An Independence Day Smorgasbord!
Happy Independence Day! I have two wishes for America on this fourth of July:
Something about finding common ground and seeing each other and all that jazz.
That if you are going to shoot off fireworks, you do so safely and as far from our house as possible because they make our dog Westley and pretty much every other dog go absolutely bonkers.
OK, so much to talk about! Let’s jump right in.
Midseason MVP Prediction
At this point in the MLB season, every year, you will find many, many columns and hot takes about who should win the first-half MVP or Cy Young or Rookie of the Year. That’s fine. But what I want to do is try to predict, with the first half as our guide, who will ACTUALLY win baseball’s big awards. So here we go.
American League MVP
If the voting were held right now: Aaron Judge.
What the oddsmakers say: Aaron Judge is the odds-on favorite, followed by Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. Boston’s Rafael Devers and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez are in there somewhere.
Darkhorse candidate: Cleveland second baseman Andrés Giménez is having a fantastic season offensively (.303/.352/.395 with nine homers and six steals) and defensively. He’s a key figure for the Guardiac Kids — the comeback Cleveland Guardians. And you know who else is quietly having a really great season? Toronto catcher Alejandro Kirk.
Who will actually win the MVP: Aaron Judge
This year will, I think, be an interesting test to see just how big a role WAR plays in the MVP voting. I say that because I don’t think Judge will end up with the highest WAR. As of right now, by combo WAR (combining FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference), Judge is fourth, behind Ohtani, Devers and Trout.
But I have this feeling that WAR will not be the decisive factor this year. I think Ohtani will again lead the AL in WAR because he’s better than ever as a pitcher (more on this in a minute) and I think Trout, if he stays healthy, will lead the AL in WAR as a hitter. But — and this is purely a guess — I think the voters are sick of the Angels’ act, sick of watching them waste the best performances of our time. The Angels seem to be on their way to a SEVENTH consecutive losing season, and over the previous six losing seasons, an Angels player won the MVP award THREE TIMES. I don’t think that happens again no matter how good Ohtani and Trout are.
That still leaves several great candidates, but let’s be honest: The 2022 regular season will probably end up being about the New York Yankees, and Aaron Judge will probably hit 55-plus home runs, and he’s going to be your MVP.
National League MVP
If the voting were held right now: Paul Goldschmidt
What the oddsmakers say: Goldschmidt is now an even bigger favorite than Judge, followed by the Mets’ Pete Alonso and San Diego’s Manny Machado.
Darkhorse candidate: Three of the top four National Leaguers in combo WAR play for the St. Louis Cardinals — Goldschmidt, of course, but then there’s second baseman Tommy Edman because of his otherworldly defense and Nolan Arenado because of his now-familiar combination of power and spectacular glove at third. Should Goldschmidt fall off in the second half, I’d say Arenado in particular could make an MVP run. He’s coming off a huge weekend at Philadelphia. In Atlanta, Dansby Swanson seems to have lifted his game into the world of stardom.
Who will actually win the MVP: Manny Machado.
I love Goldschmidt. I’ve written how much I love him many, many times. And I do not necessarily love Manny Machado. I do not mean that as knock — he’s a fabulous player — but he’s just never been someone who has struck my imagination.
That said, I don’t think you can overstate just how important a player he is. When the Padres signed him to that mega-deal, there was a sense around baseball like: “Really? The Padres? Why?” And the “Why” was aimed at both the player and team — why would Machado sign there and why would the Padres break the bank to get him?
Now, it makes some sense. The Padres have played all season without perhaps the game’s most dynamic player in Fernando Tatis Jr. Machado himself has been beaten up and missed nine games with an ankle injury. And yet, you look up, and San Diego is somehow very much in the National League West race with the third-best record in the league. So much of this, I think, is Machado — his hitting, his defense, his presence.
Of course, last season the Padres collapsed in the second half, so if that happens again I suspect that Goldschmidt will be the MVP choice. But if the Padres hold their own and work their way into the playoffs, I think Machado will be the big reason why, and the league MVP.
The Kyrgios Show
Early on Saturday, Sports Illustrated published a short story compellingly called “How to watch Nick Kyrgios vs. Stephanos Tsitsipas at Wimbledon.” Unfortunately, it was just a TV story, one telling us not how to watch Kyrgios-Tsitsipas but where to watch it (on ABC and streaming on fuboTV).
