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Bryan Reynolds Is Shrugging Off His Sophomore Slump

A lot went wrong for Pittsburgh last season. Josh Bell tanked his trade value with a career-worst season. Gregory Polanco showed rather conclusively that he can’t hit. The team finished last in the NL Central for a second year in a row and has spent the last few winters demonstrating a disinterest in climbing out of the cellar anytime soon. There are enough problems with the Pirates that a sudden decline by young outfielder Bryan Reynolds was more or less reduced to a footnote.

Reynolds, a former second-round pick who was acquired from San Francisco in the Andrew McCutchen trade and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, hit an abysmal .189/.257/.357 (72 wRC+) in 55 games last year. That line allowed him to blend in with pretty much everyone else in the lineup not named Ke’Bryan Hayes, but it was still an unwelcome development. While Hayes is clearly the player Pittsburgh wants to build its next good team around, having a second foundational player in the lineup is always going to make things a little easier down the line. Reynolds seemed like that player after his rookie season. Fortunately for the Pirates, he now looks like that player again.

Through 44 games, Reynolds is hitting .298/.389/.472 with four home runs, good for a 139 wRC+ and a team-high 1.4 WAR. He’s been on a particular tear in the month of May, hitting .324/.400/.549 with 10 doubles in just 19 games. Last Thursday, he took Drew Smyly deep with a game-tying homer to center in a game the Pirates would go on to win in extras.

Reynolds’ start to 2021 looks awfully similar to the performance he gave in 2019, when he hit .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers, a 130 wRC+ and 3.1 WAR, and he’s having success for a lot of the same reasons. He hits lots of line drives, picks up extra bases by putting balls in the gaps, and provides modest over-the-fence power. The consistency of his numbers in 2019 and ’21, though, brings up one question: What the heck happened last year?

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Kendall Graveman Is Now a Relief Ace in Seattle

The date is May 11, 2018. Kendall Graveman, a 27-year-old right-hander in the back of the Athletics’ rotation, is languishing through a bad season, and the lineup in front of him is as difficult as any he’s faced: the Yankees. Now in his fourth season with Oakland, expectations for him aren’t terribly high: He has an ERA- of 101 and FIP- of 107 over 407 innings across the past three seasons; he’s missed significant time with shoulder and oblique injuries; and he’s struck out under six batters per nine for his career. But he isn’t even living up to that standard anymore. His first six starts of 2018 have resulted in a grotesque 8.89 ERA, and there is a new ailment growing undeniable in his throwing arm.

Despite all of that, though, his Yankees start is going pretty well. His offense has spotted him a four-run lead, and with two out and a base open for Aaron Judge in the fifth, all he has to do is make sure he doesn’t throw him anything he can hit. He goes to his sinker, his go-to offering, and wills it to run off the plate inside. The pitch refuses.

Graveman would go on to escape with the win by the skin of his teeth. In six innings, he allows four runs, strikes out four, walks two, and gives up two homers. It might be his best start of the season. It’s also the last time he pitches in the majors for 808 days.

The date is now May 7, 2021, nearly three years after that Yankees start. Graveman is wearing a Mariners uniform and pitching in the ninth inning with a one-run lead and the tying run behind him at second base. He’s facing the Rangers, who are decidedly not the Yankees. But the guy at the plate, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, is no joke. Graveman throws a sinker, his go-to offering, and wills it to run off the plate inside. The pitch obeys.

Wait. Did that say 99?

Yep, sure did. Two pitches later, he throws Kiner-Falefa another sinker, and gets another whiff.

The next hitter, Charlie Culberson, suffers a similar fate. He also swings through two pitches in the at-bat; both of them are sliders, and the last one touches 90.

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How Wade Miley Threw A No-Hitter

Though he’s made just 12 appearances for them, Wade Miley’s time with the Reds has already been a rollercoaster. Last season, the first of a two-year, $15-million contract, he hit the injured list three different times and pitched so poorly when he was active that he lost his rotation spot. He earned it back this year, largely thanks to injuries to Sonny Gray and Michael Lorenzen, then began the season with 11 shutout innings over two starts. Eight runs in 16 innings over his next three starts followed, as his ability to miss bats waned and bad pitches landed in outfield seats. All of this adds up to an average pitcher playing on an average team in a division that average teams could win. Then, all of a sudden, came the extraordinary.

Miley no-hit Cleveland at Progressive Field on Friday, walking one batter and watching another reach on an error and striking out eight. It was the Reds’ first no-hitter since Homer Bailey’s second on July 2, 2013, and the 17th in franchise history. Expand the scope to all of baseball, and Miley joined a group whose size is increasing with perplexing speed. When he took the mound Friday, the dust had barely settled from a no-hitter thrown by John Means on Wednesday, who threw his on the heels of a seven-inning no-hitter by Madison Bumgarner, who threw his in the wake of nine-inning no-hitters by Carlos Rodón and Joe Musgrove. That’s five no-nos in a span of 29 days, with no end in sight.

