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The Three Dingers of Yoenis Cespedes

How does one define stardom in baseball? How does one identify a star? Well, firstly, it probably doesn’t require knowing a guy’s WAR. It’s more intuitive than that. You can feel your lips curling into a grin when a certain player does something exceptional. When that happens again and again, that’s when you know: there’s something special about that one guy. He can do it all, and he does it more often than everyone else. What’s a star? A star is someone capable of evoking an almost childlike sense of joy and wonder.

Yoenis Cespedes has sentimental value for Mets fans beyond his capacity to do just that. It was Cespedes who strode in and muscled the Mets to the World Series a couple years ago. He may not serve as a daily one-man wrecking crew with the sort of frequency that he did during the 2015 stretch drive, but he’s still pretty damn good, and pretty damn watchable to boot. He’s a near-ideal mixture of talent and swagger, a man with monstrous power and a magnetic presence off the field. It was that monstrous power, and the Phillies, which helped him launch three home runs last night.

Homer #1

Look, I don’t know whether we’ll ever be able to say for sure if Clay Buchholz is (was?) good. His career has been a roller coaster without safety harnesses. There have been years where he’s looked brilliant, and there have been years where he’s looked disastrous. Both varieties of seasons are prone to being curtailed by injuries. And, speaking of which, Buchholz did wind up leaving last night’s game with the dreaded “right forearm tightness,” so he may not have been at his best when Cespedes did this to him.

Now, yes, the Phillies do indeed play in a bandbox. But hitting a ball out to dead center is impressive no matter where you’re playing, and Cespedes cleared the wall with room to spare. It’s easy to do that when you’re built like Cespedes and you’ve just been thrown a big-league meatball, but you’ve still got to actually hit the thing. Cespedes, true to form, did in fact hit the thing. Thus began a game that would see the Mets score 14 runs and hit seven bombs in total. It seems Mets hitters really do trust the process.

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Michael Pineda Is At It Again (Again)

I could begin this post by invoking one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most celebrated novels, but the notion of framing a conversation about Michael Pineda in the context of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been beaten as thoroughly as one of the latter’s victims. I could use Mr. Talbot and the Wolf Man, instead, or Bruce Banner and the Hulk. It doesn’t really matter, though. Whatever set of characters one prefers, the point is the same: there are two versions of Pineda, one proficient and mild-mannered, the other prone to tragic outbursts.

Indeed, just last week Craig Edwards suspected that Pineda was at it again, giving up runs in bunches while somehow also producing elite fielding-independent numbers. Yesterday we saw the the complete other end of the spectrum, as Pineda took a perfect game deep into the seventh inning against Tampa Bay while looking like the truly most optimal version of himself. Barring a continued ricochet between starts, we won’t continue to bring you updates with every outing that he makes. Yet what we saw on Monday looked almost like a totally different pitcher.

“Almost” is the operative word there. Pineda still got swings and misses, and still didn’t walk anybody. His slider, however, was quite simply otherworldly. He didn’t do the typical Pineda thing and hang one — not until the moment he lost the perfect game, at least. He buried it, and it plunged all the way down to the molten core of the planet.

Pineda racked up 11 strikeouts all told, cruising through 6.2 perfect innings before Evan Longoria doubled. His 7.2 innings were the most by any Yankee starter so far this year.

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When Pitchers Implode

There are certain unstoppable forces in this world. Some of them are acts of nature, like hurricanes and tornadoes. There’s also death, taxes, and reality television — inevitable, all of them. In baseball, there’s the bat of Mike Trout and the glove of Francisco Lindor. There’s the fastball of Noah Syndergaard and the cutter of Kenley Jansen. In the baseball present, these are facts of life, threatened only by the natural corrective measures of health and the passage of time.

While these unimpeachable laws pervade the game, there are times when events fail to obey the natural order of things. Times when Jansen’s cutter doesn’t cut or when Lindor makes an error. Or, for example, when the third out of an inning — a frequent occurrence on any given day in a season — appears unlikely to ever arrive.

Two clubs, the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners, suffered from this particular sort of chaos this weekend. The Nationals are good. Unfortunately, the pitcher who started for them on Saturday isn’t — or isn’t any longer. The Mariners are also pretty good. Unfortunately, with one of their best pitchers on the mound on Sunday, they failed to produce a third out in the last, most important inning of their game in Anaheim.