What we needed, it turns out, was, indeed, HOW to watch it, because the match was like some dense foreign film without subtitles. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Tsitsipas is the No. 4 player in the world and a marvelous player with a rifle of a backhand and a penchant for sometimes going too big on his shots. He was born for tennis. His mother, Julia Apostoli, was once the top junior in the world. His father, Apostolos, was a tennis instructor. Stefanos has said that his earliest memory is of hitting tennis balls with his dad between lessons. Apostolos’s most vivid memory is of Stefanos, age 11, asking if he could simply play tennis for the rest of his life and not do anything else because he loved the game so much.
At 16, Tsitsipas was the top junior in the world. At 19, he was a semifinalist at the Australian Open, having beaten Roger Federer along the way.
I give you this background only to say that Stefanos Tsitsipas was uniquely unprepared for The Kyrgios Show. That’s a strange thing to say, since the two had already played four times and were, before the match, friendly enough. But this is the thing about Kyrgios. He’s so unpredictable, so mercurial, so volatile that you really never know where he’s going. In this match, Kyrgios went full Kyrgios.
And Tsitsipas lost his mind.
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There were so many meltdowns, it’s hard even to know where to begin, but I suppose it really began late in the second set, when Kyrgios seemed fully committed to dumping the match. He was already down a set, and he had gotten into some squabble with chair umpire Damien Dumusois — one of countless such squabbles in Kyrgios’ tennis life. So he literally stopped trying. He swung wildly, uncontrollably, going for broke on every shot, shrugging when he missed … and in case anyone might have missed the point, Kyrgios followed each purposeful error by shouting “I don’t care! I don’t f—— care!”
How do you solve a problem like Nick Kyrgios? He is a baffling array of talent, boredom, addiction, empathy, rage, fun and nastiness. His demons have demons. On the right day, he can beat anyone in the world. On the wrong day, he can lose to an empty court.
Kyrgios has been open about his mental health issues; he has talked about his battles with drugs and alcohol and depression. He has had suicidal thoughts.
Beyond that, Kyrgios has this hateful relationship with this sport that he is so ridiculously good at; he so vividly would rather be an NBA star. As such, he cannot help but inject absurdity and unpleasantness into his matches — through-the-legs shots for no reason, underhand serves even though he’s one of the best servers on earth, tantrums that you might see from 11-year-olds, an uncontrollable fury whenever he feels like he’s being cheated or disrespected or victimized by bad luck.
And yet … he’s so bloody gifted. When he’s serving with purpose, he’s all but impossible to break (Tsitsipas, the No. 4 player in the world, did not break him even once in their Saturday match). His backhand down the line is one of the best shots in the world, he can unleash fireball forehands that boggle the mind, he runs down shots that only a handful of players could reach, and he has stunning touch around the net (earlier this year, he and Australian countryman Thanasi Kokkinakis won the Australian Open doubles title).
Put it this way: Kyrgios has played Novak Djokovic on hardcourts twice. He won both times.
So, in many ways, the last two or three games of that second set against Tsitsipas tell Kyrgios’ story. He clearly did not care whether he won or lost. And yet, he couldn’t lose. He served his way out of one mess. Then he won the tiebreaker on a perfectly Kyrgios point. He hit a dismal lob that should have been an easy putaway. Instead, he perfectly read where Tsitsipas’ slam was aimed and lackadaisically punched it into the open court.
This is when the fuses started popping in Tsitsipas’ brain.
Stefanos, in frustration, backhanded a ball into the stands. The ball didn’t hit anybody, but Kyrgios pounced, demanding (not without merit) that Tsitsipas be defaulted from the tournament since he basically did what Novak Djokovic had done when he was defaulted from the U.S. Open in 2020.
When the overmatched Dumusois let Tsitsipas off with a warning (the key reason being, again, that the ball didn’t hit anybody), Kyrgios demanded that he bring out a supervisor. When the supervisor refused to act, Kyrgios went ballistic.
“What are you talking about, bro?” he shouted. “Bring out more supervisors. I’m not done. Bring ’em all out. … I’m not playing until we get to the bottom of this.”
Tsitisipas watched helplessly as Kyrgios turned HIM into the bad guy. “I’m here to play tennis,” he would plead with the chair umpires, but by this point Stefanos had lost his bearings. The third set was a freak show. At one point, Kyrgios hit his underhand serve, and Tsitsipas was so enraged that he whacked the ball off the Wimbledon scoreboard. At another point, Tsitsipas hit a ball long and Kyrgios shouted, “Good shot!” At another, Kyrgios’ shot hit the top of the net and rolled over, and instead of offering the token hand-in-the-air apology that tennis players do, Kyrgios offered a flourishing bow to the crowd.
