This morning, on your way to your local coffee shop or the train station, you probably passed two guys writhing around on the sidewalk, one screaming “Aaron Judge!” while trying to wrap up his counterpart in a figure-four leg lock; the other, attempting valiantly to squirm out of his predicament and refusing to tap out, shouting “Shohei Ohtani!”
Such is the nature of this year’s AL MVP discourse, the most spirited awards debate since the halcyon days of Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera a decade ago. And that’s appropriate — these are two of the most recognizable names in the sport, both accomplishing things we only see once every few decades, and both doing it in major markets. (I’m framing it this way on purpose in order to provoke a second argument: Is Anaheim really part of the Greater Los Angeles area, or is it something else?)
But they name three MVP finalists, not two, which leaves us a little less than two months from a hilarious television moment: Judge and Ohtani, on MLB Network, awaiting the results of this contentious election while the host runs down the credentials of some joker with no shot at all of taking home the hardware.
So who should that joker be? Read the rest of this entry »
Back in June, Ben Clemens noticed that Braves reliever A.J. Minter had taken a big developmental step, specifically by cutting his walk rate basically in half from 2021. Through some statistical trial-and-error, Ben discovered that Minter had revamped his approach after falling behind in the count, pitching in and around the zone almost exclusively in two- and three-ball counts:
“All he did was make one adjustment — before he ever got to a 3–0 or 3–1 count, he’d dial in and throw something competitive — and presto, walks were gone overnight.”
Three and a half months later, Minter’s walk rate has bumped up a little, but only to 5.2%. That’s still a fraction of his previous career low, 8.5%, and even more impressive given his 34.9% strikeout rate. There are other pieces to what makes a good reliever, like preventing home runs (Minter has allowed only four in 65 innings this year) and limiting hard contact, but based just on those strikeout and walk rates, one would assume that Minter has been one of the best relievers in baseball this season. Read the rest of this entry »
Baseball teams are like most entities operating with finite resources: If you want to know what they value, look where those resources get spent. The Toronto Blue Jays clearly value starting pitching. They spent $80 million over four years on Hyun Jin Ryu, two top prospects plus a seven-year, $131 million extension on José Berríos, $110 million over five years on Kevin Gausman, and $36 million over three years on Yusei Kikuchi.
Gausman has been as good as advertised this year, but behind him, the Blue Jays’ most important pitcher hasn’t been one of their big-money acquisitions, but Alek Manoah, a 24-year-old on a pre-arbitration contract. And he’s not even the 6-foot-6 Floridian most people expected to become Toronto’s homegrown frontline starter. In 2017, the Blue Jays spent a first-round pick on Nate Pearson, he of the 102 mph fastball and slider that touched 95. Pearson tickled the top 10 of the global prospect rankings in 2020, while Manoah — despite being a first-rounder himself — worked in relative obscurity.
Pearson’s career has stalled, thanks to an array of setbacks that would be at home in the Book of Job, ranging from a sports hernia to mononucleosis. And into that niche has stepped Manoah, who possesses less eye-popping stuff but the finesse and durability of which frontline starters are made.
Manoah is in the top 15 among qualified starters in innings, ERA, strikeouts, and WAR, but his pitching approach belies his youth. He throws reasonably hard — though an average fastball velocity of 93.9 mph is nothing to write home about in this day and age — but this year his ERA has gone down by eight tenths of a run while his strikeout rate has fallen by five percentage points. That’s because he’s allowing less hard contact than any other qualified starter in the game.
The key to Manoah’s success is the combination of his four-seamer and his sinker, two pitches that resemble each other closely in velocity and flight path until diverging wildly in late break. That combination doesn’t always result in a swing and miss, but it’s exceptionally hard for a hitter to square up, making it the baseball equivalent of putting your palm on your little brother’s forehead and straightening your arm so he can’t hit you back.
“I think the biggest thing I like to do is watch hitters’ approaches, watch their swing path, watch the way they swing, the way they take pitches, and see certain pitches they’re looking for,” Manoah said. “For me that will dictate whether I’m going sinker or four-seam or how I want to set it up.”
