough week, my friends, so at least end it well with another episode of Chin Music. I’m joined by our very own Jon Tayler in the co-host chair. We begin by discussing the never-ending tragedy that is the Mets and some COVID-19 news with the Nationals and MLB Network before settling into some actual baseball talk about September races and whether or not Mike Trout and Jacob deGrom should just call it a day, or at least a season.

We’re then joined by special guest Julian McWilliams, who covers the Red Sox for The Boston Globe, to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak on the team and how it affects both Boston’s chances and his ability to do his job. From there, it’s your e-mails on agents, lineup construction, and the amateur showcase circuit, plus more than a bit of music discussion and a pair of escapist TV show recommendations to help get you through these troubled times.

As always, we hope you enjoy, and thank you for listening.

Music by Helen Money.

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Jose Abreu’s Greatness, and the Greatness We Missed

A couple of weeks ago, White Sox manager Tony LaRussa called first baseman José Abreu “one of the great players in major league history.” That’s certainly a strong statement — probably too strong, but that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with a manager praising his players.

Abreu’s season has been defined by streaks, but he’s getting hot down the stretch for Chicago, and when he’s hot, he’s an aircraft carrier in terms of the ability to put the team on his back if needed.

Jose Abreu: 2021 Season By Month
March/April .213 .296 .394
May .333 .422 .631
June .182 .265 .307
July .255 .351 .489
August .324 .378 .639

As he heats up, he’s now on track to lead the American League in RBIs for the third consecutive season, and while that statistic is exceptionally lineup dependent, it still speaks to his value in the middle of the order, as well as his exceptional durability and consistency. His career wRC+ is 133, and his lowest mark in a season is 114, back in 2018. He’s had off years, but only in the context of his own career; he’s never approached anything that could be called bad. Most of his ability comes from his massive strength, as he ranks in the 90th-plus percentile among major leaguers in most any advanced power measurement stat. And while he’s a bit of a free swinger, he barrels balls up at an elite rate, and they tend to have more oomph on them than when your average player squares a ball up.

Is he one of the greatest players in history? He is not, but he’s certainly high on my Cuban-What-Could-Have-Been list. While most baseball fans have only been aware of Abreu since his 2014 rookie season, for many inside the game, last year’s MVP campaign was a long time coming.

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Kevin Goldstein FanGraphs Chat – 8/30/2021

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