Once, when Kyrgios hit a first serve off the top of the tape, Tsitsipas smacked the ball at him.
In fact, for the rest of the match, Tsitsipas’ sole purpose no longer was to win the match but instead to smack Kyrgios with the tennis ball, something he was able to do on a couple of occasions. The crowd booed him repeatedly, which undoubtedly made Tsitsipas descend even deeper into his uncontrolled fury.
“It’s constant bullying, that’s what he does,” Tsitipas would say of Kyrgios after losing the match. “He bullies opponents. He was probably a bully at school himself. I don’t like bullies.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Kyrgios responded innocently. “I’m not sure how I bullied him. He was the one hitting balls at me.”
“He has some good traits in his character,” Tsitsipas said. “But he also has a very evil side to him.”
“He’s soft to come in here and say I bullied him,” Kyrgios said. “We’re not cut from the same cloth. If he’s affected by that, then that’s what’s holding him back.”
Alas, Kyrgios didn’t just win the match. He won the postgame too.
And The Kyrgios Show rolls on — as I write this, he’s finishing up his match American Brandon Nakashima in the round of 16. He dumped the first set by sleepwalking through his service game. Then he looked badly hurt — his right shoulder causing him major problems. Then he broke Nakashima and won the second set, he hit one shot between his legs, missed one shot between his legs, unleashed his fastest serve of the tournament, hit an underhand serve, won the third set with brilliance, dumped the fourth set by throwing the last game, started yelling a bit at his box, had a playful exchange (maybe?) with the chair umpire, looked at various times like he might quit, then played some of the best tennis I’ve ever seen him play by breaking Nakashima twice in the final set. Then he yelled “He’s done! when Nakashima missed a shot. At this very moment, he is up 5-2 and is serving to put Nakashima away and head to the quarterfinal.
As long as we’re here, let’s go point-by-point for the final game:
— Kyrgios misses forehand wide, 0-15
— Nakashima hits forehand winner as Kyrgios guesses wrong, 0-30
— Kyrgios hits ridiculous crosscourt winner after Nakashma chases down dropshot, 15-30.
— After long rally, Nakashima hits backhand into the net, 30-30
— Kyrgios hits 134 serve up the T and Nakashima barely gets a racket on it, 40-30
— Kyrgios serves and volleys and puts forehand volley away. Game, set and match.
Who even knows with this guy?
Midseason Cy Young Prediction
If the voting were held today: Shane McClanahan.
What the oddsmakers say: McClanahan is a very slight favorite over Houston’s Justin Verlander, with Toronto’s Alek Manoah and the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole not far behind.
Darkhorse candidate: Nobody seems especially interested, but the Rangers’ Martin Perez is having a terrific season. I don’t quite understand it, but the Rangers have this amazing knack of turning 30-something pitchers with dodgy pasts into Cy Young candidates. They did it with Mike Minor in 2019, with Lance Lynn in 2020, they somehow made Kyle Gibson into an All-Star in 2021, and now Martin Perez actually leads the American League in combo WAR. It’s pretty nutty.
Who will actually win the Cy Young: Gerrit Cole
Before getting into Cole, let’s talk again about Shohei Ohtani. He’s such an usual player — truly unique in MLB history — that he makes us see the game in a whole different light. For instance, nobody thought Ohtani was the best hitter in the American League last year. He did lead the league in triples and he banged 46 homers, great season, but all in all, he was certainly no Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and there were several others who probably had better offensive seasons.
And, even more, nobody thought Ohtani was even close to the best pitcher in the American League last year. He was good and fun to watch, lots of strikeouts, but he pitched only 130 innings and his 3.18 ERA and 3.52 FIP, while very good, were not at the very top of the game.
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Of course, you put them together, hitting AND pitching, and you had the runaway MVP. But it was an odd thing. As I wrote at the time, Ohtani was not the game’s most valuable player in the most conventional of definitions. He was his own category, his own planet.
I bring this up because this year, Ohtani might end up being the best pitcher in the American League. I mean, he’s not QUITE there yet — McClanahan, among others, has been sensational — but, wow, Shohei’s close. His ERA is down a half-run, his FIP is down a full run, his WHIP is down, his walks are down, his strikeouts are way up. In June he had a 1.52 ERA, a 38-7 strikeout-to-walk, and the league hit just .204 and slugged just .315 against him.
He’s GETTING BETTER.
If he keeps pitching like he did in June, he has a shot at winning the Cy Young. And then, how could you NOT give him the MVP. And if you give him the MVP for the second straight season while the Angels stink … I don’t know, it’s all pretty mind-bending.