Of course, Manoah didn’t invent this strategy; numerous pitchers have used it to great effect, even during the height of the four-seamer-heavy, swing-and-miss tulip fever that gripped baseball at the end of the past decade. In fact, several of those pitchers have worked for Toronto in recent years, specifically Ryu and Berríos, whom Baseball Savant lists as one of the most similar pitchers in the league to Manoah in terms of velocity and movement.
Manoah’s taken the opportunity to learn as much as he can from his older teammates.
“[Ryu’s] pitch design might not be the same, but the way he gets into his legs and his mechanics and his rhythm are very similar to mine,” Manoah said. “For Berríos, it’s really the way he sets up his sinker and his changeup. For me, I wasn’t really much of a changeup guy, but I’ve been able to watch him, and he’s not worried about certain movements — as long as he’s tunneling it off the sinker, he can use them together.” He also mentioned Ray, Gausman, and David Phelps as players he’d picked up lessons from during his time in the majors.
Manoah has had to be a quick learner, because as much as it seems like he just burst onto the scene as a rookie last year, his rise is even more meteoric than you’d think. Despite his physical gifts, he was undrafted out of high school, and in three years at West Virginia, he spent only one as a full-time starter. After being drafted 11th overall in 2019, he spent all of 2020 pitching at Toronto’s alternate site.
“I feel like we had a pretty good simulated season,” he said of the alternate site camp. “Still training, still long tossing, still facing live hitters. There was a sense of motivation because it was that time when people were going to know who was working and who wasn’t. I didn’t have to focus on the results because there were no results. Being able to work on my changeup, my body, my work ethic, and routine without having to worry about results — I think it allowed me to enjoy that process and be ready for spring training.”
So Manoah went into the big league rotation in May of 2021 after just nine minor league appearances ever, at any level, and just two seasons of more than 80 total innings. And he was immediately one of Toronto’s best pitchers, striking out more than a batter an inning and posting a 3.22 ERA in 111 2/3 innings over 20 starts.
“I think every step of my journey has been preparing me for this,” Manoah said.
Now, despite his youth, Manoah is one of the most essential players on a team that’s a near-lock to make the postseason. He made his first All-Star team in July, and his inning while mic’d up made him one of the game’s breakout stars. When a Montreal radio host made insensitive comments about Alejandro Kirk last week, it was Manoah who jumped to defend his catcher. He’s a veteran, in every respect but age.
And now, one of the big questions facing Toronto interim manager John Schneider is how hard to ride Manoah down the stretch. On the one hand, home-field advantage in the first round could be huge for Toronto, but on the other, the young righty is now some 54 innings past his previous career high with two weeks, plus the postseason, left on the calendar. Manoah is currently 16 1/3 innings from 200, a milestone he views as important because reaching it is evidence of a good work ethic, but he’s happy to pitch or sit if asked.
“I literally told them I don’t want to be the one to make that decision,” he said with a chuckle. He’s simply pleased to be pitching so well that the Blue Jays are scheduling their playoff rotation with him in mind.
“Last year, I got moved because we wanted to set up Robbie Ray and our horses,” he said. “I remember telling myself I want to be one of the guys they’re setting up for big games. Now that we’re there, it’s pretty cool.”
“Even in the minors I’ve just always had good extension,” said Jordan Romano. “I think that’s just the way my delivery worked out, but never something I pursued.”
This was in response to the first question I asked him before Wednesday night’s game. He’d always been among the league leaders in extension — how far in front of the rubber a pitcher releases the ball.
Here’s what happened right before I asked the question: Romano stood up. Some ballplayers will take questions seated, but in my experience most prefer to stand when being interviewed, usually at a sort of parade rest posture. I don’t know if they teach this stance, but it seems like the physical process of leaving the aimlessly-scrolling-through-Instagram headspace for the taking-questions-on-the-record headspace.