Jeremy Guthrie, by all reasonable measures, has had a good career. His outing on Saturday marked his 14th individual year in which he’d made an appearance in the majors. He’s thrown more than 1700 innings and made more than $43 million by playing a game. He won a World Series with the Royals. Guthrie has a reputation of being a standout human being, as well. At age 38, Guthrie has already lived a full and exciting life. His WAR, or his FIP, or his win total, mean little in the face of all of that.

He turned 38 on Saturday. On that same day, he allowed 10 runs in less than an inning — the game’s first innings — of what may very well have been his final start.

The Phillies aren’t a great offensive team. “Great” is a relative term, though. Major-league hitters are all great relative to the human population — and Guthrie, for his past, spent last year putting up a 6.57 ERA against Triple-A batters. So the fact that he even got a start at the highest level this year is an accomplishment. But the Phillies probably represented an easier task for him than, say, the Cubs or the Dodgers. Again, though: big-league hitters can knock around balls over the heart of the plate, and the Phillies did just that. Enny Romero, who follow Guthrie, would offer up some meatballs of his own before the damage was finally done.

Guthrie’s advanced age (for a ballplayer, that is) and the resulting deterioration of his stuff played a role here, but luck did as well. The ball that Cesar Hernandez hit for a leadoff double, for instance, only goes for a hit about 55% of the time. Had that been an out, perhaps the inning proceeds much differently. It didn’t, though, and the resulting offensive explosion was torrential. Even the two outs that Guthrie induced, fly balls from Maikel Franco and Freddy Galvis, were sac flies that brought runs home.

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Dylan Bundy Made the Blue Jays Look Silly

About a month ago, Travis Sawchik and I posted back-to-back articles about Dylan Bundy and how he could make or break the Orioles’ season. I didn’t exactly say that he was the most important player on the roster not named Machado or Britton, but I heavily implied it in a wink-wink nudge-nudge manner. In Bundy, the Orioles have a former prodigy who could realize his potential in 2017.

He took the first step towards that on Wednesday night.

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The A’s, the Giants, and the Importance of Middle Relief

Last year’s playoffs were seen as a win not only for the Cubs and their fans, but also for proponents of the relief ace. On a national stage, Terry Francona used Andrew Miller early and often to put out fires almost regardless of inning. He’d been doing it ever since Cleveland acquired Miller in the summer, of course, but here was a manager deploying the strategy on the game’s largest stage.

Not every team can be blessed with having both Miller and Cody Allen on their roster, though, nor can every team have both Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. Most teams are lucky enough to have a good closer, and most of those teams employ the traditional strategy of waiting until the ninth inning to use their best reliever. Much has been made of the strategic merit of that, but it’s a system that helps players know their roles on the team, and that has value, too. But if a team isn’t blessed with a Miller-type player, then they need a sturdy bridge to arrive at that closer. Even Cleveland and New York need help from guys without well-known names.

We’ve been fixated on the idea of the relief ace. The idea is so tantalizing and so intoxicating. Not only is it awesome to see Miller jump in and melt faces whenever Tito desires, but it’s a bit of a high for sabermetric types to see something for which they’ve argued so strenuously actually getting implemented in games. And this isn’t to say that the relief ace is a bad idea! It’s an exceedingly good idea, if the usage of the pitcher is properly managed. But the relief ace, and the closer, don’t matter a ton if the rest of the guys in the bullpen aren’t effective.

Take the Giants’ opener on Sunday, for instance. Madison Bumgarner went seven innings. Bruce Bochy needed just two innings from his bullpen to hold a one-run lead. A lot of teams have a setup man to serve as an opening act for the closer, and indeed, the Giants were supposed to have Will Smith out there. He’s out for the year with Tommy John surgery, though. So the duty fell to Derek Law, who promptly coughed up the lead, and the Diamondbacks walked it off against Mark Melancon in the ninth.

San Francisco’s bullpen, outside of  Melancon, looks almost entirely the same as it did last year. They appeared in the bottom half of our bullpen power rankings for a reason. There just isn’t enough firepower there, even if they likely aren’t as disastrously bad as they were down the stretch last year, from a true talent perspective. They may have replaced Santiago Casilla with Melancon, but the relief corps isn’t strong enough to compensate when a starter only goes five.