In any case, I think it will end up being Cole. He got off to a sluggish start, which is still impacting his overall season numbers. But since the end of April, he’s been Gerrit Cole again — the Yankees won nine of his 12 starts, he had a 2.49 ERA, the league is hitting .198 against him, he has 99 strikeouts against 16 walks, etc. He has some ground to make up in the Cy Young race, sure, but I’m predicting he makes it up.
National League Cy Young
If the voting were held today: Sandy Alcantara.
What the oddsmakers say: Alcantara is a pretty heavy favorite, followed by San Diego’s Joe Musgrove, defending Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, Los Angeles’ Tony Gonsolin and Atlanta’s Max Fried.
Darkhorse candidate: What kind of friend would we be to Ellen Adair if we failed to mention that Aaron Nola’s pitching very well in Philadelphia? He leads the National League in strikeout-to-walk ratio and fewest-walks-per-nine (though Ellen doesn’t like per-nine rate stats and prefers walk percentage, which Nola also leads). San Francisco’s Carlos Rodon is also having a terrific season.
Who will actually win the Cy Young: Sandy Alcantara.
I am rarely right on my predictions — probably a good thing to mention right about now — but I did predict before the season began that Alcantara would be in the Cy Young discussion this season. You could just see him coming into his own; even in 2019, when he went 6-14, he had some absolutely dominant stretches (he threw two shutouts that season). The guy has four electrifying pitches.
In fact, my big question with Alcantara was: Would he be able to unlock the combination? When you have a high-90-mph four-seam fastball, a Bugs Bunny change-up, a swing-and-miss slider and a beat-the-ball-into-the-ground sinking fastball (also in the high 90s), the question becomes: When do you throw which pitch? It’s not an easy answer. There have been plenty of pitchers with multiple pitches who fell in love with the wrong one, who kept shaking off catchers to their own detriment, who lacked conviction.
My thought was that Alcantara would probably need to find a favorite pitch that he threw 40 or so percent of the time.
But you know what? Alcantara’s style of throwing each of his four pitches about 25% of the time seems to be working JUST FINE. He’s getting outs on all four of them. His changeup is probably his best pitch (hitters are swinging and missing 36.5% of the time on it) but his fastball set and slider are pretty overwhelming themselves. He’s never pitched like this for a full season, so you have to consider Fried or Burnes or Gonsolin (gotta love that 10-0 record!) or Musgrove or maybe a half dozen others to be in the mix.
But I think Alcantara, in the end, takes the Cy.
Well, everyone will remember back in April and early May when nobody was hitting home runs and offense was at historic lows. On May 9, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred gave an interview in which he talked about the lack of offense and insisted that the ball was not at the heart of things and that the one thing he could guarantee was that the ball would be consistent.
Two days later, players started hitting a lot more home runs.
So weird. But since May 11, teams are averaging 1.18 homers per game — pretty much the same as last year.
But instead of talking home runs, let’s talk about hits and batting average, because something seemingly inexplicable is happening this year. You might not have noticed it, but strikeouts are noticeably down. Compared to 2019, for example, teams are putting one more ball in play per game. That’s a pretty enormous difference.
And yet, compared to 2019, hits are down across the board. That doesn’t track at all. We all understand that there are many fewer home runs being hit this year compared to 2019, but why are singles, doubles and triples all down when batters are putting more balls in play?
My first thought was that batters must not be hitting the ball as hard — maybe because the baseball is different — but, no, that’s not it. Average exit velocity in 2022 is the same as 2019.
So what is it? Well, Statcast™ is as baffled as I am. The expected batting average in 2022 is .255 — far and away the highest it has been since Statcast™ started keeping track 2015. And yet, somehow, the actual batting average is the LOWEST since 2015. The difference between the expected batting average and actual average is 13 points, an incredible difference, especially because the actual average is always as high and almost always HIGHER than the expected one.
I mean take a look:
2015: Expected average .246; Actual average .254
2016: Expected average .248; Actual average .255
2017: Expected average .249; Actual average .255
2018: Expected average; .242; Actual average .248
2019: Expected average .247; Actual average .252
2020: Expected average .245; Actual average .245
2021: Expected average .242; Actual average .244
2022: Expected average .255; Actual average .242
There’s just something super-strange happening this year. Could it be that teams are playing more effective defense? Could they be shifting better against right-handed hitters (Tom Tango suggested this)? Could it be some effect of the humidors being in every park? Let’s keep looking into it.