And when I say Romano “stood up,” he unfurled himself from the chair in front of his locker like a folded air mattress being inflated. It brought to mind a story a teacher of mine once told about seeing Manute Bol get out of his car at a gas station. Romano stands a slender but imperious 6-foot-5, all limbs. Of course extension has always come naturally to him. Read the rest of this entry »
The Brewers are in a bad way; three games under .500 since the start of August, they’ve fallen out of playoff position despite their primary competition — the Padres and Phillies — not exactly lighting the world on fire themselves. It might, therefore, seem an odd time to praise Willy Adames, only there’s never really a bad time to praise Willy Adames, and hardly anybody ever seems to do it.
Adames is red-hot at the moment, with a 148 wRC+ in September, and has been pretty good at the plate this year overall. He ranks second among shortstops in home runs with 30, and is tied for third in slugging percentage behind Trea Turner and Bo Bichette. When the Rays went to the World Series two years ago, Adames was an afterthought. He didn’t hit much that postseason, and all the attention (deservedly) went to Randy Arozarena and the Rays’ bullpen arm clock.
But the thing the Rays did better that year than anyone else was play the matchups. It seemed like a player for each position at each matchup, and sometimes they’d pull an NHL-style line change mid-game if the circumstances dictated it. Adames was the one exception. He was the shortstop when the Rays were leading or trailing, early and late, against left-handed and right-handed batters. Apart from the last three innings of Game 1 of the World Series, Adames played every minute of that Tampa Bay postseason run. (Only Arozarena, who was lifted for defense for a half-inning in four distinct games, played more.) Read the rest of this entry »
The chase for history is on, and New York City is awash with excitement. I’m speaking, obviously, of the Mets’ pursuit of the modern era record for times hit by pitch by one team in one season. Mets hitters have been plunked 102 times this year, three shy of the record, and have 14 games left in which to overtake last year’s Reds for the all-time lead.
The full list is fun, because two things immediately become apparent. First, most of the high historical HBP totals came in the past five to seven years. And second, whenever a team shows up that isn’t from the mid-2010s or later, it’s immediately obvious which historical outlier is responsible: a Craig Biggio here, a Chase Utley there, a Jason Kendall over in the corner.
The Mets are a more well-rounded lineup, with six players being hit by 10 or more pitches this year. No. 102 came on Sunday afternoon, when Pete Alonso took a fastball off the elbow, causing a benches-clearing incident and earning warnings for both dugouts. The estimable Ron Darling, on the mic for WPIX, sensed that Alonso wasn’t angry because he thought Johan Oviedo hit him intentionally, but because it was the seventh time in that weekend’s four-game series that a Met had been hit. In fact, he said, he couldn’t remember one time this season when a Met had worn a pitch and it looked malicious.
So I went back and watched all 102 Mets HBPs, and he’s right. Read the rest of this entry »
Watching the waning days of Albert Pujols’ career, one gets to remembering. The man cast such a huge shadow over the sport for so long, his early days seem like a different era. For a sense of how long, I remember hearing about him for the first time from a physical copy of USA Today’s Sports Weekly — the thing we used to read while walking to school uphill both ways, etc. The Cardinals, it was reported, were so impressed with a 21-year-old third baseman who’d barely played above low-A that they were considering plugging him into their Opening Day lineup.
Pujols’ rapid rise to prominence is unusual but not completely unheard of, and the rise of a precocious young hitter from the Dominican Republic conjures up certain images: signing as a teenager, working up through the low minors, proving himself against grown men at an age when his American counterparts are still eating meal plan tater tots and going to frat parties.
But Pujols, who moved to New York and then to Independence, Missouri, as a teenager, was a college baseball player. He played one season at Maple Woods Community College (now Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods). There, he did about what you’d expect one of the best hitters ever to do against juco competition: hit .466 with 22 home runs in 56 games, led his team to a regional title, and earned All-American honors. That spring, the Cardinals picked him in the 13th round of the draft, and two years after that he was in the majors. Two World Series, three MVP awards, and almost 700 home runs later, you know the rest of the story. Read the rest of this entry »
Jon Berti is a player of immense historical import, and you’ll never guess why.