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Austin Meadows Is Figuring Things Out Again

I guess if you’re a hitter, there are some pitchers you just see well. Maybe you aren’t fooled by their signature breaking ball or their arm slot is one you happen to be comfortable with. In the case of Austin Meadows, maybe he was able to homer twice in as many at-bats against Angels reliever Ben Rowen on Tuesday because he just likes facing submarine-tossing right handers. Then again, maybe it’s just because Rowen threw him two pitches that looked like this:

A couple of pitches like those can turn a hitter’s night around quickly; for Meadows, it turned an 0-for-3 evening entering the seventh inning into his best game of the year. Even before those two at-bats, though, he had already been having a sneaky-good season. His .208/.323/.462 batting line through 127 plate appearances amounts to a 127 wRC+; he has seven home runs. If you look at his Statcast metrics, he’s been even better. Meadows is in the 86th percentile in xwOBA, despite clocking in at just the 69th percentile in wOBA.

Considering the way Meadows performed last year, seeing those numbers has to be a huge relief for Tampa Bay. After breaking out in his first full season with the Rays to the tune of a 143 wRC+ and 4.1 WAR in 2019, Meadows was below replacement level last year, hitting just .205/.296/.371 with four homers, for a wRC+ of 87 in 152 plate appearances. And while there were inherent sample size issues for everyone in 2020, nothing really suggested he was simply getting unlucky. His strikeout rate climbed more than 10 points over the previous season, his ISO dropped by more than 100 points, and he plummeted into single-digit percentile rankings in xwOBA, xBA and xSLG. There were several possible explanations for his struggles — lingering effects from his bout with COVID-19, an oblique injury that ended his season prematurely, the general upheaval to daily routines caused by the pandemic — but there was still uncertainty surrounding what he might contribute in 2021. Read the rest of this entry »

The Giants’ Rotation Is One of Baseball’s Unlikeliest Success Stories

Like the rest of us, Aaron Sanchez’s 2020 caught him by surprise. A couple of weeks after a September 2019 anterior capsule surgery on his right shoulder — no easy thing to return from as a pitcher — he was optimistic when speaking with reporters, telling them, “I will pitch next year.” But he was non-tendered by the Houston Astros, and as the winter months came and went, he remained unsigned. Then the pandemic wiped out nearly four months of the 2020 season, and by the time baseball returned, teams weren’t in the mood to pay up for the remaining free agents. It wasn’t until February 21 of this year, 552 days after his most recent pitching appearance, that a team finally signed Sanchez to its big league roster.

That team was the San Francisco Giants, for whom Sanchez made his fifth start on Tuesday and threw 4.2 innings of two-run, one-hit baseball that included five walks and six strikeouts. The lack of certainty surrounding both his health and effectiveness entering the 2021 season seemed destined to make Sanchez an odd fit for the team that took a shot on him, but in San Francisco, his kind is actually right at home. The Giants’ rotation is filled with pitchers who have some kind of major injury in their recent history. In many cases, the return from those injuries hasn’t been graceful; some of those pitchers have found themselves moving to the bullpen in an effort to reclaim some of their value. Many were free agents last winter, with no guarantee they’d be given a starter’s job with their next team. Somehow, the Giants built a rotation out of these guys. And a month into the season, that rotation might be the best in baseball. Read the rest of this entry »

Blistering Bats, Bullpen Have Boston Back in the Hunt

Lucas Giolito is a terrifying pitcher. His fastball looks like it was fired out of a gun, and it isn’t even his best pitch; his changeup is one of the best in the sport, and his slider induced whiffs on over half the swings hitters took against it last year. He had a 2.55 ERA in his first three starts of this season, and that undersold how good he’d been: He was boasting the majors’ ninth-best FIP, sixth-best xFIP, and eighth-highest strikeout percentage. He’s as likely to throw a no-hitter on any given day as any other pitcher in baseball. And on Monday, the Red Sox mindlessly swatted him away like a fly buzzing around their ear.

Giolito retired just three of the 13 hitters he faced that morning in Boston, allowing eight runs on eight hits, two walks and two homers. He induced a whiff on just five of 31 swings, did not strike out anyone, and was knocked out in the second inning of a game the Red Sox went on to win, 11–4.

If you’re looking at this game in a vacuum, Giolito just had a very bad day. His fastball was poker-straight, and he couldn’t persuade his changeup to dip below the hitters’ thighs. The result was a complete inability to put guys away: Each of the first four batters he faced picked up a hit in two-strike counts. But the Red Sox have been turning in offensive monsoons like this with regularity this year. After getting swept by the Orioles in three games to start the season, they rattled off nine straight victories and entered Tuesday’s off-day winners of 12 of their last 15 games. In that time, they have scored double-digit runs in a game three times and averaged over six runs per contest. Overall, their 127 wRC+ this season is the best in baseball, and their 12–6 record is tops in the American League.

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For Two AL East Pitchers, Results Aren’t Important Yet

It has to be a wildly difficult thing, standing on a pitching rubber for the first time after a long absence caused by injury. Really, I’d submit that it is scary to do things in general. But I imagine it would be a special kind of burden to confront your fears on the mound, one of the loneliest places on earth. Sure, the defense is behind you, and the catcher does his best to guide you through; you have teammates and coaches cheering you on from the dugout. But the time has past for any of them to help you align your mechanics, or throw the ball as hard as you once did. You’re on your own, asking your body to do something it wasn’t built for and willing it not to fail you like it did last time.