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The Other Young Power Threat on the Yankees

We spent the latter half of last year drooling over Gary Sanchez, and rightfully so. The phrases “raking” and “mashing” and “laying waste to all that stand before you” were all invented by Greek philosophers to describe what Sanchez accomplished last year. When he first arrived, though, Sanchez’s success caused us to recall the 2015 success of one Greg Bird.

Bird had been called up to replace Mark Teixeira, and he hit well enough to help get the Yankees to the Wild Card game. He started that game at first base — partly because the Yankees lacked a legitimate right-handed option at the position to play against Dallas Keuchel, but also because Bird had acquitted himself well in his 46 games in pinstripes. Sanchez obviously far surpassed Bird’s own accomplishments. And because Bird missed all of 2016 while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the memory of those 46 games faded into the mist.

This spring may have been a good reminder of what Bird can do.

Spring-training statistics aren’t a good indicator of what will happen once we hit Opening Day. Batters are facing pitchers who either aren’t ready to be in the big leagues just yet or big-league pitchers who haven’t yet fully ramped up to being ready for the long haul. We’re going to throw out Bird’s high batting average and the handful of home runs that he’s hit, at least partially. We’re throwing them out in the sense that you can’t extrapolate them out over a full season (pay no attention to the Sanchez thing I just wrote, nothing to see there) and use them as the basis of a projection.

But certain metrics become reliable in a sample of one. A pitcher who throws a single 100-mph fastball is likely to throw another one — or, at least, another of similar velocity. A pitcher who throws five consecutive 90-mph fastball is unlikely to hit 100 mph on the sixth. In each case, the number is a manifestation of physical ability.

One equivalent to fastball velocity for batters is power on contact. Every one of Giancarlo Stanton’s improbably giant home runs is a testament to his impressive physical capacities, something he’s likely to replicate in the future. Likewise, one recognizes that Dee Gordon — who record one of the lowest peak exit velocities last year — is unlikely to cobble together a 30-homer campaign based on the evidence of his best effort.

In other words, one or two batted balls can provide a great deal of information about a hitter’s true talent. One or two batted balls like this one:

And this one, as well:

Again, this isn’t a matter of Bird launching dingers off half-prepared pitchers still trying to refine their mechanics. It’s a matter of how well the man is driving the ball. Bird’s shoulder injury was a labrum tear, and those can be tricky. There was reason to be concerned about Bird’s capacity to drive the ball, even after going to the Arizona Fall League for a tune-up.

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2017 Positional Power Rankings: Third Base

We’re mixing up the schedule for the PPRs a bit this year, doing corner infielders today so that we can run middle infielders together tomorrow, so the third base rankings follow on Eno’s first base post from this morning. If you’re not sure what all this is, read the series introduction. On to the corners who can field.

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Nelson Cruz Wasn’t Out by a Mile

The Dominican Republic hadn’t lost a game in the World Baseball Classic since 2009. They’ve been a juggernaut, an unstoppable force barreling through immovable objects. That ended last night when Puerto Rico beat them 3-1 in a game that was much wilder than its score would indicate. One of the more dazzling plays was Javier Baez putting a no-look tag on Nelson Cruz on an ill-advised steal attempt.

When we say ill-advised, we really mean it. For one, Yadier Molina was behind the plate, and Yadi has been of the best in the business at throwing out baserunners. Cruz can only really be called a baserunner because of the fact that he does, in fact, technically run between the bases, even if “lumbering” may be a better verb for this scenario. Cruz is a large, 36-year-old adult human being. He hasn’t recorded a positive baserunning figure since 2010. Whatever speed he once possessed (24 steals in Triple-A in 2008!) is almost entirely gone.

There’s also the factor of Baez, who has revealed to the surprise of many that tagging is a real skill. So, yeah, we’re not sure why Cruz was running here, especially with two outs and an 0-0 count on Adrian Beltre. But run he did, and well, this happened.

Baez didn’t even look at Cruz. He was pointing to Molina and grinning like a kid on Christmas before he even caught the ball. You silly, silly man, he’s probably thinking to himself. Thanks for the free out. Cruz is out by a mile, and Peurto Rico gallops off to the dugout. Goddamn, Javy Baez. Goddamn, Yadi. Jeez, Nelson Cruz.