No, that’s wrong. If you know anything about Jon Berti, you probably know exactly why he’s a player of immense historical import. Berti has actually put together a pretty nice all-around season: He can play anywhere and while he’s hitting for basically zero power, his .344 OBP makes him quite a valuable player for the Miami Marlins.
But more to the point: He’s extremely fast, with 96th-percentile sprint speed according to Baseball Savant, and he’s determined to get his money’s worth from this physical gift. Despite being limited to just 83 games by a bout of COVID in May and a groin strain in July, Berti has stolen 34 bases. A quick run through Berti’s event log reveals that he has been on first or second with nobody on the base ahead of him 97 times this season, and on 38 of those occasions he’s decided to keep running as far as his little legs will carry him, plus four more pickoffs that don’t count toward his caught stealing total.
That kind of aggressiveness is admirable, but distressingly rare. Berti, despite only playing in a little more than half his team’s games, is leading the majors in stolen bases. If he finishes the season with fewer than 40 steals, it will be the lowest majors-leading stolen base total of any full season since 1958. Read the rest of this entry »
We should know better by now than to doubt the Guardians. Every year it seems like they shed at least one important player, and every year (not literally every year, but most years) they scheme, finesse, and otherwise inveigle their way back to the playoffs. This year, Cleveland’s position players are playing great defense and striking out less than any lineup in the league. On the other side of the ball, Cleveland — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — has managed to cultivate depth by developing talented starters internally.
You know these pitchers: Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase, Triston McKenzie, James Karinchak (who’s so dangerous umps check his hair for weapons like he’s Milady de Winter from The Three Musketeers). And Cal Quantrill.
During the month of August, when Cleveland asserted control over the AL Central for the first time, Quantrill made six starts, pitched at least six innings each time, and posted a total ERA of 2.13. Bieber and McKenzie get most of the credit for the Guardians’ run prevention success, and deservedly so. But in this age of inch-perfect 98-mph two-seamers and strikeout rates in the 30% range, Quantrill is a throwback: an effective pitch-to-contact innings-eater. That he belongs to a little-celebrated archetype of player does not diminish his value to a team that’s operated all year with little room for error. Read the rest of this entry »
The decision to change the closer is one of the most awkward a manager will face. Any other combination of bullpen arms can be shuffled around without most fans taking notice, but the save statistic and the entrance music make a closer highly conspicuous. Screw around with that guy, and it becomes a news story.
The Braves invested heavily in that position this winter, lavishing $16 million on 34-year-old Kenley Jansen. I’ll go to my grave believing this signing was at least partially about poaching a legendary Dodger the day after L.A. inked Freddie Freeman — you don’t want to go stag to prom when your ex has a date — but closers like Jansen don’t come along every day. The man pitched in three All-Star games and three World Series and entered the season with 350 career saves, more than Rollie Fingers, Robb Nen, or Bruce Sutter. Jansen had encountered some turbulence in the late 2010s and wasn’t putting up ERAs in the 1.00s anymore, but armed with a new sinker and slider, he’s still quite an effective closer.
Or, more accurately, he has been. In his past seven appearances dating back to August 27, Jansen has blown three saves in seven attempts, allowing 12 baserunners and three home runs in just 5.2 innings. On Sunday, the Braves launched a stirring five-run rally in the ninth to pull ahead of the Mariners, perhaps the only other team in all of baseball as hot as Atlanta. Jansen promptly surrendered two home runs and the lead. The second came on a 93-mph sinker right where Eugenio Suárez could 3-iron it into the Seattle bullpen. I had to look up what that pitch was, because the TV view bore little evidence of sink or cut.
MARINERS WALK IT OFF!! pic.twitter.com/ou5VYloSdX
— ROOT SPORTS™ | NW (@ROOTSPORTS_NW) September 11, 2022
MARINERS WALK IT OFF!! pic.twitter.com/ou5VYloSdX
— ROOT SPORTS™ | NW (@ROOTSPORTS_NW) September 11, 2022
Not a great way to lose a game, in short. And now Brian Snitker is getting questions about his star closer. So what should he do? Read the rest of this entry »