The first time Jameson Taillon went through this process, he surely hoped he wouldn’t need to do it again. It was April 13, 2016, 955 days removed from the most recent game in which he appeared. Taillon, the second overall pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010, was coming off a 2013 season in which he tossed 165.2 innings between Double- and Triple-A, and looked sharp enough that a big league call-up early the next season looked like a sure thing. But plans changed when it was announced he would need Tommy John surgery in April 2014, then were disturbed even further when a sports hernia kept him off the mound in 2015 as well. When he returned to a Triple-A mound for Indianapolis in 2016, he was brilliant, holding a 2.04 ERA across 10 starts before finally earning his belated major league debut.

His latest return to the mound after a years-long absence hasn’t been quite as seamless. Now with the Yankees and looking to rebound from another UCL surgery and another 707 days away from pitching in games, he’s made two starts and allowed seven runs in 8.1 innings. He’s walked one, struck out 10, and surrendered three homers. The numbers from someone’s first two games after that long of a break are hardly worth putting under a magnifying glass, though. Right now, it feels more pertinent to celebrate the fact that he’s pitching again at all, and examine the ways in which he’s changed his process to not only try to stay healthy in the future, but also unlock greater success with his new club. Read the rest of this entry »

The A’s Finally Won, But They’re Already In A Deep Hole

It took until the late innings of their seventh game of the season, but the 2021 A’s have finally showed they have some fight in them. After losing the first six games of the season by a combined score of 50–13, Oakland was en route to loss No. 7 in a listless Wednesday matinee against the Dodgers, entering the bottom of the seventh with just a single hit and trailing 3–1. Then Matt Chapman halved the deficit with his first homer of the season and, two innings later, opened the ninth with a single to center. A walk, bunt and sacrifice fly scored him to tie the game, and a walk-off single by Mitch Moreland ended things in the 10th, at long last etching a “1” into the Athletics’ win column.

Oakland was the last team in baseball to secure its first win of the season, and by facing Houston and Los Angeles right out of the gate, those wins were always going to be hard to get. But the A’s aren’t a bottom feeder; they were division champs last year and 97-game winners in each of the two previous seasons. But the first week of the season shows how much weaker this year’s edition may be, and that can be traced directly to the effort, or lack thereof, that went into building this roster.

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The Brewers Have Officially Moved on From Orlando Arcia

Spiritually, the Orlando Arcia era in Milwaukee came to an end when the team acquired Luis Urías from San Diego in a four-player swap back in November 2019. Urías, then 22, had been one of the top prospects in the Padres’ farm system before his rookie eligibility expired the season prior and was expected to take over as the Brewers’ starting shortstop. Such a move would likely mean benching Arcia, a former top prospect himself who had put up rather anemic numbers in his first four big league seasons. Alas, Milwaukee’s starting infield hit a number of road blocks in the year that followed that trade, and when all was said and done, Arcia appeared in all but one of the team’s games last year, as well as each of the first four in 2021.

Now, it would appear that era has formally come to a close once and for all. On Tuesday, the Brewers traded Arcia to the Braves, who immediately optioned him to the team’s alternate training site as the infielder undergoes necessary COVID protocols. Two pitchers, Chad Sobotka and Patrick Weigel, were sent to Milwaukee to complete the deal.

When word first got out that the Brewers were discussing a deal involving Arcia, there was naturally speculation that the team on the other end might be San Diego. After all, just night before, the Padres had watched in horror as franchise shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. crumpled to the ground after injuring his left shoulder following through on a swing, and as of Tuesday morning remained unaware of how much time he was likely to miss. San Diego has ready replacements for Tatis in-house, but for a team as committed to accumulating depth as the Padres are, the timing of the news seemed all too convenient. Read the rest of this entry »

Twins Offer Randy Dobnak Some Long-Sought Certainty

Alderson Broaddus University carries an enrollment of fewer than 1,000 undergraduate students and sits in a town — Philippi, West Virginia — with a population just under 3,000 people. Its baseball team plays in the NCAA’s Division II and has produced just two players who were drafted by MLB teams, neither of whom ever actually played in the big leagues. In fact, Alderson Broaddus had never claimed a single major leaguer before Randy Dobnak was called up by the Twins in 2019. Two years before that, he had been playing in a four-team independent league in Michigan, assuming he’d give up baseball for good at the end of the season. After he got to the minors, he drove for rideshare services to make extra money. Even after his first full season in the Twins’ rotation, the team went out and signed two starting pitchers and bumped him to the bullpen. Dobnak’s baseball career has been non-stop uncertainty.

On Sunday, that finally came to an end, as the 26-year-old righty signed a five-year contract extension worth $9.25 million guaranteed and with a potential value of $29.75 million over eight years, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan. The deal offers Minnesota a good deal of flexibility and grants the pitcher a nice guarantee a couple of years before arbitration would have.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale provided more details Monday morning.

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