But hold on a second, here. Slow-motion video affords us the chance to take a closer look at plays like this. It also affords us the chance to make complete and utter fools of ourselves, as I may be about to do here. But I’ve been writing here long enough for all of you to get used to that by now, so hang with me here for a second. Let’s roll the film again.

Molina’s throw beats Cruz to Baez. The ball is in Javy’s glove right as Cruz is starting to slide. Nine times out of ten that’s game over, man. But was it? It initially looked like Baez got the tag down on Cruz’s knee, and Cruz was dead on arrival at second base.

This isn’t an episode of CSI, so I can’t tell the lab tech to enhance the video and clean up the pixels. I can, however, tell you that the umpire was on the shortstop side of second base, and that his view of Baez’s glove was obstructed by Cruz’s legs and tookus. And here’s a warning, because this is about to turn into a bad knock-off episode of CSI.

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Clint Frazier’s Haircut and the Yankees’ War on Fun

One of the most celebrated episodes of The Simpsons involves local oligarch Montgomery Burns luring professional ballplayers to Springfield so that his company baseball team can win. Homer at the Bat is the story of how these ballplayers relegate Homer Simpson and his best friends to the bench, before all being unable to play for various comedic reasons. One of those players is Don Mattingly, who quickly falls into a hair-related row with Mr. Burns, a parody of his real-life benching by Yankees manager Stump Merrill. The exchange pokes some well-earned fun at New York’s hatred of hair.

The Yankees, as you probably know, have a pretty stringent (most of the time) policy when it comes to hair. No facial hair below the lip, no sideburns, no hair that’s long enough to fall below your collar. It’s meant to make the Yankees look clean-cut, or something, while still allowing for Thurman Munson-esque bushy mustaches. Of course, we’ve seen guys like Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia sporting some pretty serious stubble at times, but they’re veterans and they’ve earned a little flexibility, one would guess.

This brings us to young Clint Frazier, the fire-maned bat-speed-maven prospect the Yankees acquired in the Andrew Miller trade. Frazier is one of the better prospects in baseball, and he was known just as much for his long red locks as he was for destroying baseballs like they said something about his mother. He certainly wouldn’t be welcome on Mr. Burns’ team with that flow. His acquisition by the Yankees presented an obvious issue to the way he chose to wear his hair, and now things have come to a literal head: Frazier’s hair is gone.

“Distraction” was the word used to describe it. It’s hard to imagine that Frazier’s hair itself was the distraction as much as the media’s questions about whether or not he’d be allowed to keep. Sure, it may have generated questions of “Well, why can’t I wear my hair that way?” but it’s also a matter of the Yankees’ long-standing policy being tested by a rising star — and manager Joe Girardi (and Frazier himself, probably) getting tired of being asked questions about it.

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Why Team Israel Isn’t a Surprise

If nothing else, Team Israel looked like a nice little story for the World Baseball Classic. It was their first time qualifying for the event, but they lacked the name recognition on their roster to be considered a serious threat. Being thrown into a pool with Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, and South Korea — teams that feature players from high-level professional leagues — felt nearly insurmountable. But here we are, with Israel already having qualified for the next round following wins over Korea and Taipei. Their showdown tonight with the Dutch team’s loaded infield may be something of a reality check. Nevertheless, Team Israel’s success shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re legit.

There isn’t a prototypical star on Israel’s roster. They weren’t able to bring in a top-tier Jewish talent like Ryan Braun. But what Team Israel does boast is the benefit of having more than a few big-league players in the lineup — and some of the best players in the minors, as well. Ike Davis isn’t hitting 30 homers in the big leagues anymore, but he’s still better than most of the professional players in the world. Cody Decker, Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, and Josh Zeid are better than most of the professional players in the world. They’ve reached higher highs than most of their competition.

It’s important to remember this one, all-important thing: baseball is hard. Being good enough to play in the leagues in Korea and Taipei is really hard. Being good enough to get even a single plate appearance in Major League Baseball is probably even harder. The teams from Korea and Taipei are largely All-Star teams, the best of the best of highly competitive leagues. But they’re not fully stocked, either.

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